2012-05-28

15. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt. 15

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by Earl Doherty

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The Epistle to the Hebrews (Part One)

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  • God speaking through a Son in a new reading of scripture
  • Hebrews’ Son a heavenly entity like the Logos
  • Hebrews 101: a sacrifice in a heavenly sanctuary
  • an event of revelation at the start of the sect
  • no words of Jesus on earth to be found
  • another motif of “likeness” to humans
  • “In the days of his flesh”: not Gethsemane
  • Christ “out of Judah”
  • Hebrews’ sacrifice in heaven
  • taking on a “body” in the scriptural world

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Evidence for Jesus from Outside the Gospels

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 116-117)

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Reading an historical Jesus into scripture

Those who have become familiar with my writings over the years will know that I have a soft spot for the epistle to the Hebrews. In many ways it is the most revealing of the New Testament documents.

  • It gives us a Son who is entirely known from scripture.
  • It presents a heavenly event that could only have been imagined out of a Platonic application of scripture: a sacrifice by the Son, performed in a spiritual sanctuary, in which he offers his own “blood” to God — a blood which can hardly be regarded as being human, hauled up from Calvary.

Indeed, anomalies like this have increasingly forced modern scholars to take refuge in interpreting Christ’s sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary as intended by the author to be merely a metaphor for the earthly Calvary event — an interpretation for which there is no justification in the epistle. Most significantly, Hebrews contains two verses which make it clear that its Jesus had never been on earth, two smoking guns that would do any mythicist gunslinger proud.

Ehrman, true to form, simply seizes on any and all words and phrases in the epistle which he thinks could have an earthly or human application and declares them as such. He admits that this epistle, too, shows no knowledge of the Gospels — which he ought to have extended to no knowledge of the Gospel story, whether written or oral — but nevertheless “it contains numerous references to the life of the historical Jesus.

Ehrman itemizes some twenty of them (pp. 116-117, DJE?):

  • Jesus appeared in ‘these last days’ (1:2).
  • God spoke through him (that is, in his proclamation; 1:2).

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God speaking through a Son

First of all, the opening verses do not say, in any fashion, that “Jesus appeared.” What has happened “in these last days” is that God, who formerly had spoken through the prophets, has now spoken to us “in a Son.” Ehrman maintains that this ‘speaking’ was through Jesus’ proclamation on earth. But we look in vain throughout the whole of Hebrews for a single word of proclamation by a Jesus on earth. Everything spoken by the Son is from scripture. What the writer is referring to is a new reading of scripture in which the voice of the Son is now being perceived, just as we have seen in epistles like 1 Clement.

The writer is presenting a new speaking by God through a Son, and he goes on to define that Son. If the latter were perceived as a teacher on earth, proclaiming on behalf of God, one would expect the writer’s definition to include some reference to an incarnation and teaching ministry. Not a hint. Instead we get only the cosmic Son familiar from other hymnic passages (such as Colossians 1:15-20):

. . . (a Son) whom he has made heir to the whole universe, and through whom he created all orders of existence: the Son who is the effulgence of God’s splendour and the stamp of God’s very being, and sustains the universe by his word of power. [1:2-3, NEB]

So far no sign of Ehrman’s “life of the historical Jesus.” Immediately thereafter, he lists:

  • He ‘made a purification for sins’ (that is, he died a bloody death; 1:3).

Considering that no identification of the Son has been made with an earthly Jesus or his life, this comes up rather suddenly, and is followed immediately in the verse by his taking a seat at the right hand of God. (The throne room looks to be right next door to the heavenly sanctuary where the purification took place.) One hardly gets the sense of a life and events that have covered earth and heaven.

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Hebrews’ heavenly sacrifice

By his parenthetical “that is, he died a bloody death,” Ehrman shows himself to be woefully ignorant of the whole soteriology of this epistle. The “purification for sins” does not apply to any death event, but rather to Christ’s (post-death) sacrifice—the offering of his own blood in the heavenly sanctuary. That, for this writer, is the “sacrifice,” not the death, which remains obscurely in the background, unlocated. It is that act in heaven which makes the “purification for sins,” not the death.

This sacrificial offering of his blood on the heavenly altar is in Platonic parallel with, and a permanent replacement for, the traditional sacrifices of the high priests on earth, who have offered the blood of animals to God — first at Sinai, then in the Temple throughout Jewish history — on the Day of Atonement. (All this is Hebrews 101, which almost every scholar of this epistle recognizes, even if they try to compromise it by inserting an historical Jesus into the background.)

So after defining the Son in exclusively heavenly (and very Logos-like) terms, the author has followed this with a reference to a heavenly event: Christ offering his blood in the heavenly sanctuary. Once again, we look in vain for any reference to “the life of the historical Jesus.

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Christ superior to the angels

Nor is that to be found in the remainder of chapter 1, which the author devotes to proving that the Son is superior to the angels. (Such superiority is necessary since, while the angels delivered the Old Covenant, the Son through a superior sacrifice has delivered the New Covenant which supplants it.) This is demonstrated by means of ‘proof-texts’ from scripture, standard stuff such as “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee,” something God never said to any angel. (No mention of a voice from God out of heaven saying this very thing at Jesus’ baptism by the Jordan.) No claim of superiority is made by virtue of his life on earth, or of his resurrection from the tomb. No “life of the historical Jesus” here.

Incidentally, when in 2:5-9, Christ is said to have been “made a little lower [lit., lesser] than the angels,” applying Psalm 8:4-6 to him, the author is continuing his theme of comparing Christ to the angels. The verb means ‘to make inferior,’ not to place in a lower location. Thus it is not describing an incarnation to an earth lower than the angels’ realm. This temporary ‘inferiority’ results from his assumption of corruptibility to undergo death, which could take place in the demons’ realm (though this, too, is lower than the angels’ location).

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A time of revelation

As he did in regard to the Prologue of 1 John, Ehrman offers the event of revelation at the formation of the sect, described at the beginning of chapter 2, as a reference to the historical Jesus’ own preaching. But the ‘hearing’ and ‘confirming’ are of the message of salvation, one provided by God. (The NEB gives us a particularly gratuitous translation which inserts Gospel Jesus implications that are not in the Greek.) In fact, the verse paraphrased by Ehrman (committing the same sin as the NEB),

  • God bore witness to him and/or his followers through signs, wonders, various miracles, and gifts of the spirit (2:4)

raises the question of why it would be said that God supported Jesus’ message by miracles, rather than Jesus himself. After all, according to the Gospels, this was the very purpose of Jesus’ miracles. Rather, God is the one supplying the miracles here because it is God who is delivering the message at the time of the community’s formation. This is a thought reinforced later in 9:10, in which the writer locates the inauguration of the New Covenant in the present “time of reformation,” the time of understanding (i.e., by revelation based on scripture), not the historical time of Jesus’ sacrifice.

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No words of Jesus on earth

This reading of the revelation event is confirmed by a later passage in the epistle, something which scholars have consistently overlooked or ignored. The account in chapter 2 has said: “. . . how shall we escape, if we ignore so great a salvation which was first spoken through the Lord?” If the latter refers to a preaching historical Jesus, why does 12:25 say: “. . . how much less will we (escape) if we turn away from the one who speaks from heaven?” This is in a context of quoting God from scripture. Shortly thereafter, 13:7 says: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.” And back in 5:12, the basics of the faith have been referred to as “the oracles of God.

Throughout the epistle, any thought of the word of Jesus spoken on earth is utterly absent. Not even in 9:20 does the writer give us the Eucharistic words of Jesus at the Last Supper (see Mark 14:24) to illustrate the establishment of the New Covenant, despite the natural parallel — and this writer is fixated on parallels — this would have made with the similar words he quotes from Moses at the establishment of the Old. (They are similar, of course, because the Gospel scene has been determined by the Exodus passage.) Such a parallel with Moses would never have been passed up, regardless of the ineffectual excuses offered by various commentators.

Yet again, Ehrman’s “references to the life of the historical Jesus” have evaporated into the wind.

The same void occurs in another key passage (2:11-18). To illustrate the paradigmatic link between Jesus and his devotees on earth, the writer presents him as acknowledging that the latter are his “brothers.” (Which, of course, does not make them siblings.) But does he do this by appealing to any of several Gospel sayings which make such a point (as in Mark 3:35, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother”)? No. Once more, the voice of Jesus is from scripture, in three passages from Isaiah and the Psalms (e.g., “I will declare your name to my brothers” [Ps. 22:22]).

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Another “likeness” motif

In this same passage, as part of that parallel counterpart relationship which makes his redemptive acts a guarantee of salvation, the writer says:

Since the children have partaken of blood and flesh, so he in like manner [paraplēsiōs] shared the same things . . .

No matter what else this epistle lacks in regard to a human Jesus, this verse is seized upon by historicists as absolute proof of earthly incarnation. But we’ve seen it all before. As with other expressions of the “likeness” motif, the word “paraplēsiōs” means “similar to” not “identical with.” And for what purpose does Jesus share in this similarity? So that through his death he could destroy the devil (v.14). So that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest before God (v.17).

In other words, for his salvific role in the heavenly world — which required only the spiritual equivalent of blood and flesh. There is no mention of taking on literal human flesh and blood in order to a live an earthly life, to preach a ministry in Galilee, to perform miracles and heal the sick, to do anything else that could be associated with an historical man.

As for his being “tempted” (Ehrman refers to 2:18 and 4:15), nothing there suggests anything other than the temptation to refuse to obey God and fail to fulfill his mission of suffering and death. Such ‘tempting’ was limited entirely to activities in the spiritual world.

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In the days of his flesh [en tais hēmerais tēs sarkos autou]”

There are two peculiarities about this phrase in 5:7, inevitably claimed to refer to Christ’s incarnation on earth.

First is the language itself. What bizarre motivation would have led such a wide range of writers across a whole faith movement to consistently describe Jesus’ life on earth in such awkward terms (and in combination with referring to his arrival on earth by using revelation verbs)? Why would they consistently avoid more natural phrases, like “lived a life” or “when he was on earth” or “when he became a man among us”? (The NEB illustrates my point by translating the phrase: “In the days of his earthly life.”) Not a single epistle writer uses such natural language. Not ever.

The answer does not need spelling out.

The second ‘peculiarity’ — though it is hardly peculiar within Hebrews or the rest of the epistles — is the description of what Jesus did “in the days of his flesh.” Once again, the context is the narrow one of Jesus’ obedience to God in fulfilling his redemptive role. Once again, such details are taken from scripture. “Offering up prayers and supplications” is drawn from Psalm 116:1 (LXX wording), while “with loud cries and tears” is an enlargement on Psalm 22:24 (LXX wording), “when I cried to him, he heard me.

This ‘event’ is sometimes interpreted as a reference to the Gethsemane scene, but scholars have noted an important incompatibility. There, Jesus prayed that he might be spared the cup of suffering, a prayer that was not answered, whereas in Hebrews he is asking to be delivered from death, i.e., be resurrected from it. And so he was. The Gethsemane scene would have contradicted the writer’s point, which is to present a Son whose prayers are answered by the Father.

Besides, Gethsemane is virtually certain to be a literary invention of Mark, and this writer shows no knowledge of written Gospels. With monotonous regularity, Hebrews continues to deny Ehrman any “life of the historical Jesus.

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A tribe and priesthood for a heavenly Son

  • He was descended from the tribe of Judah [lit., has arisen out of Judah] (7:14).

This one is a complex point (see Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.228-231). It entails an analysis of the figure of Melchizedek who appears throughout the middle section of the epistle. While this figure is based on the king and high priest of Salem (probably Jerusalem) in Genesis 14:18-20, the writer also employs him as a heavenly personage akin to an angel, as one of the Dead Sea Scrolls does. In fact, he melds the two. First, historically speaking, Melchizedek was in a line leading to David and could thus be associated with the tribe of Judah. This provided Christ, in being linked with Melchizedek, with a High Priesthood of a different tribe than the Levites of the old priesthood of Aaron — a necessity, as he sees it, to accompany the new covenant and “change of law” (7:12), since the Levites were associated with the old law and covenant.

But because Melchizedek was also looked upon as a heavenly priest (see also 2 Enoch), this could give the heavenly Son a priesthood in heaven, and this the writer bases on Psalm 110:4: “You are a priest forever in the succession of Melchizedek.” (We can see here, as well as in Christ’s heavenly sacrifice, the extent to which a Christian exegete could ‘tease’ out of scripture a revelation of just about any scenario in the spiritual universe he desired.)

Immediately following 7:14, the writer notes:

What we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek arises, not according to a law about physical requirement, but to the power of an indestructible life . . .

Not only does the writer dismiss physical descent as the basis on which Christ belongs to Judah and enjoys a legitimate priesthood, he derives that legitimacy from scripture. For “the power of an indestructible life” is in no way a reference to his resurrection on earth, but to the above quoted Psalm 110:4, that Christ is “a priest forever,” a promise made by God.

Clearly the writer knows of no life on earth, let alone a descent from David (which he never refers to), for if Jesus as the new High Priest needed to be of a different tribe, no arcane link to Melchizedek should have been required. An appeal could simply have been made to the historical tradition that Jesus of Nazareth was descended from David and was automatically of the tribe of Judah.

Thus, the “it is clear” of 7:14 is a reference to the information provided by scripture, not by “the life of the historical Jesus.

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The sacrifice in heaven

Ehrman entirely skirts the heart of the epistle, chapters 8-9, which describes the sacrifice performed by Christ in the heavenly sanctuary, offering his blood to God on its altar for the propitiation of sins. Perhaps that was because the language conveying the parallel images of earthly sanctuary and heavenly sanctuary, earthly sacrifices by the high priests using the blood of animals and the heavenly sacrifice by Christ himself using his own blood, are so graphic and obvious, so Platonically spelled out, that it would be virtually impossible to interpret any of it as describing events of “the life of the historical Jesus.

The best that scholars (such as Harold Attridge) can do is label it all a metaphor, despite the gap between metaphor and the thing supposedly being represented. This author is not subtle about his parallels, even when they don’t work (as in 13:11-14: see next instalment). In the entire picture of the sacrifice in heaven, no parallel or comparison is even remotely implied to a death on a cross.

Besides, the writer is so preoccupied with comparing Jesus’ sacrifice with the sacrifices of the high priests on earth, he has no room for any attention to be paid, by himself or his readers, to a presumed Calvary event. In fact, such an earthly event would fatally compromise his elaborate Platonic parallels. (The “cross” is referred to in passing in 12:2, but not as part of the “sacrifice” which has made a purification for sin. Nor is that cross presented as located on earth.)

On the other hand, it is surprising that Ehrman neglected to bring up this passage (9:24/26) which is consistently given an earthly understanding by scholarship:

For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that is only a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself . . .

. . . but now, once, at the completion of the ages, he has been manifested/appeared [our old friend, the verb phaneroō] to put away sin by his sacrifice.

The latter verse (26b) is invariably interpreted as a reference to his incarnation and earthly death on Calvary. But taking the thought in conjunction not only with verse 24, but the epistle’s entire presentation of the sacrifice, the “appearing” must refer to Christ’s entry into the heavenly sanctuary and the offering of his blood on the altar; this, as always, is what constitutes the “sacrifice” referred to at the end of the above quote. Otherwise, as I say in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (p.243), the verse would be forced into saying: “Christ appeared on earth in order to offer his blood in the heavenly sanctuary.”

Everything in this passage, as it has throughout the account of Christ’s sacrifice, refers to activities taking place in heaven. As for the time reference “at the completion of the ages,” the passage is sufficiently ambiguous in the Greek to allow that the ‘putting away sin’ is what has been accomplished, through the revelation of Christ and his role, at the completion of the ages, meaning in the writer’s own time. Alternatively, perhaps the writer envisions that the sacrifice in heaven has actually taken place in the present period.

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Christ takes on a body in scripture

  • He taught about God: ‘You have not desired or taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’ (10:8).
  • He said, ‘I have come to do your will’ (10:9).

Ehrman is being particularly atomistic here if he thinks to label such things the voice of the historical Jesus. These are parts of a quote from Psalm 40:6-8 (LXX), with an introductory line:

That is why, at his coming into the world, he says,

Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire,

But thou hast prepared a body for me.

Whole-offerings and sin-offerings thou didst not delight in.

Then I said: ‘Here I am: as it is written of me in the scroll,

I have come, O God, to do thy will.’ [10:5-7, NEB]

In no way is this presented as words of Jesus on earth. It is yet another example (and an excellent one) of the voice of the Son being heard in scripture. Note the present tense of the introductory line: “he says,” used here and elsewhere to present the words of Jesus in scripture. While scholars are generally divided on how to interpret this, Paul Ellingworth nicely regards the “he says” as “a timeless present referring to the permanent record of scripture” [NIGT Commentary: Hebrews, p.499-500]. I would call it a “mythical present,” reflecting the higher world of myth, onto which scripture provides a window.

The “at his coming into the world” must also entail a present sense, ruling out an historical reference to the incarnation. “World” is “kosmos” which can encompass the entire universe, including heavenly spheres. These are perceived words of Christ as he enters the world where he will undergo sacrifice (a lower level of the heavens), where a body has been prepared for him to do this, and where he will obey the will of God.

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The source of the Christ event is scripture

Right here, we can see one scriptural source which has led this community to envision a sacrifice for the Son in the supernatural dimension, as revealed in the new reading of the sacred writings: the voice of the Son himself spelling out the sacrifice that will supplant the earthly ones that God no longer wants. It has even revealed that he took on a “body” in order to do so.

When in the following verses the writer discusses certain parts of this quote (the ones Ehrman lists), there is no elucidation that such scriptural ‘prophecy’ was fulfilled on earth, on Calvary, or that the “body” was a human one. And further elucidation about the meaning of the sacrifice is in the form of more quotes from scripture. There is no sign of “the life of the historical Jesus” here either.

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Next: Hebrews Part Two – Smoking Guns at the NT Corral

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  • Evan
    2012-05-28 04:26:16 UTC - 04:26 | Permalink

    Earl, your chapter on Hebrews in JNGNM was a clinching argument for me and I’m happy to see it here as well. I simply invite interested readers to read the epistle and compare your reading of it to Ehrman’s. In my opinion, your reading is one that makes clear some things that are completely opaque when reading it under the standard Luke/Acts paradigm. Your explication of it here in pellucid, unemotional prose is exemplary of the tone and style that should be used in such a debate. Thanks so much for this.

  • Michael Kingsford Gray
    2012-05-28 09:13:11 UTC - 09:13 | Permalink

    Fascinating and enlightening, as always.
    Thanks for such an extensive and devastating analysis.

  • 2012-05-28 11:11:08 UTC - 11:11 | Permalink

    It seems to me that The Epistle to the Hebrews was written while the Jerusalem Temple and the Levite priesthood still were operating. Consider the following passages:

    Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. … Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth [of national income] from the people …. the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year …. Day after day, every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices … [Hebrews 5:1, 7:5, 9:25, 10:11]

    In general, it seems to me that The Epistle to the Hebrews contrasts the Levite priesthood, which seems to still be operating, with the Melchizedek priesthood, into which the Christians have entered and will become the predominate priesthood in the future in Heaven. As an example of this contrast, the Christians are instructed not to be jealous of the Levite priests’ apparently still current consumption of ceremonial foods in the apparently still operating Jerusalem Temple.

    It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tablernacle [at the Jerusalem Temple] have no right to eat.

    The High Priest [of the Jerusalem Temple] carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place [of the Jerusalem Temple] as a sin offering, but the bodies [of the sacrifical animals] are burned outside the camp [outside the Jerusalem Temple]. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city [because Jerusalem will be destroyed], but we are looking for the city that is to come [in Heaven]. [Hebrews 13:9-13]

    • 2012-05-29 00:32:02 UTC - 00:32 | Permalink

      I don’t see your basis for taking “outside the camp” as meaning outside the Jerusalem Temple. He has been talking throughout the epistle about the tent at Sinai, and so the reference ought to be taken with that meaning in mind. I can’t see using “camp” in reference to the Temple. And my understanding is that the animals were killed/burned within the Temple precincts, not outside them. Just not within the inner holier part of the Temple. Just as Jesus did not suffer within the heavenly sanctuary, but ‘outside’ its gate, meaning in a lower layer of the heavens.

      But I agree that every indication is that the Temple cult was still going on when Hebrews was written, IOW before the Jewish War. I address that as my final word in Part Two, next installment.

      • 2012-05-29 01:04:57 UTC - 01:04 | Permalink

        I don’t see your basis for taking “outside the camp” as meaning outside the Jerusalem Temple. He has been talking throughout the epistle about the tent at Sinai, and so the reference ought to be taken with that meaning in mind.

        I see now that you are correct about that point. Thanks.

  • 2012-05-28 20:20:07 UTC - 20:20 | Permalink

    This particular post leaves me with more questions than answers (not necessarily a bad thing), and my take-away is that this is not the strongest of Doherty’s replies to Ehrman.

    In particular, Hebrews is not an *independent* source of evidence of a historical Jesus (contra Ehrman), but could well be a dependent, or derived, source, of a writer attempting to offer a Jewish (if somewhat hellenized Jewish) apologia for the early stories of a Jesus, to a Jewish crowd that would only take evidence from Jewish writings already accepted as authoritative among their community.

    Thus the writer and the first readers would have already been familiar with the early Mark, or Q, or whatever, of stories of Jesus. Furthermore, these stories about Jesus would seem strangely at odds with what some Jews believed about their God. In this case, Doherty’s arguments here don’t seem so forceful. There’s no reason to assume that the writer of Hebrews would have needed or wanted to repeat the stories in whatever primitive gospels were available to the readers or hearers, and thus the absence of these leads to no conclusions.

    IOW, Doherty is trying to draw too much from the silence of the writer of Hebrews on certain topics.

    • Robert Bumbalough
      2012-05-28 23:35:06 UTC - 23:35 | Permalink

      @freetoken >

      There’s no reason to assume that the writer of Hebrews would have needed or wanted to repeat the stories in whatever primitive gospels were available to the readers or hearers, and thus the absence of these leads to no conclusions.

      Sir or Madam: your conclusion is not warranted as what scanty evidence extant suggest that gospel stories were very slowly diffused at best. Christianity was extremely unsuccessful in the first century; by 100 CE, there were maybe 5,000 Jesus cultist throughout the Roman empire, and those who did convert were credulous, loons and fools, suckers and morons, losers and not scholarly people. If, as you suggest, Hebrews was composed prior to the first Jewish war, then there would have to have been early dissemination of Mark and Q. However, as you likely know, the canonical Gospels don’t show up in the literary record until Irenaeus and there is no reason to date Mark early other than self-serving, apologetic, wishful thinking. Lack of reference to elements of the orthodox historist story in Hebrews indicates, I think, that the Torah Jesus cultists to whom the document was addressed most likely believed their boy was a spirit realm being who functioned in higher paradigmatic spheres of Platonic cosmology. Question: How could stupid morons believe such complex stuff? Answer: They didn’t care about such niceties, and believed sickness and mental illness came from devils. For them Jesus was a way to get in touch with God and overcome demons.

      Best Wishes to You and Yours.

      • KevinC
        2012-05-29 15:40:57 UTC - 15:40 | Permalink

        The idea that the earliest Christians were poor, downtrodden illiterate peasants is a Gospel-centric assumption that may not be warranted. It comes from the idea that Jesus was a simple carpenter, and his followers were Galilean fishermen. One of the main mythicist arguments is that the earliest written records, the Epistles, make no reference to any of that. Reading them without Gospel-colored glasses, one would never get the impression that the Christian movement started out with a group of country bumpkins from Galilee. Even the Gospels cite the Greek Septuagint rather than oral paraphrases of Scripture passages heard from rabbis or priests in Aramaic by people who could not read the texts for themselves. The Epistle to the Hebrews is itself evidence that its author, and the people to whom it was written, were capable of grappling with a sophisticated Judeo-Platonic mystical cosmology.

        As for the notion that ‘they believed sickness and mental illness came from devils, therefore they were morons,’ you’re forgetting that in ancient Rome there was no such thing as microscopes, no epidemiology, and no scientific method. Within the context of the extremely limited knowledge available at the time, belief that disease and mental illness were caused by spiritual forces was a reasonable theory. It is well-known that strong belief in the efficacy of a remedy can make it work, even if the remedy itself does nothing. We call it “the Placebo Effect,” and it has been demonstrated sufficiently well that no medical study is considered valid if it does not test the new treatment against a placebo. In modern medical practice the Placebo Effect is measurable when the placebos (usually sugar pills) are given by people in lab coats. The authoritative presence of a Doctor offering a medicine is enough to do the trick. In ancient times (and for that matter, in various places today), magicians and exorcists employed elaborate ritual psychodrama to induce belief in their remedies. Given that people in those days (educated as well as the peasantry) believed in magic and spiritual forces in about the same way we believe in electricity, it is likely that ancient magicians and exorcists were able to maximize the efficacy of the Placebo Effect. In comparison with unscientific, trial-and-error secular techniques (like bleeding with leeches or trepanning), magic and exorcism probably worked better.

        Your argument is based on unwarranted assumptions. You start out assuming that the audience of Hebrews were familiar with Mark and Q, and therefore Mark and Q would have had to be disseminated before Hebrews, so Hebrews must have been late despite the indications in the text that the Jewish sacrificial system was still in operation. Then you use the circular argument that the audience of Hebrews were morons, so they could not have believed in such complex stuff, because they were morons. If we start with the evidence of the text itself, then we have indications that it was written early–the Jewish sacrificial system is described as a present reality that the readers are being urged to leave behind–and that its audience was familiar enough with the Hebrew Scriptures that references to a priesthood of Melchizedek, etc. would not fly over their heads, and familiar enough with Platonic cosmology that the idea of a Heavenly Temple with a Heavenly Sanctuary as metaphysically superior to their earthly counterparts would not be seen as a completely alien and incomprehensible idea.

        There may be counter-evidence that would provide reason to dismiss these indications in the text of Hebrews. Perhaps Maurice Casey really has demonstrated that gMark was crafted on top of an Aramaic source or oral tradition leading back to a peasant Jesus and his fisherman friends. However, the mere assumption that the earliest Christians were ‘morons’ is not enough. In his book James, the Brother of Jesus, Robert Eisenmann makes a strong case that Paul associated with a number of heavy-hitters in the Flavian and Herodian royal families, and addressed several of them in his letters. If this is correct, then the early Christian movement, at least its Pauline, Gentile-oriented side, was not a movement of the poor and downtrodden in Galilee, but of educated, Hellenized Jews who had made their peace with their Roman and Idumean overlords and would have had good reason to discover that the Jewish Messiah was actually a Mystery School god-man, in the same way that it was advantageous for Josephus to decide that the Messiah was Emperor Vespasian.

    • 2012-05-29 00:43:50 UTC - 00:43 | Permalink

      There is absolutely no basis within the epistle itself to postulate this sort of scenario. This sort of thing is very common from those who don’t like my exegesis, not only in Hebrews. One can come up with all sorts of “explanations” for a situation in the documents, but if there is no evidence in the text itself for it, then one is simply making it up within one’s own mind based on one’s own inventiveness.

      And once again we have the same old lame excuse for not mentioning the life of Jesus: the writer had no reason to or no interest in doing so. No interest in saying anything that would have been pertinent from Mark because he wanted to allude solely to scripture instead. He denied any basis for Jesus’ priesthood in a descent from any human figure because he wanted to trace it through the heavenly Melchizedek. No appeal to any Christian figure who had endured persecution but only to Old Testament figures because…(?) And on and on.

      Nonsensical. Sorry, I don’t buy it.

    • Blood
      2012-05-29 03:01:03 UTC - 03:01 | Permalink

      “In particular, Hebrews is not an *independent* source of evidence of a historical Jesus (contra Ehrman), but could well be a dependent, or derived, source, of a writer attempting to offer a Jewish (if somewhat hellenized Jewish) apologia for the early stories of a Jesus, to a Jewish crowd that would only take evidence from Jewish writings already accepted as authoritative among their community.”

      Since all early Christian kerygma relies upon “Jewish writings” (i.e., The LXX and related literature like 1 Enoch), there is no need to posit an ethnic Jewish writer or an ethnic Jewish audience for Hebrews. It is, like all early Christian writing, anti-Jewish polemic, using the LXX to supposedly prove that God is now on the side of the Gentiles, not the Jews. One of the author’s themes is how Christ is superior to all of the Jewish patriarchs, including Moses (3:3), and is a high priest in the order of Melchizedek, “who does not belong to THEIR [the Jews] ancestry (7:6).” Melchizedek is superior to Abraham (7:7). The Law has been abrogated (7:18-19). God has made the Old Covenant obsolete (8:13). And so on.

    • Malcolm
      2012-05-29 09:43:25 UTC - 09:43 | Permalink

      If the author of Hebrews was attempting to offer an “apologia for the early stories of a Jesus,” then wouldn’t it stand to reason that he would actually mention some of those stories? Or at least one?

  • Robert Bumbalough
    2012-05-28 23:01:24 UTC - 23:01 | Permalink

    Good stuff. Thanks Earl. Best Wishes Too.

  • Blood
    2012-05-29 03:28:36 UTC - 03:28 | Permalink

    “Throughout the epistle, any thought of the word of Jesus spoken on earth is utterly absent … Note the present tense of the introductory line: “he says,” used here (10:5-7) and elsewhere to present the words of Jesus in scripture. While scholars are generally divided on how to interpret this, Paul Ellingworth nicely regards the “he says” as “a timeless present referring to the permanent record of scripture” [NIGT Commentary: Hebrews, p.499-500]. I would call it a “mythical present,” reflecting the higher world of myth, onto which scripture provides a window.”

    This is one of the most remarkable aspects of Hebrews. Every quote attributed to “Jesus” is from the LXX. Psalm 22:22, Isaiah 8:17-18, and Psalm 40:6-8 are all presented as actual quotations from Jesus.

  • 2012-05-29 04:56:49 UTC - 04:56 | Permalink

    Doherty: What has happened “in these last days” is that God, who formerly had spoken through the prophets, has now spoken to us “in a Son.” Ehrman maintains that this ‘speaking’ was through Jesus’ proclamation on earth. But we look in vain throughout the whole of Hebrews for a single word of proclamation by a Jesus on earth. Everything spoken by the Son is from scripture.

    In the past, God spoke through the prophets, but now God has spoken through his Son. The epistle’s author begins with that contrast but then does not immediately explain the new communication method.

    It seems to me that later the author does — after preparing much groundwork — provide that explanation.

    By verse 5:9, the author has established a concept that Jesus Christ has fulfilled all the requirements to become the Savior and High Priest for human beings.

    … made perfect, He [Jesus Christ] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.

    Then the author proceeded to explain how Jesus Christ subsequently communicated to all the human beings, who had become his direct subjects.

    In the following passage, 5:11-13, the author admonishes his readers that they should not even need his explanation, because it is so fundamental and obvious. Readers who still are oblivious to the explanation are like infants who still must be fed soft food. In contrast, readers who already understand are like adults who eat solid food.

    …. the mature, by constant use, have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

    That clause provides the explanation of how Jesus Christ established a new method of communicating to human beings. Jesus Christ enabled human beings to distinguish good from evil, and so they themselves can train themselves to improve their ability. Therefore, human beings no longer need prophets and Levite priests.

    The author reinforces this concept in a later passage, 8:10-11, about Jesus Christ’s new covenant and communication with human beings:

    This is the covenant I will establish …. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. …. They will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.

    In other words, Jesus Christ has communicated directly onto the heart of every human being. (See also Romans 1:19.)

    So, the author of The Epistle to the Hebrews did not mean to say that Jesus Christ descended recently to Earth to preach as a human-like being to selected Jewish audiences for a couple of years. Rather, the author meant to say that Jesus Christ was appointed by God the Father to become a super-natural High Priest who fulfulled certain requirements and then became able to super-naturally give all human beings a new, innate ability to distingush good from evil.

  • 2012-05-29 05:29:22 UTC - 05:29 | Permalink

    … in the days of his flesh …

    This expression refers to a period of time when Jesus Christ, normally a spiritual being, became a human-like being with flesh and other human attributes.

    The author wrote this epistle to readers who understood that Jesus Christ had spent “those days of his flesh” on the Firmament. The idea that Jesus Christ had spent any of that time on Earth never would even occur to those readers.

    In contrast, the idea that Jesus Christ spent any of that period on the Firmament never occurs to readers in later centuries.

  • 2012-05-29 05:52:52 UTC - 05:52 | Permalink

    I am aware that it is intellectually contemptible to suggest that The Epistle to Hebrews was written by Paul, but I am coming into that opinion. I cannot read Greek and evaluate supposed linguistic and stylistic problems, but I think that much of the epistle’s thinking fits onto Paul quite well.

    Furthermore, I think that this epistle fits quite well with Marcion’s supposed attempt to re-formulate Christianity on the basis of Marcion’s collection of Paul’s writings. Even if Paul was not the actual author, perhaps Marcion believed that Paul was the author.

    What this epistle obviously does not fit well with is the Gospels or Acts.

    • Blood
      2012-05-30 00:38:46 UTC - 00:38 | Permalink

      The author of Hebrews “may not have had as quick and sharp a mind as Paul’s” but he was “far superior to Paul in learning, analytical capacity, and systematic thinking. He was capable of keeping in mind large quantities of conceptual detail and working with multiple themes … he was also capable of elegant writing. His treatise leads the reader to ever more complex ideas, triggering unimaginable connotations, to end with a burning exhortation not to give up on the Christian faith.” — Burton Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament?, pp. 188-9.

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