The recipients of this epistle were not Gentiles although such a view has been advocated. Nor were they a mixed group, partly Jewish, partly Gentile. Hebrews nowhere deals with or addresses Gentile Christian readers; and it is impossible to assume that Hebrews is addressed only to the Jewish members of a mixed group to the exclusion of the Gentile members. Hebrews is addressed exclusively to Jewish Christians. Yet this letter is not a general or catholic epistle that is addressed to any and to all Jewish Christians who were living in the world at the time of its writing. It is addressed to a specific group of Jewish Christians who live in the same city or locality, whom the writer intends to visit as soon as possible in company with Timothy (13:23), some of whose noble leaders are dead (13:7), whose living leaders the writer bids the readers obey (13:17), and whom he also salutes (13:24).
In this body of Jewish Christians a movement is under way to give up Christianity and to go back to their former Judaism. This movement has as yet not gained much momentum, no members have actually apostatized, the leaders still stand firm. This body of Jewish Christians has suffered some persecution for sympathizing with brethren who are of their own body but were imprisoned (10:32–34), yet none of the readers were themselves imprisoned at that time, and none of them had lost their lives by martyrdom (12:4). This entire body of Jewish Christians had remained true during the trying times of the past; but something had now occurred which led a number of them to think that it would be a great advantage to them to go back to their old Judaism. It is this incipient defection which calls forth this letter. Its one object is to counteract this dangerous movement. This letter is convincing in the attainment of this object. Every paragraph strikes home.
These are the data that are embodied in the letter itself. The great question for us to decide is: “Where do we at the time this letter was written find such a body of unmixed Jewish Christians?” There is only one answer: “Not in Palestine, not in Cyprus, as we have already shown; nor in Alexandria, in Berea, or in any similar place.” This body of purely Jewish Christians lived in Rome. The salutation of “those from Italy” in 13:24 points almost directly to Rome.
A number of investigators are agreed that the readers of Hebrews were located in Rome and cannot be found in any other place. Zahn is one of them. Yet none of them has seen how complete and how convincing the evidence is. They fail especially in one point. They think that the Jews whom Paul converted during his first imprisonment in Rome joined the original congregation which had existed in Rome for something like twenty years and included a considerable proportion of Gentile Christians. In order to establish this point let us review the story that is presented in Acts.
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The night after the centurion Lysias had placed Paul before the Sanhedrin the Lord appeared to Paul and said to him: “Be of good cheer, Paul, for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou testify also in Rome.” A remarkable statement! Paul’s great work of testifying had been done in pagan lands, among Gentiles; he had done very little “in Jerusalem.” Yet the Lord himself says: “As in Jerusalem, so also in Rome,” and not: “As in the Roman provinces, so also in Rome itself.” The Lord himself is sending Paul to Rome to do a great piece of Jewish mission work in Rome that is to be far greater than the bit of Jewish mission work he had been able to do in that other capital, Jerusalem.
The implication lies on the surface: no Jewish mission work had as yet been done in Rome. Here was a rich field, hitherto untouched, into which the Lord himself sends Paul. A Christian congregation had existed in Rome for some time. Before Paul’s journey to take the collection of the Gentile churches to Jerusalem, Paul had written to this Roman congregation from Corinth and had told of his plans to visit them when he would be going westward to work in the great province of Spain. Paul had not intended to stop in Rome for a long time, had not thought of doing much work there, especially not among the Jews in Rome. The Lord’s plan was that Paul should first do this great Jewish work in Rome and after that the work in Spain. The Lord intended to retain Paul in Rome for two years in order to have this Jewish work thoroughly done.
At this time Rome had seven large synagogues. There was a considerable number of Jews in Rome. Imperial decrees accorded them and their religious customs many special privileges. Claudius had been their very good friend. Only because they grew too turbulent in the city did he feel compelled to expel them, Acts 18:2; they returned after his death. The Christian congregation in Rome had ever let the Jews in Rome severely alone. The remark made by Tacitus that the disturbance at the time of Claudius was instigated by a man named Christus is wrongly referred to Christ. The Christian congregation in Rome was in no way involved in this Jewish episode even as the Christians were not ordered to vacate the city. The commentators on Romans have ever disputed about the complexion of this original congregation and have asked to what extent it was composed of former Jews and to what extent of former Gentiles. Rom. 16:3–16 furnishes the direct answer to this question. Paul salutes the entire congregation and names all its prominent members, and tells us who of them were Jewish. He even indicates who of them had been converted toChrist prior to his own conversion. We find Romans (Acts 2:10) in Jerusalem already at the time of Pentecost.
It is not difficult to discover why this original congregation in Rome, despite the fact that there were converted Jews in its membership, despite the fact that some of these converts were themselves Romans at the time of their conversion, never attempted any work among the large Jewish population in Rome. A number of these Jewish Christians of the original congregation had passed through the direst experience in Jerusalem a brief time after their conversion, during the persecution that began with Stephen’s martyrdom, from which the Christians in the Holy City fled in dismay. They had had enough of the murderous Sanhedrin and of the Jews in general, whom even their friend Claudius had to drive out of Rome. Thus, when they fled Jerusalem and Palestine and came to live in Rome, which for some of them was their former home, they kept aloof from all contact with the seven Jewish synagogues in Rome.
This was the situation when Paul arrived in Rome as a prisoner. Paul, however, has the Lord’s own orders to testify to the Jews in Rome, Acts 23:11. He proceeds to do so at once. As soon as he is established in his rented house he invites the head men of the Jews, their rabbis and their leaders, to come to him. Remarkable! How could Paul hope to have his invitation accepted if the Jews in Rome had already clashed with the original Christian congregation in Rome? Not only is Paul’s invitation promptly accepted but when Paul explains how he has come to Rome as a prisoner, these leading Jews state that they have heard nothing whatever against Paul and know only that “this sect” (the Christians) is everywhere spoken against, i. e., they themselves have never had any personal contact with Christians although Rome itself has had a Christian congregation for years. This statement cannot be called a “diplomatic” remark. These leading Roman Jews state the facts.
That is why they gladly appoint a day for a special conference with Paul when he may present the whole account of the gospel at length. Luke tells us that, when the day came, even more (πλείονες) of the Jewish πρῶτοι or chief men attended the conference and remained with Paul the livelong day. Think of it: so many of the rabbis and prominent men from the seven synagogues all day with Paul, listening to his testifying (σε δεῖ μαρτυρῆσαι, Acts 23:11)! What was the result? On that day about half of all these Jewish leaders were brought to faith. Luke writes, Acts 28:24: οἱ μέν … οἱ δέ: fifty … fifty. In my opinion it was the greatest success Paul had ever scored in one day’s work. This was only the beginning. Paul continued this work for two years. He may, of course, have done considerable work also among the Gentiles, but he certainly energetically followed up his great success among the Jews, for which he had the Lord’s own special order. See the full exposition of Acts 28:16–31.
Since so many leaders were converted on that one day, it is easy to surmise what followed. These leaders carried Christ into their synagogues. There the work went forward. It surely was not long until the separation between believing Jews and unbelieving Jews became fixed and permanent. The assumption that the converts left the seven synagogues and became members of the original mixed congregation cannot be correct. No; several of the seven synagogues in Rome, shall we say at least three or four, became Christian congregations. Those members of the synagogue that refused to accept the gospel left and went over to the synagogues that remained unbelieving.
The important point when one is considering Hebrews is the fact that we here have the compact body of entirely unmixed Jewish Christians to whom this epistle was written. It was formed by Paul during his first imprisonment in 61–63.
Lenski, R. C. H.: The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Epistle of James. Columbus, O. : Lutheran book concern, 1938, S. 14.
Let us continue. Paul left Rome in 63. Early in 64 Paul returned from Nicopolis to Rome on his way to Spain. Peter had come to Rome. It is agreed that Peter’s stay in Rome was about a year in duration. Thus Paul met Peter in Rome in the spring of 64. Paul hastened on to Spain and left Peter in Rome, who certainly also taught in the Christianized synagogues in Rome. In this same year, in July, 64, Rome went up in flames. The rumor spread that Nero himself had fired the city. To avert this suspicion Nero and his adherents accused the Christians in Rome of this incendiarism. By October, 64, many had been crucified, thrown to wild dogs, daubed with pitch, tied to stakes, and converted into torches in Nero’s gardens while he drove by in his chariot and enjoyed the evening. Peter himself was crucified. Still worse, Christianity, which was now clearly distinguished from Jewry, became a religio illicita in Rome and then in the provinces. To be a Christian became a capital crime. Paul was in Spain. When Peter, who was in Rome, saw what was coming he wrote his first epistle to all the churches in the provinces mentioned in 1 Pet. 1:1. He acted for Paul in this capacity. On the data involved see the introduction to Paul’s letters to Timothy and to Titus and to Peter’s first letter.
At this point some are confused in regard to Hebrews. They place all of Paul’s Jewish converts in Rome into the old, original congregation and thus have difficulty in explaining 10:32–34 and 12:4. Paul’s converts, this entire body of Jewish Christians in Rome, remained in their own synagogues. They remained a body apart The authorities in Rome and the general populace still considered the people in these Christianized synagogues as Jews. Nero’s blow fell only on the old, original congregation, a number of whose members belonged to Nero’s own household; see the exposition of Rom. 16:10b, 11b, and of Phil. 4:22. The martyrs came from this old congregation; the Jewish Christians escaped.
We may now read 10:32–34 and 12:4 with a fuller understanding. The Jewish Christians, who were unaccused by Nero, sympathized with their brethren of the old congregation who were thrown into dungeons to be made martyrs by terrible deaths. They sought to help these poor victims. For this effort they, too, had to suffer. The populace resented this sympathy and this help. Rowdies, hoodlums attacked the bazars and the homes of the Jewish Christians, wrecked and looted these places, and attacked the owners. Yet none were arrested by the authorities, none suffered martyrdom (12:4). The persecutions instigated by Nero finally died down. One bad effect remained: Christianity had become and remained an illicit, criminal religion. This entire body of Jewish Christians in Rome remained under this black pall.
Then Paul, the spiritual father of this Jewish missionary work in Rome, returned from Spain, was arrested, was thrown into a vile dungeon, and was executed. Like Peter, being a chief exponent of this hateful religio illicita, his case was hopeless from the beginning. Paul perished late in 66 or early in 67.
We are now able to understand Hebrews. The Jewish Christians stood unshaken during the terror of 64—see the exposition of 10:32–34. But now, since Peter was dead, since even Paul, their spiritual father, had been removed, since Christianity was permanently branded as criminal, since there was no other apostle to stiffen their courage, some of these Jewish Christians began to weaken. Voices were raised which advocated a return to Jewry. If their synagogues became Jewish as they had been a few years ago they would be safe like the other Jewish synagogues, for Judaism continued to remain a religion that was legally approved in Rome and in the empire. Arguments were put forward that were derogatory to Christ and to Christianity—our epistle treats them in detail—arguments extolling Judaism—our epistle answers them in detail. Thus the entire epistle becomes lucid. There is no difficulty in regard to a single point. All the data fall into proper relation; we need no hypotheses whatever.
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Lenski on Authorship:
This leaves the question: “Who, then, wrote Hebrews?” Since we know who received this letter we are greatly aided in deciding who wrote the letter. The answer to this second question ties into the answer to the main question.
It is Luther who suggests Apollos as the writer of Hebrews: “Dieser Apollo ist ein hochverstaendiger Mann gewest, die Epistel Hebraeorum ist freilich sein” Erlangen ed. 18, 38. “This Apollos was a man of high understanding, the Epistle of the Hebrews is indeed his.” Luther’s remark is only incidental; it is made in his sermon on the party divisions in Corinth, 1 Cor. 3:4, etc. We are thus unable to say to what extent Luther had investigated this question. His conviction disregards all the names that are mentioned in the old tradition.
Luther’s conviction will be rejected by men who do not correlate the data which we have presented in regard to the identity of the readers for whom Hebrews was intended. Even Zahn, who agrees with Luther, does not note how strong the support for Apollos is. Zahn also thinks that the original congregation in Rome was mainly Jewish; he does not regard Paul’s Jewish converts in Rome as a separate body that retained its synagogues as its houses of worship. Zahn is right in regard to Apollos and in regard to Rome as being the home of the readers of Hebrews but does not realize how completely right he is. He sums up his opinion: “Luther’s hypothesis has a twofold advantage over all others: 1) among the teachers of the apostolic time, so far as we are able to form a conception of them, there is no one whom our impression of the author of Hebrews suits better than Apollos; 2) in the little that we know of his history there is nothing directly opposed to the hypothesis.” The case is much stronger. Luther does not advocate a “hypothesis,” nor is the evidence for Apollos entirely negative as Zahn words it. Zahn’s date for Hebrews, about the year 80, is entirely too late and overlooks the assured historical data which we possess.
The evidence we possess fully warrants the conclusion that Apollos wrote Hebrews to the body of Jewish Christians at Rome after the martyrdom of Paul and before the destruction of Jerusalem, between the years 67 and 70, probably in 68 or 69.
Let us review the story of Apollos. As the New Testament presents it, only one gap occurs, which needs to be bridged when we accept him as the writer of Hebrews.
His first appearance, recorded in Acts 18:24–28, presents him as an Alexandrine scholar, a Jew, an ἀνὴρ λόγιος who was trained in one of the great universities of Alexandria, this ancient seat of learning, a man δυνατὸς ἐν ταῖς γραφαῖς, “powerful in the Scriptures.” Fully instructed in the gospel of Christ by Priscilla and Aquila, he goes to Corinth, one of Paul’s main congregations, and greatly assists the Corinthian believers by mightily and publicly convincing the Jews in Corinth by means of the Scriptures “that Jesus is the Christ.”
Hebrews shows the fine Greek scholar who is mighty in the Old Testament Scriptures, who supports the work of Paul just as he did in Corinth, who is mighty to convince Jewish minds “that Jesus is the Christ” just as he was in Corinth. If we should make an inventory of the qualifications of the writer of Hebrews and did not have Acts 18:24–28, our inventory would contain the features which Luke records about Apollos.
We note next Apollos’ connection with Paul and Paul’s work. In Corinth he strongly aids the congregation that had been established by Paul. We see him next with Paul in Ephesus. The Corinthians wanted Apollos back in their midst, so did Paul himself; Apollos agrees to go at a somewhat later time (1 Cor. 16:12). Timothy was already on his way to Corinth (1 Cor. 16:10). We note that Apollos continues to support Paul’s work, and that already here Apollos and Timothy are connected with this work. This agrees with Heb. 13:23, where Apollos states that he is waiting for Timothy so that the two may go to Rome together.
As late as Titus 3:13 we meet Apollos in connection with the work of Paul. The apostle writes from Macedonia. He expects to winter in Nicopolis (Titus 3:12) and to go to Spain as early as possible the following spring (in 64). He is sending Apollos and Zenas on a mission which takes them through Crete and asks Titus to help to expedite them on their way. Thus all the data we possess regarding Apollos connect him with Paul, and do this for years. The Jewish Christians to whom Hebrews is addressed are also converts of Paul’s. All these data are positive facts that are recorded in the New Testament itself; their weight is according.
The statement made in Titus 3:13 is the last that we possess. Now there follows the gap to which we have referred. In Heb. 13:19, 24 a previous connection of the writer of Hebrews with his readers is implied. The writer has been in Rome, his readers know him well, he is able to deal with them as he does in his letter. What we lack in regard to Apollos is a direct statement in the New Testament that he has been in Rome with Paul. A last link that would connect Apollos with Rome would be valuable indeed. It is wanting. Did Apollos rejoin Paul at Nicopolis and go to Rome with Paul when Paul went on to Spain? This would supply the missing item, which happens to be a necessary one.
To sum up: we have so much that speaks for Apollos as being the writer of Hebrews. This considerable amount of evidence is circumstantial and as such not quite complete. To this positive amount of evidence we add, with Zahn, the negative item: beyond the one man Apollos we know of no other man among all the prominent workers in the church after the death of Paul who could have written Hebrews to Paul’s Jewish converts in Rome. We thus join Luther in his conviction: Die Epistel Hebraeorum ist freilich sein.