Although we called this writing as the letter to the Hebrews it actually looks like a circular homily rather than a letter, to be passed on from one congregation to the another. It was usually attributed to Saint Paul, but actually we do not know who wrote it. It does not open with the usual greetings that we find in other letters of Paul. Origen (III century AD) thought that it was written by a disciple of Paul. Another father of the Church, Clemens of Alexandria (II century AD) thought to be a letter of Paul originally written in Hebrew, but translated into Greek by Saint Luke. Nowadays some scholars think that the famous Apollos could be its author.
It is also not clear when it was written. Some date it at around the end of the first century (95 AD). However, the mentioning of the temple liturgy in Jerusalem as if still in operation (Heb 10:1–3) would suggest a date before 70 AD, before the destruction of the temple.
There is no addressee of the letter either. The title “to the Hebrews” was added when the letter entered the Cannon of the NT. Today, we know that the original letter was written in Greek and not in Hebrew. However, there is a good reason to that title - “to the Hebrews” - because of full of the Old Testament imagery (apparently, a Gentile Christian - like many of us today - would have a hard time to understand it). So, the addressees must have been the Jewish Christians. That is also suggesting an earlier date than a later one, since at the beginning of Christianity, there were still more Jews than the Gentile.
The reference to the generosity of the readers and their helping other believers (6:10) suggests that the original audience did not live in Palestine. The Palestinian churches had a reputation for needing material assistance rather than for giving it to other Christians (cf. Rom. 15:25–31; 1 Cor. 16:3). Probably they were Jews of the Diaspora therefore. This conclusion has support in the writer’s consistent use of the Septuagint Old Testament version. Hellenistic Jews used this translation widely, but Palestinian Jews did not use it as much.
From the text itself we know that it was written to the second generation of Christians (5:12; 13:7), who after the initial fire (6:10; 10:32–34), are in danger of losing that fire (5:11; 10:25; 12:3) and even a possibility of walking away from the faith in the face of persecution (10:35–36; 12:4.7). There is also a problem of Jewish teachers, who try to sway them towards practicing Judaism - or perhaps even going back to Judaism (13:9–10). That is the meaning of the warning found in 6:4–6).
The method used in this letter was familiar to the Jews of that time. It goes beyond the literal meaning of the Scriptures and looks for its deeper meaning - for mystical truth behind the passage. For example, Moses and Jesus are compared (3:1–6) - one was great as a servant, another was great as Son; the priesthood of Aaron was good, but the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater (7:1–28).
The letter has an interesting construction as well. It can be divided into three main parts:
However, there is also another structure of the letter. After the initial famous statement about God speaking to His own people (1:1–4), we can notice five parts that are actually introduced by the author (1:4; 2:17; 5:10; 10:36.39; 12:12–13).
The name of Christ - showing the position of Christ in relation to God and people by comparing Him with angels (1:5–2:18);
Faithful and Merciful - it shows the realization of these two qualities of priesthood in Jesus (3:1–5:10);
Imitate the faith of the ancestors and be patient in tribulations (11:1–12:13). This section stresses these two aspect of Christian life.
Further advice on Christian living - particularly striving for peace and holiness (12:14–13:21).
The central teaching of the letter, like no other writing of the NT, present Christ as the High Priest. This has some implications for Christian life. Although the old sacrificial system has ended, but now Christians should see their concrete actions in life are daily sacrifice (13:16). Another form of sacrifice is thanksgiving prayer (13:15).
The old sacrificial system had ended but the value of the Old Testament remains. There is a unity and continuity between the Old and the New and Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises (10:10). For example, the sacrifices under the old law were offered in the hope of obtaining forgiveness. Christ has achieved the aim of those old sacrifices by offering Himself as a sacrifice (10:10). Another example can be found in chapter 11. The Jewish ancestors are presented as the examples of faith and perseverance in time of tribulations for the Christians.
The letter to the Hebrews is a great an example of the famous quote of Saint Augustine: “the New is hidden in the Old, and the Old is unveiled in the New”. It is called typology. The Old Testament “types - figures” are fulfilled in Christ. The most beautiful example in this letter is the figure of Melchizedek as the ‘type’ of Christ (7:3).
The author is clearly concerned with the ‘present’ situation of the community. He encourages them not to abandon the common worship (10:25)- we have the same problem and to obey those in charge of them (10:17) - also our problem. He calls morality in the family (13:4) - another problem of ours. Hospitality and visiting the prisoners are also in the list of Christian values (13:2–3). Then, there is a call to prayer for others (13:18).
The community is seen as the sheep and Christ as their Great Shepherd (13:20).
The letter ends with two information: (1) about Timothy’s release - many think it is the same Timothy from Paul’s letters. (2) About the brothers from Italy who also sends their greetings. This would suggest that the writer was writing from somewhere outside of Italy.