Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

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24. Hebrews


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize what modern scholarship has to say regarding the historical background for Hebrews, including propositions concerning the author, audience, and date of this letter’s composition.
  • explain the contrast that Hebrews offers between Christianity and Judaism and how this fits with the overall concern of the work.
  • summarize the Christology of Hebrews with particular attention to the divinity of Christ, the humanity of Christ, and the distinctive image of Jesus as a high priest.
  • discuss the pastoral teaching of Hebrews with reference to themes of pilgrimage, rest, and enduring suffering and shame.
  • identify the problems for Christian theology posed by the statements of Hebrews regarding apostasy and indicate how theologians seek to resolve these.

Pedagogical Suggestions

If Hebrews were a lake, you could hardly toss a stone in it without hitting a citation from or reference to Jewish scriptures. For this reason, whether students are familiar with the Old Testament or not, it is useful to have them read passages from Genesis, Exodus, and Psalms so they can see how Hebrews utilizes (quotes, changes, applies, expands) the imagery from Jewish scriptures. Two exercises examine the ways in which Hebrews incorporates Old Testament imagery.

1. Moses, the Exodus, and Christ

Have students spend some time reading Exodus 12–16 and 19–20 (20–30 minutes) to familiarize themselves with the story of Moses, the rescue of God’s people from slavery in Egypt, and the people’s complaints in the wilderness under God’s care. Working in small groups (or as a whole class), ask students to identify the imagery from Exodus that appears in Hebrews. When all of the imagery is identified (the tabernacle, blood on the doorposts, murmuring in the wilderness, fire, lightning and the wrath of God, etc.), ask students to choose one passage and look more closely at how Hebrews incorporates one or two elements from Exodus. What modifications does the author make? Which details does the author keep and which are left out? Are there particular themes the author emphasizes through the choice of elements from Exodus? How does Jesus compare to Moses?

To take this a step farther (and to help students think about constructing an exegetical argument), ask each group to come up with a thesis that argues a point about the relationship between Exodus and Hebrews, or Moses and Jesus, or simply states their findings in this exercise.


Hebrews is a good test case for examining the ways in which a Christian author appropriated and shaped Jewish scriptures to interpret and explain Jesus. Here students can see the complex relationship between Judaism and Christ followers in the first century. In addition, the instructor can lead students through the steps of writing a paper—beginning with the creation of a thesis based on observations and evidence from the text. If you have more time, listen to each group’s thesis in the larger class. Ask students (or offer your own help) to hone the thesis statement of other students until they have a solid argument for an essay.

2. Melchizedek and Midrash

First century Jews had many traditional ways of interpreting their scriptures. In talking about the obscure figure Melchizedek, the author of Hebrews employs a form of interpretation called midrash. In midrash, an author takes a background detail, event, or figure and expands that one figure into an entire story unto itself. This is similar to the way actors create a “backstory” for themselves to give a convincing performance in a short appearance on screen. Actors may never share the backstory, but the author of Hebrews uses the backstory on Melchizedek to explain how Jesus can be a priest without descending from the Levitical priesthood.

In Hebrews 7, the author expands on the figure of Melchizedek in order to compare him to Jesus. Look at the original references to Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18–19 and Psalm 110:4. What does the author extrapolate about Melchizedek? Why?


How do first-century Christians read their scriptures? This exercise introduces students to modes of interpretation in Christian circles. We can compare and contrast the methods in Hebrews with those in Paul, Matthew, and Revelation. In any case, through analyzing the written texts, students learn to identify modes of interpretation. This helps us to both understand first-century Christianity and gives access to the tools needed to build analytical skills.

Discussion Prompts

  1. Which Gospel portrait of Jesus does Hebrews 5:1–10 most resemble? Why? Be sure to reference passages from the texts to defend your position.
  2. Hebrews employs many literary and rhetorical strategies. One of these is the piling up of images to explain who Jesus is and how he saves. In Hebrews 10:1–18, the author presents Jesus as both the ultimate priest and the ultimate sacrifice. How can these two images stand side by side? How can the priest be the sacrifice and vice versa? Does this passage challenge a literal reading of Hebrews? In what ways?
  3. Using the hyperlink “The First Christian Platonists?” choose a passage from Plato to distribute in class. Ask students to find the platonic imagery in Hebrews. How does this imagery function? What is the point of Plato’s Ideals and how does Hebrews use the platonic imagery to present an understanding of Jesus as “better”? Would Plato recognize Hebrews as a “platonic” text? Why or why not?
  4. Hebrews presents human trials and suffering as a way of learning and perfecting faith. Jesus perfected his faith and obedience through such suffering, and the followers of Christ are to follow Jesus’ pioneering example. Is this a masochistic text (inviting people to seek out the same kinds of suffering as Jesus)? Are there ethical problems with encouraging suffering or even glorifying such a “discipline” as 12:7–11 depicts it? Does Hebrews successfully balance the view of God as parental disciplinarian with a view of God’s compassion, or does the author go too far?