Scripture - The Letter to the Hebrews

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013

'Letter to the Hebrews', or 'Epistle to the Hebrews' is the traditional name of a text that the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament simply called 'To the Hebrews”'' (ΠΡΟΣ ΕΒΡΑΙΟΥΣ).
Scholars of Greek consider its writing to be more polished and eloquent than any other book of the New Testament.
Since the earliest days of the Church, the authorship has been debated.
The book has earned the reputation of being a "masterpiece".
It also has been described as the most "intricate" New Testament book.
Scholars believe Hebrews was written for a mixed audience of Jewish and Gentile Christians who lived in Rome or perhaps Jerusalem.
The central theme of the epistle is the doctrine of the Person of Christ and his role as mediator between God and humanity.

Dating and Background

Scholars argue over where Hebrews fits in the 1st century world.

Qumran Scrolls 
It has been argued that the conceptual background of the priestly Christology of the Epistle to the Hebrews closely parallels presentations of the messianic priest and Melchizedek in the Qumran scrolls (Dead Sea Scrolls).
While not enough is known about Hebrews or its background, its dependence on any early Jewish tradition cannot be proved.
In both Hebrews and Qumran a priestly figure is discussed in the context of a Davidic figure; in both cases a divine decree appoints the priests to their eschatological duty; both priestly figures offer an eschatological sacrifice of atonement.
Although the author of Hebrews was probably not directly influenced by Qumran's "Messiah of Aaron", these and other conceptions did provide a precedent... to conceive Jesus similarly as a priest making atonement and eternal intercession in the heavenly sanctuary.
Hebrews is a very consciously "literary" document.
The purity of its Greek was noted by Clement of Alexandria, according to Eusebius (Historia Eccl. , VI, xiv), and Origen of Alexandria asserted that every competent judge must recognize a great difference between this epistle and those of Paul (Eusebius, VI, xxv).
Hebrews does not fit the form of a traditional Hellenistic epistle, lacking a proper prescript.

Greek Septuagint
Modern scholars generally believe this book was originally a sermon or homily, although possibly modified after it was delivered.
Hebrews contains many references to the Old Testament - specifically to its Greek Septuagint text.

The Septuagint - from the Latin word septuaginta (meaning seventy), is a translation of the Hebrew Bible and some related texts into Koine Greek. The title and its Roman numeral acronym "LXX" refer to the legendary seventy Jewish scholars who completed the translation as early as the late 2nd century BCE. As the primary Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is also called the "Greek Old Testament" ("Ἡ μετάφρασις τῶν Ἑβδομήκοντα"). This translation is quoted in the New Testament, particularly in the writings of Paul the Apostle, 'The Letter to the Hebrews', and also by the Apostolic Fathers and later Greek Church Fathers.

In the Oldest Greek manuscripts the Epistle to the Hebrews follows the other letters to the Churches and precedes the pastoral letters.
In the later Greek codices, and in the Syriac and Latin codices as well, it holds the last place among the Epistles of St. Paul; this usage is also followed by the 'textus receptus', the modern Greek and Latin editions of the text, the Douay and Revised Versions, and the other modern translations.

The Text

The Letter opens with a statement of the superiority of the New Testament Revelation by the Son over the Old Testament Revelation by the prophets (Hebrews 1:1-4).
This opening includes an exaltation of Jesus as "the radiance of God's glory, the express image of his being, and upholding all things by his powerful word". [1:1–3]
The Letter presents Jesus with the titles "Son of God", "priest" and "high priest".
The Letter casts Jesus as both exalted Son and high priest, a unique dual Christology.
It then proves, and explains from the Scriptures, the superiority of this 'New Covenant' over the 'Old' by the comparison of the 'Son' with the 'angels' as mediators of the Old Covenant (i, 5-ii, 18), with Moses and Joshua as the founders of the Old Covenant (iii, 1-iv, 16), and, finally, by opposing the high-priesthood of Christ after the order of Melchisedech to the Levitical priesthood after the order of Aaron (v, 1-x, 18).

Jesus as High Priest of the Order of Melchizedek

In the 'Letter to the Hebrews', Jesus is spoken of as "a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek" (Ps. 110:4), and so Jesus plays the role of the king-priest once and for all. 
According to the author of 'Letter to the Hebrews' (7:13-17) Jesus is considered a priest in the order of Melchizedek because, like Melchizedek, Jesus was not a descendant of Aaron, and thus would not qualify for the Jewish priesthood under Law of Moses.
Melchizedek is referred to again in Hebrews 5:6-10; Hebrews 6:20; Hebrews 7:1-21: 'Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek'; and Hebrews 8:1.
'And verily they that are of the sons of Levi, who receive the office of the priesthood, have a commandment to take tithes of the people according to the law, that is, of their brethren, though they come out of the loins of Abraham: But he whose descent is not counted from them received tithes of Abraham, and blessed him that had the promises (Hebrews 7:5-6).
If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedec, and not be called after the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law" (Hebrews 7:11-12).
The author of 'Letter to the Hebrews' discusses this subject considerably, listing the following reasons for why the priesthood of Melchizedek is superior to the Aaronic priesthood:

Melchizedek and Abraham
Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek; later, the Levites would receive tithes from their countrymen.
Since Aaron was in Abraham's loins then, it was as if the Aaronic priesthood were paying tithes to Melchizedek. (Heb. 7:4-10)
The one who blesses is always greater than the one being blessed.
Thus, Melchizedek was greater than Abraham.
As Levi was yet in the loins of Abraham, it follows that Melchizedek is greater than Levi. (Heb. 7:7-10)
If the priesthood of Aaron were effective, God would not have called a new priest in a different order in Psalm 110. (Heb. 7:11)
The basis of the Aaronic priesthood was ancestry; the basis of the priesthood of Melchizedek is everlasting life.
That is, there is no interruption due to a priest's death. (Heb. 7:8,15-16,23-25)
Christ, being sinless, does not need a sacrifice for his own sins. (Heb. 7:26-27)
The priesthood of Melchizedek is more effective because it required a single sacrifice once and for all (Jesus), while the Levitical priesthood made endless sacrifices. (Heb. 7:27)

Melchizedek - a Priest Forever
The Aaronic priests serve (or, rather, served) in an earthly copy and shadow of the heavenly Temple, which Jesus serves in. (Heb. 8:5)
The epistle goes on to say that the covenant of Jesus is superior to the covenant the Levitical priesthood is under.
It is interesting to note that Melchizedek's name means "king of righteousness" according to the author of Hebrews, and that being king of Salem makes Melchizedek the "king of peace." Heb. 7:3 states, "Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he (Melchizedek) remains a priest forever."
Melchizedek gave Abraham bread and wine, which Christians consider symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice to confirm a covenant.

Mormon Interpretation of the Priesthood of Melchizedek

The 'Letter to the Hebrews' had a profound effect on the theological and liturgical developments in the Church of the Latter Day Saints founded by Joseph Smith.
In the words of the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith, "All Priesthood is Melchizedek, but there are different portions or degrees of it" (TPJS, p. 180).
Most often, however, the name Melchizedek Priesthood is used in the Church to describe the higher priesthood and its offices.
"There are, in the church, two priesthoods, namely, the Melchizedek and Aaronic…. The Melchizedek Priesthood holds the right of presidency, and has power and authority over all the offices in the church in all ages of the world, to administer in spiritual things" (D&C 107:1, 8). The Melchizedek Priesthood holds the keys to the kingdom, and "in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest".

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Jesus as Mediator

The central thought of the entire Letter is the doctrine of the Person of Christ and his position as mediator between man and God.

Christ the King
The Letter states clearly the Divine Nature of Christ as well as Christ's human nature, and this aspect of the Epistle's Christology has been described as Johannine, in that it confirms to the Christological assertions contained in the Gospel of St John.
The Letter describes Christ as raised above Moses, above the angels, and above all created beings, as the glory of the Father, the express image of His Divine nature, which is the eternal and unchangeable, true Son of God, 'Who upholdeth all things by the word of His power' (i, 1-4).
It is explained, however, that the Son desired, however, to take on a human nature and to become in all things like unto us human beings, sin alone excepted, in order to redeem mankind (ii, 9-18; iv, 15, etc.).
By 'obediance even unto death' He gained for Himself the eternal glory which He now also enjoys in His most holy humanity. (i, 3; ii, 9; viii, 1; xii, 2, etc.).
The Letter then states that in heaven Christ now exercises forever His priestly office of mediator (vii, 24 sq.).
This doctrine of the priestly office of Christ forms the chief subject-matter of the Christological argument, and goes on to establish the pre-eminence of the New Covenant over the Old.
The person of the High-priest, after the order of Melchisedech, His sacrifice, and its effects are opposed, in an exhaustive comparison, to the Old Testament institutions.
The Letter lays special emphasis on the spiritual power and effectiveness of Christ's sacrifice, which have brought all mankind, atonement and salvation that are complete and sufficient for all time (i, 3; ix, 9-15, etc.).
In the Christological expositions of the letter other doctrines are treated.
Special emphasis is laid on the setting aside of the Old Covenant, its incompleteness and weakness, its typical and preparatory relation to the time of the Messianic salvation that is realized in the New Covenant (vii, 18 sq.; viii, 15; x, 1, etc.).
In the same manner the letter refers at times to the four last things, the resurrection, the judgement, eternal punishment, and heavenly bliss (vi, 2, 7 sq.; ix, 27, etc.).


One of the most significant aspects of the Letter to the Hebrews is its reliance on Neo-Platonic concepts.
Scholarly evaluation has tended to see the epistle’s thought-world as essentially Platonic, moving in a vertical, dualistic universe of realms heavenly and earthly, the former containing the genuine reality, the latter its imperfect imitation
It should be remembered that Jewish thought, as influenced by older Near Eastern philosophy, contained an element of verticality in a dualistic higher-lower world concept.
It was simpler than the later Platonism, reduced we could say to “heaven” and “earth” in which certain things on earth, especially holy places, had prototypes in heaven.
Such concepts underwent expansion and sophistication under the influence of Platonism, just as older Jewish traditions about personified Wisdom were enriched by the concept of the Greek Logos (as in the Alexandrian document of Hellenistic Judaism, 'The Wisdom of Solomon').
Thus, there should be no objection to referring to the higher-lower world thinking in Hebrews as 'Platonic'.

Pharos - Alexandria
As for the document’s provenance, it has been styled 'Alexandrian' because of its elements reminiscent of the Middle Platonic philosophy of that Egyptian city, but it could be from any number of centrers in the eastern Mediterranean which could have been exposed to Alexandrian influences, while still allowing for a certain amount of divergence.
There are notable differences from the particular approach of Philo, the premier Jewish-Platonic philosopher of Alexandria in the period prior to the Jewish War, which is when the Epistle to the Hebrews needs to be dated.

Heavenly and Earthly Sanctuaries 

No other New Testament document so clearly illustrates the higher and lower world thinking of Platonic philosophy as the 'Epistle to the Hebrews'.

The Desert Tabernacle - Tent
The writer places the sacrifice of Christ in heaven itself, in “the real sanctuary, the 'tent' (tabernacle) raised by the God and not by man” (8:2).
This 'tent' (tabernacle) of Christ’s priesthood “is a greater and more perfect one, not made by men’s hands, not part of the created world (9:11).
Christ’s “sacrifice” is not spoken of in terms of a crucifixion on Calvary.
The suffering and death he underwent are treated almost in secondary fashion, given relatively little attention in the writer’s soteriological scheme of things.

σωτηρία sōtēria "salvation" from σωτήρ sōtēr "savior" - is the study of religious doctrines of salvation. Salvation theory occupies a place of special significance and importance in Christianity and Gnosticism
In the academic field of religious studies, soteriology is understood by scholars as representing a key theme.

Rather, the “sacrifice” is the act of the new High Priest Christ who, following his death, brings his own blood into the heavenly sanctuary, and there offers it to God as an atonement for sin. This act has “secured an eternal salvation” (9:12), and established a New Covenant.
It is portrayed as a higher world, more perfect counterpart to the action of the high priest on earth who, on the yearly Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), brings the blood of sacrificed animals into the inner sanctuary of the Temple, offering it to God to obtain forgiveness for the people’s sins.
Christ’s heavenly sacrifice is deemed to have supplanted the earthly ones.
Not only is Christ’s sacrifice not identified with Calvary, the writer never introduces into his parallel duality of heavenly High Priest and earthly high priests the idea that an important part of Jesus’ act of sacrifice had taken place on earth.
This is something which would have seriously compromised the purity of his higher-lower world comparison - indeed made it unworkable.
The author has said that the blood of Christ’s sacrifice is “unblemished, spiritual and eternal” (9:14), and that this kind of superior (to the earthly) sacrifice is “required to cleanse heavenly things” (9:23).
For the complete sacrifice has been offered in the realm of the spirit…in the eternal order of things…it belonged essentially to the higher order of absolute reality.
Scholars often speak of scriptural ‘types’ - figures, pronouncements, events in the Old Testament - serving as the model for later counterparts in the New Testament -  a case of biblical ‘prototypes’ (or ‘archetypes’) prefiguring ‘antitypes’ in the life of Jesus on earth, the latter being the copy of the former.
This is the linearity of classical Jewish thought, the “then” and the “now” (or often the “soon to be”)
However, the Epistle to the Hebrews has blended this Jewish thought with the Greek in a unique fashion.
First, we have the ingredient of classic Platonism.
The higher world contains the perfect model, the lower world its imperfect copy or reflection.

The Earthly Sanctury
In the 'Letter to the Hebrews' this kind of Platonic relationship applies to the two sanctuaries, the one in heaven and the one on earth, and the two types of sacrifice performed within them. This relationship operates in the most important aspect of the epistle, the presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus.
In regard to the sanctuaries themselves, the relationship is that the perfect sanctuary in heaven exists first, and the earthly sanctuary is an imperfect copy of the heavenly.
The heavenly sanctuary is essentially timeless; it was created by God at the beginning and the earthly sanctuary has been modeled on it, right from the first tent-sanctuary at Sinai set up by Moses, following heavenly directions to the subsequent incarnations of the Temple in Jerusalem.
But in regard to the events within those sanctuaries, we have the opposite situation.
Of the two counterpart actions, the sacrifices in the earthly sanctuary came first in  earthly time, while Jesus’ single heavenly sacrifice is treated as coming later, and in a sense has been modeled on them - although it exists in a timeless realm.
In regard to these actions, therefore, the prototype is on earth, and the antitype, or copy, is apparently in heaven, in terms of earthly time.

Jerusalem Temple - Herod the Great
Moreover, again an apparent (but not actual) reverse of classic Platonism, while the “perfect” sanctuary itself came first, followed by the “imperfect” copy on earth, the perfect sacrifice - that of Christ - appeared to come second, and was apparently (but not actually) modeled on the imperfect first sacrifices, those of the earthly high priests in the earthly sanctuary.
This paradox is only apparent, however, as the imperfect concept of time as a consecutive succession of instants or moments that we are forced to use is not in accordance with the concept of time applicable to Platonic plane of perfection.
The central concern of the 'Letter to the Hebrews' is the comparison between what happens on earth in the sacrifices performed by the Jewish high priest in the earthly sanctuary, and what happens in heaven in the new High Priest Jesus’ own sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary.
An earthly event is set opposite a heavenly event, a material act opposite a spiritual act.
The reason for the focus on the first tent-sanctuary (tabernacle) set up by Moses at Sinai is because this represents the establishment of the Original Covenant, against which is set Jesus’ sacrifice in heaven as the establishment of the New and Eternal Covenant.
The Old Covenant began in the desert of the Exodus.
The New Covenant began with Jesus’ sacrifice in heaven, where his blood was offered in the heavenly tabernacle. (It is never stated as beginning with his death, let alone on earth or Calvary.)
In this context, Christ’s sacrifice in heaven is treated as something ‘subsequent’ to its scriptural archetype in Sinai.
This is the sole dimension of linearity in the epistle’s thought about prototype and antitype, but it is a mix of Jewish and Greek.
It is supplemented by the only ‘history to history’ sequence in view: a progression from the record of scripture, God speaking in the past, to the new revelation derived from scripture, God speaking in the present, sometimes through the (scriptural) voice of the Son.
As one can see, the picture of Platonic, historical, and sequential relationships in this document is exceedingly subtle and complex, and it is not helpful to try to introduce an 'historical Jesus' into the centre of the sophisticated theo-philosophical mix.

 The Logos in the Letter to the Hebrews

For Philo, the Logos is seen in the beginning of creation.
It's origin is in the mind of God before anything in this lower world is made.
This Logos must be emanated before anything else because God “needs” something to interact with between itself and that which will be created.
Philo states, “…the Logos was conceived in God’s mind before all things and is manifested in connection with all things.”
After this Logos emanates from the mind of God, The emenates lower types of manifestations from the Divine Mind.
These emanations of the Logos then become differentiated into the various hierarchies of celestial beings.
It is important to note that, since the Logos is a projection of divine reality and being, it can be called God.
This Logos can also be deemed an apospasma, or extension of God.
This extension is seen in the intermediaries which Philo regulates as the workings and acts of the Logos in the midst of men, and at times, as a cosmic force.
Sometimes the wording in Philo’s writing seems to imply that the Logos is a thinking soul rather than just a world of ideas or mind of God which emanates.
But the idea of the Logos always constitutes an intermediary between God and men.
The Logos is an intermediary in the ethical salvation of man.
As a Platonist, Philo understood the 'world of the forms' as those forms which exist as thoughts in God’s mind, as His ideas for the cosmos.
This world of thoughts is actually the Logos, and is understood as the subordinate mind of God.
From this 'plane' of forms all other things emanate and are created.
At this point, however, one can now see the difference between the writings of Philo and his conception of the 'divine Logos', and the author of the Hebrews, who attributes the “Logos” to the incarnate Son of God.
The Logos of Philo is a metaphysical abstraction, but for the author of the 'Letter to the Hebrews' the eternal Logos is also a specific individual.
Philo’s “son of God” is the Logos which acts as an oblivious force, whereas the Logos of the Letter to the Hebrews (and John’s Gospel) is God’s Son.

The Heavenly Sanctury

The new sanctuary and Christ’s sacrifice within it are things “revealed”.
The Sinai tent-sanctuary (Tabernacle) contained inner and outer parts (as the Temple in Jerusalem did), with access to the inner room restricted to the High Priest, and only once a year (9:7); access to God under the Old Covenant was limited.
Thus it is possible to interpret the structure of the tent, with entry to the inner tent hidden by the outer tent that stood before (or around) it, to be a symbol that the heavenly sanctuary and Christ’s sacrifice within it were “undisclosed” throughout Jewish history.
That dual tent structure, with its “hidden” inner tent, was a deliberate “symbol” intended by God, and directed at those who truly believed, who would one day understand that the better and ultimate way into God’s presence was still to come.
This way to the new sanctuary, the establishment of the New Covenant, was “not yet revealed,” (9:8), as long as the outer sanctuary and the Old Covenant remained in place.
Now, however, it has been revealed (even though the temple cult was still functioning at the time of the writing of the Epistle, although its demise was expected shortly [8:13]).

The Heavenly Sanctuary
The New Covenant was taking effect, while the Old was fading fast.
But note how this is presented.
The Holy Spirit had created “a symbol pointing to the present time” (the time of the writing of the Epistle) (9:9).
But what specifically was it pointing to ?
As noted, what had happened in the “now” to bring this about was a disclosure; a revelation.
It was not the act of Jesus that had occurred to bring about the new order, but the revelation of that act through the new interpretation of scripture, including of the Christ's own voice within it
God’s abolition of the 'Old Covenant' was by means of Jesus’ act, but its application was through the revelation of that act.
As the author presents it, the coming into effect of the 'New Covenant' occured at the time of such a discovery, and the spread of that knowledge - the “time of revelation” - which is what the writer and his community perceived themselves as being a part of.
It had not come into effect at the time of Jesus’ act itself.
Thus the Holy Spirit had pointed not to Jesus, but to the time of knowledge about Jesus and his heavenly acts.
Scripture is not fulfilled in history.
Scripture is fulfilled in the heavenly sphere, as newly interpreted out of scripture.
Thus the “earlier” and the “later” lie both within the pages of scripture.
to be continued
© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013

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