The Epistle to the Hebrews (Part One)
- 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
* * * * *
Evidence for Jesus from Outside the Gospels
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 116-117)
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).
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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]).
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Next: Hebrews Part Two – Smoking Guns at the NT Corral