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Supplementary Article No. 14
A Cornerstone of the Mythicist Case:The Cosmic Christ of the Epistle to the Hebrews
This study of the Epistle to the Hebrews is much expanded over the one written nine years ago, Article No.9: “A Sacrifice in Heaven.” It began as an expansion of the section on Hebrews in Chapter 12 of The Jesus Puzzle, intended for the Second Edition, but soon grew to unanticipated proportions, and I will be considerably condensing it for that upcoming edition. It analyzes the document in much greater depth (it is five times as long and not for the faint of heart). Further scholarly works have been taken into account, notably the major 1989 Commentary by Harold W. Attridge. The present study also doubles as a response to an Internet critique by Christopher Price posted in 2003, which I had not previously answered; but while I address all of Price’s objections, I have gone far beyond the parameters of his critique. That critique can be found at: http://www.bede.org.uk/price3.htm
Due to its length, I have divided the study into three parts: chapters 1 to 6, 7 to 9, and 10 to 13. Footnotes are placed ‘in situ’ at the end of the paragraphs in which they appear, and are in smaller print. Some sections of the text are indented and headed “Supplement” or “Excursus.” The former designates additional discussion over and above the essential material; the latter designates a digression to more closely examine a particular point. For those wishing a shorter read, both may be passed over.
[Since with one noted exception, page numbers for each commentator refer to those of a single book first stated, I have dispensed with the clutter of “op.cit.”s and “Ibid.”s].
Bibliography of works cited in the text:
The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1 (Loeb Classical Library)
The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, J. H. Charlesworth, ed., vols. 1&2 (Doubleday) 1983-1985
The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vols.1-10 (Eerdmans) 1964-1976
Harold W. Attridge: The Epistle to the Hebrews (Fortress Press) 1989
-- “Hebrews” (in Harper’s Bible Commentary, p.1259) 1988
F. Blass & A. Debrunner: A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian
) ET 1961 Chicago
F. F. Bruce: The Epistle to the Hebrews (
Commentary) 1964 New London
G. W. Buchanan: To the Hebrews (Anchor Bible) 1972
Marcus Dods: Hebrews (Expositor’s Greek New Testament) 1910
Paul Ellingworth: Epistle to the Hebrews (Eerdmans) 1993
Eugene Van Ness Goetchius: The Language of the New Testament (Scribner) 1965
Donald Guthrie: The Letter to the Hebrews (Tyndale New Testaement Commentaries) 1983
Jean Héring: Hebrews (Epworth) 1970
J. H. Huddilston: Essentials of New Testament Greek (MacMillan) 1934
Graham Hughes: Hebrews and Hermeneutics (
) 1979 Cambridge
William Manson: The Epistle to the Hebrews (Hodder) 1951
James Moffatt: Hebrews (International Critical Commentary) 1924
Hugh Montefiore: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Black’s New Testament
Scott, E. F.: Epistle to the Hebrews (Edinburgh) 1922
C. H. Talbert: “The Myth of a Descending-Ascending Redeemer in Mediterranean Antiquity”
(NTS 22) 1976
B. F. Westcott: Epistle to the Hebrews (MacMillan) 1889
Ronald Williamson: Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews (Brill) 1970
R. McL. Wilson: Hebrews (New Century Bible Commentary) 1987
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Over the past century, one of the major questions in analyzing the Epistle to the Hebrews has been how to characterize its philosophical and cosmological orientation. Is it Platonic or Jewish? In the first half of the 20th century, scholarly evaluation tended to accentuate the former, seeing the epistle’s thought-world as essentially Platonic, moving in a vertical, dualistic universe of realms heavenly and earthly, the former containing the genuine reality, the latter its imperfect imitation. The latter 20th century saw a shift in approach, preferring a more traditional Jewish reading in terms of linear historical progression from past to present, with messianic and eschatological currents. The latter reading, of course, was present to some degree in the earlier scholarship, but could still be seen as set within a Platonic world-view. I would concur with that older view. It is fully supportable by the text, whereas the newer one is not, and it is more in keeping with—and amenable to—a mythicist interpretation of the epistle. This may be one reason why more recent scholars and apologists have been disposed to downplay if not dismiss a Platonic understanding in the writer’s thought and play up its Jewish elements—although supporting the validity of a Jewish understanding is largely dependent upon an historicist interpretation of Hebrews’ figure of the Son. If such an interpretation is not imposed on the writer, the Platonism of the epistle and the mythological character of its Christ go hand in hand. The one illuminates the other.
But it is also the case that a certain amount of cosmological middle ground is available. Jewish thought, as influenced by older Near Eastern philosophy, also contained an element of verticality in a dualistic higher-lower world concept. It was simpler than the later Platonism, reduced we could say to “heaven” and “earth” in which certain things on earth, especially holy places, had prototypes in heaven. Such concepts underwent expansion and sophistication under the influence of Platonism, just as older Jewish traditions about personified Wisdom were enriched by the concept of the Greek Logos (as in the Alexandrian document of Hellenistic Judaism, The Wisdom of Solomon). It would be hazardous to think to identify certain strands in the dualistic cosmology of Hebrews as reflecting only Jewish antecedent thought in this area, since it is impossible to maintain that such Jewish ideas were still present in some pure and insulated form in the first century and had not become part of an overall syncretistic cosmology on a scene dominated by Middle Platonism. Thus, there should be no objection to referring to the higher-lower world thinking in Hebrews as “Platonic,” as long as we remain aware of the presence of a Jewish/Semitic root in the mix. (There will be more to say on this subject when we examine the scenario of the heavenly sanctuary in the central chapters.)
As for the document’s provenance, it has been styled “Alexandrian” because of its elements reminiscent of the Middle Platonic philosophy of that Egyptian city. But it could be from any number of centers in the eastern
Mediterraneanwhich could have been exposed to Alexandrian influences while still allowing for a certain amount of divergence. There are notable differences from the particular approach of Philo, the premier Jewish-Platonic philosopher of in the period prior to the Jewish War, which is when the Epistle to the Hebrews needs to be dated. Arguments for such a dating will be presented in the Appendix. Alexandria
Heavenly and Earthly Sanctuaries
No other New Testament document so clearly illustrates the higher and lower world thinking of Platonic philosophy as the Epistle to the Hebrews. The writer places the sacrifice of Christ in heaven itself, in “the real sanctuary, the tent pitched by the Lord and not by man” (8:2). This 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). Christ’s “sacrifice” is not spoken of in terms of a crucifixion on
Calvary(despite a few references to his death and one to “the cross,” with no earthly context attached). The suffering and death he underwent are treated almost in secondary fashion, given relatively little attention in the writer’s soteriological scheme of things. Rather, the “sacrifice” is the act of the new High Priest Christ who, following his death, brings his own blood into the heavenly sanctuary and there offers it to God as an atonement for sin. This act has “secured an eternal deliverance” () and established a New Covenant. It is portrayed as a higher world, more perfect counterpart to the action of the high priest on earth who, on the yearly Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), brings the blood of sacrificed animals into the inner sanctuary of the , offering it to God to obtain forgiveness for the people’s sins. Christ’s heavenly sacrifice is deemed to have supplanted the earthly ones. Temple
Not only is Christ’s sacrifice not identified with
Calvary, the writer never introduces into his parallel duality of heavenly High Priest and earthly high priests the idea that an important part of Jesus’ act of sacrifice had taken place on earth. This is something which would have seriously compromised the purity of his higher-lower world comparison—indeed made it unworkable. He has said (if somewhat indirectly—consider the translation) that the blood of Christ’s sacrifice is “unblemished, spiritual and eternal” (), and that this kind of superior (to the earthly) sacrifice is “required to cleanse heavenly things” (). Yet this “shedding of blood,” according to the Gospel picture, had taken place on earth. It was a blood that in Christ’s human incarnation was the blood of matter. In that respect it was not spiritual, and the writer would merely be comparing a material thing with another material thing. Nor does he address how Christ’s earthly blood, shed on NEB Calvary, was transformed into spiritual blood before being brought to heaven. (At least one scholar peruses this question, wondering whether the little blood Jesus seems to have bled on the cross would have been sufficient and what it was transported in.)
The author of Hebrews does nothing to address these anomalies. He shows no sign of being perturbed by any conflict in his theoretical universe. This, one is led to conclude, is because there was no historical Jesus, no sacrifice on
Calvary, lurking in the background to disturb his finely drawn duality. On the other hand, such a problem very much lurks in the background for modern scholarship, which is led to force an interpretation upon the epistle, including relegating central elements of it to mere metaphor, which is not borne out in the text itself.
Scholars in previous generations have clearly recognized the nature of Hebrews’ picture of Christ. “For the complete sacrifice has been offered in the realm of the spirit…in the eternal order of things…it belonged essentially to the higher order of absolute reality” [James Moffatt, International Critical Commentary, Hebrews, p.xlii]; Christ’s ministry has been “exercised in a more perfect tabernacle and with a truer sacrifice” [Marcus Dods, Expositor’s Greek Testament, Hebrews, p.332]. Such observations show that it is possible to recognize that ancient Christians could postulate a spiritual/mythical realm and envision a sacrificial act by Christ within it. On the other hand, scholars of all generations invariably attempt to introduce an historical Jesus into the equation.1
1 Moffatt: “The writer breathed the Philonic atmosphere [of Middle Platonism] in which the eternal Now over-shadowed the things of space and time, but he knew this sacrifice had taken place on the cross, and his problem was one which never confronted Philo, the problem which we moderns have to face in the question: How can a single historical fact possess a timeless significance?” [p.xliii]. But the writer of Hebrews never gives any indication that he “knew” of such an earthly sacrifice, nor that he faced a problem which Philo did not. Hebrews never asks or addresses Moffatt’s question, or other ‘problems’ like it.
Hellenistic or Semitic?
In parallel with the scholarly trend over the last several decades to accentuate the Jewish derivation of Christianity and its debt to Judaism at the expense of Greek precedent and debt, the Platonic element in Hebrews has been downplayed and pushed into the background, if not entirely out of sight. If Platonism adopted a vertical orientation in portraying the relationship between matter and spirit, between humanity and deity, traditional Judaism understood its relationship with God in a horizontal direction: between past and future involvement by God in the affairs of his people, between prophecy and fulfillment, between divine promises and the anticipated arrival of Messiah and Kingdom. Originally, God himself was expected to intervene in history once more, to appear on earth on the Day of the Lord—not in a human incarnation, but in a visible divine manifestation in which he would judge and exalt, setting up an idealized
that would have sovereignty over the nations of the earth. Eventually, this evolved into the anticipated arrival of his human appointee, the Messiah, who would do God’s work on his behalf. Jerusalem
Today’s scholarship on Hebrews has taken the traditional Jewish horizontal orientation—which is to a limited extent reflected in the epistle—and imposed it on all of its features. The Platonic elements, which are dominant in the most important areas, are relegated to an inferior position and even forced into the Jewish mold, despite a clear reading to the contrary. The use of scripture, which is pervasive throughout the epistle, is taken as an indicator that its actual application is wholly of a traditional Jewish nature, past prophecy and prefiguration leading to historical or future fulfillment, obscuring what is in fact a ‘vertical’ reorientation of what scripture represents.
Much debate has taken place as to the nature of the community being addressed: was it Jewish, gentile, or a mix? A majority may lean toward some form of Jewish Christianity, but they insist on interpreting the community and its situation in terms of the orthodox picture of the early Christian movement, trying to determine its relationship to a Gospel-oriented world. If, however, the community (regardless of its ethnic makeup) lived in a world which was not so oriented, this would lend support to the conclusion, one derived from the text itself, that its belief system was more in keeping with Greek concepts than the traditional Jewish ones which scholarship prefers.
As noted at the outset, the Platonic structure of the epistle’s scheme in regard to the sacrifice of Christ has certain roots in Jewish higher-lower world thought, but even these tend to be overlooked or downplayed (perhaps they have taken on a taint by association) in the scholarly preference for strict Jewish linearity. It is not so much a question of Jewish vs. Greek as it is of historical progression vs. earth-heaven verticality. The former requires and points to an historical Jesus and an historical event of sacrifice. The latter has no such requirement and points to an entirely heavenly Christ. Again, we may use the term “Platonic” to signify the vertical earth-heaven frame of reference (whatever the extent of its Hellenistic or Jewish derivations), and as reflecting the orientation of the epistle in its presentation of Christ’s activity and the relationship between past and present. In scholarship’s insistence on interpreting according to the historical-linear pattern, it is misreading, and distorting, the actual scenario which the work puts forward.
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Comparing Heaven and Earth
The Old and the New
That misreading starts with the opening verses. Because they talk of what and how God spoke “of old” and how he speaks now “in the last days,” this is taken as a simple “past” and “present” relationship, a Jewish-style linear “then” and “now” in which both represent speakers in history: yesterday the prophets, today the Son, Jesus of Nazareth of Gospel fame.
1 In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets;
2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,
whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
But without that a priori assumption, this statement is anything but comfortably orthodox. How does the Son “speak”? There is not a single quote of a saying or teaching of the Gospel Jesus throughout the epistle’s thirteen chapters; there is not a single word which could be assigned to a man in history. Instead, several scriptural passages, appearing in the first person in the biblical texts, are offered as the voice of the Son now to be heard in these last days, a voice speaking out of scripture. Further, there is not a single earthly deed of the Son offered (anything so interpreted is not stated as such but simply assumed to be), while those that are derived from scripture are presented with no qualification that they represent historical fulfillments of scriptural precedent. What we actually have is scriptural precedent fulfilled in scripture, which is to say, the new interpretation of scripture.
This new scriptural reading has provided a hitherto unknown picture of the Son’s operation in the heavenly realm. In other words, the revelation of the activities (and words) of Jesus, and the new-covenant role he has played in the supernatural world to bring about the present fulfillment of salvation history, is itself the “now” side of the equation. (Translating that into a Gospel-based ‘history’ is a reading into the text.) The newly-perceived voice of the Son in scripture is the new communication from God. The Son speaks “in these last days” not because this was the time of Jesus of Nazareth, but because this was the period when the spiritual, intermediary Son concept had become a going concern leading to all sorts of salvation-cult speculation, and it coincided in Jewish thought with the expected End-time and arrival of the Messiah. This new reading of scripture has been set against the voice of the prophets and the past understanding of scripture, which was the “old.” Such is the “past” and “present” meaning behind the opening verses, borne out through the entire epistle. It is the “earlier and later” which modern scholarship on Hebrews insists on interpreting as the adumbration of the Son followed by his incarnation to earth, in keeping with traditional Jewish linear orientation.
Prototypes and Antitypes
We can put things another way. Scholars often speak of scriptural ‘types’—figures, pronouncements, events in the Hebrew bible—serving as the model for later counterparts in Jesus, a case of biblical ‘prototypes’ (or ‘archetypes’) prefiguring ‘antitypes’ in the life of Jesus on earth, the latter being the copy of the former. This is the linearity of classical Jewish thought, the “then” and the “now” (or often the “soon to be”). But the Epistle to the Hebrews has blended this Jewish thought with the Greek in a unique fashion. First, we have the ingredient of classic Platonism. The higher world contains the perfect model, the lower world its imperfect copy or reflection. In Hebrews this kind of Platonic relationship applies to the two sanctuaries, the one in heaven and the one on earth, and the two types of sacrifice performed within them. This relationship operates in the most important aspect of the epistle, the presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus.
However, there is a dual deviation from classic Platonism here. In regard to the sanctuaries themselves, the relationship is normal: the perfect sanctuary in heaven exists first, and the earthly sanctuary is an imperfect copy of the heavenly. The heavenly sanctuary is essentially timeless; it was created by God at the beginning and the earthly sanctuary has been modeled on it, right from the first tent-sanctuary at Sinai set up by Moses, following heavenly directions. But in regard to the events within those sanctuaries, we have the opposite situation. Of the two counterpart actions, the sacrifices in the earthly sanctuary came first, while Jesus’ single heavenly sacrifice is treated as coming later, and in a sense has been modeled on them. In regard to these actions, therefore, the prototype is on earth, and the antitype, or copy, is in heaven, which is the reverse of the classic Platonic relationship. Moreover, again a reverse of classic Platonism, while the “perfect” sanctuary itself came first followed by the “imperfect” copy on earth (the normal sequence), the perfect sacrifice—that of Christ—came second and was modeled on the imperfect first sacrifices, those of the earthly high priests in the earthly sanctuary.
This principle of a temporal sequence of events is the second ingredient in the Hebrews mix, the Jewish one, but even this has been converted to a vertical Platonic setting.
(There is a minor complication to this, in that since the sacrifice of Christ is regarded as ‘past’ while the earthly sacrifices in the
still continue in the present, Christ’s sacrifice thus precedes the continuing practice of the Old Covenant. But since the heavenly act is actually being compared to the original sacrificial cult set up by Moses at Sinai, this can essentially be ignored in favor of seeing the earthly sacrifices as being the earlier model for Christ’s heavenly one, and treat it as a past to present sequence. Still, in regard to the acts of sacrifice, we are left with a sequence that deviates from standard Platonism in two ways: the progression is from inferior to superior, and from earth to heaven.) Temple
Scholarship recognizes the first deviation (from inferior to superior), and indeed this conforms to a prime element in the standard progression as envisioned in Jewish tradition: the biblical prototype is inferior to what it prefigures. The Messiah will be superior to David; God’s word of promise and prophecy will be realized in the grandest of ways; the scriptural precedent will be fulfilled in a glorious
; the earthly Kingdomof God will be supplanted by the heavenly Jerusalem . And where early Christians were concerned (so the orthodox theory goes), prototypes in biblical figures and events were seen as fulfilled in the superior Jesus, his life and saving acts. Jerusalem
Thus we can acknowledge that inferior-to-superior element of Jewish traditional thinking imposed on a Platonic foundation. But what scholarship generally does not recognize—or tries to doctor or declare metaphorical—is the second deviation from the Platonic standard: namely, a progression from earth to heaven. The inferior prototype (the temple sacrifice of animals) takes place on earth, the superior antitype (Christ’s own sacrifice) takes place in heaven. In Hebrews there is nothing historical or earthly about the latter sacrifice, nor does it include or envision a prior earthly dimension. To see a suffering and death on an earthly Calvary as lying behind the sacrifice in heaven (assuming some scholarly acknowledgement of an actual heavenly sacrifice, as opposed to it being merely a metaphor for an earthly event), is nowhere justified by the text itself, and is even ruled out by so many things the text says or does not say. It can be derived only by imposing Gospel preconceptions on the epistle. By declaring that such an historical event lies within or behind the epistle’s thought, scholars are able to read standard Jewish linearity (earth to earth, history to history) into it and use this to bury the vertical earth to heaven Platonic-style picture that genuinely characterizes Hebrews’ presentation.
As an example of scholarly attitudes, G. W. Buchanan (Anchor Bible, Hebrews, p.xxv) attempts to get around the epistle’s Platonic patterns by declaring that the relationship between heavenly prototypes and earthly antitypes is “understood in terms of historical sequence and faith that is foreign to Platonism.” But one cannot define the traditional earthly sacrifices and the new heavenly sacrifice, the epistle’s earth to heaven progression, as an “historical sequence.” What Buchanan is labeling the later historical event is his presumption, not rooted in Hebrews but in the Gospels, of what happened on earth prior to Jesus’ heavenly act of sacrifice; he has read his historical sequence into the epistle. As we shall see, some scholars seek to render the portrayed heavenly act as nothing more than an entirely symbolic creation by the writer, a metaphor for the earthly sacrifice on
Calvary. This is the procedure of Harold Attridge. But as our examination will show, nothing the text actually says suggests that the heavenly action it presents is symbolism and not literal goings-on in the spiritual world.
Renderingthis as metaphor goes somewhat against what scholars regularly maintain is the fundamental difference between Hebrews and a philosopher like Philo, who interpreted scripture as not meaning what it actually said, but as representing some deeper philosophical meaning or aspect of reality. By quoting scholars such as Ronald Williamson and E. F. Scott, who make a point of this difference (that our author is not like Philo), Christopher Price seems to imply that I interpret the heavenly sacrifice in Hebrews as not meaning what it says, which is the direct opposite of the case. Or else he assumes that because I regard features of the epistle as “Platonic” this must spell the Platonism of Philo or the allegorical Alexandrian exegesis of his time. In any case, allegorical interpretation of scripture is tangential here. What makes Hebrews Platonic is its earthly-heavenly duality and the relationship it sets up between places, figures and events in those two realms. It is the heavenly High Priest Christ and his offering of sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary set against their counterparts on earth that gives the epistle’s system its Platonism. And if an earthly dimension was a key part of the Christ side of things, this would make the Platonic structure in Hebrews’ soteriology come unglued, if not tumbling down. This is what scholars think they have accomplished, but they fail to acknowledge that the earthly dimension is their own imposition, and further that if such a dimension did exist the author would have been unable and unwilling from the get-go to fashion his soteriological picture in the way that he has.2
2 E. F. Scott, as quoted by Price [The Epistle to the Hebrews, p.116-17], declares that “the divine realities are conceived of in a literal and concrete fashion…they are actual things, corresponding on a higher plane to their earthly copies. There is a heavenlyTo sum up, the central concern of the epistle is the comparison between what happens on earth in the sacrifices performed by the Jewish high priest in the earthly sanctuary, and what happens (or happened) in heaven in the new High Priest Jesus’ own sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary. An earthly event is set opposite a heavenly event, a material act opposite a spiritual act. The reason for the focus on the first tent-sanctuary set up by Moses at Sinai is because this represents the establishment of the Old Covenant, against which is set Jesus’ sacrifice in heaven as the establishment of the New Covenant and the supplanting of the Old. The Old Covenant began in the desert of the Exodus. The New Covenant began with Jesus’ sacrifice in heaven where his blood was offered in the heavenly tabernacle. (It is never stated as beginning with his death, let alone on earth or
, a heavenly sanctuary. The priesthood which Christ exercises is the counterpart, in no merely figurative sense, of the levitical priesthood.” (Scott, incidentally, is of the older generation like Moffatt.) I fully agree. But the more that scholars like Scott stress this literal actuality in the heavenly side of the equation, the more they are acknowledging the Platonic nature of it all. The more they support the concept of counterpart realities in the spiritual realm to earthly realities, the more they provide support for the mythicist case. Opening the door to literal heavenly cities and sanctuaries, literal priesthoods and blood of sacrifice, also opens the door to heavenly crucifixions and the suffering and death of a god, to being “of David’s seed” or “of the tribe of Judah” in a spiritual context. The vividness of the heavenly scene in Hebrews thus becomes self-sufficient. We don’t need a scene on earth, especially when the writer never gives us one. If Christ can carry his own blood into a heavenly sanctuary and smear it on an altar for the atonement of sin, “in a literal and concrete fashion,” he can shed that blood on a heavenly cross. (The view through that open door is no doubt one of the things which has led more recent scholars to dismiss such Platonic literalism and close it to any heavenly mythological thinking on the part of the writer.) Jerusalem
Calvary.)In this context, Christ’s sacrifice in heaven is treated as something ‘subsequent’ to its scriptural archetype in Sinai. This is the sole dimension of linearity in the epistle’s thought about prototype and antitype, but it is a mix of Jewish and Greek. It is supplemented by the only ‘history to history’ sequence in view: a progression from the record of scripture, God speaking in the past, to the new revelation derived from scripture, God speaking in the present, sometimes through the (scriptural) voice of the Son. This is again a mix of Jewish and Greek, the latter since the new knowledge now revealed relates to activities located in heaven.
As one can see, the picture of Platonic, historical, and sequential relationships in this document is exceedingly subtle and complex, and it is not clarified by trying to introduce an historical Jesus into the center of the mix.
A Time of Revelation
The conclusion that we do not have any “traditional Jewish perspective” here cannot be circumvented. Regardless of what scholarship imagines lies unsaid in the background, the event of the sacrifice and the establishment of the New Covenant takes place in heaven, and thus the writer is not expressing the Jewish linear schema; he is not moving from an earthly prototype as recorded in scripture to a later historical event involving a figure (God or Messiah) on earth. Of equal significance is the question: What is the “time” of Christ’s sacrifice which has established the New Covenant; or to put it another way, what is it that has taken place in the author’s time? There will be occasion later to address this in detail, but here we can offer an important overview. In , the author specifies that the moment (as opposed to the means) at which the Old Covenant has been supplanted by the New is not the time of the sacrifice itself, but the “time of reformation” in his own day. In other words, the time at which the Old is replaced by the New is the time of revelation, of understanding. It is the point at which the new interpretation of scripture, as reflected by the writer, has formulated the picture of Christ the Son and his activity in the heavenly world. This is a subtle but critical distinction that is not recognized by scholarship, either in Hebrews or throughout the epistles, in that the present day has witnessed the revelation about Christ and his acts, but not those acts themselves. This feature will become clearer as we move further.
As 9:8-9 shows, the new sanctuary and Christ’s sacrifice within it are things “revealed” (although the concept of the heavenly sanctuary itself was not original to the author of Hebrews). The writer notes that the Sinai tent-sanctuary contained inner and outer parts (as the
in his day still do), with access to the inner room restricted to the High Priest, and only once a year (9:7); access to God under the Old Covenant was limited. He interprets the structure of the tent, with entry to the inner tent hidden by the outer tent that stood before (or around) it, to be a symbol that the heavenly sanctuary and Christ’s sacrifice within it were “undisclosed” throughout Jewish history until now. That dual tent structure with its “hidden” inner tent, he says, was a deliberate “symbol” intended by the Holy Spirit, directed at scriptural interpreters like himself who would one day understand that the better and ultimate way into God’s presence was, throughout that history, still to come. This way to the new sanctuary, the establishment of the New Covenant, was “not yet revealed,” mēpō pephanerōsthai (9:8), as long as the outer tent-sanctuary and the Old Covenant remained in place. Temple
Now, however, it has been revealed (even though the temple cult is still functioning, although its demise is expected shortly ). The New Covenant is taking effect, while the Old is fading fast. But note how this is presented. The Holy Spirit has created “a symbol pointing to the present time” (9:9). But what specifically was it pointing to? As noted, what has happened in the “now” to bring this about is disclosure, revelation (our constant epistolary friend, the verb phaneroō). It is not the act of Jesus that has occurred in the present to bring about the new order, but the revelation of that act through the new interpretation of scripture, including of the Son’s own voice within it. God’s abolition of the Old Covenant was by means of Jesus’ act, but its application is through the revelation of it. As the writer presents it, the coming into effect of the New Covenant occurs at the time of such discovery and the spread of that knowledge—the “time of reformation”—which is what the writer and his community perceive themselves as being a part of. It has not come into effect at the time of Jesus’ act itself.
Thus the Holy Spirit has pointed not to Jesus but to the time of knowledge about Jesus and his heavenly acts. Scripture is not fulfilled in history. It is fulfilled in heaven, as newly interpreted out of scripture. Thus, as I said at the beginning, the “earlier” and the “later” lie both within the pages of scripture. The claim of Jewish linearity in terms of a scriptural past leading to an historical present or future is not to be discovered in Hebrews and is a reading into the text based on Gospel preconceptions which are nowhere to be found in the document.
The ‘coming into effect’ of the New Covenant is incomplete. R. McL. Wilson, in discussing 9:8 [The New Century Bible Commentary, Hebrews, p.146-7], inadvertently makes a telling observation when he says:
“The new [order, covenant] has not yet fully come, but it has been inaugurated, for Jesus has already entered into the inner shrine behind the curtain as a forerunner on our behalf (-20).”
The “new order” is not fully established, of course, because the old covenant cult is still being practiced, and there is as yet no universal recognition of the new reality in the Son which this community, and perhaps others, have had revealed to them. But
’s observation highlights that once again we are given no specific historical event, no pivot point positioned within history, to absorb any of the focus for this view of a time of change and reformation. There is nothing historical to which the writer has firmly attached the “inauguration” of the New Covenant; it is simply emerging into the present through the process of learning about it, and thus cannot be sensed as having fully arrived yet (either by the writer or by Wilson ). Whereas I suggest that if the dramatic event of Jesus’ death on Calvary (let alone an even more dramatic resurrection in flesh three days later, an event of which there is not the slightest hint in this document) stood within the scope of the writer’s knowledge, this would have provided the focus, the pivot point of his picture, the dramatic Bang! with which the New Covenant and the time of reformation would be seen as having arrived, even given that the Temple cult had not yet ceased to function. Wilson
In this respect,
’s reference back to -20 is quite telling. Before looking at that passage, let us note in Wilson ’s above remark that the point of inauguration of the New Covenant by Jesus is not located by the author in history, let alone on Wilson Calvary. It is located in heaven, here without reference to a preceding phase on earth, not even by a reference to Jesus’ death. The knowledge of such an inauguration in heaven can only be through revelation, and that revelation has taken place in the writer’s own time.
But let’s view this within the context of the passage. He has been speaking of the “hope” being held out to his readers, the reason why they should remain steadfast: the promise God made to Abraham (). Faithful believers will receive their reward because of that promise, and because it was bound with an oath that God swore:
18 (God did this) in order that by two unchangeable things [the promise and oath],
in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge
may be greatly encouraged and lay hold of the hope set before us.
19 This hope we have as an anchor for the soul, both sure and steadfast,
entering the inner sanctuary behind the curtain,
20 where Jesus entered as a forerunner on our behalf…
The source of hope and encouragement lies in God’s promise, bound with an oath. Such focus resides entirely in scripture. Jesus’ historical acts themselves, as well as any words he might have spoken in his ministry, are ignored as possible sources. In a passage in which the writer speaks of the hope that should bolster faith and fortitude, he offers only the scriptural words of God. Even the reference to Jesus entering behind the curtain is introduced only secondarily, not as a source of hope, but as the One who has preceded the believer’s own mystical entry into the new sanctuary, fortified by the anchor of God’s word. (In any case, if this is a source of hope, it is a heavenly source.) Throughout the study of this document we will be observing again and again this strange, off-kilter thinking, how consistently the writer expresses himself in ways that focus on God and scriptural revelation in the present time, relegating Jesus to a background unmarked by any portrayal of a recent historical figure or event of salvation. This void and its repetition is not only bizarre, it cries out for recognition and reevaluation.3
3 Here we can make a specific comparison outside the Epistle to the Hebrews, for one is reminded of a very similar passage in the epistle 2 Peter. Briefly put, the scene in 1:16-18, which has been traditionally presumed to be derived from the Transfiguration episode in the Synoptic Gospels, presents the reader with the report of an experience by Peter and others in which the displayed power and glory of Christ is meant to prefigure his Parousia, his arrival at the End-time. For the writer of 2 Peter, this is a vision of what is to come. But then he goes on in verse 19 to say that this apostolic experience of Christ “confirms for us the message of the prophets,” the biblical prophecies and guarantees about the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom. It can hardly be the case that an incident like this, if part of Christ’s life on earth witnessed to by followers, could be placed in a position of secondary importance to the general promises of scripture, which the writer styles “a lamp shining in a murky place until the day breaks.” Even traditional scholars admit the incongruity in such a way of putting things, that the experience of Christ’s own person and life on earth has not taken over first place in Christian hopes to that of scripture. The continued existence of a murk awaiting the break of day would hardly be possible; it would surely have been at least partially dispelled by the recent life of the Son of God on earth. In the same way, Hebrews’ arrival of the New Covenant would hardly be so murkily portrayed or transferred so thoroughly to heaven, nor would scripture be held up as the sole lamp of the community’s knowledge, had the vivid events of the Gospels just taken place. (Paul shows that the same ‘murk’ existed for him as well, with the universe still “in the pangs of childbirth” and believers waiting for God to set them free [Romans -3], while the “night” is still upon them, with the “day” only “near” [Romans -12].)
[For a thorough discussion of the passage in 2 Peter, along with the epistle’s other indicators that no historical Jesus is known to the author, see Supplementary Article No. 7: “Transfigured on the Holy Mountain.”]
Finally, is there any way we could assume that an historical event lies in the background of Hebrews’ presentation, no matter how obscurely it may be present? Could we countenance the common and timeworn explanation that is regularly brought to anomalies like this found throughout the epistles: that it is all “an interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth,” an elaborate accretion inspired by the Jesus event of history? Can we see the Epistle to the Hebrews as one community’s highly mystical invention prompted by scripture, imagining a literal post-resurrection scene in heaven following the earthly life and death? The answer—and the same sort of answer applies in all the other cases—has to be no. Even if such a mystical scene were envisioned, it would have been clearly preceded by a scene on earth, on
Calvary, in the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth. The presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, the definition of his role as High Priest, would have included that earthly dimension. The latter’s absence cannot be explained away. Nor can we explain away the casting of all knowledge about Jesus, what he did and what he said, as derived from scripture, or the silence on any explicit comparison of antecedents in scripture with a Jesus in history. The idea is to be rejected on the basis that a previous life on earth would have created difficulties and anomalies in the presentation which the writer has made. It is inconceivable that any picture of Jesus’ role in salvation fashioned by a Christian writer whose faith centered on a recent human man now regarded as a part of God would have failed to include details about his life and character and the circumstances of those acts of salvation. Not only would such a course have been natural and compelling, his readership would have expected it. They, too, like some modern readers, would have been scratching their heads wondering where was Jesus of Nazareth and Calvaryin all this?
-- iii –
A Picture of the Son
Speaking through the Son
To embark on our survey of the epistle’s content (though not always in order), we return to the opening verses.
1 In many and various ways God spoke of old to our forefathers by [en] the prophets;
2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by [en] a Son,
whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
I made the point earlier that this speaking by the Son is not presented in terms of any words of Jesus on earth, but only in scripture. Aided by a quotation from
, Christopher Price in his critique defends 1:1-2 as a reference to Jesus in history: Wilson
“Jesus’ role as God’s spokesperson is compared to the flesh and blood prophets of the Jewish forefathers ‘long ago.’ Hebrews uses the same terms to describe the actions of the prophets ‘long ago’ and Jesus ‘in these last days.’ There is a definite parallel being drawn between God speaking through his earthly prophets and God speaking through his earthly Son.” [Quoting
:] ‘Each of the main phrases in the first verse, of old, to our fathers, by the prophets) is matched by a corresponding, and to some extent contrasting phrase in the second (in these last days, to us, by a Son)’.” Wilson
Price is correct that there is a parallel, but it is quite the opposite to what he and
contend. The comparison is not a “flesh and blood” one. How have the prophets of old spoken to “our forefathers”? The writer hardly has in mind simply those who heard the prophets in person preaching in their own time. He is referring to the voice of the prophets in the written words of scripture, which all the generations since those words were written down have read. Moreover, the “of old” must refer to the time up to the present new era which the writer envisions. The last of the recorded prophets ‘spoke’ around the time of the Exile, and the author of Hebrews would hardly exclude everyone subsequent to that time in his idea of “forefathers.” Most of those fathers heard the voice of God through the prophets in scripture. The proper parallel to this, if it is to be pressed as Price and Wilson are doing, would be the voice of the God through the Son also in scripture—and indeed that is what the writer exclusively presents. The Son is not being compared to “flesh and blood prophets” but to the written words of those prophets. There is no flesh and blood involved on either side of the equation. Wilson
Price also quotes Graham Hughes [Hebrews and Hermeneutics, p.36] that “in the opening statement the relationship between the two forms of revelation (is between) earlier and later forms.” Indeed it is, and since the earlier form is the speaking of God in the biblical writings, it would follow that the later form is the same, the voice of the Son as recorded in the same medium, only newly interpreted through a new revelation. It goes without saying that if the writer is referring to the voice of the Son in the sacred writings as the means by which God speaks in the present age then he knows of no Jesus of Nazareth speaking on earth.
The Cosmic Son
If the speaking were through the incarnated Son, then the two added elements would be anomalous because they have nothing to do with Jesus on earth. We should have expected something like, “he has spoken to us by a Son, who came to earth and taught the people of
.” Instead, we are given mythological features of the heavenly Son, parts of his spiritual identity and role, with no relationship to, or requirement for, incarnation. If we allow the “speaking through the Son” to constitute his voice heard out of scripture, a mythological feature, all these elements become consistent. The writer goes on to list further mythological features: Israel
3 And he is the radiance of (God’s) glory and the exact representation of his being,
and by his powerful word he upholds the universe.
After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the
Majesty in heaven.
The first sentence here, together with the two elements preceding it in verse 2, is pure Logos language (though the term itself is not used), a clear expression of Greek philosophy.4
4 Harold W. Attridge, [The Epistle to the Hebrews, p.40-41] derives these mythological features from the Jewish Wisdom tradition, but that tradition, as in Proverbs, did not speak of Wisdom in such exalted terms, placing her in virtual equality with God, his image in every respect. (It certainly never called her God.) By the time we get to the Wisdom of Solomon around the turn of the era, which does contain such exalted descriptions, Wisdom tradition has clearly been augmented by Greek Logos philosophy, and so it is here. For Attridge to label Wisdom of Solomon as “a specific source [for Heb. 1:3] in the wisdom tradition” with not a glance at the commonality with Philonic and Middle Platonic presentation of the Logos, is an illustration of my point about suppressing the Greek in favor of the Jewish. (As discussed earlier, this is not to deny the existence of Wisdom roots.)
This description of the Son in exclusively mythological terms is similar to the Pauline hymn in Colossians 1:15-20. Even the succeeding sentence in verse 3 speaks of spiritual activities, for the “purification for sins” will be laid out in the epistle in terms of the sacrifice performed in the heavenly sanctuary. Nor is there any suggestion in this sentence of an ascent from earth to heaven; the Son sits down beside God as though he has simply moved next door—which he presumably has, from sanctuary to throne room. Nothing of an earthly nature or background is detectable within these opening verses. (What is further undetectable is any sensitivity concerning the outlandish degree to which such exalted divine concepts have been attached to a recent human being, one many would have viewed as a crucified criminal. This is an attachment never spelled out, let alone defended, and one which would have gone against every Jewish instinct and tradition.)
to the Angels Superior
Nor is there anything of an earthly nature to be found in the remainder of chapter 1. Here the writer goes on to demonstrate that the Son has become as superior to the angels as his very name is superior to theirs. The purpose of this comparison, and others in the epistle, is to demonstrate that the Son, who is the agency of the New Covenant, is superior to those who were the agents of the Old Covenant, it being an extra-biblical tradition that the old one had been delivered to Moses through angels. And what is the proof of this superiority? A succession of passages from scripture, taken as referring to Jesus. (They are lifted from the Greek Septuagint, not the Hebrew original which often does not contain the thought the writer is expressing; sometimes even the Septuagint (LXX) passage is twisted to make it say what the writer desires.)
5 For to what angel did God ever say: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.”
And again, “I will be a Father to him, and he shall be a Son to me.”
There is no mention of any measure of superiority by virtue of his incarnation, his role on earth, his resurrection from the dead. In verse 7-8, the author compares features of the angels to those of the Son. “He makes his angels as winds, and…flames of fire” (quoting Psalm 104:4), probably meaning that, unlike the Son, they have been created and not begotten, perhaps also that they are insubstantial. But the opportunity is not taken to say that the Son was also begotten as a human being, incarnated to earth; that his makeup had included the flesh of matter. Instead, the Son is described (1:8-9) according to further passages from scripture, such as Psalm 45:6-7. Here the Psalmist’s address “O God” is turned into an address to the Son, and it is all exclusively about the Son’s glorification in heaven, again without any necessity for previous incarnation:
7 Your throne will last for ever and ever…
9 Because you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness…
God has set you above your fellows [here taken as referring to the angels]
by anointing you with the oil of joy.” [The anointing in the original Psalm
was of an Israelite king, to whom the latter verses of this passage were
addressed, with the “fellows” referring to other Israelites.]
Applying the Psalm’s “God has set you above your fellows” to Christ could well be a telling thought. Attridge notes [p.51-2] that it is unclear why the author was concerned about demonstrating Christ’s superiority to the angels, and then considers that he was dealing with “an angel christology, an assimilation of Christ to the angels.” But this may have it backwards, since one wonders how likely it is that any group would have extrapolated an angelic figure from a human man. Jewish speculation on angels sometimes conceived of priestly and messianic angels. “Thus for Philo,” Attridge observes, “the figure of the Logos can often be described as an angel.” This suggests that for the community of Hebrews, the heavenly Christ was, to begin with, an angelic figure, but of a superior nature, an emanation of God himself. Scripture was drawn on to demonstrate this special distinction, this unique sonship. Thus we need to reverse Attridge’s idea and postulate that the heavenly Christ may first have been conceived in angelic terms by this sect (or this concept was picked up from outside), and then developed a clearer distinction of sonship to God—eventually to be humanized in the Gospel Jesus of Nazareth. We might compare this with a preserved fragment of the Gospel of the Ebionites. Epiphanius [Haer. 30. 16. 4f] says: “They say that he was not begotten of God the Father, but was created as one of the archangels…that he rules over the angels and all the creatures of the Almighty…”5
5 Attridge, possibly disturbed by the word “fellows” as implying that Christ is being identified with angels, postulates that “there could be some secondary reference” involved [p.60]. He suggests that the “fellows” refers to Christ’s followers who are “sharing in a heavenly calling,” so that “Christ is one that distinguishes him from all who participate in sonship”: this, in the context of a discussion entirely devoted to heaven and angels, with no reference anywhere in the epistle to followers of Christ on earth. Here is a prime example not only of the power of preconception, but of the modern over-subtle and ad hoc explanations conjured up in the service of preserving the preconception and avoiding the perilous ground of new ideas.
Attridge also considers [p.97f] the derivation of Hebrews’ conception of Jesus as High Priest, which he says is “singular in the New Testament, but has not been created ex nihilo.” After examining a range of scholarly theories, he judges the most likely to be that Christ as High Priest “was understood on analogy with the priestly angels of Jewish tradition, to provide intercession for human beings before Yahweh,” although with the important addition of self-sacrifice which was not based on anything Jewish. But like the “interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth” principle, that of “analogy” has no support in the text. Rather, the writer speaks of a Jesus who is a heavenly figure, perhaps angelic, though one possessing a unique sonship. Melchizedek (whom we shall meet shortly) was already envisioned at
Qumranas a heavenly priest-figure, and the Testament of Levi has priestly angels offering propitiatory bloodless sacrifices in a heavenly temple. Hebrews’ Jesus the High Priest has been imagined out of such precedents, with no perceivable association with any historical person. He, too, is simply a heavenly priest-figure, though a singularly exalted one. (The whole question of precedent about such heavenly figures in both Jewish and Hellenistic myth will be examined toward the end of this study.)
As scholars like Attridge have suggested, in these LXX quotations the author may be using an existing “catena” of proof texts for the exalted divine nature of the Son, which is suggested as the reason why only Old Testament texts are introduced. But none of these proof texts has anything that suggest an application to a Son incarnated, and it is simple assumption on scholars’ part that they were being used as “proofs” for the exaltation of an earthly Jesus after his death, rather than for the glorification of the Son within heaven. Moreover, if Jesus had existed on earth and led the Gospel life with its role in salvation, it is highly unlikely that the author, in order to demonstrate Jesus’ superiority and exaltation, would have limited himself exclusively to Old Testament texts. Historical traditions about the human Jesus would have imposed themselves on any presentation of his christology of the Son. Even if the writer had one mystic-soaked foot in scripture, the other would have been pulled to a standing position on the dry ground of literal history. This does not mean that scholarship has not traditionally interpreted the writer as adopting this divided stance, but on the historical side everything is read into the text, filling in by means of assumption and preconception the gaps which the author has mysteriously left empty.6
6 In Harper’s Bible Commentary [p.1261], Harold Attridge says of this catena of proof texts that they “function as a whole to highlight the heavenly character of Christ,” and that in its original form “all of the texts were probably taken to refer to the exaltation,” (i.e., of Christ in heaven). This is an admission that they say nothing about his earthly character, nor that this was an exaltation from earth. This, however, does not prevent Attridge from stating that such collections of texts were made “to support the belief that Jesus [of
] was the Messiah,” which is a concern that no epistle writer ever shows evidence of needing or bothering to demonstrate. Nazareth
The Son into the “World”
Going back to verse 6, we have a scriptural passage introduced by a statement usually taken as indicating incarnation:
6 And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says:
“Let all God’s angels worship him.”
The word for “world” here is oikoumenē. In normal usage, this word is defined as “the inhabited earth.” But it seems that Hebrews’ ‘inhabited earth’ is populated only by angels, and since the word occurs in the midst of a passage which is entirely devoted to depictions of Christ in heaven, we are entitled to take oikoumenē as having, as Bauer’s Lexicon calls it, “an extraordinary use.” Bauer applies this not to Hebrews 1:6, but to 1 Clement 60:1, “where oikoumenē seems to mean the whole world (so far as living beings inhabit it, therefore the realm of spirits as well).” But Bauer’s vision is limited by preconception, not seeing that this definition should be equally applicable to the Hebrews verse, making it wholly a scene in heaven, with no necessary reference to earthly incarnation.
Hugh Montefiore [The Epistle to the Hebrews, p.45], has no hesitation in declaring that “this introduction [to v.6] makes it clear that the quotation itself, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him,’ is intended to refer to the birth of Jesus.” In its original context of Deuteronomy 32:43, the “him” referred to God, and is another example of Christian atomistic extraction from scripture. But Montefiore suggests that “An allusion to the heavenly host described in Luke ii. 13 is probably intended.” That any modern New Testament scholar would regard it as a possibility that the writer of Hebrews (almost certainly before the Jewish War) knew the Gospel of Luke, or that the Lukan Nativity scene, with its story of angelic worship which appears only in that Gospel, is not from start to finish Luke’s own invention (or that of a later editor), is almost incredible. Montefiore also observes, in view of verse 9’s apparent addressing of Jesus as “God,” that “the author must have been accustomed to the outright ascription of divinity to the Son, for he shows here not the slightest embarrassment.” Indeed, he does not. But since he also shows not the slightest sign that he is doing what Montefiore imagines he is doing, equating a human Jesus with God, there may be no reason to wonder about possible embarrassment. What the writer is doing is speaking of the heavenly “firstborn” of God, his primary spiritual emanation. He is a part of God and ascribed divinity because that is the Son’s definition and there is nothing embarrassing about it. The complication of having to take into account that Christ was a human being on whom his followers imposed a divine identity shows no sign of entering the picture.
Attridge, too (here we return to his The Epistle to the Hebrews [p.55-6]), opts for an understanding of the “introduction” of the Son to the world as something taking place at the incarnation, although he is silent on the Lukan nativity scene. He does so by default, since he has rejected the likelihood that it can refer to his only other options, taking place at either the exaltation (resurrection to heaven) or the Parousia. In considering the exaltation option, he observes that this would require “taking ‘world’ (oikoumenē) in a special sense, not as a term for the inhabited human world, its most normal sense, but as a reference to the heavenly realm.” This admits such a possible meaning for the word; however, he rejects the exaltation option as having “weak warrants.”
But we should note another option Attridge has not considered. When the Son is introduced to the world, the scriptural quote is something that God “says,” not “said.” This would make the ‘bringing into the world’ something treated as a timeless event, ever-present because embodied in scripture. (Compare below Paul Ellingworth’s suggestion in regard to 10:5.) It is not a reference to a specific and recent past event, nor to one of Attridge’s three options. Note also that the verb used is “eisagō” which means to “lead or bring in, introduce, usher in,” which does not suggest the birth of Jesus to Mary on earth. It is anything but a clear reference to incarnation.7
7 This does not prevent Christopher Price from declaring that the phrase and verse “is a clear reference to the incarnation.” He claims this on the basis of the standard translation of “oikoumenē” and seems unaware of Bauer’s category of “extraordinary use” which can make it applicable to the “realm of spirits.” Contrary to his assumption of what I myself “would argue,” I am not claiming that the “oikoumenē” is here meant to refer to the “lower celestial realm” where Christ died, but to heaven in general in the context of the “prototokos” (firstborn) of God being ‘introduced’ to its residents, the angels, who are urged to worship him. This is a mythological scene imagined out of scripture.
[p.39-40] says: Wilson
“The point of time in view is probably neither the Second Coming nor the Incarnation: ‘it is not so much a question of his being brought into the world but of his being introduced to it as the Son of God’ (F. F. Bruce)….The word for ‘world’ [oikoumenē]…means the inhabited universe, including as Bruce says the realm of angels ‘who accordingly are summoned to acknowledge their Lord.’ ”
Price has evidently not acquainted himself with the often contradictory variety of scholarly views.
A Mythical Present
The same situation with the same sort of wording occurs again in 10:5-7. (Here the word for “world” is kosmos, since this is what appears in the Septuagint passage being quoted.)
5 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.
6 Whole-offerings and sin-offerings thou didst not delight in.
7 Then I said: ‘Here am I: as it is written of me in the scroll,
I have come, O God, to do thy will.’ ”
The writer presents the Son as speaking in scripture, in the present (“he says”). Yet this speaking is “at his coming into the world,” which must also be in the same present. Again, as in 1:6, we have a timeless or ever-present mythological scene embodied in scripture. (To style these two present-tense verbs as a use of the “historical present” would be somewhat begging the question, especially considering that neither context is dealing with history but rather with heavenly or spiritual dialogues.) We should take this “coming” as no more a reference to the incarnation than was the presenting of the Son to the world in 1:6. These actions are placed not in history, but in whatever world is regarded by the writer as represented by the words of the Psalm—namely, in the spiritual realm. 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
or on earth generally. The latter receives no mention. Bethlehem
But uncertainty among commentators abounds. Jean Héring [Hebrews, p.84f] simply translates the verb into the past tense, without comment, as does
[p.175]. Montefiore [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. Attridge [p.90] envisions this as “Jesus made to express his intentions upon his incarnation.” Paul Ellingworth [The New International Greek Testament Commentary: Hebrews, p.499] assumes that the writer hears Christ speaking through scripture prior to his human incarnation. All these interpretations are strained and must be read into the epistle’s words, for of birth and incarnation in an historical setting it has nothing to say. Wilson
Ellingworth [p.500] points to a promising interpretation of the “he says,” calling it “a timeless present referring to the permanent record of scripture.” (As noted above, this supports my suggestion that here is the way to interpret the ‘introduction to the world’ in 1:6.) This is a Platonic idea, with its concept of a higher world of timeless reality. In accordance with this, one ought to consider that the writer sees scripture as presenting a picture of spiritual world realities, and it is in this spiritual world that Christ operates. The “he says” (here and elsewhere) becomes a mythical present, reflecting the higher world of myth, which seems to be the common universe in which so many early writers place their Christ.
The “body” spoken of in the Psalm, taken messianically, has helped to trigger the concept that Christ assumed a “body” in that spiritual world and there underwent death and performed the heavenly sacrifice that would replace the old sacrificial cult. It should not be left to modern scholars to postulate vague references to incarnation in defense of a body crucified on
Calvarywhen the author of the epistle chooses to make no reference to such a thing. It is within the supernatural world revealed by scripture that Jesus “has come to do (God’s) will.” Following the Psalm quote, the writer speaks of “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ” without any glance at an earthly setting. (We will further examine this verse at a later point.)
Slumming on Earth
In returning to the final thought of chapter 1, we encounter a curious anomaly. In wrapping up his comparison of the Son with the angels to prove the superiority of the former, the author makes the following statement. After quoting Psalm 110:1 which has the Son sitting at God’s right hand, secure in his place of honor, he asks rather dismissively: “What are all the angels, then, but simply ministering spirits, sent out to serve those who are to inherit salvation?” Sent to earth to minister to righteous humanity: if this is a mark of inferiority, it is apparently one that the Son has never been guilty of.
Montefiore [p.49] states that “The Son also was sent and he too came to serve.” This, of course, is not based on anything the epistle says, but is Montefiore reading the Gospels into the background. He seems oblivious to the anomaly inherent in the final comparison of the Son with the angels. Attridge, too [p.62], while noting that the ministry of the angels is not “a cultic one in the heavenly sanctuary (but) the service they perform on earth,” fails to note any inconsistency of this thought with the presumption that the Son did exactly the same thing.
-- iv –
Through Revelation and Scripture
A Salvation Revealed
Chapter 1 gives us a picture of a revealed Son, speaking and spoken about through scripture. Chapter 2 does the same. At its start, the writer presents an account of how his sectarian group began, through an event of revelation. We can envision this sort of thing happening all over the landscape of early Christ belief throughout the eastern Mediterranean in the first century CE, impelled by the fevered spirit of the times, with its apocalyptic fantasies and obsession with salvation. Small groups, anticipating a communication from God while perusing the sacred writings, imagined that these things were forthcoming. The first four verses of chapter 2 are consistently forced into a reference to a “beginning” in the preaching of an earthly Jesus, but a less preconceived reading shows otherwise:
1 Therefore, we must pay close attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away.
2 For if the message spoken through angels was binding…
3 which was proclaimed [received] at first [lit., a beginning] through the Lord,
and confirmed to us by those who heard,
4 God also bearing witness, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles
and gifts of the Holy Spirit…
First of all, there is little sense of the passage of one or two generations between the initial “hearing” of the message and its transmission from the first hearers to the present community. Certain people received the first revelation, and then, probably in forming a group and winning converts during whatever the length of time since, the revelation was “confirmed” to them by those who had received it. There is no sense of apostolic tradition here, a chain of teachings over time through intervening figures from outside the community, let alone ones who had been followers of a Jesus on earth. Translations often insert the pronoun “him” at the end of verse 3 (it is not in the Greek) to strengthen the sense of it being the preaching Jesus whom the initial hearers had heard, but in fact the “hearing” and “confirming” refer back to the word “salvation,” implying the message of salvation. This was the revelation that was “received,” while “spoken through the Lord” is a reference to the channel of that revelation. (There is a strong similarity here with the similar ‘event of revelation’ described in the so-called prologue to 1 John.)
There is also no guarantee that “the Lord” does not refer to God, since the title is used interchangeably of both God and Jesus throughout the epistle. However, if a parallel is in mind with verse 2’s “through angels,” then this is probably a reference to the Son. Paul Ellingworth [p.139] makes the point that “through angels” and “through the Lord” represent God doing the announcing, through old and new intermediaries. This parallels the thought at the opening of the epistle that, in contrast to the prophets of old, “in this final age (God) has spoken to us through the Son.” But as we have noted, Hebrews offers no voice of the Son on earth; he is heard through scripture. And thus the reference to “hearing” in 2:3 could be taken in the same sense: “through the Lord” would refer to the Son as a spiritual channel, speaking out of scripture, or regarded as God’s intermediary emanation in Logos fashion.
Attridge acknowledges the difficulty of pinning down the point at which the “salvific message was to have taken place” [p.66], though he opines that it was a message “brought by Jesus” in his earthly ministry. Nor can he pin down who it was who “confirmed” to the community the message originally heard. “Hebrews is not searching for an authoritative apostolic foundation for a tradition” [p.67], which is a tacit admission that apostolic channels do not seem in evidence here, and that nothing in this passage can easily be forced into the orthodox picture of the early Christian movement.
Rather, the “beginning” of the sect was an event of revelation, “hearing” the message of salvation, perhaps through the perceived voice of the Son in scripture and regarding this as a revelation from God. Considering that verse 2 represents the Law and the Old Covenant as “spoken through angels,” it would be consistent to see the delivery of the revelation about the New Covenant “spoken through the Lord” as a reference to another spirit-figure channel. Remember, too, that the first chapter’s comparison between the angels and the Son was presented entirely within the realm of scripture, with no reference to an earthly dimension for the Son. Viewing the medium of angels and the medium of the Son in chapter 2 as confined to scripture would thus, once again, be consistent.
The claim that the message was something delivered by a Jesus of Nazareth on earth is also incompatible with later references to the message “heard” at the beginning. The writer in is chiding his readers for not advancing swiftly enough from absorbing the basics of the message to mastering more advanced truths, so that they in turn can become teachers of others. How does he describe those basics? They are “the rudiments of the beginning of the oracles of God,” with the “beginning” being (as in 2:3) a reference to what was “received at first”—namely, the initial message of salvation. But if in 2:3 that message was allegedly the preaching and words of Jesus of Nazareth, why in does it become “the oracles of God,” a reference to scripture and revelation? To avoid a contradiction, the earlier 2:3 must be understood in the same way, a reception from God, God’s own word. (We will see that certain verses later in the epistle declare it to be that very thing.)
Furthermore, the author goes on at the start of chapter 6 to itemize those “beginning teachings” (the “word at first about the Christ”—the
styles it, “the rudiments of Christianity”). The listed items encapsulate at least part of the content of the revelation: repentance, faith in God, instruction about baptism and the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. Attridge notes [p.162] that the phrase about the “beginning teachings” [tou tēs archēs tou Xristou logon] involves an ambiguity, in that NEB
“ ‘tou Xristou’ could be either an objective or subjective genitive. That is, the message could be about Christ or it could be the message that Christ himself preached.”
He rejects the former because the items listed in 6:2 contain nothing of a christological nature, and so he judges that the phrase “refers to the proclamation that Christ himself delivered.” But that particular list of items is probably to be seen as the “elementary” things which the author is urging his readers to leave behind, and so this would not include the christology, which is in fact the “advanced” things. In any case, the listed items could hardly be seen as the sum total of what Christ himself would have taught (nor could it be the sum total of what was revealed to impel the formation of the sect), and thus in either case it cannot be meant to refer to everything. It is simply those items representing the phase at which the addressees seem to be stuck.
Thus there is no necessity to assign anything to the preaching of an historical Jesus, and there is no allusion to an earthly ministry. In fact, such a thing is excluded by what the writer goes on (in chapter 6) to say:
4 It is impossible for those who have been enlightened and have tasted
the heavenly gift and are sharers in the Holy Spirit,
5 who have tasted the good word of God and the powerful things
of the age to come…
Here it is spelled out that the elements of the message heard/received at the beginning was not the teaching of Jesus, but a heavenly gift bestowed through the Holy Spirit, and constituted the word of God, not the word of Jesus. The language and the ideas expressed are thoroughly consistent, once one acknowledges that the sect began through revelation from God through scripture, and not through the earthly career of an historical figure.
Finally, verse 4 of chapter 2’s account of the beginning of the sect speaks of God confirming the original revelation by signs and miracles. Those who wish to see verse 3 as a reference to Jesus’ ministry should be left wondering why such signs from God would be appealed to as validating the message of salvation, while the writer ignores Jesus’ own miracles which according to the Gospels served the very purpose of validating his preaching message.
Speaking to His Brothers
Going on in chapter 2, we again encounter an exclusive reliance on scripture to present the views of the Son and what he has “spoken.” The writer wishes to illustrate (2:11-13) that “he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified” are “all one”: various translations read ‘one origin, one stock, one family, from one Father,’ with the latter phrase being the predominant choice, one that does not in itself specify humanity for Jesus. How is this outlook on Jesus’ part demonstrated? By quoting from the Psalms and Isaiah. These scriptural quotes are introduced as the actual words of the Son himself, by the phrase “he says” (another mythical present):
“I will declare your name to my brothers…” [Psalm ]
“Behold, I and the children God has given me…” [Isaiah 8:18]
Nothing could more clearly illustrate that the voice of the Son speaking in these last days, as presented in 1:2, is not the voice of the Son on earth, but the voice of the Son in scripture. He speaks out of the new interpretation of scripture, not out of the past. He is the voice, the channel, the agency of revelation in 2:3. He is an entity who is known and communicates now and today, through the sacred writings, directly to the minds of those who “hear” him. This is a Son who “is not ashamed to call (those being sanctified) his brothers.” But more than one commentator has wondered why, instead of going to the Old Testament to prove his point, the writer did not draw on any of Jesus’ several statements on the subject, as recorded in the Gospels. For example, 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 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?
Attridge, in addressing this point in his Introduction [p.24] notes that the Old Testament citations at 2:12-13 and 10:5-10 “are the only ‘sayings of Jesus’ recorded in the text,” further observing that in various arguments throughout the epistle, traditions of Jesus’ teaching “play no explicit role in the argument.” This exclusive use of Old Testament passages as “words of Christ” he labels a “conceit.” It may be “striking,” he says, but it “is hardly confined to Hebrews.” This is a common fallacy encountered in New Testament research. An anomaly in a given document which ought to be perplexing is imagined to be neutralized by pointing to a similar anomaly in other documents, as though a multiplicity of such anomalies somehow makes the basic problem disappear.8
8 Wilson [p.178-9] observes—speaking of these chapter 2 quotes and the quote of Psalm 40 in 10:5—that “For the modern reader there is something incongruous about the use of an Old Testament passage which involves its being placed on the lips of Jesus…” He considers a number of possible explanations for this but settles on none. He highlights Graham Hughes’ theory in Hebrews and Hermeneutics. Hughes questions [p.62] why the writer does not draw on those Gospel sayings which “coincide” with the Old Testament verses he actually uses. Hughes’ first assumption is that such sayings (as those above) were well known to the author. But since the Word of God was supposedly seen by early Christians as embodied in Jesus on earth, then that Word in scripture when it bore resemblance to teachings of Jesus could consequently be “identified” with him. Thus, “the former [i.e., the Old Testament quotes presented as the Son speaking] can now be appropriated to give expression to the latter [sayings attributed to the Gospel Jesus].” 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?
is correct in saying that modern readers may find some of the things contained in Hebrews “incongruous.” But this hardly justifies forcing this ancient writer to conform to our modern concepts of congruity and not allow him his own voice and his own philosophy, even if it reflects a type of primitive thinking we have long abandoned. If the writer unambiguously, and without explanation, presents us with first-person passages in scripture and declares them the voice of the Son (as does the writer of 1 Clement), the plainest meaning to be drawn is that he possesses the concept of the Son speaking within scripture, unrelated to anything supposedly said on earth. It is hardly conceivable that he was intentionally putting himself through the contortions which Hughes attributes to him. Besides, the author also appeals to words in scripture spoken by God to or about the Son (e.g., 1:5-14 and 5:6). Such words have nothing to do with any supposed equivalents on earth, but are accepted as the voice of God in heaven, speaking in heavenly settings. Since there is nothing to differentiate these from those presented as the Son speaking in scripture, there is no reason not to accept the latter on the same basis. Wilson
A Parallel of Likeness
With this demonstration—through scripture—that Christ treats believers like brothers, that they are all from the same Father, we have moved into the realm of homologic parallelism, the sharing of characteristics and experiences between the divine heavenly paradigm and the human counterparts on earth who are joined to him [see The Jesus Puzzle, p.99]. It is a parallelism that has one side in heaven and the other on earth, not both on earth. Looking back in chapter 2, we find the author appealing to a passage in Psalm 8:4-6:
6 Somewhere someone witnessed:
“What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
7 You made him a little lower than the angels;
You crowned him with glory and honor
8 And put everything under his feet.”
Here, “the son of man” in the second line (and possibly also the “man” of the first line) has been interpreted by the writer as a reference to the Son, not simply to humanity, as the Psalmist intended. This Son has been made “for a little (while) lower than the angels.” (The Greek of the Psalm means “little” in degree, not in time; but the “while” needs adding once the reference is to the Son—whether on earth or in heaven.) Two verses later, the writer makes it clear that this is how he reads it. After admitting that the Psalm passage as descriptive of the Son is not, strictly speaking, accurate, since “we do not yet see all things subject to him” [v.8c], he suggests a different application of the final verse of the Psalm passage:
9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels,
now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death,
so that by the grace of God he might taste death on behalf of everyone.
Suffering death on our behalf is another expression of the homologic parallel of experience: he suffered and died as we do, which establishes the linkage between deity and humanity, to be realized on the positive side in that, because he was crowned with glory and honor as a result of that suffering and death, we too “as sons shall be brought to glory” [v.10]. This principle of homologic parallelism between god and human—or “paradigmatic parallelism” (perhaps the better term), since here one side consists of a superior paradigm, the spiritual entity in heaven—was the working mechanism of Hellenistic salvation religion, particularly in the mystery cults, and is found throughout early Christian soteriology. Paul’s “baptism into Christ” and other concepts of linkage between Christ and the believer is an expression of the widespread idea of joining with a savior god through faith and ritual.
And so we are led to verse 14, which is regularly appealed to by historicists as an undeniable reference to Jesus’ humanity. Here are a few representative translations of the verse:
Now since the children [those given to Christ, in the words of Is. quoted in the preceding verse] have flesh and blood in common, he also shared their human nature in the same way. [The Translator’s New Testament]
The children of a family share the same flesh and blood; and so he too shared ours… [
Since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same… [NASB]
Let’s look at a literal translation (in the Greek word order):
Since, therefore, the children have partaken of blood and flesh,
also himself in like manner [paraplēsiōs] he shared the same things…
The passage, while often translated with terms like “human nature” and “humanity,” says no more than that Christ shared in, or took on, some form of blood and flesh; and it qualifies these things with the idea of “likeness” (translations sometimes neglect to insert the “like” idea), as though to say that it was not exactly the same as the blood and flesh the “children” possessed. We encounter this emphasis on “likeness” throughout the epistles, such as Romans 8:38, “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” or the hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, “being made in the likeness of a man.” The terms “flesh,” “blood” and “body” are used by writers like Paul in very mystical ways which cannot simply be equated with their human counterparts. Pagans such as
generally believed that gods possessed blood and flesh, only of a different kind; and in Jewish thought supernatural beings took on a kind of flesh when they appeared to humans, while demons possessed a corporeality that was different from humans (see The Jesus Puzzle, p.103 and Note 47). In Romans 6:5 (“in the likeness of his death, so in the likeness of his resurrection”), the paradigmatic parallel is spelled out, while here in Hebrews the “likeness” idea, along with the “sharing” of human characteristics, is similarly the language of such parallelism. Compare also the Ascension of Isaiah : the descending Christ “will become like you [Isaiah] in form, and they will think he is flesh and a man,” a concealment of identity which takes place in the heavens. Cicero
We have to note once again how statements are made about Jesus which fail to express orthodox ideas directly, but only in some perversely obscure fashion. Why phrase it as does? The writer could have said that Christ “took on human flesh” (using anthrōpinos). He could have said somewhere that he had come to earth (instead of telling us in 8:4 that he never had); he could have added some detail about that death, it being on
Calvary, or in sight of human witnesses. Instead, we have noncommittal language which can readily be interpreted in a mythical sense. The use of the adverb paraplēsiōs further obscures the humanity of Christ’s flesh and blood. It means “like, in the same or like manner,” not becoming the thing itself. Why would the writer use this term to speak of the very fleshly and fully human Jesus of Nazareth?9
9 The related adjective appears in Philippians , where Epaphroditus is said to have recovered from an illness “like unto death,” which was obviously not death itself. Bauer’s Lexicon defines the adverb “paraplēsiōs” as “similarly, likewise” and notes: “The word does not show clearly just how far the similarity goes.” However, he also notes (giving only Greco-Roman examples) that “it is used in situations where no differentiation is intended, in the sense in just the same way.” The issue cannot be decided etymologically.
When he goes on to say in verse 17 that Jesus had to “become like” (homoiōthēnai) his brothers “in all respects,” this is not adding anything to a statement of his humanity, not only because the verb used is yet another presentation of the “likeness” idea, but the purpose of “becoming like” his brothers is to perform actions which take place entirely in the heavenly world: “…in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.” Since Jesus is portrayed as High Priest not on earth but in heaven, and since the atonement is achieved through the offering of his (spiritual) blood in the heavenly sanctuary, a spiritual act in a spiritual setting, we have to assume that his “becoming like humans in every way” was not necessitated for anything that had to do with being on earth, but rather with activities performed in a spiritual context. In other words, this ‘resemblance’ to humans—being “like” them—in the spiritual world was required for homologic purposes, to create the required parallel between earth and heaven.10
10 Attridge seems sensitive to the “likeness” implication, and declares [p.95] that the verb “homoioō” “can mean ‘to make similar’ or ‘to make completely alike,’ and he compares it to an alleged similar ambiguity of “paraplēsiōs” in verse 14. But his attempted distinction is illusory. The word “alike” is still ‘likeness,’ and the example he provides of his second distinction shows that it is actually the same as the first. For the first he refers to the formulaic introductions to parables in Matthew, that the
is “like” such-and-such. For the second he appeals (solely) to Romans : “…we would become [the verb ginomai] as kingdomof God , and we would become like [the verb homoioō] Sodom .” But the latter verb is still ‘likeness,’ and the former phrase (as well as the latter) contains the same idea in the word “as” [hōs]. The quoted Isaiah is hardly saying that we have actually become Gomorrah or Sodom . Just as the Hebrews passage would seem not to be saying that Jesus actually became a man—and perhaps none of the other noted passages in other epistles do either. Gomorrah
This commonality of experience is the principle of paradigmatic parallelism, and is sufficient to explain the whole phenomenon of the “likeness” of Christ to humans in the early record. It is an interesting concept that a god must undergo the experiences of the human in order to acquire the capacity to help them. It is as though we would say that a doctor cannot cure a disease unless she has had the same disease herself. Why this is so is never explained, in the same way that the writer later says () that the shedding of blood is required for the forgiveness of sins, with no explanation why. (To say that God requires it, which is the only ‘explanation’ available, is to place the responsibility directly on him.) Such necessities were simply regarded as part of the natural order, and speak to the primitive character of the religious thinking of the age.
Lower than the Angels
Before leaving chapter 2, we must return to a passage quoted earlier, to the idea that Jesus “was made a little lower than the angels.” The phrase, as we saw, came from Psalm 8:6 which declared that God had made man a little lower than (i.e., inferior to) the angels, though the spatial idea is present if only by association, since humanity lived at a lower point in the cosmos than did the angels. When Christ is said to have been made a little lower than the angels, this is invariably taken as a reference to his incarnation to earth. Yet once again, no such idea is actually expressed, and the thought can be taken a different way. Here the “little” may be a reference to a time span—the making lower/inferior was only temporary—but in the fact of his suffering Jesus was indeed inferior to the angels, who do not suffer. And in entering the lowest heaven to be killed by the demons, Christ was also spatially speaking “lower than the angels” during that time.
On the other hand, we have to realize that the author employs this phrase of Jesus because it is in the Psalm, which he takes to be descriptive of him, and therefore he is led to give it some role. He is not necessarily motivated by an independent desire to make any statement that Christ was inferior to or lower than angels, especially since he was so concerned in chapter 1 with proving that the Son is superior to them. Considering also that it would be yet another very eccentric way of saying that Jesus was incarnated to earth, we ought not to attach too much significance to the presence of this phrase.
In his critique, Christopher Price appeals to the fact that the Psalm uses the phrase “a little lower than the angels” to describe mankind. From this obvious fact he deduces that the usage of the phrase by the writer of Hebrews must indicate that he regards Jesus as a human being. But this does not follow, because it makes no allowance for the equally obvious fact that new and different interpretations and applications of scripture are not only possible but can be witnessed throughout the Christian documentary record, including in Hebrews. (Traditional Jewish thought did not envision passages in their bible to be the voice of the Son of God speaking to the world.) Price also appeals to ‘standard’ Jewish concepts, claiming that “suffering and death do not happen in the Jewish concept of heaven,” as if “Jewish concepts” were monolithic and universal among all Jews, as well as among all gentiles who attached themselves to Jewish groups. Moreover, Price has apparently not read the Enochian literature, which has all sorts of mayhem, including suffering and death, going on in various layers of the heavens. (See 1 Enoch 21:1-2, 21:10, 2 Enoch 7ff.)
-- v –
I hope by now to have established a few principles as to how the writer of Hebrews operates, his philosophical underpinnings and his mode of expression, so that we can look at the rest of the epistle and fit its many aspects into a coherent whole. One of the ways to decide in which interpretive direction to lean in regard to a supposedly ambiguous or disputed passage is to find support for that direction in other passages. If the same ambiguity exists throughout the epistle, a repeated tendency on the part of the author to express himself in seemingly strange ways which in fact invite a mythicist interpretation while continuing to evince the same perplexing and unlikely silence on anything to do with an earthly life and identity for his Jesus, the ambiguity is resolved.
Jesus and Moses
As we move into chapter 3, we encounter further support for the mythicist interpretation.
1 Therefore, brothers,…consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess,
2 who was (is) faithful to the one who appointed him [God],
just as Moses was in all his house.
How is that faithfulness compared between Moses and Christ?
5 Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house,
to bear witness to the things that would be spoken in the future.
6 But Christ was (is) faithful as a Son, set over his house,
and we are that house…
A number of translations of verse 6 read “Christ is faithful” (a tense is not specified in the Greek), due to the “house” in which Christ is faithful being something in the present, namely the writer’s community. Since the same ambiguity exists in verse 2, a present-tense reading is possible there as well. In this passage, the author is comparing Moses to the community’s present High Priest Jesus, a spiritual figure in a spiritual context (the “house” may be on earth in the persons of the believers, but the Son set over it is in heaven). This may not rule out the existence of some previous context which the writer is not addressing, but considering that such a previous context, namely of Jesus’ sacrifice, is also placed in a heavenly setting, we are still lacking any comparison of Moses on earth in the past with a Jesus on earth in the more recent past. Rather, here and throughout Hebrews, the comparison is between a past earthly prototype and a present heavenly antitype. As described earlier, this is not Jewish horizontal linearity from earlier history to later history (or future history), but a reverse Platonism progressing from earth to heaven, from material to spiritual, from inferior to superior. This is the thought-world of Hebrews and it is quite unique.
Note especially verse 5 above. Moses is said to testify about what would be said in the future. This is, to be sure, a thoroughly characteristic Jewish outlook. Certain things in the scriptural past are regarded as an adumbration, a foretelling of what would come in the present or the soon-to-be. Moses is co-opted as a prophet about the writer’s own day. But what is it that was “to be spoken in the future” [lalēthēsomenōn, the future participle]? It is a voice, but it is not the voice of Jesus recently on earth, it is a present one. The author appeals to what “the Holy Spirit says” about that voice, quoting Psalm 95:7-11.
7 As the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as in that time of rebellion in the desert…”
He uses the Psalm to refer to the voice of the Son which is being heard “today,” the voice referred to in 1:2 and throughout the epistle. His readers are urged, not to fall away from God as the Jews in Sinai had done, but to be faithful in response to that voice. But he never gives us any other voice of the Son but the one in scripture, and it is here referred to as the voice heard “today,” not recently or at any time in the past. This is the voice that Moses is said to have foretold, “the things that would be spoken in the future.” Thus Moses has not foretold a preaching Jesus in the writer’s recent past, but the voice of God speaking through the Son today, out of scripture. This is an anomaly which cannot be explained away, one similar to the “gospel of God” in Romans 1:2 pre-announcing not the life of Jesus but Paul’s gospel, or Titus 1:3 designating Paul’s gospel as the first action taken by God on his ancient promises, or the many other examples in the epistles of a life of Jesus being ‘passed over’ or excluded in a given writer’s presentation. We are entitled to take the voice of the Son in scripture as the sole source of the writer’s faith and knowledge of the Son, because this is what he is telling us.
Moreover, it would be unthinkable in a situation as critical as the one which seems to be facing the community, a breakup and abandonment of their faith, that no appeal whatever would be made to anything said by Jesus on earth. Did the community possess not a single tradition of Jesus’ teaching—even if invented—which could be called on to bolster their faith, to keep them strong in the face of persecution, no prophecy by Jesus indicating that he had foreseen such tribulations and warned against them, urging faithfulness? (Of course, such things were invented for the Gospel figure when those documents came along.) Just as nothing from the ministry of Jesus was appealed to in chapter 2 to illustrate the brotherly love between Jesus and believers, nothing is forthcoming here to encourage those brothers to enduring faith.
In the following passage at the start of chapter 4, the author carries further this glaring silence. He compares the “gospel” preached by Moses to the Israelites, who ignored and disobeyed it by failing to have faith, to the gospel preached to the author’s community, which he hopes and trusts will not be similarly abandoned and disobeyed by his fellow believers. Thus he sets up a “then” and “now” comparison. In the face of the disobedience by the Israelites,
7 (God) again sets a certain day, today, by saying through David [i.e., in the Psalms],
as I said: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’
8 For if Joshua had given them rest [i.e., led the disobedient Israelites into the
Promised Land, which he did not, but only the subsequent generation],
God would not have continued to speak of another day.
And what is that “other day” God has spoken of through scripture? It is “today,” the present day of the author’s community, when response to the gospel preached to them has given its hearers a chance to enter into the “rest” which the Israelites in the desert did not attain. There is no pointing to the “day” of Jesus’ life and saving acts. This is the same “then” and “now” we encounter throughout all the epistles: a scriptural precedent or promise by God being followed by a present-day fulfillment in the time of the writers (as in the Romans 1:2 and Titus 1:3 cases mentioned above). No role is given to Jesus in the interim, no mention of the incarnation. Thus, even God himself has failed to forecast Jesus’ life and teaching, but has looked ahead only to the gospel revealed to communities like those of Hebrews and Paul, the gospel he has imbedded in the sacred writings. God, too, has presented us with the same void, the same missing figure between the old and the new. Both “then” and “now” relate to God and his actions. Here God gave the Israelites their opportunity in the past; God gives a new opportunity to believers in the present, with not a murmur of the opportunity given by Jesus himself in a recent “today” that should hardly have faded from memory, yet can nowhere be glimpsed in a single verse of this document.
As a concluding exhortation to hold fast to faith (), the author adds one final justification. “Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold to our confession.” If this is taken as a reference to Jesus’ ascension (as is usually the case) after his time on earth, it would serve little or no purpose. The ascension had no role in salvation, and why it would be a reason for holding fast to faith is obscure. Besides, in detailing what Jesus did for us, why mention heaven but not earth itself? The answer must be that the act of salvation directly involved this passing through the heavens. This would fit the concept of the descent and ascent of the Son, first descending to the lowest sphere to undergo death, then ascending to the heavenly sanctuary to offer his blood in the new atonement sacrifice to supplant the old.11
11 Buchanan [p.250] tries to make mean, “He cleansed not only earthly, but even heavenly, things () since he had gone through the heavens ().” But refers to the cleansing of the heavenly things that are in the heavenly sanctuary, in parallel to Moses’ cleansing of the things in the earthly sanctuary (). The “passing through” of multiple layers of the heavens would have nothing to do with such a concept.
The Temptation of the Son
We saw above in 2:18 that the Son was regarded as having been “tested” through suffering and was thus able to help those on earth who have also been tested in suffering—another expression of the necessary parallelism between earth and heaven. The same thought is now repeated in following the reference to the Son having passed through the heavens. The writer declares that believers have a High Priest who is able to sympathize with their weaknesses, because he is
one who has been tested [again the verb “peiradzō” as in ] in all respects [kata panta], as we are [lit., according to our likeness—another use of the likeness idea], without sin.
Many translations prefer “has been tempted in every way,” especially as the point seems to be made in the final phrase that he resisted such temptations and did not sin. But we are entitled to think, due to the similarity of thought and language, that the writer has the same idea in mind as he did in , and there it was a testing through suffering. Nowhere does the author suggest, let alone address, any idea that Jesus had lived a life on earth in which he had to deal with all the temptations that normal humans face. Such an idea would be quite bizarre, that Jesus had been beset at every turn with temptation to sin, and like humans had been forced to struggle against those temptations in order to achieve a sinless state. (Which does not prevent some scholars from subscribing to it.) If he came by that state naturally, and a priori—which I rather think was the actual idea held by Christians (Attridge [p.140-50] says: “Hebrews conceives of conformity to God’s will as characteristic of Christ from his entry into the world”)—there would have been little to recommend Christ’s sinless example as being pertinent to the challenge facing humans if he was simply sinless by nature. On the other hand, if it had been the case that Christ had the capacity to succumb to temptation of all kinds, we would expect throughout the epistles, with their pervasive concerns and admonitions about not committing various sins from those of the flesh to those of pride, hate and false worship, to find frequent appeal to the example of the earthly Jesus who had resisted committing such sins. We would expect an appeal to him as the ideal exemplar in leading a moral life. But on such things all are uniformly silent.
EXCURSUS: Christ Sinless
[p.91-3] addresses this question. In regard to , he noted, “we may naturally think of the temptation to avoid the suffering which led to the cross, but…the temptations of Jesus are more than that. Nor is that a temptation [to avoid the cross] likely to be common to his people, so that he could help them.” But surely this is precisely what the author is getting at. His people are facing the temptation to give up, to avoid the suffering that persecution brings by abandoning their faith. On , Wilson maintains that “the picture is of one who was truly human in every respect, not a divine being masquerading in human disguise, and the sufferings he had to endure were real.” But this is what needs to be determined, not assumed. He goes on to focus on the phrase “as we are” (lit., according to likeness, demonstrating that we can’t get away from the “likeness” idea), into which he has read his “truly human.” And because “Jesus was fully human,” he reasons, “therefore he was tempted, just as we are; but he did not give way.” Yet everything after Wilson ’s unjustified leap from “likeness” to “truly human” lacks any deductive basis. Wilson
goes on to draw on examples from the Gospels to demonstrate that Jesus was tempted in various ways: the Temptation story, the rebuke to Peter at Wilson Caesarea, the taunts of the bystanders at the cross to come down from it and save himself. These are truly human situations in which one could imagine Jesus having to resist temptation. then points to convictions of Jesus’ sinlessness in the epistles. Yet these are quite different. They do not present ostensibly human, earthly situations in which Jesus resists temptation. Their contrast with the Gospel examples, though apparently not perceived by Wilson , are telling. 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had [knew] no sin to be sin for us.” This directly implies that Christ by nature was without sin, and could never be in sin. 1 John 3:5: “and in him there is no sin.” Again, sinless by nature. No situation of temptation is presented in either passage. And what of Wilson ’s other example, 1 Peter 2:22? This, too, is telling. In urging readers to follow Christ’s example, ‘Peter’ quotes Isaiah 53, and then further summarizes other ideas from it: Wilson
22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” [Is. 53:9]
23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate;
when he suffered he made no threats. [53:7]
It is not clear whether the writer thinks Christ could have given in to the implied temptations, but for the purposes of his recommendation to his readers, he seems willing to present it as such. However, the point to be made is that this is not an example given from purported history, as in the Gospels; in fact history is notably missing. This is an author pointing to Christ in scripture, just as Hebrews does; as though he has no historical traditions to draw on, just as Hebrews seems not to have. A further consideration is that 1 Peter’s temptations relate only to the suffering and death of this scriptural Christ, which is precisely the point that Hebrews’ author is making in both verses, and —that Christ was tempted or tested in regard to his suffering. There is no inclusion, in foreground or background, of a general temptation to sin such as a god-man on earth who was “truly human” would face.
’s deductions are not borne out in or by the text. Wilson
What sin, then, might the spiritual Christ have reasonably been tempted to commit? The key is the discussion the writer has just engaged in at great length, his exhortation not to “disobey” and lose faith, not to have “a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (3:12). He is here (4:15) saying that Christ is able to sympathize with our “weaknesses,” and such weaknesses have been cast entirely in terms of the danger of abandoning faith in the face of adversity. This is the “sin” that Christ was “without,” the one that, in the face of his suffering, he might have been tempted to commit, just as the community is being tempted to commit such a sin in the face of its own suffering and persecution. (We must regard the “in all respects” [kata panta] as referring to the nature or intensity of the temptation to disobedience, since this is all that the writer is focusing on here; it is all that he is interested in. Jean Héring uses the phrase “to the limit.”) Having passed through that test himself, conforming to the principle of paradigmatic parallelism, Christ is able to sympathize with the situation the community is facing.
Furthermore, the event of Christ’s own “testing” would have involved a “passing through the heavens,” the writer’s way of referring to the subordination of his purely divine and spiritual character by descending to lower levels and taking on an inferior form in which he could undergo suffering and death. (Compare the same scenario in the Philippians hymn and in the Ascension of Isaiah 9 and 10). This is the only context, unlike those proposed by scholars, in which the reference to passage through the heavens would make sense and have relevance to what is being said. And it explains the testing (or “tempting” if you will) to which Christ has been subjected. As well, we shall immediately see that it casts light on the succeeding passage involving a supposedly problematic reference to which historicists regularly appeal.
-- vi --
In the Days of His Flesh
The writer opens chapter 5 with a specific comparison between the high priest on earth and Christ as heavenly High Priest. Both have been chosen by God, not taken on the role at their own initiative. To demonstrate this in regard to Christ, the writer appeals to two verses from scripture representing God’s appointment of the Son as High Priest:
“You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” [Psalm 2:7]
“You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” [Psalm 110:4]
Enlarging on that appointment and demonstrating how the Son achieved it, he immediately goes on to say:
7 In the days of his flesh, he offered up both prayers and supplications
with loud crying and tears to the One able to save him from [lit., out of] death,
and he was heard because of his piety [lit., his godly fear],
8 even though he was a Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered,
9 and being perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation
to all those who obey him…
In continuing the theme of obedience, we see that the writer is still on the subject that occupied him in chapter 4: the necessity for the community’s obedience and enduring faith in the face of adversity, as exemplified by Christ’s own obedience to God in the face of his adversity. Even the Son of God had to confront death in order to learn obedience and gain perfection, implying that believers must be willing to do the same to gain the same benefits. Once again, there is a focus on the idea of paradigmatic parallelism, in that by learning obedience in the face of death and thereby becoming “perfected,” as believers do, he is thus able to become their Savior. It is by that process that God has appointed and designated him to become “a high priest in the order of Melchizedek.”
If the Son became a High Priest and Savior through his suffering and death, that death would have had to take place in the lower heavens, where a form resembling that of humanity—again, part of the philosophical requirement of the parallelism—had to be temporarily taken on. The writer has chosen to style this by the phrase “the days of his flesh.” (This would certainly be a peculiar way to put it if he only meant “when he was on earth,” or “during his life among us.”) The term “flesh” can apply to non-human flesh, to the flesh of supernatural beings, an idea found in both Jewish and pagan thought. (See The Jesus Puzzle, p.103 and note 47.) As well, “flesh” is used in many Pauline passages to refer to something mystical and metaphysical, to describe concepts very much beyond that of a simple human body on earth and in history.
Most importantly, we have to ask what it is that Christ has specifically done “in the days of his flesh.” First, those actions are put forward with the continuing theme in mind of testing and passing the test. Christ “offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the One [God] able to deliver him out of death, and he was heard because of his piety.” Even the Son of God felt apprehension and prayed for deliverance, and because of his faith in God was indeed delivered—that is, he was resurrected, not spared his suffering and death. This is the example the writer wishes his readers to follow (not that they must suffer death, only that they be willing to face it), so that they too will be delivered and enter upon God’s “rest.” But from what source has the writer drawn these examples of Christ’s behavior? For something as important as this, to impress upon his readers the image of Christ apprehensive but obedient in the face of martyrdom, where does he go? Amazingly, not to history, but to scripture.
Now, it is certainly the case that the passage suggests the Gospel scene in the
, and many modern readers take it that way. But scholars have recognized the problems in such an interpretation. In Hebrews, Jesus in no way pleads that he be spared his upcoming ordeal. In Gardenof Gethesemane Gethsemane, on the other hand, Jesus of Nazareth is portrayed as experiencing fear and apprehension at the prospect of what he is facing, but his plea that he might be spared the cup of suffering he must drink was not heeded by God. This is something that would have contradicted one of the points the writer of Hebrews wishes to make, which is that God answers the prayers of the heavenly High Priest (one of his tasks being, like the earthly high priest, to petition God on the people’s behalf). On the other hand, if he was pleading for resurrection, then that prayer was indeed answered.
Scholars who squarely face this discrepancy usually downplay any link to
Gethsemane. Montefiore, however, declares that “this historical incident evidently made a deep impression upon the author” [p.97]—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 ”?) And he misapplies it to the point he is making. Dependence on Gethsemane Garden Gethsemaneis also dubious since the Gospel scene is almost certainly Mark’s literary invention, and the writer of Hebrews shows no sign of being familiar with any written Gospel. The chances of such a scene forming in oral tradition are next to impossible, since it involves words and actions ascribed to Jesus which were not heard or witnessed by anyone. Moreover, the feature of the sleeping disciples would surely have appealed to the writer, perhaps to represent those members of the community who were in danger of falling asleep and missing the true rest which God was promising.12
12 Mark’s scene, like so much else in his Gospel, probably served a didactic purpose, to symbolize the challenge facing the believer who fears the ultimate persecution but ought to accept the will of God whatever it be. On that understanding, its appeal to the writer of Hebrews would have been compelling as the perfect parallel to his readers’ own situation, and he would have offered a direct comparison with the
Gethsemanescene. Indeed, the very fact that he does not style his “offering up prayers and supplications” in 5:7 in the manner of Mark would indicate not just ignorance of any Gethsemane tradition, but ignorance of the principle of “temptation” (as discussed above) that Jesus would have faced in an earthly life.
Indeed, it is almost unthinkable that the author of Hebrews in this situation would not have appealed to some tradition attached to the historical Jesus, his behavior under duress at his trial and scourging, his willing sacrifice on the cross of
Calvary. Instead, he has gone to scripture and portrayed him from its pages. Buchanan [p.98] suggests that “offering up petitions” is drawn from Psalm 116:1, which uses the same words (in the LXX 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 : “when I cried to him, he heard me” (again in the wording of the LXX). While it may strike some as a bit jarring that Jesus would be portrayed so graphically pleading for resurrection, we realize that it is not the writer’s choice to do so, but his necessity, since it is determined by the scriptural passage. Reflecting scholarship in general, Ellingworth [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.13
13 Christopher Price, in addressing my contention about this passage in his critique, echoes Ellingworth. He maintains that arguments against a
Gethsemanederivation are irrelevant, since “Whether or not this passage finds a correlation in the Gospels, it refers to specific human activities undertaken during the ‘days of his flesh.’ ” If so, it is strange that the writer needed to go to scripture to formulate such human activities, or that no traditions existed surrounding the very act of salvation on earth which could have provided Jesus with a voice and will of his own to serve the writer’s purpose. Price also appeals to “Jewish language” and concepts to rule out that “in the days of his flesh” can refer to anything other than earthly days and human flesh, again ignoring the principle that new understanding of old concepts is the principal mechanism of both syncretism and the historical progression of ideas. Price himself would hardly restrict his own understanding of New Testament thought to the parameters of Old Testament thought, especially in the face of many Christian writers’ recasting of the latter for all to see.
Attridge, on the other hand, takes no notice of any scriptural derivation yet recognizes [p.148] “that this picture of Jesus at prayer cannot be simply derived from any known tradition on the subject,” and that “no precise indication of the time when Christ’s prayers were offered can be inferred.” He, not unexpectedly, regards the “days of his flesh” as referring to the incarnation, but sees that “ ‘flesh’ again connotes the sphere of weakness and suffering to which Christ was subject” [p.149]. On that principle, if weakness and suffering were experiences possible to divine beings in the lowest celestial sphere (below the moon, where ‘corruptibility’ began), this being the domain of the demon spirits who were also included in “the realm of flesh” (as the TDNT specifies, VII, p.128), then Attridge has given us tacit permission to locate the “days of his flesh” in the spiritual world above the earth.
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