Epistle to the ‘Hebrews’ – Who were these Hebrews?


I continued to be fascinated by the Epistle to the Hebrews. I discussed the letter’s authorship and the opinion of St. Thomas Aquinas in another post.

Today, let’s look at the author’s audience. Who were these ‘Hebrews’? Obviously they were of Israelite descent, but where and when did they live. The epistle itself gives us seven hints.

1. The “Hebrews” were Septuagint readers.
First, the original audience accepted and used the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. The author’s argument repeatedly relies on the Septuagint and even depends on several unique Septuagintal renderings – especially the argument in Hebrews chapter 10 that reads: “A body you have prepared for me” in reference to the incarnation of Christ. The Hebrew Masoretic has “ears” not “body”.

[As an aside, check this post out to see how the Septuagint contains renderings that are more "Gentile friendly".]

2. The “Hebrews” had been persecuted already.
Hebrews describes them as having gone through persecution (Heb 10:32-34).

3. Their community had not recently experienced martyrdom.
Although they had been persecuted, they had not shed blood (Heb 12:4).

4. The “Hebrews” were facing an impending persecution.
Hebrews indicates that a new persecution was imminent (12:1-3; 13:12-13).

5. The “Hebrews” were metropolitan Christians.
Chapter 13 suggests that they live in a city and the temptations that they experience pertain to a city.

6. The “Hebrews” had abandoned Christian liturgy or were tempted to so.
Hebrews 10:25 suggest that some of their number no longer assembled for worship. This entails that they no longer participated in the Eucharistic liturgy of the Church. The author says that if they fail to join the assembly, they deny the sacrifice of Christ (10:26). The pressure on them not to assemble together is somehow related to the impending persecution described above since the admonition to assemble (10:25) introduces the section about the coming persecution (10:32-39).

7. The “Hebrews” have an Italian connection.
The “Hebrews” seem to be acquainted with Christian in Italy: “Those who come from Italy send you greetings” (Heb 13:24).

Tradition states that the “Hebrews” addressed in this epistle were Christian in Jerusalem in the early or middle years of the 60s. This would be around the time that the Jews of Jerusalem murdered James of Jerusalem. Paul is perhaps not the writer but the author.

That they were Septuagint readers suggests that they did not belong to the party of the Pharisees. Their temptation to abandon liturgical worship in favor of the Temple also suggests that they came from the party of the Sadducees. St. James of Jerusalem is described as having access to the Temple and this confirms the Sadducee connection of the Hebrew Christian community in Jerusalem. If Acts is written to the former High Priest and Sadducee Theophilus, then we’re really on to something. The “Hebrews” connection to Italy would be explained by the fact that all Israelites were exiled from Rome by Claudius in AD 49 and may have returned to Jerusalem.

Anybody have anything to add?

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