The vast majority of the letters in the New Testament begin with some sort of greeting:
The author identifies him or herself.
The author greets the letter’s target audience.
The author thanks the readers and praises or critiques them in some way.
Not so with Hebrews. This letter simply begins.
With no salutation to go by, commentators have speculated about this author’s identity and target audience for centuries. Tertullian thought Barnabas wrote it. Martin Luther suspected Apollos as the author. Harnack theorized Priscilla and Aquila might have written it together, and Rob Bell even quipped, “We don’t know who the author of Hebrews was, but she was brilliant!” We will likely never know, but it’s fun to theorize, and though our knowledge of the author is limited, we learn quite a bit about him or her from the book itself:
The author has a tremendous knowledge of Jewish history and ritual.
Throughout Hebrews, the author speaks poetically about the role of the priest and repeatedly uses the symbol of the temple curtain. The author also describes great swaths of Hebrew scripture in concise stanzas while adeptly making allusions to mysterious characters like Melchizedek. He or she knows the Psalms backwards and forwards and doesn’t shy away from the words of the prophets either. In short, this author knows his/her stuff, and this history shapes the author’s understanding of Jesus.
The author has a deep reverence for God.
While we often think of God in very personal and relatable terms (parent, friend, copilot, etc.), the author of Hebrews focuses on the otherness of God. The mysterious presence behind the curtain, the all-consuming holiness, the wild and untamable majesty— God’s cosmic power is on display in Hebrews, and the only intermediary between this God and humanity is Jesus. The God of Hebrews comes off dangerously holy, but Christ bridges the divide, making God infinitely personal as well.
The author deeply loves his/her community.
While the letter has no opening salutation, Hebrews does include a farewell that provides some hints of the author’s identity. The author references Timothy and the believers in Italy, and the author indicates he or she is able to travel freely to visit the churches.
Perhaps most importantly, the author says two things:
(1) This letter is meant to encourage.
(2) This letter is only a brief summation of the author’s thoughts.
Imagine sitting down and talking with this author over a beer. Think of the encouragement and artistry of words flowing from this letter and think of how those might play into an evening taproom conversation. Whoever this author is, he or she has left behind a truly incredible tapestry of words, and I’m excited to study it with you over these next months!