Although traditionally attributed to Paul, few scholars now believe Saint Paul wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. The author is likely to be a second-generation Greek Christian writing in the Seventh Century. His style is more polished than Paul’s and the letter reads like a sermon. The Third Century theologian Origen frankly admits, “God only knows who really wrote it!” but, whoever it was, “He is a learned man, mighty in scripture.”
The author is writing to Jewish Christians, probably in Rome (“The brothers and sisters from Italy send you their greetings” 13.24). These Christians are weakening in their faith and in danger of reverting to Judaism. For this reason the author is anxious to recall them to an understanding of the supremacy of Jesus and the superiority of the Christian faith. He makes extensive use of Old Testament scripture but reinterprets it in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus. Repeatedly, the high Priest enters the Temple sanctuary to present sacrificial offerings to God. Such sacrifices are no longer necessary. Jesus is the high priest to end all high priesthood. “He has appeared once and for all to remove sin through the sacrifice of himself.” (9.26)
Christ is the conqueror. We are on the winning side. Christians are not dualists who believe the war between good and evil has yet to be decided. We are to live as victors, confident that we journey to an eternal city. And we are encircled, as we journey, by a great cloud of witnesses (the saints). We should “run with determination the race that lies before us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end.” (12.1-2)
Much has been written about Melchizedek, the man of mystery highlighted in Chapter 7, who appears in the Old Testament book Genesis, bringing bread and wine to Abraham. Melchizedek is not a regular Levitical priest, nor has he any ancestry (very important to Jews), but he nevertheless collects a tenth of the booty Abraham had won in battle. He also gives Abraham a blessing. This is extraordinary! Melchizedek is clearly seen by the author as a Jesus figure with divine authority. What (if anything) does this mysterious figure tell us about priesthood in the Church today? This is a subject for another time!
The Letter to the Hebrews has obvious relevance for us today. As in the early Church, we see a tendency to weaken in our faith. (It is reported that many churchgoers doubt the resurrection and the likelihood of eternal life.) There is also the temptation, from which we are not immune, to slip back into cynicism and despair, into a way of thinking that the victory has notbeen won and our faith is a comforting fantasy. The writer to the Hebrews is adamant that to think like this is to betray our heritage and muddy the water for future generations. We are to stand firm and not prove faithless!