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.