Study Guide

Hebrews Setting

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Roman Empire in the Late 1st Century CE

Studying the Bible is tough work. The New Testament was written almost 2,000 years ago and sometimes it's hard for us to figure out just where and when these guys were coming from.

The Where

Where does this whole book go down? Truth is, we just don't know. Since the writing isn't addressed to anyone in particular (like the epistles to the Romans and Corinthians are), we don't really know where the original readers lived. And since the author doesn't drop any hints about where he's writing from either, we're just left in the dark there, too.

Scholars are pretty certain that the author lives somewhere in the Roman Empire. Of course, it's a big empire, so that doesn't really narrow it down. At the end of the book, the author mentions that "those from Italy send you greetings" (13:24). Does that mean he's writing from Italy? Or maybe he just visited there? Could the people he's writing to be Italians as well?

The world may never know.

The When

How about dates for this bad boy? Well, we're not in much better shape there, either. Hebrews was clearly written sometime in the late 1st century CE, but that's about all we know. It could have been written down as early as 60 CE or as late as 95 CE (source, 1149). That's quite a spread.

Some scholars think that Hebrews must have been written before 70 CE because the author never mentions the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. See, way back in Exodus, the Israelites constructed a tabernacle as a portable house of worship for God. Once they were safely set up in the Promised Land, Solomon set to work building a permanent temple in 957 BCE. That temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and a second temple was built on the same spot. In 70 CE, the Romans burned the temple to the ground to crush a Jewish revolt in Jerusalem. (Source)

Lots of Jewish authors after 70 CE still referred to the temple in the present tense. That was probably because they were hoping it would be rebuilt. Sadly, it never did. But overall, Hebrews isn't really concerned about the temple in Jerusalem. It's more interested in the tabernacle that the Israelites carried around while they were on their way to the Promised Land. (Source, 1236.)

Old school, areweright?

The ideas in the book also suggest a later date. The things the author says about Jesus, his relationship with God, and his death probably took a while to develop. After all, the disciples didn't wake up the morning after Easter and start proclaiming Jesus as the high priest whose sacrifice takes away the sins of the world. It's complex stuff, and it took a while to figure out. (Source, 1236.)

But in 95 CE, Clement of Rome referenced ideas from Hebrews in his letter to the Corinthian church:

This is the way, beloved, in which we find our Savior, even Jesus Christ, the High Priest of all our offerings, the defender and helper of our infirmity[…] Concerning His Son the Lord spoke thus: "You are my Son, today have I begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will give You the heathen for Your inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for Your possession." And again He says to Him, "Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies Your footstool." (1 Clement 36) 

Sure, it's possible that Clement thought of those analogies and quotes on his own (he was a pretty smart dude), but it's pretty unlikely. So by the time 1 Clement was written, it seems Hebrews had gone pretty viral (source, 1149).

The Weird Kids in Town

Life for Christians in the Roman Empire during the late 1st century was a bit rough. The author implies that his readers are getting some flak for their beliefs:

Recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. (10:32-33)

Back in those days, Christians were not the most popular kids in school. They refused to worship Roman gods along with the in-crowd, which didn't go over so well. (Are you gonna pay homage to Zeus? Think, McFly, think!) It was also…illegal. Needless to say, your average Roman wasn't too thrilled with them. Lots of Jewish folks also didn't like them because they felt that Christians were trying to change the meaning of Jewish traditions and scripture. To be fair, that's exactly what Hebrews is up to.

Basically, the early Christians were being treated like a lot of new religious groups: people thought they were weird and crazy.

City of God

Hebrews says that if Christians keep the faith until the end, they'll have a slight change of setting:

[The heroes of the Hebrew Bible] looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God[…] They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (11:10, 13-16)

You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant. (12:22-24)

Here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (13:14)

In other words, the current setting that Christians are hanging out in just isn't working what with all the persecutions of a religious minority. But the author assures them that God will give them a change of scenery soon. Sure, life on Earth may be tough right now, but stay on the right path, and life in the city that God builds up in Heaven, says the author, will be amazeballs. (Not a direct quote.) (Source, 1150).

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