Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett

in The Bible: Authorized King James Version

Published in print February 1998 | ISBN: 9780192835253
Published online April 2009 |

Series: Oxford World's Classics


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It was known as far back as the time of Origen that the letter to the Hebrews, in spite of its biblical heading, was not in fact by Paul. It is not even certain that the title—like all NT titles, a later addition—is correct in assuming that it was to Jewish Christians. Nor do similarities between the allegorical style of Hebrews and that of Philo of Alexandria (c.25 bce–50 ce) indicate that Hebrews was written in Egypt. It reads more like a tract or sermon than a letter, and only the conclusion, in 13: 22–5, lends it any epistolary style. It differs from other books in the New Testament in that its lengthy moral exhortations are integrated into the writer's thought, and used to develop arguments, rather than forming ornamental or traditional grace-notes. The thought of Hebrews is complex and sophisticated, showing how Christ was seen as both incorporating and transcending many of the figures and values of the Hebrew Bible. Here Christ is not only, as Paul proclaimed, a sacrifice with redemptive powers; he is also the great high priest who makes that sacrifice of himself. This version of Christ and his redemptive work displaces the old dispensation of sacrificial worship, which was itself quite ineffective, and fulfils, in the lives of Christian believers, all the things of which these ancient practices were but symbols. The absence of any reference to the temple may indicate that it had already been destroyed by the Romans, or simply that the writer went back to the tabernacle of Moses for his model because its symbolism served his case better. The biblical material on the tabernacle (Exod. 25–Lev. 16) provides details of priestly sacrifice in a way none of the material on the temple does. It is Christ as high priest which engaged the writer and not the tabernacle/temple building as such. For him, Christ by his life, and obedience to death, rendered tabernacle and temple obsolete by fulfilling in heaven the true purpose for which they were designed on earth. Jewish imagery continued to shape early Christian writings through metaphors of the tabernacle/temple, even though the actual temple was obsolete—and soon to be destroyed. The introductory claim of Hebrews neatly illustrates a fundamental difference between Jewish and Christian thought: ‘God, who in sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high’ (1: 1–3). Jewish roots and Christian fruits are encapsulated in that statement about continuity and discontinuity, dependence and difference. The line of prophets is continued and disrupted by Jesus the son: the representation of Jesus as a prophet in the gospels is here abandoned. Not only is Jesus God's son, he is also the effulgence of God's glory and the very character (stamp) of God's person (cf. ‘the icon of the invisible God’ of Col. 1: 15). This emergent Christology of Hebrews marks a serious parting of the ways for Jews and Christians. The writer argues by what is known as ‘typology’: figures and images in the Hebrew Bible were treated as ‘types’ of which Christ was the ‘anti-type’.120 Jesus is the hermeneutic principle which controls this type of reading of the Bible, and Hebrews is an excellent example of typological exegesis. The image of Jesus as ‘an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens’ (8: 1) is central, and the tabernacle/temple which Jesus entered was not the earthly, Mosaic building but ‘the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man’ (8: 2; cf. 9: 11). Rituals of blood sacrifice may have been copied from the earthly, Mosaic tabernacle model, but the differences between the Judaean Jesus and the Levitical priests (7: 14), and the invocation of the Melchisedecian priesthood (5: 10; 6: 20–7: 21; cf. Gen. 14: 18–24) enabled the writer to finagle the problems inherent in his choice of types. It is as a priest of the order of Melchisedec (a figure of some importance in Qumran literature) that the Judaean Jesus can operate the Levitical system of sacrifice and win for his followers a permanent expiation for sins. The complexities, not to mention internal contradictions, of the argument make Hebrews one of the most interesting books in the New Testament. It shows the Hebrew Bible ransacked for explanations, models, parallels, and anti-types of Jesus, but some models drawn from the story of Israel in the wilderness prove as problematic as useful.

Chapter.  1306 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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