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The Letter to the Hebrews is not actually a letter and it’s designated recipients are unknown as is it’s author. The title “The Letter to the Hebrews” was  not original to the text.  Scholars think this work was written between 75 to 95 AD. It appears to have been written to a Christian audience who had a good knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. The original readers had been Christians for some time and had experienced persecution,  particularly as the loss of property. Notice as we read Hebrews how the author talks about property and it’s use and value. There is also an effort to encourage the faithful endurance of the audience. While Hebrews looks sort of like a letter because it ends like an ancient letter, it doesn’t begin like an ancient letter. Hebrew is more like a homily both as an entire work and in its component parts.

The author alternates between explanation and encouragement. The author also uses a common rabbinic and Greek  rhetorical technique, as he compares the lesser to the greater.  As Johnson writes, “ Reduced to its bare bones, the argument looks like this: If such and such is the care with x, which is a small matter, then it is even more the case with y, which is a greater matter.” (Johnson, 463) Notice also how the author uses analogy, both pointing out similarity and continuity as well as dissimilarity and discontinuity. This work, as with Paul’s letters, was meant to be read out loud.

Hebrews assumes a common world view of both Jews and Greeks in the first century- there is a material, physical world and a spiritual or non material world. The non material world is more pure and more real than the material world. There is the world where God dwells and there is the world where humans dwell, the heavens and the earth. But the book of Hebrews reworks this idea. The  physical does matter because Jesus had and has a body. The Messiah’s death and resurrection change his body and the entire earth. “Christ sacralizes the inferior material sphere so that life is worth living in the present because of him, thus circumventing any form of resignation from the processes and pressures of earthly existence.” (Johnson 467)

Hebrews also quotes widely from Torah. It will be helpful to read Psalm 95 and 110 ,Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Genesis 14:18-22 (Melchizedek).

Watch for the variety of titles found in Hebrews for Jesus. Some are traditional and some are unique to Hebrews.

The author makes three main points, the superiority of Jesus to prophets, angels and Moses; the superiority of Christ’s priesthood and; the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice.

As you read, consider what Hebrews shares in common with Paul’s writing and how Hebrews is distinctively different.

Outline:

I. Exordium: 1:1-4

II. Christ Exalted and Humiliated 1:5-2:18

A. 1:5-14 A Scriptural Catena

B. 2:1-4 A Parenetic Interlude

C. 2:5-18 Humiliation before Exaltation

1. 2:5-9 Exposition of Psalm 8:4-6

2. 2:10-18 Reflection on the Incarnation.

III. Faith and the Merciful High Priest 3:1-5:10

A. Homily warning against faithlessness 3:1-4:13

1. 3:1-11 Introduction and Scriptural Citation

2. 3:12-4:11 Exposition of Psalm 95

   a. 3:12-19 A warning example

   b. 4:1-5 The Nature of rest

   c. 4:6-11 The Contemporary Call

3. 4:12-13 A Rhapsody on God’s Word

B. Christological  exposition 4:14-5:10

1. 4:14-16 Transitional Parenesis

2. 5:1-10 The Sympathetic High Priest

    a. 5:1-4 High Priestly Qualification

    b. 5:5-10 Christ as High Priest

IV. Preliminary Exhortation 5:11-6:20

A. A Challenge to the Addressees 5:11-6:3

B. Warning and Encouragement 6:4-12

  1. 6:4-6 The Warning

   2. 6:7-8 An Illustration

   3. 6:9-12 Encouragement

C. God’s Promise and Oath 6:13-20

V. The Exposition on Christ as High Priest 7:1-10:25

A. Christ and Melchizedek 7:1-28

1. 7:1-3 Introduction

2. 7:4-10 Melchizedek and the Levites

3. 7:11-19 The Implications of a New Priest

4. 7:20-25 The Confirming Oath

5. 7:26-28 Conclusion

B. Christ’s Sacrifice and the New Covenant 8:1-10:18

1. 8:1-6 Introduction: The Heavenly Tabernacle

2. 8:7-13 The Promised New Covenant

3. 9:1-10 The Old, Earthly Cult

4. 9:11-14 The New Heavenly Cult

5. 9:15-22 The New Covenant

6. 9:23-20 The New Heavenly Cult

7. 10:1-10 The New Earthly – Heavenly Sacrifice

8. 10:11-18 Concluding Flourish

C. Transitional Parenesis 10:19-25

VI. Exhortation to Faith and Endurance 10:26-12:13

A. Preliminary Exhortation 10:26-39

1. 10:26-31 A Renewed Warning

2. 10:32-39 New Encouragement

B. An Encomium on Faith 11:1-40

1. 11:1-7 Faith from Creation to Noah

2.11:8-12 The Faith of Abraham and Sarah

3.11:13-16 A Reflection on the Patriarchs’ Faith

4. 11:17-22 Faith from Abraham to Joseph

5. 11:23-31 Faith from Moses to the Conquest

6. 11:32-40 Later Examples of Faith

C. Christ, Faith, and Endurance 12:1-13

1. 12:1-3 The Perfect Paradigm, Christ

2.12:4-13 Suffering and Education

VII. Life in View of the End 12:14-13:21

A. Warning and Hope 12:14-29

1. 12:14-17 A Final Warning

2. 12:18-24 Earthly Sinai and Heavenly Zion

3. 12:25-29 The End in View

B. Final Recommendations and Rhetorical Conclusion 13:1-21

1. 13:1-6 Loving Service

2. 13:7-17 True Worship

3. 13:18-21 Finale

VIII Epistolary Conclusion 13:22-25

Read More About It

Attridge, Harold W. “Hebrews” in in HarperCollins Bible Commentary, rev. ed.James L Mays, ed. (New York: Society of Bible Literature) 2000.

Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, rev. ed. (Minneapolis:Fortress Press) 1999.  Chapter 20 “The Letter to the Hebrews”

Metzger, Bruce and Pheme Perkins  in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Bruce M. Metzger, Roland E. Murphy eds. (New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.

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