Hebrews is an anonymous sermon, which poses something of a challenge to creating a full-bodied social profile. The mention of Timothy in Heb 13:23, combined with Paul’s reputation as a letter writer, led early scribes to begin to attribute the letter to Paul, which aided greatly in its eventual acceptance into the canon. Only after Jerome and Augustine championed the cause of Pauline authorship did this view take deep roots, however. Second-and third-century Christian leaders like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian believed that a member of Paul’s team, and not Paul himself, had authored this epistle, or in Origen’s famous judgment, “who truly wrote the letter only God knows” (quoted in Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.25.14).
Several factors strongly argue against attributing the sermon to Paul. First, the author includes himself among those who came to faith through the preaching of other apostles (Heb 2:3-4). This is perhaps the strongest argument against Pauline authorship, for Paul adamantly insists that he came to faith through a direct intervention by Jesus and not through any human being’s words (see Gal 1:11-17; 1 Cor 15:3-10). Second, none of the writings bearing Paul’s name come close to the rhetorical finesse and stylistic polish of Hebrews. Indeed, Paul explicitly refused to rely on well-crafted rhetoric (“the loftiness of words or wisdom,” 1 Cor 2:1), lest persuasion come through the speaker’s art rather than the Spirit’s conviction (1 Cor 2:1-5). The author of Hebrews clearly had a different philosophy of preaching than did Paul. Third, although the sermon shares many topics with Paul (the examples of Abraham and Jesus, the Mosaic covenant), they are often developed in different ways. The author’s focus on Jesus as high priest and on the Israelite cult, moreover, is quite distinctive. Finally, the debates over the letter’s canonicity themselves attest to the fact that Paul’s name was not attached to the letter from the beginning, either in writing or by tradition. If it were written by Paul, there would not have been such discussions concerning authorship and questions concerning canonicity as we find before the Synod of Hippo (393 CE).
Based on their observation that Hebrews differed from Paul’s letters in rhetorical style and content, Clement, Origen, and Tertullian suggested alternative candidates from among the Pauline team: Barnabas and Apollos often emerged as favorites. Nevertheless, the case for any particular member of the Pauline circle will always remain inconclusive and, largely, circumstantial.
Though we lack a name to attach to this sermon, the author reveals enough of himself to provide at least a partial social profile. First, he is well educated. Whether he acquired this formally or informally cannot ultimately be demonstrated, but he acquired the level of rhetorical proficiency that formal training sought to nurture and has, perhaps, a better claim to formal education than any other New Testament author. It is particularly striking to find the author using patterns of argumentation that follow—literally—standard “textbook” exercises. Before advanced study of rhetoric and oratory, young students would be introduced to more elementary exercises in logic, composition, and speech writing called the Progymnasmata, or Preliminary Exercises. Several textbooks from the first through fourth centuries CE survive, giving us direct access to what was taught at this level. Several of the exercises involved mastering a pattern called “elaboration,” a pattern applied to a thesis, a proposition, or a famous statement by a famous person (the last is called a chreia). The elaboration pattern took a student through many of the basic building blocks of rhetorical argumentation, building blocks that would be used to construct arguments for the rest of his public life.
According to the Progymnasmata attributed to Hermogenes (second century CE), the exercise began with the recitation of a maxim or chreia and involved developing a full argument in support of the maxim or saying according to the following outline:
A very similar pattern appears in the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium, an advanced handbook on rhetoric from the early first century BCE, as a useful way to develop any theme (any thesis or exhortation) that might arise in the course of a speech:
3. Cause (reason, rationale)
- Restatement of theme in another form (with or without reasons)
4. Contrast (contrary)
5. Comparison (analogy)
6. Historical Example (precedent)
7. Concluding exhortation/restatement
Each of these elements may include a more fully developed argument with its own rationales, as the sample elaboration that follows in the textbook shows (Rhet. Her. 4.43.56—4.44.57).
When the author of Hebrews turns to talk about God’s formative discipline—the education God provides the congregation through the trials they have endured—he uses precisely this pattern, with the kind of variation one would expect in actual practice:
You have forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons:
“My son, do not regard lightly the formative discipline [paideia] of the Lord,
nor lose courage while being reproved by him.
For whom the Lord loves, he disciplines,
and chastens every son whom he receives.”
Endure for the sake of formative discipline.
God is treating you as sons.
For who is the son whom a father does not discipline?
If you are without formative discipline, of which all [children]
have become partakers, then you are bastards and not sons.
Since we have had our biological fathers as educators and showed reverence,
shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?
For they disciplined us for a few days as seemed best to them,
but he [disciplines us] for our benefit, that we may share his holiness.
All formative discipline [paideia], while it is present, does not seem to be joyful, but grievous;
but later it yields the peaceful fruit [karpon] of righteousness to those who have been trained through it.
The author of Hebrews thus exhibits a clear knowledge and mastery of a preliminary pattern of rhetorical argumentation, using it with modest variation (for example, adding a rationale to the argument from comparison, a kind of variation allowed and modeled also in Rhetorica ad Herennium).
The preacher’s conclusion (12:11)—truly a piece de resistance in terms of demonstrating textbook knowledge of argumentation—is an expanded paraphrase of a well-known maxim attributed sometimes to Isocrates, sometimes to Aristotle: “the root of education [‘discipline,’ paideia] is bitter, but its fruit [karpos] is sweet.” Hermogenes recites this maxim in his Progymnasmata and, in fact, uses it as the chreia around which he develops his sample elaboration (3.7). Learning how to paraphrase a chreia or maxim, both in abbreviated and expanded form, moreover, was itself an exercise included within the Progymnasmata. The first-century CE teacher Theon of Alexandria gives detailed attention to this exercise in his own Prosgymnasmata. The author of Hebrews exhibits precisely this learned technique in 12:11. Two key words from the well-known maxim—“discipline” (paideia) and “fruit” (karpos)—are preserved in the expanded form, and all of its other elements are represented somehow in the paraphrase. The fact that the author concludes an argument constructed after a standard textbook pattern (the “elaboration” pattern) with a standard chreia used in several Progymnasmata as the sample chreia on the basis of which the various exercises are demonstrated, artfully presenting this maxim in an expansive paraphrase such as the elementary exercises teach, compounds the impression that the author has received formal training in rhetoric at least at this secondary level.
The author of Hebrews evidences far more advanced facility in oratory than was associated with progymnastic training. He skillfully uses argumentative topics familiar from deliberative oratory (speeches promoting acceptance or rejection of a particular course of action) and epideictic oratory (speeches amplifying the honor or disgrace of a particular person), and doing so in ways that do not become confused but are rather mutually supportive (hence the frequently observed alternation of “exposition” and “exhortation” throughout the sermon). He goes even further, however, in giving attention to rhetorical ornamentation and stylistic “polish.” The opening sentence (1:1-4) evidences numerous skillfully employed rhetorical techniques already at work:
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us in a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.
In the Greek, the opening twelve words greet the hearers with a striking use of alliteration, repeating the sound |p| five times. The two parallel clauses in 1:3 employ the device of homoeoteleuton, ending with the same sounds and cadence (-staseōs autou, -nameōs autou). Hebrews 1:1-2a shows perfect parallelism of the constituent clauses, developed by means of a complex antithesis (a set of contrasts):
|“of old”||“to the ancestors”||“through the prophets”|
|“in these last days”||“to us”||“in a son”|
In addition to judicious use of alliteration, Hebrews provides the most extended example of anaphora in the New Testament with the relentless repetition of “by faith” in chapter 11. Such observations of rhetorical ornamentation can be made throughout the sermon, suggesting a studied rather than a casual acquaintance with the artistic use of language.
The author is a Jewish Christian, most likely of Diaspora origin, and at least of Diaspora upbringing. He is expert in the Jewish Scriptures and in the science of their interpretation. He employs several interpretive techniques known from Jewish textbooks on the interpretation of Scripture, for example linking texts by a common key word to advance an interpretation, arguing from a lesser case to a weightier case (though this was also basic to Greco-Roman argumentation), and looking to the definitions of names and titles as keys to interpretation. In this single sermon he recites passages from Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, 2 Samuel, multiple Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Haggai, and Habakkuk; he discusses several passages from Leviticus and Numbers in depth; and he alludes to stories and other material in the Pentateuch, Judges, Joshua, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Daniel, 2 Maccabees, and other traditions known now only from Martyrdom of Isaiah and Lives of the Prophets. He knows the whole of his sacred tradition, and he is able to deploy the whole of it to support his word of exhortation to this congregation. He reads these Scriptures, moreover, in the Greek translation in use among Greek-speaking Jews in the Western Diaspora (and Greek-speaking Jews resident in Palestine), a translation that would come to be known as the Septuagint. As is true for any translation, readings of the Scriptures in the Greek differ to some extent at many points from the readings of the same passages in the original Hebrew text. What is important here is that the author’s recitations of Scripture often agree with known Greek texts of the Septuagint against known Hebrew texts of the same Scriptures.
Alongside being fully immersed in the Scriptures of his own Jewish heritage, the author is also well acculturated to the Greco-Roman environment. In keeping with his own proximity to formal channels of education, he shares at least two fundamental tenets regarding education with his Greek cultural environment. The first emerges in his description of Jesus’ own process of becoming qualified to serve as the perfect high priest, a process of formative education in which “he learned [emathen] obedience from the things he suffered [or ‘experienced,’ epathen]” (Heb 5:8). With the words “emathen . . . epathen,” the author incorporates a celebrated Greek wordplay, the classical equivalent of our “no pain, no gain.” Greek teachers sought to prepare their students to embrace the difficulties—even the pains—of the process of formative discipline (paideia) that would equip them with the skills, and carve into them the virtues, that would position them to flourish in Greek culture and leave behind a praiseworthy remembrance of a life well lived. Discipline did not merely involve punishment for doing something wrong (with the result that learning came from trial, error, and a whooping). Educative discipline challenged students with rigorous exercises training mind, soul, and body.
When the author describes the addressees’ experiences of hardship as instances of divine discipline intended to strengthen their commitment and shape their character, though his launching-off point is a recitation of Proverbs 3:11-12, his discussion has much more in common with Seneca’s essay On Providence (Prov.). Seneca describes the sage as God’s “pupil, imitator and true progeny, whom that magnificent parent, no mild enforcer of virtues, educates quite sternly, just as strict fathers do” (Prov. 1.6). God “raises” or “brings up” the wise person like a son or daughter (2.5), and “tests, hardens, and prepares” the wise person to be God’s own (1.6). Seneca affirms that “those whom God approves and loves, God toughens, examines, and exercises” (4.7). By means of these hardships, God prepares the disciple or sage for some greater destiny (described as “God’s own self” in On Providence, and “a share in God’s holiness” in Heb 12:10). Being subject to hardship shows that one is God’s “true progeny” (Prov. 1.6), God’s legitimate offspring rather than the contrary (see Heb 12:8). This remarkable Latin text suggests that the author of Hebrews, with his argument in 12:5-11, would have been as much at home in Seneca’s parlor as in the Hellenistic synagogue.
The second tenet shared by the author of Hebrews with the Greek culture concerns the notion of discrete stages of instruction, with the student moving (ideally) from one to the next at the proper age. The author of Hebrews evokes this topic in a passage upbraiding the hearers for not having made greater progress in their formation as Christian disciples and not having made a surer transition to becoming themselves promoters and teachers of the Christian philosophy:
You have become sluggish in hearing. For indeed, though you ought to be teachers on account of the amount of time that has elapsed, you again have need for someone to continue to teach you the most basic principles of the primary level of the oracles of God. You have come to stand in need of milk rather than solid food, for everyone who partakes of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he or she is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who have their faculties trained through constant practice for the discernment of the noble and the base. (5:11-14)
As the author attempts to shame the hearers into taking a more active stance in regard to their own and one another’s formation, he employs common metaphors for levels of education to drive his appeal home. Milk versus meat, the infant versus the mature adult, were frequently used by philosophers to speak of stages of education or achievement in philosophy, and often specifically in order to motivate greater progress among the hearers in regard to their commitment to the philosophy’s way of life and their internalization of its values.
When the author describes the mature believer as one who is equipped for “the discernment of what is noble and what is wicked” (5:14), he incorporates a standard Greco-Roman definition of the virtue of Wisdom, one of the four cardinal virtues promoted by Platonists and Stoics and a feature of the mainstream of dominant cultural ethics. The mature person who has made sufficient progress in the formative discipline offered by the “school” has attained wisdom: he or she has “intelligence capable, by a certain judicious method, of distinguishing good and bad” (Rhet. Her. 3.3.4-5). In context, the author draws on intertexture from the Greek cultural environment, rather than from the inherited tradition of the Jewish and Christian culture, to arouse the hearers’ attention and shame them for not yet adequately exercising this faculty of wisdom and zealously encouraging and teaching one another about the truly advantageous course (namely, perseverance in association with the Christian minority group).
The author of Hebrews includes some striking athletic imagery in his sermon. It is important to remember that the world of Greek games was closely related to the arena of Greek education, the lyceum and gymnasium being twin institutions serving the formative task of education (paideia). The most notable instance occurs at the climax of the celebration of the exemplars of faith (11:1—12:4):
Having, therefore, such a great cloud of spectators surrounding us, let us also run with endurance the racecourse laid out before us, putting off every weight and the sin which so easily trips us up, looking away to faith’s pioneer and perfecter—Jesus, who, for the sake of the joy set before him, endured a cross, despising shame, and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne. Consider him who had endured from sinners such hostility against himself, in order that you may not become faint, growing weary in your souls. You have not yet, while contending in the ring against sin, fought back to the point of spilling your own blood (12:1-4).
The author brings together the two events of running and wrestling, both major focal points for training and competition in Greek games, in a manner showing some familiarity with the events. He first directs attention to the stands of the stadium, filled with a particular quality of spectators of the events in which the audience will compete. He uses a “fixed classical expression” to describe a race the course of which is determined by the masters of the games (“the course laid out before us,” ton prokeimenon hēmin agōna). He draws attention to the need for the appropriate state of dress (or undress, as the case may be). And, like a good coach, he keeps his runners’ minds fixed on the best example of how to run this race course well, so that his exemplar’s strategies, skills, and success will empower their own running. He shifts metaphors in 12:4 from the racetrack to the wrestling floor, where each believer is pitted against “Sin,” the antagonist whom they must defeat. The athletic metaphor enters the text again in 12:11 with the word “training” (gegymnasmenois), a verbal echo of the gymnasion (“gymnasium”) where the future citizens of the Greek city-state trained for the development of physical prowess and strength as part of the larger process of paideia, now used to speak of God’s training of the disciples for the formation of the virtues of justice and holiness. Once again, the specific use to which the author puts the imagery shows his own proximity to Greek and Roman philosophical culture, cultural knowledge most likely acquired via channels of a Judaism that was itself highly influenced by Greek culture (for example, the culture of Philo and the author of 4 Maccabees). In these circles, athletic imagery was used to interpret the experiences of hardship that frequently accompanied the pursuit of the school’s philosophical ideals, to encourage ongoing endurance toward the goals espoused by the group in face of ongoing hardship.
The author’s acquaintance with Greco-Roman philosophy emerges also in his summary of what the example of Jesus, the founder of the Christian “philosophy,” taught his followers:
Since, then, the children have shared flesh and blood in common, he himself also fully shared the same things in order that, through death, he might destroy the one holding the power of death, namely the Slanderer, and set free those who were liable to slavery all their lives by the fear of death. (Heb 2:14-15)
Jesus is celebrated for having brought an enormous benefit to humankind—at least, to those who would internalize the lesson of his own life—liberating them from the power of death (through our fear of death as mortals) to constrain our wills and imaginations. While this passage resonates with Jewish apocalyptic traditions of the Messiah’s victory over demonic forces, it also draws upon Greek philosophical discourse on being set free from the fear of death by the courageous example of key teachers facing their own deaths. The author presents Jesus in a manner reminiscent of Seneca’s portrayal of Socrates (Ep. 24.4): “Socrates in prison . . . declined to flee when certain persons gave him the opportunity . . . in order to free humankind from the fear of two most grievous things, death and imprisonment.” In the early second century CE, a wandering sophist named Peregrinus imitated Socrates’s pattern for the sake of teaching his followers a similar lesson by burning himself to death upon a pyre (and, according to the cynical Lucian, securing his own reputation as a genuine philosopher after a less-than-illustrious career): “[Peregrinus] alleges that he is doing it . . . that he may teach them to despise death and endure what is fearsome” (Lucian, Peregr. 23; see also Peregr. 33). The author of Hebrews sounds very “Greek,” then, as he attributes to Jesus the freedom from the fear of death that enabled him to maintain his own virtue intact in the face of opposition and suffering, thus becoming a model enabling his followers to maintain their virtuous response to God no matter what society might seek to do to hinder them.
The author emerges, then, from Greek-speaking Judaism, and a Judaism that is very much open to the insights of Greek philosophical culture and to education in Greek language and rhetoric. It is important to distinguish carefully, however, between acculturation and the uses to which a particular author puts acculturation when assessing social location. As we will see in the chapters that follow, the author uses his facility in Greek language, rhetoric, and philosophical discourse to encourage other members of the Christian minority culture to maintain their stance of critical distance from both the synagogue and the Greco-Roman society, particularly where participation in worship is concerned. He does not use his cultural knowledge to encourage “rapprochement” between the Christians and their neighbors but, in fact, to promote the group’s social distance and distinctiveness—to reinforce their willingness to continue to live in the margins of society rather than move back toward its centers.
A basic set of sociological questions concerns the distribution of power and the authority relations at work between parties in a particular group. In every system there will be an unequal distribution of power: some members will have more “voice” than others. Even in a community that seeks to be egalitarian, those who found the community will inevitably have more power, even if this is exerted only in the ways in which their initial vision and interactions create a culture into which others will be invited and socialized, with the culture thus exercising “constraints” upon the converts. This fact raises the question of “legitimate authority”: what makes the unequal distribution of power in a system (whether a family, a voluntary organization, a city, a nation) acceptable, or essentially acceptable, to all parties? What gives one person the “right” to constrain another person’s choices and behavior in some way, such that the latter person accepts the constraints?
Pioneering sociologist Max Weber distinguished three basic types of basis for “legitimate authority,” that is, for authority that is granted to a figure or figures by subordinates on this basis. His catalog would not be applicable to situations of coercive domination, where force is the guarantor of power and acquiescence (though it is admittedly the final guarantor of power in many situations where authority is otherwise generally accepted as legitimate), nor to situations of negotiated domination, where mutual self-interest is the final reason for according authority. Legitimation of authority is especially important in voluntary associations such as the early church—that is, where there is indeed no recourse to force should a leader’s authority be rejected.
The first type of authority is “charismatic” authority, based in the authority figure’s supposed nearness to the sources of divine or other superhuman, supernatural power and presence, or his or her otherwise extraordinary character or heroism, or his or her extraordinary ability to give voice and direction to the deepest aspirations of the audience that gathers around him or her. Jesus certainly is accorded, and exercises, authority on this basis: his miracles, his confrontation of evil supernatural forces, his aura of awareness of the divine presence all combined to impress upon onlookers his distinctive connection with God and, on that basis, his authorization upon earth to speak for God and to be heeded.
The second type is “traditional” legitimation. A person has authority because people in his or her family have always had authority (as is the case in hereditary monarchies), or because he or she enacts a role that has been vested with authority (as in the case of fathers in patriarchal or mothers in matriarchal societies).
The third type is “rational-legal” legitimation, in which a person’s authority is carefully specified in terms of the office that he or she occupies in the context of a well-developed bureaucracy, and in which a person rises to authority and exercises authority in keeping with those rules. Judges and bishops are granted authority on this basis, in keeping with the principles upon which their offices are established. A corrupt judge or an illegally elected bishop will lose legitimacy as an authority figure.
To distinguish these types another way, where authority is granted on the basis of charisma, people give their allegiance to an individual; where authority is granted on traditional grounds, people give their allegiance to an established system; where authority is granted on legal-rational grounds, people give their allegiance to a set of principles. In real-life situations, these types are often mixed, and they are also not exhaustive.
In the sociology of the early Christian movement, Jesus would be seen as the charismatic founder. According to the fundamental convictions of the group, Jesus may have been removed from everyday access but he was never ultimately removed from the headship of the movement, continuing to guide and empower from his place at God’s right hand (see, for example, Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12). What this means is that the institutionalized means of access to the leader’s guidance and empowerment become infused with derived authority. The message of and about the absent leader, however this is accessed (in the traditions of Jesus’ sayings, in ways of reading the sacred Scriptures, in communications to, about, or even from the absent leader, in the community itself as a place where people “draw near” to Jesus and experience his presence and the access to the divine that he provides) continues to have primary authority.
In Jesus’ absence, his closest followers (the inner circle of “apostles”) become the primary, functional leaders of the movement. They are his “staff,” directly commissioned by the charismatic leader, possessing a derived charisma from their proximity to him. They are charged with carrying on the leader’s message and mission, which becomes “institutionalized” in sayings traditions, summary formulas, traditions of interpreting sacred texts, ways of “being together” in communities of Christ-followers, and cultic rites. Paul enters this circle of apostles in an irregular manner, directly commissioned by the charismatic leader but not through connection with Jesus in his earthly work. He acts as a kind of charismatic entrepreneur himself, forming communities with close personal bonds of allegiance to himself, but always on behalf of and self-consciously subordinate to the ultimate leader of the movement, Jesus. It is significant that Paul’s acceptance within and by the older circle of apostles is a topic of discussion (see, for example, Gal 2:1-14); even if he would deny it, it appears that he needs their acknowledgment, as those with closer and more easily demonstrated connections with the fount of charisma (Jesus), for his ministry to be effective.
Paul works as part of a larger mission, having both partners (like Barnabas and Apollos, who are not subordinate to Paul) and staff (like Timothy and Titus, who are invited into the work of the mission by Paul). Such people are in closer proximity to the point of origin of the movement than the typical convert, and are thus in a direct position to cooperate together in giving shape to the movement as they participate in the planting and nurture of new churches and exercise ongoing authority over those communities. Finally, leaders also emerge within the local churches. These are likely people who were among the first converts in a given location, who thereby become an important circle supporting the continuing growth of the new community by providing hospitality for the apostle and for the gathered converts and other material support, who participate in giving specific shape to the community in that locale, and upon whom the apostle can rely to continue to preserve the work in his or her absence.
On what basis, then, does the author of Hebrews ask that his authority to speak to and direct the audience in their situation be recognized? Or in other words, why does the audience listen to this speaker and entertain the possibility that what he has to say should impact what they do in and with their lives, potentially at significant cost to themselves?
One avenue for answering this question would be to locate the author in the chain leading to the formation of the community he addresses. He does not present himself as a personal witness of the Lord Jesus, but rather as one who has himself been evangelized by those who were Jesus’ witnesses (Heb 2:3). He thus does not exercise authority on the same basis as the community’s founder or founders, whether this was Paul himself or another member of the Christian mission sympathetic to Paul and his view concerning the inclusion of Gentiles. The author is also not a leader from within the community to which he writes, for he always refers to this circle of local leaders in the third person (13:7, 17, 24). He does, however, write in support of the local leadership and therefore, perhaps, stands in some ways above it, continuing to authorize it by his own endorsement.
The author often associates himself with the audience as a collective “we” or “us,” to which his statements about God’s actions on their behalf, their collective identity in Christ, and their obligations to God and to one another apply equally. That is, at many points he speaks of himself, his circle, and his audience as standing alike and equally under the sacred message of Jesus and its associated obligations. But at one point (4:1) he begins to differentiate pointedly between what is applicable to this collective “we” and what is applicable only to the “you” or individual members of the “you” of the audience. In a few passages (5:11-12; 6:9-12; 13:18) he identifies himself as part of a “we” that is clearly distinct from and does not include the “you” of the audience, a “we” that is set over the audience and in a position either to affirm or censure their behavior. From this standpoint, the author can issue commands and speak directly to this audience (e.g., 3:1, 12-13; 10:32-36; 12:3-8, 12-17, 25; 13:2-7, 9, 16-17, 18, 22-25). He emerges as a distinct “I” at only a few places (11:32; 13:19, 22-23).
The author hereby locates himself within the circle of those responsible for the conversion and nurture of the recipients in Christian faith and practice. He has visited the community before, since he hopes to be “restored” to them (13:19). He is part of a group, including Timothy (a deeply rooted member of the Pauline mission team, 13:23), that does not belong to any one congregation but, rather, exercises oversight across a wider region that includes many congregations as the staff of the founder or founders of those congregations. They are therefore structurally closer to the originating point of the movement, above the jurisdiction of any local congregation, with many local congregations falling under their jurisdiction as they carry on the work of the absent apostle (whether Paul moved on to new mission grounds or died). Addressing a letter of instruction to (and, similarly, visiting) a congregation enacts an established pattern among members of this group as an act of oversight, and the pattern itself carries with it the expectation—on the author’s part and on the audience’s part—that the message bears authority.
With the sermon itself, the author does not rely on purely charismatic legitimation, claiming to have received his words as special revelations from God or to stand closer to God’s power and favor than the recipients, such that he mediates the same on their behalf (see again, in this regard, 2:3-4). He does not make explicit claims concerning his authorization by the senior apostle, hence on a kind of primitive “charter” for his right to be heeded. Instead, from beginning to end, he relies on his ability to connect his exhortations with the authoritative traditions of the community (chiefly the Old Testament and the proclamation of Jesus). He depends upon the community’s allegiance to those Scriptures and that proclamation, and, indeed, to the relationship with the living Lord formed as a result of their conversion. He asks to be heard to the extent that he represents that tradition and speaks in line with and on behalf of that tradition. He implicitly claims to understand the implications of the tradition and the divine-human relationship forged in Christ better than some of the recipients, for he repeatedly chides them for not living up to the same. In this sense, he presents himself as standing closer to the underlying “sacred ratio,” the knowledge about God and the world shared by the group and standing at the heart of the community’s historical existence as a distinct group, and claims the right to direct the community’s steps on this basis.
Fundamental to the shared knowledge between the author and the members of early Christian congregations is the conviction that God has “spoken in the prophets” (1:1) and that the divine voice remains accessible in the Scriptures, which the author of Hebrews calls “the oracles of God” (5:12). The author grounds his own address fully in the text of these “oracles of God” and, more specifically, in the Christ-centered interpretation of the same, around which these same early Christian communities were formed. His sermon opens by amplifying the honor and gravity of the Son of God (1:1-14) and, thereby, amplifying the weight or seriousness of the word spoken in, by, and about this Son and the obligation to respond appropriately to this word (2:1-4). Because it is God’s voice that is heard in the proclamation made by Jesus (2:3a), and now in the proclamation made about Jesus’ death and resurrection and its import for human beings by Jesus’ witnesses (2:3b), “it is necessary to pay close attention” to the message around which the church was formed (2:1), and to which God himself bore witness in the initial proclamation of the same (2:4).
Insofar as the author draws from beginning to end on the sacred “oracles of God,” the audience might legitimately wonder who is speaking throughout Hebrews. At many points, it is explicitly God, or the Son, or the Spirit speaking (1:5, 6, 7, 13; 2:12-13; 3:7-11; 4:3-4; 5:5-6; 6:14; 7:21; 8:8; 10:5, 15, 30; 12:25, 26; 13:5), as the author attributes recitations from the sacred Scriptures to one of these spokespersons of the divine voice. Indeed, in his repeated recitation of Ps 95:7 (“Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts,” in Heb 3:7, 15; 4:7) the author leads the audience to listen with the expectation that they will hear the divine voice speaking to them through it. The author’s challenge potentially becomes God’s challenge, and the audience will potentially respond to the author’s sermon as to the divine voice itself (see also 12:25), and the audience is positioned to respond more readily to the author’s challenge by the threat of refusing to heed the divine voice potentially speaking therein.
The re-proclamation of this message and the delineation of the appropriate response to that message in Hebrews, therefore, is invested with divine authority insofar as the audience discerns in it a faithful re-presentation and development of the sacred ratio that stands at the root of the group’s formation. To the extent that the author is successful in this alignment, his speech will impose constraints on the audience’s choices and actions (or force them consciously to abandon the group and reject its sacred ratio). Without claiming any special divine commission, prophetic words from the Lord, or visions of the realm beyond the visible, then, the author is able to claim divine authorization for his message and to open the audience’s eyes to vistas beyond the visible realm (e.g., the activity of Jesus as the high priest of the heavenly Holy Place, 9:11—10:18), all on the basis of the interpretation of texts held as sacred and authoritative jointly by author and audience. His rhetorical ability, which distinguishes him above his canonical peers, no doubt also contributed greatly to his authority, as virtuosity as a speaker was an important ingredient of authority in the first-century Greco-Roman environment. The preservation and eventual canonization of the sermon despite persistent questions about its authorship testifies to the widespread reception of this author’s address as, indeed, a faithful representation of the divine Word speaking to the early church’s contexts.