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Showing posts with label Hebrews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hebrews. Show all posts

Friday 22 June 2018

We Have an Altar: The Call to Eucharistic Worship in Hebrews 13:9-16

Hebrews 13:10 reads, "We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat" (NABRE). The purpose of this article is to argue that this verse, understood in context, functions as a call to Eucharistic worship, i.e. to partake of the Lord's Supper. Here is the statement within its immediate context:
9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching. It is good to have our hearts strengthened by grace and not by foods, which do not benefit those who live by them. 10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. 11 The bodies of the animals whose blood the high priest brings into the sanctuary as a sin offering are burned outside the camp. 12 Therefore, Jesus also suffered outside the gate, to consecrate the people by his own blood. 13 Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the reproach that he bore. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come. 15 Through him [then] let us continually offer God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have; God is pleased by sacrifices of that kind. (Hebrews 13:9-16 NABRE)
One leading New Testament scholar, Helmut Koester, began his study of Hebrews 13:9-14 by calling it "among the most difficult passages of the entire New Testament."1 Another scholar, James W. Thompson, described this as "one of the most complex passages in Hebrews, if not in the entire New Testament," one containing "many exegetical enigmas".2 We should therefore adopt a measure of humility as we attempt to understand the significance of the Christian "altar," which as Thompson noted is one of the areas of scholarly debate.

The central contention of this article is that the "altar" mentioned in Heb. 13:10 refers to the Eucharistic table. In fact, it is my belief that Hebrews 13:9-16 is a call to Eucharistic worship. I would paraphrase the broad sweep of this call as follows:
We would not be strengthened by mere "foods" but by "grace"—heavenly, life-giving grace. How can we access this grace? "We have an altar" that gives us the "right to eat" the "body" of our sin-offering, Jesus, whose blood was brought into the heavenly sanctuary (to which we have access through him). "Let us go to him," in liturgical procession. Where? "Outside the camp," where he suffered—to Golgotha, to the foot of the cross, to our altar; "let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God" in the liturgy. Then, let us go forth and "do good and share what we have," bringing the life and goodness we have received to the world.
Now, I would not suggest that this Eucharistic reading of the passage is obvious, or uncontroversial. While "many commentators" have concluded that the "altar" of Heb. 13:10 is the Eucharistic table,3 many others have opposed this interpretation. The New American Bible (Revised Edition), a Catholic translation, states in a footnote on Heb. 13:10 that the altar "does not refer to the Eucharist, which is never mentioned in Hebrews, but to the sacrifice of Christ." Making the same point in greater detail is Baptist theologian Thomas R. Schreiner:
Clearly the author isn’t thinking of a literal altar. The altar where sacrifices were offered points to a better altar where Christ was sacrificed to atone for sins. The author doesn’t think of a literal altar in heaven, for the imagery shouldn’t be pressed to suggest that there is a literal altar in the heavenly sanctuary. Hebrews never mentions a heavenly altar…Those who attend to the earthly tabernacle have no ‘right to eat’ from the altar of Christ, for they are ‘behind the times’ and are still attending to the old altar. Believers, on the other hand, ‘eat’ from this better altar. He refers to Christ’s sacrifice here, the nature of which was explicated previously in the letter. The ‘eating’ again isn’t literal. It is a colorful way of describing the grace believers enjoy through the sacrifice of Christ.4
Norman H. Young calls it "misleading to relate the altar [of Heb. 13:10] to the heavenly sanctuary" and "equally perverse to attempt to find the Eucharist in this reference to an altar".5 In the face of such stringent opposition, we have our work cut out for us in attempting to show that there is an allusion to the Eucharist here.

Before considering arguments for a Eucharistic interpretation of Heb. 13:10, let us consider some arguments against. One argument is that the Eucharist plays no other role in the Letter to the Hebrews. This is a valid point, but it is not decisive. It can be reasonably inferred, on the evidence of the Gospels' Last Supper narratives, as well as John 6, 1 Corinthians 10-11, and the Didache (a first-century church manual that is not in the biblical canon) that the Eucharist was a central part of the spiritual life of early Christian communities, so that an early Christian writer could allude to it abruptly and without explanation.6 Moreover, the last chapter of Hebrews touches on a number of complex theological issues in somewhat rapid-fire fashion, so a passing but rich allusion to the Eucharist would not be out of place.7

A second argument against a Eucharistic interpretation is Schreiner's observation that "Hebrews never mentions a heavenly altar." This is an argument from silence, but it is conceivable that the writer of Hebrews envisions the heavenly "holy places...the true tent" (Heb. 8:1-2) as restricted to the tabernacle proper and not the courtyard that contained the altar.8 The altar on which Jesus offered himself could be understood as the cross of Calvary, whereupon Jesus entered with his blood into the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 9:11-12). However, an identification of the "true" altar with the cross in no way conflicts with a Eucharistic interpretation, particularly if the Eucharist is understood as a memorial and an extension of the sacrifice of Jesus.

A third argument against a Eucharistic interpretation is Schreiner's claim that the altar of Hebrews 13:10, as well as the "eating" mentioned there, are "not literal" but are colourful ways of describing the sacrifice of Christ and the grace it conveys to believers. This insistence on a "non-literal" interpretation seems to cloud an important distinction between the transcendent and the symbolic. For the author of Hebrews, the various features of the Levitical cult are but shadows of a greater, transcendent reality. The heavenly tabernacle is not non-literal but super-literal, more real than its earthly counterpart. The same goes for the transcendent high priest, Jesus. That talk of a transcendent "tabernacle" and "altar" is in some sense analogical does not mean they are mere abstractions. As for non-literal "eating," if the altar symbolises Christ's sacrifice then it seems needlessly oblique to describe the associated grace in terms of eating from the altar. Surely a more natural extension of the metaphor would express the right to approach the altar: compare Hebrews 4:15-16, which emphasises that Christians have the right to "draw near to the throne of grace," and 10:19, which emphasises "confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus". The specific emphasis on the right to "eat" from the altar requires us to seek a connection to a Christian form of religious "eating"—of which the Eucharist is the obvious example.9

From a reader-response perspective, a Catholic or Orthodox Christian today who encounters the words "We have an altar" is likely to picture the Eucharistic altar in the sanctuary at their local church. If such an altar was a typical feature in the house churches known to the author and recipients of Hebrews—admittedly a big "if"—then the declaration "We have an altar" might intentionally draw the readers' attention to these physical altars as the locus of their access to Christ's sacrifice via the Eucharist.

From a historical point of view this argument remains somewhat speculative in that we have no archaeological evidence of what first-century Christian house churches looked like. However, one of the two earliest house churches that has been excavated, from Megiddo and generally dated to the third century A.D., had a worship room described thus:
In the centre of the floor stand two raised stones, which probably served as the base for the podium of the Eucharistic table referred to in one of the inscriptions.10
The floor of the Megiddo house church with Eucharistic table base and inscription

The inscription mentioned is on a floor mosaic in the same room, and reads, "The God-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial." Granted, this church dates from long after Hebrews was written, but it is, after the Dura-Europos house church in Syria, the oldest church that has been excavated. We should thus at least allow the possibility that the earliest readers of Hebrews worshipped in a house church in which an altar-like Eucharistic table featured prominently.

Koester remarks that the Greek formulation of the words translated "We have an altar" is stylistically formal and "reflects the style of credal statements."11 In his view, this is more likely a literary device than a quotation from a creed.12 Nevertheless, the stylistic formality suggests that this declaration is intended to bear great significance and thus merits close study. Since Hebrews nowhere else refers to a Christian altar of sacrifice,13 we may look to other early Christian literature for evidence that the Eucharistic table was understood as an altar.

1 Corinthians

In 1 Corinthians 10:21, Paul refers to the Eucharist as partaking of "the table of the Lord" (trapeza kyriou). This phrase trapeza kyriou occurs in only one passage in the Greek Scriptures known to Paul, the Septuagint, where it refers to the altar of the Levitical cult (Mal. 1:7-12).14 Moreover, Paul has just drawn a parallel between participation in the "altar" by eating the sacrifices in "Israel according to the flesh" (1 Cor. 10:18) and Christian participation in the body and blood of Christ by partaking of "the table of the Lord."15


The Didache  describes the Eucharist as an "offering" and a "sacrifice" (14.1-2). This makes it plausible that, in keeping with such cultic language, the unmentioned place where this "sacrifice" was offered took place was regarded as an altar.

1 Clement

The first-century letter 1 Clement is particularly relevant to this study due to its conceptual similarity to Hebrews. These are the only two first-century Christian documents that describe Jesus as a "high priest" (1 Clem. 36.1; 61.3; 64.1). 1 Clement 36.2-5 contains numerous striking parallels to Hebrews 1, implying either the author's direct knowledge of Hebrews or the use of common traditional material by both authors. Both authors' theologies are deeply influenced by Hellenistic Judaism and the Septuagint and both authors quote from or paraphrase the Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish text that was received into the Christian biblical canon (as is evident already in the late-second-century Muratorian Fragment). Undoubtedly, Hebrews and 1 Clement represent a similar early Christian theological milieu.

Edmund W. Fisher concludes in a detailed study of 1 Clement 7.4 ("We should gaze intently on the blood of Christ") that "The church united in its liturgy sees the blood-of-Christ poured out in the eucharist."16 The letter uses similar cultic language for both Levitical and Christian worship in close proximity. In chapters 40-41, the author stresses the importance of keeping the Master's commandments "in an orderly way and at appointed times," "keeping to our special assignments with a good conscience, not violating the established rule of his ministry" (1 Clem. 40.1; 41.1). These instructions are interspersed with references to the Levitical cult, where the writer emphasises that "the sacrificial offerings and liturgical rites" were performed "according to set times and hours," with God having "set forth both where and through whom he wished them to be performed" (1 Clem. 40.2-3). The writer subsequently goes into greater detail on the "where" aspect, observing that the Levitical sacrifices "are not offered everywhere...but in Jerusalem alone," and even there not "in just any place, but before the sanctuary on the altar" (1 Clem. 41.2). The author does not elaborate on the Christian analogue to this "where" aspect (he is more concerned with the "whom"), but he does refer to the bishops as "offering the gifts," which elsewhere in 1 Clement—as well as in Hebrews—is equivalent to offering sacrifices.17 This "offering" of "the gifts" most likely refers to the Eucharist.18 That it matters to the author "where" the offerings take place (otherwise there was no need to emphasise the altar as the necessary locus of Levitical offerings) suggests that there is a place analogous to the Levitical altar where the Eucharist should be offered—in other words, a Christian altar. This can reasonably be inferred even though the author does not mention such a place explicitly, due to his focus being on the "whom" aspect of Christian worship (which was contested in the Corinthian church, giving rise to his letter).

The Letters of Ignatius

The most striking references to a Eucharistic altar in the Apostolic Fathers are in the letters of Ignatius (early second century). In his Letter to the Philadelphians, the bishop of Antioch writes:
And so be eager to celebrate just one eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup that brings the unity of his blood, and one altar, as there is one bishop together with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow slaves. Thus, whatever you do, do according to God. (Ign. Phld. 4.4)
Here, Ignatius unmistakably identifies the Eucharist with a Christian altar. That is not all: another passage where Ignatius mentions the Eucharistic altar contains striking parallels to Hebrews 13:9-10:
9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching. It is good to have our hearts strengthened by grace and not by foods, which do not benefit those who live by them. 10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.  (Heb. 13:9-10)
7.2 Let all of you run together as to one temple of God, as to one altar, to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father and remained with the One and returned to the One. 8.1 Do not be deceived by strange doctrines or antiquated myths, since they are worthless. For if we continue to live in accordance with Judaism, we admit that we have not received grace. (Magnesians 7.2-8.1)19
In both passages, a Christian "altar" associated with "grace" is contrasted with a warning against strange doctrines associated with continued observance of the Jewish law. This parallel seems too striking to be coincidental. However, since there is little evidence that Ignatius knew or used Hebrews,20  it seems likely that Hebrews and Ignatius drew on common traditional material. Ceteris paribus, that Ignatius understood the grace-conveying Christian "altar" in Eucharistic terms makes it likely that the writer of Hebrews did too.

There appear to be several nuanced ways in this passage by which the author of Hebrews compares the Levitical altar and the Christian altar. We should bear in mind that already under the Levitical cult, the altar is a sacred place: "There, at the altar, I will meet the Israelites; hence it will be made sacred by my glory" (Ex. 29:43). The immediate purpose of the altar was of course to have animal sacrifices offered upon it. However, the main interest of the author of Hebrews here is in what happens to the sacrificed animal after it is offered. The Torah mentions numerous ordinances concerning consumption of the meat of animal sacrifices (or bread made from grain offerings), which was "holy" food (Lev. 6:17-18; 10:12-13; 21:6; 22:1-12). Depending on the type of offering, there are stipulations as to who can and cannot eat the meat, what parts of the animal they can and cannot eat, when they can and cannot eat it, and where they can and cannot eat it. There were certain persons who were forbidden from eating such holy food (e.g., foreigners, or priests in a state of uncleanness—see Lev. 22).

In Hebrews 13:11, the writer observes that the meat of Levitical sin offerings could not be eaten by anyone but had to be burned outside the camp (Lev. 4:12, 4:21, 6:11, 8:17, 9:11, 16:27-28). Scholars regard this stipulation concerning the Day of Atonement sin offering (Leviticus 16) as particularly relevant,21 given the prior comparison of Christ's sacrifice with this ritual in Hebrews (9:7-12; 9:25-28). However, whereas Leviticus refers to the animals themselves or their "hide" and "flesh" being burned,22 Hebrews refers to "the bodies (Greek: sōmata) of the animals." What is remarkable about this is that Leviticus LXX never uses the word "body" (sōma) for the flesh or carcass of a sacrificed animal. Leviticus uses sōma only for human bodies, and in the Day of Atonement regulations the word is used for body of the high priest as well as the body of the person who goes outside the camp to burn (or release, in the case of the "scapegoat") the animal (Lev. 16:24-28). In Hebrews, Jesus is the high priest, the person who goes outside the camp, and the one whose "body" was specially prepared by God as the once-for-all sin offering (Heb. 10:5, 10). Thus, by stating that the "bodies" of the Levitical sin offerings could not be eaten, the writer is drawing our attention to the "body" of Jesus, our definitive sin offering, which can be eaten from the Christian altar in the Eucharist. The word "body" has powerful Eucharistic connotations, playing a central role in the early Eucharistic liturgy as preserved by Paul (1 Cor. 10:16, 11:24-29) and the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 14:22 par.). Thus, the writer's decision to use this word in his discussion of Levitical sin offerings signals his Eucharistic understanding of the Christian "altar." The other key word in the Eucharistic liturgy is, of course, "blood," and this aspect of the sin offering (both Levitical and Christ's) is also emphasised in Heb. 13:11-12.

Against this background, the following comparisons seem to be implicit in Heb. 13:9-13. (1) Under Levitical worship, the bodies of the sin offerings offered on the altar could not be eaten, but had to be burned outside the camp. Christ, our sin offering, also suffered outside the camp, but his body can be eaten, in the Eucharist. Thus Christians—all Christians ("we")—have a "right to eat" from their altar that not even the priests ("those who serve the tabernacle," cf. Heb. 7:13; 8:5) had under the Levitical religion. (2) In cases where the holy food from the Levitical altars could be eaten, it was still only natural food and thus of no eternal benefit. By contrast, the food from the Christian altar conveys "grace," i.e. brings eternal benefit. (3) The Jewish Christians addressed in Hebrews may be "outside the camp," marginalised from mainstream Jewish worship and suffering persecution, but this brings solidarity with Jesus, who likewise suffered "outside the gate" (of Jerusalem). Collectively, this is a powerful argument for sticking with Christianity and not reverting to non-Christian, mainstream Jewish religion, which seems to be a primary thrust of Hebrews.

The reading suggested above finds further support in other early Christian literature that make points similar to those in Hebrews 13:9-10 while discussing the Eucharist. We have already noted the striking parallel between Hebrews 13:9-10 and Ignatius, Magnesians 7.2-8.1. We now note some texts that highlight (a) the exclusivity of Christian access to the Eucharist (just as Hebrews states that those serving the tabernacle "have no right to eat" of the Christian altar), and (b) the contrast between ordinary food and Eucharistic food (just as Hebrews contrasts "foods" that "do not benefit" with the "grace" of the Christian "altar").

The exclusivity of access to holy food features in the Didache, a first-century church manual (roughly contemporaneous with Hebrews), which stipulates, "But let no one eat or drink from your thanksgiving meal [Greek: eucharistias] unless they have been baptized in the name of the Lord. For also the Lord has said about this, 'Do not give what is holy to the dogs.'" (Did. 9.5). Paul warns Christians against eating Eucharistic food in an unworthy manner (1 Cor. 11:27), just as the Torah warns against eating flesh from sacrifices while unclean (Lev. 7:20-21; 22:3-7).

The contrast between holy, grace-bearing Eucharistic food (which brings eternal life) and ordinary food (which has no eternal benefit) also features in multiple other texts. At the close of the Didache's Eucharistic liturgy, the following thanksgiving is offered: "You, O Master Almighty, created all things for the sake of your name, and gave both food and drink to humans for their refreshment, that they might give you thanks. And you graciously provided us with spiritual food and drink, and eternal life through your child" (Did. 10.3). More famously, in John chapter 6 Jesus repeatedly contrasts the manna in the wilderness (itself angelic food: Ps. 78:25; Wis. 16:10), whose eaters still die (John 6:49) with the "true bread from heaven," namely his flesh, of which "Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever" (John 6:58).

My own conviction is that Hebrews 13:9-16 functions as a call to Eucharistic worship in the face of temptations that the readers faced to return (or turn) to non-Christian Jewish forms of worship. Probably few Christians today yearn for Levitical religion, but there are other temptations that can draw us away from the Eucharist: apathy, or forms of Christian worship that neglect the Eucharist. Thus, the writer of Hebrews' emphatic statement, "We have an altar" is as important today as it was to his original readers.

My prayer is that the reader may be moved by the beautiful words of Hebrews 13:9-16 to heed this call, or at least to reflect on whether there might be more significance to the table of the Lord than previously supposed.


  • 1 Helmut Koester, "'Outside the Camp': Hebrews 13:9-14," The Harvard Theological Review, 55 (1962): 299.
  • 2 James W. Thompson, "Outside the Camp: A study of Heb 13:9-14," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 40 (1978): 53.
  • 3 L. Paul Trudinger, "The Gospel Meaning of the Secular: Reflections on Hebrews 13:10-13," Evangelical Quarterly, 54 (1982): 236. Trudinger himself rejects this position.
  • 4 Thomas R. Schreiner, Commentary on Hebrews (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2015), 420.
  • 5 Norman H. Young, "‘Bearing his reproach’ (Heb 13.9–14)," New Testament Studies, 48 (2002): 248-49.
  • 6 This can be seen in other instances in early Christian literature. "Your love feasts" in Jude 12 undoubtedly alludes to the Eucharist, despite the lack of explanation or prior reference to the Eucharist in this short letter. The letters of Ignatius of Antioch (early second century) contain several oblique references to the Eucharist as "the altar." Consider Magnesians 7.2 ("You should all run together, as into one temple of God, as upon one altar, upon one Jesus Christ") and Romans 2.2 ("But grant me nothing more than to be poured out as a libation to God while there is still an altar at hand"). Indeed, these references are so oblique that it might be doubted whether they refer to the Eucharist, were it not for Philadelphians 4.4 (discussed below), which makes clear Ignatius's Eucharistic understanding of the "altar." Note: translations from the Apostolic Fathers, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).
  • 7 Thompson notes that Hebrews 13:9-14 in particular contains "an extraordinary number of references that seem to stand alone in Hebrews, and are thus difficult to interpret in the context of the rest of the epistle" (Thompson, "Outside the Camp," 53).
  • 8 The Book of Revelation envisions a heavenly altar but this corresponds to the golden altar of incense within the tabernacle, not the altar of sacrifice in the courtyard.
  • 9 In both places where Paul mentions the Levitical practice of eating the sacrificial meat, he has a specific reason for stressing the "eating". In 1 Cor. 9:13 he uses it as an argument for the right of Christian ministers to earn a living through their service (since the Levitical priests literally earned their bread and meat through their offerings), and in 1 Cor. 10:18 he mentions the practice specifically to draw a parallel with the Eucharist—precisely as I argue the writer of Hebrews is doing in Heb. 13:10.
  • 10 Edward Adams, "The Ancient Church at Megiddo: The Discovery and an Assessment of its Significance," The Expository Times, 120 (2008): 64-65.
  • 11 Koester, "Outside the Camp," 312.
  • 12 Compare the similar formulation in Hebrews 8:1: "We have such a high priest..."
  • 13 There is a passing reference to the Levitical altar of sacrifice in Hebrews 7:13. The golden altar of incense, which is distinct from the altar of sacrifice, is mentioned in Hebrews 9:4.
  • 14 Similarly, Ezekiel 41:22 LXX refers to the altar in the temple vision as "the table which is before the face of the Lord," while Ezekiel 44:16 foretells that in the future temple the Levitical priests "shall enter into my sanctuary, and these shall approach my table, to minister to me" (i.e., "to offer sacrifice to me, the fat and the blood," v. 15). Elsewhere in the OT, the "table" associated with the Levitical cult is always the table of the showbread, but this is never called the "table of the Lord."
  • 15 The reference to "Israel according to the flesh" in 1 Cor. 10:18 implies that Paul understands the Church as "Israel according to the Spirit" (cf. Gal. 6:16). The kata sarka/pneuma (according to flesh/spirit) contrast is prominent in Paul's letters—especially relevant to 1 Cor. 10:18 is Gal. 4:29, which allegorically identifies unbelieving Israel, enslaved by the law, with Ishmael ("he who was born according to the flesh") and the Church, freed from slavery, with Isaac ("he who was born according to the spirit"). This flesh/Spirit Israelological parallel strengthens the implicit parallel between eating the sacrifices of the Levitical altar and eating the Eucharistic food from the table of the Lord.
  • 16 Edmund W. Fisher, "'Let us look upon the Blood-of-Christ' (1 Clement 7:4)," Vigiliae Christianae, 34 (1980): 234.
  • 17 In 1 Clem. 4.1-2, Abel is said to have offered "a sacrifice from the firstborn of the sheep and from their fat," which is then referred to as "his gifts," showing that "gifts" and "sacrifices" are synonymous terms for this author. 1 Clement also calls Jesus "the high priest of our offerings" (36.1). The same is true in Hebrews, which refers thrice to "gifts and sacrifices" (5:1; 8:3; 9:9).
  • 18 R. P. C. Hanson states, "it is obvious that τά δῶρα refers to the bread and wine in the eucharist, and that the presbyters are thought of as presenting them to God in the eucharist for him to bless them" ("Eucharistic Offering in the Pre-Nicene Fathers," Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, 76 (1976): 79.).
  • 19 Trans. Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 155.
  • 20 The classic work The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers places the relationship between Hebrews and Ignatius in its "D" category, meaning that the book "may possibly be referred to, but...the evidence appeared too uncertain to allow any reliance to be placed upon it" (A Committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology, The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905], iii.)
  • 21 Trudinger argues that the author of Hebrews "is making as much a comparison as a contrast between the Christian and Jewish altars," by specifying "the particular kind of sacrificial altar" he is speaking of to be an "'Atonement Day' sacrifice," which under the Torah the priest had no right to eat. ("Gospel Meaning of the Secular," 236).
  • 22 "The calf," Lev. 4:12, 21; "the offering," 6:11; "the calf, and his hide, and his flesh, and his dung," 8:17; "the flesh and the hide," 9:11; "the calf...and the goat...even their skins and their flesh and their dung," 16:27.

Tuesday 8 May 2018

Obey Your Leaders and Defer to Them (Hebrews 13:17)

1. The Meaning of Hebrews 13:17
2. Obedience and Submission in Congregationally Governed Communities
3. The Challenge of Submitting While Disagreeing
 3.1. Domestic Obedience and Submission
 3.2. Obedience to Secular Laws
 3.3. Professional Obedience and Submission
 3.4. Obedience and Submission in the Military
4. Conditions and Exceptions
5. The Compatibility of Servant Leadership and Hierarchy
6. Conclusion

In this article I want to consider the meaning and implications of a command found near the close of the letter to the Hebrews, one that runs contrary to modern Western cultural values, not to mention the practices of many modern Christian communities:
Obey your leaders and defer to them, for they keep watch over you and will have to give an account, that they may fulfill their task with joy and not with sorrow, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb. 13:17 NABRE)

First, let us consider the basic lexical and contextual meaning of the first clause. "Your leaders" translates tois hēgoumenois humōn, a participial phrase that might be literally translated, "the ones ruling you." In Matt. 2:6 this participle is used of Jesus' future status as "ruler" of Israel (in a paraphrase of Mic. 5:2). The term ho hēgoumenos is juxtaposed with ho diakonōn, "the servant," in Luke 22:26, where Jesus gives the paradoxical teaching that in his community, the leader is to be as the servant (a principle to which we will return). In Acts 7:10 it describes the office to which Pharaoh appointed Joseph, "ruler over Egypt"—an office that struck fear into the hearts of Joseph's brothers. It is similarly used of political leaders and military commanders in several Septuagint passages (Gen. 49:10; Deut. 5:23; 1 Macc. 9:30; Jer. 28:28; Mal. 1:8). The first-century Christian letter 1 Clement uses the term frequently, usually of secular political and military leaders (1 Clem. 5.7; 32.2; 37.2-3; 51.5; 55.1; 60.4), but also of Christian leaders (1 Clem. 1.3). The underlying verb, hēgeomai, is the etymological source of our English word "hegemony." To summarise, the term has the sense of "rulers," "leaders," i.e. persons in positions of authority (not merely persons who happen to be prominent or respected). In Hebrews 13:17 it obviously refers to church leaders, not secular political leaders. This is evident not only from their designation as "your leaders," but from the following clauses about keeping watch over you, giving an account and fulfilling their task with joy. If that were not enough, "your leaders" are mentioned twice elsewhere in this chapter: "your leaders who spoke the word of God to you" (v. 7) and "Greetings to all your leaders" (v. 24). That the leaders "will have to give an account" of their leadership (i.e. to God; cf. Heb. 4:13) implies that they were appointed to their positions not merely by men but by God (cf. Acts 20:28).

What of the two verbs in the first clause? They are both in the imperative mood: they express commands, not suggestions or proposals. The first verb is peithō. When in the middle voice and followed by a dative of person or thing, it means "obey, follow."1 The same verb is used elsewhere of obeying the Jewish law (4 Macc. 18.1) and of putting bits in horses' mouths "to make them obey us" (James 3:3). The second-century Christian homily 2 Clement depicts unbelievers as lamenting at the Lord's appearing, "Woe to us...we did not obey the elders when they spoke to us about our salvation" (17.5). The second verb, hupeikō, is rarer but more specific. It means "primarily 'withdraw, give way to', then by figurative extension to yield to someone's authority, yield, give way, submit".2 In the whole Bible the word occurs only in Heb. 13:17, though it does occur in 4 Macc. 6.35.3

To summarise, then, the first clause of Heb. 13:17 means just what it appears to mean in most English translations. It presupposes that there are leaders in the church, that is, persons in positions of authority, and it commands believers to obey these leaders and yield or submit to them. The second part of the verse suggests that this is not necessarily an easy, conflict-free process. It reminds the hearers that it is not in their interest to cause their leaders to fulfill their responsibilities with sorrow (i.e., by disobedience and insubordination).4

The meaning of Hebrews 13:17a is straightforward enough. This does not mean it is easy to practice. In modern Western society (including Christian communities), submission to personal authority figures is not a particularly popular idea. Our culture is deeply suspicious of authority and positions of authority, while freedom, defined as personal autonomy, is one of its foremost values. Coming to Christian communities, in congregationally governed Protestant denominations and sects—of which there are many—there are no positions of authority per se. There may be an elected leadership of sorts (clerical or lay), but these "leaders" are compelled to obey and yield to the congregation, rather than the other way around. The direction of accountability is reversed.

Furthermore, any notion of "obedience" of or "submission" to leaders in these congregational settings carries an implicit qualification: I will obey and submit to the pastor, elders, executive committee, etc., provided that their decisions agree with my interpretation of the Bible. If I deem their teachings or instructions theologically incorrect, I may disobey and reject them, even if this means my leaving the congregation and joining another or starting my own. This option, however, takes the teeth out of the commandment in Hebrews 13:17. If I only need to obey leaders when their orders agree with my judgment, I am finally obeying only myself. If I only need to submit to leaders when they are agreeable to me, I am finally submitting only to myself.

By contrast, the commandment of Hebrews 13:17 to obey and yield to leaders is fully realized in the Catholic model. Here, the leaders of the Church—presbyters (priests), bishops, pope—are appointed and ordained in a process believed to be led by the Holy Spirit (cf. again Acts 20:28). There are clear lines of accountability, and the congregation must obey and submit to their leaders. They cannot vote them out of office, nor can they leave and join/start another "church" since to do so would be to abandon the doctrine of one catholic Church.

What the congregational model is missing, I suggest, is the most challenging but most vital aspect of obedience and submission: obeying people and submitting to rules with which you disagree.

It is easy enough to obey rules or submit to persons when we like them and agree with them. When we dislike them and disagree with them, not so much. However, this is precisely when rules and authority figures are most important for maintaining order and discipline. A few secular examples will illustrate the point.

The commandment for wives to submit to husbands, though clearly taught in the Bible (Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1-6), is also strongly counter-cultural in contemporary Western society, and provides a good parallel to ecclesiastical subordination, not least because Paul explicitly equates a wife's submission to her husband to ecclesiastical submission (the Church's submission to Christ). It is not that the husband necessarily knows better than the wife, but that the hierarchy allows for the preservation of order and a way forward in the (hopefully rare) cases of deadlock where consensus cannot be reached. In the same way, it is not necessarily the case that the bishop knows better than the presbyter, or the presbyter than the parishioner (though this usually will be the case, given that God has called these leaders to their positions). Rather, the hierarchical order prevents an acrimonious deadlock in cases where two parties disagree in the Church.

Less controversial, one hopes, is the commandment for children to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:19; cf. Rom. 1:30). Surely all of us, while children, had experiences where our parents made a ruling that we found objectionable. Perhaps they ordered us not to go to that party, not to wear that outfit, to tidy up our bedroom, to turn off the TV and do homework, to go to bed, etc. Many of these rulings seemed unfair or at least unnecessary at the time. However, I think most of us adults would agree, with the benefit of hindsight and maturity, that obeying them was right and wise.

In modern democracies one does not often encounter a requirement to obey or submit to authoritative persons in executive government. We are free to verbally attack heads of state (though, in keeping with passages such as Rom. 13:1-7, Tit. 3:1 and 1 Pet. 2:13-17, Christians should exercise restraint in this respect). However, we must obey secular laws. This entails avoiding criminal acts, but also paying taxes, even when we believe the tax regulations are unfair or that the government is wasteful in its use of the public purse.

Nearly all companies and employers have a hierarchical structure ("organogram"), and subordination of employees to their superiors is a basic requirement of employee codes of conduct. This has an analogy in the biblical requirement that slaves obey their masters as they would Christ (Eph. 6:5-6; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Tit. 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18). Notably, 1 Peter is explicit that the requirement extends even to bad masters. While the authority of bosses over their employees is of course less extensive than that of masters over slaves, the underlying principle still applies. A company could not operate effectively if employees were free to decline tasks or flout instructions from their superiors or treat them with contempt.

The military is a setting where obedience of orders and subordination to superiors is of paramount importance. If each soldier follows his or her own operational plan contrary to orders received, chaos will ensue. This is why discipline and respect for rank are central to military training. In wartime, gross insubordination could put many lives at risk and can incur serious punishments. It is not without relevance that the Pauline epistles repeatedly use military metaphors for the Christian life (2 Cor. 10:3-6; Eph. 6:10-17; Phil. 2:25; 1 Tim. 1:18; 2 Tim. 2:3-4; Phlm. 2).

All of the above examples illustrate that wherever obedience and subordination are required, they involve yielding one's own opinions and wishes to the dictates of a superior authority—precisely what Hebrews 13:17 requires Christians to do in relation to church leaders. However, do these examples not also illustrate that the requirements of obedience and subordination are not absolute, but tied to certain conditions? I heard recently of a couple who made their child an accomplice in their house burglaries: they would help the child climb through a window, and the child would then unlock the front door for them. Obviously, when parents abuse their authority by ordering their children to do illegal, immoral things, children are not required to obey. Similarly, the Scriptures themselves imply that people are not required to obey governmental authorities when their orders defy God's law (Acts 4:19). Likewise, in professional settings or the military, the requirement of subordination is subject to the policies of the company or military as well as the law of the land.

The important observation here is that these conditions on obedience and subordination, and the consequent existence of exceptions where obedience and subordination are not required, do not mean that obedience and subordination reduce to "obey and submit when you agree". We must distinguish between the dictates of conscience (which Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman called "the aboriginal vicar of Christ") and the shifting currents of private opinion. It would be foolhardy to suggest that, because parents could (and on occasion do) order their children to do immoral things, therefore children need not obey their parents unless their private judgment finds the parental ruling agreeable. Rather, disobedience of authority is justified (indeed, imperative) when and only when the authority is in clear violation of laws and principles to which the authority itself is subject. In the case of the Catholic Church, these laws and principles are the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church (as laid out, for instance, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church), and Canon Law. Moreover, just as in secular cases one can appeal to the courts for justice when oppressed by an unjust authority, so in the Church one can appeal to ecclesiastical courts.

These conditions and corresponding exceptions to the requirement to obey Church leaders are very important. The clerical sex abuse scandal that has come to light in the past two decades provide a particularly glaring example of their importance in the Catholic Church. However, many instances of insubordination to ecclesiastical authority are due, not to conscientious exposure of exploitation of that authority, but a fundamental attitude of suspicion of authority and lust for power on the part of subordinates. This spirit of insubordination is frequently condemned in the Bible. Notable episodes include Korah's rebellion (Numbers 16), Absalom's insurrection (2 Samuel 15-18), and the rejection of the Messiah by the leaders of Israel; see also the remark of the rebellious citizens in the parable of the minas: "We do not want this man to reign over us" (Luke 19:14).

This article has dealt primarily with subordinates' obligations to leaders in the Church, not with leaders' obligations to their subordinates. On the latter, the teaching and example of Jesus are of paramount importance:
He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them and those in authority over them are addressed as ‘Benefactors’; 26 but among you it shall not be so. Rather, let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant. 27 For who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves? Is it not the one seated at table? I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27 NABRE)
13 You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. 14 If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. 16 Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. (John 13:13-16 NABRE)
Jesus emphasises here the paradox of humble servant leadership: that leaders' purpose is fundamentally to serve their people sacrificially, not to exploit them. Of course, Jesus' greatest exemplification of this teaching was not washing the disciples' feet but dying for their sins. No one would claim, however, that by serving his disciples Jesus was abdicating his leadership role, or excusing the disciples from their obligation to follow his commandments. Just as a husband's obligation to love his wife sacrificially is compatible with a wife's obligation to submit to her husband (Eph. 5:24-25), so a Christian shepherd's obligation to love his flock sacrificially is compatible with the flock's obligation to obey the shepherd. I emphasise this final point because of a recent discussion on Facebook in which my interlocutor appeared to view servant leadership and hierarchical order as mutually exclusive options.

The commandment to "Obey your leaders and defer to them" (Heb. 13:17) requires Christians to yield to the Spirit-guided discretion of divinely-appointed church leaders, even when the judgment of the leader runs contrary to one's own opinion. The only exception is when the leader's orders violate God's laws (as interpreted by the Church, rather than privately by one of the parties involved). This is in line with what is expected of subordinates in secular settings (e.g., domestic, professional and military). As in secular settings, obedience and subordination are crucial to maintaining the unity and effective operation of the corporate entity. The abandonment of ecclesiastical hierarchy, and consequently the abandonment of the teaching of Hebrews 13:17, is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the division and fragmentation that has often characterised Christian communities that have adopted a congregational form of government. Ultimately, of course, our obedience and submission is due to the invisible God. However, if we are accustomed to filtering this requirement through our own private judgment, and not accustomed to personal subordination to visible ecclesiastical leaders (whom Scripture says God appoints), it is entirely possible that I am submitting not to God but to a false subjective picture of God. The bottom line, to repeat an earlier point, is that if I obey and submit to ecclesiastical authorities only when their rulings align with my personal opinions, I am not actually obeying or submitting. If we are suspicious of human nature—in agreement with divine testimony about its sinfulness—let us be more suspicious of ourselves than of the leaders of God's Church.


  • 1 so BDAG 792. They note that when the term occurs in the passive or middle voice without an object, it means "be persuaded, believe," and that in some passages "permit either translation, with dative be persuaded by someone, take someone's advice or obey, follow someone". However, they place Heb. 13:17 in the unambiguous category corresponding to "obey, follow."
  • 2 BDAG 1030.
  • 3 "I have shown not only that reason has overcome agonies but also that it overcomes pleasures and in no respect yields to them" (NETS).
  • 4 For examples of such sorrowful leadership, see 2 Cor. 2:1-4; Phil. 3:17-18.

Sunday 28 January 2018

How Hebrews Came to Interpret Psalm 102:25-27 as Spoken by God to/of the Son

Several years ago I wrote an article on Hebrews 1:10-12, arguing that this text unambiguously teaches the personal pre-existence of the Son of God. I also interacted with Christadelphian interpretations of this passage and discussed why I found their pre-existence-less interpretations unconvincing. Subsequently, as part of my theology studies, I wrote an essay on The Contribution of Hebrews to New Testament Christology, which interacted with scholarly views on Hebrews 1:10-12, among other passages in Hebrews.

I recently returned to examine this fascinating passage, prompted by an exposition that a Christadelphian friend, Mike MacDonald, sent me. Mike regards Psalm 102:25-27, as cited in Hebrews 1:10-12, as a conversation between the Son and the Father, with the content of v. 25 (where primeval existence is implied) addressed by the Son to the Father, and vv. 26-27 (which mention only future existence) addressed by the Father to the Son in reply. I dealt with this interpretation briefly in my original article, but Mike has marshaled a more substantial argument for it. I responded privately to Mike explaining why I did not find his exposition persuasive. I do not intend to reproduce my response here, but what I would like to do is add a few more comments on a puzzling matter: how the writer of Hebrews came to see Psalm 102:25-27 as words spoken by God to his Son. I am obliged to Mike for bringing to my attention the unique way (among New Testament writers) in which the author of Hebrews introduces biblical quotations, which is an important clue in resolving this puzzle.

The Quotation in Context

Hebrews 1 reads thus:
1 In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; 2 in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, 3 who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word. When he had accomplished purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 as far superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. 5 For to which of the angels did God ever say: “You are my son; this day I have begotten you”? Or again: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me”? 6 And again, when he leads the first-born into the world, he says: “Let all the angels of God worship him.” 7 Of the angels he says: “He makes his angels winds and his ministers a fiery flame”; 8 but of the Son: “Your throne, O God, stands forever and ever; and a righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom. 9 You loved justice and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, anointed you with the oil of gladness above your companions”; 10 and: “At the beginning, O Lord, you established the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands. 11 They will perish, but you remain; and they will all grow old like a garment. 12 You will roll them up like a cloak, and like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.” 13 But to which of the angels has he ever said: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool”? 14 Are they not all ministering spirits sent to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Heb. 1:1-14 NABRE)
In vv. 10-12 the writer quotes from Psalm 102:25-27. However, rather than making his own translation from the Hebrew here, he quotes the Septuagint (LXX) Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures that was widely used by Hellenistic Jews and Christians in the first century. Because of differences in versification between the English Translation and the Septuagint, he is actually quoting Psalm 101:26-28 LXX. We know his source is the Septuagint because the Septuagint differs from the Hebrew Masoretic text (MT) at three points in this passage, and Hebrews follows the Septuagint in all three cases. The most significant of these are: (1) In Psalm 101:26 LXX and Hebrews 1:10 the statement is addressed to kyrie ("O Lord"), whereas Psalm 102:26 MT does not give the addressee any title. (2) In Psalm 101:26 LXX and Hebrews 1:10 the heavens are said to be the erga ("works," plural) of the addressee's hands, whereas Psalm 102:26 MT says the heavens are the מעשה ("work," singular) of the addressee's hands.1

For this reason, we need to turn to Psalm 101 LXX to get as near as we can to the text the writer of Hebrews was working from in Heb. 1:10-12.

The Speaker and Addressee of Psalm 101 LXX in Context

The psalm reads as follows in the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) (with some key verses highlighted in bold):
1 A prayer. Pertaining to the poor one. When he is weary and pours out his petition before the Lord. 2 O Lord, listen to my prayer, and let my cry come to you. 3 Do not turn away your face from me. In the day when I am afflicted, incline your ear to me; in the day when I call upon you, listen to me speedily, 4 because my days vanished like smoke and my bones were burnt up like firewood. 5 My heart was stricken like grass and it withered, because I forgot to eat my bread. 6 Due to the sound of my groaning, my bone clung to my flesh. 7 I resembled a desert pelican, I became like a long-eared owl on a building-site. 8 I lay awake, and I became like a lone sparrow on a housetop. 9 All day long my enemies would reproach me, and those who used to commend me would swear against me, 10 because I ate ashes like bread and would mix my drink with weeping, 11 from before your wrath and your anger, because when you had lifted me up you dashed me down. 12 My days faded like a shadow, and I, like grass, withered away. 13 But you, O Lord, remain forever, and the mention of you to generation and generation. 14 When you rise up you will have compassion on Sion, because it is the appointed time to have compassion on it, because the appointed time has come, 15 because your slaves held its stones dear and on its dust they will have compassion. 16 And the nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth your glory, 17 because the Lord will build up Sion, and he will be seen in his glory. 18 He regarded the prayer of the lowly and did not despise their petition. 19 Let this be recorded for another generation, and a people, which is being created, will praise the Lord, 20 because he peered down from his holy height, the Lord from heaven looked at the earth, 21 to hear the groaning of the prisoners, to set free the sons of those put to death, 22 so that the name of the Lord might be declared in Sion, and his praise in Ierousalem, 23 when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to be subject to the Lord. 24 He answered him in the way of his strength, "Tell me the paucity of my days. 25 Do not take me away at the mid-point of my days, while your years are in generation of generations!" 26 At the beginning it was you, O Lord, who founded the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands. 27 They will perish, but you will endure, and they will all become old like a garment. Like clothing you will change them, and they will be changed. 28 But you are the same, and your years will not fail. 29 The sons of your slaves shall encamp, and their offspring shall prosper for ever.2
The overall theme of the psalm is described in v. 1: it is a prayer that a poor, weary person pours out before the Lord (ho kyrios). Verse 2 sets the syntactic structure of the psalm: it is a prayer from a singular speaker to the Lord. The direct second-person address of the Lord continues from v. 2 to v. 17 or 18, despite a subordinate clause in v. 17 (and 18?) that speaks of the Lord in the third person ("his glory"). From v. 19 to 23 we have an aside, a statement about the Lord that the psalmist wishes to have written down for posterity. In v. 24a, we have an odd statement about a third-person "he" who answers a third-person "him," which diverges significantly from the Masoretic Text, largely due to differences in vocalization of the Hebrew text, which originally lacked vowels.3 From v. 24b to 29, the psalmist returns to direct second-person address of the Lord, and it is from this portion that Heb. 1:10-12 quotes.

Thus, overall we have two portions of prayer addressed to the Lord (vv. 2-17/18 and 24b-29) separated by material referring to the Lord in the third person (vv. 18/19-24a). There are several indications that the one addressed in vv. 24b-29 is the same one addressed in vv. 2-17/18. (1) Who else besides the Lord might the psalmist address prayers to? (2) The vocative kyrie ("O Lord") is used in vv. 2 and 13 and then again in v. 26, so the same term of address is used for the addressee in both prayer sections. (3) In both v. 13 and v. 27, the petitioner declares to the one addressed as kyrie that he will "remain" forever (v. 13: menō; v. 27: diamenō). (4) In both v. 15 and v. 29 the psalmist refers to "your slaves". (5) In both v. 12 and vv. 24-25, the psalmist laments about the shortness of "my days". Thus, both sections of prayer in Psalm 101 LXX are addressed to the Lord.

There are two basic ways of reading the awkward syntax of v. 24, which (with punctuation removed) translates to, "He answered him in the way of his strength tell me the paucity of my days." (1) "He" could be the psalmist (the "poor one" of v. 1 who has been praying) and "him" the Lord. We would then read v. 24a as reintroducing the psalmist's prayer and 24b as recommencing the prayer itself, as the NETS translates above. A paraphrase might be, "He (the poor one) answered him (the Lord) according to what strength he had left, 'Tell me the paucity of my days...'" (2) "He" could be the Lord, and "him" the poor one. We would then read v. 24a as emphasizing that the Lord answered the psalmist's prayer and did so with his divine strength. In that case, 24b resumes the psalmist's prayer addressed to the Lord. Thus, "He (the Lord) answered him (the poor one) in the way of his strength. (Poor one's prayer continues:) 'Tell me the paucity of my days...'" Which interpretation of v. 24 is preferable? It is not easy to decide; both readings have difficulties.4 However, perhaps it does not matter, because in either case the addressee from v. 24b to 29 is the Lord.5

To summarise, the speaker and addressee throughout Psalm 101 LXX, with the exception of an aside from vv. 18/19 to 24a, are respectively the psalmist (represented as a poor, afflicted human) and the Lord, i.e. God. This brings into sharper focus the problem of how the writer of Hebrews interpreted the speaker and addressee of Psalm 101:26-28 LXX as respectively God and his Son. To the solution of this problem we now turn.

How might the Son be the Addressee of Psalm 101:26-28 LXX?

From vv. 2-15, the Lord is only mentioned in the vocative (direct address): "O Lord". In vv. 16-17, however, the syntax vacillates between referring to the Lord in the third person and the second person, which could be taken to imply two Lords: 
And the nations will fear the name of the Lord (third person), and all the kings of the earth your glory (second person), 17 because the Lord (third person) will build up Sion, and he will be seen in his glory (third person).
The LXX translator probably had no intention of distinguishing two Lords here. However, the early Christian imagination made much of such syntactic quirks in the Scriptures. Consider Gen. 19:24 LXX: "And the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrha brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven." From this, coupled with Abraham's interactions with "the Lord" on the earth in Genesis 18, second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr inferred that there are two distinct Lords in this passage, one of whom appeared on earth and one of whom remained in heaven (Dialogue with Trypho 56.15-23). It is also possible that the writer of the Hebrews read "the Lord...your glory...the Lord...his glory" in Psalm 101 as implying two Lords, one of whom "will appear" while the other "look[s] down from heaven". What makes this a likelihood rather than a possibility is what immediately follows the quotation of Psalm 101:26-28 in Hebrews 1:10-12. In Hebrews 1:13, the writer quotes the latter part of Psalm 109:1 LXX: "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool." The unquoted introductory part of this verse mentions two Lords: "The Lord said to my Lord". In the MT (Psalm 110:1), the reference is to the divine name YHWH and the word אדן, "Lord." In the LXX, however, the divine name and אדן are both translated ho kyrios.

Since we know that the writer of Hebrews interpreted the two Lords of Psalm 109:1 LXX as God and his Son immediately after quoting Hebrews 1:10-12, it is also likely that the writer interpreted the two apparent Lords of Psalm 101:16-17 LXX as God and his Son. Making this connection would have followed the ancient rabbinic hermeneutical principle of gezerah shavah.6 The eschatological connotations of the language in vv. 14-23 ("appointed time," "another generation," "when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to be subject to the Lord") would have strengthened the conviction that one of these Lords is the Messiah—perhaps the one who will be "seen in his glory," since God himself is invisible. The writer would then have pondered which of the two Lords was being addressed as kyrie in v. 26, and he evidently concluded either that it was the second Lord (i.e. the Son), as direct agent of creation (cf. Heb. 1:2), or else that because the psalmist did not distinguish which Lord was being addressed, the words are equally applicable to both Lords. This is, in my view, the most plausible solution to the puzzle of how the writer of Hebrews came to interpret the Son as the Lord addressed in Psalm 101:26-28 LXX.7

How might God be the Speaker of Psalm 101:26-28?

We have suggested a solution to how the writer of Hebrews came to see the Son as the one addressed as kyrie ("O Lord") in Psalm 101:26-28. A second puzzle remains: how did the writer of Hebrews come to see God as the speaker of these words, the one addressing the Son ("But of the Son he says, [quotes Psalm 44:7-8 LXX], and, [quotes Psalm 101:26-28]")? After all, we have already noted, as per v. 1, that all the words addressed to the Lord in this psalm (vv. 2-17/18, vv. 24b-29) are spoken by "the poor one," the weary, afflicted human. Moreover, the speaker in vv. 24b-25a cannot possibly be God, since they concern about the fewness of the speaker's days.

The solution to this conundrum lies in the view of Scripture that is presupposed by the writer of Hebrews: since Scripture is literally the Word of God, any words of Scripture can be thought of as spoken by God, regardless of who the speaker is in the text's own local context. This view is evident in the unique way the writer introduces Scripture quotations: he consistently identifies them as spoken by God, even when the text itself refers to God in the third person. For instance, "when he leads the first-born into the world, he says: “Let all the angels of God worship him.”" (Heb. 1:6). "But of the Son [he says]...You loved justice and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, anointed you..." (Heb. 1:8-9; the speaker in Psalm 44 LXX is the psalmist, addressing the king). Hebrews 4:7 declares that the words of Psalm 94:7-8 LXX were God "saying through David...'Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts'." Hebrews 8:8-13 uses "he says" to introduce a quotation from Jeremiah 31:31-34 that repeatedly contains the words "declares the Lord." For other examples that have God speaking of himself in the third person, see Hebrews 7:21; 10:30.8

These examples show that even scriptural words that, in their original context, were spoken by human psalmists and prophets, and may even have mentioned God in the third person, were also considered by the author of Hebrews to have been "said" by God inasmuch as they were divinely inspired Scripture. Therefore, the writer of Hebrews would have recognised that the speaker's voice in Psalm 101:26-28 LXX was that of the human psalmist. However, just as he regarded the words of Psalm 94:7-8 LXX as God "saying" something "through David," so he would have regarded the words of Psalm 101:26-28 LXX. By inspiring the psalmist to address these words to the Son, God had endorsed their content as a true description of the Son.


It is not difficult to see that the writer of Hebrews understood the words quoted in Hebrews 1:10-12 to have been said by God to or of the Son.9 10 What is difficult is to see why the writer understood these words to have been said by God to the Son, particularly since, in the original context of Psalm 101:26-28 LXX, they are part of a prayer said by the psalmist to God.

In this article we have attempted to resolve this difficulty. First, noting that Psalm 101:16-17 LXX seems to refer to two Lords (kyrioi) in an eschatological context, we argued that the writer of Hebrews was prompted to identify these as God and the Son, as he did the two kyrioi of Psalm 109:1 LXX immediately thereafter (Heb. 1:13). This would have primed him to interpret the "Lord" addressed in v. 26 as the Son, or at least as equally applicable to God or his Son, both of whom are "Lord." Second, we noted the unique tendency in Hebrews to identify God as having "said" words of Scripture even when the psalmist or another human was the speaker in the immediate sense in the original context. We argued that this principle enabled the writer of Hebrews to construe God as having "said" the words of Psalm 101:26-28 LXX to/of the Son, albeit through the psalmist (as the writer says explicitly when quoting another psalm in Hebrews 4:7).


  • 1 George H. Guthrie, "Hebrews," in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 940-41.
  • 2 Albert Pietersma, "Psalms," in A New English Translation of the Septuagint, ed. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 597.
  • 3 On the Septuagint translation of Psalm 102:23(101:24 LXX) and its meaning, see Jody A. Barnard, The Mysticism of Hebrews: Exploring the Role of Jewish Apocalyptic Mysticism in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 229-33.
  • 4 The verb apokrinomai ("answer," "reply") would normally presuppose some prior speech to which one is responding (cf. Ps. 118:42 LXX: "I shall render answer to them that reproach me"), which does not fit Psalm 101, where the Lord has not said anything. However, apokrinomai can denote the continuation of speech (cf. Matt. 12:38; Mark 10:24), thus, "He continued (praying) to him in the way of his strength, '..." (cf. BDAG 113-14). "In the way of his strength" seems more suited to describing a divine response than the petition of a poor, afflicted man. In favour of the second reading, apokrinomai is used elsewhere of God's responses to human speech (cf. Ex. 19:19 LXX), and God's responsiveness to the prayer of the poor has already been emphasised in v. 18 ("He regarded the prayer of the lowly and did not despise their petition"). The main difficulty with the second option is its abruptness: the Lord's unspecified answer does not flow smoothly from what comes before (the prayer having broken off in v. 17/18), and cannot introduce the speech that follows in 24b (since the one speaking of the paucity of his days and pleading not to be taken away is clearly not the Lord). However, the abruptness can be explained by the LXX translator having misunderstood the Hebrew here.
  • 5 The NETS has the prayer of the "he" of v. 24a end in v. 25, with the original first-person speaker resuming his speech in v. 26. There is no reason to see a change of speaker at the end of v. 25, however, even though the speaker never refers to himself in the first person thereafter. In any case, the addressee is clearly still the Lord throughout, for reasons already discussed.
  • 6 This ancient rule of biblical exegesis entails interpreting two passages jointly when they share an important phrase (David Instone Brewer, Techniques and Assumptions in Jewish Exegesis before 70 CE [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1992], pp. 17-18). Scholars have noted the use of this principle elsewhere in Hebrews (Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006], 24), including in the joining of Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14 in Hebrews 1:5 (Richard N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, 2nd edn [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 81-82).
  • 7 Guthrie, focusing on the LXX text of Psalm 101:24, suggests it implies that "the words of our quotation" (i.e., Psalm 101:26-28) "can be taken as the words of Yahweh spoken to one addressed as 'Lord'" ("Hebrews," 940; similarly, Radu Gheorgita, The Role of the Septuagint in Hebrews: An Investigation of its Influence with Special Consideration to the Use of Hab 2:3-4 in Heb 10:37-38 [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003], 61-62). However, not only is it unlikely that Yahweh would directly address the Son as kyrie, as though he were Yahweh's superior; it is also very unlikely that Yahweh could be construed as the speaker of vv. 24b-25c ("Tell me the paucity of my days. Do not take me away at the mid-point of my days")! Since it would be very awkward to have Yahweh's "answer" begin only in v. 26 after several intervening lines of direct speech by someone else, the solution here seems preferable.
  • 8 This tendency seems to be unique to Hebrews within the New Testament. Paul, for instance, usually introduces biblical quotations with the formula, "It is written." Occasionally he refers to biblical quotations as having been "said" by God, but seemingly only when God was being quoted making first-person speech in the original context (Rom. 9:15; 9:25; 2 Cor. 4:6; 6:16). In other instances, Paul refers to what "Scripture" says, what "the Law" says, or what Moses, David or Isaiah says (Rom. 4:3; 9:17; 10:11; 10:16; 10:19; 10:20; 11:2; 11:9), but as far as I can tell he never construes God as "saying" something in Scripture that refers to God in the third person. Again, I am obliged to Mike MacDonald for drawing my attention to this idiosyncrasy of Hebrews (at least among the NT writings).
  • 9 This is implied by the parallelism between vv. 8 and 10, with the word "And" in v. 10 showing that the writer is adding another example of what God says "to/of the Son" (pros de ton huion) in contrast to what he says "to/of the angels" (pros men tous aggelous, v. 7). (Compare v. 5, where only "and again" (kai palin) separates consecutive quotations from Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7).
  • 10 In writing "to/of" I am acknowledging the semantic ambiguity of the preposition pros when modifying an accusative: it could mean "towards, to" or "with reference/regard to" (BDAG 874-75).  The second-person address of the Son in vv. 8-9 and 10-12 might seem to favour "towards," but the parallelism with v. 7 (where the angels are referred to in the third person despite pros being used) neutralises this. Anyway, the distinction between "to" and "of" does not seem especially important to the meaning of Hebrews 1:7-12.

Thursday 21 May 2015

On prepositions and pre-existence

What follows is a largely a summary of Gregory E. Sterling’s paper, Prepositional Metaphysics in Jewish Wisdom Speculation and Early Christian Liturgical Texts.[1] This rather intimidating title disguises a fascinating essay with significant Christological implications, particularly pertaining to New Testament texts which ascribe to Christ a role in the creation of all things.

Sterling begins his paper by highlighting the role that significant prepositional phrases in the New Testament played in the Arian controversy.  He notes that ‘The tutor of the future emperor Julian had argued that the use of ἐξ οὖ in reference to the Father and διοὖ in reference to the Son [in 1 Cor 8:6] marked a distinction between the two since dissimilar terms imply dissimilar natures.’[2]

He then asks whether early Christians used such prepositional phrases in the technical way in which they were used in Hellenistic philosophy.

For instance, the pseudonymous author of De mundo (c. 3rd century BC) wrote: ‘all things are from God (ἐκ θεοῦ) and through God (διὰ θεοῦ) hold together for us’.[3] Aelius Aristides (2nd century AD) addressed the god Serapis with the words, ‘For all things everywhere are through you (διὰ σοῦ) and have become for us on account of you (διὰ σέ)’.[4]

Aetius the doxographer (between 2nd century BC and 1st century AD) states the following concerning Plato’s view of causation:

Plato held there were three causes. He says: ‘by which (ὑφοὖ), out of which (ἐξ οὖ), to which (πρὸς )’. He considers the by which (τὸ ὑφοὖ) to be the most important. This was that which creates, that is the mind.[5]
Hellenistic Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria (1st century AD) held a Middle Platonic position which described four causes:

For many things must come together for the generation of something: the by which (τὸ ὑφοὖ), the from which (τὸ ἐξ οὖ), the through which (τὸ διοὖ), and the for which (τὸ δι)…The by which (τὸ ὑφοὖ) is the cause (τὸ αἴτιον), the from which (τὸ ἐξ οὖ) is the matter ( ὑλη), the through which (τὸ διοὖ) is the tool (τὸ ἐργαλεῖον), the for which (τὸ δι) is the purpose ( αἰτία).[6]
Philo identifies each of these with reference to the cosmos:

[the] cause (αἴτιον) is God, by whom (ὑφοὖ) it came into existence, its material ( ὑλη) is the four elements out of which (ἐξ ὧν) it has been composed, its instrument (ὄργανον) is the Logos of God (λόγος θεοῦ) through whom (διοὗ) it was constructed, the purpose (αἰτία) of its construction is the goodness of the Demiurge.[7]
He goes on to note that Philo does not speak exclusively of the Logos as the instrument of creation; he also uses the same expression for Wisdom (which he elsewhere equates with the Logos).[8]

Broadly speaking, Sterling identified two Hellenistic philosophical models for explaining causation: the Stoic model and the Middle Platonic. The former view holds that there is one cause which can be described in various ways (as in Pseudo-Aristotle and Aelius Aristides) while the latter holds that there are several causes which can be identified (as in Aetius’ citation of Plato, and Philo). The key claim of Sterling’s paper are that the NT texts which use prepositional phrases metaphysically do so with their technical philosophical meanings – some using Stoic formulations for God and others using Middle Platonic formulations for Christ.[9]

Sterling then turns to exegesis of New Testament texts which use such prepositional phrases metaphysically to denote cause, which is ‘almost always signaled through the reference to “all things” (πάντα)’.[10] He observes that these texts are all regarded as reflecting early Christian liturgical practice in some way.[11]

He regards Rom. 11:36 and Heb. 2:10 as Stoic formulations for God. In the former case, Paul wrote, ‘for all things are from him (ἐξ αὐτοῦ) and through him (διαὐτοῦ) and for him (εἰς αὐτόν)’.[12] In the latter case, the author wrote, ‘it is fitting for him for whom (διὅν) are all things and through whom (διοὖ) are all things…’[13] In both cases, multiple prepositional constructions (notably including διὰ + genitive) are used to refer to a single cause.

Another group of texts (Heb. 1:2; John 1:3, 10; Col. 1:16) uses Platonic formulations to describe the Son’s role in creation. Heb. 1:2 says concerning the Son, ‘through whom (διοὖ) he made the worlds’.[14] This formulation makes a clear distinction between God and the agent of creation. In this way it aligns with Middle Platonism which developed the instrumental agency which developed in the first century BCE. (Sterling 233)

John 1:3, 10 says concerning the Logos (who is evidently personal at least in v. 10), ‘the cosmos came into existence through him (διαὐτοῦ)’.[15] Col. 1:16 uses three distinct prepositional phrases to describe Christ’s relationship to creation: the familiar ‘through him’ (διαὐτοῦ), as well as ‘in him’ (ἐν αὐτῷ) and ‘for him’ (εἰς αὐτόν). On this, Sterling comments, ‘I suggest that the Christians who first set out this material were expanding the cosmological functions of Christ just as Philo expanded the functions for the Logos’.[16]

Is Col. 1:16 referring to the original creation or only the new creation? Sterling thinks that a careful analysis of the literary structure of the passage reveals that it consists of three units: one cosmological (Col. 1:15-16), one soteriological (Col. 1:18-20) and a middle unit which makes the transition between the two (Col. 1:17). He concludes,

The close parallels between the first and third units suggest that the cosmological material became the basis for the soteriological, i.e. the distinctive Christian contribution lies in the soteriological application of the pre-existing cosmological schema.[17]
Most intriguing of all is what Sterling describes as a ‘mixed text’ which brings both cosmological and soteriological concerns together: 1 Cor. 8:6. This verse states, ‘But for us there is one God the Father, from whom (ἐξ αὐτοῦ) are all things and we for him (εἰς αὐτόν), and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom (διοὖ) are all things and we through him (διαὐτοῦ)’.[18] Here, ‘The first half of each phrase is cosmological; the second half is soteriological’.[19]

Sterling points out the parallel in the contrast of prepositions with 1 Cor. 11:12, which says, ‘For just as the woman is from the man (ἐκ τοῦ ἀνδρός), so is the man also through the woman (διὰ τῆς γυναικός)’.[20]

Sterling concludes by asking what was the source of early Christian use of metaphysical formulations such as those above. He hypothesizes that ‘Stoic and Platonic formulations of prepositional metaphysics found their way into Jewish synagogue liturgies in association with both attempts to present God in philosophical categories and in Wisdom speculations’.[21] The early church adopted these formulations, Christianized them, and added a soteriological dimension.

The Christological implications of the texts discussed above are quite clear, especially in light of Sterling’s study: they imply Christ’s personal pre-existence and active participation in creation. The minority of scholars who deny this, notably Dunn, generally do so on the grounds that these texts are not actually talking about Christ himself, but about Christ as the embodiment of God’s power. For instance, Dunn in Christology of the Making comments on Col. 1:15-20,

The two strophes become quite consistent as soon as we realize that throughout the hymn we are not talking about God’s creative power per se, nor of Christ per se, but of Christ whom Christians came to recognize as the embodiment and definition of that power… Is then the Colossian hymn writer trying to say any more than that the creation and Christ must be understood in relation to each other; now that Christ has been raised from the dead the power and purpose in creation cannot be fully understood except in terms of Christ, and so too Christ cannot be fully understood except in terms of that wise activity of God which has made the world what it is (ἐν), which gives the world its meaning (διά) and which will bring the world to its appointed end (εἰς).[22]
Dunn offers a dubious interpretation of διὰ here in view of the genitive accompanying noun. Furthermore, while we can agree with him – especially in light of Sterling’s analysis of Philo’s Middle Platonism – that Jewish ideas about Wisdom lie behind the Christology of the hymn of Col. 1:15-20,[23] Dunn’s exegesis faces a significant problem that is obvious to lay and academic readers alike: ‘The first stanza is about a person, not merely the power of God exhibited in creation’.[24] Indeed, Dunn himself conceded that ‘it would appear to be clear that both Paul and the pre-Pauline hymn are attributing pre-existence to Christ’ in Col. 1:16[25] (Dunn, p. 189), and furthermore that ‘it is hard to imagine any first-century reader interpreting the first strophe except as a reference to the “old” creation’.[26] Dunn’s reading of this text is too complex to be convincing, leaving little doubt that this text says what it appears to say – that Christ actively participated in the creation of heaven and earth and everything in them.[27]

Schenck follows Dunn in taking a similar approach to Heb. 1:2c. Schenck states, ‘To speak of Christ as creator is to recognize that he is the wisdom of God par excellence, the final goal and purpose of God for creation.’[28] This neglects the point that the writer could have made precisely this point simply by following διὰ with an accusative pronoun. That he instead followed it with a genitive pronoun implies that he intended something different - namely, Christ’s direct involvement in creation. Hence, Talbert rightly states, ‘Pre-existence is implied in the prologue’s statement that Christ is the agent of creation (1:2).’[29]

Similar arguments apply to 1 Cor. 8:6. A careful analysis of these texts leaves me confident that I made the right choice to leave behind the unitarian Christology which I was taught growing up and acknowledge Jesus as the pre-existent Lord of all creation.

[1] Sterling, G.E. (1997). Prepositional Metaphysics in Jewish Wisdom Speculation and Early Christian Liturgical Texts. The Studia Philonica annual, 9, 219-238.
[2] Sterling 1997: 219.
[3] Pseudo-Aristotle, De Mundo 397b, cited Sterling 1997: 223.
[4] Aelius Aristides 45.14, cited Sterling 1997: 223-224.
[5] Aetius, Plac. 1.11.2, cited in Sterling 1997: 226.
[6] Philo, On the Cherubim 124-127, cited in Sterling 1997: 227.
[7] Philo, On the Cherubim 124-127, cited in Sterling 1997: 227.
[8] See Sterling 1997: 229.
[9] Sterling 1997: 232.
[10] Sterling 1997: 232.
[11] Sterling 1997: 231.
[12] trans. Sterling 1997: 233.
[13] trans. Sterling 1997: 233.
[14] trans. Sterling 1997: 233.
[15] trans. Sterling 1997: 233.
[16] Sterling 1997: 235.
[17] Sterling 1997: 235.
[18] trans. Sterling 1997: 235.
[19] Sterling 1997: 236.
[20] trans. Sterling 1997: 235. This can assist us in understanding the sense of the διὰ + genitive as used for Christ’s role in creation. It clearly does not mean ‘because of’ or ‘for the sake of’, but implies a direct, instrumental role.
[21] Sterling 1997: 237.
[22] Dunn, J.D.G. (1980). Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation. London: SCM Press, pp. 193-194.
[23] Note Moo’s comment: “however common or basic such parallels might be, Paul’s identification of Christ with Wisdom constitutes no reason to deny personal preexistence in the key texts.” (Moo, D.J. (2005). The Christology of the Early Pauline Letters. In R.N. Longenecker (Ed.), Contours of Christology in the New Testament (pp. 169-192). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 178.)
[24] Witherington, B. III. (2007). The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 132.
[25] Dunn 1980: 189.
[26] Dunn 1980: 190.
[27] On the qualification of the ‘all things’ into various categories in in Col. 1:16, Wilson remarks: ‘These words emphasize the absolute completeness of τὰ πάντα… it is the whole of creation that is in view, things invisible as well as those which can be seen. This includes the thrones, dominions, rulers and powers: they are part of the creation, and therefore subordinate to the one ‘‘in whom” all things were created.’ (Wilson, R. McL. (2005). Colossians and Philemon. London: T&T Clark, p. 139).
[28] Schenck, K. (1997). Keeping His Appointment: Creation and Enthronement in Hebrews.
Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 19(66), 91-117. Here p. 106.
[29] Talbert, C.H. (2011). The Myth of a Descending-Ascending Redeemer in Mediterranean Antiquity. In The development of Christology during the first hundred years and other
essays on early Christian Christology (pp. 83-112). Leiden: Brill, p. 107.