Who Were the Hebrews?

The Hebrew PeopleMost New Testament books are very clear as to either who wrote them or to whom their message was intended.

For example, Luke begins his letter with the words, “Most Honorable Theophilus,” or I Thessalonians begins by, “It is written to the church in Thessalonica.”

Hebrews has none of this. Several centuries passed before anyone gave it a title, and then it was called Hebrews because the book seemed to be speaking predominantly to Hebrew people. So who was the intended audience?

There are four main possibilities when determining the hearers for the book of Hebrews: Jewish Christians, Gentile Christians, Jewish and Gentile Christians, or former Jewish Priests.

John MacArthur actually believed the book was divided into sections speaking to different levels of faith among the Jewish people. One would have to stretch their concepts on textual criticism to read the book this way.

In my humble opinion, I believe the demographic of former Jewish Priests is the best fit.

A dissertation could be written on this subject and many probably have, so I will just discuss a couple points that I believe solidify this hypothesis.

First, the entire book of Hebrews deals with the concept that there is no longer any need for a sacrificial ritual.

There are chapters discussing the sacrifices and methods used by the priests. This general concept already removes Gentile Christians as an audience because they were not sacrificing animals for the remission of sins.

The average Jewish Christian would have had a basic knowledge of what occurred within the temple, but much of the symbolism and imagery within Hebrews would have been lost on them because they took no part in the priestly duties.

Only a priest (or former priest) would understand the deeper meanings within the book.

Melchizedek is a major figure within Hebrews as well, and he was from a priesthood superseding the priestly tribe of Levi (he existed before and during Abraham’s lifetime) thus minimizing their importance. Why would the writer spend so much time discussing a greater priesthood with non-priestly Jews?

In Hebrews, Jesus is called a Great High Priest and his sacrifice exalted as complete, rendering the work of the priests obsolete. Again, the average Jewish convert to Christianity would understand Jesus taking the place of the High Priest. They certainly wouldn’t require so many examples and details of how the rituals of the High Priest are no longer necessary.

The Jews didn’t possess the knowledge of the ritualistic sacrifices to compare them to how Christ had so precisely fulfilled them.

Verses 6:6 and 10:29 are better understood when seen against the backdrop of former priests who may have taken part in the death of Jesus. Former priests would have assisted politically in the crucifixion of Jesus. Most of them, instead of seeing Him for Who He was, believed He was a threat to their religion and power.

The writer also encouraged temple worship to be internal rather than external.

Two reason this would have been poignant to Jewish-priests-turned-Christ-followers:

1-These men would have given up their authority, wealth, prestige, comfort, livelihood, and homeland. The loss of the external would have been painful, but a reminder that those things were now irrelevant would have been received as encouragement.

2-The possibility of starting up sacrifices or other rituals again would have been a temptation. The direction could have been disciplinary as well.

There are many, much deeper, tracks within the Greek that can be traced to help solidify the assumption that Hebrews was written to former Jewish Priests. The best way to see this is to read it through those eyes.

Think of former priests who were forced out of their land because they turned their back on the Jewish faith. Remember they would have lost everything, including respect among their own people, the Jews, and would have needed encouragement to not return to their former lives. With this understanding, the book of Hebrews will come to life.

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