Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty

200 Missing References to the Gospel Jesus in the New Testament Epistles



É 115. - Hebrews 1:1-3

1When in former times God spoke to our forefathers, he spoke in fragmentary and varied fashion through the prophets. 2But in this the final age he has spoken to us through the Son

whom he has made heir to the whole universe, and through whom he created all orders of existence: 3the Son who is the effulgence of God's splendor and the stamp of God's very being, and sustains the universe by his word of power.

When he had brought about the purgation of sins, he took his seat at the right hand of Majesty on high . . . [NEB]

Unlike many New Testament epistles, Hebrews cannot be spoken of as an "occasional writing," written 'off the cuff.' Rather, it is a carefully thought-out theological treatise, designed to enlighten and encourage the community of which the writer is a part, apparently in the face of difficulties and the threat of members losing heart and fervor. Accordingly, we should have every right to expect that the essentials of the community's faith would be reflected in this epistle, not the least of which would be an identification of the object of that faith with the historical man presumed to lie at its root. We should also expectŚand certainly so in a work of this lengthŚa fair amount of 'biographical' reference to incidents, teachings, and background such as we find in the Gospels, reflecting the life and deeds of the man on whom the epistle writer and readers have founded their community and theology.

Whether in fact we find such things will be seen as we go along. I have broken up the first three verses of the epistle's opening, the better to focus on the points to be made.

The first section speaks of the Son 'who has spoken to us' in this final age. Yet in the entire epistle there is not one saying of Jesus on earth offered to the readers, nor even a reference to him as a teacher. We will see that in a few places the writer would have had a perfect occasion to offer a Gospel or Gospel-like saying to illustrate the point he is making. Yet in all cases, and in many other places throughout the epistle, the "voice" of the Son is entirely from the Jewish scriptures, as though the Son is regarded as a spiritual force who communicates with the world through the sacred writings. This is a feature we find in other early Christian documents, such as 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas.

The opening verses of Hebrews ranks with the hymn of Colossians 1:15-20 as the most exalted description of "the Son" found in the early Christian documents. This cosmic being, through whom God created the world and maintains its continued existence, is spoken of as constituting his very image, embodying his very nature, reflecting his divine splendor. The Son is an emanation of God himself, as close to the ultimate God as one can get and still be seen as a distinct entity. As such, he falls into the same category as the intermediary Logos of Platonic philosophy, similar to what we find in Philo of Alexandria; and he is similar if not identical to contemporary portrayals of personified Wisdom, that communicating aspect of God in Jewish wisdom tradition, such as we find in Proverbs, Sirach, and especially the Alexandrian Hellenistic-Jewish document known as the Wisdom of Solomon.

While wondering how Jews could possibly have performed such a blasphemous elevation on a human manŚa crucified criminal, in the public eyeŚwe have to ask why a description of the Son would not have included any reference to his human identity and career on earth. This will be particularly perplexing when we get to the next item. But here, in verse 3, the cosmic dimensions in which the Son is portrayed almost demand a justification for creating such a product out of a human man. And in the latter part of the verse, his entire life's work seems to be relegated to a single phrase: "when he had brought about the purgation of sins." Is this a reference, at least, to Calvary? In chapters 8 and 9, the writer's discussion of Christ's sacrifice, which brought about that purgation, shows that it is not, but is rather an act which Jesus as High Priest is presented as conducting entirely within the heavenly sanctuary, in the upper spiritual world.

É 116. - Hebrews 1:4-14

4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. 5For to which of the angels did God ever say: "You are my Son, today I have become your father . . ." (continued below)  [NIV]
With this, the author begins an extended argument to prove that the Son is superior to the angels. That proof is a quotation of various scriptural passages, some regarded as the voice of God speaking to or about his Son, others speaking about the angels, the sentiments of the former being judged more exalted. Yet not a single element of the Son's earthly existence is placed on the table in support of that argument. The fact of the resurrection itself should have blown the competition out of the water. The Son's human incarnation and his career in flesh would surely have rendered the scriptural argument he appeals to almost insignificant.

We should note that this writer can have no tradition about Jesus' baptism as presented in the Gospels, when the voice of God out of heaven was reputed to have spoken the above words from Psalm 2:7, acknowledging Jesus as his Son. His quotation of this verse makes no mention of the scene by the Jordan.

[ Some commentators have wondered why the writer introduces the contrast of Christ with the angels. Why is he so concerned with proving Christ's superiority? A movement founded on the career of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnated Son of God and his reputed rising from the grave could hardly fail to envision him as 'higher than the angels.' On the other hand, if all these entities are elements of the heavenly world and its workings, and knowledge about them is derived from scripture, recourse to scripture would be necessary to prove the Son's superiority to the angels.

The issue behind this superiority of the Son is contained in the thought of verse 2: that God's old way of speaking through the prophets has now been supplanted by a new one: the voice of the Son speaking through scriptureŚwhich is to say, the way this sectarian group (and the early Christian movement as a whole) has itself interpreted scripture and its belief in the newly discovered Son. Since the angels were associated with God's revelation in the past, the medium of the new revelation, namely the perceived spiritual Son speaking and inspiring the sect through the sacred writings, has to be proven to be superior to the old. But if the Son had been on earth, teaching and working miracles, if he had been crucified as a sacrifice and resurrected from his tomb, there would no question in anyone's mind of the superiority of this new medium, and thus any comparison with the angels (and certainly one based on scripture) would be completely unnecessary.

If the situation were that the readers were in danger of abandoning belief that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the Son of God, then the writer would fashion his arguments along such linesŚwhich he does not. (We find a similar situation in 1 John, where commentators suggest that the opponents in chapter 2 are in some way denying something about Jesus of Nazareth, yet the writer there fashions no arguments around such a figure, failing, in fact, to mention him at all.) ]

. . . 6 Again, when he presents [the verb eisago] the first-born to the world [oikumenen], he says: "Let all the angels of God pay him homage." . . . [NEB]
Some claim that the use of the word "oikumene" supports a human incarnation. But the thought does not relate to an earthly scene. Regardless of how this word is used in other, or even the usual, contexts, here it is the venue of a heavenly event. One of the meanings of the verb eisago is to "introduce," and so I prefer the NEB's translation of this verse as: "when he presents the firstborn to the world." "First-born" is a Philonic-style description of a Logos-like entity, the first product or emanation from God. And the word oikumene cannot have the narrow meaning of "earth" or "inhabited world" here, but must mean something like "universe" or "cosmos," since God is presenting his firstborn to the angels, not to humans. (The angels are hardly considered inhabitants of the Roman empire.) The 'time' of that scene is also not recent history, since it is tied to a verse from scripture (Deut. 32:43 LXX), as though the latter illustrates the occasion of God's presentation of his Son.

Note that the verb here is in the present tense, which is a common way early Christian writers have of offering passages from scripture. This is best interpreted as representing the concept of a timeless present, or a 'mythical present.' (We will look at an even more telling example of this in 10:5.) Scripture is a window onto that heavenly world in which the Son lives and acts.

This passage concludes with the thought: "To which of the angels has he ever said, 'Sit at my right hand until I make thy enemies thy footstool'? What are they all [i.e., the angels] but ministrant spirits, sent out to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?" But to which angels did he give incarnation? Was the Son not 'sent out' in a way more dramatic than that of any angel, for the sake of the saved? One would not know it from this epistle.

É 117. - Hebrews 2:1-4

1Thus we are bound to pay all the more heed to what we have been told, for fear of drifting from our course. 2For if the word spoken through angels had such force that any transgression or disobedience met with due retribution, 3what escape can there be for us if we ignore a deliverance [salvation] so great? For this deliverance was first announced through the (lips of the) Lord (himself); those who heard (him) confirmed it to us, 4and God (added his) testimony by signs, by miracles, by manifold works of power, and by distributing the gifts of the Holy Spirit at his own will. [NEB]
I have chosen the NEB translation here to illustrate once again how ideas determined by the Gospel story (the words in round brackets above) can be introduced, at times blatantly, into the thought of the epistles. In verse 3, no words conveying the NEB's idea of the Lord's own "lips" are present, or of hearing "him," implying the preaching Jesus. As mentioned earlier, no words of such a preaching Jesus are to be found in this epistle, and the idea in verse 1, that the community must heed what it has been told, is evidently not to include the sayings and teachings of Jesus himself, which are never referred to. (We shall see that they are conspicuously absent at a few points later in the epistle.)

This passage has been examined in detail in my Article No. 7: Transfigured On the Holy Mountain: The Beginnings of Christianity. Here I will point out that the occasion being described has all the marks of a revelatory experience which lay at the community's inception. Those who experienced that revelation, one which seemed to convey God's guarantee of salvation, passed on their convictions to others. The fact that the writer (verse 4) mentions miracles by God which either accompanied the revelation or subsequently verified it (the meaning is not clear), rather than miracles of Jesus which in the Gospels are designed to validate his teachings, indicates that he has no Gospel tradition in mind here.

É 118. - Hebrews 2:11-13

11. . . For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12when he says, "I will proclaim thy name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing thy praise." 13And again, "I will put my trust in him." And again, "Behold, I and the children whom God has given me." [NASB/NEB]
The above quotations are from the biblical Psalms (22:22) and Isaiah 8:17 and 18. They are used to illustrate the contention that the Son is not ashamed to call believers his brothers. Yet more than one commentator has wondered why the writer did not draw on any of Jesus' sayings on the subject as recorded in the Gospels. Luke 8:21, "My brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it," or Mark 3:35, "Whoever does the will of God is my brother," would have served his purposes well, and would moreover have been an example of the voice of the Son who "speaks in this final age." Matthew 25:40 would have served: "Anything you did for one of my brothers . . . you did for me." Or even John 20:17: "Go to my brothers and tell them that I am now ascending to my Father."

In this passage, we again encounter that characteristic use of the present-tense form. The Son is "saying" these Old Testament quotations, as though the voice of the Son is heard within scripture. If Jesus had been a human figure, whose words and deeds were well remembered from recent history, it is difficult to envision the kind of mindset which would have translated him into this timeless, mystical entity embodied solely within the sacred writings.

[ The passage surrounding this quotation contains various references to the idea of Christ's "flesh" and "blood" and his sharing of characteristics with the children/believers mentioned in the above verses. As close as he might seem to come, the writer still never steps over the line and makes a direct and unmistakable reference to an earthly life, and in fact there are telltale features here that place such language within a mythical, paradigmatic setting of the relationship between the higher world divinity and his material world human counterpart. Those aspects, in regard to this passage and others, have been discussed in other articles on the site and will be reexamined in the Appendix: 20 Arguable References to a Human Jesus in the New Testament Epistles. ]

É 119. - Hebrews 2:14-15

14. . . and so he too shared ours [flesh and blood], so that through death he might break the power of him who had death at his command, that is, the devil; 15and might liberate those who, through fear of death, had all their lifetime been in servitude. [NEB]
Jean Héring (Hebrews, p.xi) refers to this epistle as an "enigma" for its failure to mention the resurrection of Jesus. It is notably missing in this passage. What, after all, does the standard picture of Jesus' conquest of death consist of? It focuses on his resurrection out of that state, back to flesh and appearing to his followers. Yet here the writer can speak of "breaking the power of death" and point only to the death itself as bringing this about. Even in regard to that death, we shall see that the writer's focus on Jesus' redemptive act is not at all on the business of dying (something he never locates in a specific time and place, nor does he discuss its component elements or meaning), but on his actions as High Priest in heaven's sanctuary, bringing his blood to the spiritual altar as a sacrifice to God, in a counterpart manner to the offering of the Day of Atonement ritual in the earthly Temple (or its Sinai precedent).

[ The only conceivable allusion to the resurrection is found in 13:20, in a passage which in any case has been questioned as authentic to the original epistle: "May the God of peace, who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep . . ." Here the Greek verb is "anago," meaning to "lead up," not the usual word applied in other New Testament passages to the idea of resurrection. The whole phrase is modeled on a scriptural passage, Isaiah 63:11: "Where is he that brought up from the sea the shepherd of the sheep?" Elsewhere, not even an allusion to resurrection is made when speaking of Christ taking his place in heaven immediately following the death/sacrifice. (As in 10:12: "Christ offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat at the right hand of God." Compare 12:2 and 1:3). ]

É 120. - Hebrews 3:15-4:2 / 4:6-8

15When scripture says, "Today if you hear his voice, do not grow stubborn as in those days of rebellion,' who, I ask, were those who heard and rebelled? All those, surely, whom Moses had led out of Egypt. . . .

. . . 2For indeed we have heard the good news, as they did. But in them the message they heard did no good, because they brought no admixture of faith to the hearing of it. . . . [NEB]

Here the writer is referring back to a longer quotation he has just made of Psalm 95:7-11. The "today" he speaks of is his own present time, with again a reference to the idea of hearing a divine "voice," and in this case the Son is undoubtedly in mind. The comparison is between Israelites in the time of Moses, some of whom failed to heed the voice of God and suffered for it, and present members of the writer's community, some of whom are in danger of ignoring the new voice of the Son offering salvation and thus reaping terrible consequences. The key element of the comparison is hearing the "voice" and heeding it.

What is notably missing here is any conception that the "voice" of the Son was heard in another context, a recent and dramatic one, and was also not heeded by many: namely, those who heard Jesus' own preaching during his lifetime and failed to respond to his message, even to the point of killing him.

A few verses later (4:6-8), the writer draws an even more stark parallel, which makes no room for any such preaching of Jesus:

6. . . and since those who first heard the good news failed to enter through unbelief, 7God fixes another day. Speaking through the lips of David after many long years, he uses the words already quoted: "Today if you hear his voice, do not grow stubborn." 8If Joshua had given them rest, God would not thus have spoken of another day after that. [NEB]
Let's be clear that the first phrase above refers to the Israelites under Moses. Those are the "days of rebellion" mentioned in 3:15. The reference to Joshua in 4:8 clinches it. The writer has all along been contrasting the present situation in his own community with the days of Moses. He may be using this example to make a general condemnation of all Jews as unresponsive and not heeding the truth prior to his own community (a common manner of thinking by the sectarian mentality).

Following that rebellion, that spurning of God's "rest" by many Israelites in the days of Moses and Joshua, God has set "another day" to deliver his message and offer people a chance to respond to it. And what is that day and that people? It is the writer's own. His silence indicates that he has no idea of an earlier day which would have been of even greater significance, namely the day when Jesus himself preached, and many failed to heed his message. Somewhat in the manner of Titus 1:3 or Romans 1:2-3, this passage leaves no room for an historical Jesus in the picture the author of this epistle paints of the history of his faith movement, between the days of Moses and the time of his own community.

É 121. - Hebrews 5:5-6

5So Christ also did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him: "You are my Son; today I have begotten thee." 6And he says in another place: "You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek." [NIV]
Once again, the author shows that he knows nothing about a baptism of Jesus in which God's voice out of heaven spoke the words of Psalm 2:7. (Verse 6 shows that the source of the words in verse 5 is scripture, not historical tradition.) Note that Jesus' entire role, in the view of this writer, is that of High Priest, whose activities the epistle places in a heavenly sanctuary, not on earth. This reference to God appointing Jesus in his role as provider of salvation seems to entirely lack an earthly or historical dimension.

É 122. - Hebrews 5:7

In the days of his flesh [en tais hemerais tes sarkos autou], he offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his piety (reverence toward God). [NASB]
This passage is dealt with at length in my Supplementary Article No. 9, A Sacrifice in Heaven: The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Here let me make a couple of basic points. The reference cannot be to the Gospel scene in the garden of Gethsemane, since it does not fit that context (as many scholars, such as Paul Ellingworth, have recognized). There, God did not answer Jesus' prayer that the cup of suffering be allowed to pass him by. The above verse refers instead to a "deliverance out of death," which can mean the raising of Jesus (in his spirit state) to heaven after death. But even that narrow an idea of 'resurrection' is not in view here. Rather, the writer goes on to say that the result of such prayers was that, through obedience and suffering, the Son became perfected and a source of salvation, through his designation by God as High Priest. There is not the slightest glance at a rising from a tomb on earth, an act which constitutes the Gospel 'deliverance' of Jesus from the fate of death, and the source of later Christian views of salvation.

And what of the phrase "in the days of his flesh"? This is perhaps the most graphic of all the references in the epistles which employ the stereotyped phrase "in flesh" (kata sarka, en sarki, etc.). My fullest and most recent discussion of this term is found in my Response to Pete in Reader Feedback file 14. "Flesh" seems to be, in the minds of the early Christian epistle writers, a shorthand way of referring to that state which Jesus (and other savior gods) assumed during their mythical activities, when they approached the world of matter and took on a "likeness" to material characteristics. In early Christian thought, that realm within the lower levels of the spiritual world, and Christ's activities within it, are discernible through scripture, and this passage illustrates that very thing. What is it that Christ is said to have done "in the days of his flesh"? Not the prayer in the Gethesemane garden, nor any other Gospel-based piece of historical data, but actions lifted out of scripture itself. Scholars such as Ellingworth, Montefiore and Buchanan have pointed out that the words refer to two passages in the Psalms, 116:1 and 22:24 (LXX). Like Ephesians 2:17 (#74), an epistle writer, at first glance, seems to bring Jesus to earth, and what does he offer as his activities in that sphere? The words and content of scripture.

This is the sole source of 'information' about what Jesus had done "in the days of his flesh." The total absence of any historical traditions from which writers like that of Hebrews could draw, whether as an example of Jesus' obedience to God, or of his humility and suffering (as in 1 Peter 2:22, 1 Clement 16, or Barnabas 5, all of whom can only quote from Isaiah 53), is strong indication that no oral traditions about an historical Jesus existed in the early Christian communities, and that their Christ lived only in scripture-revealed myth.

(Hebrews 5:7 will be revisited in the Appendix.)

É 123. - Hebrews 5:12

. . . you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God (ton logion tou theou), and you have come to need milk and not solid food . . . [NASB]
This community can have no concept of a teaching Christ, for the theology the writer is trying to get across to his readers ("about Melchizedek," verse 11) is entirely based on scripture, the "oracles (word) of God." The Jesus of the Gospels may have had nothing to say about Melchizedek or himself as High Priest, but any community which constructed a theology about its founder could not fail to develop traditions that he had in fact taught something which would support that theology.

If the writer and his community are advocating a christology which goes against the grain of the wider Christian movement (and every commentator would agree that Hebrews does so), we would expect to find an attempt, no matter how artificial or unfounded, to ground that christology in the teachings of Jesus himself. Such an attempt, or even an awareness of the problem, is nowhere in evidence. Instead, the entire basis is sought in scripture.

É 124. - Hebrews 6:1-2

1Let us, then, leave the initial teaching about Christ [NEB: let us stop discussing the rudiments of Christianity] and advance to maturity, not laying the foundation all over again: repentance from dead works, faith in God, 2instruction about baptisms, and laying-on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. [NAB]
Here the writer is making a capsule summary of the basics of the community's belief and practice. They include teaching about Christ, repentance, baptism, the promise of eternal life. Anything proceeding from Jesus himself is notably missing. Even faith itself is centered on God, not on Jesus or anything he did. One might think that one of the rudiments of the new religion would be the faith that its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, was the Son of God and Messiah. Jesus' own teachings should also have formed one of the foundations of the faith.

É 125. - Hebrews 6:13-18

13For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying: 14"I will surely bless you and multiply you." . . . 17So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he interposed with an oath, 18so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God should prove false, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. [RSV]
An astonishing silence, similar to one we will encounter again in 2 Peter 1:19. The hope of the writer and his community in the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham is based on the wording of scripture, perceived as an oath by God to the dependability of his promises. Where is the hope based on the life and deeds of Jesus? Why was the career of the Son on earth not regarded as supporting God's promises, even if this took the form of invented sayings by him to provide that support, something which I noted earlier would inevitably have developed? When the writer, a few verses later (6:20), gets around to mentioning Jesus, it is entirely in terms of his spiritual-world activities in the heavenly sanctuary, as an eternal High Priest succeeding Melchizedek.

É 126. - Hebrews 7:1

This Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of God Most High, met Abraham returning from the rout of the kings and blessed him; and Abraham gave him a tithe of everything as his portion. [NEB]
This verse is based on a short passage from Genesis, 14:18-20. And yet, the writer leaves out one key phrase in that piece of scripture. "And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High." Now, why would a writer, one of whose primary concerns is to draw parallels between scriptural precedents and the christology and practice of his own community, leave out an obvious prefiguring of the Christian Eucharist in the action of Melchizedek bringing out bread and wine when greeting Abraham? The inevitable answer has to be that he and his community knew of no Eucharistic sacrament, nor any establishment of such by Jesus at a Last Supper.

This silence on the Christian Eucharist recurs even more dramatically in 9:19-20 when not even the words of Moses at the establishment of the Old Covenant on Sinai can prompt the writer to mention the almost identical words of Jesus at the establishment of the new one, as recounted in the Gospels' Last Supper scene. (See "Top 20" #12.)

É 127. - Hebrews 7:12

For a change of priesthood must mean a change of [the] law. [NEB]
Again, when a concept of this magnitude takes place in a sectarian communityŚhere a fundamental change of the idea of the high priest, from human to heavenlyŚone involving the very foundation of the Jewish covenant heritage, grounding it in something Jesus had taught would be desirable, even essential. The Gospels represent Jesus as pronouncing on the continued applicability of the Jewish Law, generally in the direction of 'relaxing' it, though Matthew goes against the grain and makes Jesus declare that not a letter of the law can be set aside. If this writer and his community had any tradition at all that Jesus had taught about the law, this would have to be taken into account, and there would be a scramble to find some way of making Jesus' words support their revolutionary attitude toward the high priesthood, in conjunction with their unusual christology. Instead, we find not a hint in the epistle of any awareness of such an issue.

Nor can one take refuge in postulating that this community knew little or nothing about Jesus' actual earthly teaching. The opening words of the epistleŚ"now in this final age he has spoken through the Son"Śshow that the concept of a teaching Jesus would have been of central interest to the community, leading either to an investigation of what Jesus had actually had to say, or to the development of an invented substitute. The inevitable conclusion is that the writer of Hebrews has no conception of a teaching career on earth for his High Priest Jesus.

É 128. - Hebrews 7:15-17

15The argument becomes still clearer, if the new priest who arises is one like Melchizedek, 16owing his priesthood not to a system of earth-bound rules but to the power of a life that cannot be destroyed. 17For here is the testimony: "Thou art a priest forever, in the succession of Melchizedek." [NEB]
A life that cannot be destroyed. Surely, if anything illustrated this feature of Jesus it was his resurrection from the dead. Instead, the sole basis the writer offers for this claim about Jesus is Psalm 110:4. The life that cannot be destroyed is presented in terms of its future continuation, in the role of heavenly High Priest, as guaranteed by the words of the Psalm.

Everything that Hebrews says about its heavenly figure is grounded in comparisons with scripture, chiefly about Melchizedek, the archetype of the new high priesthood. We might also note that if Jesus is "like" Melchizedek (and so much of the writer's christology is based on that justification), what do we make of that verse passed over earlier (7:3) which describes Melchizedek as being "without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest for ever"? This judgment of Melchizedek is based on scriptural readings, but should not both the writer and his readers have felt a conflict between such characteristics and the Gospel story which gives Jesus both mother and father, and a beginning of days and an end of life?

Instead, in the thought of this epistle, the Son of God is an entity who eternally exists in the spiritual world and conducts his work in that realm, and all evidence of him comes from the sacred writings. As Hebrews 13:8 will say, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever." Such a sentiment shows a complete unawareness of the life and historically unique events recorded in the Gospels.

É 129. - Hebrews: Chapters 8 & 9

Chapters 8 and 9 are the theological heart of the Epistle to the Hebrews, for they describe the saving sacrifice of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary. The philosophical grounding of this description is Platonic, in that a comparison is made between Christ's activities in "the real sanctuary, the tent pitched by the Lord and not by man" (8:2)Śin other words, in heavenŚand the tent on earth (9:1f) in which the human high priest conducted the counterpart earthly sacrifices on the Day of Atonement. (The author has in mind not the current Temple cult, but the legendary first establishment of the sacrificial system in the days of Moses at Sinai.) This counterpart comparison between the heavenly and the earthly, between the "genuine" and primary spiritual embodiment and the material "copy," is thorough Middle Platonism, with the higher spiritual version regarded as superior to the lower material one.

9:11 states that "the tent of Christ's priesthood is a greater and more perfect one, not made by men's hands, that is, not belonging to this created world; the blood of his sacrifice is his own blood, not the blood of goats and calves" [NEB]. In Hebrews, Christ's "sacrifice" is defined as the bringing of his blood into the heavenly sanctuary, a higher world counterpart of the high priest's actions on earth. But what is the nature of that "blood"? 9:14 calls Christ's offering of his own blood "a spiritual and eternal sacrifice" [NEB]. 9:23 says: "If, then, these sacrifices [of goats and calves in the earthly sanctuary] cleanse the copies of heavenly things, those heavenly things themselves require better sacrifices to cleanse them" [NEB]. The clear implication is that Christ's sacrifice, together with the blood itself, is a spiritual thing. In the Platonic system, it could not be any other.

Quite apart from the lack of any reference to a sacrifice on Calvary, or indeed on earth generally, the resounding silence here is to the one consideration which would destroy the writer's carefully crafted Platonist comparison, his contrast between the heavenly and the earthly. If Jesus had lived on earth and been a human being, if his sacrifice had taken place on a hill outside Jerusalem and the blood he shed there had been material, the author's comparison would not work. Christ's blood would, historically speaking, not have been "spiritual." This would have contaminated and confused the entire picture he paints in these chapters, and thus he should have felt forced to address the anomaly. Since he does not, we are led to assume that no historical Jesus, no sacrifice on earth, lurked in the background to disturb this finely drawn duality.

[ Modern scholars generally like to play down the Platonic principle in Hebrews, no doubt because of the problems it creates. But scholars earlier in this century, such as James Moffat and Marcus Dods, had no hesitation in seeing Hebrews' placement of Christ's sacrifice within a Platonic world view. Moffat, it is true, did his best [International Critical Commentary, Hebrews, p.124] to make 9:14's reference to "blood (sacrifice) through the eternal spirit" fit into an earthly context as well, though he allowed that "what took place in time upon the cross . . . took place really in the eternal, absolute order." And more recently, Paul Ellingworth has pointed out [New International Greek Testament, Hebrews, p.457] the uncertain nature of the 9:14 phrase, arguing against a "timeless" or spiritual meaning. He is partially right on the 'timeless' idea, but the use of "hapax/ephapax" (once for all) in regard to Christ's heavenly sacrifice is determined largely by the writer's desire to contrast that sacrifice with and make it superior to its earthly counterpart, the repeated "daily" sacrifices of the high priests (7:27; cf. 9:25). In the context of these chapters as a whole, the higher/lower world dichotomy is unmistakable. ]

É 130. - Hebrews 8:4

3Every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices: hence, this one too must have something to offer. 4Now if he had been on earth, he would not even have been a priest, since there are already priests who offer the gifts which the Law prescribes, 5though they minister in a sanctuary which is only a copy and shadow of the heavenly. . . . [NEB]
This passage might be called a "smoking gun," for it virtually spells out that Jesus had never been on earth. Though the point may seem trivial (and it is), the writer is comparing the heavenly High Priest, Christ, with his earthly counterparts, and here he makes the passing comment that Christ on earth would have nothing to do, since there are and have been priests who perform this role which the Law requires.

The tense here is ambiguous. The Greek for the key phrase is "ei men oun en epi ges" or literally: "now, therefore, if he were on earth," with the verb "were" in the imperfect. This is, strictly speaking, a past tense, and the NEB translation above reflects this, with its clear implication that Jesus had never been to earth. Scholars, naturally, shy away from this meaning. Paul Ellingworth [NIGT, Hebrews, p.405] admits that the NEB is grammatically possible, "since the imperfect in unreal conditions is temporally ambiguous." But he counters: "However, it goes against the context, in at least apparently excluding Christ's present ministry, and it could also be misunderstood as meaning that Jesus had never 'been on earth.' He thus opts for a translation like most others, "If he were [now] on earth, he would not be a priest at all."

Even with the latter translation, however, there is an awkward silence. The writer offers no qualification for an idea which could be misconstrued as covering past times. He shows no cognizance of the fact that Jesus had been on earth, and that an important part of his sacrifice had taken place there, the shedding of his blood on Calvary. The implication that he would have had nothing to do on earth, since there were already high priests there, goes against the obvious fact that he had had very much to do on earth. Ellingworth goes on to say that, "The argument presupposes, rather than states, that God cannot establish two priestly institutions in competition." This is indeed the case, yet with Christ the High Priest on earth, performing an important part his sacrifice on Calvary, such a competition would in fact be present, and the writer should have felt obligated to deal with it.

The epistle's fundamental point is the setting up of two counterpart sacrificial systems, the old and the new, the Sinai cult on earth and the heavenly sacrifice of Jesus which supplants it. The presence of Jesus on earth, crucified in the earthly sphere in the present or the past, would have foiled such a Platonic duality.

[ Note the contrast here with the terms "flesh" (sarx) in 5:7 and "world/universe" (kosmos) in 10:5. Whereas the epistles often use both these terms, especially the first, in speaking of Jesus' activities, they never use 8:4's "ge" (earth), save for here where the thought is clearly that Jesus had never been to that place.

This passage, along with chapters 8 and 9 generally, is thoroughly discussed in Article No. 9, A Sacrifice in Heaven: The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews. ]

É 131. - Hebrews 8:8-12

Considering that the epistle writer himself (along with most Christians) seems oblivious to the void in the Old Testament passage he quotes here, we may step outside the strict boundaries of this "Sound of Silence" feature and observe a telling silence in one of the Hebrew prophets. Jeremiah 31:31-34, as quoted in Hebrews 8:8-12, has this to say:

"The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will conclude a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt; because they did not abide by the terms of that covenant, and I abandoned them, says the Lord. For the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord, is this: I will set my laws in their understanding and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach one another, saying to brother and fellow-citizen: 'Know the Lord!' For all of them shall know me, from small to great; I will be merciful to their wicked deeds, and their sins I will remember no more at all." [NEB]
The scriptures were scoured by Jew and Christian alike for foreshadowings of the Messiah, and yet in perhaps the most prominent and direct forecast of the future made by a biblical prophet, one involving the fundamental idea of a new covenant to replace the old, there is not a glimmer of a Messiah or a Son of God. If the Deity was regarded as encoding into the sacred writings all manner of details about the life and work of Jesus, how is it that an open and unambiguous statement of God's plans for the future does not contain him? If salvation is now to be dependent on knowing and believing in Jesus, why is God's own forecast of his future requirements limited to 'knowing the Lord," meaning himself? If Jesus' sacrifice was required to forgive sins, why does God's reference to the cancellation of sins make no mention of it?

The writer of Hebrews is using Jeremiah's prophecy to 'prove' the dissolution of the old covenant and thereby justify his own community's substitution of a new one, based on the idea of the Son's sacrifice in heaven. He, too, seems unaware of the void in the biblical passage which contains no forecast of his own christology of the Son as High Priest.

É 132. - Hebrews 9:11

But now Christ has come, high priest of good things already in being . . . and thus he has entered the sanctuary once and for all and secured an eternal deliverance. [NEB]

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things which have come to be, he entered once for all into the sanctuary . . . [NAB]

Somewhat like the silence in 8:4, this passage has a definite implication that Jesus had never "come" to earth. Whether that coming is expressed in the perfect tense (with present implications), as in the NEB translation, or in a strict past tense, as in most others, such an arrival is linked exclusively with his entry into the heavenly sanctuary, which is a spiritual higher-world event. Ellingworth [op.cit. p.449] admits that "The reference is not to the incarnation, but to Christ's entry into heaven." His following comment is an understatement: "The question of whether the author thought of Christ as high priest from birth does not arise." We could expand that to say, the question of whether Christ had "come" to earth at all, to live a life and undergo a death prior to his "coming" into the heavenly tabernacle to perform his sacrifice, also does not arise. Is the author so devoid of all interest in the span of Jesus' life on earth that he can impart to it no significance or mention whatsoever?

Jean Héring (Hebrews, p.77) notes: "But the objection will be raised that the sacrifice was accomplished at Golgotha and not in heaven. Yet that event had a supernatural effect; it opened the way which leads to the heavenly Holy of Holies." This 'objection' is not only apparent to the minds of later Christians, it illustrates that to properly describe the sacrifice of Jesus, even in its "supernatural" implications, some reference to Calvary and the physical dimension on earth must be made. This is precisely what is missing over the entire length of Hebrews, not to mention virtually all the vast landscape of the New Testament epistles.

É Ś Hebrews 9:19-20: See "Top 20" #12

É 133. - Hebrews 9:24-26

24For Christ has entered, not that sanctuary made by men's hands which is only a symbol of the reality, but heaven itself, to appear now before God on our behalf. . . . 26. . . But as it is, he has appeared once and for all at the climax of history [literally, at the completion of the ages] to abolish sin by the sacrifice of himself. [NEB]
The previous item (#132) questioned the meaning and significance of the word "coming" where it seems to be linked exclusively with the entry of Jesus into the heavenly sanctuary. Was the writer blind to any "coming" to earth?

Here we face a similar, but even more graphic and revealing situation. Verse 24 above speaks solely of Jesus' appearance (the verb emphainizo) before God, meaning in heaven. When we go on to verse 26, it too speaks of an "appearance" (the verb phaneroo), in this case at the end of the ages. The natural flow of meaning is to take the latter appearance as synonymous with the former one, in other words, it is the appearance in heaven. Since that latter appearance (in verse 26) is defined as the abolishing of sin by his sacrifice, and since such a sacrifice is always and exclusively spoken of as the entry of Jesus into the heavenly tabernacle, we must assume that in verse 26, too, the writer has in mind the heavenly event. The "appearing" at the climax of history and the abolishing of sin by his sacrifice, is a reference to a spiritual event in heaven, not an earthly one on Calvary in incarnated form.

But this creates a devastating silence on any "appearance" on earth. If Jesus' sacrifice in heaven is defined as the appearance which took place at the completion of the ages, where is the incarnation, which also should have been seen as taking place at such a time? There is no sign in this entire passage that the writer is making a switch, between verse 24 and verse 26, from the heavenly appearance to the earthly one. In verse 26, in fact, the verb used is phaneroo, one I have often pointed out would be an odd one to use to signify incarnation. It means to "reveal" or "be manifested." It can also mean to 'put in an appearance,' but here it can be aligned with all the other usages of this word, and related ones, in the epistles (eg, 1 Peter 1:20, Romans 3:21 and 24, Romans 16:26, etc.) where the meaning is clearly the revelation of Christ or the bringing of him to the light of knowledge, usually by God. This enriched meaning of "appearance" in Hebrews 9:26 reinforces the concept that Jesus, for this writer, is a spiritual entity, revealed in this last period of the world as having undergone a heavenly sacrifice, the most important element of which is the entry into the higher world sanctuary. Neither room nor importance is given in any degree for a presence on earth or a sacrifice in those lower physical precincts. All of these points are discussed at length in Article No. 9, A Sacrifice in Heaven: The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

[ The following verses, 27-28, contain a reference to Jesus' subsequent appearance when the End-time actually arrives. This is claimed to be the one clear place in the epistles where a reference is made to a second coming. If it were so, it could be placed in opposition to a first coming which constituted the one into the heavenly sanctuary. But there is an alternate understanding for the key phrase which renders the idea "next" rather than "second." This question will be examined in the Appendix, but is also covered in the Epilogue to Article No. 9. ]

É 134. - Hebrews 10:5-6

That is why, at his coming into the world, he says:
"Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire,
But thou hast prepared a body for me.
Whole-offerings and sin-offerings thou didst not delight in.
Then I said, 'Here am I: as it is written of me in the scroll,
I have come, O God, to do thy will.' " (Psalm 40:6-8 LXX) [NEB]
Perhaps the most significant passage in the early Christian documents which employs the idea of Christ speaking from scripture. The "he says" has been labeled the 'historic present' (Moffat, ICC, Hebrews, p.xxii) or 'timeless present' (Ellingworth, NIGT, Hebrews, p.499), but there is nothing of history here, and a close parallel is 1 Clement's use of the present tense in 16:15 to introduce the voice of Christ describing himself through the writings. (I prefer the term "mythical present," giving a picture of spiritual world realities.)

The key and distinguishing phrase here is "at his coming into the world," for which there is no parallel in any of the other passages using such a present tense. Either it refers in some way to Jesus' incarnation to earth, or it does not. If the former, the idea should have been expressed in the past. Some translations (RSV, Héring) simply place the thought in the past tense ("when he came into the world he said"), others try to offer some justification for linking it with the earthly advent, creating awkward images of the spirit of Christ speaking to the Father at the moment of birth.

If it does not (and the writer nowhere speaks of such a birth/advent, nor does he suggest that this was the prophecy of an historical event), we are left with a view of scripture as the material-world's window onto the realm of the spirit, where Christ acts. The atmosphere is identical to 2:14 (above, #119), in which Christ speaks from scripture about men being his brothers, and to 1:6 (above, #116), where God "says" things in scripture to the angels, when he presents the Son, his "first-born," to the world. The latter, despite the use of the term "oikumene," is clearly a heavenly event, and everything in 10:5 suggests that these words and the occasion on which they were 'spoken' is the same, or at least of the same sort. (Note that the word for world in the first line above is "kosmos," which even more than oikumene in 1:6 can refer to the total 'universe' encompassing higher and lower realms.)

Christ and his supernatural world exist or are embodied in the pages of scripture. Within that mythical realm, he obediently takes on a 'body' (soma) prepared for him by God, to serve as a sacrifice which will supplant the old ones on earth that God no longer wants. This is an extension of the higher/lower world dichotomy set up in chapters 8 and 9, in which Christ's sacrifice in the heavenly tabernacle supplants the priestly sacrifices on earth. In fact, the reference is virtually identical, for verse 10 goes on to say that "we have been consecrated, through the offering of the body (soma) of Jesus Christ once and for all." The latter's use of the term soma in conjunction with the idea of "offering" places such a body, and the act being described throughout this passage, within the heavenly sanctuary, for the "offering" which is done "once for all" and which provides salvation is always located in that upper world, non-material setting. This illustrates that the concept of "body" can be located in the higher spiritual world, along with the concept of "blood." And by extension, the concept of "flesh."

These verses in Hebrews are a very revealing indicator of what sort of sourceŚnamely scriptural passages which referred to sacrifice, body, and elsewhere things like nailing and piercingŚwould have lead the earliest Christian thinkers to develop the concept that the spiritual Christ had descended and taken on lower forms. And that he had been crucified for sacrificial, redemptive purposesŚall of it under wider influences of religious and philosophical expression, both Jewish and Hellenistic. For now, it all took place within the baser celestial spheres, at the hands of Satan and the demons. Later, the Son would descend all the way to earth.

É 135. - Hebrews 10:9

. . . And then he says, "I have come to do thy will." [NEB]
If 5:7 did indeed spell knowledge of the Gospel scene in Gethsemane, it would be curious that when the writer wishes to demonstrate that Jesus was obedient to God's will in accepting death and that he declared such obedience, he would not draw on Jesus' own words at that moment. Matthew has Jesus at Gethsemane say, "Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt." And Luke similarly, "Yet not my will but thine be done." (Both based on Mark.)

É 136. - Hebrews 10:12

But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. [NIV]
Passages like this indicate that the writer of Hebrews has no concept of the resurrection as portrayed in the Gospels. Similar to 1:4, "when he had brought about the purgation of sins, he took his seat at the right hand of Majesty," the sacrifice is immediately followed by the arrival at the throne of God in heaven. (See also the same progression in 12:2 which, because of its passing reference to "the cross," will be discussed in the Appendix file.)

Even if one defines the act of sacrifice as the event in heaven when Christ entered the heavenly sanctuary with his blood, one still looks in vain in this epistle for any allowance for or mention of a time on earth between the initial shedding of the blood (however that may have been conceived) and the offering of it within heaven's tabernacle. Trying to take it into account necessitates some awkward images and questions as to where Jesus' blood, shed on Calvary, was stored during the period of lying in tomb and making post-resurrection appearances on earth, and the entering of the heavenly sanctuary with that blood in tow.

É 137. - Hebrews 10:15-16

15Here we have also the testimony of the Holy Spirit: he first says, 16"This is the covenant which I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will set my laws in their hearts and write them on their understanding." [NEB]
Not only is this another quote of Jeremiah 31:31f. which lacks any prophecy of the Son (the passage is regarded as spoken through the Holy Spirit), the writer refers to this passage as "testimony" to the promised new covenant, created, in the thought of this community, by Christ's heavenly sacrifice (although Jeremiah contains no allusion to this either).

But with this focus on "testimony" to the new covenant, a further glaring silence reveals itself. One of the central events of the Gospel passion account is the Last Supper scene. It presents Jesus as pronouncing the establishment of a new covenant through his sacrifice, symbolized by the bread and wine of the meal. Just as we noted a complete silence on the Eucharist and Jesus' Last Supper words in 9:19-20, when the writer quotes the near identical words of Moses at the establishment of the old covenant (see "Top 20" #12), here too he fails to offer any of the Gospel sayings about that covenant, such as Mark 14:14, "This is my blood of the covenant, shed for many." (Compare Matthew 26:28 and Luke 22:20.)

It is impossible to believe that the community of Hebrews had any eucharistic rite, or any knowledge of such a sacramental meal established by Jesus. Its omission in the thought of a writer who is focused on the concept of a new covenant and Jesus as a priestly figure is one of those cases where the argument from silence is logically and irrefutably valid. Nor could this community, possessing the theological interests it did, possibly have remained ignorant of circulating traditions which told of the Last Supper and its significance. If it knew of Jesus sufficiently to create the cosmic christological interpretation found in this epistle, it would hardly have missed out on traditions about such an important episode of the passion.

We are forced to conclude, whether an historical Jesus existed or not, that no such event took place at the beginning of the movement. By extension, we can reject Paul's account of the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 as referring to a known historical event, or as something circulating through oral tradition based on eyewitness attendance.

É 138. - Hebrews 10:37

For 'soon, very soon' (in the words of Scripture), 'he who is to come will come; he will not delay . . .' [NEB]
The latter quote is from Habakkuk 2:3f. Literally, the Greek reads: "the one coming will come." Ho Erchomenos, "the Coming One," was a popular title for the expected Messiah, the one prophesied in scripture. Borrowing the 'soon's from Isaiah 26:20, the writer of Hebrews is declaring that the one long promised will arrive on earth shortly.

The void here is surely evident. Had not the Coming One, in the view of Christians, already come? If the writer knew of a human Jesus on whom his heavenly High Priest was based, could he possibly have left out that first advent in his prophetic equation? Is there any room for the historical figure between the scriptural promise and the future expected arrival? Not in these words.

Here is another in a growing list of statements by the early epistle writers which makes no allowance for the existence of an earthly Jesus in the historical past. I pointed out in the Introduction that when a silence is not just a silence, but entails an exclusion of the thing whose existence is in question, the argument from silence has a special and compelling validity. Nor will it do to object, as Mr. J. P. Holding has a habit of doing, that there was "no need" to mention such a thing, as everyone already knew it. In the above sort of case, this is not the point. The point is how the writer expresses himself. I may have just married for a second time (a hypothetical example only), and my friends may be aware that I had a first wife even if I don't speak of her, but I am not in that case likely to tell them that my recent marriage ceremony was a new experience for me.

É 139. - Hebrews 11

And what is faith? . . . [NEB]
With this question, the writer launches into a paean to those, in Jewish history, who have demonstrated faith and trust in God, and thereby received a range of benefits. Down the ages the litany rolls, from Abel and Enoch, to Abraham and Moses. In verse 32 he asks: "Need I say more?" He refers en bloc to figures like Samson and David, with their stories of trial, warfare, distress and even death: "These also, one and all, are commemorated for their faith."

He might very well have said more. Is it too much to expect that the figure of Jesus would have crossed the writer's mind in this connection? Would he not have been seen as one who placed faith in God throughout his life, had taught that very thing, and had demonstrated it in the endurance of his passion and death, finally to receive the ultimate benefit for such faithŚhis resurrection from the tomb?

We might note a couple of further silences in this passage. Verse 37, in describing the fates of some of the biblical figures, says: "They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were put to the sword, they went about dressed in skins of sheep or goats, in poverty, distress, and misery." For us, the figure of John the Baptist comes to mind here, not only for his death at the hands of Herod Antipas, but in the phrase "skins of sheep or goats," which is reminiscent of John's "rough coat of camel's hair" as described in Mark 1:6 and parallels. In view of the Gospels' focus on John and their presentation of him as Jesus' herald (derived from the Q tradition), this is something one would expect should have been familiar to most if not all Christian communities. (In "Top 20" #11, I also pointed out 1 Clement's lack of mention of the Baptist in that passage [17:1] where he refers to "those who went about in sheepskins and goatskins heralding the Messiah's coming.")

And what of Christian martyrs who exhibited faith and suffered for it? Acts portrays a well-established 'Hellenist' community in Jerusalem, whose leader Stephen dies by stoning for defending Jesus as Lord and Son of Man. One might expect that such a prominent figure and his fate would be known at least in the area of Palestine, where Hebrews is usually considered to have been written. However, there is no mention of Acts' Stephen to be found in the entire first hundred years of Christian writing, and he is likely a fictional creation.

É Ś Hebrews 12:15-17: See "Top 20" #13

É 140. - Hebrews 12:18-29

18Remember where you stand: not before the palpable, blazing fire of Sinai, with the darkness, gloom, and whirlwind, 19the trumpet blast and the oracular voice which they heard . . .

22No, you stand before Mount Zion and the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem, before myriads of angels, 23the full concourse and assembly of the first-born citizens of heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of good men made perfect, 24and Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, whose sprinkled blood has better things to tell than the blood of Abel.

25See that you do not refuse to hear the voice that speaks. Those who refused to hear the oracle speaking on earth found no escape; still less shall we escape if we refuse to hear the One who speaks from heaven. 26Then indeed his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, 'Yet once again I will shake not earth alone, but heavens also.' . . . 28. . . Let us therefore give thanks to God, and so worship him as he would be worshiped, with reverence and awe; 29for our God is a devouring fire. [NEB]

With these verses (I have broken them into paragraphs for clarity's sake and made a few cuts), we arrive at the climax of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The entire content of the letter: the doctrine of the new covenant established through the sacrifice of Jesus, his entry into the heavenly sanctuary, the exhortations to faith, all seem laid out like some carefully planned build-up to this final peroration, urging steadfastness on the readers and giving dire warning against apostasy. If this were music, Hebrews would be one vast movement of a symphony, unfolding through its broad, intricate themes to a last mighty climax.

Yet we must ask what this first-century symphonist has given us in his great Coda. His major themes have been built around the contrast between the old and new covenants. Like a good composer, he develops these musical motifs through the course of his work, and he recapitulates them when he gives us his summing up, restating them in powerful, clear form.

Yet these are strange and unexpected melodies. From the opening verses the author of Hebrews establishes his contrast between the old and the new: how God spoke in former times through the prophets, and how he has spoken now in this final age through his Son. Angels had been associated with the former voice, and the Son has been proven superior to them. In his summation in chapter 12, he again gives us the voices of the old and new covenants. But neither at the beginning nor the end, nor indeed at any point in the entire work, do we hear words from the Son himself on earth.

As the writer began his work, calling on divine words to express the new salvation and provide proof for the Son's role in it, the voice was solely that of God, as recorded in the Old Testament, with that voice occasionally placed in the heavenly Son's mouth. Here at the climax, after reminding his readers of the voice of God at Sinai, he turns to the voice which Christians must heed today. What voice does he give them? It is the voice of "the One who speaks from heaven," words once more from the Old Testament. It remains the voice of God. The writer of Hebrews, like all his first century fellows, is deaf to the melody of Jesus, to the rich music of the Gospel teachings, for he has given us not a note of it.

But the void in the music of Hebrews goes even deeper, as it does in the rest of the early Christian literature. Here in chapter 12 the author has first invited his readers to stand in their mind's eye by the mount of Sinai where the old covenant was granted. When he brings them to the scene of the new covenant, it is to Mt. Zion and not to the mount of Calvary. It is to the new, heavenly Jerusalem, and not to the hill beside the earthly city, nor to the empty tomb which lay in the same vicinity. How can images of these places and the significance they bore, transmitted through oral tradition and nourishing the faith and fervor of every Christian community, not dominate the writer's thinking and expression?

It matters not that scholars might claim (and often do) that a writer may, for example in this case, wish to contrast the earthly Mt. Sinai with the heavenly Mt. Zion; or that his argument or personal disposition lent itself to using Old Testament imagery exclusively. What possible disposition could lead him to exclude from his writings all the motifs of his new faith, to construct his elaborate theology without them? Here and elsewhere, the true governing factor is surely overlooked. If the Gospel story had been known, the line of argument would have been shaped to accommodate that knowledge. If the story of Jesus of Nazareth were at home in the minds of these writers, it would have imposed itself upon their discussions, their thought processes. Moffat, in his study of Hebrews, would have us believe that the author did not make use of the idea of Jesus' resurrection because he was confining his High Priest analogy to the biblical prototype of the Day of Atonement sacrifice and there was no 'slot' for it! Can we possibly think that any such consideration would lead a Christian writer to reject the rising of Jesus from his tomb as 'unusable' and ignore it for 13 chapters?

É 141. - Hebrews 13:2

Remember to show hospitality. There are some who, by so doing, have entertained angels without knowing it. [NEB]
Following the mighty peroration of chapter 12, chapter 13 of the Epistle to the Hebrews is more than a denouement, it is a let-down. Some have suggested it has the feel of a tacked-on piece, designed to turn a theological treatise, an ambitious homily, into a standard epistle in keeping with the second century's preference for that genre as a vehicle for imparting doctrinal views. Others suggest only some of the later verses are subsequent additions.

In any case, such additions are not late enough to reflect an historical Jesus. The above verse raises the image of entertaining an even greater anonymous guest. Surely there were some who, during his ministry on earth, had entertained the Son of God without knowing it!

É 142. - Hebrews 13:5-6

Do not live for money; be content with what you have; for God himself has said, "I will never leave you or desert you." And so we can take courage and say, "The Lord is my helper, I will not fear; what can man do to me?" [NEB]
The author quotes Psalm 118, but what of Jesus' moving and poetic equivalent in the Sermon on the Mount about putting away anxious thoughts and worries about the necessities of life? "Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all" (Mt. 6:32). The writer draws also on Deuteronomy (31:6) for the assurance that God will not desert the believer, but did not Jesus say the same thing to his disciples? "And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Mt. 28:20). Matthew's saying may be his own invention, or a tradition that did not happen to reach the community of Hebrews, but where such an important need was concerned, a tradition about such an assurance would have been very likely to develop on its own.

É 143. - Hebrews 13:7

Remember your leaders, those who first spoke God's message to you; and reflecting upon the outcome of their life and work, follow the example of their faith. [NEB]
Once again an early epistle writer (or interpolator) brings home to us the stark reality that the Christ belief movement which constituted earliest Christianity began with a response to a perceived revelation by God, to a message imparted through such revelation by God. Any idea of a message or a beginning in a Jesus on earth, preaching and acting in his own right, is notably missing. Missing, too, is the concept of apostolic tradition, the idea that word and doctrine about Jesus was spread through a chain of apostles going back to those who had actually followed and learned from him on earth.

Here the "example" comes from the community's own leaders. The faith and christology of Hebrews is an independent, self-generated one, the product of a sectarian group who have taken their beliefs from scripture and the philosophical trends of the time.

É 144. - Hebrews 13:8

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. [NEB]
For this, the last silence in what is possibly the most revealing of all the New Testament epistles, I will simply quote the final paragraph in my Supplementary Article No. 9, A Sacrifice in Heaven: The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which I would recommend for a fuller examination of many of the points raised in this Sound of Silence installment.

"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever," the author intones in 13:8. Could a divine Son, pre-existent in heaven before his incarnation, who was born fully human in Bethlehem in the days of Herod the Great, who grew up and ministered in Galilee, was slain in Jerusalem and rose bodily from the dead to return to heavenŚcould he be spoken of in this fashion? But of a mythical Christ who operated entirely in the spiritual sphere, in a timeless, Platonic existence, one who had never been to earth and was known only by divine revelation from the pages of scripture, such an affirmation would be perfectly apt.

To File No. 8: James, 1 & 2 Peter

Return to Home Page