It is generally
accepted that there is no such reference or allusion;
and yet the epistle to the Hebrews is among those
books of the New Testament regularly set,
as Harnack was content to put it
without seeing need for further specification, 'under Domitian'.
Indeed the balance of opinion in Introductions to the New Testament or Bible Dictionaries is astonishingly one-sided (much more so than I had imagined), and the consensus cuts across many of the other lines of division between conservatives and liberals (e.g. on I Peter). On a quick round-up of the reference-books listed earlier, all the following give support to a dating after 70: Harnack, Jiilicher, Zahn, von Soden, the Encyclopaedia Biblica (W. Robertson Smith), Bacon, Moffatt, Feine, K. and S. Lake, Goodspeed, Michaelis, Wikenhauser, the Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Kummel, Marxsen, Fuller, Klijn, Selby and Perrin. On the other side are only: Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible (A. B. Bruce),
Peake's Commentary on the Bible (F. F. Bruce), Guthrie, Grant and Harrison. Yet this weighting is remarkably unrepresentative of those who lately have studied the epistle more closely, and the difference could reflect the fact that the text-books have not yet caught up on a detectable swing. Thus in recent years the following have all put it, at varying dates and places, before 70: T. W. Manson , W. Manson , Spicq ], Moule , Montefiore , F. F. Bruce , J. Hering [J. Hering, Hebrews, ET 1970.],
G. W. Buchanan and Strobel. [A. Strobel, Hebraerbrief, Gottingen 1975.]
So, before seeking to be more specific on either destination or date, we may adopt the same method of approach followed in relation to the synoptic gospels. Let us look first at the question of its overall relation to the events of 70 and then at other indications of a more precise placing.
Whereas in the gospels it is the positive references to the events of 70, albeit in the future, which have led scholars to infer that they must be reflected in retrospect, in Hebrews ironically it is the absence of references on which the issue turns. The exercise consists not in explaining the 'prophecies', but in explaining away the silence.
First, however, there is one reference which has been seized on by some as a positive indication of absolute dating. This is the reference in Heb.3.7-4.11 to the forty years of Israel's disobedience, leading to the oath that they should never enter into God's rest. This is interpreted typologically as an allusion to the forty years of Jewish history ad 30-70. Yet there is not a hint of this in the author's exegesis. Indeed he specifically asks the question, 'And with whom was God indignant for forty years?', and answers it: 'With those, surely, who had sinned, whose bodies lay where they fell in the desert' (3.17). There is no suggestion of a secondary application, any more than there is in I Cor.10.1-13, where Paul also adduces Israel's wilderness experiences as a warning to Christians, not as a judgment on contemporary Judaism. In any case this interpretation, which has attracted little support, yields no agreed conclusion as to daring. Zahn deduced from it a date of c. 80, A. B. Bruce one of 70 (just prior to the fall of Jerusalem), while Gaston regards it as 'a very strong argument for a pre-70 date'.
So we may proceed to the negative evidence
and to the way in which its apparent force has been turned.
This has followed
1. The fact that the entire levitical system is spoken of throughout the epistle in the present tense, with no hint that it lies now in ruins, is said to have no chronological significance. It is indeed true that many of the present tenses are timeless descriptions of ritual arrangements (e.g. 5.1-4; 8.3-5; 9.6f.; 10.1). Josephus writing well after the destruction of the temple gives a long account of the system in similar terms and there are later Christian parallels for the same way of speaking. If we were simply dealing with a discussion of scriptural and other ordinances, this would be a complete answer. But it is clear that in some passages at least the writer is appealing to existing realities, whose actual continuance is essential to his argument. If, he says, the levitical system had really been able to bring perfection,
these sacrifices would surely have ceased to be offered, because the worshippers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any sense of sin. But instead, in these sacrifices year after year sins are brought to mind (10.2f.; cf.10.11,18).
Had the sacrifices in fact ceased to be offered, it is hard to credit that these words could have stood without modification or comment. For their termination would have proved his very point.
2. It has been maintained that some sacrifice did continue after 70.But a recent Jewish investigator sums up the situation thus:
Although scattered evidence points to the presence of private sacrifices after the fall of the Temple, at least sporadically, ... the Halakhah presupposes the cessation of these. ... The Talmudic evidence for the cessation of the public sacrifices after 70 ce is crystal clear.
Schurer, [HJP I.522f.] after investigating the indications to the contrary, is unequivocal :
In an enumeration of Israel's black days it is stated simply that 17 Tammuz saw the end of the daily sacrifice;
and there is nowhere any mention of its being subsequently restored. ... When Christian writers and Josephus, long after the destruction of the Temple, speak in the present tense of the offerings of sacrifice, they are merely describing what was lawful, not what was actually practised. Precisely the same happens in the Mishnah, from the first page to the last, in that all legally valid statutes are presented as current usage, even when as a result of prevailing circumstances their performance was impossible.
But even if there were residual attempts to perpetuate the system, it is surely extraordinary that the body-blow that effectively finished it should have left no impact on the epistle. Above all, whatever else happened, the succession to the high priestly office was unquestionably terminated, and it is difficult to believe that this would not have left some trace on the argument of 7.11-28, which contrasts Christ's high priesthood, which remains for ever, with that which in order to keep going requires continual replacement and daily repetition. If the latter had in fact failed to be replaced, it is hard to think that this would have gone unobserved.
3. It is said, with truth, that in
discussing the details of the 'material sanctuary' (9.1-7)
the writer is
describing not Herod's temple
but the scriptural blue-print of outer and inner
'tents' on which the later structure was modelled. ἡ πρώτη σκηνή) rendered 'the first tent' in v. 6, and
if a paraphrase is needed it should be, as in the rsv in both instances, 'the outer tent'.]
he is referring not to the continued existence of the Jerusalem temple but to the externality of the ordinances at present in force (9.10). Nevertheless, he sees these arrangements as temporary 'until the time of reformation' (9.10). They belong to the first covenant; and 'by speaking of a second covenant' God 'has pronounced the first one old; and anything that is growing old and ageing will shortly disappear' (8.13). If it had disappeared it is surely incredible that he would not have used this fact to rub in what he says in his 'main point', namely, that the shadow must soon give way to the reality (8.1-13). Moreover, though, for the purpose of his allegory, he is talking of the tent rather than the temple, it is clear that he is not merely indulging in abstract argument. For the one is symbolic of the other, and when he insists that 'our altar is one from which the priests who serve the tent have no right to eat' (13.10) there can be no real doubt as to whom he is referring. As Schlatter correctly expressed it,
It is true that the writer based his warnings not on what actually went on at Jerusalem, but on the utterances of scripture. He expounded 'the Law'. For it was not what the Jew did, but what God commanded - not Jewish practice, but the will of God - which justified the action and made necessary the sacrifice which the author required of the Jewish Christians. ... But the author to the Hebrews was not ... so completely immersed in his texts as to forget contemporary conditions and happenings altogether. Every word is written with an eye on the situation of his readers, and they would hardly have been indifferent as to whether the Temple was still standing and the priests still officiating; or whether the Temple had been destroyed and the sacrificial worship had ceased.
The nearest parallel to the Epistle to the Hebrews in early Christian literature is the Epistle of Barnabas,whose theme too is the relationship of Christianity to the ritual ordinances of Judaism. It makes the point explicitly that the temple was destroyed by the Romans as a consequence of the Jewish rebellion (16.4). Had this event occurred by the time that Hebrews was written, it would have dotted the i's and crossed the t's of everything its author was labouring to prove. For, as Athanasius was to put it centuries later,
It is a sign, and an important proof, of the coming of the Word of God, that Jerusalem no longer stands. ... For ... when the truth was there, what need any more of the shadow? ... And this was why Jerusalem stood till then - namely, that they [the Jews] might be exercised in the types as a preparation for the reality.
The argument from silence can of course prove nothing. In this case, however, it can create what I believe is a very strong presumption. The burden of proof must rest on those who would date the epistle after 70. But the actual date must depend on closer examination of the positive indications in the epistle itself.
The very fact that
commentators have differed so widely on both date and place
makes it clear that
there is nothing that points conclusively to any single solution.
thing that is clear (for once) is the upper limit on dating.
For Hebrews is
quoted without question in I Clement (36.2-5, which cites excerpts from Heb.1.3-13)
and practically no one wishes to put I Clement later than 96.
The reign of Domitian is therefore the terminus ad quem, as well as being for most
the terminus a quo (e.g. Kummel).
But the reign of Nero is also favoured
(e.g. Guthrie), and Montefiore has recently argued for that of Claudius.
three most recently discussed destinations,
Rome (Kummel and Guthrie, on
and Corinth (Montefiore),
Rome is not even
listed as a possibility by Montefiore,
Jerusalem is the one place 'certainly'
ruled out by Kummel,
The first issue upon which a judgment has to be made is the integrity of the epistle. As B. F. Westcott recognized long ago, 'the thirteenth chapter is a kind of appendix to the Epistle, like Rom. 15 and 16'. It converts what would otherwise be (and what may have started as) a homily into a letter.
That this last chapter is a postscript is not seriously in doubt. The only questions are whether it was written to the same persons as the main body of the epistle and by the same author. In the case of Romans, cited as a parallel by Westcott, there is more than enough manuscript confusion to suggest that ch.16 and possibly ch.15 may have been composed for separate recensions or recipients - though no one doubts Pauline authorship, except for the closing doxology of 16.25-7.Yet even so the balance would seem in the end to be in favour of the integrity of the entire epistle down at any rate to 16.23. In the case of Hebrews 13 there is not the slightest sign in the manuscript tradition that it did not originally belong with the rest. And though the level of writing is, naturally, different as it moves from sermon to correspondence, there is no evidence for a change of style.
Kummel says summarily, 'Nothing suggests
the addition of a conclusion by another hand.' [In 13.14 'we have here no abiding
city' is taken to refer to the city of Jerusalem.]
may safely, therefore, use what hints there are in ch.13 as evidence for the
dating and destination of the whole.
A tantalizing clue to the location of the readers is
given in the laconic message of 13.24,
which should probably be translated:
'Those who come from Italy (οἱ ἀπὸ τῆς Ἰταλίας) greet you.'
be understood - as it has been - as a greeting from Italy.
a letter, say, from London to a congregation abroad it would hardly be natural
to write 'those from England' (i.e. all Englishmen) send their greetings.
would be more natural in a letter to London for the Englishmen with the
writer to join him in sending their love to those back home. Montefiore
(who holds that the epistle was written to Corinth from Ephesus) thinks that it
refers to neither, but to Aquila and Priscilla, who are specifically said to
have arrived in Corinth originally 'from Italy' (Acts 18.2) and whose greetings
Paul also sends from Ephesus to Corinth in I Cor.16.9.
This indeed is quite
possible, though the anonymity is odd when the couple are named so freely
However, as we have seen,
greetings are sent to them also in Ephesus
(II Tim. 4.19)
and in Rome (Rom. 16.3),
where they had a house and were
evidently as well known as in Corinth.
In fact the most natural supposition to
be drawn from the message,
that the letter was sent to Rome,
is the one, I
believe, that yields the most fruitful results.
When it is made, a good deal
else falls into place.
All that we can expect here is not a conclusive demonstration
a hypothesis that gives the most reasonable explanation for the largest amount
of the data.
I am persuaded that the one that does this
is that which
postulates that the epistle was written to a group or synagogue of Jewish
within the church of Rome in the late 60s.
For when men have once been enlightened, when they have had a taste of the heavenly gift and a share in the Holy Spirit, when they have experienced the goodness of God's word and the spiritual energies of the age to come, and after all this have fallen away, it is impossible to bring them again to repentance; for with their own hands they are crucifying again the Son of God and making mock of his death (6.4-6; neb margin).
There are similar passages of equal severity in 10.26-31 and 12.15-29.
This language is unparalleled in the New Testament and indeed outside it until the Novatianist controversy over the lapsed at the time of the Decian persecution in 250. It is explicable surely only if it is occasioned not by everyday post-baptismal failure but, as later, by apostasy under exceptional and dangerous circumstances, involving the betrayal of fellow-Christians. The only situation in the first century which would fit this for which we have evidence is the Neronian persecution in Rome. Describing it, Tacitus, it will be recalled, spoke of the 'information' given by those who confessed which led to the conviction of their fellow-believers. Clement, reflecting on the same sad story from the Christian side, speaks of
a vast multitude of the elect, who through many indignities and tortures, being the victims of jealousy, set a brave example among ourselves (I Clem.6.1).
And he attributes the persecution and death of the pillars of the church, Peter and Paul, to the same jealousy, envy and strife (I Clem.5). In the course of an extended discussion, Cullmann comments:
This in the context of our letter can only mean that they were victims of jealousy from persons who counted themselves members of the Christian Church. In saying this we naturally do not mean that they were martyred or perhaps murdered by other Christians, but that the magistrates were encouraged by the attitude of some members of the Christian Church, and perhaps by the fact that they turned informers, to take action against others.
The author of the Shepherd of Hermas, also written from Rome, appears to allude some years later to the same crisis and to the divisions it evoked, δυψυχία (with its cognates δυψυχέω and δίψυχος) is the great enemy for Hermas, who returns to it constantly. It is also attacked in I and II Clement.] betrayed parents and denied their Lord (Vis.2.2.2). He refers to 'the renegades and traitors to the Church that blasphemed the Lord in their sins, and still further were ashamed of the Name of the Lord, which was invoked upon them' (Sim.8.6.4). Some were 'mixed up in business and cleaved not to the saints'; being divided in their loyalties (Sim.8.8.1) they caused dissensions (Sim.8.8.5). 'But some of them altogether stood aloof. These have no repentance; for by reason of their business affairs they blasphemed the Lord and denied him' (Sim.8.8.2). They were 'betrayers of the servants of God. For these there is no repentance, but there is death' (Sim.9.19.1). Yet Hermas is prepared to give each group the benefit of the doubt, and even 'for those who denied him a long time ago repentance seemeth to be possible' (Sim.9.26.6). In his vision all those who 'suffered for the name of the Son of God' had their 'sins ... taken away' (Sim.9.28.3) - even though the fruit of their actions was reduced by their vacillation. Looking back, he pictures vividly the various sections under pressure:and in phrases that seem to have attracted remarkably little notice in this connection he echoes many of the reactions of the writer to the Hebrews, without (unlike Clement) giving any direct quotation. He speaks of those who had suffered 'stripes, imprisonments, great tribulations, crosses, wild beasts, for the Name's sake' (Vis.3.2.1), but talks too of those who had been double-minded,
As many ... as were tortured and denied not, when brought before the magistracy, but suffered readily, these are the more glorious in the sight of the Lord; their fruit is that which surpasseth. But as many as became cowards, and were lost in uncertainty, and considered in their hearts whether they should deny or confess, and yet suffered, their fruits are less, because this design entered into their heart; for this design is evil, that a servant should deny his own lord (Sim.9.28.4).
This same setting appears to fit the
concern of the writer to the Hebrews,
with his grave warnings to
'see to it
that there is no one among you that forfeits the grace of God,
noxious weed growing up to poison the whole' (12.15)
and his exhortations not to be 'among those who shrink back and are lost' (10.39) but, like the Lord himself (3.1; 4.14), to be 'firm and unswerving in the confession of our hope' (10.23). If then tentatively we make this identification, it may illuminate other phrases in the epistle which, while not demanding this reference, would certainly suit it.
In 13.7 the writer says:
Remember your leaders, those who first spoke God's message to you;
[The word 'first' is not in the Greek: it is only a possible implication of the aorist eXd^Tfaav.]
and reflecting upon the outcome of their life and work, follow the example of their faith.
The word translated 'outcome' (ἒκβασιν) is ambiguous, but it is most natural to take it to mean death, as in the closely reminiscent description of the righteous man in Wisd.2.17-20:
Let us test the truth of his words, let us see what will happen to him in the end (πειράσωμεν τὰ ἐκ ἐκβάσει αὐτοῦ) ;
for if the just man is God's son, God will Stretch out a hand to him and save him from the clutches of his enemies. Outrage and torment are the means to try him with, to measure his forbearance and learn how long his patience lasts. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for on his own showing he will have a protector.
Similarly our author, like Clement, could
be appealing here to the 'notable pattern of patient endurance' set by the
leaders of the Roman church, and in particular 'the good apostles' Peter and
Paul (I Clem. 5).
It is to be observed that the use of the word 'leaders' or
'chief leaders' to designate the ministry of the Christian church is confined to
documents associated with Rome
ἡγαύμενοι: Heb.13.7,17, 24; I
Clem.1.3; προηγούμενο: I Clem.21.6; Hermas, Vis. 2.2.6; 3.9.7.]
- though obviously the terms are too general for any specific conclusion.
The writer's reiterated plea is for 'firmness to the end' (Heb.3.14) in the face of 'testing'. For this he appeals not only to the 'day of testing' in the wilderness (3.8f.) and to the Old Testament heroes of faith (especially 11.17,36f.) but supremely to Jesus:
For since he himself has passed through the test of suffering, he is able to help those who are meeting their test now (2.18).
For ours is not a high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested every way, as we are, only without sin (4.15, neb margin).
Think of him who submitted to such opposition from sinners: that will help you not to lose heart and grow faint (12.3).
He goes on in this last passage:
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood (12.4).
In other words (as is clear from the association of blood with death throughout the epistle), their community had not yet had its martyr. And, reading between the lines, we may hear the suggestion that they had been holding back and standing apart while others paid the supreme penalty. Yet it was not always thus:
Remember the days gone by, when, newly enlightened, you met the challenge of great sufferings and held firm. Some of you were abused and tormented to make a public show, while others stood loyally by those who were so treated. For indeed you shared the sufferings of the prisoners, and you cheerfully accepted the seizure of your possessions, knowing that you possessed something better and more lasting (10.32-4).
But now they have to be reminded of their solidarity with their fellow Christians:
Remember those in prison as if you were there with them; and those who are being maltreated, for like them you are still in the world (13.3).
What this earlier occasion was when they were 'abused and tormented to make a public show', it is impossible to say with certainty. At first sight indeed it might seem to be referring to the Neronian persecution itself; and this is one of the arguments used by those who wish to date Hebrews much later. The phrase 'the former days' (τὰς πρότερον ἡμέρας) is entirely vague and the implication 'newly enlightened', though probable, is again only read into the aorist φωτισθέντες. Yet the contrast is clear between their response then and now, and the appeal appears to be the same as that of the seer of Revelation to the church at Ephesus: 'I have this against you: you have lost your early love' (Rev. 2.4). There is no suggestion that at that time anyone was actually killed. Indeed this is implicitly denied by the fact that they still have not resisted to the point of bloodshed - for then they shared everything that was going. Reference to the Neronian terror would seem therefore to be positively excluded. Public exposure to abuse, torment, imprisonment and dispossession is all that is mentioned. This could well describe the sort of anti-semitic upsurge that led to the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49, perhaps as a result of disturbances caused by the preaching of Christ - if indeed this is the meaning of Suetonius' notoriously ambiguous 'impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantes'. This identification of the earlier crisis to which the author of Hebrews alludes is made by W. Manson, who writes:
The Jews were protected by the privilege of religio licita so long as they kept the peace, and this privilege they had forfeited by their intra-synagogal disputes. The most plausible explanation of the whole episode is that Christian propaganda had been introduced into the synagogues at Rome and had created considerable ferment.
If so, then the writer seems to be looking back to the 40s, when these Christian Jews could have been among those converted by the mission preaching of Peter and Mark. And this would fit with an earlier passage where the author appears to link himself with his readers in attributing their Christianity to those who themselves had heard Jesus:
We are bound to pay all the more heed to what we have been told for fear of drifting from our course. ... For this deliverance was first announced through the lips of the Lord himself; those who heard him confirmed it to us (2.1-3).
If we ask why now they were holding back from 'love and active goodness' and 'staying away' from assembling with their fellow Christians (10.24f.), ἐπισουναγωγή here cf. the continuing use of συναγωγή for Christian worship in Hermas, Mand.11.9.13f.] we may recall that in his description of the persecutions Hermas speaks of those who 'were mixed up in business and cleaved not to the saints'; they 'stood aloof... by reason of their business affairs' (Sim.8.8.if.); 'from desire of gain they played the hypocrite' (Sim.9.19.3). 'Some of them' he sees in his vision 'are wealthy and others are entangled in many business affairs'; and the wealthy 'unwillingly cleave to the servants of God, fearing lest they may be asked for something by them' (Sim.9.20.1f.).
Those addressed in
Hebrews were also evidently men of possessions (10.34),
with a generous record of
Christian aid (6.10).
But now they have to be told:
'Do not live for money;
content with what you have' (13.5),
and 'Share what you have with others'
The writer's metaphors too seem calculated to appeal to those who
thought naturally in terms of profit and loss.
God himself is a 'wage-payer' (μισθαποδότης) (11.6), a
nd this word or its cognates appears four times in Hebrews and nowhere else in biblical literature. Moses, he says, had 'his eyes ... fixed upon the coming day of recompense' (ἀπέβλεψεν εἰς τὴν μισθαποδοσίαν), when he reckoned 'the stigma that rests on God's Anointed greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt' (11.26), and the readers are commended for having made the same calculation (10.35). His main metaphor for salvation is drawn not, as with Jesus, from the family, nor, as with Paul, from the courts, but from the world of property: coming into, or getting possession of, an inheritance (1.2,4,14; 6.12, 17; 9.15; 11.71.; 12.17). Even obedience to their leaders is commended in the language of commerce: 'Obey your leaders ... as men who must render an account' (λόγον ἀποδώσοντες). 'Let it be a happy task for them, and not pain and grief, for that would bring you no profit' [ahvoireXes, again, uniquely here in biblical literature) (13.17). We are unlikely to be wrong then in guessing that (not for the first or last time) the Jewish community in Rome had a strong business sense, which was reflected in its Christian members. Their temptation was to allow racial and economic connections to outweigh the commitment of their Christian faith. In W. Manson's phrase, they sought to shelter under the 'protective colouring' of the religio licita of Judaism. Our author's appeal to them is to prefer like Moses (11.25) 'hardship with the people of God' to the solidarities of this world:
Jesus also suffered outside the gate.... Let us then go to him outside the camp,
tle πρὸς Ἑβραίους, cf. Zahn, ΙΝΤ ΙI, 293-8.]
bearing the stigma that he bore. For here we have no permanent home, but we are seekers after the city which is to come (13.12-14).
the contrast between the two cities, 'here' and 'to come' related to what was
for the Roman world 'the city' par excellence
is perhaps reinforced by a further interesting passage from the Shepherd of Hermas. Without actually quoting the epistle, he suggests some remarkably parallel ideas. He is again addressing those who are in spiritual danger from excessive material attachments:
Ye know that ye, who are the servants of God, are dwellers in a foreign land;
for your city is far from this city [i.e. Rome]. If then ye know your city, in which ye shall dwell, why do ye here prepare fields and expensive displays and buildings and dwelling-chambers which are superfluous? He, therefore, that prepareth these things for this city does not purpose to return to his own city.
O foolish and double-minded and miserable man, perceivest thou not that all these things are foreign, and are under the power of another? For the lord of this city shall say, 'I do not wish thee to dwell in my city; go forth from this city, for thou dost not conform to my laws.' Thou, therefore, who hast fields and dwellings and many other possessions, when thou art cast out by him,
what wilt thou do with thy field and thy house and all the other things that thou preparest for thyself? For the lord of this country saith to thee justly, 'Either conform to my laws, or depart from my country.' What then shalt thou do, who art under law in thine own city? For the sake of thy fields and the rest of thy possessions wilt thou altogether repudiate thy law, and walk according to the law of this city? Take heed, lest it be inexpedient to repudiate thy law; for if thou shouldest desire to return again to thy city, thou shalt surely not be received [because thou didst repudiate the law of thy city], and shalt be shut out from it. Take heed therefore; as dwelling in a strange land prepare nothing more for thyself but a competency which is sufficient for thee, and make ready that, whensoever the master of this city may desire to cast thee out for thine opposition to his law, thou mayest go forth from his city and depart into thine own city, and use thine own law joyfully, free from all insult (Sim.1.1-6).
None of this adds up to proof that Hebrews was addressed to Rome in the late 60s, but if this is so it could possibly throw some light on the curious phrase in 6.6, that those who apostasize 'crucify the Son of God again' (ἀνασταυροῦντας; neb margin). At least this is the translation (rather than simply 'crucify', as non-biblical usage would suggest) which the context seems to demand and which the ancient versions and the Greek fathers support. Without, obviously, being able to demonstrate its historicity, Edmundson makes the interesting suggestion that this may reflect the well-known 'Quo Vadis?' legend about Peter seeking to save his life by leaving the city.
As he went out of the gate he saw the Lord entering Rome; and when he saw him he said, 'Lord, whither (goest thou) here?' And the Lord said to him, 'I am coming to Rome to be crucified.' And Peter said to him, 'Lord, art thou being crucified again?' He said to him 'Yes, Peter, I am being crucified again.'
The solemn words of the author to the Hebrews, says Edmundson,
recalling, as they did, the very words which had caused Peter to turn back and welcome martyrdom, would strike home to the hearts and consciences of any waverers that heard them. For the Quo Vadis? story, if in any sense historical, must have been widely known from the first.
Behind this tradition, he suggests, lies the dialogue recorded in John 13.36f.:
Simon Peter said to him, 'Lord, where are you going ?' Jesus replied, 'Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but one day you will.' Peter said, 'Lord, why cannot I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.'
And he adds:
Two questions at once come into the mind: (1) Was the echo of those words haunting Peter's memory when he saw the vision? (2) Did his knowledge of the cause of Peter's voluntary return to death move the Fourth Evangelist to insert those verses in his narrative? Possibly both questions should be answered in the affirmative.
For a further echo is to be found in the allusion to Peter's death by crucifixion in John 21.18f., which we shall have occasion to arguecomes from the period immediately after it. If Hebrews comes from the same period, there is no reason why it too should not carry overtones of the same tradition. Clearly nothing can be built on this, but that the epistle reflects the deaths of Peter and Paul (cf. 13.7) is, as we have seen, on other grounds the most likely hypothesis. Edmundson supposes Paul still to have been alive, but for no good reason that I can see. Some reference to him in Rome would surely have been expected, especially since the author evidently comes from the Pauline circle and gives news of the release of 'our friend' Timothy as of special joy to his readers (13.23).
The precise dating is again hampered by our uncertain knowledge of just when the two apostles died. But as an estimate we suggested 65 for Peter and 66+ for Paul. Unlike the book of Revelation, the epistle to the Hebrews shows no sign of the relief or rejoicing brought by the suicide of Nero in June 68. We may therefore date it tentatively c. 67. top
The question of authorship, more vexed and elusive here than in the case of any other New Testament document, is in principle separable and does not affect the dating. Yet it is clear that if we do not know who the author was the recipients of the epistle did. His identity is therefore of a piece with the entire situation to which he writes. For the epistle is composed not as an abstract theological discourse but as an urgent pastoral plea. The doctrinal exposition, however impressively argued for its own sake, is set in the context of frequent and extended warnings and encouragements (2.1-4; 3.7-4.11; 4.12-16; 5.11-6.12; 10-19.19-39; 12.1-13.25) born of long spiritual knowledge of and care for his readers, though he makes no claim to have been their only or their original evangelist. And he ends with the hope of being 'restored' to them (13.19). If then any light can be shed on the author, it must help to fill in and confirm the picture of the destination and date.
Origen may have said the last word on the
subject when he made his famous remark,
'But who wrote the epistle, in truth.
Yet this did not stop him recording guesses, which have persisted into modern times. One of the more intriguing was Harnack's conjecture of Aquila and Priscilla,
which sought to make capital out of the alternation between 'we' (2.5; 5.11; 6.1,3,9,11; 13.18) and 'I' (11.32; 13.19,22f.) to designate the author (though why is only one of them planning to make the visit, and which?) and argued that prejudice against women teachers in the church led to the suppression of the names (though why not only others?). Much more plausible is Luther's guess of Apollos,
which has recently been built by Montefiore into an argument for a very early date indeed. He believes that Apollos is addressing that section of the Corinthian church which was looking to him as their man (I Cor.1.12; 3.4-6) and that the epistle was written prior to I Corinthians, which lie thinks takes up its arguments. But apart from anything else, the time available is extremely short. Paul, as we have seen, was first in Corinth from late 49 to the latter part of 51. Apollos did not arrive there until after Paul left (Acts 18.24-19.1), let us say, early in 52. If I Corinthians was written in the spring of 55, the epistle to the Hebrews could not have been composed later than 54. While arguments for the time required for development are notoriously subjective, two to three years at most is a very brief period for so much to have happened. It is reasonable to expect that they should by then have progressed from the rudiments of Christianity to maturity and become teachers of others (5.12-6.3), for Paul uses the same argument in I Cor.3.1-4. Instead, however, they have fallen into serious danger of relapse, apostasy and 'all sorts of outlandish teachings' (2.1-13; 3.12-14; 5.11-6.12; 10.23-39; 12.3, 12-17; 13.7-9), of which there is little or no trace in I Corinthians. Above all there is the appeal to 'remember the days gone by' when they were 'newly enlightened' (10.32) when their response to persecution was so different from what it is now. Then we are faced with what we are to make of the 'outcome' of their leaders' life and faith (13.7). A longer perspective seems indicated. Moreover, though the qualifications of Apollos as 'a Jew, ... an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent (or learned) man, powerful in his use of the scriptures' (Acts 18.24) are most attractive, he, no more than Aquila and Priscilla, could as far as we know claim to have had the Christian message confirmed to him by those who had 'heard the Lord' (Heb.2.3) - rather, in fact, the opposite (Acts i8.25f). Moreover, if Apollos had been the author, we might have expected that Clement, who refers to Paul as having in his letter to the Corinthians charged them 'concerning himself and Cephas and Apollos' (I Clem. 47.1), would equally have mentioned Apollos when he quotes his letter.
The church at Alexandria too would surely have preserved some memory of his association with the epistle as one of its most distinguished scions. Yet Clement of Alexandria and Origen regularly quote it as Paul's and Origen evidently knew of no guess linking it with Apollos. Finally there is nothing in the tradition to connect Apollos with Rome, if that is the situation addressed.
At this point it is worth considering seriously the evidence which Harnack favoured before he had his wild surmise,and which was also supported strongly by Edmundson, namely, the statement of Tertullian that the author of the epistle was Barnabas. They both agree that this is the only attribution ancient or modern that does not ultimately rest upon guesswork. As we have seen, Edmundson earlier argued the case for supposing that Barnabas accompanied Peter on a visit to Rome, after they left Corinth, following the death of Claudius in October 54. He is also prepared to give credence to the tradition that Barnabas was responsible for the conversion there of Clement. The author of the Clementine Recognitions, usually historically worthless, relates that Clement was converted in Rome by the preaching of Barnabas, who later at Caesarea introduced him to Peter. As Edmundson says,
the object of the author of the 'Recognitions' is to magnify the authority and orthodox teaching of Peter, so that the introduction here of Barnabas, who is never mentioned again, is purely gratuitous, and indeed inexplicable in such a narrative unless the fact recorded were one based on a received and ancient tradition too well known to be ignored.
This would help to explain the association
of this epistle with Clement, who not only evidently had an early and intimate
acquaintance with it but was later one of those surmised, by those in the east
who doubted its Paulinity, to have translated it
But in the west it was known from the beginning not to be Pauline - and therefore not regarded as having apostolic authority
or for a long time the right to a place in the canon. Tertullian, much as it would have suited him to attribute it to Paul,
quotes the epistle as the work of a man whose credentials are simply that he was a companion and fellow-worker with Apostles. But on the question of authorship there is not a sign that he was making an assertion about which there was any doubt. He assumes that his readers were aware of it and would admit it. In fact as he is inveighing, as a Montanist, against what he regarded as 'the lax discipline of the Church of Rome', he would not be likely to have quoted this passage [Heb. 6.4-6] in support of his argument as written by Barnabas, unless he knew that his opponents would not impugn his assertion.
Edmundson goes on to argue that what the
writer himself calls his 'word of exhortation' (13.22) fits admirably this
Greek-speaking Cypriot Jew, with relatives in Jerusalem and a Levite by descent. Leiden 1970; and Buchanan, Hebrews. ]
The nickname given him by the apostles meaning 'son of exhortation' (Acts 4.36), betokens one with a gift for this form of synagogue exposition, or perhaps, as R. O. P. Taylor has argued,
the 'born' trouble-shooter, the 'one called in' (παράκλητος) to sort things out. For the letter is both a reprimand and an eirenicon (Heb. 12.14; 13.1, 20), from one who previously had proved himself a natural mediator in the church (Acts 9.26-30; 11.22-30; 15.22-39), with a view to healing a breach that had already inflicted such crippling damage on the Christian community in Rome. If we are right in supposing that one of the main 'roots' of this 'bitterness' (illustrated by the 'worldly-minded' Esau who 'sold his birthright for a single meal'; Heb. 12.15-17) was the temptation to allow business attachments to override Christian associations, Barnabas would have been exceptionally strongly placed to administer rebuke. Not only had he been a leader in a notable act of Christian sharing (Acts 11.291.) to which he calls his readers,
but from the first he had been prominent among those who had made 'the sacrifice of which God approves' (Heb.13.16), of selling his estate and giving away the entire proceeds (Acts 4.34-7), thereby binding himself to work for his living (I Cor.9.6).
The statement in Heb. 2.3 that 'those who heard [the Lord himself] confirmed it to us', which has quite illegitimately been taken to mean 'a second-generation Christian'and therefore to argue a post-apostolic date, would suit Barnabas admirably. For he was among those in Jerusalem who had 'heard the message' from the apostles Peter and John (Acts 4.4) and in those pentecostal days had seen it 'confirmed' by God, who, as the writer says, 'added his testimony by signs, by miracles, by manifold works of power, and by distributing the gifts of the Holy Spirit at his own will' (Heb. 2.4). Moule makes the same point, but applies it to Stephen. But I confess I do not see the close connection with the movement and theology of Stephen, for which W. Manson in particular argued. Our author belongs to the Pauline circle, as the traditional attribution of his epistle attests, and as the reference to Timothy as his travelling companion shows (13.23). Yet Paul is not mentioned. Moreover, Timothy has apparently been in prison. We seem to be in a situation later than that of I and II Timothy or Philippians, for otherwise we might have expected this to be listed in Timothy's 'record ... in the service of the Gospel' (Phil. 2.22). Where too the writer is we cannot tell, unless indeed it be (as Montefiore argued) in the Ephesus area, where both Apollos and Priscilla (included among 'those from Italy'?) and Timothy were last heard of (II Tim. 4.9-19). But that on our reckoning was nearly ten years earlier. Meanwhile the mantle of the Apostle has in part fallen upon the writer himself. He can address his readers with a pastoral authority superior to that of their own leaders and with a conscience clear of local involvement (Heb. 13.171.), and yet with no personal claim to apostolic aegis. There cannot have been too many of such men around. With the entirely proper desire of the church to see that his work had a place in the canon, the crucial test of apostolicity subsequently required its ascription to Paul himself - though the churches of the west that knew it best knew otherwise. In compensation perhaps he himself became credited with that equally anonymous but much inferior homily on the same theme which we now know as the Epistle of Barnabas.
Yet the date and occasion of the epistle to the Hebrews are ultimately independent of this or any other hypothesis of authorship, and for the purpose of our argument nothing hangs upon it. Whoever wrote it, it seems to belong to that uneasy interval between the deaths of Peter and Paul and that of Nero which will be directly relevant also to the dating of the two major books of the New Testament still outstanding, the Apocalypse and the gospel of St John, to which finally we must turn.