Who was the book of Hebrews written to?

Q. A friend and I recently read out loud through the book of Hebrews using The Books of the Bible.  I can definitely recommend this way of experiencing the Bible.

We do have a question, though.  Your introduction says that the recipients of this letter “seem to have lived in Italy.” But as we read through Hebrews, it seemed to us that it was addressing instead a pre-70 A.D. Jerusalem audience—people who needed encouragement to stand strong while on the receiving end of persecution from temple-observant Jews.  This seemed to us to account better for the letter’s encouragement to persevere and endure persecution.

We thought that the reference in the letter to people “from Italy” sending their greetings was actually describing people who were in Italy at the time, and not, as you say, people who used to live there who were now sending greetings back to their friends in Rome.

We don’t know any Greek and we haven’t looked in any commentaries; this is simply two reasonable laymen looking at each other and reflecting on what we’ve read—both in the text, as well as in the preceding intro.

It strikes me that the questions you’re asking are the kind of broad and comprehensive ones that arise naturally from the consideration of an entire book. You and your friend clearly got the big picture as you read through and listened to the book of Hebrews.  All the more reason to present the Bible in a format that encourages that kind of experience!

Questions like yours, about the background to a whole book, won’t necessarily lead you to a “gem of the day” devotional thought that you can carry around with you.  But they still matter tremendously.  As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart write in their book How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, we can never really recognize what the Bible is saying to “us now” until we appreciate what it was saying to “them then.”  All of the biblical documents arise out of real-life experiences of communities of believers.  The better we can understand those situations, the more clearly we can hear how the word of God was speaking into them, and so into our situation as well.  Anything less does not do justice to the believers whose faith and courage in following Jesus brought us the New Testament in the first place.

You’ve raised an interesting question about the book of Hebrews that other readers and interpreters have also posed.  Why couldn’t the audience of this book have been in Jerusalem, where we would expect the strongest opposition from those who wanted to maintain temple observances and sacrifices?  Why couldn’t the greetings of “those from Italy” be from people who were actually living in Italy, meaning that the book was sent from there, not to there?

The answers to these questions don’t depend on knowing Greek.  The Greek phrase translated as “those from Italy” could mean either people who live in Italy or people who came from Italy.  But there are some other things in the epistle that suggest it wasn’t written to people living in Jerusalem:

– The writer says near the beginning, “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.”  So neither the writer nor the audience were eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus.  If this letter was addressed to believers in Jerusalem before AD 70, it’s almost certain that some of them would have seen and heard Jesus when he was alive on earth.

– From the rest of the New Testament we know that the believers in Jerusalem were very poor.  (This is why, for example, Paul took up a collection from wealthier believers elsewhere in the empire to help them.)  But the writer to the Hebrews notes, “You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you had better and lasting possessions.”  This would fit the wealthy situation in Italy much better.

–  The writer also says, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”  This also wouldn’t fit the situation of the Jerusalem believers, who had already seen some of their number killed for their faith.  But there was a large and strong Jewish community in Rome, and Hebrews could be reflecting the threat that was beginning to be perceived from them.

–  Finally, as I note in the introductory session to Hebrews in my Deuteronomy/Hebrews study guide, “At the end the author calls the whole work a ‘word of exhortation,’ the technical term for a sermon or homily in the Jewish synagogue.”  There were, of course, synagogues in Palestine as in other parts of the empire, but if the question is whether the letter arises out of Diaspora Judaism or temple observance in Jerusalem, the synagogue language points more naturally towards the Diaspora.

None of these considerations are, of course, absolutely conclusive, but they are the kind of things that lead me to believe that Hebrews was written to the community of Jesus’ followers in Rome, not in Jerusalem.

Ancient Rome, the likely location of the people addressed in the book of Hebrews.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “Who was the book of Hebrews written to?”

  1. I’ve often wondered if the book was written at least partly with an audience of either Hellenized Jews or Samaritans or both. From what I understand, neither group (and certainly not the latter) was particularly fond of the Jerusalem/Temple-based elite. The book uses the tabernacle, not the temple, for its extended motif. The narrative of the faith heroes in Hebrews 11 cuts off at David, just before Solomon built the temple — as does Stephen’s similar narrative in Acts 7, which not only ends at David but denounces the idea that God could live in a fixed house. And my understanding is that Stephen was a Greek name, and he was picked to help serve the Hellenized Jews who were being marginalized. And immediately after Stephen’s martyrdom, his fellow deacon Philip goes to Samaria. The only reference to Jerusalem I can find in Hebrews comes late, and emphasizes the heavenly nature of Zion. So again, the book appears aimed at an audience that shares an appreciation of the tabernacle but not of the temple. What do you think?

    1. This makes a lot of sense. The New Testament writers as a whole define what it means to follow Jesus over against the physical temple. This likely reflects the way that followers of Jesus were marginalized by those who controlled the temple system. The synoptic evangelists all pointedly describe Jesus walking away from the temple and predicting its destruction. For Paul the true temple is the community of Jesus’ followers. For John the true temple is Jesus’ body, raised up on the third day. For the author of Hebrews it’s the heavenly sanctuary, of which the earthly temple is only a copy and shadow. And the author of Revelation is looking forward to a city that has no need of a temple, because God dwells in the midst of its people. In his vision of heaven he sees “the temple” but the specifies that he means “the tabernacle of the covenant law.” So it shouldn’t be surprising that Hebrews seems to address an audience that appreciates the tabernacle but not the temple, as this is the wider audience for the entire New Testament. We can narrow the audience down further through some of the indications given in the book, although as I say this can’t be done conclusively. One hint I didn’t discuss in the blog post (since I said a knowledge of Greek wasn’t necessary) is that the author of Hebrews consistently uses the Septuagint, even resting on readings in that translation that differ from the Masoretic text. This might suggest an Alexandrian origin of the epistle, even if it has a Roman destination. A fascinating book that presents many puzzles to try to solve. (Thanks for your comment!)

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