The Christology of Hebrews (Part I)

The epistle to the Hebrews is undoubtedly one of the most significant texts in the New Testament regarding Christological content as not many other texts can compare to its vivid depiction of a highly exalted Jesus, not to mention that it is quite unique in its distinctive Christological contours. For instance, in the Pauline corpus the significance of Jesus’ resurrection is unmistakably noticeable and is portrayed as the impetus behind the apostolic preaching, yet in Hebrews the resurrection is only explicitly mentioned once (13.20). Similarly, the parousia of Jesus is a recurring motif in the many of the New Testament texts, but in Hebrews it is unambiguously mentioned once in 9.28 and more obliquely in 10.37. Hebrews also exhibits a novel “high priest” Christology, a concept which in the New Testament is only explicitly applied to Jesus in Hebrews, although the mediatorial essence of the notion is found elsewhere.

A recurring notion in Hebrews is that Jesus is kreittōn (superior) over Judaism and the temple cultus (kreittōnis found in Heb. 1.4, 7.7, 19, 22, 8.6, 9.23, 10.34, 11.16, 35, 40, and 12.24). This is demonstrated through the author’s use of epideictic synkrisis (comparison) between Jesus and various aspects of the Judaic religion (while Hebrews contains elements of all three different types of rhetoric – deliberative, forensic, and epideictic – the use of epideictic is the most prevalent throughout). The author utilizes this epideictic rhetoric by celebrating the person of Jesus, comparing and contrasting the benefits to be found in Jesus and Judaism and using them as the motivation for the audience to refrain from the apostasy of abandoning Jesus and reverting back to traditional Judaism. More specifically, the synkrisis in Hebrews is focused upon the superiorityof Jesus over various Jewish mediatorial figures: the angels (chapters 1-2), Moses (3-4), Aaron and Melchizedek (5-7), and the High-Priest along with the temple cultus (8-10). Each of these comparisons is followed by a section of paraenesis with the purpose of exhorting the audience to persevere in the faith.

Synkrisis to the Angels

The exordium of Hebrews (1.1-4) contains seven Christological affirmations followed by a chiasmatic catena (1.5-14) that delineates how Jesus is superiorthan the angels. While this comparison is readily apparent to the reader, the underlying idea of it is not so. Some have posited the author stresses that superiority of Jesus over the angels as a way of discrediting a deficient Christology that portrayed Jesus as an angelic being, yet this is hardly a satisfactory explanation due to fact that the specific idea of Jesus’ superiority over the angels doesn’t resurface later in the epistle.

Knowledge of the Second Temple period is able to shed light on the rationale behind the comparison between Jesus and the angels, for in this period of time it was commonly understood that the Law had been mediated to Moses on Sinai through angels (cf. Jub. 1.29; Acts 7.38-39; Gal. 3.19; Josephus, Ant., 15.5.3). This notion is most likely what is being alluded to with the words, “For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable” (2.2). The purpose of this synkrisis is not due to a low angelic Christology of the audience, but rather to reveal that Jesus is a far greatermediatorial agent between God and humanity than the angels ever were.

The comparison between Jesus and the angels is found in the Christological declarations found in the exordium, each of which is introduced by either a relative pronoun or a participle. They are:

  • Jesus as eschatological ruler (“whom he appointed heir of all things”)
  • Jesus as agent of creation (“through whom [God] also created the world”)
  • Jesus as the perfect representation of God (“he is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature”)
  • Jesus as sustainer of creation (“he upholds the universe by the word of his power”)
  • Jesus as high-priest (“after making purification for sins”)
  • Jesus as highly exalted in heaven (“he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high”)
  • Jesus as inheriting a powerful name (“having become as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs”). Many commentators and exegetes view the name that Jesus inherited to be “Son” (e.g. Lane, Kistemaker). Another popular view is that the name is the tetragrammaton, YHWH (e.g. Bauckham), though I strongly suspect that this interpretation is reading Php. 2.9-11 back into Heb. 1.4.

In coming to grips with the implications of these powerful Christological statements there are some who assert that the language does not convey Jesus as possessing an actual ontological pre-existence. A proponent of this view is James Dunn who believes that the language used in the exordium is heavily influenced by Platonic thought and so only points towards Jesus as possessing an ideal or functional pre-existence in the mind of God. Argumentation marshaled to back up this interpretation is the recurring adoptionist language throughout Hebrews and the use of similar language in other Jewish literature of the Second Temple period. For example, the author of Hebrews describes Jesus as hapaugasma tēs doxēs, “the radiance of the glory [of God]” (1.3). Similar language is used concerning Wisdom, “For she is a reflection [hapaugasma] of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (Wis. 7.26cf. Philo, Spec. 4.123 and Pan. 1.50). It is hard to doubt that the author of Hebrews is pointing towards the concept of Wisdom acting as God’s agent in creation, though whether Wisdom is to be seen in Hebrews as an actual hypostasis of God or just one of God’s personified attributes is not so clear in my opinion.

Whatever one may deduce regarding the exordium, when coupled together with the catena of Old Testament citations found in chapters 1 and 2, the superiority of Jesus over the angels is unmistakably conveyed. The author of Hebrews portrays Jesus as being worshipped by the angels (1.6), being involved in the creation of the world (1.10), as well as having him explicitly being called “theos” (1.8-9 quoting Psa. 45.7-8). It needs to be noted, though, that there is a grammatical problem which can impact the meaning of this passage, which is that “ho theos” can be taken as a vocative (“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever”), or as a subjective nominative (“God is your throne forever and ever”). The former rendition has Jesus being addressed as theos, while the latter does not. Some commentators and exegetes think both options are entirely permissible and are disinclined to express an inclination for either one, yet the majority seem to interpret it as the vocative (which I agree with).

While the original application of this psalm referred to the Jewish king (Psa. 45.1), who could probably be addressed as theos due to the role he occupied as Yahweh’s vice-regent on earth, considering the other Old Testament texts applied to Jesus in this catena, it is possible that a more definitive understanding of the quotation is being envisaged by the author (the appellation of theos in reference to Jesus, while not ubiquitous in the New Testament, is found in some of the later texts of the NT, e.g., Titus 2.13, 2 Pet. 1.1, John 1.1 and 20.28, though some of these occurrences are debated). On the other hand, the author of Hebrews continues the quotation of Psalm 45 with “therefore God, your God…”, which could imply that the application of theos to the Son is being envisaged by the author as it originally was to the Israelite King, albeit to a much higher degree (and this brings up the tricky issue of how exactly divinity was thought of in the first-century which is a whole other subject). Regardless of the exact nuance on how the author viewed the usage of theos in regards to Jesus, the juxtaposition between Jesus and the angels is exemplified; the Son’s throne is “forever and ever”, whereas the angels are mere “ministering spirits.”

Read Part II

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