(III) The Theme of Hebrews
In addition to presenting Jesus Christ as fully divine and fully human, the Bible also presents him in terms of his threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. The Epistle to the Hebrews focuses chiefly on Jesus' priestly ministry.
The Epistle describes Jesus as our "great high priest" who ministers not in an earthly temple or sanctuary, but in Heaven (Heb. 4:14). This is perhaps one of the most radical teachings of the New Testament. The letter to the Hebrews seems to have been written to a congregation of Messianic Jews, possible living in 'Eretz Yisrael, who are reminded that the believers in Jesus the Messiah have a share in an altar to which their contemporary levitical priests have no share (Heb. 13:10), who need to be encouraged by the examples of the Patriarchs and Moses who were uprooted from the places where they had been born (Heb. 11:8-19), and who seem to be about to be sent "without the camp" (13:13). Given that the Epistle gives no hint that the Second Temple had been destroyed, it is likely that its addressees were had been accustomed to access to the Temple but were now being cut off from that former fellowship. Hence, a congregation of Jewish Christians in or near Jerusalem during the 60's of the first century seems the most likely audience.
Today, it is easy for us to lose sight of what a wrenching experience this would have been for a group of first century Jews. The function of a modern Jewish rabbi (who is generally not of priestly descent) is radically different from that of the Kohen of biblical times. Whereas modern and Rabbinical Judaism stresses ethical action, that of Moses laid great stress on sacrificial rituals of atonement. This is the burden of much of Exodus and Leviticus. The needs of this cult called forth the building of the original Israelite sanctuary at Shiloh, and then, under Solomon, the building of the first temple. The Second Temple, rebuilt after the Babylonian exile and greatly expanded under Herod the Great, was the spiritual center of the Jewish world. It remained the place of atonement, and the focus of pilgrimage by Jews from all over the world. To be denied a share in its cult would thus have been tantamount to being cut off from the Jewish people.
Hence, the writer to the Hebrews seeks to re-assure his hearers that they are gathered about the Messiah himself; and that this Messiah is a priest.
But how can one who is of the kingly lineage of Judah serve as a priest? Is not the priesthood given to Aaron, the brother of Moses, and descendant of Levi? The writer to the Hebrews thus goes to some length to note how Jesus could be a priest, even though he was of the kingly tribe of Judah rather than that of Levi, by comparing him to the mysterious Melchizedek of Genesis, to whom Abraham offered a tithe long before either Levi or Judah had been born. He then goes on to remind the readers of how the Levitical rituals were performed, and of the design of the Temple.
But where is the sacrifice Jesus offers? He offered himself once and for all, and then sat down at the right hand of God the Father (Heb. 1:3, 10:12). This is spoken of as the purging of our sins, and a sacrifice for our sins in language reminiscent of the book of Leviticus.Hebrews 9 speaks of how the priests of old sprinkled the sacrificial blood of bulls and goats for the purifying of men and things; then noting "How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" (9:14).
Jesus' sacrifice of himself on the cross is likened to the High Priest's annual entry into the Holy of Holies, which occurred on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. However, whereas the High Priest needed to continually offer sacrifices, Jesus' sacrifice was a unique, one-time event, and complete. This sacrifice of Jesus is the very thing on which the believer may stake his soul.
Hence, for those who follow Jesus and enjoy the fruits of his atoning work, being sent "without the camp" can be borne. The believers may have been cut off from their older fellowship, but they are now pilgrims, as were Abraham and the patriarchs, en route to the City of God (Heb. 11:10). As for the sacrifice of Jesus in which they have trusted, it is complete, final, and in no need of repetition. Hence,while on earth, these exiles and wanderers outside the camp are
in fact worshiping in the heavenly Jerusalem above.
This theme is not alien to the rest of the New Testament. Paul often speaks of the reconciliation of sinners with God through Jesus' death on the cross. Peter speaks most clearly of substitutionary atonement when he notes that Jesus' death is that of the just for the unjust to bring us to God (I Pt. 3:18), and in bearing our sins in his own body on the tree (I Pet. 2:24). Jesus himself speaks of how he has come to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45). Perhaps the uniqueness of Hebrews, though, lies in it comparison between Jesus and the High Priest.
(IV) Barnabas the Levite
Perhaps, then, the priestly theme in Hebrews suggests that the author was either a priest or Levite himself. Clearly, the author was familiar with the Old Testament, especially its sacrificial ritual. This ritual informs the bulk of his work.
Acts mentions that a number of priests became believers (6:7). Yet little more is said of this group of men. Certainly no name from among them stands out; although it would not be surprising if some went on to proclaim Jesus following the persecution following the stoning of Stephen.
Yet one man of the tribe of Levi, of which the kohanim were a subgroup, does stand out. This is Joses Barnabas (Joseph Bar Naba), a Levite of Cyprus (Ac.4:36). Apparently, he had settled in Jerusalem, where he joined the church.
Luke tells us in the Acts that the apostles themselves named Joses Barnabas, meaning "son of consolation" or "son of encouragement" (Bar Naba). The name is also connected to the Hebrew and Aramaic word for prophecy. Barnabas is also identified as the maternal uncle to Mark (Col. 4:10), who in turn was so close to Simon Peter to be called the latter's "son" (I Pt. 5:13).
Barnabas became one whom the apostles sent out to proclaim the Gospel and to visit new churches established in Cyprus, Phonecia, and Antioch (Ac. 11:19-26). He is there when the believers in Jesus were first called "Christians", and introduces the newly converted Saul of Tarsus, later to be known as Paul, to the original apostles.
(V) Similarities Between the Author to the Hebrews and Barnabas
Barnabas' Levitical background and closeness to the apostles makes him a good candidate for the authorship of Hebrews. But, more importantly, his rare position as a "second generation" Christian and closeness to both the Jerusalem apostles and to Paul make him a good candidate for authorship of a book or written sermon that while not strictly apostolic, nonetheless was accepted as New Testament Scripture.
Contrary to popular belief, the formation of the New Testament canon was not a late, once-for-all act of the Council of Nicaea or other ecclesiastical council of the early Christian centuries. The canonization of the New Testament (the Old had been received complete from Judaism) was an obscure process that begins with the apostles themselves, and was more a matter of exclusion than inclusion. The chief canon for acceptance of a New Testament book was its apostolic authorship was, apart from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, apostolicity, or coming from an apostle. None among either the early church fathers or their heretical and semi-heretical opponents expressed any doubt about the genuineness of the Four Gospels, Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, James, First Peter, or First John. Questions were raised about several shorter epistles, and, most notably, Hebrews and Revelation. There was also some discussion about The Shepherd of Hermas; and the letters of Clement were accepted in some circles as canonical down to the fourth century (1). The Epistle of Barnabas that appears in collections of post-New Testament Christian writings appears to have gained currency in some circles during the second century; the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, of which much is made by the Jesus Seminar and its mass media shills, also appears to be of second century provenance,and remained lost until the dry Egyptian climate allowed it to be rediscovered by modern archaeologists (2).
Perhaps someone might raise the question of why Luke-Acts and Mark were included, since their authors were not apostles. The reason is that Mark was known to be closely associated with Peter, while Luke was closely associated with Paul. This close association with one or more apostles may hold the key to the question of why the letter to the Hebrews could be treated like Scripture as early as the late 60's of the first century by Clement of Rome, whose First Letter is perhaps the oldest Christian writing from outside the New Testament.
In Hebrews 2:3-4, the author of Hebrews describes himself as hearing the Gospel from those who heard it from the Lord, and notes that those first hearers received divine attestation through the signs and wonders they wrought--the "signs of an apostle" which Paul mentions in Second Corinthians 12:12. This position of "second generation" believer who witnessed apostolic signs and wonders by no means excludes people like Luke or Apollos, yet it would certainly include someone like Barnabas.
A further indication that Barnabas may have been the author of Hebrews lies in its language. The Greek of Hebrews is elegant and polished, which was one of the arguments raised since ancient times against its Pauline authorship. Like that of Luke-Acts, it approximates the educated standards of Hellenistic and Roman times. This is one reason why Luke, in collaboration with Paul, has also been put forward as a possible author for Hebrews.
Some have questioned whether a priest or Levite would write in educated Greek. Yet the history of the Jews in the last three centuries before Christ and the evidence of the New Testament itself answers this objection, showing that a Jewish education in the Greek language was entirely within the range of possibilities for many people in the first century.
Since the conquest of the Middle East by Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C., Greek had become the lingua franca of all lands around the Mediterranean, and was known as far afield as the Punjab and the Pamirs by persons of many ethnicities. The city of Alexandria in Egypt was the center of a widespread Greek-speaking Jewish diaspora. The book of Acts speaks of synagogues of Alexandrians, Cyrenians, and Cilicians in Jerusalem, doubtlessly founded by Greek-speaking Jews who had moved to Jerusalem from primarily Greek-speaking lands. Even persons born in Judaea and Galilee often bore Greek names, as those of the apostles Andrew and Philip attest, as well as that of the Rabbinical sage Antigonus of Socho, whose pupil Tzadok is seen in Rabbinical literature as the founder of the Sadducaean sect.
The Jews of the Mediterranean world--including, apparently, some in 'Eretz Yisrael itself--took to the Greek language to the point where the Scriptures had to be translated into that language. The Septuagint, so-named because it was traditionally ascribed to seventy scholars assembled by King Ptolemy Philadelphos at Alexandria in 200 B.C., while uneven in quality as a translation, has many parts that reveal both
a high degree of skill and a sensitivity to the Hebrew from which it
was translated. This indicates that by the time it was produced, there
were sufficient numbers of Jews who both required its production and who
possessed the necessary linguistic and exegetical skills to produce
it. This work both instructed synagogues and informed inquiring Gentiles for several centuries. Throughout the New Testament, when the Old is cited, it is usually in the Septuagint version. In Hebrews, virtually all Scriptural citations are from that version. The Septuagint became the official Bible of Mediterranean Christians early, and its use by this community caused non-Christian Jews to abandon the Septuagint in favor of later versions by Theodotion and Symmachus.
If Barnabas was indeed the author of Hebrews, he would not have been the only Jewish author to fluently master the Greek language. Apart from the other authors of the New Testament, other Jewish writers who used Greek included the philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the historian Flavius Josephus, Jason of Cyrene who chronicled the history of the Maccabbees, and Ezekiel the Tragedian. His birth and upbringing in Cyprus would have increased the likelihood that he had a greater familiarity with Greek than with either Aramaic or Hebrew, and would increase the likelihood that his biblical education featured the Septuagint.
The author of Hebrews must have had a close association with the Apostle Paul; and, once again, Barnabas fits. The ascription of Hebrews to Paul stems from the clear affinities between its teachings and that of Paul, noted even by ancient writers who challenged its Pauline authorship. The argument against Pauline authorship stresses that the author of Hebrews admits he received the Gospel from those who had heard Christ rather than through revelation (Heb. 2:3-4, comp. Gal. 1:11-12), and notes signs and wonders as attestation to that earlier group of the Lord's hearers, rather than claiming such works for himself, a clear contrast to Paul's claim of having exhibited the miraculous "signs of an apostle" (II Cor. 12:12). The evidence of another of Paul's associates, Clement of Rome, has been cited above.
This admittedly does not rule out Apollos, the Alexandrian Jew instructed by Paul at Ephesus, whom Martin Luther put forth as a possible author for Hebrews. Adolf von Harnack's suggestion that Priscilla was the author cannot be completely ruled out either, although the linguistic usages of the book more strongly suggest a male author. Barnabas is more likely chiefly because of the book's use of Temple ritual to illustrate the atoning work of Christ.
But, there is perhaps one other witness to possible authorship by Barnabas, and that is the second century work that bears his name--and has also been recognized as pseudepigrapha from ancient times.
Hebrews compares the finished work of Jesus Christ to the Temple rituals followed prior to Jesus' coming. The later so-called "Barnabas" stresses "two ways", that contrast Christianity and Judaism, stressing the superiority of the former, for a time when the two faiths had become increasingly distinct. Perhaps this self-conscious making explicit some themes that are implicit in Hebrews and then ascribing them to the first century associate of Paul could reflect and earlier tradition that Hebrews is Barnabas' work--which was explicitly stated by the African church father Tertullian shortly after the pseudepigraphal Barnabas appeared.
Granted, the identification of Barnabas as author of Hebrews is at best a possible conjecture based on the epistle's use of levitical ritual as a tpe of Christ's work, knowledge of Scripture, mastery of Greek, and likely association with Paul--all of which suggest the Hellenistic Levite Joses Barnabas of Cyprus. Admittedly, it answers a question that cannot be answered save by God Himself, as many others have noted. Yet the possibility that Barnabas wrote Hebrews is a defensible position, and should be kept open for all who value the New Testament.
(1) The possibility that some regarded Clement as canonical is chiefly attested to its inclusion in certain ancient codices of the Bible. Yet some caution should be exercised here. Other medieval codices, dating from times when the canon was set and unquestioned, may also hold other non-biblical material. What will later archaeologists think of English-speaking Christians' canon when they find tattered copies of the Authorized Version bearing the Epistle Dedicatory to King James? Will they argue that the question of canon was not settled by the 17th century? I have seen Korean believers with their Bibles and hymnals bound as a single volume. Will our hypothetical future archaeologists wonder if a certain collection of Korean hymns was also a latter-day inspired Psalter?
(2) While some make much of "lost books of the Bible" and charge church leaders of times past with "suppressing" these works, the fact is that such "lost books" were never truly "lost"; and many were respected as orthodox rather than condemned. Some, such as the letters of Clement, were known, read, and preserved by literate Christians from the time they were first penned. Some, like the writings of Papias, and associate of John the apostle, seem to have been lost by accident, save for fragments preserved by later authors. Many of these books were always valued highly by orthodox believers, yet never granted the same regard as the apostolic writings that became the New Testament. Hence, something like the Shepherd of Hermas was probably originally seen as an edifying novel, much as highly biblicist heirs of the Puritans honor Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. A work like the letters of Clement, Polycarp, or Papias would be honored the way modern Christians might respect the theological or ethical works of modern authors. Some, like various apocryphal and pseudepigraphical Gospels, Acts, and epistles of the second and third centuries were always recognized for what they were, and, in the words of F.F. Bruce "excluded themselves".