When was Hebrews written, and why does it matter?
One common argument against Christianity is that the church didn’t decide that Jesus was divine until much, much later. Run a quick Google search of “When did the church decide that Jesus was God?” and you will read that “different views would be debated for centuries by Christians” but that they “finally settled on the idea that he was both fully human and fully divine by the middle of the 5th century in the Council of Ephesus.”
Similarly, many today parrot the belief made popular by author Dan Brown, who in his bestselling fiction book, The Da Vinci Code, made the claim that Jesus wasn’t considered divine until A.D. 325 at the Council of Nicea, and even then it was only for the political purposes of the emperor Constantine.
As a counter to that argument, we should consider the book of Hebrews, and we should consider when the book of Hebrews was written.
The Divinity of Jesus in Hebrews 1
First, it is clear that Hebrews makes the claim that Jesus is divine. Consider just the first chapter of the book. Hebrews 1 declares that:
- Jesus was the agent at work in creation and therefore existed prior to creation (Hebrews 1:2, 10);
- Jesus shares the full nature of God (Hebrews 1:3);
- Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3);
- Jesus is the Son of God (Hebrews 1:2, 5);
- Jesus is worthy of worship, which is reserved for God alone (Hebrews 1:6; cf. Exodus 20:3; Isaiah 42:8);
- God uses the name “God” in reference to “the Son” (Hebrews 1:8);
- Jesus is eternal (Hebrews 1:12).
Hebrews teaches that Jesus is the God-Man. Fully divine. Fully human. So now the question is, when was Hebrews written?
The Date of Hebrews
There are four key pieces of evidence in determining the date of Hebrews.
First, we do know that some time has passed since Christ’s resurrection and ascension. Hebrews 2:3 tells us that this group is a second-generation group. They heard the gospel from those who heard from the Lord. On top of that, we know that they themselves have been believers in Christ for at least long enough that they should be well-versed in the faith (Hebrews 5:12; cf. 10:32).
The Suffering of Roman Christians
That helps us somewhat with the front-end of the dating process, but there is other evidence that can get us even closer. The second clue to consider is twofold. First, it seems likely that the letter was written to believers in Rome. In Hebrews 13:24, the author informs his audience that “those who are from Italy send you greetings.” The most natural understanding here is that believers who had left Rome were sending their greetings back to believers who they knew who still lived in Rome. With that in mind, part two of this piece of evidence is found in Hebrews 10. In verse 32, the writer asks the readers to “recall the former days, when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings,” and goes on to describe the abuse they received, including imprisonment and loss of property. They’ve suffered for their faith, they’ve lost property, but at the same time, they have not yet experienced bloodshed for their faith (see 12:4, “you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood”). These facts are key.
In A.D. 49, the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews (and likely many Jewish Christians) from Rome due to a dispute regarding someone named “Chrestus.” It is very likely that “Chrestus” is meant to refer to “Christos,” and the dispute was between Jews and the now Jewish believers in Christ. Many were expelled, some persecution ensued, but the severe time of persecution, which involved much bloodshed for Christians, did not begin until A.D. 65 under the reign of Nero. Therefore, we need a time when the readers can remember the earlier suffering, but prior to the intense suffering.
A third piece of evidence is from the letter now known as 1 Clement. Written by the church father, Clement, this letter was written no later than the first part of the second century (likely by A.D. 140), with some arguing for a date as early as A.D. 95-96. 1 Clement helps us by solidifying the back-end of the timeline. 1 Clement is known to borrow from the letter to the Hebrews, with William Lane writing that “it is broadly recognized that Clement was, in fact, literarily dependent upon Hebrews.” Therefore, Hebrews could not have been written later than 1 Clement.
The Destruction of the Temple
Finally, helping us again with the back-end of the timeline, we need to consider the internal evidence of the letter itself. Hebrews speaks extensively about the sacrificial system and the Levitical priesthood, and in so doing the author assumes the ongoing practice of animal sacrifice (see Hebrews 10:2). The reason that’s important is that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70. After that event, the practice of animal sacrifice ceased. If Hebrews was written after the destruction of the temple, it would seem that the author would make a completely different argument and include that event in his argumentation. One scholar, conceding that this is an argument from silence, goes on to put it like this: “this silence is deafening!”
The evidence seems to show this: Hebrews was written sometime well after A.D. 49 and prior to A.D. 65. The best guess perhaps is the late 50’s to early 60’s. What that means is that by 25-30 years after Jesus’s resurrection and ascension, this is the commonly held belief of the early church. They didn’t have Twitter, or Wikipedia, or email. They didn’t have scholarly journals with wide readership or radio programs to disseminate information. Information travel was slow. Painfully slow. But by 25 years after the fact, it was already widely taught that Jesus is divine. Why is that? Because that’s what the very first believers believed. Jesus is God in the flesh, who was crucified for our sins, was buried, was raised on the third day, and ascended into heaven. The first believers believed it. They spread the news. The earliest church believed it. You can believe it, too.
Jesus’s divinity wasn’t invented in the mid-fifth century. It wasn’t decided for political motive in A.D. 325. It’s an eternally true fact, revealed in Scripture, and is the foundation of our faith.
Bert Watts has served since December 2016 as the Senior Pastor at Mountain Creek Baptist Church, where he has been on staff since 2012.