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Hebrews, Epistle to the


The authorship and circumstances of the composition of the Epistle to the Hebrews remain obscure. Traditionally included in the Pauline corpus, it is unlikely that he is the author. The list of possible authors includes Apollos, Barnabas, Silas, and Priscilla. Modern scholars have proposed new candidates, including Epaphras, a collaborator of Paul mentioned in Colossians 4.12. Yet the arguments for any individual remain inconclusive, and Origen's judgment that "God only knows" who wrote the work is justified. The intended audience, which has been conjecturally located throughout the Mediterranean, is now thought more likely to have been at Rome than Corinth, Colossae, or Jerusalem. The problems it addresses were not unique to Jewish Christians, but would have affected any "third generation" (2.14) Christians of the latter half of the first century.

These problems included external hostility (10.3234; 12.3; 13.3,13), and internal lassitude, pictured as "sluggishness" (5.11) or "lameness" (12.13). The addressees may have been attracted by some "strange teachings" (13.9), although the warning is conventional and Hebrews mounts no sustained doctrinal polemic. Whatever the causes, and they may have been unclear to the author, there has apparently been some disaffection from the community (10.25), which calls for a series of warnings about the danger of apostasy (2.1; 6.48;10.2631; 12.1317). The date of composition can be set only within the broad limits of a.d. 60 to 95, but often repeated arguments for a date prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 a.d. are inconclusive. Hebrews is not interested in the existence or potential attractions of the second temple. It uses the scriptural image of the desert tabernacle primarily as the foundation for its christological exposition.

Genre and Structure. Modern authors generally take Hebrews, a self-described "word of exhortation"(13.22), to be a homily. That generic classification has been supported by the recognition that several major pericopes follow a clear homiletic pattern, consisting of introductory comment (3.16; 8.16); citation of scripture (3.711; 8.713); exegetical or thematic exposition (3.124.11; 9.110.10); rhetorical inclusion (4.1213;10.1118); and parenetic application (4.1416;10.1925). The structural significance of these blocks calls into question rigid concentric analyses of the text. The general movement of Hebrews is from Christ to us. In five parts, Hebrews moves from the Son's eschatological, royal, and priestly messiahship, Jesus' covenant fidelity and compassion, and His perfect priestly fulfillment of the Old Testament, to the faith and endurance necessary on our part, and to peace as the reward for pleasing God.

The traditions on which Hebrews relies are diverse and the tensions among them are not explicitly resolved. The exordium (1.14) indicates that Christ is understood to be a divine person who pre-existed his incarnation. The catena of scriptural citations which follows (1.513) suggests a perspective like that of Romans 1.3, whereby Christ is appointed to his status as Son at His exaltation. Although the text presupposes the exordium's incarnational perspective, it focuses on the exaltation as a decisive christological movement.

A related tension affects the description of Christ as high priest. The title is probably a traditional reference to Christ's function as heavenly intercessor (2.18; 7.25;8.4). Yet for Hebrews, His chief act as high priest takes place on earth, where He suffers a self-sacrificial death (7.27). Insistence on the latter point is the key interpretive move in handling the imagery of the high-priestly action of the Day of Atonement. Christ's "entry into the heavenly sanctuary" and his resultant priestly status are inseparable from his incarnate conformity to the divine will (10.510).

Christological reflection grounds the parenesis in large part through the motif of the covenant. Because Christ's death is the sort of act it is, earthly by virtue of its shedding of blood, and "heavenly" by virtue of its spiritual dimension (9.14) and its conformity to God's will (10.9), it inaugurates the new and ideal covenant promised by Jeremiah (8.812). In this relationship between humankind and God, sins are forgiven (10.1418) and the spiritual dimension of the human self, conscience, is cleansed (9.14). The act by which Christ himself is "perfected" (5.9; 7.28), that is, exalted and made fit for his office of High Priest, in turn "perfects" his followers who are now being sanctified (10.14). The covenant-inaugurating event provides a way of access (10.19) for believers to the realm where God is truly served (9.14;12.28); but as Christ's heavenly priesthood is intimately bound up with a very earthly act, so the realm where members of the covenant worship is not the realm of pure spirit, but the earthly arena, where they "bear Christ's reproach" (13.13), while offering praise (13.15) and deeds of beneficence (13.16), the true sacrifices of the new covenant's cult. In this arena Christ's followers are called to a life of the cardinal virtues (10.1924), but especially to fidelity, which was perfectly exemplified by the covenant's inaugurator (12.13).

Affinities of Hebrews. Debate about the interpretation of Hebrews continues to be conducted in terms of the religio-historical background of its images and theological concepts. Yet while its Jewish and Judeo-Christian heritage is clear, no precise genealogy for its symbolic world can be found. Parallels with Philo indicate not dependence,

but common Hellenistic Jewish interpretations of traditional Biblical categories, and in both the influence of popularized Middle Platonic language can be felt. Parallels with the Dead Sea Scrolls, most striking in the Melchizedek midrash (ch. 7), do not indicate a specific connection, but are part of the general apocalyptic heritage of the early Church. While it contains apocalyptic expectations (9.28; 10.25; 13.14), Hebrews, like many other early Christian texts, emphasizes the decisive eschatological event which has already occurred and which has inaugurated the "time of correction" (9.10).

Hebrews certainly uses a variety of traditions, but it cannot be seen as a simple extension or repudiation of any of them. It is a work of subtlety and sophistication that reflectively engages its heritage in order to make clear the enduring significance of Jesus Christ (13.8), the model (2.10; 12.2) and guarantor (7.22) of a life of covenant fidelity toward God.

Bibliography: h. w. attridge, "The Uses of Antithesis in Hebrews 810," Harvard Theological Review (Cambridge, Mass. 1908) 79 (1986) 19. r. e. brown & j. p. meier, Antioch and Rome (New York 1983). h. brown, An die Hebräer (Tübingen 1984). g. hughes, Hebrews and Hermeneutics (Cambridge 1979). r. jewett, Letter to Pilgrims: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (New York 1981). f. laub, Bekenntis und Auslegung: Die paränetische Funktion des Christologie im Hebräerbrief (Regensburg 1980). w. r. g. loader, Sohn und Hoherpriester: Eine Traditionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung zur Christologie des Hebräerbriefes (Neukirchen 1981). p. j. kobelski, Melchizedek and Melchireša c (Washington, D.C. 1981). d. peterson, Hebrews and Perfection: An Examination of the Concept of Perfection in the "Epistle to the Hebrews" (Cambridge 1982). j. swetnam, Jesus and Isaac: A Study of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the Light of the Agedah (Rome 1981). j. w. thompson, The Beginnings of Christian Philosophy: The Epistle to the Hebrews, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly MS 13 (Washington, D.C. 1982).

[h. w. attridge/eds.]

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