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25 NOVEMBER 2008
Hebrews stands apart as a unique text in the New Testament addressing a specific

historical issue to which we as later readers are not able to fully pin down or understand.

The implied geography, makeup of community initially being addressed and date of

composition are all variables that cannot firmly be grasped from the text or the received

tradition. So, we are left to reconstruct the historical situation as best as we can with only

the document of Hebrews itself. Interestingly, the historical situation being addressed by

the author of Hebrews gives the text a unique flavor compared to the rest of the New

Testament. Common New Testament themes such as faith and sacrifice are covered, but

their treatment gives the impression that the author knew very little of figures such as

Paul or early movements underway in the first century Jesus movement. The overall

“high Christology” of Hebrews is also a unique feature of the text that has historically

given the book a spotlight and caused its status within the canon and traditional

authorship ascribed to Paul to be debated (and in the case of authorship rejected).

Nevertheless, this reliance solely on the text of Hebrews does offer interesting

conclusions about the actual dating of the text. In this paper, I propose a pre-Temple

Destruction composition of the book based on the practical nature of the argument being

presented by the author to address a very real and very local theological situation.

First, we’ll look at the distinctiveness of theology in Hebrews and how the book

stands apart from the New Testament because of this specific historical situation that we

know so little about. Initially, it is easy to assume that the audience is neither Pauline nor

Johannine in makeup or influence. Similarly, the intended audience also does not belong

to the mother church in Jerusalem.1 Instead, the theology and argument of the text is a
Barnabas Lindars SSF, The Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews, ed.
very practical response to an urgent historical situation.2 This practical nature involves an

emphasis on “primitive kerygma,”3 but also is aimed at members of the specific

community being addressed to demonstrate the dangers and shortfalls of returning to the

practices and liturgies of the Judaism (out of which this community evidently evolved)

for their needs regarding a notion of atonement. This practical argument is based heavily

on a rhetoric of persuasion for the right action of remaining within the confines of a faith

in Christ as the sole arbiter and insurance of atonement using common themes, texts and

allusions that only an audience heavily steeped in Jewish traditions would fully grasp.

Given that the text is so practical in its main thrust, it is reasonable to assume that this

pervasive “Jewishness” (or perhaps better described as anti-Jewishness) points to an

intended audience grappling with the question of adequate atonement. In this scheme,

the intended audience is tempted to take a course of action, which is inconsistent with the

gospel which they originally received.4 Therefore, the Christology of Hebrews is

intensely “high” in its appropriation of the figure of Jesus for the majority of the book.

The reason for this is that the atonement question, for the author of Hebrews, lies at the

very axis of the Christian faith and that explains the impassioned rhetoric being employed

to make the case that Christ’s one sacrifice provides sufficient atonement now and forever

to those waiting on the arrival of parousia. This emphasis is made throughout the book

with the remarkable number of allusions and connections between traditional sacrifices

and atonement themes in Jewish tradition with the act (and superseding function) of

Christ. The central argument of the letter is to offer a compelling case for the complete

James Dunn (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1991), 2.

Ibid, 26.
Ibid, 9.
and abiding efficacy of Jesus’ death as a permanent atoning sacrifice that forever satiates

the need for atonement from sin in a post-baptismal and pre-parousia experience.

With this focus and compelling argument regarding what seems to be a

community on the verge of readopting some or all of their Jewish heritage and traditions

to placate the need for atonement in the growing and unexpected length of time before

the return of Christ and after the baptismal events of individuals within the community,

the author of Hebrews frames the central question of the book. This question is why has

the intended audience lost confidence in the power of the sacrifice of Christ to deal with

their consciousness of sin?5 To understand more about this question, we can turn to a

place where there is convergence between Hebrews and another instance of a historical

situation being addressed by a concerned elder or leader on the basis of the community’s

growing and evolving needs due to a period of extended waiting for the return of Christ.

1 Thessalonians 4:13 has Paul addressing the community at Thessolonica over their

concerns about members of the community who have died (and others who continue to

do so) event though it seems they were assured that the second coming would happen in

this generation:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about

those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no
hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through
Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to
you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the
coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For
the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and
with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead
in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught
up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we
will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these

Ibid, 12.
Lindars makes this interesting connection with Paul and frames the connection

with the notion of a realized eschatology that is awaiting the imminent return of Christ to

fully establish the Kingdom of God here on earth. In the specific case of the Hebrews’

community, the question is over the very real and practical concern of atonement for sins

that occur post baptismal yet pre-parousia. This framing is important for the construction

of an early dating of Hebrews because the practicality of the message being conveyed is

framed not only with the author’s concern over the question of community members

relapsing6 into Judaism or its rituals, but also is framed by a steady reliance on a realized

eschatology that, while evolving its urgency, is still awaiting the imminent arrival of


Some of this early eschatological impetus can be observed in Hebrews 1:1-2:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the
prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he
appointed the heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.

As well, we see hints of this eschatological urging so characteristic of mid-first century

Jesus movement in 9:26:

…for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the
foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the
end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.

This sort of eschatological urgency is frequently found in the letters of Paul as he is

writing in the 50’s and 60’s. However, this eschatological urgency loses steam as a prime

I use the term “relapsing” a few times in this paper to denote the
attitude of the author of Hebrews. In my own opinion, this term, when
applied to the supersessionist argument presented in Hebrews, does
violence to both Judaism and Christianity in the modern context.
Therefore, modern readers are urged to remember the historical and
practical nature of this book and what the author seems to be arguing
against rather than seeking to use this text as a proof-text for
disgusting anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish rhetoric.
motivator of theology or community association after the destruction of the Temple in 70

and into the closing decades of the first century as the first and second generation of Jesus

followers die off and are replaced by younger (and predominantly more gentile in overall

composition outside of Palestine) followers who begin to set up structures and hierarchies

to meet the needs of Christian communities scattered around the Mediterranean basin. It

makes little sense for such a practical and historical situation being addressed and

passionately argued against (again, relapsing into Judaism) to include an over-

spiritualized and non-realistic portrayal of the eschatological expectation. Instead, the

author of Hebrews is passionately reminding the community of the very real need to not

turn back to Judaism’s rituals of atonement sacrifices, as they grow impatient waiting for

the return of Jesus in the mid-first century. The parallels to Paul and Thessolonica here

cannot simply be avoided with over-spiritualization.

Similarly, one of the main thrusts of the author’s arguments against returning to

Judaism is the assertion that Jesus has become the great high priest who supersedes all

other mortal high priests because a) his sacrifice was perfect and has eternal qualities that

cannot be replicated by mortal high priests in the Temple who must perform the sacrifices

over and over (to which the author has great delight in pointing out) and b) Jesus as high

priest does not need to make satiation for his own sins as mortal high priests do because

he is sinless and blameless. Again, in the context of such an overwhelmingly historical

and practical local issue, why would the author shift such a persuasive argument based on

practical community needs to over-spiritualized and non-realistic concepts such as a high

priest? The office of the high priest was abandoned with the destruction of the Temple in

70 CE, so if Hebrews is a composition that is written after 70, this main theme of Jesus as
the high priest must have been written with an overtly spiritualized mindset. However,

that dating and that interpretation of Jesus as the high priest fails to be corroborated with

the evidence presented from the text in terms of its practical notions and from specific

passages that speak of the high priests and their actions in a very real and corporeal sense.

One such passage is 5:1-4:

Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things
pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He
is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is
subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his
own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to
take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

Clearly, the address here is in the present tense. The author is not making an argument

about the high priests of the past or their actions in a way that would lead one to infer that

this office has been abandoned.

Perhaps most telling, this connecting of Jesus with the office of high priest only

occurs in the book of Hebrews. If the author is indeed following the line of practical

argument setting up Jesus’ sacrifice and function as being superior to that of Judaism and

its rituals, why invoke the office of high priest if the office does not exist anymore? Why

go through so much trouble to make Jesus the greatest high priest if there is no

competition? How would that serve the general argument of the book? It would not,

because the book is composed at a time when the office of the high priest is still very real,

very functioning and very competitive with the evolving personhood of Jesus. Lindars

alludes to this possibility in his section on the sacrifice of Jesus when he off-handedly

(and temptingly) notes: “We may note in passing that these verses support the idea that

the temple was still operative when Hebrews was writing.”7

Ibid, 87.
When taken as a whole, the book of Hebrews is a stirring and very practical

rhetorical argument for the supremacy of Jesus over the rituals and traditions of Judaism

on the question of atonement. The central question being addressed by the author is

whether or not community members should fall back to these Jewish rituals and traditions

in order to find atonement for sin in a post-baptismal and pre-parousia experience. This

important bracketing gives us clues as to the date of composition of this book and allows

us to construct a dating that is pre-70 and much more in line with the eschatological

urgency of Paul and the first to early second generation of Jesus followers rather than the

more established and less urgent christologies and soteriologies that were developing near

the end of the first century. That eschatological subtext combined with the present-tense

notion of the office of high priest and the community’s in-depth familiarity with the non-

pedestrian terms, rituals and offices of Judaism covered in the book make a strong case

for a dating of this work somewhere in the late 50’s to late 60’s rather than post-70 as has

been generally assumed.