Fall 2001 · Vol. 30 No. 2 · p. 231 

Current Research

Jon M. Isaak

Isaak, Jon M. “Situating the ‘Letter to the Hebrews’ in Early Christian History.” Doctor of Philosophy, Faculty of Religious Studies (Early Christian History and Literature). Montreal, PQ: McGill University, 2000. Advisor: Frederik Wisse. Current Position: Assistant Professor of New Testament, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary.

The early Christian text known as the “Letter to the Hebrews” has presented a riddle to scholarship. Its anonymity and anomalous form are puzzling. Scholars like Norman Perrin and Barnabas Lindars also find Hebrews enigmatic because it does not appear to represent the views of any early Christian community.

This thesis contends that the riddle of Hebrews’ lack of community-fit is due to a conceptual flaw. Beginning with Franz Overbeck (1882), there has been a tendency to assess early Christian texts as nonliterary, unlike later patristic texts. Deemed nonliterary, they are thereby thought to document the situation within which they were written. For Hebrews, this has resulted in numerous reconstructions of its historical setting. None, however, has proven satisfactory. This lack of consensus casts doubt on the appropriateness of ruling out Hebrews’ essential literary character. Moreover, the explanations used to justify the unique nonliterary character of early Christian literature are not compelling. Thus, the probability of Hebrews’ literary character increases.

The literary texts written by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian are more likely comparable to Hebrews. These patristic texts were produced in the late second century before the shape of orthodoxy became fixed. A survey of representative scholarly literature shows a low expectation of retrieving from these early patristic texts an unambiguous profile of the author’s ideological community, of the text’s occasion, or of its audience. Thus, it would be unwarranted to expect Hebrews to be more representative of its situation.

Given the probability of Hebrews’ literary character, the thesis demonstrates that it is inappropriate to assume that Hebrews represents ideas that extend beyond those of the author to a specific community or to a particular situation. The burden of proof is reversed. Without evidence to the contrary, Hebrews is best explained as a persuasive literary effort by an idiosyncratic author directed to a general Christian audience.

Thus, the riddle of Hebrews’ lack of community-fit dissolves. Furthermore, questions are raised regarding the contemporary scholarly expectation that other early Christian writings (Matthew, James, etc.) were shaped by and for ideologically distinct communities.