Q&A: The Genre of Hebrews

The Genre of Hebrews

Is it right to call Hebrews an epistle? How is the literary form of Hebrews similar to and different from other New Testament epistles?

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Answer

The epistle to the Hebrews is interesting. We're not sure who wrote it, we're not sure who the Hebrews are, and we're not even sure if it's an epistle. The question of its relationship to the epistles and the other epistles, if it is an epistle, has been called a riddle by some: What is the genre of Hebrews? We look at some of the early canonical lists, those lists that have the books of the Bible that would be part of the New Testament. And Hebrews is usually located in the letters section often with Paul, but in epistles. So, there seems to be some thought that it is an epistle. And in fact, if you look at the end of Hebrews, we have a sign-off like we do in the other New Testament epistles. Hebrews also has teaching followed by exhortation, again consistent with epistles.

But some other elements of Hebrews are not quite what you would expect in terms of ancient letter writing. For example, the beginning. We don't have an opening salutation. We don't have something identifying who the author is of the letter and who the audience is. You know, you think of Paul, "I Paul and Timothy to the church in Philippi," for example. And there is this sense then that Hebrews is similar to an epistle but also different.

And I think the key, as we begin to just wonder how to unlock this riddle, is Hebrews 13:22, where the author of Hebrews, in Hebrews 13:22, describes what he's just done as a word of exhortation that has been written. I think that's important because that phrase, "word of exhortation," had become almost stock phrase as referring to a form of oral rhetoric, a speech. And when we look at Hebrews through the genre of homily, of sermon, of speech, of oration, we begin to see some elements that are very consistent with that type of presentation. And as we look at Hebrews, and others have noted this that a lot of the characteristics of a homily show up in Hebrews. So, what do we make of this? I think Hebrews is like a New Testament epistle in that it was written down and was sent, but it was sent as a speech, as a sermon to be delivered, to be heard.

Answer by Dr. Mark A. Jennings

Dr. Mark Jennings teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston MA.