Epistle to the Hebrews (Part Two)
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Telling us that Jesus was never on earth
- First smoking gun: Hebrews 8:4 – a denial that Jesus had been on earth
- Platonic parallels between heaven and earth
- Christ could not be a priest in the same sphere as the earthly priests
- no sense to a present sense
- The Coming One
- Second smoking gun: 10:37 – “the coming one” has not yet been to earth
- 9:27-8 – a “second coming” or a sequence of events?
- Jesus “suffered outside the gate”
- Jesus “passing through the heavens”
- The inauthenticity of the epistle’s postscript
* * * * *
Evidence for Jesus from Outside the Gospels
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 116-117)
1 — Telling us that Jesus was never on earth
In addition to a smoking gun, I have called Hebrews 8:4 a “time bomb.” The first half of the verse can be translated in either of two ways:
In a present sense: “If he were on earth [i.e., now], he would not be a priest…” [NIV]
In a past sense: “Now if he had been on earth [i.e., in the past], he would not even have been a priest…” [NEB]
Which “time” does the writer mean?
Some state the general grammatical rule as the following: In a contrafactual (a condition contrary to fact) situation, the same tense of the indicative is used in both parts of the statement; the imperfect tense denotes present time, while the aorist or pluperfect tense denotes past time. In the Greek of Hebrews 8:4, the imperfect tense [ēn] is used for “were/would not be” or “had been/would not have been.”
Present or Past?
According to the rule, this would place the thought in the present time, such as the NIV translation above. But general rules generally enjoy exceptions, or are seen as not always so clear cut. Paul Ellingworth, appealing to A Greek Grammar of the New Testament by Blass and Debrunner, says (Hebrews, p.405):
The second difficulty concerns the meaning of the two occurrences of ēn. The imperfect in unreal [contrafactual] conditions is temporally ambiguous (BD §360 ), so that NEB ‘Now if he had been on earth, he would not even have been a priest’ (so Attridge) is grammatically possible. However, it goes against the context, in at least apparently excluding Christ’s present ministry, and it could also be misunderstood as meaning that Jesus had never ‘been on earth.’ Most versions accordingly render: ‘If he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all’ (REB, NJB; similarly RSV, TEV, NIV…).
Past or present? But since the statement is meant as a contrafactual one (the “if” clause states something that is or was not the case), the choice is critical. To preserve an historical Jesus in the mind of this writer, we must understand a present sense for 8:4. The problem is, a present understanding makes little if any sense, and a past understanding is required by the context. If it is the past, this “time” bomb blows up in the historicist face.
The time of the context
The verses preceding 8:4 address the subject of the sacrifices performed by the respective high priests, those on earth at Sinai and in the Temple, and the one performed by Jesus the new High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary. In 7:27, a contrast is made: the high priests on earth offer sacrifices daily, as well as special ones once a year on the Day of Atonement, for the sins of the people; but Jesus had to perform his sacrifice only once for all time, obtaining an eternal redemption. This is a contrast, then, that has application only in the past, for Jesus no longer performs any sacrifice in the present, nor is there any question that he would or could do so.
The parallel between the two is developed further in 8:3:
Now, every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence (it is/was) necessary that this one [Jesus] too have (or have had) something to offer.
In the latter half, the tense is again ambiguous (this time because a verb is lacking in the Greek), though again the NEB notes that it could be either “must have something to offer” or “must have had something to offer.”
But the latter is the only choice possible, for Jesus’ sacrifice has already happened; it need not and cannot happen again. So a present sense is inapplicable, even in theory.
Once Jesus and his sacrifice has been introduced here, the time frame must shift to the past, to a comparison between the high priests on earth and the High Priest in heaven in the past, because that is the only time when the comparison was applicable. There is not even a theoretical comparison to be made for the present. The idea would be ludicrous, and the writer would have had no reason to offer it.
Each in their own sphere
What does this do to the succeeding verse 4?
If he were/had been on earth, he would not be/have been a priest,
there being ones [i.e., earthly priests] offering the gifts according to the Law . . .
The thought here is rather trivial, but the writer has expanded on verse 3 by stating that each type of high priest, in regard to their respective sacrifices, operated in his own territory, Christ in the heavenly sanctuary and the regular high priests in the sanctuary on earth. The two could not overlap.
Verse 5 goes on to emphatically state this Platonic separation of respective territories, with Christ having operated in heaven and the high priests on earth “in a sanctuary which is only a copy and shadow of the heavenly.”
This emphasis not only rules out that the writer is constructing a metaphor for an earthly Calvary, but ought to rule out the very existence of such an earthly event. For a graphic historical crucifixion everyone remembered, one that had started the movement, would surely have compelled him to include it in his picture of the “sacrifice” Christ made (the way most commentators on Hebrews regularly try to introduce it).
But then his Platonic comparison would be foiled throughout. (It would have been foiled even if there had been an earthly crucifixion and the writer chose to ignore it.) For then the blood was not spiritual but human; the sacrifice, being on earth, did not take place in a sanctuary not made by man (8:2), it was not “perfect, spiritual and eternal” (9:14, NEB); the blood of his offering was not heavenly, and cannot cleanse heavenly things (9:23). And if it was performed in the same territory as the sacrifices of the earthly priests, this would produce an outright incompatibility with the statement of 8:4.
A present sense makes no sense
That statement, to repeat, says that the sacrifice of Jesus the High Priest could not take place on earth — he could not perform his function as “priest” in regard to sacrifice — because there are already priests on earth performing the function of offering sacrificial gifts. (Such a restriction ought to have been dubious in the context of an historical Jesus, though that is beside the point.)
But this makes no sense in a present understanding. Did not that very situation exist in the past when he was on earth? How could the author make such a denial for the present time when it was actually the case in the past—if a Calvary sacrifice had taken place?
On any basis or for whatever reason, Christ could not be a priest on earth in the present. It simply doesn’t need stating, whether for the reason given in verse 4 or any other. First of all, the “sacrifice” would have to include the Calvary crucifixion if Christ were filling his role as priest on earth. But this would lead us to a nonsensical idea. Christ could not be crucified on earth in the present because he has already been crucified in the past (whether on earth or in heaven) and this was “once for all,” ruling out any further crucifixion in the present or future.
The writer would simply have had no reason, and certainly not a rational one, for making the 8:4 statement with a present understanding.
It would have been both irrelevant and a non-sequitur in the context of his argument; essentially, it would be gibberish. Consequently, it must be understood as applying to the past. And in that case, the contrafactual nature of “if he had been on earth” makes it a denial that he had been on earth.
One presumes that the sound and smoke from this ‘smoking gun’ has been so obscuring that it has prevented the entire history of New Testament scholarship from reading the verse in any logical fashion. (Ellingworth, despite a half-hearted suggestion, is, like everyone else, at a loss to explain it satisfactorily.) And from hearing its implications as a bell tolling for the historical Jesus.
(This has been a condensation of a 9-page argument in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.231-9)
2 — The Coming One
In 10:36-37, the readers are being urged to hold fast in the face of the persecution which has recently assailed them, and by way of encouragement the writer quotes Habakkuk 2:3 in the Septuagint version, prefaced by a phrase from Isaiah:
You need to persevere, so that when you have done the will of God you will receive what he has promised. For “in just a little while” [Isaiah 26:20 LXX] “The coming one [ho erchomenos] will come, and will not delay.”
Habakkuk was referring to God by “ho erchomenos,” but in later times this became a prophetic reference to the Messiah, and the phrase was adopted as a title to refer to him.
If anything, this is a more immediately obvious passage than 8:4 to tell us that Christ had not been to earth. If “the Coming One” refers to Christ, the Savior figure of this community, and he is someone prophesied in scripture, then if he is still to come it follows that he has not come previously.
One advent or two?
The Jewish scriptures may traditionally have been seen as prophesying the coming of a Messiah at the point of the world’s transformation, the apocalyptic End-time, but early Christians are supposed to have reinterpreted that to refer to Christ’s incarnation, and in that context we can assume that the writer of Hebrews would have shared in this reinterpretation.
Consequently, if an historical Jesus existed in the writer’s past, the Habakkuk prophecy should have been applied to that first advent. This is how his readers would have understood it. He could not have passed over that first coming in silence and directed the prophecy at the future Parousia without qualification or explanation.
If “the Coming One” had already come, he would have had to specify ‘return’ or ‘again.’ (To read the word “erchomenos” as able to entail a thought of ‘return’ when so determined by the context would here be to beg the question, since, unlike the Gospels, no such context is supplied.)
Moreover, by ignoring the life of Christ on earth, he would have been tacitly dismissing any benefit or encouragement to be found in what Jesus had said or done in that life as a means of giving hope to his persecuted readers. Clearly, as the writer has expressed things, the scriptural promise of Christ’s arrival on earth has not yet been fulfilled.
In 1900, witnessing the rise of German militarism under the Kaiser, the Englishman Mr. Smith makes a prediction that “we will one day be at war with Germany.”
In 1930, witnessing the rise of Hitler and Nazism, Mr. Jones says, “soon Mr. Smith’s prediction is going to come true and we will be at war with Germany.”
Mr. Brown objects, “But Mr. Smith’s prediction has already come true. We were at war with Germany only a few years ago.”
“Are you sure?” asks Mr. Jones. “I guess I must have missed it.”
And so have quite a few other writers of the New Testament, who in a similar way seem infected with memory loss.
Paul, at the end of 1 Corinthians entreats the Lord to “come,” Marana tha.
The writer of Revelation, in his closing words, echoes the same prophetic words from Habakkuk that were quoted in Hebrews: “He who testifies to these things says: ‘Yes, I am coming soon’.”
A Second Coming?
Shortly before 10:37, a line at the end of chapter 9 is claimed to be the one ‘clear’ reference to a second coming by Christ to be found in the epistles, and I’m surprised Ehrman did not appeal to it in his list of references to “the historical Jesus.” Of course, such clarity is exaggerated. Here are verses 9:27 and 28:
Inasmuch as it is destined for men to die once, and after that comes the judgment, so also Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, ek deuterou will appear to those awaiting him, not to bear sin but (to bring) salvation.
The “ek deuterou” is usually translated “a second time.” But the phrase, like its sister “to deuteron,” can also mean “second in sequence,” without any thought of repetition of the first item but simply that of “next” or “second in time.” (See Jude 5 and 1 Cor. 12:28.)
Moreover, such a meaning fits the context better. In verse 27, we have not a repetition but a sequence: men dying and afterwards the judgment. The “so also Christ” in verse 28 indicates that the writer is presenting a parallel to verse 27, one which specifies not a repetition of the ‘coming to bear the sins of many’ but a ‘next’ action after that one, namely to bring salvation at the Parousia.
Besides, we have to keep in mind that the writer’s focus throughout the epistle has been on a sacrifice which takes place in heaven, not on earth. That event was a singular action, entering the heavenly sanctuary to offer his blood. The Parousia will also be a single occasion of “appearing,” thus much more suited to be called a “second time”—should we wish after all to give the language any sense of repetition—to the “appearing” for his heavenly sacrifice than to a coming into an incarnated life on earth.
3 — Suffering Outside the Gate
Finally, to complete our survey of Hebrews, this late passage may not quite qualify as a smoking gun, though when properly understood it again points to a heavenly setting. Considering that it is regularly appealed to as a strong indicator of historicism (Ehrman includes it in his list of “references to the life of an historical Jesus”), revealing it to be anything but such a thing can only support the compelling case which the epistle to the Hebrews makes in presenting an entirely spiritual Son and his sacrifice in heaven.
(This passage was dealt with only briefly in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.68-69. For a more detailed examination, which I have summarized here, see website Supplementary Article No. 14, “The Cosmic Christ of the Epistle to the Hebrews,” Part Three.)
In 13:11-13, the author has the perfect opening to tell us, not only something about Jesus’ sufferings, but where on earth they took place (he supplies neither):
Those animals whose blood is brought as a sin offering by the high priest into the sanctuary, have their bodies burnt outside the camp, and therefore Jesus also suffered outside the gate, to consecrate the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the stigma that he bore. [NEB]
Like Hebrews 8:4 earlier, this passage has begged for a more careful analysis which it has never received. The first thing to note is that the writer is once again attempting (“and therefore Jesus also…”) to make a parallel between Jesus’ actions and those of the high priests on earth. The latter are spoken of as taking place “outside the camp” because the author, as much as possible throughout the epistle, has been making his parallels with the biblical accounts in which the first tent of sacrifice was set up outside the Israelite camp in Sinai.
A bad comparison
But this comparison is problematic. It is not really a parallel at all. The burning of the animals’ bodies takes place after the sacrifice of their blood, and is a discarding of their bodies; nor does it cause the animal suffering. Jesus’ suffering and death—with no burning involved—took place before the sacrifice and was an essential prelude to it; and his body was hardly discarded since he was resurrected. This inappropriate comparison is a signal that the writer’s overriding object was to create as many parallels as he could with scripture, even if they didn’t work very well.
Contrary to claims that the passage is governed by history, this shows the opposite: the author’s process, and what he allots to Jesus, is governed by his focus on creating parallels with scripture.
But what of the change from verse 11 to verse 12, the change from “outside the camp” to “outside the gate”? Is that governed by history, is it a reference to the gate of Jerusalem?
Outside what gate?
Not necessarily. In any context, Jesus did not suffer outside any camp, and so a change needed to be made. If it were a reference to Jerusalem, why did the writer switch back to “outside the camp” in the next verse, urging his readers to join Jesus there? In fact, he is presenting his community as being ‘outside the pale,’ alienated from society and suffering persecution. Why not have them join Jesus outside the gate of Jerusalem, a very apt symbolic image, where they could share in his own sufferings, his own “stigma”?
Scholars have asked why, if Jesus suffered outside Jerusalem, did the author not make a comparison with Melchizedek, who in 7:1 is presented as king and priest coming out of Salem to greet Abraham and accept a tithe. Would that not have invited a parallel between the two priests, officiating outside the gate of Jerusalem?
I suggest that the “gate” is the “gate of heaven.” Jesus had to suffer outside that gate, since suffering and death could not take place within the pure spheres of heaven (where the heavenly sanctuary was located). And since the readers could hardly be enjoined to join Jesus outside the gate of heaven, the writer had to revert to the initial “outside the camp.” The latter may not have been the best solution, but it entailed the all-important image of being “outside” for both Jesus and the community: the community as “outside” the normal precincts of society. And thus it fitted his purposes.
Passing through the heavens
In this connection, I suggest we look at an earlier passage. In 4:14, as a concluding exhortation to hold fast to faith, the author adds this justification:
Since we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold to our confession.
If this is taken as a reference to Jesus’ ascension after his time on earth (as is usually the case), it would serve little or no purpose. The ascension, as conceived by orthodoxy, had no role in salvation, and why it would be a reason for holding fast to faith would be obscure. Besides, in detailing Jesus’ itinerary, why mention the spheres of heaven but not earth itself?
The answer is likely that the act of salvation directly involved this passing through the heavens. This would fit the concept of the descent and ascent of the Son, first descending to the lowest sphere to undergo death, then ascending to the heavenly sanctuary to offer his blood in a new atonement sacrifice to God.
I have made the point before that historicist scholars like Ehrman regularly indulge in and require a superficial reading (or rather, ‘reading into’) of the epistolary texts—with blinders attached—to make their case, whereas a less preconceived examination reveals a depth and dimension too readily overlooked, one pointing directly to mythicism. The epistle to the Hebrews is perhaps the best example of this very deficient methodology.
4 — A Pauline Postscript
A few words are needed about the ending of the epistle to the Hebrews. Uncertainty about the authenticity of the final verses (their number varies) has been common in scholarship, and particularly of 13:22-25. These constitute a ‘farewell greeting’ which, with its reference to Timothy, places us in the world of Paul. There are scholars, such as Harold Attridge, who maintain authenticity, but there are too many problems with this. In Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, Appendix 4, I discuss them at length, but here I will mention two. (That Appendix also discusses the question of dating, which almost certainly must be judged as pre-Jewish War.)
In ancient times, Hebrews came to be attributed to Paul, but this enjoys no support today, not least because the soteriology of the epistle is utterly unlike anything Paul has given us. But if the ‘postscript’ was written by the author of the epistle, this would mean that he moved in Pauline circles, leading us to expect his treatise to reflect at least some of Paul’s thought. On the other hand, the postscript is obviously designed to give the impression that the epistle is by Paul.
That impression also creates a clear contradiction with the epistle itself. The implied Paul of the postscript is ostensibly writing to a community that he is not a part of. His remarks about Timothy point up the fact that he is a wandering apostle, accompanied on his travels by a companion. Yet the epistle itself presents the writer as a member of the community he is addressing (as in 10:24-25). (The same incompatibility is suggested in 13:17, which would make that verse a part of the addition as well.)
If Hebrews is truly an independent expression recognizable nowhere else, a unique interpretation of the Savior Christ on the first century scene, we are justified in postulating a Christianity which developed without a single founder or point of origin. It began in diversity, and only later coalesced around a Jesus on earth who seems, all things considered, to be a product of the imagination.
. . . to be continued.