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Supplementary Article No. 9
A SACRIFICE IN HEAVEN
The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews
-- I --
A New Son and Covenant
More than any other New Testament document, the Epistle to the Hebrews contains all the elements needed to understand the general nature of early cultic Christianity. This, despite the fact that it is often styled an anomaly, even “an alien presence in the New Testament” (L. D. Hurst, Hebrews: Its Background and Thought, p.1), since its presentation of Christ is so unique.
Who the writer is, where he writes, whom he is addressing remain unknown. But in this carefully crafted treatise, the author of Hebrews is speaking to a group which has been founded on a revelatory experience at some time in the past (2:3-4; see Supplementary Article No. 7), a group which now shares a distinctive christology and sectarian outlook. They expect the end of the present world to arrive shortly (1:2, 3:14, etc.). The community has known persecution (10:32f) and is perhaps in danger of losing its faith or fervor, thus prompting this treatise. The thought world of the epistle is strongly Jewish (though of a variety outside the mainstream and with Hellenistic elements), and if as some suggest the writer is part of a gentile community, then it is one which has fully absorbed and adopted a Jewish identity. The epistle tends to be dated fairly early, between 60 and 90, and many lean toward locating it before the destruction of the Temple in 70, since nothing of that event surfaces in the author’s focus on the sacrificial cult.
Those elements in Hebrews which reveal the nature of incipient Christianity lie surprisingly clear to the eye, and they begin at the very head of the epistle. Here are the opening four verses, courtesy of the New English Bible:
Hebrews’ “Son” reflects the dominant religious philosophy of the age, that the ultimate God emanates a force or secondary divinity that constitutes his image, one who has served to effect creation and who provides the ongoing sustaining power of the universe. The Son is also an intermediary channel between heaven and earth, and for this group, as for so many others on the Christian cultic scene (compare 1 John 5:20), he conforms to another aspect of personified Wisdom in that he serves as the voice of God to humanity, revealing knowledge about the Deity and the availability of salvation. Finally, in a feature shared by not quite so many early Christian groups, this sect regards the Son as an agent of salvation through a sacrifice for sin.
This doctrine is what the writer will concentrate on throughout the epistle. He will cast it in a unique setting and christology which lies outside standard Logos concepts and takes up residence in that most ancient of Jewish institutions: the sacrificial cult of the Temple as it became embodied in the legends of the Exodus and the establishment of the first covenant on Mount Sinai. For the community of Hebrews, the Son Jesus Christ is the spiritual High Priest whose sacrifice in heaven has established a new covenant to supplant the old.
A Missing Equation and a Silent Voice
For all that is said about the Son here and throughout this longest of the New Testament epistles after Romans, we should immediately note what is not said. First, no equation is ever made of this divine figure with the human man Jesus of Nazareth, known to later Christianity from the Gospels. As we shall see, the Son inhabits not an earthly setting, but a higher world revealed by scripture; more than one passage tells us, in fact, that he had never been to earth (see Epilogue). In the opening verses quoted above, the writer alludes to the Son’s work of salvation, a bare statement that he had “brought about the purgation of sins” (v.3). Not only does this lack any context of a life on earth, the act itself will be placed by the writer in a heavenly sanctuary, a spiritual world setting of a Platonic type. Here we can see that the earliest expression of Christ belief had nothing to do with a reaction to an historical preaching sage and everything to do with the heady expressions of contemporary Greek and Jewish philosophy, about the unseen realm of heaven and the various manifestations of Deity which existed there.
In that unseen reality, the writer is concerned with establishing certain things about the Son. If we go on from verse 4 above, we find that one of these is that he is “superior to the angels.” To prove this, the writer quotes several passages from the Psalms and elsewhere, comparing what God says about the angels with what he says (as the writer sees it) about the Son. The latter includes Psalm 2:7’s famous: “Thou art my Son; today I have begotten you.” In quoting Psalm 45:6, the writer seems to regard the Son as being addressed by the term “God.” Psalm 102’s declaration that through the Son was the earth’s foundation laid, and Psalm 110’s invitation to the Son to sit at God’s right hand, proves for the writer that he is “superior to the angels.” But should we not wonder why the writer did not think to appeal to the Son’s incarnation, to his life and ministry on earth, to his rising from the tomb, to prove such a superiority? In fact, one of the glaring silences in this epistle is the failure to mention the resurrection at all! For that, Jean Héring (Hebrews, p.xi) calls this work “an enigma.”
What the writer is doing, of course, is using scripture to cast light on the workings of the higher realm. Jesus the Son, together with the angels, are exclusively spiritual figures, part of the paraphernalia of heaven, with Jesus defined (as in 1:3) in thoroughly mythological terms. The writer needs to rank the heavenly Christ above the angels because he regards him as the agency of the new covenant, whereas the angels have been associated with the delivering of the old covenant, now superseded. Christ’s proven superiority will support the superiority of this new covenant and the validity of the community’s covenant theology. In the face of such a need, it is unthinkable that all aspects of the Son’s nature and activities would not be appealed to. Héring’s “enigma” is a pale judgment on the pervasive and inexplicable silence in this epistle about every aspect of Jesus’ career on earth. (Those handful of references which scholars like to point to as allusions to Gospel details are better seen as dependent on scripture and will be dealt with later in this article.)
Our second focus on what is not said in Hebrews proceeds from the opening declaration, that in this final age God has “spoken to us in (or through) the Son.” Is it feasible that, after expressing such a sentiment, the writer would go on through 13 chapters and never once give us a word of what this Son spoke on earth? Not a single Gospel saying is introduced, not even a reference to the fact itself that Jesus had taught in a human ministry. Chapter 2 begins with the idea that “we must pay heed to the things we were told,” but this is evidently not to include the words delivered by the Son while on earth, since they are never presented. And when the writer goes on to refer to the experience which lay at the inauguration of the sect, the “announcement of salvation through the Lord” (2:3-4), this is clearly a revelatory event he is describing, and not any ministry of Jesus. (See The Launching of a Sect in Supplementary Article No. 7, Transfigured on the Holy Mountain, for a fuller discussion of this passage.)
In Hebrews, the “voice” of the Son comes entirely from scripture, and it is a voice which speaks in the present, not from the past. When the author first quotes the Son’s perceived words in the Psalms and Isaiah (2:12-13), he introduces them in the present tense: “he says” (the Greek present participle legon). The Son is an entity who is known and communicates now and today, through the sacred writings.
The words in these particular quotations 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, instead of going to the Old Testament to prove his point, the writer does not draw on any of Jesus’ several statements on the subject, as recorded in the Gospels. Why not Luke 8:21 (and parallels): “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.” Or Matthew 25:40: “Anything you did for one of my brothers . . . you did for me.” Even John 20:17 might have served: “Go to my brothers and tell them that I am now ascending to my Father. . .” Does the writer lack all knowledge of such sayings by Jesus in an earthly ministry?
Graham Hughes, in his study of Hebrews (Hebrews and Hermeneutics, p.62), shows to what bizarre lengths scholars can go in order to account for such silences. He questions why the writer did not draw on those Gospel sayings which “coincide” with the Old Testament verses he actually uses. Hughes’ first assumption is that such sayings were well known to the author. So much so, he says, that he regarded the Old Testament quotations as “forms” of the Gospel sayings. Thus, “the former can now be appropriated to give expression to the latter.” Once the brain stops spinning, the reader may well ask: why should the author pass up quoting Jesus’ sayings themselves in favor of quoting Old Testament verses which ‘stand for them’? If he wants to “give expression to” the sayings, why not just quote the sayings? This is a good example of a common scholarly practice of defining something as its opposite: the absence of any Gospel sayings in Hebrews is really a quotation of those sayings through their Old Testament prefigurations!
In actuality, all we have in Hebrews are those Old Testament verses. They show that the voice of the Son through which God speaks in this final age is the voice heard in a new interpretation of the sacred writings, that for sects like the one which produced this epistle, scripture provides a window onto the higher world where God and the Son do their work and communicate with humanity.
A Spirit World Body
If we go on to 10:5-7, things become even clearer. Here the Son speaks in what might be styled a “mythical present” through a passage from Psalm 40 (actually, from the Septuagint version, No. 39, showing that the community lives in a Hellenistic milieu, not a Hebrew one):
That is why, at his coming into the world, he says:How do scholars approach this seemingly odd mode of expression? The writer presents Christ as speaking in the present (“he says”). Yet this speaking is “at his coming into the world,” which must also be in the same present. Such actions are placed not in history, but in scripture, in whatever the writer regards as represented by the words of the Psalm. Nor does he show any sense of confusion between this “coming” and any recent coming of Jesus into the world in an historical sense, at Bethlehem or on earth generally.
“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.’ ”
But confusion among commentators abounds. Héring (Hebrews, p.84f) simply translates the verb into the past tense, without comment. Hugh Montefiore (Epistle to the Hebrews, p.166) suggests that the coming into the world refers to Christ’s “human conception or his human birth,” and that the writer regards the Psalm as reporting Jesus’ words to the Father at such a moment. Paul Ellingworth (New International Greek Testament Commentary, Hebrews, p.499) assumes that the writer hears Christ speaking through scripture prior to his human incarnation. All this is something that has to be read into the epistle’s words, for of birth and incarnation in an historical setting it has nothing to say.
Ellingworth (p.500) points to a promising interpretation of the “he says,” calling it “a timeless present referring to the permanent record of scripture.” We are skirting Platonic ideas here, with their concept of a higher world of timeless reality. Why not suggest, then, that the writer views scripture as presenting a picture of spiritual world realities, and it is in this spiritual world that Christ operates? The writer of Hebrews has gone to the sacred writings for the story of Christ, the newly revealed “Son.” In that case, the “he says” (here and throughout the epistle) becomes a mythical present, reflecting the higher world of myth, which seems to be the common universe of so many early Christian writers.
In this passage, we can see the type of source which could
have given rise to the idea that the spiritual Son had taken on or entered
“flesh,” as well as the idea that he had undergone sacrifice. At first
this was envisioned as taking place within the lower celestial realm. For
the writer of Hebrews, this would have placed the Son “for a short while
. . . lower than the angels” (2:9). Into this mythological realm Christ
had “come” to receive the body prepared for him, to provide a new sacrifice
and a new covenant to supplant the old one with its animal sacrifices which
God no longer wanted. (As we shall see, the writer’s concept of exactly
where the divine death itself had taken place is somewhat vague. Instead,
he focuses on Christ’s subsequent actions in the heavenly sanctuary, offering
his blood to God in a higher world parallel to the earthly sacrificial
-- II --
Before going on to examine how the author of Hebrews presents the sacrifice of the Son, we should look at a handful of passages which could be said to constitute cryptic references to incidents portrayed in the Gospels. Commentators, in a show of enthusiasm over this, often pronounce Hebrews to be the epistle which “most displays an interest in the historical Jesus.” In fact, these few references can be shown to be based on readings of scripture and can be placed within the mythological world to which 10:5 points. In the process, we will also look at a couple of Gospel features which are notably conspicuous by their absence.
Outside the Compound
The first to consider is 13:11-13:
Note, too, that the flanking verses above use the word “camp.” Here we need to look at the Greek word “parembole.” It means a fortified military camp, and it is used in Exodus and Leviticus to refer to the Israelite camp in the wilderness of Sinai. Hebrews, in its presentation of the cultic rituals of sacrifice, seems to have this ancient ‘historical’ setting in mind rather than any contemporary Herodian Temple. The present passage, then, lies far from the site of Jerusalem in the writer’s mind; and all of it has the mark of symbolic significance. Jesus suffering “outside the gate” is an element which is dependent, not on some historical record, but on the idea in the previous phrase. Jesus did this because bodies of sacrificed animals were burned outside the camp.
For this writer, everything to do with Christ and his sacrifice must be modeled on the sacrificial cultus of the Jewish religion, as described in scripture. Scripture determines the picture he creates of Christ and his activities in the spiritual world, and if animals were sacrificed outside the boundaries of the camp at Sinai, then Jesus had to undergo the same thing, in a higher world mythic parallel to the earthly copy. The idea of “outside the gate” also provides a symbolic parallel to the experiences of the believers, as we see by the succeeding verse which suggests that the author saw both Jesus and his own sect as rejected outsiders, living ‘beyond the pale’ with no permanent home. This is suggestive of the paradigmatic relationship between earthly and heavenly counterparts, as outlined in Article No. 8. Thus we can discount any necessary reference in this passage to Jerusalem or an historical event.
In any case, we have strong indication from an earlier passage (7:1-3) that the writer of Hebrews possesses no concept of Jesus ever having been in or near Jerusalem. Jesus in his role as heavenly High Priest finds his archetype, his scriptural precedent, in Melchizedek. This figure was “king of Salem and priest of God Most High,” who is mentioned briefly in Genesis 14:18-20. (There is an even briefer reference to him in Psalm 110:4.) In comparing Melchizedek to Jesus, the writer is anxious to milk everything he can from this shadowy character; one who serves the role of prototype for Jesus the new High Priest. And yet he fails to make the obvious point that Melchizedek had officiated in the same city where Jesus later performed his own act as High Priest, the sacrifice of himself. This is only one of many unthinkable omissions in this epistle.
“In the Days of His Flesh”
In the last Supplementary Article (No. 8) I described how the philosophy of the period regarded the upper spiritual portion of the universe as containing the primary and ideal counterparts of material world things, giving savior gods like Christ features which sound like human attributes. Not only could the Lord be “sprung from Judah” (Hebrews 7:14) because scripture indicated that this would be the Messiah’s lineage (see the discussion in Sprung From Judah in Article No. 8, Christ As "Man"), but he could also be said to possess the likeness of “flesh” and “blood” and to undergo sacrifice. Says 2:14: “Since (Christ’s children) have blood and flesh, he too shared the same things in a like manner (the Greek word means "similar, near to," not "identical"), so that through death he might break the power of him who had death at his command.” This is a classic expression of the parallel between the higher world paradigm and the believers linked to him on earth.
If “flesh” could refer to the lower celestial regions, or more generally to the counterpart spirit world of myth where all the activities of savior gods and goddesses took place, then Hebrews 5:7 can readily be placed in such a context:
Any tradition about Jesus at Gethsemane which bore a resemblance to the Gospel account would not fit Hebrews’ idea here, for the Gospel Jesus had prayed, in a moment of human weakness, that the cup be removed. This writer would never want to suggest that such a prayer was in any way answered, or was even a worthy one, much less that it made Jesus qualified to be the ideal High Priest. Scholars who squarely face this discrepancy usually downplay the link to Gethsemane. This does not include Montefiore (op.cit., p.97) who declares that “this historical incident evidently made a deep impression upon the author.” So deep, that he can only refer to it cryptically, making no connection to a specific moment in Jesus’ earthly life. (What would have prevented him from actually saying “in the Gethsemane garden”?) And he misapplies it to the point he is making.
Where then did the idea in 5:7 come from? In the case of this epistle, we know the answer by now: from scripture. G. A. Buchanan (Anchor Bible, Hebrews, p.98) suggests that “offering up petitions” is drawn from Psalm 116:1, which uses the same words (in the Septuagint version). And Montefiore, while fussing over the fact that it does not appear in the Gospel description, sees the phrase “loud cries and tears” as an enlargement on Psalm 22:24: “when I cried to him, he heard me” (again in the wording of the Septuagint). Reflecting scholarship in general, Ellingworth (op.cit., p.285) admits that 5:7 represents “a generalized use of the language and pattern of Old Testament intercession.” He allows that the words do not refer to Gethsemane—though he considers that they must refer to some historical event.
It is clear that the picture of Jesus’ “days in flesh” is being built up through the course of the first century from passages in scripture which supposedly supply details of those activities. For early writers like that of Hebrews, such activities were mythical ones, taking place in the spiritual world of true reality. This ‘supernatural incarnation’ (using Pfleiderer’s phrase) is characterized almost universally in early Christian writers by the word “flesh” (sarx) in some form or other (kata sarka, en sarki, etc.). When it came time to envision the Christ as having entered the flesh of the material world, the step was a simple one. (It may have been one small step for a god, but it was a giant leap for Western mankind.)
Gone Missing: The Last Supper . . .
But these few gleanings from Hebrews which scholars have attempted to link to incidents contained in the Gospels are overshadowed by two startling voids in the thought of this writer. Commentaries never lack for expressions of astonishment and a scramble for explanation on the subject of the Eucharist and the Resurrection, both of which are missing in this epistle. The former at least, should be a centerpiece.
The core of Hebrews’ attention is focused on the concept of sacrifice. The Jewish sacrificial cult as expressed in the ritual of the Day of Atonement and at the inauguration of the old Mosaic covenant is set against the sacrifice offered up by the new High Priest Jesus which has established a new and superseding covenant. In the Gospels, Jesus’ act of institution at the Last Supper places a sacramental significance on the atoning sacrifice he is about to undergo, and is presented by Jesus himself as the establishment of a new covenant. If such a thing had existed within the tradition of the author of Hebrews, there are few statements in the entire field of New Testament research which could be made with more confidence than that he would not have failed to bring in Jesus’ establishment of the Eucharist for the closest examination.
And yet we read in chapter 9 (15-22):
Again, there’s a clincher. It was pointed out above that the writer is eager to take as much as he can from the meager data available in Genesis and Psalm 110 about the figure of Melchizedek, king and priest of Jerusalem in the time of Abraham. But there is more than the one omission described earlier in his use of Genesis 14:18-20. Verse 18 begins:
How do scholars deal with Hebrews’ stunning silence on the Eucharist? Most of them seize on the observation that the author, when quoting Moses in chapter 9, has made a “subtle change” of one of the words from Exodus 24:8, substituting another which appears in Mark’s account of Jesus’ words at the Supper. (Instead of “Behold the blood . . .” he writes: “This is the blood . . .”) This 'change' is supposed to indicate that the author knew of the Supper scene and had Jesus’ words in mind, if only subconsciously. He can have them sufficiently in mind to alter a word, but not sufficiently to give us any discussion of the very act and sayings of Christ which lie at the core of his new covenant theology. Montefiore notes (op.cit., p.158) that the author of Hebrews “is not concerned in this epistle with the Christian Eucharist,” which hardly explains the matter nor alleviates the perplexity of it.
Few other features of the documentary record so clearly reveal the fragmented and uncoordinated nature of the early Christian movement. Hebrews provides strong evidence that independent expressions of belief in the existence of a divine Son and his role in salvation were to be found all over the landscape of the first century, with no central source or authority and little common sharing of doctrine and ritual. Just where the community which produced Hebrews was located, or the year in which this unique document was written, is impossible to tell, but that it owed its genesis to any historical events in Jerusalem, or anywhere else, is very difficult to support.
. . . and the Empty Tomb
The second of those startling voids in Hebrews is the absence of any concept of a resurrection for Christ, either in flesh or for a period on earth. Héring, in addition to labeling the epistle an “enigma” on this account, observes (op.cit., p.xi) that the writer seems to have no regard for the Easter miracle, since “events unroll as though Jesus went up to heaven immediately after death,” an idea found in more than one early Christian document. After “enduring the cross” (a reference which can easily fit into the mythical setting, as discussed above), Jesus takes his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (12:2). A similar process is described in 10:12: “But Christ offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat at the right hand of God.” This mimics the sequence in 1:3 as well, noted above. Finally, in 13:20, in a passage which has in any case been questioned as authentic to the original epistle, the writer speaks a prayer which begins: “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. Not surprisingly, the whole phrase is modeled on an Old Testament passage, Isaiah 63:11 (Septuagint): “Where is he that brought up from the sea the shepherd of the sheep?” Once again, we see that ideas about Jesus and his activities are derived not from history, but from scripture.
W. D. Davies (Hebrews, p.137) would like to suggest that “brought up” includes within itself the idea of both resurrection and ascension (including the standard 40-day interim, no doubt), which is yet another case of solving a problem by letting a silence stand for the very thing which is not in evidence. But it is difficult to believe that this writer could have had any concept that Jesus had overcome death in some way which would be meaningful to human hopes. In 7:16, the author extols Jesus as one who owes his priesthood “to the power of a life that cannot be destroyed.” Is this founded on Jesus’ conquest of death through his resurrection from the tomb? No such idea is hinted at. Instead, the statement is based—once again—on an interpretation of a scriptural passage, the one in Psalm 110 which declares: “thou art a priest forever.”
James Moffat, in his study of Hebrews (International
Critical Commentary, Hebrews, p.xxxviii), would have us believe
that the author could not make use of the idea of Jesus’ resurrection because
he was confining his High Priest analogy to the biblical prototype of sacrifice
on the Day of Atonement, and there was no ‘slot’ for it! Can we believe
that any literary consideration would lead a Christian writer to
reject the rising of Jesus from his tomb as ‘unusable’ and ignore it for
-- III --
A High Priest in a Heavenly Sanctuary
The picture of Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews is unlike any other in the New Testament. Scholars have often asked themselves what led its author to even think of portraying Jesus in this manner, as the heavenly High Priest whose blood sacrifice, offered in the heavenly sanctuary, is the higher world counterpart of the Day of Atonement sacrifice performed by the high priest in the sanctuary on earth. It is the more perfect embodiment of the earthly cult, and it has established a new covenant which ushers in the final age.
Nor is this writer some isolated theologian, for behind him (as we can see from the epistle) lies some form of community whose views he is representing and to whom he is addressing himself. Of course, scholars ask this question within the context of orthodox assumptions. They ask what led such a group to deviate so radically and with such “fresh creative thinking” (Montefiore, op.cit., p.96) from what must have been the more standard Christian message about Jesus, from the theological and historical picture they must have received through the apostolic channels by which they were converted. Cast in this way, the question is indeed a challenging and perplexing one.
But in the epistle itself no sign of such a deviation can be detected. Such a question is never addressed. The writer and his community seem to move in their own world, a world exclusively dependent on scripture and its interpretation. The handful of seeming allusions to some “earthly” experience of their divine Christ are, as we have just seen, ambiguous and cryptic, and can more easily be explained as proceeding from scripture than from any traditions of an historical Jesus of Nazareth, a figure who is never explicitly mentioned.
As noted above, Hebrews provides perhaps the best example in the New Testament of how Christ belief arose spontaneously out of currents and trends of the day, in independent expressions, each taking on its own characteristics as a result of the local conditions and the people involved. The epistle is what it is because a distinct group formulated their own picture of spiritual realities. They searched scripture for information and insight about the Son of God, under the influence of the wider religious and philosophical atmosphere of the first century, especially Alexandrian Platonism, and this is what they came up with. Their mediator between heaven and earth has been cast in the mold of the Jewish sacrificial cult. But they are not reinterpreting an apostolic message, they are not giving an against-the-grain twist (for reasons which would be difficult to explain) to the story of some recent man. No bow is made in the epistle to any wider Christian movement, nor to any standard from which they are deviating. The sectarian community represented by Hebrews is self-sufficient, and it too, like all other expressions of Christ belief of the day, from Paul to the enigmatic Johannine community, professes its dependence on, and defines its origins in, divine revelation and the sacred writings. Nothing else is in evidence.
It is illuminating that Montefiore, in trying to answer the question of why the writer of Hebrews interpreted Jesus in his own peculiar way, instinctively draws on Gospel details. He points (op.cit., p.95f) to Jesus’ words about his sacrificial death, his saying about building a temple not made with hands, the high priestly prayer quoted in John 17. But why is this natural instinct of the post-Gospel Christian exegete not mirrored in the document itself? In Hebrews, there are no sayings of Jesus quoted; there are no events of his life as recorded in the Gospels which the writer draws on to explain his interpretation of Jesus as High Priest. Not even the central concept of Jesus’ sacrifice as the establishment of a new covenant has been illuminated by the slightest reference to the Last Supper or to the words Jesus is said to have spoken on that occasion inaugurating such a covenant. Montefiore has only succeeded in highlighting the perplexing, maddening silence of it all.
A Blood Offering
To examine the mythical world of Hebrews, we will jump into the very middle of the epistle and the center of the writer’s thought: the sacrifice of Christ in the heavenly realm as laid out in chapters 8 and 9. The structure of this thought is thoroughly Platonic, though it mirrors some longstanding Jewish ideas as well. I will quote Marcus Dods from his 1910 commentary on Hebrews in the Expositor’s Greek Testament (p.271), for he lays out the Platonic principle very succinctly:
Here is the earthly, transient manifestation: a material sanctuary involving goat and bull sacrifices of limited efficacy, part of an old covenant which has proven itself faulty (8:8). And what is the other side of the Platonic equation? This is “the real sanctuary, the tent pitched by the Lord and not by man” (8:2). The tent of Christ’s priesthood “is a greater and more perfect one, not made by men’s hands, not part of the created world” (9:11). In other words, it lies in the upper world of the real and eternal.
Here, despite attempts to claim the contrary, there can be no denying that Hebrews’ thought world is fundamentally Platonic. This is a divided, dualistic universe of realms heavenly and earthly, genuine and imitation. Christ enters “not that sanctuary made by men’s hands which is only a symbol of the reality, but heaven itself” (9:24). In classic fashion, the upper world contains the “archetype,” the lower world the “antitype” or copy.
Christ as heavenly High Priest is infinitely superior to the high priest on earth who officiates in the earthly tabernacle. The blood of the sacrifice Christ offers is his own blood, so much greater in power than the material blood of animals that it has “secured an eternal deliverance” (9:12), a forgiveness of sins which the earthly sacrifices could never achieve.
But the writer of Hebrews should be facing a huge problem. As a way of getting into this, let’s start by examining a preliminary question which scholars seem not quite sure how to answer. What specifically constitutes the “sacrifice” which Christ offers, and where has it taken place? The ‘event’ which the writer constantly focuses on seems not to be Christ’s death itself, but his action of entering the heavenly sanctuary and offering his blood to God. This is the redemptive action, the offering of himself. Obviously, the writer sees things this way because his Platonic philosophy requires a parallel to the earthly cult; in the tent on earth, it is the entry into the inner tabernacle and the offering there of the blood of the sacrificed animal which is the determining element of the Day of Atonement rite, not the slaughter outside which produced the blood. Thus the center of gravity in Hebrews is the entry of Christ into the heavenly sanctuary, bringing his own blood as an offering to God. This is what the writer seems to define as the act and location of the “sacrifice.”
Such an image has caused more than one commentator discomfort, for it is faintly distasteful, they have noted, to envision Jesus going from Calvary to heaven with his own blood in tow, and anyway what had he done with it during the three days in the tomb? (Remember that Hebrews is canonical and must therefore represent some kind of divine truth.) Montefiore also fusses over the point that Jesus shed very little blood on the cross, apart from the nails to his hands and feet!
Unfortunately for our understanding of things, all the writer ever refers to is this entry of Christ into the heavenly sanctuary. He never refers to Calvary, to Jesus’ historical death, as part of the redeeming action. He never itemizes the death as a distinct feature of the sacrifice. (The passing reference to “the cross” in 12:2 is not in any context of location, sacrifice, redemption or history.) And yet, the actual “shedding of blood” is a part of things, for 9:22 says that without it “there is no forgiveness.” So it would seem he regards the death of Jesus (wherever it took place) as part of the heavenly sacrifice, though not part of the most important action inside the sanctuary itself. Heavenly, because this sacrifice is “spiritual, eternal and unblemished” (9:14). Earthly sacrifices cleanse earthly copies, but “better sacrifices are required to cleanse heavenly things” (9:23). In the Platonic thinking of the writer such sacrifices, such blood, can only be spiritual and eternal.
And yet, there should be his problem. Jesus’ blood was neither. He had lived on earth, he had been human in his incarnation, and human blood, the blood of matter, coursed in his veins. It was shed on a hill on earth, material, red and sticky. The sacrifice—or at least an essential part of it, a part which the tradition he supposedly received would certainly have regarded as essential—took place in the earthly realm, in the world of the transient, unreal copy of the heavenly. But such an earthly dimension would shatter his Platonic comparison. It would irreparably contaminate the purity of the earth / heaven, high priest / High Priest contrast on which his whole theology is based. The sacrifice had not been confined to the heavenly realm. It had a foot in both camps, and thus to some extent the writer would be comparing an earthly thing with another earthly thing.
At the very least, he would have had to address this anomaly. He would have had to explain why “human” blood shed on earth could at the same time be spiritual and cleanse the heavenly sanctuary (9:23). He would have had to justify why, when every Christian circle around him (presumably) thought of Christ’s sacrifice in terms of its occurrence on Calvary, he has ignored such a venue and placed it in heaven. He would have had to qualify his Platonic picture.
Of course, he does not. He shows no sign of being perturbed by any conflict in his theoretical universe. Instead, the picture is uniform because the author has extrapolated earthly figures and activities (the Jewish sacrificial cultus) into a heavenly embodiment which is the perfect archetype of the lower world copy. And he has supported it by a Platonic reading of scripture, which he regards as a picture of the higher world of true realities where Christ operates. There is no historical Jesus, no sacrifice on an earthly Calvary, lurking in the background to disturb this finely drawn duality.
It is astonishing that so few scholars show any awareness of the above conundrum, even as they recognize the spiritual, Platonic nature of Hebrews’ thought world. Moffat can say (International Critical Commentary, Hebrews, p.xlii): “For the complete sacrifice has been offered in the realm of the spirit.” He remarks on 9:14 (p.xliii) that the sacrifice of Christ “had been offered in the spirit and—as we might say—in the eternal order of things . . . it belonged essentially to the higher order of absolute reality.” Dods, analyzing the same passage (op.cit., p.332), declares that Christ’s ministry has a greater efficacy because it has been “exercised in a more perfect tabernacle and with a truer sacrifice.” In other words, they recognize Jesus’ sacrifice as an event which in some way takes place in the world of Platonic-type myth, in the higher world of the spirit. Nor is any of this declared to be metaphorical.
A few more recent scholars have played down the Platonic nature of the writer’s thought (such as Ellingworth in the New International Greek Testament), no doubt sensing the problem it creates. But that a document which inhabits an Alexandrian-style milieu would nevertheless not embody the fundamental principles of Middle Platonism is impossible. Older scholars such as Dods and Moffat had no such doubts.
Such observations as Moffat’s do the mythicists’ work for them. They show that it is possible even for orthodox scholars to recognize the mythical realm and to envision the sacrifice of Christ within it. Of course, there is the inevitable attempt to compromise, to introduce an historical Jesus into the Platonic equation. Here is some of what Moffat has to say (p.xliii):
Nor does the writer of Hebrews support Buchanan’s attempt (op.cit., p.xxv) to get around the epistle’s Platonic pattern. Buchanan declares that the relationship between heavenly prototypes and earthly antitypes is “understood in terms of historical sequence and faith that is foreign to Platonism.” But the epistle itself shows no such understanding. It is true that in regular Jewish biblical exegesis, prototypes in scripture could be seen as anticipating later antitypes “that were also historical and earthly.” But this is clearly not the course followed by this epistle, which focuses all its attention on the work of Christ in the heavenly world. It never bends its Platonic principles to accommodate an “historical sequence” or an earthly sacrifice. Once again a scholar, under the influence of preconception, has chosen to read into a document ideas which are not presented by the document itself.
Montefiore (op.cit., p.133f) goes so far as to say that the author intended no thought of a sacrifice in heaven at all. Rather, the ministry of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary was simply one of intercession with God on humanity’s behalf. All the talk of entering the sanctuary with his blood and offering it there is, as it were, metaphorical and refers back to Calvary where the actual sacrifice and offering had taken place. In discussing this point, Montefiore writes the word “Calvary” three times in the space of one page (134-5), yet he seems not to wonder how the writer could be presenting such a metaphorical meaning and not likewise be forced to refer to the scene of Jesus’ death and the fact that it had taken place on earth. He also argues that blood could not be offered in heaven because “heaven is the sphere not of flesh and blood but of ultimate reality.” But what is this ultimate reality if not the more perfect forms of the earthly copies? By letting his Gospel preconceptions govern his whole interpretation of the text, by dismissing any concept of spiritual blood—blood which could be carried into a heavenly sanctuary—Montefiore has castrated the epistle’s thought and rendered meaningless the whole Platonic structure the author has carefully put together. He has left him comparing an earthly cult with an earthly sacrifice.
That sacrifices could be offered in heaven is also shown by the Testament of Levi, third part of the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, a Jewish document (from probably a little earlier time) with certain amendments which scholars label “Christian.” In chapter 3, sacrifices are depicted as being offered to God in a heavenly temple by angels of the third heaven. In this multi-layered universe, the third heaven contains an archetypal sanctuary whose copy is the earthly temple. Here the archangels “offer propitiatory sacrifices to the Lord in behalf of all the sins of ignorance of the righteous ones” (as in the earthly rite on the Day of Atonement). “They present to the Lord a pleasing odor.” Such sacrifices are declared to be “bloodless,” although sacrifices in heaven involving blood are to be found in later Kabbalistic thinking.
Searching For Historical Events
Can we confidently maintain that for the writer of Hebrews Christ’s sacrifice was in no way “a single historical fact,” as Moffat puts it; something which had taken place on earth in his own time? Let’s look at a few specific things the epistle says.
Just as Paul in Galatians 3 viewed the Law as a temporary measure until the coming of the present time of salvation through faith, the writer of Hebrews does something similar in 9:8-11. He sees the outer tent of the earthly sanctuary as symbolizing the old way, the old type of sacrifice. Throughout history, it has obscured the sight of the inner tent which symbolized the new way which was coming, the priesthood of Christ and his eternal sacrifice. Now this new way has been revealed—through the community’s own reading of scripture and its conviction of inspiration. The outer, imperfect tent with its old, imperfect sacrifices has been removed, swept away. This idea, by the way, places the group which produced the epistle within a larger, diverse movement that rejected or aimed at reforming the Temple cult, a significant stream of thought within the wider Judaism of the first century. It is also an argument for placing the writing of the epistle before the destruction of the Temple, when such goals would have become moot.
How does the author describe the present time, when the new way has been revealed? He calls it a “time of reformation,” of “amendment” (9:10), not the time of Christ’s ministry or sacrifice. The entire epistle is concerned with God’s revelation in scripture and the inaugurating of the new covenant. It began with the declaration that in this final age God has spoken to the world through the Son, but this is a Son, as we have seen, who speaks only in the sacred writings. In 9:11 the author says that “Christ has come,” but is this a reference to his life on earth? Rather, the context indicates that he is referring to Christ’s “entry” into the new tent of his heavenly priesthood, the spiritual sanctuary. (Ellingworth supports this.) He stresses that this tent is “not of this created world,” (a point which Buchanan seems to have ignored). This Christian writer can speak of Christ’s “coming” and yet say not a word about any of his work on earth, only of what he did in heaven. Clearly, such a “coming” of Christ is entirely in terms of his spiritual world activities, as revealed in scripture. In the broader sense, it could also entail the thought of his coming to the believing community through the revelation about him, an idea found in other epistles as well.
In 9:15 the author speaks of the death of Christ, making the point that the new covenant, like all testaments, can only take effect after the testator’s death. But he does not specify when or where this death occurred. The actual death of Jesus remains a glimmer on the edges of the sacrifice. Its most significant mention comes in 2:9, where it characterizes Jesus as a heavenly paradigm: “crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death,” and “in tasting death he should stand for us all.” This passage is reminiscent of the christological hymn in Philippians, suggesting an entirely mythical setting.
A resurrection for Christ, as outlined above, rates scarcely a mention, and in any case plays no role in redemption. The idea of a resurrection in the Gospel sense is completely missing in this epistle.
A Sacrifice “Once For All”
In 9:24f, the writer speaks again of Christ’s entry into the heavenly sanctuary, and here he uses a favorite word, “once” (hapax, ephapax), a concept which he applies to Christ’s sacrifice (as also in 9:12). But what is it that has happened “once”? We need to look at the extended passage, a very revealing one (here slightly altered from the NEB):
It is true that those two “appearings” do not use the same verb, but Ellingworth points out (op.cit., p.480) that “there is no sharp distinction or contrast in Hebrews between emphainizo (verse 24) and phaneroo (verse 26b).” Some scholars (e.g., J. Swetnam, Hebrews, p.233) recognize that the idea of “appearing” in verse 26b is focused specifically on the sacrifice, and this, as we have seen, the author nowhere makes a point of locating on earth.
But what of that unusual feature, the use of the word hapax (“once”), which is a deviation from strict Platonic thinking? The author has defined this entry into the heavenly sanctuary, not in the way the later Sallustius regarded the myths of the savior gods, as something which “always is so,” not something timeless and constant, but as a spiritual event of a singular nature, something done “once.” And he seems to locate this event in the present, “at the completion of the ages.”
Why does he do this? Perhaps most importantly, the “once” makes Jesus’ ministry superior to the sacrificial cult on earth, in which the high priest must renew the Day of Atonement sacrifice year after year; Christ, on the other hand, had only to perform it “once for all.” The writer’s theological needs, to establish the superiority and perfection of the heavenly side of the equation, may well have determined this aspect to his thinking.
He may also have tied the spiritual event of Christ’s sacrifice with the present time and regarded it as “once” because it is now and only now that the revelation about Christ and his sacrifice has been made. The event is spoken of as “occurring” at the time of its revelation, at the time when it takes effect. In fact, the choice of the verb phaneroo—a “revelation” word—in verse 26b may be influenced by this, reflecting the idea of the present-day manifestation of Christ to the world. This is further indicated by the use of the perfect tense which focuses on present effects rather than on an historical happening.
But we can go further. That the writer does not have any earthly event in mind in this entire passage is indicated by a verse coming shortly after the 9:24-26 quoted above. 28a is a virtual restatement of 26b: “So Christ was offered once to remove men’s sins. . .”
This removal or abolition of sin, spotlighted in both 26b and 28a, is tied in the former to the act of sacrifice and in the latter to the act of offering. But these are synonymous, for the act of offering is the act of sacrifice. And this act, as we have seen, is always presented as the entry of Christ into the heavenly sanctuary carrying his sacrificial blood. Thus the reference to “appearing” at the completion of the ages (in 26b) is a reference to the heavenly event. Nowhere is anything earthly in view.
Other passages, such as 7:27 and 10:10, also associate the “once for all” idea with the act of “offering” which is located in the heavenly realm. The epistle consistently portrays a spiritual act taking place in the spiritual world. We can conclude, therefore, that no earthly life or event is implied by anything the writer says, and that the Epistle to the Hebrews knows of no historical Jesus.
Standing on Mount Zion
Such a conclusion is clinched by the epistle’s climax in chapter 12, a final peroration in which the writer urges steadfastness on his readers and gives dire warning against apostasy. “Remember where you stand!” he cries (12:18), first calling to their minds the scene of the granting of the old covenant, before the blazing fire of Mount Sinai where a cowering Moses heard the oracular voice of God. When he turns to the scene of the new covenant, where does he place his readers’ vision? Are they invited to stand upon the mount of Calvary? Beneath the cross where Jesus of Nazareth hangs? Perhaps in front of the empty tomb? No, where Mt. Sinai symbolized the old covenant, it is Mt. Zion—still a scriptural motif—which for this writer symbolizes the new.
On Mt. Zion, before the heavenly Jerusalem, the scene is one of angels, God the judge of all, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant. But when the writer enjoins his readers (v.25) to “see that you do not refuse to hear the voice that speaks,” we hear no voice of Jesus. Instead it is God himself who speaks, through one of his scriptural prophets. How is it possible, in providing a new-covenant counterpart to the voice of Moses and the divine oracles on Sinai, that a Christian writer would not offer the voice of Jesus: the Son of God himself when recently on earth, teaching, enlightening, admonishing, bringing a new Law, even speaking from the cross? In the Gospels, the concept of understanding and heeding the things which Jesus spoke is a major theme. The phrase on Jesus’ lips, “He who hears my words,” is a recurring motif.
Scholars should weep before the total ignorance, the complete disinterest, indeed the sheer disdain which writers like that of Hebrews seem to show toward the voice and persona of Jesus of Nazareth. How likely is it that a Jewish-Christian writer, presumably converted by a response to the figure of this human Jesus into a faith which his whole heritage would have regarded as blasphemous, how likely is it that he would choose to ignore the entire earthly record of this very figure? What personal disposition would lead him to exclude from his presentation all the motifs of his new faith, to draw inspiration and illustration from ancient writings which were only a prophecy of the real thing? Why, for virtually all the first century Christian letter writers, was it dusty passages from the Prophets and Psalmists which inspired their christologies, their eloquence, their poetic imagery, and not the vibrant words and images of the recent incarnation of the Son of God which should have been hanging in the very air of their daily lives?
No string of unlikely argumentation such as scholarship regularly indulges in can be judged adequate in the face of the overall stultifying silence on Jesus of Nazareth found in the New Testament epistles, no defense even distantly sufficient for the utter void in the early Christian writings which should be filled by the Gospel Jesus. The argument from silence—a silence as pervasive and as irrational as this one is—must be considered fully vindicated.
Epilogue: A Pair of Smoking Guns
But there are two passages in Hebrews which spell out for us the fact that this writer knows of no Jesus of Nazareth, no Son incarnated to earth. One involves an ancient scriptural prophecy, the other a feature of the comparison between heavenly and earthly activities of the old and new priesthoods.
A First or Second Coming?
The great Day of the Lord in Jewish prophecy and expectation was turned by certain early Christian preaching into the coming of Jesus, the spiritual Christ. (But not all: some epistles, such as James and 1 John, as well as the Didache, retain the idea of the arrival of God himself, with no sense of a Parousia of Christ.)
But it is the Epistle to the Hebrews which contains the most fascinating passage on this subject. 10:37 reads:
But stop and think a moment. The writer is affirming his belief that “the Coming One will come, and soon,” for so the prophet has promised. Is he referring to the Gospel Jesus and his supposed Second Coming in glory? It is certainly the coming in glory at the End-time that he has in mind, but how can this be a second coming, for the writer has made no room for a previous one. If the prophet had prophesied Christ’s coming, this would have been earlier fulfilled in his incarnation, when he came to earth as Jesus of Nazareth. This in fact is how Christians later interpreted all those prophetic passages about the Messiah: they referred to Christ’s life on earth. But the writer of Hebrews makes no allowance for such a thing. Even if he wishes to apply Habakkuk’s words to the Parousia of Jesus instead of the incarnation, he needs at least to make some reference to that earlier coming, if only to avoid confusion. Yet he does not. His silence plainly shows that for him Christ’s coming is still to be, that he has no concept of him already having been here. As 10:37 expresses itself, the scriptural promise of Christ’s arrival has not yet been fulfilled.
But there are those who will protest, pointing to an earlier passage. Here is how the NEB translates Hebrews 9:27-28:
The above analysis of 10:37 would suggest there is not. But we can contest it on the basis of 9:27-28 alone. If the “ek deuterou” means a second time, the parallel with verse 27 is destroyed. Verse 27 is saying that “first men die, and after that (or ‘next’) they are judged.” There is no sense here of a “second time” for anything; the writer is simply offering us a sequence of events: death, followed by judgment. Does this not imply that verse 28 is offering a sequence as well? “Christ was offered once, and after that (next) he will appear to bring salvation.”
The idea of appearing “a second time” would be intrusive here. Since the writer is clearly presenting his readers with some kind of parallel between verses 27 and 28 (note also the “once” in both parts), it seems unlikely he would introduce an element which doesn’t fit the parallel, especially one he doesn’t need. “Ek deuterou” can have the alternate meaning of “secondly” or “next in sequence,” like the similar word deuteron, which appears in this sense in 1 Corinthians 12:28. Just as men’s death is followed by judgment, so is Christ’s sacrifice followed by his appearance, but with no indication of how long a time between the two. Before the turn of the century, Vaughan (quoted in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, vol.4, p.340) translated verse 28 this way: “Christ died once and the next thing before him is the Advent.” Thus even in Hebrews it would seem that we have no Second Coming of Christ.
No Footstep Heard
Finally, there is a startling statement made in chapter 8, one which most commentators manage to gloss over or ignore completely. The writer is speaking of Jesus’ ministry in the heavenly sanctuary and begins to compare him to the earthly high priest. At verse 4, he says:
However, the writer has qualified this statement in no way whatever. He does not say, if he were now on earth (instead of earlier), if he returned to earth, if he were still on earth; not even: “While he was on earth, he was not a priest . . .” The writer says nothing which shows any cognizance of the fact that Jesus had been on earth, recently, that it was on earth where an important part of his sacrifice, the shedding of his blood, had occurred. (In contrast to scholars, who regularly feel constrained to point this out.)
The point he is making in this verse is that Jesus on earth would have nothing to do, since there are already earthly priests performing the duties which the Law prescribes, and they do so “in a sanctuary which is only a copy and shadow of the heavenly” (8:5). Yet how could any writer say that Jesus would have nothing to do on earth when he did, in fact, have so much to do? How could he imply that earth is the scene only of human duties in a human sanctuary when here was where Jesus had performed his sacrifice, shed his blood—on a hill called Calvary outside Jerusalem? Surely no writer could express himself this way without at least a qualification, something which would give a nod to Jesus’ recent presence in the physical arena. (Of course, such a life and death on earth, as noted earlier, would have thrown a monkeywrench into his carefully crafted Platonic picture.)
Ellingworth has glimpsed the edge of the abyss, and hastily drawn back. In analyzing this passage (op cit., p.405), he questions the normal interpretation of the imperfect en, and with it the NEB translation (which he admits “is grammatically possible”), because it “could be misunderstood as meaning that Jesus had never ‘been on earth’.” He claims that this “goes against the context”—which is to say the common assumption over the last 19 centuries that an historical Jesus existed, one who had in fact been on earth. In the face of the overwhelming evidence which Hebrews alone provides, it is time to question that very assumption, rather than try to reject the natural meaning of an innocent verb.
“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 heaven—could 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.