The Good Book Club

Ritual Realized, Covenant Fulfilled: Hebrews
The Good Book Club, Fall 2021

From Sept. 1 through Oct. 24, our Good Book Club will read the New Testament letters of James, Peter, John, and Jude. In Sunday-morning readings and Bible studies, we don’t hear much about these letters. As an interpreter of From October 25 through November 27, the Good Book Club will be reading through the Letter to the Hebrews. This letter contains many of the most memorable and comforting passages of Scripture in the New Testament (“let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” “we have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul,” “let us approach the throne of grace with boldness,” and many others!), but we don’t often read the letter as a whole. It can be quite dense at times, digging into the Scripture of the Old Testament and making strong cases about the nature and authority of Jesus Christ, but it is also a deeply pastoral letter, encouraging its readers to persevere, lift one another up, and remember their faith in Christ even through difficult circumstances. I hope you will join us for this journey through Hebrews! Each day, you will receive a text or email with a brief summary of the reading, along with a link to that day’s verses. To sign up for the Good Book Club, email Alice Whitson.  

Here’s a complete list of the daily readings with links to the text.

Hebrews 

“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 heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” – Hebrews 1:1-2 

These opening words of the book we know as “Hebrews” serve as perfect summary of the vast, dense, and often forceful text that follows. The author masterfully weaves many stories from what we know as the Old Testament together to show God’s steadfast grace and mercy, examples of human faithfulness during difficult circumstances, and how in Christ we have the perfect prophet, priest, and king.  

Author: This letter (or more likely sermon or series of sermons) is left anonymous by its author. Although attributed by some to Paul, Christians as far back as the 3rd century have recognized its theology, writing style, word choice, and overall substance are quite different than that of the letters of Paul. I find it best to agree with 3rd c. theologian Origen when he states, “only God knows the author of Hebrews!” 

Date: The work we call “Hebrews” was probably written between 60-95 CE, around 30-60 years after the death and resurrection of Christ. This was a violent and chaotic time to be under Roman rule. Followers of Christ were beginning to experience persecution for their new faith due to their unwillingness to make sacrifices to the Roman gods or participate in other aspects of Roman civil life. The entirety of Jerusalem was also sieged and destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, following many years of brutal warfare. This overwhelming display of the Roman’s power and brutality would have sent shockwaves through the entire conquered world, most especially Jews and new Gentile followers of Christ.  

Audience: Just as the author does not identify themselves, the audience is similarly unidentified. It has been long assumed that the intended audience were those deeply familiar with Judaism and the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament), and therefore, we refer to it as the “Letter to the Hebrews”. Whether the intended audience was made up of Jewish Christians, or Gentile Christians with a great knowledge of Judaism (which would not have been uncommon), we do not know. What we can know with certainty, based on the contents of Hebrews, is that this time of chaos and uncertainty seems to have been causing many to abandon their faith in Jesus Christ and abandon their communities of believers (Hebrews 10:25). The author implores them, alternating between words of warning and words of comfort, to carry on and “run with perseverance” the race set before them (Hebrews 12:1), even if that means enduring suffering and persecution, for the sake of their faith. 

Themes & Substance: Hebrews is a dense text, and it is often hard to get through, especially if we are attempting to read quickly or in large chunks. It quotes extensively from the Hebrew Scriptures, what we refer to as the Old Testament, and offers intricate and detailed interpretations of those texts. Hebrews recounts the stories and laws of the Old Testament to a greater degree than any other New Testament book, but also attends to the classical culture, literary style, and dynamics of the wider Greco-Roman world more carefully than any other book in the New Testament. One of the most important aspects about Hebrews, to the early Church and to the Church today, is the attention it pays to Jesus as fully human, and yet fully divine. The author wrestles with these two realities of Jesus: as the Son of God, as above the angels, as present in Creation, and yet as a human who lived and suffered just as we do. Notice, also, the great emphasis placed on community by the author. In speaking to an audience clearly experiencing difficult circumstances, one central prescription the author gives is to stay close with one another and encourage one another.  

A Warning: Hebrews has been used since the early days of the Church to denigrate the Jewish religion and claim superiority over it. This is an improper, incorrect, and dangerous interpretation of this text. Hebrews has clear reverence for the ancestors of the Hebrew faith—like Abraham, Moses, Aaron, and others—and lifts them up as examples of following God and trusting even through difficult circumstances. Hebrews never argues that Judaism is bad and Jesus is good, but instead that the good things God has given from the beginning are made complete and perfect through Christ, and that the God we see revealed through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ is consistent with the God we have seen revealed through the whole of Scripture.  

Alice Whitson
Adult Formation Coordinator 

P.S. In case you are looking to take a really deep dive, one of my favorite professors from seminary Dr. Brennan Breed (an Episcopalian!) recently made a series of videos interviewing scholars about their work on Hebrews. I thoroughly enjoyed these interviews, and I think you might as well!