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I have mentioned before that I teach an adult men’s bible study class on Tuesday evenings at a local church. We went through the book of Jude and then James. We are now starting the book of Hebrews. Being an OT guy and a theology nerd (I guess you could say!) I love the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is a wonderful book for many reasons.
First, it is an anonymous work. No author is mentioned (of course, as an orthodox believer, I believe the Holy Spirit to be the ultimate author). No name given. No identification of the author to carry on his/her legacy. I have no doubt the original recipients of this letter/homily knew the author. I am sure they knew him/her right well.
Oh, that’s another thing, we are not sure who the recipients were either. They too, as the author, are anonymous. Most believe them to have been Jewish believers, but some argue for Gentiles. Or, they may have been a mix of the two. Were they in Palestine? Italy? Elsewhere? The general consensus is simply: we don’t know.
(I have written before that I am quite comfortable with these grey areas. I tend to like the we don’t knows, it reminds me of the mysterious deep we are entering when we contemplate the divine.)
None of this, of course, detracts from the spirit and message of this letter. (Really, it is more of a homily than a letter.) It speaks forcefully to us today in the twenty-first century. I am fascinated by the arguments and theories for who authored the book. Some say Paul, others Luke or Barnabas or Apollos or . . . well, it goes on and on and on.
Some may find such speculation to be a total waste of time. They may see it as a hindrance, something to, (as one put it to me), bog you down with trivial matters. While I can sympathize with this sentiment, I cannot endorse it. The argument, it doesn’t matter who wrote it, since all scripture is inspired, sounds solemnly theological; but, I find it to be somewhat wanting. Don’t misunderstand me, I affirm the orthodox view of inspiration. I wholeheartedly concur with this theological truth. However, I don’t think this minimizes the role of the human authors of scripture.
I think we can learn a great deal by knowing (where possible) about these men and women whom God used to write his holy word. I have a mantra that any student of mine has heard me say once or a million times: context, context, context. Always be sure to keep text within context. As the adage goes: text without context is pretext.
Context is many-fold. There is literary context, cultural context, historical context, socio-economic context. Knowing something about the human author, in my opinion, does not take away from the doctrine of inspiration; if anything, it adds to it!
As I like to say, the doctrine of inspiration is not the doctrine of dictation. It is not as if God sat down, say John the apostle, and said, Okay John write this. In the beginning was the Word . . . no, that is not how it happened. Instead, God used their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses, their intellect and education, their background and experiences to bring forth his written word.
Think about it this way, why did Paul write the book of Romans? Why not James or Peter? I would argue, only Paul could have written it. It fit Paul, so to speak. John wrote his gospel the way he did because it fit him, not Matthew or Mark or Luke. When you read, you can see and feel their personalities coming through their written work. At the same time of course, the Holy Spirit was active in preparing and using these individuals to write his word.
Dictation would certainly have been easier. But, God’s greatness is once again seen through the lens of the doctrine of inspiration.