It’s episode 37 and we’ve just a handful of bible texts left to explore. Today we’re looking at the Letter to the Hebrews, which is not really a letter nor is it really “to the Hebrews.” We’re off to a great start, today on BOOK…
This is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I am Josh Way. Last time we wrapped up our look at the writings of the apostle Paul, letters written to various first century church communities facing various first century crises. The next text in the New Testament canon is a bit of an odd duck, not being attributed to any author or community. Early Christians assumed it to be another letter of Paul, first and second century church fathers almost unanimously insisting that the apostle had written it and chosen to withhold his name for strategic reasons. By the third and fourth centuries, however, serious doubts arose and Hebrews was ultimately canonized, but without a consensus. Today scholars and theologians generally agree that Paul is not the author, and while many theories have been put forth as to who is, ultimately we have no idea.
But here’s the other thing about the “letter” to the Hebrews: it doesn’t look much like a letter. Except for a few comments at the end that indicate it was written for a specific community of Christians, Hebrews does not have the form of a letter. There’s no greeting at the start identifying the writer and recipients, and the content of the letter looks more like a sermon or an apologetic essay than correspondence. And, while we’re at it, this text is not really “to the Hebrews” in the sense of being addressed to Israel or to non-Christian Jews. It’s clearly addressed to Christians, most likely a mixed group of Jewish and Gentile converts. Perhaps “About the Hebrews” would be a more appropriate title, as the thrust of the sermon is a point-by-point explanation of why and how Jesus is superior to anything found in the Hebrew Bible or Jewish religion. This raises all sorts of questions for us in light of what’s going on in the New Testament, but before we get into that let’s read the text.
1 In many ways and by many means God spoke in ancient times to our ancestors in the prophets; 2 but at the end of these days he spoke to us in a son. (Hebrews 1)
The first verse establishes the message and format of the entire book: in the Hebrew Bible it used to be like this, but now it’s like this, because Jesus is better. His first argument is that God used to reveal himself through prophets, but now he has revealed himself through a “son,” an agent, a true representative. Of course, we observe, Jesus was himself a prophet, but for the author of Hebrews, he is the prophet to end all prophets. Moving on, this is verse 4:
4 See how much greater he is than the angels; The name he was granted is finer than theirs. 5 For to which angel did God ever say, “You are my son; today I became your father”? Or again, “I will be his father, and he will be my son”?
Suddenly the topic is angels, and – you guessed it – Jesus is way better than angels. And here the author makes the first of many appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures to prove his point. But for those of us who know our way around the “Old Testament,” his strategy is a little… interesting. He uses two quotes – one from Psalm 2 and one from 2 Samuel 7 – to “prove” that Jesus is better than angels because he is the “son of God.” But angels are often referred to as “sons of God” in the Hebrew Bible, and these two verses aren’t directly about Jesus. Psalm 2 is about Israel’s king and his special relationship with YHWH, and 2 Samuel 7 is about Solomon. By the time this author is writing, however, all such references have been re-appropriated by Christians to describe Jesus, the Messiah, true king and “son of God.”
In Chapter 2, the author mounts a new argument, one that needs some delicate unpacking. He starts by quoting a famous bit from Psalm 8:
6 … What are humans, that you should remember them?
What is the son of man, that you should give him a thought?
7 You made him a little lower than the angels,
You crowned him with glory and honor,
8 And you placed everything under his feet.
This well known poem celebrates humanity’s special place as the pinnacle of creation, as God’s stewards over the natural world. But the author of Hebrews latches onto the phrase “son of man.” In Hebrew poetry, it simply means “a human” or a “mortal person,” but it was also one of Jesus’ favorite ways of referring to himself, taking a cue from the book of Daniel. So here in the New Testament, this writer chooses to read Psalm 8 as a prophecy about Jesus:
8 … When it speaks of everything being subjected to him, it leaves nothing that is not subjected to him. As things are at present, we don’t see everything subjected to him. 9 What we do see is the one who was, for a little while, made lower than the angels – that is, Jesus – crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by God’s grace he might taste death on behalf of everyone.
What was originally a Psalm about all humankind is reinterpreted as a description of Jesus’ incarnation and glorification. The question before us as explorers of the whole bible is: can an interpretation of a text be considered valid if it disregards or twists the original meaning? On an academic level it seems unacceptable, but for religious readers it often goes unnoticed, especially when the new interpretation is about Jesus. After all, one of the major Christian presuppositions is that all of the Hebrew Bible is secretly about Jesus. But I think the real question pertains to the environment in which this author is operating. In the First Century, was it acceptable to use ancient scriptures in this way? And the answer seems to be yes, in fact, it was common. This is similar to the Jewish method of interpretation known as midrash, wherein old and familiar passages of scripture are embellished and interpreted to answer contemporary questions and concerns. We’ve actually seen a similar approach elsewhere in the New Testament, in gospel passages (especially the early chapters of Matthew) and to a lesser extent in the writing of Paul. The author of Hebrews wants to show that Jesus outshines anything that is going on in Judaism, and he’s determined to use the Hebrew Bible to demonstrate it, whatever it takes. My own response is to accept the commonality of the “midrash” approach, but to always keep one eye on the original context as well.
In Chapter 3, a new argument: Jesus is better than Moses. Says the author:
5 … “Moses was faithful, as a servant, in all his house,” thereby bearing witness to the things that were yet to be spoken of; 6 but the Messiah is over God’s house as a son.
So Moses was the servant over God’s house, but Jesus is the son – the eldest son, in charge of the whole estate. “Moses” here is a codeword, I think, for the Law and the Temple, for Jewish religion, which has been supplanted by Jesus, according to this author. He reimagines Psalm 95 as an invitation to follow the Messiah. In Chapter 4 he extends his Moses/Exodus metaphor by warning his listeners to have faith, lest they be like those who “hardened their hearts” and failed to enter into God’s “rest.” This is a reference to the generation of Israelites whose sinful behavior kept them from entering the promised land. We note that this group included Moses himself.
Next topic: priesthood. From the end of Chapter 4 through Chapter 7, our author piles up reasons why Jesus is superior to Jewish priests. Human priests, we read, are weak and must atone for their own sins before they can mediate for others. Jesus was without sin and is uniquely qualified to intercede. And now the author invokes the name of Melchizedek, the mysterious priestly figure we encountered briefly in Genesis 14. If we recall, Melchizedek was a king who blessed Abram, a “priest of God Most High” long before there was an Israel or a Temple in Jerusalem. Psalm 110 made reference to Melchizedek as a “priest forever,” and the author of Hebrews pulls on this thread to make his case about Jesus. Jesus wasn’t a priest according to human lineage. In fact, he’s from the wrong tribe, Judah. But he was appointed by God to an eternal office of priesthood, and thus he is a priest “in the order of Melchizedek.” And, while human priests had to sacrifice over and over to cover the sins of every new day until they passed away and the job was taken up by a new priest, Jesus is a priest once-for-all, who never dies, whose sacrifice is sufficient for all the sins of the world.
In Chapters 8 and 9, Jesus is not only a superior priest, but he heralds a superior covenant, and a superior tabernacle. The covenant is the law, and the tabernacle is the forerunner to the temple. Both, says our author, were pale pre-echoes of a divine reality that has been ushered in by Messiah. He quotes Jeremiah 31’s vision of a “new covenant,” one in which God forgives sins “forever” and writes his laws on human hearts instead of stone tablets. Likewise, the temple furnishings were designed to resemble the heavenly sanctuary, where Jesus himself now resides for real. And, according to Chapter 10, all of this is made possible because of the “perfect” sacrifice of the Messiah’s blood, which is a superior and ultimate sacrifice to end all sacrifices. This is why Christians should worship Jesus, and have hope in spite of persecution and suffering.
Hebrews Chapter 11 is a famous passage on the subject of faith. The author starts by defining faith as “being sure in hope, and convinced of things we cannot see.” He proceeds to list many men and women from the Hebrew Bible who were great examples of faith. (We note that this is first time in the text that the Hebrew Bible serves as positive example rather than inferior antecedent.) Heroes of faith include Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Even Moses is portrayed as a paragon of faith, despite the author’s words in previous chapters. And he laments that he has insufficient time to cover others like “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets.” Because of this group of faithful ancestors, what the author calls a “great cloud of witnesses,” the early Christians must follow their trajectory and follow after Jesus, the ultimate faithful one, who trusted God to the point of death, and whose reward was glorious beyond imagination. So the Christians should shape up, get to work, and “run the race” with patience and discipline.
And, in closing, in case we forgot the primary conceit of this whole essay, the author reminds his readers that they have not come to Mount Sinai, the temporary and inferior site of an ancient covenant. They have come instead to “Mount Zion – the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” This is a permanent and unshakable reality, what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” In Chapter 13 he wraps up, admonishing his congregation to remain faithful, and not to be distracted and lead astray by “strange teachings” or “rules about what to eat.” Not unlike Paul, the author of Hebrews seems to be warning his people against the “Judaizers” who taught that Christians must observe Jewish customs to properly follow the Jewish Messiah. But much more than Paul, this author seems fixated on demonstrating the inferiority of Judaism and the old covenant.
And this is our challenge as we read Hebrews today. It’s not that it’s anti-Semitic or openly hostile to Judaism. Like Paul and the other apostles, this author (quite likely a Jewish Christian his or herself) sees Jesus in continuity – not conflict – with the Hebrew Scriptures. And yet, in their attempt to praise and elevate Jesus, they have painted a particularly harsh and negative picture of Jewish traditions and beliefs. And, unfortunately, in the centuries after the New Testament, as Christianity became increasingly detached from its Jewish roots, texts like this one became the foundation for very real and damaging anti-Jewish sentiment.
Still, Hebrews, in its original setting, remains a valuable and beloved text for its exhaustive and celebratory portrait of Jesus as perceived by the First Century church, and for its inspiring words about faith and perseverance. In the next podcast, we’ll look at the remaining New Testament epistles, texts by and attributed to apostolic figures like Peter, John, James and Judah. With a little persistence and attention to detail on our part, they will help to fill out our understanding of the early Christian church and the Messiah it worshiped.
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.