The Vicar introduces the Letter to the Hebrews
This introduction to the above letter follows from a short sermon given on a Wednesday when I attempted to explain what the letter was all about – and it sparked quite a lot of interest.
A short article such as this can only give a brief background so I hope to follow it up with more on the subject in future magazines.
The book is not over used in our Lectionary (the appointed readings for worship), nor is it completely overlooked, but it is often confusing and misunderstood.
As the name states it was written to the Hebrews, an ancient title for the Jewish people. Abraham’s descendants were the first to be called Hebrews. No one is quite sure what, exactly, it means but most suggest it means “moving over” or “travel to another place”. It is certainly a title which “harks back” to a golden era, if you like – a nostalgic title.
By the time this book was written (most scholars say between 55 -75 AD but, as with all things biblical, others disagree) the term was hardly used but still understood; so the writer is making a point. This is a book about the new Christian faith addressing the beliefs and viewpoints of those Jews who had converted to Christianity: A book for Jewish Christians. Why did they need one you might ask?
We recall from the Acts of the Apostles that Saul was given the task of rooting out this new despicable Christian sect which had taken hold in some synagogues. Most Jewish communities were clearly against Christianity.
After Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus we can understand that Paul (as he became) saw little future in Christian conversion of the Jews and took the Christian message to the Gentile world (the Jewish word for everyone who wasn’t Jewish).
Being a Christian in those very early days was not easy. Even the briefest reading of the Acts of the Apostles shows the hostility they regularly faced. Being a Jewish Christian was harder still.
We also know that there were splits in the early church along these Jewish/Gentile lines. Paul for instance, in his letters to the Galatians, Colossians and Philippians, addresses the problem of whether it was necessary for Christians to be circumcised.
And for a complete understanding of the new Christian message it was necessary for the Gentile world to understand in theological terms what being a Christian meant. And they did not completely understand since a lot of it is bound up in ancient Jewish texts.
Further to this Matthew, in his Gospel in particular, says quite clearly that Jesus came to save those of the house of Israel first, then all the rest. So this causes problems.
Adam is probably the first. All Jews, of whatever persuasion, believed and were taught that he was the first man and that Eve was his wife. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were expelled from the garden. They believed Adam was akin to the angels since he had the knowledge of right and wrong. They also believed his children fathered the Jewish race. He is said to have lived to the age of 990. Jews did not believe in what Christians call Original Sin nor did they understand the concept of Adam sinning.
For Christians, Christ is the second Adam; an answer to his sin. Few early Gentile Christians would have understood who Adam was; and being told about his sin, and how Jesus addresses this, would have been most confusing and Jewish Christians would not understand this confusion.
Another problem was about how the new church functioned. The early church developed a system of overseers (Greek episkopos), which we would call Bishops, and Teachers or Readers (like today’s Readers) who helped with the day to day affairs of the church. They didn’t, originally, have Priests – who came along much later when Bishops proved to be too thin on the ground to cope.
The Jews, on the other hand, had a whole hierarchy of ecclesiastical people including Priests and High Priests.
In Hebrews Jesus is the High Priest, a phrase which crops up several times. Only in the first letter of Peter (a Jew, of course) do we find any comparable language where he talks about a Priesthood of all believers and, reading between the lines of the Acts of the Apostles, we know there were “discussions” between the two parts of the emerging Christian church, as Peter understood it, and as Paul developed it among those of the Gentile world.
All these things can seem very remote to us in the twenty-first century where we have our own problems of division, understanding and interpretation among today’s Christian churches. Hebrews seeks to address some of the problems of its time, and we can take heart that despite man’s best attempt at derailing the growth of the faith, God’s Will, somehow, seems to struggle through the cracks.
Hebrews is much more than just this and we shall be looking at other aspects in future instalments. Don’t even get me started on Melchizedek!……..