1. The Number of Books in the Bible
If I were to ask you how many books there are in the Bible, what would you tell me? Of course, some might tell me that we have 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. 66 in all. But if I were to tell you that not everyone believes that. And that some Christian churches have more books, whilst others have less. What would you say?
Now it shouldn’t be a surprise that in a world of disagreements and varying opinions—even in the church—that there is no universal agreement to the number of books in the Bible. There never has been, and there probably never will be.
As a consequence, the number of books in the Old Testament varies considerably according to the different traditions. Some have extra books that we know as the Apocrypha. Others have other books besides. Nevertheless most (not all) have the 39 books that we consider canonical.
And the New Testament? Well over the years some of the works of the Apostolic Fathers have been considered to be part of the New Testament. But these days the Syriac version has only 22 books, because it excludes 2 John, 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude and Revelation. And the traditional German Lutheran Bible … whilst it still has all 27 books, it has relegated Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation to the back, because the great 16th century reformer Martin Luther considered them to be of lesser quality that the rest of the New Testament.
When we look at the Bible that we use today, then, we need to remember that the book we are so familiar is principally the Protestant version of the Bible. And it’s a Bible that, with odd exceptions, has been reduced down to its bare bones—to only the books necessary on which one should hang one’s faith. But even then it includes some material that over the centuries has been deemed to be questionable.
2. The Letter to the Hebrews
Now you’re probably thinking at this point, “Where’s Brian going with all this? What’s the point?”
Well it’s my job, today, to introduce you to one of the books of the New Testament – The Letter to the Hebrews. And, as it happens, The Letter to the Hebrews is one of those books that has been considered by some to be questionable. And as we are going to be studying Hebrews over the next few weeks, what I want to do is to give you an overview, so that you can decide whether the letter should be in the New Testament or not. And indeed whether we can depend on the contents of the letter in regards to matters of faith.
B. “THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS”
1. What is the “Letter”?
And I’m going to start with the question, “What is the Letter to the Hebrews?” Now that might seem like an odd question, except for the fact that it doesn’t start like a letter at all. There is no traditional introduction. There is no this is a letter from “x” to “y” as was the traditional way of addressing letters of the day. No, the letter simply launches into what seems like a treatise or discussion. It then continues as a sermon. And only at the end does it finish with the traditional greetings and benediction and claim that it’s a short letter. Which would suggest that at least the introduction to the letter is missing.
So is it a treatise, a sermon or a letter? Well it’s a bit of everything really. But clearly sent as a letter. And in regards to the title “The Letter to the Hebrews” … We need to remember that this was not its original title. It probably didn’t have one. The title is not part of the original letter – and indeed is probably a second century addition.
2. Who Wrote It?
So, if the Hebrews is a letter, the next question is “Who wrote it?” Well the sad thing is that we don’t know. We know from one Greek verb in the whole letter, that the author was male. But apart from that the author is a mystery.
In the early church, copies of Paul’s letters were stitched together and circulated around the churches – as having good value for teaching. And the letter to the Hebrews was often attached at the back. And that’s why an early view of the church was that the letter was written by Paul. It was also probably how the letter got into the pages of the New Testament.
However over the centuries many scholars have considered the Greek text of the letter to be the most polished book in the New Testament, and have consequently dismissed the idea of Paul being the author. So instead, the theory that Barnabas was the author came about—probably because he was a Jew, and he was known as a great encourager.
However in the 16th century all that changed, and Apollos became the favourite. And that was probably because he was noted for his intellectual and oratorical skills.
So who wrote it? We have no idea. It is all pure speculation. But from the content, it was written about 64AD, and it was written by someone who had a good background in the Hebrew scriptures.
Now sadly we don’t know who it was written to either. What we do know, is that the writer knew his audience well enough for the letter to end with specific comments directed at his recipients, indicating that the letter was written to a specific community. And because of the heavy use of Old Testament concepts and scriptures, it was written to a congregation steeped in the Jewish faith.
3. What Does it Say?
Now at this point you’re probably saying to yourself, “No wonder the veracity of The Letter to the Hebrews has been questioned. No wonder some have suggested that the letter be removed from the pages of the New Testament.”
But if we were to take that line, how many other books of the Bible are there where we don’t know the author, or why the book was written? So before we grab our Bibles and tear out the letter to the Hebrews, let’s consider what it has to say. Because surely the most important thing, is whether the message of The Letter to the Hebrews is consistent with the rest of the Bible.
So what is the letter all about? Well at the very basics, the Letter is quite simple really. Principally, it takes great respect for the Old Testament—for the old covenant, God’s laws, and the sacrificial system—and it compares them with the person and work of Jesus Christ.
a). A new revelation (1:1-4)
It begins by talking about how God communicates with his people. In the past it had been through his prophets. But now he talks to the people through his son. And it then talks about how superior God’s son is to all that had gone in the past. Particularly following his death, resurrection and ascension. All good biblical teaching.
b). The superiority of Christ:
It then advocates the superiority of Christ over the angels. Indeed, it notes who worships who.
It advocates the superiority of Christ over Moses. Moses being a faithful servant in God’s house. But Jesus being a faithful son over God’s house
And it advocates the superiority of Christ over the priests of the Tabernacle and Temple. Not an earthly priest, but a heavenly priest, in a different order as described by King David in Psalm 110. Still all good biblical stuff.
c). The Superior work of Christ, the High Priest (9:11-15)
And then it compares the Christ, the great High Priest, with the high priest of the Old Testament sacrificial system.
It compares the earthly tabernacle in which the high priest entered the Most Holy Place once a year, with heaven itself. It compares the sacrifices of bulls, and sheep and goats with the sacrifice of Jesus. And it compares the covenant on Mount Sinai—with its requirement to observe God’s laws—with the new covenant. A covenant where Christ is the mediator to set people free from sins committed under the old covenant.
d). Encouragement to persevere in the faith (12:1-3)
And as the people being addressed were clearly wavering from the new covenant, back to the old, the letter encourages the people to stick with the faith. To throw off anything that hinders and was inclined to tie the people up in knots. And to join in the race, with eyes firmly fixed on Jesus.
e). Exhortations (13:1-25)
Then having delivered his message, the author concludes with a few exhortations, and some personal comments.
Now leaving the issues of “what is it?” and “who wrote it?” aside—common enough issues in the bible—it seems to me that the Letter to the Hebrews fits perfectly within the pages of the New Testament. The language may be far more polished than that of Paul, or anyone else who has contributed to the New Testament. And for sure the question of what exactly is it, is still open for debate. Yet the content itself is very consistent with the ideas expressed in the pages of the Bible.
So should we tear the book out of our Bibles, or even relegate the letter to the back, as being inferior? I don’t think so. I think it fits perfectly well, exactly where it is.
But if that is true, then what can we learn, from the Letter to the Hebrews? Well over the coming weeks we will be taken through the letter in great detail. But even from the perspective of an overview I would suggest that there are at least two important issues that we can we learn from the letter.
1. The Place of the Old Testament
And the first, I believe, is the place of the Old Testament within our New Testament belief. And I say that, because one of the things that the letter does well is to remind us that the events of the New Testament did not happen in isolation.
After all, the Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus’s day. And he was born because of the failure of God’s people to respond appropriately to the old covenant, the laws and the sacrificial system which were intended to point the way.
Now it’s all very well saying that what Jesus did was superior to what had gone on in the past. But if we don’t have a base for that comparison then it’s very easy to lose its meaning. Indeed ignore the Old Testament, and the comparison becomes meaningless.
It’s a bit like the adverts you see on television. You know that ones that claim their brand is superior. But they don’t actually tell you what it’s superior to. It’s a meaningless statement. And so is saying that Jesus is superior to everything before him, if you don’t have that base for comparison.
And that’s what the Letter to the Hebrews is so good at. And with a good understanding of the Old Testament—particularly the covenant, God’s laws and the sacrificial system—we can have a far better appreciation of what Jesus actually did.
The Letter to the Hebrews, then, is a reminder of the importance of the Old Testament in a New Testament faith. And it shouldn’t be ignored simply because it’s too hard, or old hat, or because we think it’s been replaced.
2. The Place of the Old Covenant
And the second thing that the letter to the Hebrews does is to place the old covenant within our new covenant faith.
Now again that might seem an odd thing to say, but another thing that The Letter to the Hebrews is good at is not to dismiss the old covenant because it was somehow faulty or defective, as though God had somehow made a mistake in the past. No, the letter acknowledges the value of the old covenant, but within the context of Christ’s superior work.
In regards to the old covenant, there is a progression described in the pages of the Old Testament. It begins with God’s covenant with Abraham, a covenant that was renewed with Isaac and Jacob. It is then expanded, and becomes more elaborate at Mount Sinai—when the laws were given to the people to guide them on the right path, and a formalised sacrificial system was introduced. A system which included sin and guilt offerings—to deal with issues when the people went astray. And a system that anticipated a final stage, spoken about by the prophets, particularly Jeremiah (chapter 31) and Ezekiel (chapters 36 & 37), where the emphasis would be on a covenant written on the heart. And it is to this scenario that Jesus was born.
What the Letter to the Hebrews does, then, is to remind us of the value of the old covenant, and to place the work of Jesus within that context.
But there was nothing wrong with old covenant. It wasn’t faulty or defective. God hadn’t made a mistake. It wasn’t God’s laws that were the problem. It was what people did with them—that was the problem. And that is why the final stage needed to be brought in.
In other words, Jesus came to fulfil the old covenant, not to replace it. He came to take it on to its next and final stage.
But having done that means there are elements of the old system which no longer apply. Including the sacrificial system. After all, if Jesus was the perfect High Priest, who made the perfect sacrifice, and opened up God’s Temples in earth and heaven for all believers, then the original sacrificial system is no longer relevant. Jesus’s sacrifice has been made once for all upon the cross.
But that doesn’t mean that everything that went with the old covenant no longer applies. Indeed the standards of behaviour expressed in the laws still remain useful, not least of which to help us understand what God expects of his people.
The Letter to the Hebrews may well describe the Old Testament covenant as being “obsolete”, but it does so, not because it has been replaced, but because it’s been fulfilled. And that is a very important distinction that we need to make.
Now I’m sure that I may have lost some of you on the journey today. But whether you’ve understood everything or not, I am hopeful that you can see that The Letter to the Hebrews is a very important document in the pages of the Bible. And the debate over whether it should be in our Bibles or not, should remind us that we need to test everything that we hear and read, to see if it is true.
In regard to the content of The Letter to the Hebrews, however, I think its great strength is in reminding us of the connection between the Old Testament and the New, and the connection between the old covenant and the new. Indeed it should remind us that the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus did not happen in a vacuum.
The old covenant was not defective—God didn’t make a mistake. As a consequence we cannot say that the Old Testament and the old covenant are irrelevant. Instead, what we should be saying is that the New Testament and the new covenant are an extension, the next phase, of the old—even anticipated and expected by the old. And that puts the bible in a very different light to what a simple concentration on the New Testament can bring.
Posted: 21st May 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis