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Supplementary Article No. 14
A Cornerstone of the Mythicist Case:The Cosmic Christ of the Epistle to the Hebrews
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Things Past and Things To Come
We noted earlier, in Williamson’s views on the question of Platonism in the Epistle to the Hebrews [p.566], that 10:1 was a passage “where it is possible to suspect traces of Platonic Idealism.” Let’s survey that passage, for it will once again throw light on the nature of the entire Hebrews scenario. It is best to understand the ‘trace of the Platonic’ as parenthetical to the argument being made, and so it is separated out and placed in italics:
For the Law,
having only a shadow of the good things to come,
and not the form of the realities themselves,
can never, by the same sacrifices repeated year by year,
make perfect those who draw near.
Williamson maintains that this is not the language of Platonic Idealism, but of Jewish eschatology. “The things contrasted are one in the past and one in the present and future.” This might be true if the italicized phrase were limited to “having only a shadow of the good things to come.” Then the Law (in what respect is not here specified) might be a “foreshadowing of something yet to come, not an earthly copy of a heavenly pattern,” as
, referring to and agreeing with Williamson, puts it [p.170]. If all that was envisioned was a past to future progression in a Jewish sense, the next phrase would not have been needed or germane. As it is, “and not the form of the realities themselves” reveals an unmistakably Platonic dimension to the writer’s thinking. And while the first phrase may intend a past to future relationship, the second phrase shows that it is being conceived in the context of a Platonic understanding, not a Jewish one. Wilson
But the particular blend of Greek and Jewish concepts in this epistle has put this understanding in a somewhat skewed form, though it is in conformity to the unique configuration of Platonism which the author has created. While the Law comes first, it has been the “shadow” and not the actual Platonic “form.” It was not the ultimate thing destined to be, but only a preceding ‘copy’ of it. Here, once again, we see the writer’s reversal of standard Platonism. The lower copy precedes the higher model; the inferior/imperfect anticipates the superior/perfect. And, we are able to say, the earthly progresses to the heavenly. For what exactly are “the good things to come”?
Commentators find an uncertainty in what the writer means by this first phrase. What are “the good things to come” and in what way has the Law been a (fore)shadow of them? Williamson unnecessarily points out that “there is no contrast between an Ideal, heavenly Law and its imperfect, earthly shadow or copy.” That goes without saying, since the only reference to “Law” defines it as the imperfect, preceding “shadow,” and there is no room or thought on either side of this progression for an Ideal, heavenly Law to be contrasted with it. Nor would the writer have had any interest in such a thing, since he regards the Law as supplanted—at least in regard to the
practice, which is all that he shows any concern for in this document. (In a passing remark in 13:9, he also shows no sympathy for the Law’s dietary regulations.) Temple suggests, Wilson
“when (the writer) says that the Law had in it the shadow of the Christian order, though not the reality, he means that the new order was at hand, at the door.” [p.170]
Yet in what specific way could the Law be said to have foreshadowed “the Christian order”? The Old Covenant foreshadowing the New, perhaps, as a general idea, although that old-new relationship has to this point been specifically characterized in terms of the sacrificial cult. Commentators usually take “the good things to come” as the new Christian life and potential transformation of society which Christ has “inaugurated,” the salvation now available under the New Covenant. These things are essentially to be located on earth in the new movement, and thus
would be correct in saying that this was a progression from past to future in the Jewish linear sense. But such a conclusion is undermined, if not destroyed, by that second phrase: “and not the form of the realities themselves.” Wilson
First of all, this is a Platonic concept, in which the “form of the realities” must be located in heaven. The implied perfection of that “form” (as opposed to the imperfect “shadow”) cannot exist on earth. Even if we were to see the old Jewish-oriental concept at work here, that “model/form” would still be in heaven, not on earth. Thus we have further indication that the writer is thinking along vertical lines, and not horizontal ones, not history to history.
Second, why state that the Law is not the actual reality of “the good things to come”? In fact, the thought makes no sense. Of course the Law is not the true reality of the new Christian order. It might in some respects be a foreshadowing of it, but it could never be regarded as the thing itself, so why deny it? To put it another way, the author is saying: “The Law constitutes the shadow, it does not constitute the reality”—but the shadow and reality of what? To say that “The Law constitutes the shadow of the new Christian order, it does not constitute the reality of the new Christian order,” is almost nonsensical. Throughout all expressions of Christianity, the Law was the precursor, the thing that needed supplanting—in some views, transforming. No one would style the traditional Law “the form of the realities” of the new Christian order, even to deny it.
In order to avoid this logical contradiction, we must see a different meaning in “the good things to come,” one to which the Law could be logically applied, if only in a negative fashion. That meaning has been presented all through the epistle, and it is the one that conforms to the heavenly Platonic nature of the thought. The “good things to come” is not the Christian order on earth (whether fully realized now or only in the future, which is another uncertainty that confronts the standard interpretation). It is the activities of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary, the occurrence and revelation of which constitutes the “inauguration” of the new order and its benefits. Now we can answer the question, in what way has the Law been a “foreshadowing”? In fact, right from the latter part of verse 1, the question is answered for us:
1 …can never by the same sacrifices repeated year by year…
3 …in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins…
4 …it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins…
The Law is a “foreshadowing” in precisely those respects that have been under the spotlight all along: not the Law in general, but the sacrificial cult of the Law as established by Moses and continued through Jewish history in the
. The Law is a “shadow” in respect to its earthly sanctuary sacrifices. And what have these ‘shadow’ sacrifices “foreshadowed”? Not Christian life or the new order, but the activities of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary. These are—or rather were—“the good things to come.” The writer uses no verb to directly specify that those good things are still to come, and both commentators and translators are divided on whether the meaning is to be understood as “are coming” or “were to come.” The latter, of course, allows for the foreshadowing to be of Christ’s sacrifice. Temple
F. F. Bruce [Epistle to the Hebrews, p.234] reads it: “The Law had a shadow of the good things that were to come, but not the exact image of those things….The author is thinking more especially of the Law prescribing matters of priesthood and sacrifice in relation to the wilderness tabernacle and the
.” Donald Guthrie [The Letter to the Hebrews, p.201] says that the Law “possesses the shadow, i.e., the ceremonial cultus,” which throws the focus on the parallel sacrifices of Law and Christ. He also sees “enshrined in the law what is more permanent, i.e., the moral demands between the old and new covenants”; but in the text itself the writer does not discuss the “moral demands” of either covenant beyond referring to general concepts of repentance and faith, and certainly not in the context of this passage. (See the quote from Moffatt below.) Manson, somewhat similarly, suggests that “like Law in Pauline theology, it prepared the way for the higher revelation of grace in the gospel,” but this is a generalized interpretation on Manson’s part and not based on anything specifically said in Hebrews, let alone in this passage. Buchanan [p.163] opines that the reference “would seem to be the heavenly things mentioned in 8:5.” Wilson [p.171] sees the “good things to come” as still lying in the future, although he regards the same phrase in 9:11 as referring to “the good things that have already come,” since “Christ has appeared, a new situation has been inaugurated,” which again puts the focus on Christ’s past actions.25 Jerusalem Temple
25 The Greek phrase in contains a past participle, “tōn genomenōn agathōn,” rather than a present participle as in 10:1, “tōn mellontōn agathōn,” which might justify a past sense reading in the former. But the manuscripts are not consistent, and some show a reading identical to 10:1. Attempting to differentiate meanings between the two verses, as
does, thus becomes a risky affair, and scholars in any case do not base their interpretations on the particular participial forms present in either verse. Wilson
Attridge understands 10:1 as referring to future eventualities, not basing it on the context of the verse itself but by bringing in ideas from other places in the epistle (2:5, , ) which have nothing to do with any comparison to the Law or its sacrificial cult. (He calls attention to a “good things to come” comparison with the Law in Colossians 2:17, but he is ignoring his own principle stated elsewhere that one should hesitate to appeal to an entirely different document to explain what is being said in this one.) He also presents his interpretation of 10:1 “contra Moffatt,” but here I believe Moffatt (as so often) has in fact provided the most clear-eyed analysis of the matter:
“The Law is for the writer no more than the regulations which provided for the cultus; the center of gravity in the Law lies in the priesthood () and its sacrifices, not in what were the real provisions of the Law historically. The writer rarely speaks of the Law by itself. When he does so, as here, it is in this special ritual aspect, and what really bulks in his view is the contrast between the old and the new diathēkē, i.e., the inadequate and the adequate forms of relationship to God….And this is the point here made against the Law, not as Paul conceived it, but as the system of atoning animal sacrifices.” [ICC, Hebrews, p.135]
Thus it is in regard to the comparison between the old sacrifices under the Law and the new sacrifice of Christ, now past, that 10:1 should be understood. It would also be debatable as to in what manner the Law would have been conceived by the writer as foreshadowing the Christian life and order. He discusses the Law in a predominantly negative spirit, whereas any new Christian order would be a decidedly positive thing. Just what particular elements of that new order would be perceived as being related to prototypes in the Law might be difficult to define, especially as he never discusses any prototypes beyond the sacrificial ones. Thus what is perhaps the predominant interpretation of this verse by today’s scholars, that it refers to things still to come, does not sit well in its context, immediate or overall, and does not commend itself as a point one might expect would be made by the author.
Thus we can make sense of both those phrases. The Law in its sacrificial cult was the “shadow” of the heavenly sacrifice, just as it has been portrayed all through the epistle. At the same time, the Law was not the “form of the realities,” in the sense of being the perfect and ultimate means of atonement for sin; this the writer states yet again in verse 4, showing that it is the Law as the foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrificial act which is on his mind. Rather, it was to be Christ’s sacrifice in heaven which constituted the true form and reality, the perfect means to achieve atonement and the New Covenant. And that it was indeed ‘in heaven’ is indicated by the writer’s Platonic language: “the form of realities” belongs in the spiritual world, not on earth.26
26 Despite having said that “the Law had in it the shadow of the Christian order,” Wilson [p.170] shortly thereafter styles “the Law” in terms of various Jewish expressions—the Old Testament, the traditional priesthood, the Day of Atonement ritual—used by the author as things which “all point forward to what was yet to be, they are shadows of a reality yet to come, which for our author has indeed come in the perfect sacrifice of Christ.” In being led to this refinement of meaning for the Law and the good things to come,
now conforms to my own analysis. (“The good things to come” in the plural may encompass not only the sense of Christ’s “activities” in heaven, but perhaps also the thought of the consequences that have proceeded from his sacrifice.) Wilson
A Body for Sacrifice
The fact that Christ’s sacrifice is in mind in “the good things to come” is virtually assured in light of what follows as we progress further into the chapter. Immediately after the focus in verses 1-4 on the imperfection and inability of the “shadow” sacrifices of the old cult to take away sins, the writer progresses to the very thing that they foreshadowed, the very thing that would take away sins: Christ’s own sacrifice (10:5-13).
This process began as revealed by Psalm 40:6-8 (LXX), discussed earlier. These verses he takes as the voice of the Son speaking in scripture and addressing God:
5 …Thou hast prepared a body for me…I have come, O God, to do thy will.
God’s ‘will’ is that the Son sacrifice the body prepared for him and then to offer its blood in the heavenly sanctuary. If this is a scriptural prediction of Christ’s incarnation and death on
Calvary, the author has given himself the perfect opening to make the point that history fulfilled the prophecy. We would certainly expect it from a writer who has focused throughout on past leading to future, scripture leading to later reality, and who—allegedly—expresses himself according to Jewish linear principles. Yet there is not a murmur about historical fulfillment. Instead, following the quote, the author indicates its meaning:
8 First he says, “Sacrifices and offerings, whole-offerings and sin-offerings,
thou didst not desire nor delight in (although the Law prescribes them)
9 and then he says, “I have come to do thy will.” He thus annuls the former
to establish the latter. [
The statement “I have come to do thy will” is treated, as it stands in scripture, as illustrating the act which has annulled the old covenant and established the new. It is presented as the embodiment of that act, as though there is nothing else to represent it. Not history, not the memory of an actual man, but simply the picture created by the words of scripture, the heavenly reality embodied in those words. To illustrate this all-important act of Christ, this is all he has to offer. No words of Jesus on earth, no scene on
Calvarywhere that body suffered and was sacrificed, no interpretation of the historical act itself. In fact, the author goes on (v.15-17) to offer further ‘testimony’ illustrating the significance of the Jesus event and the establishment of the new covenant:
15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. After saying,
16 “This is the covenant I will make with them…” [etc., quoting Jer. 31:33-34]
This further “testimony” is, of course, from scripture. The writer seems to have no interest in historical traditions to do with the earthly event. Or perhaps it is simply that he has no knowledge of it.27
more than once makes the comment that the writer “shows little interest in contemporary or recent history” [p.162]. To judge by his silence on the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth or on any of the historical characters associated with him in the Gospels, such as Pilate and the Jewish establishment who supposedly had a hand in Jesus’ salvation activities, this is certainly the case. Wilson
Attridge, in addressing the Psalm quote in 10:5, focuses first on the phrase which introduces it: “Wherefore, when he comes into the world [eis ton kosmon], he says…” I have discussed earlier various scholarly interpretations of the use of the present tense here, including Paul Ellingworth’s suggestion that it may be “a timeless present referring to the permanent record of scripture.” Attridge, on the other hand, suggests [p.269] that “Christ’s sacrifice is described with language that is strikingly ‘earthly’.” Yet, going on to say that “the psalm text is attributed to Christ upon his entry into the cosmos,” he faces the oddity—which other scholars have had to face as well—of the thought and expression itself. When does the writer envision Christ as saying such a thing, and what is this “entry into the cosmos”? If scripture represents the thought or intention of Christ, why not specify the point in Christ’s life at which the Psalm words are to be attributed to him? Scholars have tried to do so, some suggesting at birth, or at the crucifixion, even in heaven before the incarnation. Attridge earlier [p.90], in discussing the other example in Hebrews of scriptural quotations being placed in Christ’s mouth (namely the psalmic quotes in chapter 2), has opined that the quotation in 10:5 is Jesus “made to express his intentions upon his incarnation,” and that “the incarnation is clearly in view” [p.273].
But why the woolly phrase “entry into the cosmos”? And is “cosmos” [kosmos] “earthly”? Some usages do fall into that category, but others entail a broader meaning. Bauer’s Lexicon offers, for example, a category of “in philosophical usage, the world as the sum total of everything here and now, the (orderly) universe,” indicating various pagan writers. 1 Clement 60:1, he observes, uses it in reference to the entire universe: “For thou through thy operations didst make manifest the eternal fabric of the world [tou kosmou]”; a passage which goes on to make a separate reference to creating the earth. Operating under the same assumptions as Attridge, Bauer places the kosmos of Hebrews 10:5 into an “earth” category. But this fails to take into account other appearances of the word in Hebrews itself. In 4:3, the author is discussing God’s work of creation: “…although his work has been finished since the foundation of the world [apo katabolēs kosmou].” That “work” (see 4:4) refers to the entire span of the six-day creation, and thus encompasses much more than the earth itself. Precisely the same Greek words are used in the verse, “from the foundation of the world,” and thus may well contain the same “total universe” thought. In 11:7 and 38, the writer uses the word in application to a strictly earthly context, but this only shows that the term had a wide application which was not limited to being “strikingly earthly.” Paul’s usage in 1 Corinthians 4:9 illustrates its dual application to both earth and heaven: “We have become a spectacle to the world [tō kosmō], both to angels and to men.”
In the same way that 1:6 has Christ introduced to the “world” [oikoumenē] in an “extraordinary use” heavenly sense, there is no reason to deny a heavenly use of kosmos in 10:5, although here there is nothing extraordinary about it. This would eliminate the problem of defining the thought as in one way or another relating to the incarnation, none of those ways being particularly effective or comfortable. Rather, the ultimate heaven of God himself—including of the pre-existent Son—being eternal, lies outside the “created world,” and the point at which the Son enters the latter is when he leaves the eternal heaven to enter the lower levels of the created universe to take on the “body” that has been prepared for him and undergo death in it—all of which mythical activity has been revealed in scripture, in this case Psalm 40:6-8.
(Someone recently scoffed at the idea of “the cosmic Christ,” and no doubt there are many moderns who find it difficult to get their minds around such an alien concept, especially minds predisposed to a two-millennia historical paradigm. But it is astonishing how those epistolary texts, when fearlessly examined, have no trouble being demonstrated to present just such a picture.)
A Metaphor in Heaven
In his comments on ,
10 And by that [God’s] will, we have been sanctified through the sacrifice
of the body of Jesus once for all,
which he sees as the “climax” of the author’s “whole reflection on the heavenly sacrifice and the new covenant” over the last three chapters, Attridge once again relegates the “blood” of Christ offered in the heavenly sanctuary to symbolism. (The author uses the word “body” here because he is still commenting on the Psalm passage which contains the term “body.”) Because Christ’s sacrifice has rendered the Christian “sanctified,” which is a motif to be equated with making them “perfect” and effecting a “cleansing of conscience,” this represents an “interior dimension.” Even so, as I queried earlier, what justifies the quantum leap from such an observation about the personal effects of Christ’s sacrifice on the believer, to the conclusion that the author’s concept of the “blood” which has produced those effects is merely metaphorical?
“It is because of this interior dimension of Christ’s act that it is ‘heavenly,’ better than the blood of animals offered according to the Law, effective in the spiritual realm of conscience, and adequate for establishing the new covenant promised by Jeremiah.” [p.276]
Attridge does not explain why an “interior dimension” relating to humans would make Christ’s own act “heavenly” despite the supposed fact that it took place on earth. Earlier Attridge declared that the author envisions the heavenly sanctuary as simply metaphorical as well—not existing even in spiritual reality, and the feasibility of this was questioned. But it is further to be considered unlikely since there is no reason to think that the author does not subscribe to the traditional Jewish belief in heavenly prototypes of earthly things—including the tabernacle and its accoutrements, a view he has expanded in Platonic fashion. His language throughout the epistle certainly suggests that he believes the heavenly sanctuary exists. But is he then placing a metaphorical blood sacrifice in a genuine heavenly setting?
The language the writer applies to Christ’s heavenly sacrifice is just as graphic and straightforward as the language he applies to the heavenly sanctuary. We have the term “blood” itself (as in ). We have the “bearing” of it into the sanctuary (as in —an image which Attridge, while admitting that the “dia de tou idiou haimatos” means “with his own blood,” denies should mean “that Christ actually brought his blood into heaven” [p.248]). We have the “cleansing” of heavenly things with it (). Can real heavenly things be cleansed with metaphorical blood, or with blood shed on earth—and staying there (since Attridge has ruled out any conception of
Calvaryblood being borne into heaven)? Who would be expected to give credence to such an approach to soteriology, or regard this as anything but a bizarre way to characterize a recent historical event? The author wishes to bolster the spirits and backbone of his community in the face of persecution, and yet a turning of the memory of Jesus of Nazareth’s historical crucifixion into an elaborate metaphor of a “complex moment” of salvation in a non-existent heavenly sanctuary is his chosen method?
A Heavenly Curtain
The remainder of chapter 10 sees the author repeating his themes with no new development, although he does add a vivid image in -20:
19 Since we have confidence, brothers, to enter the most Holy of Holies
by the blood of Jesus,
20 a new and living way he opened for us through the curtain, that is, his flesh…
The “curtain” is the veil before the sanctuary. That veil is defined as, and equated with, Christ’s “flesh.” A mystical concept it certainly is, and despite all the possible interpretations and connotations which Attridge discusses [p.285-7] about the “paradoxical quality” of this concept, the most natural way to understand it is that the heavenly tabernacle, now sanctified and opened for believers by Christ’s blood sacrifice within it, has a ‘curtain’ before it, a counterpart to the actual curtain of the earthly tabernacle. That curtain is Christ’s “flesh.” To be consistent with Attridge’s concept of the “blood” of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary being a metaphorical rendering of his human blood shed on
Calvary, this “flesh” would be a metaphorical rendering of Christ’s human body on earth, specifically of the flesh crucified there. But just as there is no basis in the text for regarding the blood brought into the heavenly sanctuary as a metaphor constructed out of Calvary, there is no basis for regarding the curtain of Christ’s flesh as a metaphor out of Calvary either. If the author can conceive of his “blood” being brought into heaven, there is no reason not to conceive of Christ in his (spiritual) “flesh” entering heaven and opening the new door into the sanctuary for believers, especially since it serves to create a very effective image of him who opened that way being the entranceway itself. The latter would be the extent of any metaphor. As the curtain on earth is the entrance to the earthly tabernacle, Christ himself is the entrance to the heavenly one and the presence of God.
The problem is, all of this is simply too weirdly primitive and even unsavory—not to mention cosmologically obsolete—for moderns to be willing to regard an early Christian writer, inspired by God in his writing (after all, it’s in the New Testament), as conceiving of such things literally. And so it must all be interpreted as intended metaphor. But considering that the writer lived and thought according to the dual-universe cosmology and philosophy of the first century, and considering that Paul, too, speaks in similarly vivid and mystical ways about the “body” and “flesh” of Christ which show no evident connection to any human incarnation, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews is entitled to be taken at face value.
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Figures of the Past
Exemplars for Faith
Having presented his picture of Christ’s redeeming work and the establishment of the New Covenant, the writer appends a long conclusion in which, in various ways, he encourages the community to remain faithful in the face of adversity. In chapter 11, he offers a series of examples of people in the Old Testament who had faith: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses are all paraded before the reader to illustrate his point. Others, from Gideon to David, Samuel to “the prophets,” all these “overthrew kingdoms, established justice, saw God’s promises fulfilled….Others were tortured to death…faced jeers and flogging, even fetters and prison bars; they were stoned…put to the sword, went about dressed in skins of sheep or goats…”
Yet not one example is offered from the scenario now familiar to us from the Gospels. No Jesus who established justice, who himself faced jeers and flogging, no John the Baptist, Jesus’ herald, who dressed in animal skins and was imprisoned and put to the sword, no Paul or Peter who ended up behind prison bars, no James or Stephen who were both stoned to death. Wilson notes [p.217] that “our author shows no knowledge of Acts and in any case draws his examples from the Old Testament, not from recent history,” without expressing any curiosity as to why this is so, nor admitting that lack of knowledge of Acts itself should not preclude familiarity with Stephen and his stoning if the whole thing were anything other than fiction.
When we get to 12:1, the writer refers to all those figures he has just laid out in chapter 11,
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us…
indicating that he has been keen to offer as many examples as possible. Yet he has given his readers not a single “witness” from the Christian movement itself, no figure from that world who could demonstrate faith. The writer seems unaware of them all, including any of those apostles who allegedly died for their faith in Jesus—according to the common apologetic claim about the fate of such apostles, a claim on which more than just the Epistle to the Hebrews is silent and uncorroborating. To judge by the document as a whole, not a single figure known from the Gospels and Acts was familiar to this early Christian community.28
28 The reference to “Timothy” within the last four verses of the epistle which follow on (the latter having all the marks of being the original ending) cannot be authentic, as these verses are almost certainly an addendum made at some time later than the rest of the document. This will be discussed in detail later.
It is also significant that it is not just the Gospel world which is missing here, but any world that might have constituted the beginning of the movement outside the community itself. Other communities of Christ belief existed, of course, but there seems to have been no common source of generative events with which such communities associated themselves, which they looked back to and drew upon. It is difficult to imagine that, had the movement arisen out of a single group and point of origin some decades earlier (regardless of whether there was one individual as charismatic originator), there would not have been memories and traditions associated with that origin, with certain initial leaders and events. Out of such things, since persecution was a norm witnessed to in almost all the early documents, it should have been inevitable that testings of faith and admonitions to hold firm associated with those early figures and events would have survived in the movement that followed—indeed, would have been preserved for the very purpose of inspiration and guidance. This is one of the characteristics of sectarian development.
And yet Hebrews has no such traditions to appeal to, other than those associated with its own community. (We will examine a very telling one shortly.) This silence is revealing. For it indicates—as does so much else in the early record—that the movement to which Hebrews belonged was piecemeal, uncoordinated, lacking any central organizing force or genesis. Its germinating processes seem to have been isolated and revelatory, born out of “spirits” from God (as in 1 John 4 and 2 Corinthians 11:4 and many references in Paul and elsewhere to the Holy Spirit as the generative force of the faith). The Hebrews community knows no other origin than the particular revelatory experience of its own leaders, or their precursors, at its “beginning.” This does not preclude other communities from having had their own formulating experiences at different times and in different places, or the community of Hebrews even being familiar with some of them. But it illustrates that the movement was essentially a religio-philosophical one, broadly arising out of the study of scripture and the religious impulses and expectations of the day, with no single event or human figure generating its inception.
But we cannot leave chapter 11 without commenting on its individual examples of faith. The author starts with a general statement: “Faith gives substance to our hopes, and makes us certain of realities we do not see.” Considering that one of those “realities” is the death and sacrifice of Christ, there is evidently no memory of having ‘seen’ anything to do with such an event. One of those “hopes” is surely for resurrection and eternal life, and yet the author makes no reference to traditions about the witnessed resurrection of Jesus himself, let alone any of those resuscitated from death by Jesus in his ministry.
Going on to specific examples, the author asks his readers to have faith in the promises delivered to Old Testament figures like Abraham, and yet there is no appeal to the promises delivered by Jesus himself. The author specifies that “anyone who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who search for him” (11:6), yet there are no teachings of Jesus offered which could demonstrate that God exists and rewards those who believe in him. The author appeals to Noah, who was divinely warned about the future and took steps to cope with it (11:7), yet if Jesus made a prophecy about the destruction of the
and with it Temple itself, no one seems to have remembered or heeded the warning or acted accordingly. Certainly such a prophecy, whether fulfilled or not at the time of the writer, should have figured in his picture of the passing away of the old Temple cult in favor of the new one based on Jesus’ sacrifice. If oral tradition passed on by Jesus’ followers contained any words of Jesus at all, it would surely have included the prophecy of the Jerusalem ’s destruction if such a prophecy had been spoken. Temple
The author appeals to Sarah who had faith that she would conceive, from which conception sprang a new people, yet he fails to mention Mary as one who had faith and conceived Jesus himself, from which conception sprang a new movement and a people “in Christ.” The author describes Moses in detail, detail which so often corresponds to features of the story of Jesus—a correspondence accentuated in the traditions and/or inventions contained within the Gospels—yet none of those features are offered. “Women received back their dead raised to life” (11:35), but there is no mention of Martha receiving back her brother Lazarus, or the various sons and daughters restored to their parents, all raised by Jesus because they had faith that Jesus could do so; no mention of the women at the tomb who received back a Jesus raised from the dead.
In looking ahead into chapter 12, we find more ignorance of Gospel figures. The writer urges his readers:
15 See to it that there is no one among you who forfeits the grace of God,
no bitter, noxious weed growing up to poison the whole,
16 no immoral person, no one worldly-minded like Esau,
who sold his birthright for a single meal.
Who could not think of the prime example of Judas here, a noxious weed growing up among the disciples, who sold the son of God for 30 pieces of silver? (Critical scholarship, of course, regards Judas as a fictional character created by Mark; not a murmur of him can be heard in the wider record until the Gospels are disseminated.) And in chapter 13, we find these sentiments:
9 So do not be swept off your course by all sorts of outlandish teachings;
it is good that our souls should gain their strength from the grace of God,
and not from scruples about what we eat...
One could ask how the writer could possibly have failed to appeal to the teachings of Jesus to support his contention that his readers need not have scruples about what they eat. (Paul, too, is silent on Jesus’ dismissal of the whole idea of unclean foods, as portrayed in the Gospels.)
It is plain that the writer of Hebrews is oblivious to the entire world of orthodoxy's Christian origins.
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The Scene of the New Covenant
Jesus on the Cross
Thus when some glimmer of those origins seems to lie buried in the text, it is understandable that it will be seized upon. Such a glimmer is thought to be found at the opening of chapter 12.
2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith,
who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame,
and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne.
3 For consider him who has endured such hostility/rebellion from sinful men,
so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
This bare mention of the cross does nothing to elucidate the nature and location of the crucifixion, whether earthly or heavenly, and there is not an echo of the resurrection in flesh. Verse 3 might be a little more problematic. Is this a reference to the Sanhedrin, or Pilate, or the Pharisees, or perhaps those who took part in his execution? We must first realize that the idea is offered in order to provide a parallel to the experience of the readers who themselves have been subjected to persecution by “sinful men.” To serve this purpose, the author need merely have some scriptural precedent in mind which he could identify with the Son. Note, too, that the reference is quite vague: “endured hostility”; specifics such as abuse by the Sanhedrin or scourging by the Romans would have made all the difference here. Alternatively, God himself certainly endured the hostility or rebellion of sinful men in the course of scriptural history, so it would not be a stretch for the author to imagine that the Son, too, could be thought of as having suffered the same thing, again derived from scripture.
A pointer to this lies in the fact that, typical of Hebrews, the reference itself is derived and adapted from scripture. In Numbers (LXX), Core, Dathan and Abiron have rebelled against Moses, for which the earth swallows them up. God then directs Moses to sanctify the censers of “these sinners against their own souls.” In Hebrews we find the phrase now reading, “sinners against himself.” Might the original reading in 12:3 have been “sinners against themselves”? And in fact there is just such a variant in some manuscripts. (See Montefiore, p.216, who accepts the variant reading. Héring even translates the passage to mean that he endured hostility for the sake of sinners [p.109].) The passage is simply too indistinct to place any reliance on it in an historical direction.
In his final peroration, -29, the author sets the Old Covenant against the New Covenant. You have not come, he says, to a mountain of fire (referring to
Mount Sinai) with its fearsome sights and thundering voice of the Lord. You have come to , to the city of heavenly Mount Zion , with “its myriads of angels, the assembly and church of the first-born enrolled in the heavens, God the judge of all, and the spirits of good men made perfect, and Jesus the mediator of a new covenant.” Jerusalem
No earthly scene this. It has been imagined out of scripture and apocalyptic expectation. Not only is the New Covenant represented by nothing on earth, no Mount of Calvary, no event of the Passion, no resurrection, but the author has once again affirmed his Platonic reworking of traditional Jewish linearity. The Old Covenant was established on earth, the New one in heaven. The prototype existed, in inferior form, on earth; the antitype now exists, in perfect form, in heaven, awaiting its attainment by believers and its revelation to the world. Not a word is spent on the history-to-history progression of traditional Jewish linearity alleged by scholarship. Most telling is the picture of the old and new “voices.” Verse 25 says:
See that you do not refuse him who speaks.
For if those ones did not escape when they refused to hear him
who warned them on earth,
how much less will we (escape) if we turn away from the one
who speaks from heaven?
The second line refers to the voice of God at
. But the “one who speaks from heaven” in the third line is also the voice of God, in a quotation from the prophet Haggai 2:6: “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” First of all, we need to note a close resemblance of thought between these verses and earlier ones in chapter 2: Mt. Sinai
– If those ones [the Israelites of the Exodus] did not escape
when they refused to hear him who warned them on earth,
how much less will we (escape) if we turn away from the one
who speaks from heaven?
2:2-3 – For if the message [at Sinai] spoken by angels was unalterable,
and every transgression and disobedience received a just punishment,
how shall we escape, if we ignore so great a salvation
which was first spoken through the Lord?
Not a single scholar I am aware of allows the later verse to influence the meaning of the earlier. In , with its juxtaposition of old and new, the voice that is heard in the context of the New Covenant is the voice of God, not Jesus. Thus, in a similar juxtaposition of old and new (not to mention similar language), the common interpretation that the chapter 2 passage refers to the hearing of Jesus of Nazareth by his followers cannot stand. That voice, too, must be the voice of God, and thus it cannot be a reference to Jesus and his historical ministry, but only to a revelatory experience in which the voice of God was “heard.” (We might reasonably allow this understanding to be applied in the Prologue of 1 John.) By corollary, we must also assume that the writer is aware of no voice of Jesus on earth, no historical ministry, for how could such a voice be completely ignored in chapter 12’s peroration on the establishment of the New Covenant?
Thus, in chapter 2, we have a community describing its inception as a response to a perceived revelation from God, not giving an account of something received from apostolic visitors about the figure and preaching of Jesus of Nazareth. This was supported in , where the writer refers to “God’s oracles” which the community has learned. But it is further supported when we look ahead to 13:7:
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you…
Whether these leaders were those who were the first to hear it, or whether they received it from those who did (see 2:3), what was “spoken” is stated to have been the word of God, not the words of a preaching Jesus.29
29 Attridge [p.391] makes the point that the phrase ‘speaking the word of God’ was “a common way of referring to Christian proclamation.” This is true, although only in very general contexts, and as a stereotyped thought. Attridge supplies examples from Acts, as in : “…(the apostles) were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness,” though nothing from the Gospels. His examples from the epistles (Phil. 1:14, 1 Peter 4:11) essentially beg the question, since there is no reason other than preconception to assume that Paul and other epistle writers knew anything about a preaching Jesus and so were proclaiming the word of God. (Paul's few “words of the Lord,” representing communications from Christ in heaven, have been dealt with elsewhere.) Attridge also refers to Didache 4:1 and Barnabas 19:9, but in both documents the phrase is found in the attached “Two Ways” sections, where there is no attribution whatever to Jesus of a list of Gospel-like ethical directives, indicating that these collections were not identified with him, but with God. This, in fact, makes my point in regard to Hebrews 13:7. Just as specific sayings given to Jesus in the Gospels ought to be attributed to him and not to God when they appear in other texts (1 Thess. 4:9, for example, is astonishing), if the experience at the ‘beginning’ as outlined in chapter 2 refers to the voice and teaching of Jesus, then the reference in chapter 13 to that specific hearing should have every reason to refer to it as the words of Jesus, not the word of God.
An apologist like J. P. Holding will explain it (and he has) by saying that hearing the voice of Jesus is hearing the voice of God. But to think that such writers would express themselves so obliquely—and so against human nature—is a solution that does not commend itself to the reasonable and unbiased mind.
Thus we again have the sequence of scripture to scripture. The voice of God presented in both the Old and the New Covenants is the voice of God in the writings, the latter being newly interpreted under perceived revelation. Once again, the progression is not scriptural history to history, but scripture to scripture, from a voice on earth to a voice in heaven—both voices being that of God. If the idea of the voice of God “through the Son” (1:2) has any application here, it can only be that the spiritual Son is regarded as an intermediary channel, a few times in his own voice. Certainly in -19, the Son is not heard in any way; he stands only in the background. The quote from Haggai is attributed to God, which further neuters the idea of the Son ‘speaking’ in these last days. The Haggai quote in God’s mouth serves to illustrate that the old is passing to make way for the new: “The shaking of these created things [in the Platonic sense] means their removal, and then what is not shaken will remain” . Evidently, the author had no words of Jesus on earth, authentic or otherwise, which could serve to illustrate this dramatic turning of the ages.
-- xiv --
Earthly Camps and Heavenly Cities
Outside the Gate
As a measure of how little there is in Hebrews on which to argue support for an historical Jesus, Christopher Price spends almost a third of his critique on -14. Here is the passage as Price quotes it [emphases mine]:
11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place
by the high priest as an offering for sin,
are burned outside the camp.
12 Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood,
suffered outside the gate.
13 So, let us go out to Him outside the camp,
bearing His reproach [i.e., suffering the same disgrace],
14 For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.
In answer to my observation that this passage does not mention the place or alleged city containing this “gate” (v.12), Price offers a dozen examples of second century Christian documents which refer to Jesus’ death without using the words
, Jerusalem Calvaryor Golgotha. But not a single one of these is in a context of location, which is my point about the Hebrews passage. In the latter, the author mentions Jesus’ death in reference to its place, namely “outside the gate.” The gate of what? Where? In none of Price’s examples is there any focus on the place of the death, making his exercise irrelevant, as is so often the case with apologetic appeals to parallels which are not really parallels at all. Hebrews 13:13, on the other hand, clearly invites reference to the city of . Jerusalem
Price then quotes my point about the passage [taken from my website article No. 9]:
“Jesus suffering ‘outside the gate’ is an element which is dependent, not on some historical record, but on the idea in the previous phrase. Jesus did this because bodies of sacrificed animals were burned outside the camp. For this writer, everything to do with Christ and his sacrifice must be modeled on the sacrificial cult of the Jewish religion, as described in scripture. Scripture determines the picture he creates of Christ and his activities in the spiritual world, and if animals were sacrificed [this should have read, if animals were burned] outside the boundaries of the camp at Sinai, then Jesus had to undergo something similar, in a higher world mythic parallel to the earthly copy. The idea of “outside the gate” also provides a symbolic parallel to the experiences of the believers, as we see by the succeeding verse which suggests that the author saw both Jesus and his own sect as rejected outsiders, living ‘beyond the pale’ with no permanent home.”
Price’s rebuttal centers around the writer’s change of term, from “outside the camp” in verse 11 to “outside the gate” in verse 12. He also notes that scripture speaks of the bodies of the sacrificed animals being “burned” outside, whereas Christ is said to have “suffered” outside. This supposedly demonstrates that the author did not slavishly copy every element of the description in scripture (as if I were saying such a thing), but was rather being governed by historical fact where necessary. But Price has missed the obvious. The writer could hardly have said that Jesus’ body was “burned.” This could not have fit into any scene of Jesus’ sacrifice, and so he would have needed, no matter what, to change the idea.
Price is also oblivious to a quite opposite conclusion here. The very fact that the writer has attempted such a forced and invalid comparison indicates that he is being governed by scripture. The burning of the animals takes place after the death and extraction of their blood for offering in the sanctuary, and has no relevance to the sacrifice itself. The suffering of Jesus, on the other hand, takes place before his death and is an essential antecedent to the sacrifice in the sanctuary. There simply is no parallel here. Doubly so, since the first is a reference to the disposal of the animal’s carcass, but there is no disposal of Jesus ‘body’ following death; he is resurrected and lives on. Nor could the ‘suffering’ and death of Jesus be paralleled with the slaughter of the animal before the sacrifice, because the latter was done inside the sanctuary (the outer one), and the writer needed something that took place outside it in order to make his parallel (in verse 14) with the believers who found themselves outside the world of their fellow humanity.
By any measure, there should have been no impulse to make such an ill-fitting and pointless juxtaposition between the two. (Scholars generally recognize the problem; F. F. Bruce calls it an “inexact parallel.”) The only reason the writer made it must be that he was trying to maximize the parallels he could create between the old scriptural sacrifice and the new, even if that meant offering a totally inappropriate one. This demonstrates the opposite of what Price claims: not that history governed the writer’s thought, but that his determined use of scripture did. Historical tradition did not “force” anything on him. As with everything else in this epistle, scripture was used to create the picture of Christ and his sacrifice.
This has also shown that the writer would not have passed up any parallel that might be available—no matter how “inexact”—between scripture and his picture of Jesus’ sacrifice. But we have noted more than one such omission on his part. The most blatant was the parallel between Moses’ words at the establishment of the Old Covenant and Jesus’ reputed words at the Gospel Last Supper when he declared the establishment of the New Covenant. Another relates to the same point in regard to Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18-20. He, as priest-king of
, brought food and wine to the passing Abraham. This should have invited a comparison in the form of a direct parallel with the Last Supper serving of food and wine to the apostles.30 Jerusalem
30 Attridge is unperturbed by this silence as well: “Hebrews ignores the next portion of the verse, which describes Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine. These elements could have provided, as they did for later generations, the basis for a Eucharistic interpretation, but our author is not interested in such an exploitation of his text.” But throughout the epistle our author does indeed show every sign of being interested in such parallels, and why it would have been of interest to later generations and not earlier ones is not explained. While it may not be surprising to find scholars appealing to this ‘not interested’ explanation as frequently as they are compelled to, it is certainly surprising that they seem not to recognize how bizarre that constant appeal actually is, and whether it should not be considered a pointer to something else.
As well, assuming that Jesus was sacrificed on the cross outside Jerusalem, it should have invited the parallel that both figures, Melchizedek as prototype and Jesus as antitype, had served as ‘priests’ in the same city—in fact, even “outside the gate” of that city, since the text implies that Melchizedek came out of his city (as the king of Sodom did) to greet Abraham. I called this “an unthinkable omission.” Price rejects this, pointing out that
“Jesus did not ‘officiate’ as high priest in
, (but) as high priest from heaven. Jesus simply suffered and died near Jerusalem , he presented himself as a high priest and the offering in heaven.” Jerusalem
It is commendable that Price recognizes that Jesus is indeed High Priest only in heaven, but he misses the point. His recognition is what makes the standard reading of Hebrews so suspect. If a key element of the sacrifice had taken place on earth (Attridge regularly makes that connection), this would have required giving it a place in the picture of Jesus’ priesthood. If Jesus’ suffering and death had happened on
Calvary, if he had lived a life in Galileeand Judea, then that life’s important parallels with scriptural prototypes could not have been ignored. To some degree, Christ would have been seen as a priest in regard to his sacrifice on Calvary(Attridge in fact imposes that view on the matter), and thus Jesus would indeed have paralleled Melchizedek in ‘officiating’ outside . The writer’s silence must indicate that for him no such parallel existed. Jerusalem
thinks to find a way out of this by noting [p.121-2] that it is not a certainty that the “ Wilson ” associated with Melchizedek in Genesis was actually Salem , even though it “was identified by most of the Fathers with Jerusalem .” He goes on to say: Jerusalem
“Héring notes that, like Philo, our author does not know this equation, or he would certainly have made the point that Melchizedek officiated in the very city where the new High Priest sacrificed himself. The author also makes no reference whatever to Melchizedek’s gift of bread and wine, which later writers of course linked with the Eucharist.”
Here, preconception has determined
’s apparent decision that Wilson was not Salem , even as he clearly demonstrates that, if it were so, then the author has been inexplicably silent on what would have been two very compelling comparisons. Jerusalem
Price points out further discrepancies between the animal sacrifices in Leviticus and the sacrifice of Jesus, claiming once again that these differences spell the fact that history is controlling Hebrews’ presentation. In the
cult, the animal was killed inside the Sinai “camp”—or in history, the Temple precincts—whereas in Hebrews’ presentation, Jesus dies outside and only afterward enters the heavenly sanctuary. But a spiritual Jesus could not possibly have been crucified within the confines of the highest heaven and its sanctuary; his death had to take place in a lower sphere of the heavens where suffering and death of a divinity was possible. Thus the inside-outside difference between the animal and Jesus need have nothing to do with history determining the presentation. Once again, it is scriptural necessity (or invitation) which has led the writer to detail a parallel which is not a parallel at all. Temple
Homer A. Kent, whom Price quotes, recognizes this by saying that “the analogy was not meant to be pressed.” In that case, why make it? If history did not agree with scripture, why press such ill-fitting parallels, and moreover, leave out ones which would have fitted, such as the Eucharistic words? But the writer wanted as many parallels as possible for his Platonic purposes. Everything he could say about Jesus was dependent on scripture (such as what he did “in the days of his flesh”). Scripture was his sole source, and if he passed up the imperfect ones, he would have had little to say, a weaker case to make. The inclusion of these analogies which were “not meant to be pressed” demonstrates that scripture is the writer’s controlling motivation, not historical tradition.
In fact, if historical traditions were motivating the writer, why did he not make a better effort to incorporate more of these? Was “suffered outside the gate” the only thing he could come up with? For example, he makes no allusion to the trial of Jesus. There may be no direct parallel in the establishment of the Old Covenant, but this writer has provided evidence of his ability to make forced and “inexact” parallels. Since Moses and the Israelites have been included in the scriptural precedent, why not include the hostile Jewish crowd at the trial, or the hostile Sanhedrin, in parallel with the Israelites’ hostility to Moses and his commandments from God? Perhaps a parallel between Pilate and Dathan—or Pharaoh? Forcing history on scripture does not seem to have been undertaken with too much determination, even where key historical elements are concerned. In fact, the writer has neglected to work in any historical tradition that could be clearly identified as history, or Gospel-derived.
One stands out. The writer has compared Jesus’ sacrifice of Atonement with the Day of Atonement sacrifice in the
. This is natural, since both relate to sacrifices designed to obtain forgiveness. But a second parallel should have been equally inviting, especially for someone eager to present prototypes and antitypes, and especially if in a setting of traditional Jewish linearity. Jesus’ crucifixion, according to the Gospels, took place at Passover, just at the time (emphasized by John) that the Passover Lamb was being sacrificed in the Temple . Apparently the author felt no temptation to allude to this arresting parallel. If the Passover Lamb was instrumental in saving the people from Egypt, would not the Passover sacrifice on Calvary have suggested an additional interpretation of Christ’s sacrifice, still another dimension to his saving role, this one in parallel with the Egyptian experience? The author makes a much lesser parallel between those who failed to heed the gospel in Sinai and those today who have the opportunity to heed a new gospel, and yet he ignores the Passover sacrifice which led to the Israelites’ salvation, just as Christ’s sacrifice at Passover has led to the new salvation. The possibilities the writer passed up seem to have been considerable. Temple
Camps and Gates
Price then goes on to identify the “city” outside of whose gate Jesus suffered. He asks: “Is there any indication that such a historical tradition even existed about the location of Jesus’ death? Yes, three of the four Gospels confirm that Jesus died outside the city,” and he proceeds to quote the relevant passages from Matthew, Mark and John. But (as Price ought to know) those multiple descriptions of the place and details of Jesus’ death show every sign of being dependent on the first Gospel written. This is not corroboration, but literary derivation. We would have to ask Mark where he came up with the idea, because no one before him places Jesus’ death inside or outside
, or any other city. Jerusalem
The reference to the “gate” is Price’s Ace-in-the-hole, but when the card is revealed, it proves to be easily trumped. He attaches great significance to the fact that while the bodies of the animals were burned outside the camp, Jesus suffered outside the gate. This change in terminology supposedly indicates that the switch to “gate,” being different from the scriptural precedent, has been determined by history, the “gate” being the gate of
, a walled city. As I said earlier, derivation need not be slavish. But the whole argument is moot for more than one reason, not the least being that the writer immediately switches the term back to “camp,” a point Price conveniently fails to make note of. Let’s review the passage once again: Jerusalem
11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place
by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp.
12 Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood,
suffered outside the gate.
13 So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach
[i.e., suffering the same disgrace],
14 For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.
The “camp” is the camp of the Israelites at Sinai. First of all, a change from this word would again be needed no matter what, because the writer could hardly specify that Jesus had suffered outside this “camp.” Jesus did not suffer and die at Sinai, or at any other “camp.” A parallel governed by scripture would still have to specify some other location; it is the “outside” that is the essential part of the parallel. And what “gate” might the author have had in mind? Since the “outside” at Sinai is related to the “inside” where the animal was sacrificed, we may suppose that the “outside” in Jesus’ case was similarly related to the “inside” where he offered his own sacrifice, the latter being the heavenly sanctuary, or simply heaven itself where the sanctuary was located. If his thought was governed by the scriptural precedent, then in order to reflect a proper parallel with the sacrificed animal, the “outside” in Jesus’ case must refer to heaven. Outside
would have had nothing to do with it, since Jesus’ offering of his blood did not take place inside Jerusalem . And Jesus did indeed have to suffer and die “outside” heaven, since he could not undergo such experiences within heaven itself. Thus, we may presume the strong possibility that in the writer’s mind the “gate” refers to the gate of heaven. Jerusalem
Why, then, did the author revert to “camp” in verse 13? Well, he could not maintain the reference to heaven, since he could hardly suggest that the readers join Christ outside heaven. Nor, on the other hand, could they join him outside the Sinai camp. But the writer has made certain parallels between the situation of the Israelites and that of his own community, and he implies one in verse 14, in that both they and the Israelites are, for now, homeless, seeking a
. The present community is outside the pale, not belonging to this world. And so was Jesus outside his own home when he underwent death. The thought of “joining Jesus outside” would reflect a paradigmatic relationship between Christ and his devotees, in which both share similar experiences of separation and suffering. new city
Furthermore, if “gate” had been the gate of
, there should have been no reason not to continue that motif. Both writer and readers could readily have envisioned joining Jesus on Jerusalem Calvary“outside the gate of ,” even if only in spirit. There they could be seen to suffer together. Verse 14 even speaks of a “city,” or rather of two cities, the worldly one they have left behind, the other the one to come, the heavenly Jerusalem . The former city would have fitted perfectly with the earthly Jerusalem , outside of which the community could have joined Jesus. Yet the author does not continue the “gate” idea. This virtually rules out the thought that in the previous verse he has the gate of Jerusalem in mind, and supports the idea that it is the gate of heaven. And so he was forced to revert to “camp,” even though—as in so many of his attempts—the parallel was imperfect. But at least the Sinai camp, being in the wilderness, far from home between the old Jerusalem and the new Promised Land, would bear a similarity to the situation the believers felt themselves in. And so the motif was pressed into service, an analogy that was, perhaps, “not meant to be pressed,” although envisioning themselves within their own ‘camp’ in which they temporarily set up abode (like the Israelites) while awaiting entry to the Promised Land, would not be a stretch. In getting inside the writer’s mind, of course, we can only speculate, but even speculation can be rooted in the text and in logical deduction. Egypt
Yesterday, Today and Forever
Just before this passage, the author has made a comment which, though imbedded in an exhortation to imitate the faith of the community’s leaders, has a summary feel to it:
8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and unto the ages.
Attridge calls this a “solemn affirmation,” whose “emphasis is clearly on the eternal ‘sameness’ of Christ…an integral part of the eternal divine realm that is unchanging” [p.393]. Somehow, in the context of a recent historical Jesus, this verse does not ring true. Yes, as an integral part of the eternal divine realm, such a sentiment would fit. But if that eternal Son had been incarnated as a human being on earth, such a “sameness” would have been dramatically broken, transformed even if only temporarily.
Why did he make such a statement? He seems to be appealing to the continuity of Jesus as divine Son in parallel to what he wishes his community to perceive and achieve in their own hoped-for continuity in faith. But would such an appeal to the ongoing sameness of an eternal Christ not be compromised by the discontinuity of an incarnation, which would thus dissuade the author from offering such a statement as a suitable comparison? The concept of a Jesus recently on earth is also missing a few verses earlier:
5 …because God has said:
“Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you” [quoting Deut. 31:6]
Apparently, any tradition that Jesus had said such a thing (as at the end of Matthew), is unknown to this community. Had Jesus been on earth, the Gospels demonstrate the natural impulse it would have been to develop a tradition that he had guaranteed that his spirit would always be with them. It all feeds into the overall impression of the document. It is the very sense of the incarnation itself which is lacking in everything that the writer has said throughout his work. A scholar like Harold Attridge manages to unearth it from behind the various heavenly presentations and alleged metaphors, but not a single verse in this document clearly bears him out, and usually any reading claimed to do so is quite obscure, if not the product of wishful thinking.
R. McL. Wilson follows a different tack. He simply declares that the writer makes no distinction in his mind between the earthly Jesus and the heavenly Jesus.
“As the author himself puts it later (13:8), ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever’. There can be no question of a merely human Jesus who walked on earth and a distinct and separate great high priest transcendent in the heavens; they are one and the same.” [p.138]
We should first note that
’s ‘solution’ contains an obvious fallacy. He has said that the writer makes no distinction between the earthly and heavenly Jesus, and yet all we have gotten from him is the latter. How can we know that there exists in his mind the other dimension, the earthly Jesus to which he makes no distinction from the heavenly Jesus he does present? Can there be a distinction between two elements when one element is all that is in view? The answer is, yes, when scholarship itself inserts the missing element to make possible the alleged ‘lack of distinction.’ Wilson
goes on to admit: Wilson
author…never explains in detail the relation between the Son of his prologue [chapter 1], the earthly Jesus and the great high priest. That for him they are one is clear enough…” ur
Again, discovering clarity in an author’s mind is easy when one can choose to manipulate the contents of that mind at will.
offers a justification for the writer’s supposed “transition from the earthly Jesus to the exalted great high priest”: it can “easily be accounted for on the basis of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus.” But such an idea would be a little more secure if the author himself offered this as the justification for his alleged transformation of a human man into God, but he does not. And the very feasibility of such a transformation needs to be questioned. Wilson
’s solution may work for him, but can it possibly reflect the actual outlook on the part of first-century Christians who have adopted faith in a man whose life on earth was recent, whose memory, we assume, was still vividly fresh in their minds? The extent to which scholars like Wilson envision such a rapid and thorough transformation of a crucified Jewish preacher into the eternal pre-existent Son who shares the very nature and titles of God the Father himself is almost beyond credibility. It is beyond credibility that, throughout the entire Christian community across half an empire, all interest in thinking about and referring to the human life recently lived could be so immediately and completely submerged under the mythological transformation which this simple preacher has allegedly been subjected to. “Metaphor” would not come close to describing this abrupt and fantastic reorientation which scholarship has attributed to the minds of early Christians. Wilson and Attridge have two millennia of theological cogitation and evolution of the concept of Jesus the Son of God behind them, upon which their own 20th century scholastic sophistication has fed. From this vantage point, they can without qualm or effort spin esoteric interpretations of what the first-century mind was thinking and doing, all in the interests of preserving the historicist orthodoxy which our society has for so long labored under and has so much invested in. Wilson
But is it reasonable to impute such a capacity to the writer of a small and, by our standards, primitive community—perhaps only a house-church—which, we have presumed, has simply come to believe in the physical resurrection and divinity of a recent man? The memory of that man would hardly have yet had a chance to be so augmented and transformed out of all recognition by the kinds of cosmic mythological trappings we see in a document like Hebrews and other epistles of the New Testament. Such an elevation of a human man would have been unheard of (the ‘deification’ of an emperor like Augustus does not come close), not to mention thoroughly blasphemous to any Jewish community. Yet never do we see a sign in any early Christian document of defending such unprecedented elevation and blasphemy on the part of the new faith movement, or even an awareness on the part of the writers that they have been a party to such a thing.
What we do see sign of, and all through the early record, is the mythology itself: belief in a heavenly Son of God, rather than that anyone on earth was the incarnated Son of God, or that he was granted such an exalted identity. This newly-revealed divine, eternal Son, the “Christ” (Anointed) of the Father, has absorbed Platonic and Jewish philosophical features, rendered in terms of ‘in the air’ concepts and the particular interpretative talents of each individual community and apostle, such as Paul. Hebrews reflects one such community and one such interpretative talent, giving us a product which is acknowledged to be quite unlike any other in the early Christian record.
concludes his observations with this admission: Wilson
“But whether (the author) considered the earthly Jesus as in some sense divine, and if so how he thought of the relation between the divine and the human, is by no means clear. That was to be a problem for a later age.”
And so it was—for the later age that invented an historical Jesus which the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews never knew. An age of illusion we are still living in.
EXCURSUS: Hebrews a Redeemer Myth
Attridge offers an extremely revealing Excursus [p.79-82] on the “Christological Pattern” in Hebrews. Its picture of Descent (to lower than the angels) and Re-ascent to heaven (where Christ offers his sacrifice in heaven—a metaphor, in Attridge’s view, for what happened on Calvary) he recognizes as an expression of the general type of redeemer/hero myth found throughout Hellenistic times. Attridge styles the Christian version, as found in Hebrews but also elsewhere as in the Philippians hymn, an “incarnational myth,” by which he means a mythological rendering of the historical incarnation. But unless one brings it to them by preconception, the element of incarnation to earth as a human being is not to be found in either Hebrews or Philippians (both employ the same motif of descent to take on “likeness to a human being” with no actual reference to a life and ministry on earth), or the early record generally. Rather, what we have on the cultic side of early Christianity as reflected in the epistles is nothing other than a version of that widespread redeemer myth, the rendering of a spiritual divinity that is silent on any dimension of an historical figure.
Attridge discusses several ‘models’ of that mythology. One is the Gnostic redemption myth, in which “a redeemer comes to awaken those who are spiritually dead and lead them to the world of light.” The problem is, the redeemer in such myths tends to be presented as an entirely spiritual figure, an emanation from the heavenly Pleroma (an “aeon”) who is spoken of in Gnostic documents in mystical, mythological terms, such as the Third Illuminator in The Apocalypse of Adam, or Derdekeas in The Paraphrase of Shem. Neither of these is regarded as an historical figure, much less identified with the Gospel Jesus. (Both documents are now considered to be essentially pre-Christian.) The ‘Sethian’ brand of Gnosticism may be based on a figure who was deemed to have been historical, but lying in a primordial time that might as well be classed as mythical.
Attridge refers to
“the ‘classic’ Christian model of conceiving of the incarnation and its effects, a product of the syncretistic environment of the first century CE, wherein ancient mythical patterns were appropriated and reinterpreted in various religious traditions”
without realizing that the early Christianity he speaks of is simply one of those “ancient mythical patterns,” and has not been “appropriated and reinterpreted” for purposes of understanding or rendering the life of a recent Jesus of Nazareth. In a document like the Epistle to the Hebrews there is no such figure who has been “syncretized” with ancient mythical patterns. Instead, what we have is a divinity, the heavenly Christ who died ‘outside heaven’ and then performed a sacrifice with his blood in the heavenly sanctuary, who is as mythological as the Illuminator or Derdekeas, one never placed on earth in an historical setting, given no deeds or words of the Gospels because the latter are an entirely separate and largely later development. Just as Paul and his circles evince the mythological features of this general Redeemer myth—a Son/Christ emanation of God who descends, takes on inferior status, suffers at the hands of the demon spirits (the “rulers of this age of 1 Cor. 2:8) and is exalted back to heaven—Hebrews inhabits the same mythical world, only with a different scenario for its own version of the myth, derived from its particular interpretation of scripture. Just as the Ascension of Isaiah embodies a myth of a descending-ascending Redeemer Son who undergoes a salvific death in the heavens—hung upon a tree by Satan in the Firmament—and rescues the righteous dead from the underworld (a document later pulled into the Gospel orbit with the interpolation of chapter 11 which gives its heavenly Son an earthly nativity and career in Israel).
The Valentinian Gospel of Truth, which Attridge also points to, contains an aeon Jesus Christ who, reminiscent of Paul, is referred to as a “hidden mystery” [18,15]. He is a Revealer figure (this is Gnosticism, after all) who “shed light upon those who were, because of forgetfulness, in darkness.” That this is reference to a mystical, spiritual channel of knowledge, and not an earthly ministry, is evident in its descriptions of a Christ sacrificed, though (reminiscent of the Gospel of John) not for purposes of atonement but to better deliver knowledge:
For this reason [for shedding light] Error became angry at him and persecuted him. He was nailed to a tree [reminiscent of the Ascension and of early Christian language like that of 1 Peter ] and became fruit of the father’s acquaintance. Yet it did not cause ruin because it was eaten… [18,21-26]
The agency of this nailing to a tree is not a human agency, but the mystical figure of “Error” who, like Paul’s demon spirits and the Ascension’s “god of that world” who kill the Son in ignorance, is capable of jealousy and persecution. In 20,25, reminiscent of Colossians , the Valentinian Christ “published the edict of the Father on the cross.” This act is referred to as “teaching,” and the document goes on to refer to that teaching as something received by those who are “inscribed in the book of the living,” receiving it “from the Father.” The text also speaks of “wise men” and “children” putting him “to the test,” the former being confounded, the latter strengthened in their knowledge of the Father. All of it has a symbolic ring, language typical of Gnosticism, without historical—let alone Gospel—literalness. It further demonstrates that spiritual entities could be regarded as teaching through spiritual channels (a point to be remembered when we take a look at 1 Clement in the Appendix).
The idea of descent to the underworld to rescue the righteous dead also appears in early Christian mythology, as in 1 Peter 3:19. This can be traced back, says Attridge, to another type of
“drama of incarnation…found in ancient Greek myths of the descent of a hero such as Orpheus or Heracles into the underworld to defeat the powers of death and lead some of death’s captives on the way back to life.” [p.79]
But while Orpheus and Heracles were generally regarded by the Greeks as having once lived on earth, they did so in a very distant, almost primordial, time. Their myths, in fact, cannot be relied on as having been even distantly based on actual historical people. Such myths did not develop at a time when the memory of their supposed lives was fresh in an interpreter’s mind. Thus, they fall into a thoroughly mythical category, one with which the myth in Hebrews could legitimately be compared—although the latter lacks even the earthly setting of Greek mythology. It also took centuries before philosophers like Plato, the Cynics and Stoics came to build on the earlier, literally-envisioned myths of a figure like Heracles and render him, as Attridge puts it, “a philosophical hero and came to see in his tragic end the true victory over death, which was only symbolized in the myth of his descent to the underworld.” Trying to suggest a similar process of ‘symbolic’ mythology performed on the figure of Jesus of Nazareth when this allegedly took place in less than a generation after his life and death—if not sooner—and without clear reference to such a thing in the texts themselves, becomes a very shaky proposal, without support in the sources.
Attridge acknowledges that the “basic mythic pattern in the classical and Hellenistic periods…became…common,” and that this was “in fact the standard way of conceiving or discussing ‘salvation’ in a variety of philosophical and religious contexts.” This, he says, “explains much of the similarity among Greco-Roman, Jewish, Christian, and Gnostic soteriologies that have been cited as sources of Hebrews.” In a 1975 article, “The Myth of a Descending-Ascending Redeemer in Mediterranean Antiquity” [New Testament Studies 22, p.418-439], Charles H. Talbert made the same observation in his study of ancient-world expressions of this widespread myth both Jewish and pagan, including Greco-Roman gods like Apollo, Mars and Mercury who were involved in myths of descent to earth for redemptive purposes. Both commentators are merely demonstrating that the Christian myth fits hand-in-glove with the common thought-world of the period and was a product of its time.
Now, it is true that Talbert notes [p.420] that the Greco-Roman myths could be used to interpret the lives of historical figures like Augustus (even while they were still alive). But this is not the convenient justification for allotting a similar interpretive process to the Gospel Jesus which scholars like to claim it is. Such Greco-Roman borrowings of redemptive mythology were clearly recognizable—as for example, in Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue—with elements from such myths worked into descriptions of a man that was, if idealized, clearly earthly and placed in an earthly setting. It was a select usage of mythic motifs (such as saying that the child Augustus has been sent down from high heaven), not an entire mythological presentation applied to an historical figure in lieu of and lacking any reference to earthly biography. It is the latter that we inexplicably find in a document like Hebrews, or the early Christian epistles as a whole, both inside and outside the canon.
Attridge also appeals to Jewish precedent as part of the redeemer-myth pattern drawn on for the Hebrews mythological approach:
“Jewish sources, too, appropriated this mythical pattern and in the process transformed their native liberation saga, the exodus story, into a paradigm of liberation from this world to a heavenly realm. The process is found in Wisdom and is particularly clear in Philo, who regularly interprets Jewish tradition in terms of the redemption myth.” [p.80-81]
But what is the nature of the mythical pattern in these Jewish sources? First of all, the exodus story is something developed centuries after its purported occurrence (and unsupported by archaeology), involving figures such as Moses and Joshua who may be as mythical as Orpheus and Heracles. When that saga came to be interpreted by Hellenistic-Jewish philosophers, as in the Wisdom of Solomon 10, Attridge notes:
“salvation history is viewed from the perspective of the action of divine wisdom. In particular the events of the exodus are seen (-21) as an effect of Wisdom’s guidance.” [p.80, n.23]
True enough. But the figure of personified Wisdom about which this document speaks is not an historical one, let alone a recent man (or woman) who is being interpreted according to this traditional type of mythology. Talbert, in his NTS article, focuses particularly on the Descending-Ascending pattern used for redemption figures in Judaism, beginning with the Wisdom myth. In Sirach 24 preexistent Wisdom comes down from heaven and appears on earth among men, as also in 3 Baruch. The Wisdom of Solomon has wisdom sent from the heavens as a savior figure. 1 Enoch speaks of Wisdom descending from heaven and, finding no dwelling place, returning to heaven to take her seat among the angels. But none of this has anything to do with an incarnation of Wisdom. It is a descent of Wisdom in spirit, communicating with humans in a spiritual sense, though envisioned as real. She is more than a metaphorical figure, she is the personified teaching channel from God, a genuine spiritual entity, and her communication with humanity is seen as producing salvation to those who heed her. As such (though lacking any sacrificial dimension), she conforms to the presentation of the spiritual Christ in early Christian documents, as well as to the Revealer type of redemptive figure in some expressions of Gnosticism.
Various angels and archangels are also portrayed in the Hebrew bible as redemption-carrying entities from God, and we should also observe that they are usually described as taking on the form of a man. (Talbert notes that even in the Greco-Roman mythology, Mercury is one “whose descent is described as changing his form, assuming on earth the guise of man” [Horace, Odes Bk.1, Ode 2].) In such mythical contexts, of course, they are presented as acting on earth. But that is in keeping with more traditional non-Platonic mythology. When we get to the turn of the era and the time of incipient Christianity, newly-created myths or reworked old ones (as of Osiris: see Plutarch’s Isis and Osiris 375) could take place entirely within the heavens. This included descent-ascent patterns and taking on the form of a man, as in the Ascension of Isaiah.
The figure of Wisdom may well have been an inspiration to the writer of Hebrews, but we would need, judging by the text, to see her as inspiring an equally non-historical, spiritual entity in the creation of its heavenly Christ. Other Jewish sources mentioned by Attridge and Talbert as following “the basic mythical pattern” are various Hellenistic-Jewish texts “describing the descent of an angel with a salvific mission,” such as the Testament of Abraham and the Prayer of Joseph. But in both of these documents we encounter the same situation: the mythological involvement of a never-human spiritual entity. In the Testament of Abraham it is the archangel Michael who descends to summon Abraham to heaven. In the Prayer of Joseph, “
” is “an angel of God and a ruling spirit,” who is thus named because he is “the firstborn of every living thing to whom God gives life.” But he is also “the first minister before the face of God,” which is reminiscent of Hebrews’ Christ as a minister in the heavenly tabernacle. No incarnation is involved in any of this. Israel
Attridge also appeals to the Odes of Solomon. It possesses “an early form of the common Christian salvation myth” as an underlying feature. But despite the best efforts of some Christian commentators, that document has nothing to do with the Gospel figure but is yet another distinctive expression of the general “intermediary Son” concept that permeated the age. Here it is found within an essentially Jewish context, though not of the usual ‘mainstream’ or apocalyptic sectarian variety. We might style the Odes proto-Christian, for they are moving in the direction of hypostasizing the Son as a distinct agent of salvation. The Odist has assembled a catalogue of all the expressions of God’s contact with the world, through entities like the Word, the Son, the Beloved, the Messiah (he does not use the term “Wisdom” but employs Wisdom concepts), gathering them into a mystical whole. He sees salvation not through any sacrificial act by any of them (there is no divine bloodletting in the Odes), but through knowledge of God conveyed through these spiritual channels. Talbert [p.434] points out that the redemptive “Word” (which he supposes to be identified with the Gospel Christ) is “described in terms of a descent-ascent pattern,” but only in the same manner as Wisdom’s descent-ascent, with no implication, let alone specification, of incarnation. The degree of personification of such divine emanations (almost Gnostic in their profusion) is less developed in the Odes than the Christ of Paul or of Hebrews, but it lies on the broad path to their concepts. [For a study of the Odes and their lack of an historical Jesus—the name itself does not appear in them—see my website Supplementary Article No. 4: “The Odes of Solomon.”]
The Shepherd of Hermas is another document (almost certainly from the first century, despite traditions about later authorship which scholars regard as problematic) with mystical figures who operate in heaven. It, too, has an angelic “Son of God,” one who is identified with the Holy Spirit, the Jewish Law, and even the archangel Michael. Again despite the preconceptions of modern commentators, there is no incarnation of the Son in this document, and no link to the Gospel world. (It, too, never speaks the name “Jesus.”) The author is rooted in Hellenistic-Jewish mythology with its picture of a heaven in which different forces form part of the workings of divinity. As such, he too inhabits a similar world to Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Talbert observes [p.432] that in Hermas “the savior is described basically in terms of an angelology which has coalesced with the categories of Son and Spirit”—an acknowledgement of the heavenly nature of this redeemer-complex which, however, does not prevent him from identifying it with the historical Christ. [For a study of the Shepherd of Hermas and its lack of an historical Jesus, see section Two in Part One of my Supplementary Article No. 12: “On the Threshold of History: Jesus in the Apostolic Fathers at the Turn of the Second Century”.]
Finally, in discussing Philo, Talbert notes [p.427-8] that
“The mythology of a heavenly, divine redeemer figure alternately described as Logos-Wisdom-Angel-Spirit existed in Alexandrian Judaism prior to Philo (e.g., Wisdom of Solomon). In this mythology the redeemer figure was personal. Philo’s writings assume this myth and set about to interpret it….[W]hereas Philo’s own personal stance is a demythologized one, the materials he is reinterpreting give us an indirect witness to the existence of the myth in the Jewish community of his time…he is allegorizing a myth of a [heavenly] personal being with many names.”
In sum, all of the evidence which scholars like Harold Attridge and Charles Talbert put forward as ‘sources’ for the kind of mythological content of Hebrews—and by extension, of the other New Testament epistles—points to material which offers no precedent for the thorough and exclusive mythicization of a recently dead man. Rather, it presents us with a medium of mythical thinking about heavenly redemptive figures pervading the Hellenistic and Jewish thought-world into which the early Christian record fits perfectly—without requiring the imposition of a Gospel-based paradigm of which it shows no knowledge as it presents its own versions of that widespread mythology. Not only have scholars like Attridge and Talbert pointed us to the sources and influences for early Christian ideas, they have pointed us to the very content of those ideas, a content borne out by the texts themselves. Just as such sources and precedents were about spiritual and heavenly redemptive entities and processes, so too are the non-Gospel documents of the early period of Christianity. Scholars insist on reading them through Gospel-colored glasses, but the distortion is plain to see when that filter is removed and the documents are viewed in the light of their own reflection.
The cosmic Son of the Epistle to the Hebrews, with its probable roots in heavenly angelology, has particular affinities with the angelic savior figures of Jewish redemptive tradition. That body of tradition lacked one thing which early Christianity introduced: the Son as a sacrificial figure. But even that was not without precedent, in the dying and rising gods of Hellenistic mystery cult mythology, the latter supported by the new tendency to read the Jewish scriptures as revealing a sacrificed Son. But even that element was not universal in earliest Christ-Savior belief, as Paul witnesses on the opening pages of 1 Corinthians, as does Gnosticism generally, and the probable roots of what became the Gospel of John. Thus Christianity was a classic expression of syncretism, borrowing both consciously and unconsciously, and introducing its own particular innovations into the mix. But from the vantage point of Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews, the most dramatic and far-reaching innovation was yet to come.
-- xv --
The document ends with a Benediction/Doxology followed by a postscript. The first of these contains one of only two references in the entire epistle to Jesus’ ‘resurrection.’ Both of them are curiously phrased. The standard word for resurrecting, or being resurrected, is the verb “egeirō,” and in the epistles it is almost exclusively phrased as Christ being raised by God. But this verb is avoided in Hebrews in favor of either God ‘delivering Jesus out of death’ (5:7), or God ‘leading up Jesus out of the dead’ (). Such language is even further removed from conveying the Gospel resurrection scene than are the other epistolary occurrences, none of which ever have a word to say about a resurrection to earthly life. We can also note that in 12:2, the reference to “after enduring the cross” is immediately followed by the statement that Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the throne of God,” as though they were only a few steps apart, though it had to be at least a few heavenly layers. Even an ascension is scarcely in view here.
Attridge remarks on [p.406]:
“It conforms to the tendency of Hebrews, which has so consistently used language of exaltation not resurrection for the act whereby Jesus’ sacrifice is consummated and he himself ‘perfected’.”
This, of course, provides no explanation, but simply uses the common technique of ‘defining’ something as inherently involving the perplexity, so as to remove any association of perplexity from the matter.
No role is given for any manner of resurrection in the author’s theory of redemption. Those two allusions to Jesus rising from death are necessary only as the intermediate step between the death and the bringing of the blood into the heavenly sanctuary. Jean Héring refers to this as the “enigma of the Epistle to the Hebrews” [p.xi].
“Yet in the exposition of these themes there is never discussion of His resurrection. Events unroll as though Jesus went up into heaven immediately after death. What we have is a Christology of ascension rather than of resurrection, and of an ascension which apparently takes no cognizance of the forty days which preceded it according to the Acts of the Apostles.”
Attridge has also suggested [p.46] that “the author ignores this part of Christ’s story, since he probably conceived of resurrection and exaltation as a single event,” without explaining how any Christian community could possibly have lacked knowledge and traditions about Jesus’ rising from his tomb on Easter Sunday to appear for a time to his followers in the flesh. This has always been claimed as the faith-generating selling point of the early Christian movement, the assurance that a man had walked out of his grave, the dramatic event which serves to explain how Christianity got off the ground and so fast, and how a crucified criminal could be elevated to the status of Son of God. But if there is no sign of such a thing in the author’s thinking, that line of argument becomes moot. We have even less reason to subscribe to Wilson’s contention that the elevation of an earthly Jesus to heavenly High Priest can “easily be accounted for on the basis of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus,” and all the more reason to think that Hebrews simply represents a faith that believes in a Christ who acted entirely in the heavens. The same sort of ignorance of an earthly resurrection is, of course, to be found throughout the epistles.
The reference to resurrection in verse 21 is part of a benediction which is concluded by a doxology. The authenticity of the verse has been questioned, including in association with various amounts of the preceding text, sometimes encompassing the whole of chapter 13. There seems little reason to go that far back, and few scholars do so, but the issue is unimportant here. The question of authenticity in the other direction, however, is not. Verses 22-25 constitute what could be referred to as “farewell greetings,” something common at the end of the standard epistle, an actual ‘postscript’:
22 I beseech you, brothers, bear with this word of exhortation,
for I have only written you a few words
23 Be informed that our brother Timothy has been released,
and if he comes soon, I shall see you with him.
24 Greet all your leaders and all the saints.
send their greetings. Italy
25 Grace be with you all.
Attridge [p.384] is of the opinion that “There is no reason to doubt that they too [verses 20 to 25] were composed by the author of the whole work.” The fact of the matter is, where verses 22-25 are concerned, there are many reasons to doubt, quite apart from the fact that they have a completely different tone from what has come before. Attridge admits that they “serve an obvious epistolary function,” but they also serve other functions which stand at odds with the rest of the work. We can put the objections in point form.
1. This postscript starts out by saying, “…I have written only a few words.” Hebrews is only a little shorter than Romans, and one would hardly refer to Romans as “a few words.” The attempted explanations for this anomaly which seek to retain the postscript as authentic are forced and unconvincing, and need not be detailed here. It is perhaps best seen as a bit of dull-wittedness on the part of the later postscript writer.
2. The mention of “Timothy” can hardly refer to anyone other than the Pauline Timothy. Unlike Christians of the later second century, modern scholars reject a Pauline authorship for the Epistle to the Hebrews. Yet can we believe that the writer of Hebrews knew Paul’s Timothy? This, and if—according to another scholarly suggestion—Paul actually wrote this postscript for him as an addendum, would mean that the writer moved in Pauline circles. (This is clearly the intended implication of everything in the postscript.) But Pauline circles believed, more or less, as Paul did. Yet there is nothing identifiably Pauline in the principal strands of the Hebrews thought-world. It in no way reflects the soteriological system put forward by Paul, let alone his mode of expression in describing the saving activity of Christ and the believers’ relationship to him; there is nothing like Paul’s “baptism into his death” or his language of being “in Christ.” This in itself casts strong doubt that the postscript, with its blatant Pauline atmosphere, can be the product of the author or of anyone closely associated with the author.
3. The language and style of the postscript strongly suggests that whoever wrote it is attempting to associate the document with Paul or the Pauline circle—quite probably the former, since “our brother Timothy” echoes the way Paul speaks of Timothy in his letters (2 Cor. 1:1, Phil. 1). Moreover, it speaks of the newly-released Timothy as being with the speaker when he next sees the readers. This is clearly meant to suggest an association with Paul, who historically (we presume) was known to have been accompanied by Timothy on his missionary journeys. Timothy may further have been chosen because of the pseudonymous letters to him, indicating to the postscript writer that Timothy and Paul were closely associated, and this would serve his purpose of insinuating Pauline authorship of the document. If so, the fact that the Pastorals are 2nd century products might suggest that the postscript comes from that period, too.
4. We have a postscript but no superscript at the beginning. (
[p.17] makes a good case for rejecting the idea that there originally was one but it was deleted or lost.) If it was natural for the original author (or his secretary or some other associate) to add the typical epistolary ending, why not the typical epistolary opening? Especially if done at the time the letter was originally sent when, to judge by the care taken in the writing of the document as a whole, sloppiness or oversight would hardly be likely. It is the later postscript writer who would be more likely to overlook putting on a salutation, or choose for some reason pertinent to a later time not to do so. Wilson
5. James Moffatt was quite honest in saying that attempts even in his day to identify the author of Hebrews as among the characters mentioned in the New Testament, were “in the main due to an irrepressible desire to construct NT romances” (ICC, Epistle to the Hebrews, p.xx). He concluded that
“the author of To the Hebrews cannot be identified with any figure known to us in the primitive Christian tradition. He left great prose to some little clan of early Christians, but who they were and who he was God alone only knows. To us he is a voice and no more. The theory which alone explains the conflicting traditions is that for a time the writing was circulated as an anonymous tract.”
If this conclusion, based on the text itself, is indeed true, it is hardly likely that it could have done so with the postscript present. With an ending like that from the start, there would have been no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was the product of Paul, and the idea of anonymity would never have arisen.
6. Some commentators find no difficulty in suggesting that the “letter” was being sent off to some distant community to which the writer does not belong. The postscript itself, as noted, paints the picture of an author who is a traveling apostle. It also says, “Greet all your leaders,” as though their leaders are not the writer’s leaders, let alone that he is one of them. Yet this cannot be aligned with the tone and content of the rest of the document, which very much conveys the impression that the author is part of the community he is addressing, and that he has much contact and discussion with them. For example, -25 says: “Let us spur one another on to love and good deeds, not give up meeting together, as is the habit of some…” Clearly he is not some outsider, let alone a roving apostle who infrequently visits and who has ties with other communities—in contradiction to the clear implication of the postscript. (Another example of the sloppiness of the postscript writer, who wasn’t perceptive enough to realize that his added verses could not be aligned with the content of the document itself.) Logic dictates, therefore, that the author of the postscript cannot be the author or associate of the author of the epistle proper.
7. If the writer were an outsider, a traveling apostle or someone associated with the Pauline circle (which is what the postscript conveys), the identification of “the religion we profess” as one in which the High Priest Jesus performs a sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary (see, e.g., 4:14) would mean that such a faith was something held by, and preached to, other communities as well, by the person heard speaking in the postscript. But no such christological system as put forward in Hebrews is to be found anywhere else, in any other document, let alone in anything produced by Paul or the Pauline circle. Consequently, the postscript, being blatantly Pauline, is thoroughly at odds with the content of the document, and thus cannot have been written by the original writer or by anyone associated with him or his community.
8. If the postscript cannot be associated with the writer or his community, the next logical Sitz im Leben for its addition would almost certainly be the attempt to bring this lonely-child piece of writing into the fold and making it part of the Pauline corpus. This would have been the period when many isolated writings among those now found after Acts in the New Testament were being collected, assigned authors, and where necessary turned into epistles, since this was the preferred way to convey theological doctrine and other admonitory issues to the faithful. Such a period is to be located in the mid 2nd century, at a time when the Roman Church was assembling and modifying documents of all sorts and casting them into a picture of a unified movement (just as Acts, written at that time, was also designed to do). The final device, verse 24’s “The ones from
send you their greeting,” is perhaps a little too obvious, meant to explain how the Roman Church got this letter—it was sent to them! Italy
Why is the issue of the authenticity of the postscript important? Because if it is a later addition, there is no need to see this particular document as having a close relationship to other circles or writers in the rest of the surviving record. (One possible exception, outside the canon, is discussed in the Appendix.) Without the postscript, the document fits into the picture of a Christ-belief movement which had no central organization or common doctrine, let alone a single point of origin. The epistle’s prominent motifs of revelation and inspiration from scripture speak to a faith phenomenon which arose out of a background of widespread impulses that had no link at its beginning to a founding figure, especially one who is never mentioned in any of the documents which represent it. Moffatt was right. We will never know who wrote this work, where or when (except within some broad parameters: for dating, see below), who it was addressed to, or the circumstances of the community’s founding. Once this is realized and the imposition upon it of later Gospel-based orthodoxy is abandoned, once the implications of this are realized for the rest of the pre-Gospel record, we open the door to a brand new view of Christian beginnings and the history of our Western culture. One might say that the “old covenant” under Jesus of Nazareth can be abandoned as an unfortunate misconceived fantasy, and a “new covenant” can be adopted under the more objective principle of the scientific investigation of our past and our human nature. One might say that we will enter into a bold new sanctuary carrying the salvific blood of human rationality.
But to forestall any misunderstanding by future generations, let me assure the reader that this is just a metaphor.
-- Appendix --
Some Attendant Conclusions
There are important corollaries proceeding from this study of Hebrews and its findings. There can hardly be any doubt that this writer knows nothing of an historical Jesus. But its habitation within the broader Christ-belief world of the New Testament epistles, including the Pauline corpus, can also hardly be doubted. Despite the great differences in christology and soteriological systems, they have certain things in common. Hebrews’ description of the Son in 1:3 is cut from the same cloth as the hymn in Colossians 1:15-20, or Paul’s statements about Christ being the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4) and the agent of creation (1 Cor. 8:6)—all of it inspired by Greek Logos philosophy and Jewish Wisdom tradition. Both can speak of the Son’s “flesh” in a mystical way, as a mythological feature: Hebrews has Christ’s flesh as the “curtain” which stands before the new sanctuary the believers may enter (10:20), while Paul and his school have Christ abolishing the Law in his “flesh” (Eph. 2:14) and forming a “body” which comprises both Son and believers (passim); Christ has even united Jew and Greek in his own “body” (Eph. ). Both use the same terminology: the Son is “revealed,” the word of God and the Holy Spirit have initiated and governed the faith movement; things previously unknown have now been revealed; the old age is passing, the new about to dawn; the Son is coming but has not yet been here. Underlying all, of course, is the absence of any figure of, or role for, an historical Jesus.
The Pauline communities and the Hebrews community need not have had any direct contact, much less common apostolic progenitors. All have been motivated by the same in-the-air impulses: the study of scripture, belief in the intermediary Son, an atmosphere of revelation and newly-fashionable spiritual practices, the expectation of the End-time and the arrival of a messianic figure; even the widespread impulse to reform, including of some of the basics of Judaism. They are all branches of the same tree, and if Hebrews’ world can be seen as lacking an originating historical figure, any recent Jesus of Nazareth, the rest of them must lack him as well. Of course, they all have their own evidence for that.
Before addressing another corollary, we must examine the question of the date of this document. Scholars generally acknowledge the strong arguments for dating it prior to the Jewish War of 66-70, although they usually seek to hedge their bets by claiming such arguments are not decisive. Because there is no mention in the epistle of the destruction of the
in the War, one would tend to assume that this event had not yet taken place. As Attridge puts it [p.8], “Such a reference would, it is argued, appropriately seal Hebrews’ descriptions of the inadequacy and outmoded character of the Law and its cult.” But he and others also put forward the counter-argument (echoed by Christopher Price) that other documents known to post-date 70 speak of the Temple sacrifices in theory even though they are no longer performed. Yet not in the way that Hebrews does. The two most common examples appealed to are Josephus and 1 Clement. In the latter’s chapter 32, the writer says: Temple
For it is from Jacob that all the priests and Levites who minister at God’s altar have since descended.
This is a passing comment in a context which has nothing to do with the
cult. The writer, in speaking about Jacob and God’s gifts in history, is merely stating a general principle of traditional Judaism. He would have had no special interest in pointing out that the Temple cult was no longer practiced. Similarly in chapter 40, ‘Clement’ is discussing cultic tradition; he is recounting “sacred lore” (v.1) and the Old Testament commands of God. Since he is using that lore as an illustration to his readers of how it is commendable to be obedient to the laws of God, he might well leave aside the observation that such obedience in regard to the Temple cult is no longer possible. Josephus, too, discusses the Temple practice in an historical context, outlining the principles of the Old Testament cult (Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. III, ch. 6, 7, 9). In both these writers we may, in fact, be witnessing a use of the “historical present.” Moreover, neither of them had an interest in declaring the traditional cult, which they speak of with a certain amount of pride, as dead and supplanted, as Hebrews did. Thus, this particular counter-argument has little force. Temple
Indeed, it is almost beyond contention that Hebrews must be dated before the Jewish War and the destruction of the
. Hebrews’ entire theology is based on the new heavenly sacrifice of Christ supplanting the ancient sacrificial cult, in effect since Sinai. Some post-70 writers may have written of a Temple cult as though it still existed because they regarded it as a matter of time before it would be restored, or else they regarded it as existing within the ‘eternal’ validity of the Law (especially in the Jewish mind). But this is not the outlook of the writer of Hebrews. For him (as for Paul), the Law was supplanted; its old sacrificial cult was anything but eternal. He would have had neither wish nor expectation that the Temple would be rebuilt, nor would he have thought that the old cult had any further relevance. Quite the opposite. He knew that Christ’s heavenly sacrifice had sent the old cult and covenant into oblivion, and it would only be a matter of time before it passed from the world. He could not have said in : Temple
…he has made the first one [the Old Covenant] obsolete, and what is growing old and obsolete is near to disappearing,
sacrifices had in fact disappeared. This would have been seen as a mark of the fulfillment of what he looked for and it would not have gone unmentioned. That destruction would have been a tremendous proof of his position, God seen as shoveling the old covenant and its cultic basis onto the garbage heap of history through the agency of the destroying Romans. The writer’s focus in the epistle may have been on the prototype sanctuary at Sinai (another counter-argument appealed to), but the continuance of that prototype in the present day, which he occasionally refers to (as in 8:4), is also of import, and that is yet to pass away.31 Temple
31 Montefiore [p.3] makes a similar observation, but then asks why, if Hebrews was written within the Apostolic Age itself, its presence or ideas have left no mark on the records of the primitive church. The answer is simple. There was no “primitive church” in the sense of a centrally based and generated organization, but only a motley collection of sectarian expressions which drew on a common pool of concepts and influences. Even Pauline ideas are hard to find outside his own circles until the second century had well progressed. This isolation can be seen in Hebrews in the fact that there seems to be no interaction with any other groups which have different views, no awareness of heresy, no contrary ‘spirits’ from God.
Another argument for an early date for Hebrews, and ruling out a second-century provenance, is the apparent quoting from chapter 1 in the epistle 1 Clement. That ‘Clement’ is dependent on the Hebrews document itself is not as “definitive” as some scholars would like to think, although their arguments are not without force. In 1 Clement 36:1-6 (a passage which for other reasons too it is interesting to take a look at), the author says,
1 This is the way, beloved, in which we found our salvation, Jesus Christ, the high priest of our offerings, the defender and helper of our weakness. 2 Through him we fix our gaze on the heights of heaven, through him we see the reflection of his faultless and lofty countenance, through him the eyes of our hearts were opened, through him our foolish and darkened understanding blossoms toward the light, through him the Master [God] willed that we should taste the immortal knowledge; “who, being the brightness of his majesty, is by so much greater than angels as he hath inherited a more excellent name.” 3 For it is written thus, “Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.” 4 But of his son the Master said thus, “Thou art my son: today have I begotten thee.” Ask of me, and I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the ends of the earth for thy possession.” 5 And again he says to him, “Sit thou on my right hand until I make thine enemies a footstool of thy feet.” 6 Who then are the enemies? Those who are wicked and oppose his will. [
, The Apostolic Fathers, vol.1, Loeb Classical Library, p.71] Trans. K. Lake
The lines in italics have parallels in the first chapter of Hebrews. The first and most important of these (in v.2 above) is close but not verbatim, reflecting first a phrase (“the brightness of his majesty”) descriptive of the Son in 1:3, followed by the comparison to angels which appears in 1:4. The scriptural quotes are also used by Clement in an order different from their appearance in Hebrews. It could be said that the writer is quoting from the epistle by memory, which might explain the various incongruities. But can we be assured that 1 Clement really knows Hebrews? I suggest that this is anything but secure, despite Attridge’s claim. First of all, he admits that the author does not cite Hebrews by name, as he does the Pauline epistles elsewhere. And it is Attridge himself who has suggested that the author of Hebrews, in his scriptural citations in chapter 1, is drawing on an existing catena of proof texts which may have served certain early Christian communities as demonstrating the exaltation of the Son in heaven. This would undermine his contention [p.6-7] that
“1 Clement is indeed citing Hebrews and not simply making use of common traditions (by) the fact that his allusion makes use of three formally distinct elements of the first chapter of Hebrews, the collocation of which must be the work of the author of Hebrews.”
But if the author of Hebrews is drawing on Attridge’s postulated catena, then that collocation would have preceded him, and this could be the source of 1 Clement’s own listing. Indeed, Clement’s different order may reflect the order of the catena, an order which the Hebrews author might have altered in the interests of fashioning a much larger argument in that section of his first chapter. Even Clement’s reference to the comparison of the Son with the angels (and it has a couple of distinctive anomalies in wording from that of Hebrews) could conceivably be part of such a catena document, since it serves also to make the point about the Son’s superior status in heaven, even if it is not a scriptural citation. It is true that Clement’s verse 1 refers to Jesus Christ as “high priest,” which is perhaps the strongest indicator of a knowledge of the Hebrews christology and the document itself. And yet, 1 Clement nowhere in its great length ever applies this idea of Jesus as “high priest” in the distinctive manner of Hebrews, a high priest conducting a heavenly sanctuary sacrifice. If he indeed knew and subscribed to this document as a whole, it is certainly a matter for wonder that he would not draw on or reflect some of its powerful and distinctive christology. Nor do we see any sign in 1 Clement of the negative attitude of Hebrews toward the
However, in casting our eye over that passage in 1 Clement, we do find the same mystical and mythological manner of referring to Christ himself, with no sense of historical tradition behind it. “Through him we fix our gaze on the heights of heaven, through him we see the reflection of his [God’s] faultless and lofty countenance, through him the eyes of our hearts were opened…” As in Paul, and in Logos philosophy generally, the Son is the spiritual channel to communication with and knowledge of God, and he bears God’s image, an image knowable through the Son. In stating that God has “willed that we should taste the immortal knowledge,” no example is given of Christ’s teaching on earth, but, as in Hebrews 1, reference to such a channel of knowledge is illustrated by Christ’s superiority to the angels in heaven.32
32 The alleged quotes from Jesus’ Gospel teachings in 1 Clement 13 do not conform to Gospel passages nor offer an historical setting. They are quite commonplace in nature, and are attributed to “Christ in teaching us mildness and forbearance.” This need be no more than the common early Christian viewpoint that the heavenly Christ has revealed such teachings to humanity through spiritual channels (cf. 1 John 5:1, or Paul’s “words of the Lord”). For a thorough study of 1 Clement and my claim that this document knows of no historical Jesus, see Supplementary Article No. 12: On the Threshold of History: Jesus in the Apostolic Fathers. That article also offers arguments for the essential authenticity of 1 Clement, not as to its traditional authorship, but in regard to a dating around the turn of the second century and being an actual letter sent from the Church of Rome to the
reflecting conditions at that period of time. Churchof Corinth
There is thus ample reason to doubt that Clement is anywhere dependent on, or even has knowledge of, the Epistle to the Hebrews, but is indeed merely drawing on common traditions and sources. It also reflects the practice in common with Hebrews of regarding passages in scripture as constituting the voice of the spiritual Christ (e.g., , 22:1). While no other document of the New Testament refers to Jesus as “high priest,” it is a designation that could have existed in circles with which 1 Clement was in contact or shared certain terms and ideas with, but which have left no other record. Philo also refers to the Logos or first-born of God as a “high priest” (On Dreams 1.215, On Flight and Finding 108), although not with the same sense of personification as we find in Hebrews. Whether 1 Clement knew Hebrews directly or was tapped into similar traditions, a dating of 1 Clement no more than a decade into the second century thus argues for an early dating of Hebrews, certainly within the confines of the first century.
Attridge points out [p.30-31] certain common modes of thought and expression with 1 Peter, though these are mostly superficial, to be expected within almost any Christ-belief group in the first century. As with 1 Clement, there is in this epistle nothing directly reflecting Hebrews’ unique christology as heavenly high priest sacrificing in the heavenly sanctuary. The reference in 1:1 to “the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” is too lacking in context to spell a necessary similarity to the Hebrews concept. However, there is certainly a similarity in atmosphere between the two works, and as 1 Peter is consistently dated within the first century, this would place Hebrews in the same period. After the possibility of 1 Clement, the next attestation to a knowledge of Hebrews—this one certain—is in Clement of Alexandria around the end of the second century, and this lack of clear witness to the document until then would be an indicator of the community’s relative isolation and the general fragmentation of the early Christian movement.
Another feature arguing for an early date is that the End-time, the anticipated arrival of the “completion of the ages” and Christ’s arrival from heaven with it, is still a vital idea, with no sign that there has been a delay which has become troublesome (as in 2 Peter). Furthermore, we can see from other documents (such as the Gospel of Mark as well as Jewish writings like 4 Ezra, both datable within the late first century) that the destruction of the Temple led to a conviction among some sectarian groups that the End could be expected shortly, and it was probably more widespread than we have evidence for. But the author of Hebrews makes no special point about this, which would tend not to place him soon after the Jewish War. However, dating him beyond that immediate post-war period becomes too problematic, and thus, all things considered, we can fairly confidently locate this document somewhere in the decade or two prior to the War. There is even the possibility that it could have been earlier, given the open-ended genesis of Christianity without an historical Jesus, as well as the witness of Paul to an existing Christ-belief movement before his conversion and the presence of well-developed pre-Pauline hymns in his letters.
The foregoing observations present us with a body of first century writings which show no knowledge of an historical Jesus, but offer varied expressions of faith in a mythological Christ and system of salvation. They represent largely independent groups enjoying varying degrees of common influences and perhaps limited points of contact, but owing no genesis to a single instigator or point of origin. Only later do we find centripetal forces within this Christ-belief movement drawing many of these independent writings into a central pool and imposing an artificial commonality upon them.
But there is another corollary associated with this picture that needs to be considered. Much has been made of the radical school of thought that there was no authentic Paul, that his entire corpus is the product of the second century, perhaps by Marcion. But it becomes difficult to maintain that a body of other writings possessing the same basic atmosphere and fundamental background concepts as the pre-War epistle to the Hebrews—not to mention the lack of an historical Jesus—could have been written almost a century later. Nor would it have been possible for a later writer to deliberately reproduce the character of the thinking several generations earlier. He would have had no way of recalling it and no reason to do so. We can only conclude that the ground level material and conceptual world of the Pauline corpus, along with other documents like 1 Peter, are authentic to the same period in which Hebrews must be dated: some time in the mid to later first century. And if so, there is no good reason to deny the core of this body of writings to an historical Paul. We need, of course, to resist relying on the second-century Acts of the Apostles to flesh out a biography of that figure, but that he was a relatively significant fish on the first century scene in a series of partially linked ponds across the religious marshland of the Eastern Empire is not to be readily dismissed. With a genuine Paul in the mix, and a substantial body of first century writings to draw on, the case for an early Christian faith movement which had for its object of worship an entirely mythological Christ and Son of God becomes not only strong, but eminently presentable.
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