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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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Christ and Melchizedek
In the Order of Melchizedek
The progression within the Epistle to the Hebrews is from the old to the new, the inferior to the superior, from earth to heaven (not earth to earth). While there are prototype-antitype comparisons in which points of resemblance are presented, there are also points of contrast. One of these is between the earthly high priest and the heavenly High Priest. In conformity with Jewish principles, the earthly high priests are of a certain tribe—historically, the Levites; and they are derived from the figure of Aaron. Consequently, and in conformity with the principles of paradigmatic parallelism, Jesus the heavenly High Priest must also be linked to a certain tribe and to a certain figure. This is a necessity, and thus the writer must find a way to embody this. He does so, not by going to the history of Jesus of Nazareth, or traditions about him that may have since developed, but as he always does, to scripture. The biblical figure of Melchizedek is the pivot around which the heavenly High Priest Jesus has been envisioned.
To conform to the paradigmatic principle, an integral part of the salvation religion of the age, this new High Priest had to be given a priestly lineage and it had to be new: a new tribe and a new forerunner. (The old covenantal system replaced by the new.) Aaron and the Levites belonged to the earthly priests. Melchizedek and the tribe of
were pressed into service to define the heavenly High Priest, not only as new and different, but as superior. Again, it would matter not if Melchizedek and the tribe of Judah were earthly entities; this need not be carried over to Jesus (despite Price’s claims). We have seen and will continue to see the application of earthly motifs to spiritual counterparts, and the reinterpretation of old concepts along Platonic-style lines. However, it is also the case that Melchizedek had himself undergone something of an evolution. We see him regarded at Judah Qumran(in the 11QMelch. scroll) as a messianic and possibly angelic figure. As Attridge puts it [p.52], “Other Jewish speculation on angels and particularly on the figures of Michael and Melchizedek attributes to them a priestly function in the heavenly sanctuary.” He further notes [p.193] the status of Melchizedek as a heavenly being in 2 Enoch, probably to be dated a little before Christianity. As noted earlier, such trends of thought could well be one of the sources for the distinctive (to the New Testament) christology of Hebrews.
Two passages in the Hebrew bible refer to Melchizedek. The ‘historical’ one is in Genesis 14:18-20. On Abraham’s return from victory in the field against local kings, he was met by Melchizedek, “king of
” (probably Salem ), who brought him “food and wine.” Melchizedek “was priest of God Most High” and he pronounced a blessing upon Abraham. In return, Abraham gave Melchizedek “a tithe of all the booty” he had gained from his victory on the battlefield. Jerusalem
These are three short verses, but out of them much has been drawn. Melchizedek was traditionally seen as part of a pre-Abrahamic (thus Canaanite) dynasty of priest-kings, a line that continued through David when he conquered Jerusalem, and thus Melchizedek’s line became associated with the tribe of Judah. Prior to chapter 7, the writer of Hebrews three times (5:6, 10 and 20) identifies Jesus as high priest “in the succession of Melchizedek,” and he was such a priest “forever” (5:6 and 20). The latter concept was directly derived from Psalm 110:4, originally addressed to a Hebrew king of the Davidic line, in which verse 4 says:
“The Lord has sworn and will not change his purpose:
‘You are a priest forever in the succession of Melchizedek’.”
Jewish thought in general took this as a reference to the coming Messiah who would reign forever, but the writer of Hebrews has refined this to refer to Jesus as Son and High Priest in heaven who would be a priest forever.
The idea of Melchizedek being “a priest forever” and possessing immortality is based not simply on the declaration of Psalm 110:4, it relies on a bizarre deduction from the passage in Genesis 14:18-20. In 7:3, the author describes Melchizedek this way:
Without father, without mother, without genealogy,
having neither a beginning of days nor end of life,
but having been made like the Son of God,
he remains a priest forever.
This conclusion is drawn from the Genesis verses, which happen to say nothing about this Melchizedek of Salem, neither birth nor death, ancestry or descent. He becomes a kind of figure suspended in time, and this is turned into the prefiguration of the Son who is also a High Priest without beginning or end. (“There is thus a suggestion of a supernatural origin for Melchizedek,” says
[p.122].) What is overlooked or ignored, however, is the strong implication in the spirit and grammatical structure of the verse that the Son himself is also without father or mother or genealogy (“having been made like the Son of God”), having neither a beginning nor an end to his life. While the usual claim is that this is meant to refer only to his spiritual existence, there is no denying that if an actual father, mother and genealogy, a birth and a death, had existed in Jesus’ incarnational background, an anomaly should have been set up in the minds of the writer and his readers which would have prompted, even required, qualification. None is given. Wilson
A few verses later (), the writer declares that “Christ owes his priesthood…to the power of a life that cannot be destroyed.” The “testimony” to this (verse 17) is the quoting of Psalm 110:4. There is no reference to a life on earth that could not be destroyed since it had been resurrected three days later. There is no qualification that in fact Jesus had possessed a life that could be destroyed, even if temporarily. It would seem that the author can never be prompted to make an allusion to the earthly Jesus no matter what the associations and complications that ought to have confronted his statements in his own mind.
In 7:4f, the author points out that Melchizedek must be superior even to Abraham since it is Melchizedek who blesses Abraham, and Abraham who pays a tithe to Melchizedek, acknowledging his superior status. In all this, Melchizedek is rendered larger than life and of superior importance, making him a fit prototype for the heavenly Son and a forerunner in a priestly line which is superior to that of Aaron and the earthly high priests. In the
Qumrantradition, Melchizedek was elevated to the position of a judge in the court of God in heaven, and this involvement in heaven’s officialdom has been carried over into the Epistle to the Hebrews in the heavenly duties of Jesus the High Priest. Melchizedek is treated as more than just an archetypical historical figure for Jesus. He is a heavenly archetype as well, and his “forever” status foreshadows that of Jesus.
Of the Tribe of
In this context, -14 is a critical passage in the debate over the historicity of the Jesus of Hebrews.
11 Now if perfection were attainable through the Levitical priesthood…
why was there still a need to speak of another priest to arise
in the order of Melchizedek and not in the order of Aaron?
The author then proceeds to answer his own question:
12 For when the priesthood is changed there must also take place a change of the Law.
This may be putting the cart before the horse, because one suspects—especially when taking the wider record of the time into account—that it is the reform impulse that first arose to generate philosophical ways to justify it. This was a period of dissatisfaction with the Law (as also witness Paul), a period of new ideas which declared that the old sacrificial cult and Mosaic law code had proven ineffective on both a national and personal level. (For some, the sacrifices had even become distasteful.)
had failed to achieve freedom from foreign domination and her destined supremacy; society had failed to reach social and moral perfection. A vast innovative change was needed. Sectarian groups like the community of Hebrews were led to see this as being brought about through new plans by God, now revealed to them in various ways. Often the new alternative being offered was directed at the personal level, an opportunity for an elect to gain its own salvation, although the theoretical possibility that society as a whole could be won over was not to be ruled out. If it could be seen that God no longer wanted animal sacrifices, the Israel cult would pass away and a new religious order come into being along the sect’s lines of thought. Thus it is not unlikely that the impulse to create something new, a new solution and a new hope, was what led imaginative thinkers and prophets to apply their abilities to a different reading of scripture as a new, updated revelation from God. Under the influence of the intermediary Son/Logos philosophy and the pagan mystery cults, this usually took the form of envisioning a new savior deity, God’s own Son. Temple
For the thinkers behind the Epistle to the Hebrews, a change of Law required a change of priesthood, and thus, as noted earlier, the newly-envisioned heavenly High Priest, Jesus, needed to be seen as of a different tribe than the Levites. And so the writer goes on to say,
13 He of whom these things are spoken [i.e., which scripture speaks
about another priest arising in the order of Melchizedek]
was part of another tribe, from which no one has ever officiated at the altar;
The necessity determines the conclusion:
14 For it is evident [prodēlon] that our Lord has arisen out of
a tribe about which Moses said nothing concerning priests.
What makes it “evident”? There is no appeal to historical record, to any genealogy of Jesus as physically descended from David. (There is no mention whatever of David in connection with Jesus in this document.) The Lord’s connection with
is apparently derived from Melchizedek who was king of Judah , with which the tribe of Jerusalem became associated in post-Abrahamic times. It is thus part of the mystical and heavenly link between Melchizedek and the Son who is of his “order.” That this is the source of the idea is strongly suggested by the writer’s language: “It is evident that…” If he were referring to a well-known historical tradition, we might expect him to state it more directly, perhaps with a reference to David. But everything to this point has been declared of Jesus on the basis of scripture. The writer has consistently said, ‘We know such-and-such about our High Priest in heaven because scripture has said this about him—or he himself has said it, in scripture.’ It is scripture that has consistently supplied what is “evident.” This, then, points to a natural understanding of “for it is evident that” in terms of what is known from scripture, and thus any historical basis or understanding of Jesus as a human member of the earthly tribe of Judah becomes obscured. Judah
This is rendered virtually certain by the passage that follows:
15 And what we have said is even more clear [a variant word, katadēlon]
if another priest like Melchizedek arises,
16 not according to a system of physical [lit., fleshly] requirements
but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life…
And he once again goes on to quote Psalm 110:4: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”
If an appeal to scripture involving Melchizedek makes something “more clear,” then what has previously helped make the topic “clear” is likely an appeal to scripture as well, especially if it too involved the figure of Melchizedek. But the clincher is the fact that the writer has gone on (v.16) to deny the relevance of physical descent on earth. Note the sequence of ideas in support of the statement (v.12) that change of law needs to be accompanied by a change of priesthood:
v.13 – Jesus the High priest belonged to a different tribe from the line of earthly priests
v.14 – it is clear he belonged to the tribe of
v.15 – the whole issue is even clearer when we see that the High Priest has arisen
v.16 – not on the basis of laws about physical descent
but on the power of his indestructible life
v.17 – which we know of through scripture [a quote of Psalm 110:4]
It is not surprising that the writer never speaks of David, or enlarges on Jesus being of the tribe of
. This new tribe is something needed only in principle to identify Jesus as of a different tribe than the priestly Levites. We also need to note that the validation offered for this identification with Judah is the fact that it is “a tribe about which Moses said nothing concerning priests.” Yet this validation would have had no relevance if an historical Jesus was known to have been of the tribe of Judah through actual physical lineage. This would have been the overriding determinant, and what Moses might have said or not said about Judah and priests would have had no force in the matter. But without an historical Jesus and his supposed lineage, such scriptural features would indeed contribute to making an identification of the heavenly High Priest with the tribe of Judah supportable, an identification formed entirely within the world of scripture. Judah
The context of this passage indicates that the identification is through Melchizedek, himself identified with
. That he is not in any way talking about, let alone insisting on, a physical, historical descent from a Judaic David is clear from the fact that he denies the very relevance of such a thing. Verse 16a may, if the writer were pressed to clarify, be a reference to the tribe of Levi, so that he might have meant: “the High Priest has arisen not on the basis of being a Levite (in accordance with the Law), but on the power of his indestructible life.” But neither does the latter reason have anything to do with Jesus being of the tribe of Judah , or any other tribe. And by dismissing “laws of physical descent,” whether Levite or otherwise, in favor of something which has nothing to do with tribal identity, he is setting aside any ‘requirement’ that Jesus be from a non-Levite tribe. The author is apparently trying to balance two distinct and even contradictory ideas here. Judah
The way to resolve the contradiction is to see that while the author believes there is need for the principle of Christ’s assignment to a different tribe, he makes this assignment based on scripture, not history—and thus it relates to the “indestructible” Christ in the spiritual world, not the “fleshly” world (v.16). ‘Being of the tribe of Judah’ could have had a spiritual-world significance for the writer, since the tribal identification is derived from Melchizedek (not David), and Melchizedek has assumed the status of a heavenly figure.14 In fact, seeing that Jesus is “in the order of Melchizedek” and in the exercise of that order is “a priest in the realm of the eternal and unchanging” (as Attridge puts it [p.202]), the strong implication is that Melchizedek’s “order” is also supernatural, rather than an earthly prefiguration from which Christ has leapt to heaven. This is supported by the “forever” nature of Melchizedek’s priesthood, which Christ now follows. Everything in this discussion is spoken of in terms of scripture and heaven, making the “it is evident” (prodēlon) remark in 7:14 a reference to the clarity bestowed by scripture, the author’s sole criterion in all that he has to say.
14 We don’t have to postulate heavenly tribes of Judah, or any other, walking about the streets of heaven—although such a thought could be encompassed by 12:23 in which “firstborn citizens of heaven” are assembled alongside the angels in the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem [see Wilson, p.230-31]. But even within the Jewish concept of heavenly prototypes and prefiguring elements there may well have been room for some kind of heavenly prefiguring of the twelve tribes of
Attridge has also been caught up in this contradiction. On page 210, in addressing the prodēlon of verse 14 that Christ “was a Judahite,” he says:
He tries to rationalize this by suggesting that including “the titulature of royal messianism would only blur” the writer’s focus on Christ’s priestly function, a dubious claim in itself. If Jesus’ Davidic descent were common knowledge, the writer would hardly think to get around that knowledge by being silent on it, nor would he have been likely to regard it as some kind of disadvantage to his purposes. But a few paragraphs later, when discussing verse 16, Attridge declares: “The contrast with the ‘Law’s command’ suggests that Christ’s priesthood is not an accidental attribute, something that he, like the Levites, ‘receives’ from an external source (7:5), but is rather something intimately connected with who he is.” But what is descent from David but “an accidental attribute”? If it is necessary for Christ to be of a non-Levite tribe in order to be different from the earthly priests, then the fulfillment of that necessity is indeed “accidental,” dependent on his birth. But if the ‘prodēlon’ association of Jesus with the tribe of
is a scriptural deduction, as much “connected with who he is” as his eternal nature, also deduced from scripture, then the contradiction evaporates and Attridge’s principle stands. Judah
In critiquing my earlier treatment of this subject, Christopher Price argues from an historical-based way of thinking and does so atomistically, ignoring the features and implications of the surrounding contexts just discussed. “Prodēlon” means, for him, a “common knowledge among Christians that Jesus was of the tribe of
,” even though nothing of historical tradition about Jesus is introduced in this document. Price appeals to Romans 1:3 as an equally clear reference to an historical Jesus. He maintains that if the author sees a problem in the tribal derivation of Jesus, it is because the Mosaic Law stipulated that high priests must be of the Levite tribe, and so he is addressing “actual, historical facts.” But the writer shows no sign that a Jesus being of the tribe of Judah is a “problem.” He never puts it in such terms. The issue is not that “Jesus was born into the wrong tribe to be a priest.” Again, the writer is not concerned with any requirement that Jesus be a priest of the old earthly variety; any necessity to be a Levite does not enter the picture. He is a new Priest, a heavenly antitype (and superior) to the original, and as such, for the sake of that newness, he must be seen as of a different tribe than the earthly prototype. The author’s argument makes no point about “actual, historical facts,” let alone discusses them. Judah
Price claims that “If Jesus was not an historical figure but merely had the attributes described in OT scripture, there would be no issue.” But this is preconception obscuring what the text says. Yes, there is no issue of historical tribal descent, but there is an “issue” nonetheless: the basic philosophical requirement that a new Law needs a new priesthood, including being of a different tribe. But it is an issue based in scripture, not history—on a heavenly Melchizedek, not an earthly David—and is seen by the writer as applicable in a spiritual setting. (Just as the Son being “of David’s stock” in Romans 1:3 could be conceived in a spiritual, scriptural setting.) All the contrasts with traditional earthly prototypes are for this writer conceived in terms of heaven vs. earth, the spiritual vs. the material; so it is consistent with these principles to see the ‘tribal association’ of Jesus in contrast to the tribal association of the earthly priests as also a matter of spiritual vs. material, heavenly vs. earthly.
In fact, the whole thought-world of the epistle requires it. If Jesus being “of the tribe of
” is based in the scriptural and heavenly Melchizedek (who has become part of the heavenly side of the equation, the “eternal/forever” side), it stands to reason that the “tribe of Judah" is also conceived as having a heavenly basis. All features about Jesus are regarded as superior to their earthly counterparts, and on the basis of being heavenly. Yet what would make the earthly tribe of Judah superior to the earthly tribe of Levi? We are entitled to assume that for this writer, Jesus’ link with the tribe of Judah has a heavenly character—especially since he denies any relevance to Jesus’ priesthood of derivation from an earthly tribe. It is this dual cosmological orientation, one which saturates the whole of Hebrews, that needs to be applied here. Price might find that everything would fall into place, and he would not be reduced to trying to extract a few isolated bits of Gospel-like pigment from a landscape awash in the colors of mythicism and the paradigmatic relationship between heaven and earth. Judah
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A Jesus Never on Earth
Two Priesthoods in Different Venues
With Jesus’ connection to Melchizedek fully explored, demonstrating Jesus to be “a priest forever in the succession of Melchizedek,” the author can now go on to talk about the duties of this eternal priest. What does this priest do “forever”? One of the principal contrasts between the earthly and heavenly high priests has just been stated in :
He [the Son] has no need to offer sacrifices daily, as the high priests do, first for his own sins and then for the sins of the people; for this he did once and for all [ephapax] when he offered up himself. (Compare : “…he has entered the sanctuary once for all [ephapax], obtaining an eternal redemption.”)
This offering of himself was done on a single occasion in the heavenly sanctuary, not repeatedly; and it has already happened, although such an event is never identified as taking place in history, let alone at a specific time in history. Whether it is envisioned as recent, in view of 9:26 which at first glance seems to locate the act “at the completion of the ages,” is unclear because of the ambiguity in that passage—something we will look at later. But if the principal raison d’etre of the heavenly High Priest has already been fulfilled “once for all,” in what way will Christ continue to be a priest? He must do so () because scripture declares him “a priest for ever.” The author settles for the secondary aspect of the high priestly duties: he continues to be a “minister” (8:2) interceding with God on the people’s behalf (). This is what the earthly priests also do on a regular basis, but it is through repeated sacrifices; that is how they intercede. Jesus no longer needs to offer further sacrifice of himself, and so he is reduced to simple intercession before God, but without sacrifices. This may seem to be an exercise in splitting hairs, but it will be significant in the following discussion.
Now we enter the central section of the Epistle to the Hebrews in which the scene of the Son’s sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary is laid out. That this is meant to directly proceed out of the preceding discussion is clear from the opening of chapter 8, and we will quote the first four and a half verses:
1 Now, the main point in what is being said is this: we have such a high priest
who sat down at the right hand of the throne of Majesty in heaven,
2 a minister in the sanctuary, and in the true tabernacle which the Lord [God]
erected, not man.
3 Now, every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices;
hence, (it is/was) necessary that this one, too, have something to offer….
Note here that the tense of the latter phrase is ambiguous since there is no actual verb in the Greek. The ‘necessity’ may be present or past. The majority of translators express it in the present tense, but the
notes that it could be either “must have something to offer” or “must have had something to offer.” The former phrase most commonly appears in translations. We will see that this has to be mistaken. NEB
4 If, therefore, he were on earth, he would not be a priest,
: Now, if he had been on earth, he would not even have been a priest] NEB
there being [“ontōn”, the present participle] ones [i.e., the priests]
offering the gifts according to the Law,
5 who serve (at) a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary…
First, one might note that verses 3 and 4 are introduced in order to make the point that the high priests on earth have their duties, while the High Priest in heaven has his duties. Given that (according to scripture) Jesus is a High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, he has to have—or have had—something to offer. While this may not be the author’s most sophisticated literary moment, it may well reveal to us the genesis of the Hebrews soteriological scenario. If the passages about Melchizedek were being read messianically by this group, with Melchizedek envisioned as a heavenly figure (aided by the trend to regard some angels as heavenly priests, even offering a type of sacrifice themselves), it could have led to the whole imagining of the Messiah/Christ as a superior kind of High Priest in heaven, following in Melchizedek’s “order.” This High Priest was seen as performing the acts and sacrifices equivalent to the earthly cult, but in a more perfectly Platonic fashion, bringing his own blood into the heavenly sanctuary to atone for sins—though he only had to do this once for all. Such a sacrifice is the “something” he was given to offer.
But there is an important point to note. In talking in verses 3 and 4 about what the High Priest in heaven does in parallel with the earthly high priests, the intercession aspect for Christ is not involved. In verse 3 the author specifically refers to sacrifices and their offering. It is on the basis of these that the comparison with Christ is being made, and Christ’s intercessory duties do not involve sacrifice. Similarly in verse 4, it is said that Christ would not be—or have been—a priest on earth, there being priests already there offering the “gifts according to the Law,” namely the cultic sacrifice of animals. Since there is no possibility of Christ, past or present, performing his intercessory duties on earth (they are defined as taking place in heaven, following the sacrifice), here too intercession cannot be in mind. Both verses thus relate to the role of Christ’s sacrificial offering of his own blood; but since this is a singular thing and has already taken place, the sense in both verses 3 and 4 must relate to that role as it stood in the past. Therefore, the
’s alternate translation for verse 3, “hence, this one too must have had something to offer,” is the proper one, and the only one that makes sense. NEB
The author would hardly think in terms of Christ still having something to offer, or put forward a comparison involving such a possibility, if Christ’s offering duties are over and cannot be repeated. His sacrifice has already taken place “once for all.” So verse 3 must be read in the sense of “every high priest is [as the general rule] appointed to perform sacrifices; so Christ too must have had something to offer”—not “must have something to offer.” There would be no reason to put the Christ thought in the present tense, since such a thing is not even theoretically possible. We would not say, “Every President is sworn in at his inauguration, and so President Bush has to be sworn in”; it would be “President Bush had to be sworn in,” since his swearing in is already a past event. The present tense belongs in the first part of the statement because it is a general and ongoing rule; the past tense belongs in the second part because it is speaking of a specific case that has already taken place.15
15 Wilson [p.134] points out that the first “offer” in verse 3 (“For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices”) is “a present infinitive, which implies continuity and repetition,” whereas the second “offer” (Christ must have had “something to offer”) is “an aorist subjunctive, which refers simply to the action without specifying its time or suggesting repetition….We may therefore conclude that for our author the sacrifice offered by the great high priest is already in the past.” He is right, and consequently no thought of intercession, an ongoing duty performed without sacrifices, can be present in verse 3. This might seem to create a disjunction with verse 2, which has just spoken of Christ’s “ministry of the holy things in the true tabernacle” after he sat down at the right hand of God—implying when his sacrifice was completed—and which thus seems to be a reference to intercession (cf. 1:3b). But there is actually no disjunction. Verse 8:1 is an extension of the ending of the previous chapter. It is a remark saying that “we have such a high priest,” referring back to ‘having’ Jesus as High Priest in his intercessory function and present activities (7:24-26), and this leads him in verses 1-2 to make a further characterization of that post-sacrificial activity of intercession. But in verse 3 he embarks on a new thought, relating to the differences between the sacrifices performed in the two venues, heaven and earth. (We must remember that all division and numbering of Chapter and Verse in the New Testament is the product of a later time and may not always reflect a writer’s train of thought, something which scholars occasionally find themselves having to point out.)
And so verse 3 places us with Christ in the past. The reader, I am sure, has realized by now what this is going to do to the necessary tense understanding of verse 4. What is the purpose of that verse? The author will be going on to describe how Christ’s heavenly sacrifice was more perfect, and what its points of comparison and contrast with the earthly prototype are. But before doing that he enlarges on his point in verse 3—about both kinds of priest performing their respective offerings—by giving us verse 4. This verse is a rather trivial thought, and quite unnecessary, but how fortunate for us that he expressed it! In verse 2, he has placed Christ in the “real” heavenly tent, one pitched by God, not man, so it should be clear to the reader in verse 3 that Christ offers his gifts and sacrifices in his own (heavenly) territory while the earthly high priests do so in theirs, making verse 4 superfluous—regardless of what tense we might put it in. And yet he has added this idea that Christ if on earth would not have anything to do, since there are already priests there who perform the business of sacrifice. This somewhat awkward remark does nothing more than serve to illustrate the author’s point (v.3) that each kind of priesthood, with its particular type of sacrifice, has its own venue, one on earth one in heaven. At the same time, he is emphasizing that Christ’s sacrifice does not belong in the earthly temple or on the earthly scene, because that is not his territory. His type of perfect, once-for-all sacrifice has to take place in heaven.16
16 It is not a case, as Ellingworth puts it, that the idea behind the remark is that “God cannot establish two priestly institutions in competition.” Obviously, the two priesthoods are compatible if they operate in their respective spheres and in their proper relationship. In fact if, as many scholars interpret it, Christ’s death had taken place on earth and was thought of as part of the sacrifice, a sacrifice starting on
Calvaryand being consummated in heaven, there should have been no inherent impediment to God having both those “priestly institutions” operating on earth at the same time. (Note that Ellingworth’s suggestion would be forced to entail the idea that Christ is High Priest only when he gets to heaven, which not all scholars are happy with, for it would rule out Christ’s High Priestly sacrifice as entailing the event on an earthly Calvary—as well as make it difficult to see the heavenly event being intended as a metaphor for the latter.) But the author’s point is not Ellingworth’s suggestion. Rather, it has to do with the separation of the two venues.
The Tense of Verse Four: Present or Past?
While the thought of verse 4 is trivial, the question of the tense is anything but. For orthodoxy to dodge the bullet, it must be understood in the present. If it is in the past, the bullet strikes home and is fatal. We have already seen the necessity of placing the grammatically ambiguous thought in verse 3 in the past. Its intended sense has to be: “he must have had something to offer,” since Christ’s actual sacrifice took place in the past (like President Bush’s swearing in) and could not even theoretically take place again in the present. But the same principle applies in verse 4. If Christ’s actual sacrifice has been performed in the past (and in heaven), then making a contrafactual statement (a condition contrary to fact) that he could not perform it on earth must also be placed in the past, otherwise it would be a pointless non-sequitur. The division itself of the respective priesthoods into two territories, each with its own thing to do, is something that existed in the past and can apply only to the past, at the time Christ made his heavenly sacrifice. To say that he could not now perform it on earth would be, by definition, unrelated to that division of territories in the past, and would cast no light on verse 3’s comparison of ‘things to offer,’ which is what the writer is trying to illustrate.17
17 Aside from verse 3 having left behind any thought about intercessory duties for Christ, verse 4 cannot refer to such intercession for the reasons discussed above. But we may further note here that the verse would make even less sense if all the writer meant was that Christ could not intercede for us with God if he were on earth at the present time because there are priests performing such intercession duties in the
. In a discussion of respective sacrifices in the two different sanctuaries, which is what these verses are addressing (as a prelude to a thorough discussion of the matter throughout the next two chapters), introducing Christ’s role as a present intercessor—which would have nothing to do with his sacrifice—would be an even greater pointless non-sequitur. And with such intercession duties being associated solely with heaven, after the heavenly sacrifice, this by itself would rule out any intercession for Christ on earth in any case, regardless of whether priests are already here doing their own intercessory thing. (On the other hand, we might ask why a Christ on earth could not intercede with God while he was here and thus “be a priest,” despite any concurrent priestly efforts in the Temple . Such an exclusion would make little sense, and there would be no reason to put such an idea forward.) Temple
Having confirmed that verses 3 and 4 refer to Christ’s performance of his sacrifice, let’s see what happens if we try to force 8:4 into a present-tense understanding, which is what most translations and commentators seek to do:
If, therefore, Christ were now on earth, he would not be a priest…
But this would be automatically true by definition. It needs no “because” in terms of what the earthly high priests do. Christ would a priori not be a priest in the present time because, in regard to his priestly sacrifice (“once for all”), he was a priest in the past, and could not be so again in the present. As well, putting verse 4 into the present tense divorces it from having anything to do with verse 3, for then it cannot serve as a contrafactual alternative to the past sacrifice of that verse. Nor can it serve to illustrate that Christ’s heavenly sacrifice could not have been performed on earth, which is the writer’s point. It would simply be a non-sequitur.
But if verse 4 is understood in the past tense, then it serves as a logical, contrafactual alternative to verse 3’s past sacrifice in heaven, making the point that Christ’s sacrifice could not have been performed on earth. Thus we arrive at the meaning: “All high priests are appointed to make sacrifices, so this High Priest had to have his own sacrifice to make [it was in heaven, and it’s past]; if he had been on earth, he couldn’t have performed such a priestly sacrifice, since there were already priests here doing that.”
Could it have been intended as a non-sequitur? But if the writer is carefully presenting the two different kinds of priestly duties regarding sacrifice, one in heaven in the past, the other on earth, and making the point that they could not both be performed in the same venue, of what earthly use would it be to say that now, in the present, Christ could not perform his sacrifice on earth? That’s ruled out by definition. And it is hardly likely that he created this non-sequitur by accident. This author is too efficient and sophisticated to be guilty of that kind of faux pas.18
18 We noted above that there is no question here of the thought being that Christ could not exercise his priesthood in terms of his intercessory duties. He couldn’t practice those intercessory duties on earth by definition, since intercession with God for believers had to take place in heaven (after he sat down at God’s right hand). But here we may also observe that the presence of the present participle in the second half of the contrafactual statement,
“there being [ontōn] ones (on earth) offering the gifts according to the Law,”
does not place the thought in the present tense. In fact, the present participle places the action at the time of the main verb, and since the main verb has to be understood in the past (“he would not have been a priest,” since Christ’s sacrifice is a past event), this indicates that the activity of the earthly high priests is also being phrased in terms of the past. The author is speaking of the particular situation obtaining in the past: the point at which Christ offered his sacrifice in heaven while the earthly high priests were performing theirs on earth. If he had been on earth—which, the author states, he wasn’t—he couldn’t have performed his sacrifice there. Everything in verse 4 speaks to a past understanding.
Let's try to further illustrate all this with an analogy. The writer would no more talk about Christ not being a priest today than we would say,
Ronald Reagan, if he were now on earth, would not be President, because we already have someone filling that office."
While this statement per se makes a certain amount of sense, it makes no sense in any context we bring to it. Nor would there be any evident purpose in saying it. As phrased, it is absurdly obvious, and could have nothing to do with his actual historical presidency, nor serve to cast any light on it. I have suggested that the reason the writer inserted the thought of verse 4 was to give an illustration, lame as it may be, of the idea that both types of priest could not perform their respective sacrifices in the same venue, namely on earth. Verse 3b alludes to the fact that Christ had something to offer in the heavenly sanctuary; verse 4 follows up by specifying the additional point that he couldn’t have performed that offering on earth because the respective offerings cannot take place in the same venue. (This in itself is a Platonic thought, whereas one would be hard put to see it as a conflict within scholarship’s preferred Jewish context, since anticipated eschatological antitypes are often envisioned on earth.)
In the same way as Christ’s sacrifice in Hebrews, Ronald Reagan’s presidency was by definition confined to the past. There is no relevance to note that he would not be President today—especially for the reason given.
But our Reagan analogy is incomplete. Suppose we said:
“Ronald Reagan, who served two presidencies which is all that is presently allowed in the Constitution, could not be a President today, because there is already someone filling that office.”
Here the sufficient and governing reason for him not being a President today is already given in the first part of the statement. The second part offers another reason entirely, ignoring the disqualification inherent in the first part. This is precisely the case in Christ’s situation. He has already served as priest and made his once-for-all sacrifice. Hebrews’ Constitution does not allow for another one. To make the point that he couldn’t be that priest today would be irrelevant and a non-sequitur. (The only way it could make sense is in the past: that at the time when Christ could be a priest—that is, when performing his single sacrifice—he could not be so, or do so, on earth.)
Now, suppose our Reagan analogy were found in the context of a document that portrayed Ronald Reagan as a heavenly President, with no mention of him having been a President on earth, and his heavenly presidency was being compared to the earthly presidency. Reagan’s presidency in heaven was presented as perfect, compared to imperfect earthly presidencies like that of George W. Bush—so perfect that the earthly presidency could now be abolished. Now we have:
“Ronald Reagan, the heavenly President who served once-for-all in the heavenly White House, would not be a President today if he were on earth, because there is already someone serving as President.”
This is virtually gibberish. The speaker is combining two different qualifications which would rule out a Reagan presidency on earth. First, that a present presidency is not possible since Reagan is a heavenly High Priest and his presidency was exercised in the past in heaven. Second, Reagan’s presidential duties could not take place on earth because this would conflict with those of the earthly Presidents. And by virtue of it never being stated that Reagan was a President on earth—(in the case of Christ, it is a de facto denial through placing all of his High Priest duties in heaven)—the condition of Reagan not being a President today would be monumentally meaningless.
But if the comparison is gibberish if placed in the present, why is it not gibberish if placed in the past? Because of the contrafactual nature of the statement. A contrafactual statement always assumes a theoretical factual one in the background, against which it is being set. The factual one in the Hebrews case is that Christ performed his sacrifice not on earth but in heaven, and in the past. And this is not ‘assumed’; it is clear from verse 3. Therefore, if the factual statement is in the past, a contrafactual also in the past makes sense, because we are then being presented with two contrary alternatives within the same time frame. If they were not in the same time frame, the latter would not serve as a contrafactual to the situation in verse 3, that Christ performed his sacrifice in heaven in the past. It would be a non-sequitur.
In a present-tense reading of verse 4, there is no factual statement existing in the background within that present time frame. None has been made, nor implied (unless, as is the habit, it is read into the writer’s mind).19
19 Of course, in our analogy we can bring definite knowledge that Ronald Reagan lived on earth prior to his heavenly presidency. To impose a similar ‘knowledge’ about Christ on the Hebrews heavenly High Priest would be begging the question, especially if done on the basis of the text itself. (It begs the question when it is simply imported from the Gospels.)
Could there be one option left? Could verse 4 entail an understanding that Christ had been on earth in the past, but had simply not been a priest while he was there, since he could not exercise his priesthood in the same venue as the earthly high priests? But such an interpretation cannot be supported on a number of counts. If this were the case, the writer would mean and inevitably have said something like, “While he was on earth, he could not (yet) be our High Priest, because he could not perform his sacrifice there, since there were already priests performing sacrifices.” But note that this idea would remove the contrafactual element from the key first phrase; it would rule out any contrafactual situation. Yet the writer has phrased it contrafactually, which must entail that he is being regarded as not having been on earth.
Moreover, if the author thought that Christ had been on earth and crucified on
Calvary, he too, like modern scholars, would surely have found it impossible not to regard that earthly phase as part of the sacrifice. Indeed, as we shall see, several scholars have foisted that understanding upon him. But if he were to regard Calvaryas part of the sacrifice, then Christ has de facto performed—at least partially—his sacrifice on earth. His priesthood would thus have been in part conducted on earth, in the same venue as the sacrifices of the earthly priests. This would then produce an outright incompatibility with the statement of 8:4.
In the context of an earthly Jesus, the thought of that statement should have been unnecessary. The two sacrifices were different, old and new, imperfect and perfect. There would have been no philosophical reason why the one could not have been taking place in the
while the other was taking place on Temple Calvary—indeed, that is how the Gospels present it, though the setting on the side is Passover, not the Day of Atonement.. Temple
This is really the crux of the matter. If a crucifixion on Calvary had taken place, it is hardly conceivable that this would not have been brought into the picture and made part of Christ’s priesthood—and thus Hebrews’ whole presentation would have been different. One of the roles of the priesthood is to slaughter the animals which provide the blood for the sacrifice. Why would this element be ignored if the slaughter of Christ had taken place on
Calvary, inviting a comparison and parallel between these two ‘priestly’ acts in keeping with all the rest? It would have justified including an earthly scene as part of Christ’s priesthood (instead of the denial that verse 4 openly gives to such a thing).
But then the writer would have been overwhelmed with complications. Wasn’t the blood human and not spiritual? Wasn’t a human act in the material world by definition “imperfect”? Since
Calvarywas a key event in salvation and thus of the New Covenant, wasn’t it taking place at the same time and in the same venue as the old earthly acts of atonement under the Old Covenant? Didn’t the exclusive territories the writer is at pains to delineate in fact overlap? Even if he could have found some way out of these complications and others like them, would he not have had to outline these, or at least show some recognition that he was aware of the conflict? On the other hand, the likelihood is that he would simply have avoided such a conflict by not fashioning his particular christological picture in the first place.
A final point in this regard. It might be claimed that even if he doesn’t outright define the sacrifice as including the suffering and death which preceded the bringing of the blood into the heavenly sanctuary, doesn’t the writer treat it as of some importance, a necessary part of the picture? It is given a significant role in chapter 2, in the “test of suffering” which parallels that of the believers, and in the obedience learned through suffering in chapter 5, and the enduring of the cross in chapter 12. Wouldn’t this show that if pressed, he would have had to include it in the picture of the sacrifice, even if he seems, for whatever reason, to have deliberately avoided doing so in his presentation? Maybe so, but he could do that and still avoid all those complications: if the suffering and death were viewed as not on earth. He could have made them part of the sacrifice and still have everything take place in the heavens, with none of the complications related to a location in the physical realm—complications which he shows no sign of being aware of. In fact, regarding the suffering and death as also taking place in the spiritual world would explain why it could be ignored as part of the sacrifice. For him, scripture’s focus on the death was minor, with the major focus being on the sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary. Whereas a suffering and death in history, on
Calvary, would have attracted much more attention and demanded inclusion in the sacrifice. The writer would not have been able to push it into the background.
EXCURSUS: The Grammar of 8:4
The interpretation of this verse is so crucial, we need to consider it from every possible angle. One of these is the grammatical point of view. Here is the Greek, with translation, of the critical first part of verse 4:
Ei men oun ēn epi gēs
If, therefore, he were/had been [ēn] on earth,
Oud’ an ēn hiereus
he would not be/have been [ēn] a priest.
[The “men” and “an” are particles that elucidate meaning but need not be specifically translated themselves.]
The key words are the two appearances of the verb “ēn”—one in each half of the comparison. It is the imperfect tense. This is what the general grammatical rule says:
In a contrafactual (a condition contrary to fact) situation, the same tense of the indicative is used in both parts of the statement; the imperfect tense denotes present time, while the aorist or pluperfect tense denotes past time. (See, e.g., J. H. Huddilston, Essentials of New Testament Greek, p.208; or E. V. N. Goetchius, The Language of the New Testament, p.274-5.)
If we were to apply this generalized rule, we would be forced to take 8:4 as having a present meaning, since it employs the imperfect tense in both halves. But general rules always permit exceptions, or are seen as not always so cut and dried when one gets beyond the generality. Here is what Paul Ellingworth has to say about this passage in his commentary [p.405]:
“The second difficulty concerns the meaning of the two occurrences of ēn. The imperfect in unreal [contrafactual] conditions is temporally ambiguous (BD §360 ), so that
‘Now if he had been on earth, he would not even have been a priest’ (so Attridge) is grammatically possible. However, it goes against the context, in at least apparently excluding Christ’s present ministry, and it could also be misunderstood as meaning that Jesus had never ‘been on earth.’ Most versions accordingly render: ‘If he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all’ (REB, NJB; similarly RSV, TEV, NIV, Esteve 67, Braun).” NEB
Thus, if the imperfect in contrafactual conditions is indeed “temporally ambiguous,” we cannot appeal to the general grammatical rule to place verse 4 in the present. We can also see that preconception governs scholarly decision-making, in that a past sense is being ruled out, even though “grammatically possible,” because it contravenes orthodox, Gospel-based assumptions.20
20 In referring to “Christ’s present ministry (8:2)” as part of “the context,” Ellingworth seems to be understanding “present ministry” as referring to intercessory duties, since the latter is the only thing that could still be going on in the present. Yet a “present” ministry can only be one being conducted in heaven, which seems to be immaterial to the objection Ellingworth is raising. Perhaps he has simply misleadingly phrased his thought.
Ellingworth has declared the “ēn” to be temporally ambiguous, and he appeals to A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, by F. Blass and A. Debrunner (as translated into English by Robert W. Funk in 1961). This is a detailed reference grammar which goes beyond standard grammatical rules and demonstrates that the latter enjoy anything but rigid application. In fact, we can see two other examples of “the imperfect in unreal conditions (being) temporally ambiguous” right in the text of Hebrews itself, both using an almost identical construction with the imperfect “ēn”. More than that, these passages are actually understood to be referring to the past, and there is nothing ambiguous about it. The first is :
Ei men oun teleiōsis dia tēs Levitikēs hierōsunēs ēn,
If -- therefore perfection through the Levitical priesthood were
[i.e., were possible, or had been attainable],
tis eti xreia kata tēn taxin Melxisedek
why (was there: the second “ēn” is understood) still a need,
according to the order of Melchizedek,
heteron anistasthai, kai ou kata tēn taxin Aaron legesthai?
to speak of another priest arising, and not according to the order of Aaron?
The failure to achieve perfection under the old system of earthly priests is a past condition, even if continuing into the present. And since the writer in the second half of the sentence is referring to the word of God in scripture (his quote of Psalm 110:4, which he interprets as God indicating that another priesthood will arise), this too is a past condition. Thus, this passage, though using the imperfect tense ēn, is universally understood in a past sense and translated that way. The same situation exists in 8:7:
Ei gar hē prōtē ekeinē ēn amemptos,
For if that first (covenant) was/had been faultless,
Ouk an deuteras edzēteito topos.
There would have been no occasion for a second one.
Once again, the imperfect tense ēn is understood and translated as referring to the past. There is no impediment to doing the same with 8:4, especially since the context has been shown to require a past sense in regard to Christ’s sacrifice. Thus, the
is the only correct translation: “Now if he had been on earth, he would not even have been a priest.” NEB
When Did Christ Become High Priest?
Attridge illuminates the issues involved here when he addresses [p.146-7] the “problem connected with the perennial conundrum of when Christ became High Priest.” He observes that the two Psalm verses (2:7 and 110:4) suggest Jesus’ sonship proceeds from his exaltation (by which he means the resurrection to heaven after his death on
Calvary). Furthermore, certain references to Jesus becoming High Priest (as in 5:9-10 and -16) seem to be positioned in a similar way: following his exaltation to heaven after suffering and death. This is a recognition on Attridge’s part that the author confines Christ’s high priesthood to the period after his death; he defines it as something existing only in heaven. Christ was not High Priest before his exaltation to the heavenly sanctuary.
This is indeed perceptive, and certainly the text often (I would say, exclusively) conveys that very thing. And yet for Attridge—and scholarship in general—this is a problem, a “perennial conundrum.” Attridge is clearly concerned that the suffering and death on earth should have been included in the sacrifice. And so he says:
“At the same time, other passages closely associate Christ’s priesthood
with his earthly career….”
He does not identify these passages, and I would dispute that there are any. Instead, he offers this “must have been” argument:
“…His priestly action, consummated in the ‘heavenly sanctuary’ (), begins with and, of necessity, includes his death. Hence it is unlikely that, in the conception of this text, Christ became High Priest only upon his exaltation.”
Attridge is allowing his legitimate observations on the text to be overridden by his concept of “necessity” based on his Gospel preconceptions. Christ’s “priestly action” must “include his death,” because this simply makes sense—in the context of Jesus’ historicity. He is also highlighting the fact that it ought to have made sense to the writer as well. He, too, should have included the death on
Calvaryas part of the sacrifice. And so Attridge forces it upon him, even without support in the text. I can only assume that his “other passages (which) closely associate Christ’s priesthood with his earthly career” are those referring to the death or the cross, and that Attridge, assuming them historical, has judged them as associated with the priesthood because they ought to be, and thus are.
Still, Attridge acknowledges that there are “tensions” here, and tries to resolve them in a couple of ways. One is that they may be the result of different traditions or the effect of traditional imagery which is not fully compatible with the concept of the priesthood (the one which Attridge has forced upon him). The traditional Day of Atonement sacrifice, he suggests, could have impelled an imagery of Christ’s intercessory priesthood as beginning only with the exaltation, whereas the Hebrews framework would have shifted “the focus of his priestly activity…to his sacrificial death”—this being a “shift” which Attridge has also imposed on the writer. Again Attridge employs the “not interested” explanation for the writer’s failure to resolve the alleged conundrums involved:
“It is at once clear that our author is not concerned to provide a systematic reconciliation of differing presuppositions and implications of the High-Priest title.”
Then he presumes to reveal just how the writer would think in regard to this apparent conundrum and how resolve it:
“If he did take seriously the notion that Christ became High Priest at some particular point, it would have to be the complex ‘moment’ in which death and exaltation are combined.”
So now Attridge has invented a “moment” which the author conceives of as combining both death and exaltation, both heaven and earth, a ‘moment’ containing within itself a priesthood that can encompass both, because Attridge has decided that the priesthood must encompass both and therefore the writer had to have a concept in which they could be so combined—all this, once again, without any actual support from the text. “Complex” it certainly is. He puts “moment” in quotation marks to designate it as an ‘as it were’ idea; in other words, it is too woolly to actually have a concrete meaning which would assist us in understanding just how the two different acts, one on earth the other in heaven, could be combined (although he does have a further solution he will appeal to later). The modern theological sophistry of it all is quite breathtaking.
(This is what mythicist scholarship at so many turns must face, not only explaining its own case but revealing how traditional scholarship—so long trusted to have something reasonable and substantive to say in support of its alleged derivation of historicism from the epistolary texts—is guilty of fallacy, special pleading, and simply “reading into” those texts what it wants to see there.)
To sum up, the only way we can make sense of verse 4 is to allow that Jesus never was on earth. That way, even if the thought is somewhat trivial, it nevertheless serves some logical purpose. The writer made it because he wanted to enlarge on verse 3, on the concept that their heavenly High Priest officiated in the heavenly sanctuary and had his own sacrifice to perform there which constituted a different kind of sacrifice than those of the earthly high priests; that they both operated in their own territories, one being imperfect and material, the other perfect and spiritual. While this should have been clear enough, he chose to emphasize the point about the separateness of the two venues by saying that the two were exclusive to their own locations and could not overlap: ‘If he had been on earth, he couldn’t have performed his sacrifice there, he would have had nothing to do, because there are already priests performing sacrifices belonging to that sphere.’ The thought is an acknowledgment that, according to his cosmological philosophy, the divine sacrifice could not be enacted in the imperfect realm, in contiguity with imperfect sacrifices. Each had its own required setting. Therefore, he is saying that Jesus’ saving act did not take place on earth. If Jesus had been sacrificed and produced his blood on
Calvary, that dividing line and necessary condition of exclusive demarcation would have been shattered, and his whole treatise would have been foiled.
R. McL. Wilson also addresses the question of when Jesus became High Priest [p.125-6]. declares that Christ has become a High Priest, not on the basis of a law of physical requirement, but on the basis of an indestructible life. But there is an inherent contradiction here. If Christ became High Priest on
Calvary, then that was the precise moment when his life was not indestructible. quotes Westcott’s Commentary, that Wilson
“The life of Christ…was essentially ‘indissoluble.’ Although the form of its manifestation was changed and in the earthly sense he died, yet his life endured unchanged and even through earthly dissolution.”
But there is no hint in the text that the author even thinks along these lines, or that Christ died “in the earthly sense.” Westcott, too, has performed the traditional reading of the Gospels into the epistle. And how “his life endured unchanged even through earthly dissolution” Westcott does not explain, nor how it could be that the writer would not perceive or wish to address the anomaly here which modern theological minds are capable of ignoring. In any case,
asks from what point do we take the “indestructible life” of Jesus? Wilson
“The issue here is whether we are to regard this life as possessed by Jesus from the beginning, in which case his death upon the cross becomes a problem, or whether we should not think rather of his risen and exalted life.”
chooses the latter option since it gets around the “problem” of the death on the cross. But that “indestructible life” starts neither at the beginning of his earthly existence nor after the resurrection. Christ has an indestructible life because scripture says so; it has nothing to do with his actual death—whether on earth or in the heavens. Psalm 110:4 says, “thou art a priest forever.” It is from this that the author has deduced an indestructible life. Or at least, this is the only ‘proof’ he draws on.21 Wilson
21 Of course, the writer still faces a contradiction, in that Christ in the lower heavens did undergo death. But he seems to have ignored this complication in favor of taking scripture at its literal word. He apparently did not feel the same qualms about a death contradicting his characterization of Christ as have Wilson and Westcott, perhaps because everything took place in a spiritual setting and did not impact his sensibilities as much as would an historical crucifixion in living memory.
notes that Wilson
“The problem ties in with the question of when Jesus is to be thought of as becoming ‘priest after the order of Melchizedek,’ at the beginning of his life or at the resurrection.”
But the writer specifies neither. If he conveys any specific understanding of this question, he sees Christ becoming High Priest at the point when he entered heaven and performed his priestly duties in the heavenly sanctuary. That is when he became High Priest in the order of Melchizedek, himself by now a heavenly figure.
has introduced non-existent options, and it is not surprising that he perceives a problem. He goes so far as to suggest that Wilson
“It may be that this is another point which the author has not completely thought through.”
Not only does scholarship place words and ideas in the author’s mouth which he never speaks, he is now blamed for the confusion caused by those inserted words and ideas. However,
graciously accepts some of the fault: Wilson
“This may be another case of problems arising from our desire for answers to questions that simply had not occurred to the mind of the author.”
Indeed they did not. And it is astonishing how such problem questions disappear when the imposition of scholarship’s own desire to rescue an historical Jesus and historical Gospels is removed, and the author of Hebrews is allowed to speak with his own voice.
-- ix –
A Sacrifice in Heaven
Earthly and Heavenly Tabernacles
The Platonic element in Hebrews shines out in chapters 8 and 9. Even Moses had to conform to Platonic-Semitic principles when he was directed to set up the first tabernacle in Sinai: “See that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain” (8:5), a pattern that existed in heaven. That heavenly prototype, while it pre-existed the earthly copy and served to provide the latter’s model, was destined for actual use only subsequent to its copy, by Jesus himself, in the replacement of the Old Covenant with the New. The writer appeals to Jeremiah 31:31-34 as the promise of a New Covenant: “Days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel,” apparently without wondering why there is no hint of a Son in this passage, let alone a sacrificial Son, or why God was yet to wait five more centuries before bringing those “days” to pass. (About that delay, we don’t know what Jeremiah himself would have thought.)
Chapter 9:1-10 describes the traditional earthly tabernacle and the activities of the earthly priests. Against this is set (-14) Christ’s service as High Priest.
11 But when Christ appeared as high priest of the good things that have come
[alt., that are to come],
then through the greater and more perfect tent/tabernacle,
not made with hands, that is, not of this creation,
12 he entered once for all into the
taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood,
thus securing an eternal redemption.
We have no reason not to take this as intended to be an actual heavenly scene. There is no implication in such graphic language that the author is presenting it as a mere symbol of the
Calvaryevent, and he makes a point of specifying the tabernacle as “not of this creation.” He will say even more directly in : “For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.” (As our examination of the latter’s context will later show, this is a reference to the sacrifice itself, not to a post-Calvary ascension scene or intercessory activities.)
But here in the early part of Chapter 9, with Christ’s entry into the heavenly sanctuary to perform his sacrifice, is where we encounter some resolute resistance on the part of modern scholarship. The key question in the entire epistle is: What does this heavenly scene constitute? How literally is the writer envisioning it? What does it mean to say that Christ “offered his own blood” in the heavenly sanctuary? Does he mean what he says, or is it perhaps an imaginative and elaborate metaphor for something that actually took place on earth?
opines [emphasis mine]: Wilson
“As to the nature of Christ’s offering, the author will speak in the next chapter of his entering the heavenly sanctuary ‘taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood’ (). This must refer to his sacrificial death…” [p.134]
Yet in view of the specific parallel set up by the writer, which portrays in literal fashion the entry of the earthly high priests into the earthly tabernacle bearing the blood of sacrificed animals to be smeared on the altar to gain forgiveness for the people’s sins, it would be difficult to maintain that the carefully crafted portrayal of Christ’s parallel actions with his own blood in the spiritual realm of heaven was not also to be taken in literal fashion, especially when the author provides no explanation otherwise, no caution that he is in fact referring to an earthly event or an earthly “sacrificial death.” But this is something which causes great misgivings among commentators, for it has disturbing implications not only for Hebrews itself but for the entire picture of early Christianity. (Harold Attridge also declines to take the writer at his word, and we shall examine his view in the next Supplement.)
EXCURSUS: How Platonic is the Writer’s Platonism?
As part of the debate over the meaning of the author’s presentation of his heavenly scene, the question of his Platonism arises, and we find once again that, in the interests of that debate, such Platonism tends to be downplayed, if not dismissed. One oft-quoted study on the question is by Ronald Williamson, Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews (1970). We can certainly acquiesce in Williamson’s contention that Hebrews’ thought is not modeled on Philo, with his particular brand of Middle Platonism centered on the allegorical interpretation of scripture—although this in itself undermines scholarship’s attempt to impute to Hebrews a metaphorical intention for its heavenly scene. (Metaphor and allegory may not be precisely the same, but they do share common family traits.) We need see no dependence, direct or indirect, on Philo himself to preserve a degree of Platonism in Hebrews.
And what is that degree? This question is essentially Williamson’s focus. In the pertinent section of his book [p.557-570], he begins with an admission: “At first sight, 8:5 seems to consist of pure Platonism.” Here is that verse:
…(the earthly priests) serve in (a sanctuary which is) a copy and shadow of what is in heaven, just as Moses, when about to erect the tabernacle, was told: “See that you make everything according to the pattern shown to you on the mountain.”
But is this, asks Williamson, dependent on classic Platonism—the concept of Forms and Ideas existing in heaven which serve as models for earthly counterparts—or does it have a more Jewish-oriented genesis?
First, Williamson maintains that “there is no general application in Hebrews of Plato’s Idealistic Theory” [p.565], the concept that all things on earth have models in heaven. He quotes J. C. Adams, who points out that “the author’s so-called Idealism is in the Epistle confined to the
,” which is to say the comparison of the heavenly and earthly sanctuaries. This may in fact be true, since that is the only subject the author is addressing in such a context. But this does not rule out a broader Platonism in the writer’s mind, the possibility that he “thought that every created thing has its ‘heavenly’ counterpart” ( Temple Adams). Indeed, the latter is something which Williamson admits may be lurking: “The only other places in the Epistle where it is possible to suspect traces of Platonic Idealism are 10:1 and 11:1,3.” (We’ll have a look at the former verse later). But even were we to allow Williamson his point, this is not what is critical to the issue. The question is, does the author have a Platonic understanding in regard to his central comparison between the earthly and heavenly sanctuaries? It might be that he has made a selective application of Platonic ideas, but it is the only one that matters. If he was not a thorough-going Platonist in all things (as Philo was), he could still have been influenced by Platonism in conceiving his central scenario of Christ’s sacrifice in heaven. And if so, this would argue for a scenario which is not metaphor, not representative of something on earth, but literally envisioned as taking place in the heavenly realm.
Second, as a means of watering down any Platonic meaning in Hebrews’ comparison, Williamson (as have others) argues for a non-Greek derivation of the idea.
“Before both Philo and the writer of Hebrews the distinction between an earthly tabernacle and the heavenly Temple had become common currency and must have been known to both writers….Sowers [The Hermeneutics of Philo and Hebrews, p.105] commenting on the ‘general oriental idea that every earthly sanctuary is a copy of a heavenly sanctuary’ (cf. Montefiore [p.135], who refers to the presence of this idea in the Code of Hammurabi 2.31), says that ‘Wisdom of Solomon 9.8 states that this prototype of the earthly tabernacle was created “from the beginning”.’ The implication is that it was a ‘heavenly’ model from which the earthly temple was copied.” [p.563]
Yet there is an important distinction not being taken into account here. It is one thing for something as holy as a sanctuary to require a “model” in heaven; we can see the things of God on earth prompting the idea that they have been built at heaven’s direction (as in the Mosaic sanctuary of 8:5). This need owe nothing to Platonism. But it is another matter to have things actually go on in that heavenly model, and to have those activities themselves be part of the higher-lower / perfect-imperfect comparison. This goes beyond ‘oriental’ precedents, and in fact carries Platonism to a high degree. Of course, if any activity ostensibly set in that heavenly sanctuary could be interpreted as only a metaphor for something happening on earth, then the basic Jewish-oriental character of the compared sanctuaries could be claimed to be preserved.
Further appeal to Jewish precedent is made (again, not only by Williamson) in maintaining that the relationship between the earthly and heavenly sanctuaries and what goes on in them is
“a typological, eschatological, then and now, relationship between the Jewish animal sacrifices and the Sacrifice of Himself once offered by Christ, but there is nothing of Platonism in that.” [p.566]
This, of course, introduces the assumption that the “Sacrifice of Himself” actually took place on earth in recent history. We may also question two of Williamson’s terms here. Being “typological” per se is not restricted to Jewish linearity, but could also fit the Platonic heavenly “archetype” vs. earthly “antitype” relationship. As for “eschatological,” this implies not only an earthly venue for Christ’s sacrifice, it associates that sacrifice with the anticipated End-time which the writer believes the world is approaching. Whereas, as we have seen and shall further see, it is by no means clear that he locates the sacrifice in the present time. Certainly the event itself is consistently cast in language of an unspecified past.22
22 Williamson admits that
“denies that what the writer of Hebrews says about the ‘true’ tabernacle or tent is ‘the language of Jewish apocalyptic’ (a judgment which
Adamsfeels is implied by Barrett’s comments on the subject), and suggests, against Barrett, that the ‘doctrine of the is not in (Hebrews) worked into its eschatology’.” Heavenly Temple
I would agree, again because the event of Christ’s sacrifice is something fully accomplished, a done deal which in itself prepares the way for present and eschatological developments. (Nor is it linked with a recent historical crucifixion on earth—except in the assumptions of scholarship.) Association with Jewish concepts continues to be compromised, and the door remains open for Platonic understandings.
The Old Versus the New Covenant
Scholarship has expressed its reluctance, but so far has not provided concrete justification for regarding the heavenly scene of Christ’s sacrifice in chapters 8 and 9 as anything other than something conceived as a literal event in the spiritual realm, one derived from scripture. This is the event through which Christ has achieved atonement for sin on humanity’s behalf and established a New Covenant. We saw in -12 how the author presented in graphic terms the entry of Christ into the heavenly sanctuary bearing his own blood. Verse 13-14 tells us what he did with it there, through the comparison with the sacrifices of the Old Covenant:
13 For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls
and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh,
14 how much more shall the blood of Christ,
who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God
purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
The “blood of Christ” has been set in parallel with the Old Covenant’s sprinkling of the blood of animals, and thus the phrase logically refers to an equivalent action by Christ in the heavenly sanctuary—as bizarre as that may strike us today. Both types of sacrifice are for “purification” in an atonement sense, but the author regards that of the New Covenant, the sacrifice of the Son instead of animals, as effective for salvation in a way that the Old could never be.
In , Christ is defined as “mediator of a new covenant,” and parallels are made with the establishment of the old one. The writer styles both covenants as a “testament” (in the sense of a “will”) and in order for a will to take effect, the death of the one making it must take place and be confirmed. Under Moses, the death was of goats and calves, with the blood of these being sprinkled on the altar, the vessels, the holy book, and the people themselves. To this, Christ’s own death and the bearing of his blood into the sanctuary are in parallel. But another parallel is notably missing, particularly if the portrayal of Christ’s sacrifice is meant to represent his actions on earth. The author has noted that Moses, in sprinkling the animal blood, spoke the words recorded in scripture: “This is the blood of the covenant which God has enjoined upon you.” But where is the natural and compelling parallel with the words of Christ spoken at the Last Supper: Jesus offering the bread and wine and identifying them with his body and blood as a symbol of the New Covenant? The author would hardly have passed this up had he known of any such tradition. Even if he knew no Gospel (and he certainly did not), any claim that Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 represent a circulating tradition about the Last Supper would have to indicate that there should have been no reason for the Hebrews community not to be familiar with it. Furthermore, the confirmation that Jesus had in fact undergone death (the prerequisite for the will to take effect) is nowhere indicated by an historical appeal, but apparently by the scripture-based assumption of his sacrificial blood being offered in the heavenly sanctuary.23
23 In addressing this glaring silence on the establishment of the Eucharist and its new-covenant words, scholarship is clearly in denial. Héring [p.80] and Buchanan [p.152] both make the bizarre suggestion that since the author has changed one of the words in the Moses quote in a way which agrees with a word in the Last Supper tradition, this could indicate a knowledge of the latter. Montefiore simply says [p.158] that the author “is not concerned in this epistle with the Christian Eucharist.” Attridge [p.258] too observes, once again, that the author is not interested: “(he) does not proceed to find any typological significance in Moses’ words in relation to an ongoing Christian cult.” Not a single scholar I have encountered addresses head-on the implications of the author’s failure to draw a comparison with the Last Supper words ‘recorded’ in the Gospels. (The same is true of Christopher Price, who ignores that failure completely.)
A Bloodless Sacrifice?
In approaching the nature of Christ’s sacrifice in heaven, Harold Attridge, like R. McL. Wilson, closes the door on allowing the writer to be meaning what he is saying. When the latter writes that Christ entered the heavenly tabernacle with his own blood, Attridge declares that
“the image should not be pressed here, or through the rest of the chapter, to mean that Christ actually brought his blood into heaven. That ‘blood’ is being used in a metaphorical way is clear, but the precise metaphorical significance is not immediately apparent…” [p.248]
So it is “clear” that the writer does not mean what he says, but at the same time it is not clear as to whatever it is he is saying instead actually means. Attridge offers for the ‘meaning’ of metaphorical blood: “the life that Christ offers eternally in heaven, or more likely, the sacrificial death that precedes that entry.” Likely, because Attridge must once again forcibly make room for the historical event he cannot accept is missing. It is ironic that on the one hand (as Christopher Price argues), many scholars are at pains to make the point that the author of Hebrews is no Philo seeing allegory in every Old Testament prototype, but rather handles everything literally; and yet when that literalness becomes troublesome, he is suddenly very metaphorical.
In -22, Attridge interprets the author’s discussion about the “testament” and the comparisons between the establishment of the old and new covenants in such a way as to place Christ’s death at center stage. First, the opening verses do indeed focus on the death (I will use Attridge’s translation [p.253]):
15 And therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that once a death
took place for the redemption of transgressions under the first covenant,
those who have been called might receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.
16 For where there is a testament, it is necessary for the death of the testator
to be registered.
17 For a testament is valid only for the dead, since it is not yet in force
while the testator lives.
18 Wherefore, not even the first covenant was inaugurated apart from blood.
The sequence of thought in verses 15 to 18 is a bit erratic, even inconsistent.
notes: “The train of the argument is rather difficult to follow, since the author seems to combine two different sets of ideas” [p.157]. He suggests that it might have been better had the writer left out verses 16 and 17 altogether, since it is obscure why the idea contained in them should be significant or why Jesus should be styled the “testator.” Be that as it may, the overarching thought of verse 15 followed by 18 is, as Wilson puts it, “the first covenant was inaugurated with blood, and so must the second be” [p.158]. Perhaps the specific reference to “death” in verse 15 has been prompted by the parallel with the Mosaic covenant, in that the “death” of animals was a necessary prerequisite in order to obtain the blood of sacrifice; but it is Moses’ usage of that blood, the sprinkling of it (verses 19 to 21), which has established the Old Covenant and achieved the forgiveness of sin (verse 22), not the death of the animal. Wilson
Similarly, it is the usage of the blood of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary that procures forgiveness. He is the “mediator of the new covenant,” believers “receive the promise of eternal inheritance,” through the usage of that blood, not through his death per se. That was clear even in what preceded:
12 (Christ entered the perfect tabernacle) not with the blood of goats and calves,
but with his own blood, once for all into the sanctuary,
obtaining an eternal redemption.
The redemption is obtained not by a prior death, but by the act of entry into the sanctuary and the usage of the blood proceeding from that death. This is borne out grammatically. All translations I am aware of take the aorist participle translated by “obtaining” as an action simultaneous with the entry into the heavenly tabernacle, as in the RSV quoted by
: “thus securing an eternal redemption”: there is no implication that the redemption has been achieved at some previous point, such as on Wilson Calvary. The entry into the sanctuary is the point at which the New Covenant is established, not at the point of death. Attridge is being somewhat misleading when he says, “Thus a necessary condition for the establishment of the new covenant is the sort of atoning death that Christ experienced.” This would be true only in an incidental manner. Christ’s death was merely a necessary first step, just as the slaughter of the sacrificial animal in the outer was a necessary first step for the earthly high priest’s act of sacrifice itself. In both cases it is the offering of the sacrificial blood in the sanctuary which obtains forgiveness and establishes the covenant. Temple
The same sort of qualification needs to be applied to the idea of a “death” in the next two verses. For a will to come into effect, the death of the testator must first take place as a necessary prerequisite. But the death is not the ‘act’ by which the beneficiaries receive their benefits; the testator does not undergo death in order to promulgate the will. It is the act of drawing up the will before death, and then its application after the death has taken place which brings the will into effect. We can apply this process to the Hebrews’ scenario. Preceding the death are the promises; after the death those promises, made possible by the prerequisite death, are applied through God conferring the benefits once he has received the offering of Christ’s blood in the heavenly sanctuary.
As noted above, the writer gets back on track with verse 18, signifying that both covenants have been inaugurated with blood:
18 Wherefore, not even the first covenant was inaugurated apart from
[i.e., without] blood.
Does this imply that the parallel is to the blood as shed on
Calvary, the blood of the death act itself? No, for the writer goes on to describe the usage made of the blood in the inauguration of the old covenant by Moses:
19 (Moses) took the blood of the calves, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop,
and sprinkled the book itself and the whole people,
20 saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God made with you.”
21 And, similarly, he sprinkled the tabernacle and all the implements
of the service with the blood.
22 Indeed, almost everything is cleansed with blood according to the Law,
and apart from the effusion of blood there is no remission.
The author is making a direct parallel to the inauguration of the new covenant. Consequently, his focus in the latter must be on the use to which Christ’s blood in the heavenly sanctuary has been put, not on the ‘shedding’ taking place at the death, whether on earth or in the lower heavens.
Attridge, in analyzing these verses, finds himself pulled in this very direction, one opposite to his desired focus on
Calvary. He points out [p.257] that from verse 18 on, “there is no reference to the covenant maker’s death, but only to the shedding of blood. Without that substance, the first covenant was not ‘inaugurated.’ ” He is right. The death is not referred to because that first inauguration occurred at the sprinkling of the slaughtered animal’s blood, not at its bloodletting, and so the new inauguration is placed at the similar point of Christ’s sprinkling of his blood in the heavenly sanctuary. In examining Moses’ words in verse 20, Attridge further observes: “What Moses said on the occasion (Exod 24:8) establishes the close association between the purifying sacrificial blood and the covenant.” Right again, for the ‘purification’ took place at the point of the blood’s application, leading us to a purification by Christ at the same point. Finally, he acknowledges that verse 22’s “haimatekxusias” (bloodshedding) refers to “any of the various sprinklings or pourings of blood to which allusion has been made,” which would rule out a reference to Christ’s shedding of blood on the cross. All of these observations serve only to confirm a divorcing of the writer’s thought from any previous act on Calvary—or even in the lower heavens. There is no scope for Attridge’s single “moment,” complex or otherwise.
Since all of the parallels drawn by the author between the biblical prototype and Christ’s heavenly act are nowhere suggested to involve metaphor, the “blood” used by Christ in the heavenly sanctuary as an offering to God should not be regarded as anything but literal—in, of course, a spiritual context. This is the literal spiritual blood of the god Christ. (Just as Christ’s “spiritual body,” to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:44f, is a literal body, only made of “heavenly stuff.”) To our sensibilities, since we no longer hold Platonic views of the universe or regard blood sacrifice as anything but primitive, Hebrews’ presentation of Christ’s heavenly sacrifice is more than faintly mawkish and repugnant. Rightly sensitive scholars like Attridge must turn it all into metaphor to make it palatable to modern audiences, as well as to themselves.
EXCURSUS: Taking the Measure of Metaphor
If Hebrews is operating on a principle of Jewish linearity, can one defend that linearity if it has been conceived in terms of past prototype and future metaphor? The author spends two chapters setting up a biblical prototype with actual sacrificial victims and their actual blood, blood smeared by the high priests on the altar of the earthly Holy of Holies; then matches it with a more perfect sacrifice in a “real and more perfect sanctuary” in heaven which Christ enters with—a metaphor? Verse 22 has said that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (of sins). Would an application of metaphorical blood be an effective alternative? (Again, it must be the application of the blood, and not the bloodletting, for such is the basis of the parallel being presented between the two covenants.) But if such a metaphor were to have a serious deficiency in the portrayal of historical linearity, would the author have even been led to use it?
The same sort of problem exists in regard to the next verse:
23 It was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with
these sacrifices [referring to the Mosaic tabernacle and sprinkling of blood],
but the heavenly things themselves (must be purified) with better sacrifices.
The latter, as
points out, means the singular sacrifice of Jesus. But this, too, to conform to the parallel on earth and all that the writer has said thus far, must refer to the application of Jesus’ own blood in the heavenly sanctuary. Could the heavenly things be purified with metaphorical blood? He says that the earthly copies of heavenly things are “purified” with the literal blood of the animal sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves, in the spiritual sanctuary, require the blood of “better sacrifices.” Is a metaphor better than the real thing? Wilson
Attridge would say that the entire heavenly metaphor is simply a reference to Jesus’ literal blood shed on
Calvary. But then what would be meant by saying that the “heavenly things” are purified by such a sacrifice? In what manner are things in heaven “purified” by blood shed on earth, and why would the author present such an odd idea without explanation? grapples with a problem associated with this: the question of why “the heavenly things required to be purified with heavenly sacrifices” [p.164]. (The author never explains why things in heaven require purification, although one suspects it is simply a concept determined by his whole exercise in parallelism.) Attridge voices the same concern, for if there is no real blood brought to heaven, the “real things in heaven” can hardly be purified by it. Both Wilson and Attridge come up with the same solution: the reference to the heavenly things themselves is also metaphorical. Wilson says: Wilson
“We may recall verse 14 above, which speaks of the blood of Christ purifying the conscience. It is the consciences of men and women that require to be cleansed and purified.”
This may well be the case, but those consciences can still be deemed to be purified by the sacrifice of Christ’s blood in the heavenly sanctuary. In fact, the idea is really an extension of the general concept that Christ’s sacrifice in heaven has now atoned for sin. This is the very meaning of the New Covenant. Atonement brings purification of the conscience, part of the redemptive nature of the salvation achieved for humanity by the Son. However, Wilson’s observation in no way makes it likely, much less a logical conclusion, that the two ideas, of consciences being purified and of heavenly things being purified, are one and the same, that the term “heavenly things” refers to those human consciences and is thus a metaphor for them. reads,
…how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
The sacrifice of the blood of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary, which serves to purify the heavenly things, also brings about atonement and purification of the believer’s conscience. The latter idea does not rule out the former, or its literal meaning. The two are distinct ideas, two different effects of Christ’s sacrifice of his blood in heaven.
Attridge has come up with a similar allegorical meaning for the heavenly things that need cleansing. They can be the “consciences” of the believers, or the “interiority” of the covenant as promised by Jeremiah [p.260]. In the face of “the difficulties that the notion raises,” he notes that some scholars see the sacrificial blood, itself metaphorical, as
“a means of renewal or inauguration of the new ‘heavenly’ reality of the covenant, rather than as a purification of the heavenly archetypes of the earthly tabernacle,” or as “symbolic of eschatological events or institutions.”
While he has some misgivings about these and other scholarly suggestions, he does agree that “the mythical image of the heavenly sanctuary by this point is obviously being used in a metaphorical or symbolic way.” In other words, the heavenly sanctuary itself has become a metaphor—an astonishingly sophisticated one—for the new reality within the believer, and the author of Hebrews does not envision an actual, real sanctuary in heaven “pitched by the Lord and not by man.” He could have fooled me, and a lot of others. According to Attridge, then, the sanctuary where the earthly priests minister which is “only a copy and shadow of the heavenly” (8:5), means that the earthly tabernacle on which they smear sacrificed animal blood is a “copy and shadow” of those human consciences on earth and the “interiority” of the new covenant. I’m not sure that even a 21st century theologian could get his mind easily around that. Pity the poor first century reader.
Attridge assures us that the heavenly sanctuary is
“some aspect of the lived experience of the author and his community….As the reflection on spirit and conscience in suggests, the heavenly or ideal realities cleansed by Christ’s sacrifice are none other than the consciences of the members of the new covenant, the ‘inheritors of eternal salvation.’ While our author uses imagery of a heavenly temple with roots in Jewish apocalyptic traditions, he does not develop that imagery in a crudely literalistic way.” [p.262]
And yet, the author has presented that supposed hidden meaning by means of words and images which, on their deceptive surface, are precisely crude and literal. If allegory was to be applied to his own text in a manner worthy of Philo—who always, by the way, explained what he was doing (‘this is not meant literally but is a symbol of…’)—what does this say about the modern claim that the writer of Hebrews was in no way an allegorist like the philosopher of Alexandria? In fact, Attridge, who apparently declines to subscribe to such a view, goes on to set up a direct equation with Philo:
“In Hebrews, as in Platonically inspired Jews such as Philo, language of cosmic transcendence is ultimately a way of speaking about human interiority. What is ontologically ideal and most real is the realm of the human spirit. Our author thus recognizes, as do contemporary Jews of various persuasions, that true cultic cleansing is a matter of the heart and mind. He presents that insight through the vehicle of a metaphysical interpretation of a traditional apocalyptic image.”
It doesn’t get much more “allegorical” than that.
Finally, there is one thing Attridge is overlooking, one remarkable step he has added to the Philonic process he attributes it to the writer of Hebrews (or perhaps more than one, if we could just sort them out). Philo did not himself create the writings on which he imposes and explains allegory; the latter is scripture itself. With Hebrews, the writer has, so Attridge alleges, taken a traditional apocalyptic image—perhaps something to do with the heavenly Jerusalem (an imperfect fit in itself), though this is not clear and Attridge does not volunteer to spell out the supposed image—and created out of it a graphic scene in heaven which contains key additional elements not part of any traditional apocalyptic imagery. Within that creation, the writer has designed a metaphorical translation of an earthly event (
Calvary) without actually explaining that he is doing so. On top of all that, the writer has introduced a non-metaphorical earthly dimension, the cultic sacrifice of animals, and presented it as a prefiguration, an inferior “copy and shadow” of his superior heavenly sacrifice which is not intended as heavenly at all but rather allegorically represents in one direction an historical event and in another direction a human ‘interior’ reality. All of this would make anyone’s head spin, in any century, and is far from a simple parallel to “Platonically inspired Jews such as Philo” who openly interpreted the traditional Jewish scriptures in allegorical fashion.
In the hands of scholars like Harold W. Attridge and R. McL. Wilson, the author of Hebrews has become a master of metaphor. But why introduce a metaphor in heaven at all if it could simply be said that the sacrifice on
Calvaryand the shedding of Jesus’ blood there gained atonement for sin and purified the believers? What purpose was served by transporting it all to a non-existent heavenly sanctuary? If comparison with the sacrifices of the Old Covenant to indicate superiority and replacement were the objective, why not directly compare those real animal sacrifices with the real human sacrifice in the historical death on Calvary? If the final feature of offering the animal’s blood in the sanctuary demanded to be given a parallel in Christ, let it be stated that Calvary, or the cross itself, was the new altar on which Christ’s sacrificed blood was laid as an offering to God. This would have been a far more effective metaphor than transferring the whole thing to heaven where the metaphor has no actual reality and makes the parallel no parallel at all, for then we find the author comparing a real thing to an unreal thing. Why create out of scripture this elaborate unreal thing to represent what could instead be presented in its actual reality of the historical death on Calvary—especially an elaborate unreal thing that fully sounds as though the author means it literally? I have suggested that any reader would become confused by the careful and graphic parallelism of his heavenly-earthly comparison—a confusion guaranteed when intended metaphor is not even intimated. The author of Hebrews is indeed a careful and meticulous writer. He has an intelligent command of ideas and language, something scholars regularly point out. He seeks to explain everything. And yet he provides no explanation whatever, not a hint, of the supposed metaphorical nature of his core presentation.
All of this illustrates what modern scholarship can do to a text, to spin it any direction it wishes, to dismiss and eliminate any objectionable (to us) meaning or import and maintain an ever-evolving orthodoxy which is equally adept at pulling the same artfulness on itself. The ready imposition of all this subtle sophistry on the hapless author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who gives no indication that he is speaking anything but in a straightforward literal fashion, or that he would even understand all the obfuscation being heaped upon him, is a measure of the difficulty faced today in overcoming traditional scholarship’s privileged monopoly on the interpretation of early Christian writings and establishing in its place something more objective and less in thrall to two millennia of orthodox and confessional interests.
But now we come to a critical passage, -26:
24 For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one
but (entered) into heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.
25 Not that he would offer himself there [referring to 24b] again and again,
as the high priest enters year after year into the sanctuary with blood not his own;
26a for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly from the foundation of the world.
This entry into heaven (v.24) is the focal point of the author’s picture of salvation effected by Christ, not the death and not
Calvary. Attridge, as we shall see, attempts to neuter this completely. What that “entry” comprises is clear from verse 25: it is the sacrificial offering of himself, namely of his blood. Verse 26a points to the necessary prelude to that offering, the death that would produce the blood of the sacrifice itself. In the context of an historical Jesus, this ‘suffering repeatedly’ would have been a bizarre thought to express, even theoretically. It would entail that Jesus would need to have been incarnated repeatedly so as to die on earth and enter the heavenly sanctuary each time to offer the blood from each crucifixion. It is hard to believe that an orthodox writer would float such a concept, no matter what the point being made. Divine incarnation and the salvation it entails does not take place at multiple points in history. But if it all happens in the spiritual layers of heaven, among angels, gods and demons, and the sole focus is on the act in the heavenly sanctuary with the preceding death never specified as on earth, such an idea of theoretically repeating the process would not seem altogether infeasible or outlandish. The thought itself spells a cosmic Christ, not a human one.
The phrase “from the foundation of the world” is a curious thought as well. Incarnated repeatedly from creation? The phrase suggests the idea of ‘since the beginning of time,’ and gods were known to act from that point on. (A few references to God acting at the beginning of, or perhaps before, that period are found in the epistles, as in 2 Timothy 1:9-10.) Repeatedly undergoing incarnation and death throughout that span of time would be an absurd idea in the context of an historical Jesus, somewhat like saying “
would have had to discover Columbus many times since the beginning of sea-travel,” a silly statement when made in a real-world context. But neither one of them would be silly in a mythical context, if repetition were theoretically envisioned. America
In fact, we see a similar idea voiced by Plutarch in regard to Osiris: “It is not, therefore, out of keeping that they have a legend that the soul of Osiris is everlasting and imperishable, but that his body Typhon oftentimes [i.e., repeatedly] dismembers and causes to disappear, and that Isis wanders hither and yon in her search for it, and fits it together again” [Isis and Osiris, 375]. This must be taken in a mythical, mystery-cult context, as it is hardly likely that the Egyptians envisioned such repetitive actions by Osiris and Isis as continuing to take place on earth. In our writer’s system of thought, however, what is required is that Christ’s sacrifice be the perfect one, as opposed to the imperfect sacrifices of the earthly sanctuary, and part of perfection is that it need be done only once.
When we get to verse 26b, we arrive at the crux of the entire document. In these few words, we can see that no historical event is in view.
26b but now, once, at the completion of the ages, he has been manifested/revealed
[or, he has appeared]
to put away sin by his sacrifice.
The verb phaneroō in the passive voice strictly means to be revealed, although efforts are made, in the case of Jesus, to have it mean ‘to reveal (or manifest) oneself,’ in an active sense, so as to better justify an understanding of incarnation. Such an active meaning of the passive voice is possible (‘to be revealed/presented by oneself’), but does it signify incarnation? This issue, and the whole question of the usage of revelation verbs like phaneroō in application to Jesus’ supposed first advent on earth vs. his second advent in the future, is discussed below. I have pointed out that usage of this language would be an obscure way to refer to incarnation and a life on earth, especially when it could easily have been stated much more plainly. But in the context of the present discussion, this is virtually beside the point. For what does Christ do on this revealing/appearance in 9:26b? He performs his “sacrifice.” Throughout the epistle, this has meant one thing and one thing only: the entry into the heavenly sanctuary and the offering there of his blood. Thus, verse 26b must refer to the same thing, with no necessary understanding of an earthly event anywhere in the picture.
That this heavenly event is in mind has also been demonstrated in : “For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” Governed by the first half of this sentence, the second half must refer specifically to the heavenly sanctuary which Christ enters bearing his blood as a sacrifice to God. It cannot refer to Christ’s intercessory duties, since these extend on into the future, and the whole passage is a discussion of the singular sacrificial act. This is the act which seems to have been performed “at the completion of the ages” (although see below the discussion of the “when” of Christ’s sacrifice.) The two “now”s [nun] in these two verses reflect the same thought, applying to the same event. Moreover, verses 25 and 26a further refer to the event of entering heaven and offering himself, making the point that he did not have to perform this act repeatedly. Consequently, if the next thought is presented as a contrast to this and says that he only had to perform this act once, it logically follows that this singular ‘act’ is identical to the multiple act it has been contrasted with. The act performed once is the same as the act not needing multiple performance. Both references are to the act of entry into the heavenly sanctuary to offer sacrifice.
Thus the “appearance” in verse 26b is not a reference to incarnation and an event on earth. And if the heavenly act is identified as the event which takes place “at the completion of the ages,” then the author can hardly be aware of an earthly act which has taken place within the same time frame. He would not restrict himself to including only the heavenly act in what has happened in the present if Jesus’ life and crucifixion on
Calvaryhad also occurred. Yet it is the latter which is consistently read into the background by traditional scholarship, which interprets 26b as a suddenly out-of-place reference to such a thing—against all logic and common sense analysis of the text.24
24 Since the heavenly sacrifice has taken place “at the completion of the ages,” as determined by scripture, and logically excludes any thought in the writer’s mind of an incarnated life and death, then the use of the equivalent phrase “in these last days” in verse 2 must by corollary refer not to any ‘voice’ of an incarnated Jesus in the present, but to the newly-interpreted voice of the Son out of scripture.
In regard to -26, Attridge acknowledges that the author’s language throughout his work is “Platonizing” in regard to the contrast between heavenly and earthly tabernacles. He even, quite interestingly, detects a further “Platonizing motif” in the reference to Christ entering “heaven itself” (verse 24) to appear before God. This suggests, he says [p.263],
“a distinction between the innermost or uppermost heaven where God is enthroned, the heavenly inner sanctuary, and the outer or lower heavens that correspond to the portion of the tabernacle outside the veil.”
Dare one suggest that Attridge has inadvertently detected a thinking on the part of the writer that Christ, in his entire soteriological act, has operated within the confines of the heavens, a death and bloodshedding in “the outer or lower heavens” and a subsequent entry into God’s “uppermost heaven” where he offers his (spiritual) blood in God’s presence?
A Question of Verbs
To illustrate Attridge’s following observations, we need to repeat the text of the key verses here:
24 For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy
of the true one, but into heaven itself,
now to appear [emphanisthēnai] for us in God’s presence.
25 Not that he would offer himself there again and again,
as the high priest enters year after year into the sanctuary with blood not his own;
26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly from the foundation of the world.
But now, once, at the completion of the ages, he has been manifested
[or, was revealed / appeared: pephanerōtai]Attridge examines the thought of these verses in terms of the two key verbs, emphanidzo (v.24) and phaneroō (v.26), both having similar meanings and applications, though not in all respects. First let’s note that, as Paul Ellingworth says [p.480], emphanidzo is used of supernatural appearances, and especially in the Old Testament “of worshippers appearing in the presence of God.” This would fit the content of verse 24, Christ appearing in the presence of God. But then he goes on to state: “There is no sharp distinction or contrast in Hebrews between emphanidzo and phaneroō,” noting both 9:8 and . Attridge similarly sees the emphanidzo of verse 24 as used in the sense of “the appearance or manifestation of a divine or spiritual being,” although he makes the valid distinction that in this case, unlike normal contexts of usage, “here Jesus is not appearing to the world” [p.263], but before God. But then he adds a footnote, which he will enlarge on shortly,
“Contrast pephanerōtai in vs 26.”
There, for Attridge, the verb phaneroō must, contrary to Ellingworth’s observation, signify something quite different: the incarnation.
But first, he analyses the “appearing” of Jesus before God in “heaven itself” (v.24). Despite his admission that the language itself is “cultic,” he attempts to extract a meaning from this verse consistent with his own overall interpretations. He observes that the author does not specify what Christ did when he appeared in heaven before God. The natural inference would be that he did what the author has been saying all along that he did at his point of entry into heaven: offered the sacrifice of his blood in the heavenly sanctuary. This, in any case, verse 25 makes clear. But Attridge dismisses this, claiming that the author does not
“continue with the imagery of the Yom Kippur [Day of Atonement] ritual and suggest that Christ in the heavenly realm sprinkles his blood, even in some metaphorical sense, as an act independent of his death on the cross. At this point the analogy between Yom Kippur and
Calvarybegins to break down, and attempts to force too literal a correspondence between image and reality are misguided.” [p.263]
Attridge thus rejects the entire central schema of Hebrews, the literal and largely traditional way of reading it, as misguided. Because he cannot accept the heavenly sprinkling as a literal act in its own right, the author's analogy must be breaking down. (There is not even to be a metaphorical sprinkling of blood.) He justifies his reading of verse 24 (third line above) on the basis of the phrase “now to appear for us before God.” This he takes as a reference to Christ’s intercessory role, now that his sacrifice is completed (on
Calvary). Attridge has bypassed the entire ‘heavenly sanctuary’ activity of Christ spoken of throughout the epistle as simply a metaphorical treatment of the Calvary event and what that did for the “interiority” of believers and the new covenant. He makes the first ‘real’ entry of Christ into heaven a post-sacrificial one, a reference to Christ returning home and taking up the duties of advocate for his people on earth.
But this sets up a conflict with the following verse 25. The author has just said that Christ entered heaven “now to appear for us in God’s presence.” Yet this is followed by: “…but not in order that he should offer himself many times, even as the high priest [on earth] enters the sanctuary year by year with blood not his own.” This certainly conveys that the “entry” just spoken of in verse 24 refers to the entry into the sanctuary with the blood offering, not to intercession, which has nothing to do with the sacrifice. Thus Attridge has created his own severe disjunction between the two verses, something that cannot be justified simply by appealing to the phrase “for us.” After all, there is no reason why Christ could not be thought of as performing that heavenly sacrifice with his own blood “for us.” Attridge claims that “What he does before God is not specified any more precisely” (i.e., more precisely than the alleged implication of intercession), but verse 25 has performed that precise specification, only Attridge refuses to accept it.
That forced disjunction then allows Attridge to create his “complex moment”:
into the heavenly
thus unites in a complex way
the two aspects of his priestly ministry.”
To Part Three
Calvaryis rescued, and the embarrassing image of Christ bringing his actual blood into heaven to smear on the heavenly tabernacle is banished to outer darkness, beyond even the realm of metaphor. All is bundled into an acceptable whole: “Christ’s sacrificial death is not an act distinct from his entry into God’s presence.” Any dispassionate reading of the epistle which allows the author to be meaning what he is saying reveals that Attridge has performed a stunning sleight-of-hand.
The same prestidigitation is in view in verse 26b, which also must be disconnected from any influence from the preceding verses:
26b But now, once, at the completion of the ages, he has been manifested
[or, was revealed / appeared: pephanerōtai]
for the abolition of sin through his sacrifice.
Following an “appearance” in heaven before God (v.24), which itself is followed (v.25) by a thought identifying that appearance as the sacrifice of his blood in the heavenly sanctuary, we are given another “appearance,” a new “manifestation” of Christ which, if we are to believe it, suddenly pulls us back, with no warning, to the incarnation. That “appearance” is defined: “to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” But verse 25—like the entire epistle—has presented that sacrifice in terms of the entry into the heavenly sanctuary with his blood. (The theoretical ‘suffering many times’ of 26a, as I said earlier, is simply the would-be necessary prelude to the sacrifices that don’t need repetition.) If we follow Attridge in his understanding of the verb itself, verse 26b would be saying: ‘Christ appeared on earth in order to offer his blood in the heavenly sanctuary.’ That is either a contradiction or amazingly condensed. (Of course, Attridge has treated the latter part of that sentence as a metaphor.)
On the other hand, if we take the text at its obvious face value, the author in 26b is making another reference to the entry into heaven. He is giving us an “As it is…” statement following on the previous thoughts. As opposed to Christ entering a man-made sanctuary like the priests on earth (v.24), and as opposed to him having to make repeated sacrifices like the earthly priests (v.25), the author declares that Christ “appeared” only once to perform his sacrifice. The natural and logical flow of thought is that this “appearance” (like the one in verse 24) was in heaven and it refers to the act in the heavenly sanctuary. Twisting it into a reference to the incarnation and the crucifixion on
Calvaryis to perform extreme violence on the text.
-- x --
The Revealing of Christ
The “When” of Christ’s Sacrifice
But there is an another understanding we could bring to verse 26b. The choice of the verb “phaneroō” may serve to introduce a further thought in the writer’s mind. As common for this verb as the sense of “appearing” is the one of “to be revealed,” and because the author introduces a new feature, that of “at the completion of the ages,” we might align this with similar thoughts in other epistles which use the same verb (such as 1 Peter 1:20—see the following Excursus for a discussion of this mode of expression in the epistles) and regard him as saying that Christ and his sacrifice have been revealed at the present time, “at the completion of the ages.” The multiple meaning of the verb phaneroō might have served both purposes. The former meaning would convey the thought of Christ appearing in heaven, while the latter meaning would fit the concept of scripture doing the revealing about that event.
How do we sort out the question of what the writer regards as happening in the present time vs. the “when” of Christ’s sacrifice in heaven? (Attridge, as one would expect, sees the “at the completion of the ages” as referring to
Calvary.) In 9:10, as noted earlier, the writer regards the two tents—outer and inner—of the Sinai sanctuary as the Holy Spirit deliberately symbolizing a future development: that the way to the true inner sanctuary (i.e., to God’s own presence) would only be disclosed and open to all once the sacrifice of Christ was performed and revealed, and the old sacrifices were allowed as a consequence to pass into oblivion. (The idea of revelation must be present, because the act which has opened the way to God—which he went on to describe in 9:11—was Christ’s act of entering the heavenly sanctuary to make his sacrifice, and this is something which could not be known by historical tradition.)
To put it another way, not only has the Holy Spirit (i.e., scripture) failed to foretell the incarnation or earthly acts of Jesus, it has looked ahead beyond any such figure and pointed to the time of the writer, indicating that the old sacrificial system will remain in effect “until the time of reformation” (9:10). But the latter is the writer’s time, not the life of Christ. That time of reformation does not arrive until the revelation of Christ’s heavenly sacrifice, which is something the writer has achieved through scripture. Once again, we see that “the present time” has been characterized by what happens in the time of revelation, the time of “the new order” [NIV], not the time of Christ on earth or his earthly acts. (We find a similar situation in Paul when he tells us in Galatians 3 and 4 that the time at which the Law’s force has ceased and God has purchased freedom for those who have been in subjection to it, has occurred now, at the time of faith and his own preaching, not at the time of Jesus’ death, on Calvary or anywhere else.)
However, does the author also locate Christ’s heavenly sacrifice, the offering of his blood in the spiritual sanctuary, in the present period of “the completion of the ages”? This is not so easy to answer, due to a certain amount of ambiguity in the passage. The sacrifice and Jesus’ occupation of the throne at the right hand of God is always presented in the past tense. Both have already taken place—not, of course, accompanied by any historical marker, since the acts are in heaven; and no historical markers are provided in any other connection, including the preceding suffering and death. But verse 26b comes close to identifying the sacrifice with “the completion of the ages,” referring to the writer’s present time. Let’s lay out that verse again. (And let’s note at the same time that the use of a revelation verb like phaneroō does not tell us that Jesus came to earth—and would, as often said, be an odd way to do so.)
26b …but now, once for all, at the completion of the ages, for the annulment of sin
through his sacrifice he has been manifested/revealed [pephanerōtai].
And yet, “close” isn’t quite there. This does not specifically place the sacrifice “at the completion of the ages.” The sentence is informing us that what has been “manifested / revealed” is the heavenly sacrifice of Christ, which is what has annulled sin. But is the writer saying that this heavenly sacrifice occurred “at the completion of the ages”? Or is it only the revelation about Christ and his sacrifice which has occurred, with the sacrifice itself having taken place at some unspecified past time? In other words, is he saying: “but now Christ has been revealed at the completion of the ages, for the sake of (God) annulling sin once for all through the sacrifice Christ made [at an unspecified time]”? This way of putting it, too, is in keeping with a general mode of expression throughout the epistles, which consistently identifies the present with a time of revelation, while relegating Christ’s acts themselves to an indeterminate dimension.
To help clarify the issue, let’s compare verse 26b with 24b:
24b …but (he entered) into heaven itself, now to appear (to present himself
[emphanisthēnai]) in the presence of God on our behalf.
26b …but now he has appeared (presented himself, or been manifested/revealed
[pephanerōtai]) once for all at the completion of the ages
for the annulment of sin through his sacrifice.
As noted, these two verbs, emphanidzō and phaneroō, have very similar meanings. “To reveal, to make known” is the one that concerns us. In both, the passive form can mean “to reveal oneself, to put in an appearance, to present oneself” (lit., to be revealed and placed in view by oneself). The verb phaneroō is used in ancient Greek literature to signify the ‘appearance’ of a god on a specific occasion: he presents himself, makes his presence known, perhaps to a devotee in a religious experience. (It is also used in the ‘appearance’ of a human being, as in the raised corpses of Matthew 27:53.) But the passive of phaneroō (less so, if at all, emphanidzō) can also be used in a more usual sense, to signify that something is revealed by other than its own agency, as in Romans 16:26 in which the “mystery” has now been “revealed” [phanerōthentos] “through (the agency of) prophetic writings.” Translators of key passages like Hebrews 9:26 are anxious to understand the passive of phaneroō in the former sense, the sense of revealing oneself, “to appear,” and not in the sense of “be revealed” by something external, since it would be difficult to claim incarnation in the latter thought but easier to claim it in the former (though it would still be awkward and peculiar).
The difference between 24b and 26b is the range of possible meanings in the two passive verbs. In 24a, the thought can only be that Christ “appears” (he presents himself) before God. This is determined by the sense, which cannot entail the idea of ‘being revealed’ before God, as well as by the general fact that the passive of emphanidzō is not used in the record to signify ‘revelation’ by another agency. However, in 26b, the verb is phaneroō, and both options are open. It could mean “to appear, to present oneself” or “to be revealed” by something external. The latter understanding would essentially rule out incarnation, since such an application would be almost incomprehensible. While Christ can certainly be “revealed” by God—and the epistles do say so, as in Galatians 1:16, Romans 3:25 and even 16:25-27—this can reasonably be only in the sense of knowledge about him. To describe incarnation as ‘revelation by God’ would be a bizarre and very unusual way to put it, and should thus be ruled out, especially since more natural and comprehensible ways to express the idea would be available.
Orthodoxy, of course, leans toward Christ “having appeared” in 9:26b, but are there reasons to lean toward him “having been revealed”? Since the verb occurs together with the reference to Christ’s heavenly act, this suggests that Christ is being revealed in regard to his heavenly act (which is the only thing that seems to matter to the writer). We might also ask why, if the writer could use emphanidzō in verse 24b in the obvious sense of “to appear, present oneself,” he did not use the same verb in 26b if he intended the same sense? Does his switch to phaneroō indicate that he wanted to avail himself of the alternate option for the passive: “to be revealed” in the sense of through an agency other than oneself? And what would that agency be? What else but scripture, which has been the ‘agent’ of revelation for everything this writer has said throughout the epistle.
We thus arrive at a compelling understanding of what is meant by “he was revealed at the completion of the ages.” While the ‘appearing’ sense could be present if only by association with other statements of ‘appearing’ in heaven and the heavenly sanctuary to perform the sacrifice, it may primarily mean for the writer that Christ was revealed in the present time, through scripture, in order that the annulment of sin could now be effected through knowledge of the heavenly sacrificial act. That act was now to be seen as supplanting the traditional temple cult: recognition of this supplanting, as the writer says in , will cause the old cult to dry up and disappear.
Once more, we need to emphasize that it is the knowledge and revelation taking place in the present time which is the immediate determinant of change, not Christ’s act itself—just as Paul says in Galatians (3:23,25 and 4:4-6) that it is the time of revelation and faith which brings about the demise of the Law and God’s action in purchasing freedom from it, not the time of Christ himself. In both cases, the act of Christ lies in the background and is not to be identified with the present time. In Hebrews, it may be that the writer envisions Christ’s sacrifice as also something recent, something performed “at the completion of the ages,” but nothing in the passage, or anywhere else in the epistle, requires it. It is possible only because the language cannot rule it out. I rather think that he simply sees it as ‘subsequent’ to the establishment of the old covenant, that scripture has ‘prophesied’ it as in the future, but not necessarily at the End-time itself. In this, he deviated from strict timeless Platonism, which Paul may have done as well if he envisioned Christ’s sacrifice at some spiritual counterpart time contemporaneous with earthly history.
EXCURSUS: Christ Revealed
One of the advantages of an orthodox interpretation is simplicity, as long as one is able to ignore the violence it does to the texts. A mythicist understanding, on the other hand, is complex and unfamiliar, requiring much explanation as well as interpretation of nuances, especially in regard to differences and developments over time and across an uncoordinated movement lacking in uniform doctrine. One of these is in the different possible applications of the verb phaneroō in the sense of “appear.” As noted, the passive of the verb can be used in the sense of to “put in an appearance,” to “reveal” or present oneself. This is not only of a god, but of a human being. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 5:10 says that we all must “appear” [phanerōthēnai, a passive infinitive]—meaning present ourselves—before the judgment seat of God; we are being ‘revealed’ by ourselves. But scholarship imposes this meaning on all those references in the epistles which refer to the ‘manifestation’ of Christ in the present time of the writers. Let’s look at the major ones, as listed by Bauer’s Lexicon, which describes the passive verb as referring to “his [Christ’s] appearance in the world” (both options are included in the translation):
1 Timothy – hos ephanerōthē en sarki
who was revealed / appeared in flesh
1 Peter – proegnōsmenon men pro katabolēs kosmou
he was predestined from the foundation of the world,
phanerōthentos de ep’ eschatou tōn chronōn di’ humas
but was revealed / appeared in the last times because of you.
1 John 3:5 – kai oidate oti ekeinos ephanerōthē hina tas hamartis arēi
And you know that he [Christ] was revealed / appeared
so that he might take away our sins
I have chosen these three to illustrate that three different pieces of writing coming from three different circles, none of whom show any sign of direct contact with the others, have all used the same odd way to allegedly describe the incarnation. This would be difficult to fathom in the context of an historical Jesus. I have made the point elsewhere that if an expression is out of the ordinary and rather obscure, one might find a single source happening to use it as a reflection of its own idiosyncrasy; but to find an entire movement and multiple writers with no central organizing body of governance, doctrine or literature making exclusive use of that same idiosyncrasy tells us that something is wrong with our assumptions. If what is supposedly meant is that Jesus, a god, was incarnated to earth and lived a life in human flesh, why would not a single document put it in that more clear way?
But it is not just those three writers. To the above list of uses of phaneroō we can also add Hebrews 9:26 which we have just been examining, another example of a faith circle which shows no sign of contact with any of the others. And we can also add other passages which use different words, all of them in the same family, all words of ‘revealing.’ In Romans 3:25, Paul speaks of God “setting forth” or “displaying” (the verb protithēmi) Christ and his act of sacrifice. The Pastoral epistles (as in 2 Timothy ) use the noun “epiphaneia,” meaning an appearance or manifestation. None of these words or usages in such texts conveys incarnation unless one reads such a thing into them.
There is another factor involved. The verb phaneroō is used of Christ in another connection, again repeatedly. But this time it is not out of the ordinary. It perfectly fits what it describes: namely, the Parousia of Christ, the expectation of his coming, his “appearing” at the End-time. Traditional Christian thought styles this appearance a “return” or “second coming,” but in the epistles that is not how it is presented. In several passages the writers speak of the (self-) revealing or coming of Christ at the Parousia as if it were going to be the first time (with one claimed exception, which happens to be in Hebrews: see below). Just as he placed the above alleged references to the incarnation in their own category, Bauer makes a separate classification for such uses of the passive of phaneroō which he regards as referring to “the Second Advent,” to “Christ on his return.” That second group includes:
Colossians 3:4 – When Christ, who is our life, is revealed [phanerōthēi],
you too will be revealed [same verb] in glory.
1 Peter 5:4 – When the Chief Shepherd appears [phanerōthentos],
you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
1 John – …so that when he appears [phanerōthēi] we may have confidence
and not shrink from him in shame at his coming/presence.
We can also note a couple of similar passages using the ‘revelation’ noun apokalupsis:
2 Thessalonians 1:7 – (this will happen) at the revelation [en tē apokalupsei]
of our Lord Jesus Christ from heaven…
1 Peter 1:7 – (that your faith) may result in praise and glory and honor
at the revelation [en apokalupsei] of Jesus Christ.
These passages fail to convey any earlier coming, or specify that it is a “return”; but that is a side issue at the moment. What we need to see is that all of these passages are speaking of a single ‘appearance’ of Christ at the End-time, a revelation of himself at a specific moment to the eyes of the world, which will immediately apprehend him. This is one of the principal meanings of the verb phaneroō, the manifestation of a god or person on a specific occasion, as in “the god appeared to his devotees on the night of the mystery rite,” or “the governor appeared in the city to collect the taxes,” or “the king showed himself before his subjects.” Thus we have a category of passages which speak of Christ’s “appearance”—the ‘revelation’ of himself by himself—in a single-occasion sense, at the Parousia.
But this is a poor fit when imposed on passages which are supposed to be speaking of incarnation in general, of a life which contained many acts and events. First of all, in the single-occasion sense, there is no other way to put it: it is an “appearing” by Christ at the moment of the Parousia. In the sense of incarnation, on the other hand, there would have been plainer and more natural ways to express it than to say “he revealed himself” in these last times—much less to say that he was revealed by God. It would be especially bizarre to say this to the exclusion of all other ways. Second, given the pervasive role of scripture and the Holy Spirit in everything that is declared about Christ, and the absence of any appeal to historical tradition, such passages should reasonably entail the idea that Christ has “been revealed” through these agencies, rather than that he revealed himself or “appeared.” In view of the fact that no interest is shown in the life lived—and that any such “life” is always demonstrated through scripture (as in 1 Peter 2:22-23)—it is facile to claim that in these particular passages the writer is interested in declaring the occasion of incarnation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
As for Hebrews 9:26b, I noted earlier that the “pephanerōtai” has an ambiguous application. Does it refer to an “appearing” in the heavenly sanctuary to perform the perfect sacrifice once for all (in which case it would legitimately be in the sense of a single-occasion ‘appearance,’ not incarnation), or does it refer to the general revelation of Christ in “the last days” of the writer and his community? Again, because of the exclusive influence of scripture in everything to do with the Son, I suggest that the latter meaning is at least partially in mind, that this is indeed Christ as he “has been revealed” in the regular passive sense, and that the same understanding should be brought to other uses of phaneroō in regard to Christ’s first manifestation, such as 1 Peter 1:20 and 1 Timothy 3:16 (a pre-Pauline hymn).
As for 1 John 3:5 and 8, this is a case of ‘nuance’ that I spoke of at the beginning of this Excursus. In these two verses, the Johannine author wishes to make the point that Christ has taken away sin and destroyed the devil’s work. To do this, he “was manifested” [ephanerōthē], and thus the meaning would lean toward the active “appearing” sense rather than the passive “be revealed” sense. Where this appearing took place we don’t know, since the author never tells us. He does not even tell us that Jesus “laid down his life for us” () by means of crucifixion. The cross does not appear in 1 John; nor does the resurrection. (We cannot assume they lie in the background on the basis of the Johannine epistles being written later than the Gospel, since that position, though a common one in scholarship, is virtually untenable. See Supplementary Article No. 2: “A Solution to the First Epistle of John.”)
But it would be instructive to compare the use of phaneroō in 1 John 3:5 and 8 with its use in chapter 1, in the Prologue:
1 What [ho] was from the beginning, what [ho] we have heard,
what [ho] we have seen with our eyes,
what [ho] we beheld and our hands touched, concerning the word of life,
2 and the life was manifested/revealed [ephanerōthē] to us,
and we have seen and bear witness and announce to you the eternal life,
which was with the Father and was manifested/revealed [ephanerōthē] to us.
Here the “life” does not refer to Jesus, but to the concept itself of eternal life. The relative pronouns [ho] are neuter, and taking the phrase “the word [logos] of life” as a reference to Jesus is fanciful. Yet scholars almost invariably insist on interpreting this passage as representing an eyewitness report of Jesus and his ministry. Rather, it is clear that it is “eternal life” itself that has been revealed, through an event of revelation which took place at “the beginning” of the sect’s formation, which is what this passage is describing. We do not know what prompted this revelation; there is little concern in 1 John with scripture and much with the “spirit” from God. But if eternal life itself is said to be “revealed” along with the Son—whom God “gives witness” to (not Jesus on earth giving witness to himself: see 5:9-11)—then we find ourselves in the same thought-world of the other epistles which speak of Jesus being “revealed” in the last times, not “appearing” on earth. Thus 3:5 and 8 ought to absorb some of that revelatory meaning. What has been revealed is not only the Son himself and the eternal life that proceeds from him—in the sense that he is an emanation of God and thus the life is “with God” [1:2]—but the specifics of the role he has played in God’s bestowing of eternal life: taking away sin and destroying the devil’s work through “laying down his life.” It is all a mystical construct, arrived at through perceived revelation. (For a full presentation of these ideas in 1 John, see the aforementioned Article No. 2.)
A Second Coming?
Having established that Hebrews 9:26 does not refer to an arrival on earth, but to a revelation about Christ and his act in heaven, we can deal with the following verses which are claimed to be the one clear reference in the epistles to a “second” coming of Christ.
27 Inasmuch as it is destined for men to die once,
and after that comes the judgment,
28 so also Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many,
ek deuterou will appear to those awaiting him,
not to bear sin, but (to bring) salvation.
The “ek deuterou” is regularly translated “a second time,” as it is in Matthew 26:42, where it refers in the
Gethsemanescene to Jesus going away “a second time” to pray. But the phrase, like its sister “to deuteron,” can also mean “second in sequence,” with no thought of repetition of the first item but simply that of “next” or “second in time.” This meaning we find in several passages, where it does not entail repetition, such as:
Jude 5 – …that the Lord, after saving the people out of
subsequently [to deuteron] destroyed those who did not believe. [NASB]
1 Corinthians – And in the church God has appointed first of all prophets,
second [deuteron] prophets, third teachers… [NIV]
When we compare the parallel between the cases in verses 27 and 28, we find that the “next” idea is more fitting than the “second time” idea. In the first case, it is men dying once, followed by the judgment—a sequence, not a repetition. The second case, of Christ, to be in parallel, should also be a sequence: first an offering of himself for sin, followed by an appearing to those awaiting him to bring salvation.
Even more significant is the verb described as “ek deuterou.” “He will appear” is ophthēsetai, the future passive of horaō. This means “to see, behold.” In the passive it means “to appear, to reveal oneself” (much like the passive of phaneroō). This verb is consistently used to refer to ‘single-occasion’ appearances, a “seeing’ such as the post-resurrection sightings of Jesus in the Gospels, or the visionary experiencing of the spiritual Christ by those listed in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8, or Moses and Elijah appearing on the mountain in the Transfiguration scene. Now, Christ coming at the End-time would be an appearance of this sort, but should this kind of appearance be considered as a “second time” to the incarnation? Such a “first time” would decidedly not be an “appearance” of this nature, and the incarnation would not be a “first time” of such an appearance. Thus the ‘repetition’ idea would not apply at all.
However, we might feasibly understand a “second time” appearance if there were a “first time” appearance of a similar nature, so that the second could be thought of as a repetition of the first. The author nowhere spells out one of these first-time appearances for us, although there could be one lurking in the revelation experience that launched the sect as described in 2:1-4. But it is also possible that the ‘second’ appearing is being set against a ‘first’ appearing that refers to the ‘presenting of himself’ that took place in the heavenly sanctuary; and indeed, the latter is the very thing mentioned in the first part of the statement, against which is set the appearing to those awaiting him. So we may, after all, have a thought which not only reflects a sequence, but a ‘second-time’ appearance, the first being the appearance in heaven, the second out of heaven. Both are ‘single-occasion’ appearances and are thus reasonably compatible for comparison, whereas the incarnation and the Parousia are much less so. The issue of this verse may not be one that can be settled conclusively in either direction, but any confident declaration that it represents the concept of a Second Coming in an orthodox sense must be set aside.
The Coming One
However, confidence is much better achieved in the other direction in regard to a similar statement made only a chapter later. The readers are being urged to hold fast in the face of the persecution that has recently assailed them, and as an encouragement, the writer quotes Habbakuk 2:3 in the Septuagint version, prefaced by a phrase from Isaiah:
36 You need to persevere, so that when you have done the will of God,
you will receive what he has promised.
37 For “in just a little while” [Is. 26:20 LXX],
“The coming one [ho erchomenos] will come, and will not delay.”
Habbakuk was referring to God by “ho erchomenos,” but in later times this became a prophetic reference to the Messiah, and the phrase was adopted as a title to refer to him. If anything, this is a more obvious passage than 8:4 to tell us that Christ had not been on earth. If “the Coming One” refers to Christ, the Savior figure of this community, and he is a figure prophesied in scripture, then if he is still to come it follows that he has not come previously. Scripture may have been seen as prophesying the coming of a Messiah at the point of the world’s transformation, the apocalyptic End-time, but early Christians supposedly reinterpreted that to refer to Christ’s incarnation, and in that context we must assume that the writer of Hebrews would have shared this reinterpretation.
Consequently, if an historical Jesus existed in his past, the Habbakuk prophecy should have applied to that first advent. This is how his readers would have understood it. He could not simply have passed over that first coming in silence and directed the prophecy at the future Parousia without some qualification or explanation. If “the Coming One” had already come, he would have had to specify ‘return’ or ‘again.’ Moreover, by ignoring the life of Christ on earth, he would have been tacitly dismissing any benefit or encouragement to be found in what Jesus had said or done in that life as a means of giving hope to his persecuted readers. Clearly, as the writer has expressed things, the scriptural promise of Christ’s arrival on earth has not yet been fulfilled.
In 1900, witnessing the rise of German militarism under the Kaiser, the Englishman Mr. Smith makes a prediction that “we will one day be at war with
In 1930, witnessing the rise of Hitler and Nazism, Mr. Jones says, “soon Mr. Smith’s prediction is going to come true and we will be at war with
Mr. Brown objects, “But Mr. Smith’s prediction has already come true. We were at war with
only a few years ago.” Germany
“Are you sure?” asks Mr. Jones. “I guess I must have missed it.”
And so have quite a few other writers of the New Testament, who in a similar way seem infected with memory loss. Paul, at the end of 1 Corinthians entreats the Lord to “come,” Marana tha. The writer of Revelation, in his closing words, echoes the same prophetic words from Habbakuk that were quoted in Hebrews: “He who testifies to these things says: ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ ”
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