Yesterday, we talked with him about what it has been like for him to work with Gordon Fee, to follow in the footsteps of F. F. Bruce, and to interpret Hebrews as a living word for Christians today. Today, in part two of our interview, he tackles the “Well, who wrote it?” question that haunts every Hebrews commentator and highlights a few of the epistle’s unique contributions to Christian theology.
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4. What can and do we know about “The Pastor Who Wrote Hebrews” — and how has writing this commentary helped you to know him better?
Whenever anyone discovered that I was writing a commentary on Hebrews, they would inevitably say, “Well, who wrote it?” As I explain in the commentary’s introduction, I do not believe there is sufficient evidence to identify the author by name. Paul, Luke, Barnabas, and Clement of Rome were all suggested in antiquity. Martin Luther added Apollos to the list.
However, through writing this commentary I have come to know this person. He writes with deep pastoral concern for the community he is addressing. His “letter” is really a sermon sent to be read to this congregation. He is a master of ancient rhetoric who uses all of his skill to shape Hebrews so that it will impact his hearers. But he is no manipulative orator — he is a brilliant theologian, equal to any in the New Testament, one who has thought deeply about Christ and his work in priestly, sacrificial categories. It is this understanding of the unique, all-sufficient Christ that he offers his hearers as both means of and motivation for perseverance in faithfulness. Finally, his theology is firmly rooted in Scripture. He is a biblical scholar who has deep insight into how the incarnate Son of God fulfills all that the Old Testament anticipated. Moses was indeed a “witness of the things that would be spoken” (Heb 3:5) by God in his Son.
Thus, we can say that the person who penned Hebrews was concerned pastor, accomplished orator, profound theologian, and insightful Biblical scholar. Throughout this commentary, however, I have persistently called him “the Pastor,” because his oratorical skill, theology, and biblical interpretation are all in service to his deep pastoral concern for the eternal well being of his hearers. I have come to feel his pastoral heart and admire his rhetorical skill. I have been enriched by his theological understanding and informed by his biblical interpretation. Sometimes I almost feel that I know him as a friend — and yet he is also my master who has taught me much.
5. What is special about the Epistle to the Hebrews in relation to the other books of the New Testament? What unique contributions does it make to Christian theology?
Each book of the New Testament makes a unique contribution to the whole. As a result of writing this commentary I believe that the author of Hebrews was an astute theologian and interpreter of the Old Testament whose contribution is on a par with Paul in Romans or with the writer of the Gospel of John. To properly appreciate Hebrews, we only have to think of what we would lose if this work were not in our Bibles. Let me give you several examples:
- The High Priesthood of Christ. Other books hint at the priestly work of Christ and the sacrificial nature of his self-offering on the cross. Hebrews provides a profound development of these themes.
- The Pre-Existence and Incarnation of the Son of God. Hebrews shows clearly and emphatically the saving significance of both the eternal pre-existence of the Son of God and of his complete incarnation as the human Jesus.
- The Nature of Faith. Hebrews offers an understanding of faith that complements and helps to integrate what we learn from John, Paul, and James.
- Christ’s Fulfillment of the Old Testament. Hebrews is the most comprehensive development of the common New Testament assumption that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament. There is a depth and consistency to the writer’s interpretation that is worthy of emulation. Other New Testament books realize that Ps 110:1 finds its fulfillment in Christ. Only Hebrews extends this to Ps 110:4. Only Hebrews shows how Christ’s death fulfills the Day of Atonement described in Leviticus 16. Only Hebrews expounds the New Covenant passage from Jeremiah. I would argue that these three examples are part of an integrated and comprehensive approach to the Old Testament. Some, like G. B. Caird and Ronald Clements, have considered insight into the Old Testament one of Hebrews’ greatest contributions. It is not amiss to call the author of this book the first “biblical theologian.”
Whether Hebrews stands at the end of the Pauline Letters, as many in the ancient church believed, or at the head of the General Letters, as most of us would now affirm, it is the work of one of the most profound thinkers in the early Church.