Troublesome Topic: I Think the Epistle to the Hebrews Was Written during the Siege of Jerusalem

Why the Epistle of Hebrews was written seems fairly obvious, but I will state it here so we are on the same page – it was written to help Jewish believers transition to Christianity and know what to hold on to from Judaism and what let go of.

But when it was written is not very clear. Does it matter? It is not key for understanding the epistle, but what I will share here may make parts of it more meaningful.

We do not find any greeting or introduction, although it does have a final salutation. I believe the original did have a traditional greeting and introduction, but it was discarded later on, possibly on purpose. Why I think this will become clear shortly.

In December 2020 I was reading through the Epistle to the Hebrews and something struck me. I began to see what I thought might be references to the destruction of the temple in AD 70. So I started keeping my eyes open for them. I found several things that hinted in that direction. However, I also saw, as others have before me, a few things that seem to indicate that the temple was still functioning and therefore had not yet been destroyed.

So I asked myself if it could have been written during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, but before the temple was destroyed. I think the answer is “Yes.”

The siege lasted from April 14th till September 8th; the temple was burned on August 10th, so the part of the siege that matters for our discussion is from April 14th through August 10th. So this is a window of time of almost 4 months.

How fast could a message be sent on a ship between Rome and Jerusalem? According to the software program called Orbis, which allows us to calculate travel time during the Roman Empire, a coastal route from Joppa, the nearest port to Jerusalem, to Astia/Portus, the nearest port to Rome, during the summer months, took 31 days, plus stops in numerous ports along the way. Coming from the other direction took only 21 days, plus stops in numerous ports. If we say the stops doubled the time of the trip, it is safe to assume it took approximately 60 days, two months, for the word of the siege to reach Rome, and about 40 days for the letter to the Hebrews to make the return trip. Of course some time was needed for penning the letter hastily, as the author called it.

We cannot know for sure if the letter arrived before the destruction of the temple, but I surmise that the letter was written after the siege started and before the temple was destroyed, eliminating all sacrifices.

My supposition is that the author heard about the military campaign of General Vespasian against the Jews, starting in Galilee in May of year 67. Thus there were about three years for people to see the progress of the Romans toward Jerusalem. During those three years Vespasian became Emperor and he assigned his son Titus to lead the campaign against the Jews.

I believe the author of Hebrews knew what Jesus had predicted about the destruction of the temple (recorded in Mt 24 and Lk 21) so when the Romans besieged Jerusalem, he figured it was the time Jesus had been speaking about; however, he did not know how long the siege would last. Not only did he believe the words of Jesus, he also knew that it would be a harsh blow to the Jewish believers and he wanted to offer some help for the transition away from the daily sacrifices and other rituals.

For us the Epistle of Hebrews makes sense because we see it from a Post Crucifixion, Post Resurrection, Post Pentecost perspective, and technically a Post Destruction of the temple perspective. We see all of that as one big package, thus everything mentioned in Hebrews has been fully accomplished. But we don’t realize the importance of the destruction of the temple to complete and confirm the rest of what Jesus did. For the early Jewish Christian, living between the Pentecost feast mentioned in Acts chapter 2, and the destruction of the temple in AD 70, things were confusing. There was the sacrifice of Jesus, and yet the other sacrifices were still on going. The letter of Hebrews addressed that confusion.

I believe the introduction made it clear that it was written during the siege of Jerusalem, but it was removed later so that the letter would be accepted by all and not rejected because that moment in time had passed.

As proof that the epistle to the Hebrews was written during the siege of Jerusalem but before the destruction of the temple, there are three emphases observable in this letter. First, the transition from the old system of the priesthood to the new system of Jesus was complete, or so close and sure as to be referred to as complete. According to Jesus in Matthew chapter 24, a complete transition would require an end to the sacrifices at the temple. (verbs about the priests or the old covenant are past tense and verbs about Jesus are present tense.) Second, the elimination of the sacrifices had not yet happened (Some verbs about sacrifices are present tense). Third, the author was writing from the perspective of an interim time period – i.e. the siege.

Here are the verses that show the transition from the old system to Jesus was complete, or so close and sure as to be referred to as complete:

3:5-6    “We are His house” (the temple was called the house)

7:11,12,13  (the use of past tense verbs)

7:19  (the verb is left blank but a present verb is assumed)

7:22  “Jesus has become the guarantee…”

8:1-2  “We do have … a high priest … who serves” Present tense

8:6  “the ministry Jesus has received is … superior…”

8:7  “If … nothing wrong with the first covenant, no place would have been sought for a second”

8:13a  “in saying this [covenant] [is] new, he has made the first one obsolete, then that which is

 being declared obsolete is close to disappearing.”

9:8 “the way into the holy places had not yet been made clear, [since] the first tabernacle still holds [its] standing [position].”

9:10  “[they were only] … ordinances … until the time of the imposing of the Messianic restoration”

9:11  “but Christ, having appeared publicly as high priest …” (i.e. replacing the current high priest)

9:12  He [Christ] entered into the holy places (past tense)” (changing the way things were done)

9:13-14  (former sacrifices could not atone, but …) “the blood of Christ … who offered himself unblemished… will cleanse…” (the sacrifice of Jesus is in the process of replacing the temple sacrifices)

9:15 “Christ is the mediator of a new covenant” (the old one, with its sacrificial system, has been or is being abolished)

9:25-26 (Jesus was the sacrifice that does away with sin, and He is the only efficacious sacrifice, indicating that the others have been or are being abolished.)

9:28  Christ “will appear a second time… to bring salvation” (In light of Mt 24, this may be a reference to AD 70 and the consummation of His redemptive work by doing away with the temple sacrifices.)

10:9 & 10  “He is abolishing the first so that he might completely establish the second” (Jesus is replacing the temple sacrifices; that is why the temple had to be destroyed.)

10:12 (Jesus is already the priest)

10:10, 13 & 18 (Jesus Christ is the only sacrifice)

12:218-24 (you have not come to the old system, but to the new system), “to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant”

12:27-28 “removing what can be shaken, having been created, so that the things not able to be shaken should remain.” (The temple and its sacrifices are being removed to leave only Jesus and His unshakable kingdom)

13:15-16 (The sacrifice of Jesus, and our response of giving Him a sacrifice of praise, are the only ones that matter or the only ones left.)

Here are the verses in Hebrews that show the destruction of the temple had not yet happened:

8:4-5  (there are already men who serve as priests)

8:13b  “that which is being declared obsolete is close to disappearing.”

9:13-14 (the temple sacrifices sanctify them {present tense}outwardly, but Jesus will cleanse {future tense} completely. The transition is not yet complete.)

10:11 (the description of the activity of the priests is present tense)

13:11 (the description of the activity of the priests is present tense)

Here are the hints that Hebrews was written during the siege (see my translation and paraphrase of Mt 24):

3:12-14 (the exhortation to not lose heart is always relevant but especially so during the siege)

9:9  “This is a parable for this present season” (This could be a general statement or a very specific statement referring to a very specific and narrow window of time. It comes right after the words “as long as the first tabernacle was still standing.”)

10:24-25 “incite one another toward love, good works … encouraging one another, and so much more as you see the day drawing near”

Go to footnote number

(is that the day of final judgement yet in the future or is it the day when Christ confirmed His new covenant by totally eliminating the old one? It could go either way.)

10:37 (According to Mt 24, the words “He who is coming will come and will not delay” refer primarily to AD 70, and in a secondary sense to the future.)

12:4-11 (this section talks about the Lord’s discipline. The destruction of the temple in AD 70 was possibly being described as God’s discipline of the Jews.)

12:14-15 (Here we read an exhortation to live at peace with everyone and to avoid becoming bitter. The last several years prior to the destruction of the temple were characterized by factions among the Jews, infighting and division.)

13:14  “Here we do not have an enduring city…” (This is symbolism referring to spiritual things, but a secondary meaning could refer to the physical city of Jerusalem and its imminent destruction.)

CONCLUSION:

In one way the letter to the Hebrews paints a confusion picture. It portrays two priestly/sacrificial systems; one of which is obsolete yet still functioning. The new system has been established, yet the old one is still present.  In my opinion, the only way to reconcile these things is to say that the letter was written during the siege of Jerusalem by the Roman general Titus.

Modern Christians seem to ignore the importance of the destruction of the temple in AD 70, but for the Jewish followers of Jesus it was a very big deal. Jesus’ redemptive work was completed when he died, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Yet, according to His own teaching in Mt 24, His new covenant was not confirmed until 40 years later when the old priestly/sacrificial system was totally abolished. In my opinion, the timing of the book of Hebrews fits that moment in history perfectly.

(For more about that important event in history, see my translation and paraphrase of Mt 24)

This is the last lesson on The Book of Hebrews Had More Than One Contributor. Thank you for reading.

Footnotes

1

It is known from Josephus that leading up to the destruction of the temple, the Jews were divided into factions and infighting was common. The way Jews were treating each other was onerous. This was an exhortation that the followers of Jesus should not participate in those factions.