The Use of the Old Testament in Hebrews

Ronald E. Clements  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 28 - Fall 1985

We are fully familiar with the division of the Bible into two parts, or testaments, each of which appears to be a more or less self-contained collection of writings. It is necessary to bear in mind, however, that the New Testament refers broadly to “scripture” (cf. 1 Tim. 3:16), or “the scriptures” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3), in referring to the writings which we have now come to know as ”the Old Testament.” At first the early Christians simply added on the important new Chris­tian writings to those already in circulation as scripture to form a uniform collection. Then it quite evidently soon became necessary to begin to describe the writings of the old Mosaic covenant as “the Old Testament,” in order to distinguish them from the writings of ”the New Testament.” It is only in relatively modem years that the practice has arisen of publishing the New Testament by itself, in isolation from the Old.

All of this has an important bearing on our understanding of Hebrews and its purpose among the other biblical writings. Quite evidently it is addressed to men and women who are assumed to be fully familiar with the scriptures of the Old Testament, although they are themselves Christians. At times it appears that the author of this fascinating book simply makes use of the Old Testament writings in order to illustrate a point of Christian doctrine, or in order to strengthen his argument where it appears that his readers are in serious danger of misunderstanding the Christian faith, or even of abandoning it altogether. It is readily apparent that a knowledge of the Old Testament is indispensable for a useful understanding of what the writer of this letter is endeavoring to say. It is also striking that this appeal to the Old Testament writings requires a detailed and sophisticated knowledge of these scriptures, and can argue about them over matters of detail in a way that goes beyond that which we encounter in St. Paul’s letters.[1]R. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), p. 158 notes: “Theologically, while its thought is compatible with the Pauline procla­mation, its argument is framed according to the interests of its Jewish Christian audience.” To lay such stress upon the assumed “Jewish Christian” nature of the epistle’s readers may be to assume more than is properly necessary. It was important for the writer to show that Gentile Christians had need for the Old Testament.

At the outset, however, a further feature needs to be borne in mind in respect of the relationship of this epistle to the writings of the Old Testament. Not only does it argue from them, in the sense that it assumes a deep familiarity with their contents, but it also argues to them, in the awareness that the epistle’s readers may mistakenly misuse and misinterpret them so as to undermine the essential fullness and uniqueness of the Christian faith. The writer therefore not only uses the Old Testament writings in order to illuminate Christian doctrine, but it also uses Christian doctrine in order to illuminate the Old Testament.[2]G. B. Caird, “The Exegetical Method of the Epistle to the Hebrews,” Canadian Journal of Theology 5 (1959):44-51, sees a major part of the epistle’s relation between the Old and New Testaments, and discerns much of the value of the book to lie in its methods of interpreting the Old Testament writings in a christological fashion. Those who have become Christian, and who have thereby come into the possession of the Old Testament scriptures, are in danger of not interpreting these scriptures correctly. By failing to understand and interpret these sacred documents in a truly Christian manner they are actually in danger of misunderstanding the authority of the Old Testament. To do this would be to undermine the wholeness of the Christian faith. The letter therefore should rightly be regarded as the earliest and fullest of the early Christian documents which sought to show how the Old Testament can, and should, be interpreted in the light of Jesus Christ. The fact that the Old Testament is quoted so extensively, and that numerous allusions are made to an even larger range of biblical passages, is clearly a part of the author’s design and intention.[3]The precise number of Old Testament passages cited, or alluded to, is less easy to determine than might have been expected. This is for two reasons: first, the same passage is sometimes cited, or referred to, more than once. Second, the writer’s knowledge of the Old Testament enables him to make allusions which combine reference to more than one pas­ sage. Longenecker lists thirty-eight quotations based on twenty-seven Old Testament passages, with a further fifty-five allusions. Cf. further B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (London: Macmillan, 1903), pp. 471-97, “On the Use of the Old Testament in the Epistle.”

Before looking in detail at what these Old Testament passages are, and why the author’s interpretation of them is so important, we need to pause briefly to consider the situation of those to whom the letter was first addressed. Although the question of the writer’s identity has never been satisfactorily resolved, we may argue that the question of the identity of the epistle’s first readers is every bit as important. The usual ascription “to the Hebrews” has been taken, not without good reason, to imply that the intended readers were Jewish Christians who could be assumed to have grown up with the Old Testament. The danger now facing them was that, perhaps during the crisis occasioned by the Roman-Jewish war of A.D. 66-70, they were tempted to slip back into their former Jewish practice and belief.[4]A. Nairne, The Epistle of Priesthood (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1913), pp. 20ff. The proposal has been put forward by A. Harnack and others that the author may have been Priscilla (Acts 18:2). The author would then be urging them forward into a fuller grasp of Christian truth which would leave them unashamed to abandon their old Jewish ideas. The threat, or perhaps even the actuality, of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70 could then be thought of as providing a situation which gave rise to a crisis of loyalty for those who had been accustomed to look upon the temple as a focus for their own worship.[5]Naime, passim, regarded it as certain that, at the time when the epistle was written, the Jerusalem temple had not been destroyed (A.D. 70). This point, however, cannot be regarded as so certain. It is also noteworthy that the period close to that of the Roman-Jewish war was one in which the Christian church suffered some of the fiercest persecutions, particularly in Rome in the time of Nero (c. A.D. 64). Obviously this would have compelled deep and serious thought on the part of Jewish Christians, which could well account for the fear of a “relapse” from faith mentioned in the epistle (Heb. 6:4-8; 12:1-11).[6]For the hermeneutical purpose of the epistle see especially, G. Hughes, Hebrews and Hermeneutics: The Epistle to the Hebrews as a New Testament Example of Biblical Interpretation, SNTS Monograph Se­ries 26 (Cambridge: University Press, 1979).

The extensive use of the Old Testament in Hebrews has therefore frequently been understood to have arisen from the Jewishness of the intended readers. Since they already knew well the writings of the Old Testament, the author was concerned that they should recognize how firmly and securely it pointed them to Jesus Christ as its necessary fulfillment. The Old Testament remained an incomplete revelation of God without an awareness of its true goal. Attractive as such a way of understanding the reason for the extensive use of the Old Testament literature is in Hebrews, more recent study has pointed to other factors. First among these is the skilled and learned manner of the writer’s use of the Old Testament. Not only does he show a rich grasp of rabbinic learning and techniques of exegesis, but he also shows a deep grasp of ideas and themes from Greek (Platonic) philosophy.[7]This has been increasingly recognized as a point of importance by recent commentators. It has led to many of the most significant new developments of interpretation and has provided a basis of comparison with one of the most prolific and philosophical of Jewish writers of the period, name Philo of Alexandria. This is elaborated by S. G. Sowers, The Hermeneutics of Philo and Hebrews (Richmond: John Knox 1965), and, in immense detail by Ronald Willamson, Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews, Arbeiten zur Literatur und Geschichte des hellenistischen Judentums 4 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970). It has also lent new significance to the fact that the author of this epistle cites the Old Testament in its Greek (Septaugint) translation. See K. J. Thomas, “The Old Testament Citations in Hebrews,” New Testament Studies 11 (1964-5):303-25, where he summarizes the results of his doctoral dissertation on the sub­ject. Whoever the “Hebrews” were to whom the letter was originally addressed, they evidently knew their Greek very well indeed. Corre­spondingly it must be regarded as highly unlikely that less well educated Jews would have made much of the author’s line of argument! This particularly concerns his attention to the subtle belief that buildings, such as the temple, and practices, such as sacrifice, may exist as “shadows” of the full reality which have their perfect form in heaven itself. Whoever the readers of the epistle were, therefore, they were undoubtedly credited with being learned and well-read men and women. It is this that has made it attractive to look to Alexandria as the home of either the epistle’s author, or readers, where a powerful tradition had grown up seeking to combine the best of Jewish and Hellenistic thought. Whether or not this was the case has not been conclusively demonstrated, but it has helped to draw attention to a most central feature about the way in which the Old Testament quotations are used in the epistle. The whole theme and character of these quotations is designed to show how richly valuable the Old Testament remains for the Christian in order that the whole fullness of God’s revelation may be known. This provides us with what is certainly, one of the most significant insights which the study of this letter can offer. It demonstrates that every Christian, whether his or her upbringing has been Jewish or Gentile, has much to learn from the Old Testament. It is necessary, however, that the eyes of the Christian should be opened and illumined by Jesus Christ. If this does not occur, then such a person would be in danger of relapsing into a false “Judaizing” way of understanding the Old Testament.

We can set the letter in a clear perspective, therefore, in regard to its use of the Old Testament. During the first three decades of its existence the Christian church not only admitted Gentiles into its fold, but found itself increasingly forced into separation from the worship and teaching of the Jewish synagogue. Gradually the majority of its new members came to be drawn from a Gentile background with little or no familiarity with the writings of the Old Testament. It is noteworthy that in such a letter as Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians the extent to which appeal to the Old Testament is made is much less than in earlier letters of his. It takes only a little reflection to realize that; by the second half of the first century A.D., large sections of the Christian church had had no familiarity whatsoever with the writings of the Old Testament until they encountered it as a part of Christian scripture. What were they to make of it? Most would have been readily able to see that it had been important for Jewish Christians as marking the road by which they had been led to faith in Jesus. But was it necessary, or even helpful, for Gentile Christians also to pay heed to its writings? We know that during the second Christian century the belief did emerge among some Christians that they could dispense with the Old Testament altogether. Hebrews is a carefully marshalled essay in interpretation demonstrating that this is not a right, or helpful, way for the Christian to proceed. Even after its separation from the Jewish synagogue the Christian church needs the Old Testament if the whole range of God’s revelation is to be understood. Such is the central argument of this letter and its many quotations from the Old Testament show in comprehensive fashion how the Old and New Testaments belong together and complement each other.[8]This was argued by G. B. Caird, “The Exegetical Method of the Epistle to the Hebrews,” pp. 44-51, who saw much of the author’s pur­pose to lie in his desire to show how the Old and New Testaments com­plemented each other, and were both needful to the Christian.

Seen in this light Hebrews is an important series of guidelines for Gentile as well as Jewish Christians regarding the Old Testament. In making such extensive use of quotations from the Old Testament the author is seeking to demonstrate that its writings can and should be understood from a Christian perspective. We can see how he achieves this purpose by the way in which he fastens upon the most central themes of Christian doctrine. The first among these concerns the manner of the divine revelation to mankind, and here the opening words of the letter establish the author’s position: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (1:1-2). The fact that the “full” revelation of God has been given through Jesus does not mean that there has been no other, or previous, revelation of the divine nature.

This thesis is then developed by showing, with the aid of a number of suitable quotations taken from the Psalms, that, since he is God’s Son, Jesus stands apart from and above the status of angels and other mediators of a knowledge of God. Jesus is in reality wholly unique, so that he represents for mankind the fullness of the knowledge of God. He is, however, God’s Son, and the Old Testament in a number of passages reveals the existence of God’s Son, without identifying more fully precisely who he is.[9]The doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ forms the central pivot of all that the author has to say about the Old Testament. It must be read “in light of Jesus Christ,” which meant that it was necessary to recognize that, however imperfectly, the writers of the Old Testament had been given an insight into the reality of the Son of God. Earlier Jewish scribes had reflected deeply upon this question of the identity of the Son referred to, for instance in Ps. 2:7:

“I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’.”

With this quotation the writer discerningly connects another reference to the Son in 2 Sam. 7:14. Such a title referred to the Davidic king as God’s anointed “Son,” so that the Old Testament idea of kingship associated the term with the royal office, and from this projected it forward as a title of the expected messiah. Now the writer of Hebrews elaborated upon this theme still further. The title ”Son” has been revealed in all its fullness as implying a oneness with God, above that of any angel or human being, through Jesus of Nazareth. He is the Son of God of whom the Old Testament speaks. It is important to bear in mind that the writer was well aware that the psalmist of Israel had not known the fullness of meaning attached to divine sonship, but had revealed his existence. Yet this is wholly in accord with the author’s overall pattern of argument regarding the historical form and nature of God’s revelation of himself to mankind. This revelation has been given in a whole range of experiences, and through a variety of agencies, including Moses, prophets, and angels, but has only been brought to its intended completeness through God’s revelation of himself in the person of his Son.

It is necessary to bear this in mind in order to understand, for instance, why Psalm 2 can affirm “today I have begotten you” (Ps. 2:7), when He­ brews immediately makes it plain that the Son was with God the Father at the creation of the world (Heb. 1:2). The Old Testament writers were able to declare the mind and purpose of God in a partial fashion, but only Jesus has been able to declare their fullness. It might then be argued by way of a rejoinder that there is no necessity for the Christian to pay any further attention to the Old Testament, since it does not disclose anything that is not now more fully revealed through Jesus of Nazareth. Yet to argue in such fashion would be to lose sight of the important historical perspective that the author of Hebrews, and in fact the writers of other of the New Testament documents, seek to affirm. Truly God had not, in past ages, left himself without a testimony among mankind. The revelation had indeed been given, but it had only been partial and incomplete.

From the point of view of contemporary biblical scholarship it is helpful to keep in mind that it is not all that clear what precisely was intended to be conveyed by the ascription of divine sonship to the Davidic king in Psalm 2. This is almost certainly a coronation psalm for the investiture of a Davidic king and it makes extensive use of a complex ideology of kingship which flourished at one time in the court life of ancient Israel, and which had its roots in a widespread veneration for the king in the ancient Near East. The most decisively clear-cut parallels to the usage in the Old Testament are to be found in ancient Egypt where a most elaborate and richly adorned ideology of kingship prevailed. Both M. Noth[10]This was set out by M. Noth in an essay entitled “God, King and Nation in the Old Testament” in The Laws of the Pentateuch and Other Essays (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1966). and, now more recently, T. N. D. Mettinger[11]A long chapter is devoted to the question of what was meant by de­scribing the king in Old Testament times as God’s “Son” in T. N. D. Mettinger, King and Messiah (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1976), pp. 259ff. have argued that the affirmation of Psalm 2 should be understood as a formula of adoption asserting that, at his coronation, Israel’s king of the Davidic line was made the heir of God’s kingdom and was made his representative and ruler over the nations (Ps. 2:8-9).

According to the author of Hebrews therefore, not only was it important for reasons of a true historical perspective to recognize that God had been speaking to mankind through the Old Testament, but this was also important if the full range and significance of his revelation through his Son was to be understood. The Old Testament scriptures could therefore be used to present a much richer and ampler understanding of Jesus as the true Mediator between God and man than could have been grasped if the Christian were to restrict himself or herself, to the use of the New Testament writings alone. In this then we are given once again the key to this fundamental position adopted by the early Christian community and given such a central place in this book. The Old Testament writings remain valid and authoritative for the Christian as scripture, but they must be interpreted throughout in the light of the revelation of Jesus as God’s Son. The kind of “Judaizing” interpretations which evidently had tended to impose themselves upon early Christian communities, and which appear in no small measure to have provided a continued temptation for several churches to adopt, are thereby dismissed and argued out of court. We know too that, as the church grew during the second and third Christian centuries, a forceful attempt was made from within certain Christian churches to leave aside the Old Testament altogether as no longer needful for the Christian. Yet this too is not a position which the writer to the Hebrews would support. The Old Testament remains authoritative, he asserts, but only when it is read and interpreted in the light of Jesus as God’s Son. This then explains the further citations from the Old Testament which establish the elevated Christology by which Jesus is set as the supreme Revealer of God.

The relative status of Jesus as God’s Son, over against the position of angels, is argued on the basis of a number of citations. Angels are indeed glorious and awesome servants of God (so Heb. 1:7, citing Ps. 104:4), but they are nevertheless not as awesome and glorious as God’s Messiah-Son, who is addressed in the Psalms as one who is on a level with God himself (Heb. 1:8-9, citing Ps. 45:6-7). The same point is reiterated by a further quotation from the Psalms, this time because it was originally addressed to the “Lord” and now interpreted as applicable to Jesus (Ps. 102:25, 27, quoted in Heb. 1:10-12). A concluding point that Jesus, as God’s Son, is so much more exalted than all angels is made by citing Ps. 110:1, another psalm originally addressed to the Davidic king like Psalm 2 (Heb. 1:13). From the Old Testament it can be learned that angels are no higher than ‘ ‘ministering spirits sent forth to serve’ ‘ (1:14), whereas Jesus showed himself to be “faithful over God’s house as a son” (3:6).

The recognition that Jesus, as the Son of God, was so much higher than the angels must inevitably have raised a number of questions in the minds of the readers of this book, and quite evidently the author anticipated that it would do so. If Jesus were in reality so far above the angels, how had it come about that he had appeared as a man, and was known as a human being who had walked the paths of Galilee? This leads on to a second series   of quotations from the Old Testament, this time from the Psalms and the Prophets. How should the Christian understand the seemingly contradictory claims that Jesus was fully and truly a man, and yet had a status and a role to play in the divine purpose far above that of any angel? By first quoting Ps. 8:4-6 in Heb. 2:6-8 the author shows   the elevated position which the Old Testament accords to man, addressed in the psalm in a representative way as the ”Son of Man.” This is the destiny which God has planned for mankind, but it has not yet been fulfilled and remains in the realm of hope for the future (2:8). It is no longer an uncertain and unattainable hope, however, since its unique glories have been made possible through Jesus who has fully and completely accepted the pain and sufferings of humanity. He has done so even to the extent of undergoing the death that every man and woman must experience (2:9). So the author skillfully combines what is said about mankind in Ps. 8:4 through its reference to the “Son of Man” by showing that Jesus, as both Son of God and Son of Man, makes it possible for the human race to fulfill the destiny that God has planned for it, and which is declared in the Old Testament.

The concern for a truly Christ-centered interpretation of the Old Testament raised inevitably consideration of the question of the relative position of Jesus and Moses as bearers of the divine revelation to mankind (Heb. 3:2-6). Here the author, instead of resorting to explicit quotation of Old Testament passages, makes use of an analogy, comparing Moses to a faithful servant in a house and Jesus to the son of the household. The whole christological argument of the epistle in the first four chapters is then brought to a climax with a further series of quotations from the Old Testament which serve as admonitions against unbelief and a refusal to respond to the call of God (Heb. 3:7-19, citing Num. 12:7; Ps. 95:7-11). These serve to show not only the genuine risk that faced the epistle’s readers that as Christians they might fail to respond in faith to God’s call to them, but also that those to whom the revelation of God had first come had in fact forfeited the opportunity that was theirs through disobedience (especially Heb. 3: 19).

The necessity of maintaining a truly christological approach to the reading and interpretation of the Old Testament finds, in Hebrews 1-4, its central focus in a demonstration that the writings of the Old Covenant themselves point decisively to the unique position and status of the Son of God, who was with the Father at the creation of the world. The author then moves his argument along to consider the nature of the church and its relationship to the Old Testament. It is abundantly clear that considerable space and attention is given in the Old Testament to the necessity of a priestly mediation between God and Israel. In fact, no small part of the instructions contained in the Pentateuch consist of rules and directions for the institution and conduct of worship. It is this knowledge which leads the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews to develop his presentation   of the doctrine that Jesus is a priest “after the order of Melchizedek,” Heb. 4:14-9:28. This is an intricate series of separate arguments based on a number of quotations from the Old Testament concerning priesthood, and especially the priestly order of Melchizedek to whom Abraham paid tithes (Gen. 14:17-20).[12]It has proved particularly interesting for the use of the Old Testa­ment in Hebrews that among the scrolls found at Qumran, by the Dead Sea, one of those found in cave 11 is particularly concerned with the figure of Melchizedek. This has pointed to the probability that the Jewish Community at Qumran, like the writer to the Hebrews, found a special importance in the priestly order of Melchizedek. Some scholars have taken this to indicate that the author of this book knew the doctrine from the Qumran sect, but it is possible that both developments had arisen separately from the messianic interpretation of Psalm 110.

As we have already mentioned in regard to the use of the Old Testament in general in this epistle, there are strong indications that the author has made extensive use of a type of exegesis which had developed among hellenistic Jews, especially in the Alexandrian school, involving a complex interrelating of texts.[13]The Alexandrian School of biblical interpretation grew up in the Jewish community there during the second century B.C., making extensive use of Greek philosophical ideas and learning. Later a Christian school of biblical interpretation emerged in Alexandria displaying many similar characteristics to the city’s earlier Jewish thinkers. It is in line with this that he knows the Old Testament in its Greek (Septuagint) translation, and also that he freely regards all three parts of the Hebrew canon (Law, Prophets, and Writings) to be of equal value and authority. Priesthood therefore for him is essentially understood as a matter of doctrine concerning the divinely authorized means of mediation between God and man. To what extent he may himself have been familiar with the priestly activity of the Jerusalem temple before its destruction in A.D. 70 is therefore not at all clear. In any case it is not, for the writer, a matter of any importance. More significant for him is that the Old Testament scriptures know of, and refer to, an order of priestly ministry which was both older than, and more authoritative than, the Aaronic order of priests which had served the Israelite and Jewish people since the days of Moses. The fact that the Aaronic priesthood had maintained an exclusive position of validity and authority in Judaism down to the time of the birth of the Christian church required to be set alongside the evidence, from the Old Testament scriptures, that another order of priests had existed in the days of Abraham “after the order of Melchizedek.”

Heb. 5:6 can therefore cite, alongside the repeated Ps. 2:7 (in Heb. 5:5), the declaratory ordination of the messianic ruler:

You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110:4).

We may compare further the further development of this theme in Heb. 7:1-2, 17, 21. It is a rather unexpected feature of the royal psalm, Psalm 110, which, like Psalm 2, can best be understood as a royal coronation psalm of ancient Israel, to discover that the Davidic king was also honored as invested with a priestly role to play. It is not, however, the precise historical circumstances of the origin of this installation-formula that concerns the author, but the key it provides for an elucidation of the full and complete validity of the worship to God offered in the name of Jesus by the Christian church. The fact that the rules and directions for priestly worship and the offering of sacrifice given in the Old Testament in the books of Exodus and Leviticus are no longer being literally carried out does not invalidate their doctrinal value for the Christian. On the contrary, the Christian may benefit greatly from them, since they will serve to make plain the fullness and completeness of the worship that can be offered to God through the person and work of Jesus. In this the lines of argument developed by the author are not at all difficult to trace.

The understanding of the messianic sonship of Jesus has gained richly in understanding from what the Old Testament Psalms, especially Psalms 2 and 110, have to disclose about the status of the Son. Yet Psalm 110 also brings to light that God’s Son is the bearer of the title ”priest after the order of Melchizedek.” This doctrine that Jesus, the man from Nazareth, was in reality none other than God’s Son, a faithful servant of the divine household greater than Moses (3:5-6), and also the true priest for all God’s people since he was “of the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6, 10; 6:20, 7:11, 17) forms part of the argument concerning the nature of the Christian church. The issue dominates the entire central section in 4:14-10:39. It necessarily and inevitably occasions a further extensive series of quotations from the Old Testament which serve to show how God’s saving work and activity under the old order (that of Moses) was wholly continuous with, and in conformity with, his work in the Christian church. In one sense this might be regarded as surprising since the author develops a pattern of argument concerning the two covenants which sets them in sharp contrast with each other. It is helpful therefore to begin by moving ahead of the author’s formal structuring of his argument to consider his understanding of the two covenants. The prophet Jeremiah, in Jer. 31:31-34, had declared to the men and women of ancient Israel at the time when they had witnessed the collapse of Judah, the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem, and the ending of the reign of the house of David over Israel, that God would establish a “new” covenant with his people in the future. Essentially this pointed to a “renewed” covenant, rather than one of a substantially different character from the old Sinai covenant which had been mediated through Moses.[14]The central text of Jer. 31:31-34 also proved important for the Jew­ish community at Qumran, which arose before the time of the Christian church. They, like the early Christians, regarded themselves as the com­munity of the New Covenant, prophetically announced long beforehand by Jeremiah. Along with the interest in Melchizedek this expectation of the “new covenant” provided an important point of comparison between book of Hebrews and the Jewish Qumran sect, whose existence only be­ came clearly evident after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. For the author of this book, however, the question of the content and implications of the two covenants are not explored, or elaborated on, in relation to the passage from Jeremiah. What is of central significance for the writer is that, by referring to another covenant other than that mediated by Moses, the Old Testament itself points to a new covenant which will displace the old: “In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13).

More than any other writer of the New Testament, therefore, the author here expresses an acceptance of a marked degree of contrast and differentiation between the order and administration attested in God’s revelation before the coming of Jesus and that which had come into being with Jesus. It is important not to overlook the centrality and importance of this distinction made by the author of the epistle, since it has become the most prominent of all the principles of interpretation which exist for the Christian Bible, and which govern its structure. The literature of the Mosaic order attests the order of the “old” covenant (or Testament, through the Latin translation), whereas the literature of God’s work through Jesus forms the “new” covenant. Such a contrast might readily have been taken to imply a radical separation be­ tween the two so that the literature and arrangements of the old covenant no longer possessed any real value, or authority, for Christians. If the old covenant had become old and was ”ready to vanish away,” might it not follow almost as a matter of course that the writings pertaining to this old covenant had also become obsolete, and should now be discarded. Later there were certainly voices arising in the Christian church, notably that of Marcion, who argued for precisely such a conclusion. The writer here, however, has already forestalled such a line of reasoning by what he has had to say, and demonstrates   from the Old Testament literature, concerning the relationship between the old order and the new. There is, he argues, a continuity between the two, but it is a continuity based upon the essential similarity, and identity, between those who were the hearers and recipients of God’s Word under the old order and those who now hear it under the new.

The basis of the connection is established in 3:7-4:13 by a citation of Ps. 95:7-11 and by clear reference to the passage in Num. 14:1-35 concerning the “murmuring” in the wilderness of those who had heard the report of the spies sent to reconnoiter the land, and who thereafter displayed a total unwillingness to venture forth in faith to take possession of the land. As a result they were condemned, apart from Joshua and Caleb (Num. 14:38), to spend the remainder of their lives in the wilderness, without entering the land that had been promised to them. The declaration of condemnation made (by God) in the psalm is taken as decisive:

“Therefore I swore in my anger that they should not enter my rest” (Ps 95:11; cf. Heb. 3:11; 4:3).

The continuity between the old order and the new is seen to be one of the material connections between those who heard the Word of God in the circumstances pertaining to their day in Israel and the Christian church. In each case God addressed himself to his people with a word of promise and called for the response of an acceptance of this word of promise. Such a response is viewed in terms of faith. This leads the writer on to a theme which he thereafter develops more extensively in chapter 11:1ff. The men and women of the old order were essentially at one with the men and women of the new order, since they are both called to a response of belief and trust. It is abundantly clear from the writings of the old order, however, (notably in Ps. 95:7-11 and Num. 14:1-35) that those who heard this word then failed to respond appropriately. They therefore forfeited the possibilities and privileges which the old order held out before them:

“So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Heb. 3:19).

Here then we discover the central feature of the author’s doctrine of the Christian church: It is a community of men and women who have heard the Word of God addressed to them individually, and who have responded to this in belief and trust. What the author in the book of Numbers describes as an act of “rebellion” against God has become an object lesson for the author to the Hebrews of the centrality of “faith” as the means of entering the community of God’s people and sharing their life. There is then held out before them the promise of attaining to the “rest” (understood as both a “rest” from work in Heb. 4:9, comparable to that of the sabbath, and also a “resting-place” as a land in which to live).

The author’s understanding of the church as the pilgrim people of God provides the key to understanding the way in which he thereafter develops his argument concerning the nature and reality of Christian worship. This he pursues under three themes, all of which derive from his christological pattern of interpretation of the Old Testament. These three themes are: the true priesthood of Jesus as one ordained of God ”after the order of Melchizedek,” the true sanctuary of God, which is set up in heaven itself, rather than on earth, and the true sacrifice, which is that of Jesus himself in offering his own body “once and for all.” Each of these is elaborated in 4:14-10:39 in order, with the aid of extensive citations from the literature of the Old Testament. To follow them through in detail is not difficult, and, once the salient points are grasped, the pattern of the argument follows a certain type of exegetical consistency. It is true that this differs from what we should describe as a straightforward “literal” interpretation of the Old Testament text, but the line of argument is essentially built upon what is to be found in the Old Testament. The true knowledge of God, as the author understands this, is to be derived from reading the Old Testament with eyes opened and illuminated by a knowledge of the life and ministry of Jesus. These two realities-the text of the Old Testament scriptures and the knowledge of the historical Jesus-provide the two poles around which the truths of the gospel are to be grasped and responded to in faith.

The argument concerning the priestly authority of Jesus, as one ordained “after the order of Melchizedek,” occupies a considerable amount of the author’s attention, and is dealt with in Heb. 4:14- 7:28. It takes its assertion that God’s Messiah-Son is ordained to such a priesthood from Ps. 110:4, but enlarges upon this by further reference back to the passage in Gen. 14:17-20 where Abraham encounters the priest Melchizedek. The argument of the epistle’s author, however, is essentially a quite simple one: The Old Testament testifies to the existence of another order of priests besides that of Aaron (Heb. 7: 11-14). It also attests that this priestly order is superior to that of Aaron and that it is an order to which God’s Messiah-Son belongs (Ps. 110:4). It follows therefore that, in spite of the fact that it no longer displays any allegiance to, or interest in, the priestly ministrations of those descended from Aaron, the Christian church has a full and complete priestly ministry in and through the person of Jesus himself.

A closely similar line of argument is then developed in respect of the affirmation that the true sanctuary of God was not to be found in the temple of Jerusalem, a building which was certainly threatened, and may even have been destroyed by the time the letter was written.[15]It is apparent from what he writes that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews knew about the sanctuary from the account of the tabernacle given in Exodus 25-30, rather than from personal experience there. His interest in it cannot then show one way or the other whether the temple (which was destroyed in A.D. 70) was still standing when he wrote. Nor yet was it to be found in the Tent of Meeting which the Old Testament pointed to as the true sanctuary of ancient Israel from the days of Moses until the temple had been built by Solomon (Exod. 26:1-27:21; 33:7-11). The true sanctuary, argues the author, was to be found in heaven itself (Heb. 8:1-5; 9:11- 12). The argument here is a particularly striking one since it devolves upon a skillful combining together of two lines of thought, one of them taken from the Old Testament, but the other taken from a hellenistic tradition of Platonic philosophy. The biblical background derives from Exod. 25:40, where God is reported to have given the instructions to Moses for the building of the Tent of Meeting. He is carefully warned to make sure that all the construction takes place in accordance with the “pattern” declared by God. The Epistle to the Hebrews understands this to imply that the “pattern” which Moses is to follow is that of the perfect sanctuary which exists in heaven, and of which the earthly copy will be only an imperfect human representation. This suggests to the author the Platonic philosophy of “forms” in which the perfect, or ideal, form of all things is only to be found in heaven. That the Christian church had now abandoned, by force of circumstances, any at­ tempt to worship in the temple of Jerusalem as the earliest Christians had done (cf. Acts 3:1), could in no way be allowed to imply that Christians no longer offered worship to God in accordance with the instructions of the Old Testament. On the contrary, argues the author, the worship now offered by the church, in the name of Jesus, is offered in the truest and most perfect sanctuary, the existence of which the Old Testament itself attests.

This line of reasoning enables the writer to proceed to establish a comparable case for recognizing that the true sacrifice is not one made through the slaughter of bulls and goats, but rather through the offering up to God by Jesus of his own life (Heb. 9:11-14). This notion, that the offering of the blood of bulls and goats was only an imperfect representation of the true and perfect sacrifice which required an act of perfect obedience, must have appeared strange to many of the epistle’s readers.[16]There had grown up within Judaism a concern to “spiritualize” the practices of worship through affirming that it was the spiritual attitude of the worshiper which mattered, not the action itself. Even the temple could exist in the worshiper’s heart. It therefore requires a further series of quotations from the Old Testament in order to substantiate the point that the Old Testament itself teaches such an understanding of the meaning of sacrifice (Ps. 40:6-8 in Heb. 5-9 and Jer. 31:33-34 in Heb. 10:16-17).

In order to grasp the cogency of the author’s argument here, it is important to recognize that there had emerged within Judaism, during the years before the advent of Jesus Christ, a growing tendency to spiritualize and internalize the significance of the ritual acts of the Jewish temple in line with the spiritual understanding of the meaning of the temple itself. It was not the outward features of a ritual act signifying contrition and obedience to God, but rather the inward intention and purpose which accompanied it, which provided its primary purpose. So, it could be argued, where that true obedience was perfectly and completely present, as it was in Jesus’ submission to accept the death of the cross, then a true and perfect offering had been presented to God. In this, as in the argument concerning the nature of the true sanctuary as heaven itself, the author of the epistle has married together   a prominent feature of the contemporary Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament with a conception of the ideal and perfect form of an action, or thing, drawn from one aspect of Greek Platonic thought. The argument is predominantly Jewish and rooted in the Old Testament, so far as its essential content is concerned, yet its cogency and appeal are skillfully and subtly attuned to a Hellenistic manner of thinking.

Both in his Christocentric way of interpreting the Old Testament, setting Christ as the central focus of the revelation of God’s Son declared beforehand in the Old Testament, and in his soteriology based on the true meaning of sacrifice, the author argues that the Christian has much to learn from the Old Testament. When rightly interpreted it truly bears witness to the faith of Christians, although it must be recognized as constituting in itself only a partial and incomplete disclosure of the truth.

The reader of the scriptures of the Old Testament who encountered for the first time the Christian teaching on justification by faith and the absolute centrality of faith as the means by which humankind can achieve a genuine communion with God, might well have been tempted to object that this was not a teaching to be found in there. In   this the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews turns to set forth one of his most emphatic assurances. Although he fully recognizes that such a doctrine of the necessity of faith was not given overt declaration in the Old Testament writings, he argues, in one of his most memorable passages (11:1-40) that such a doctrine is everywhere implied. Already, in fact, he has largely established such a position by his interpretation of the continuity which exists between the people of God under the old covenant and those under the new (3:7-4:13). The central difference which the author discerns between those who heard God’s word under the old covenant, and those who have heard it, and are now hearing it, under the new, is that those first hearers had failed to respond in faith. Of this fact the Old Testament itself is a witness (Ps. 95:7-11). It is important for the writer to have established, not simply that the generation that had perished in the wilderness had done so through disobedience and unbelief (which he regards as virtually synonymous; cf. especially Heb. 4:2), but that such unbelief had continued within Judaism. It was essential therefore that the Christians who were the intended recipients of his letter should not fall in the same way and for the same reason (4:11). This enables the writer to develop more fully later his rich interpretation of the entire Old Testament history as a witness to the heroes of faith (11:1-40).

The listing of a series of individual heroes of this nature suggests the possibility that the author may have been influenced by Greek lists of athletic champions, such as competitors in the Olympic Games.[17]A Greek writer Hippias had compiled a list of winners of the Olympic Games. That he had the metaphor of life as a race in mind is evidenced from 12:1. However, there were other instances available to the writer of lists of names and exploits of famous figures of the past in such a writing as the Wisdom of Ben Sira (Ecclus. 44:1-50:21). His purpose is certainly more than to provide a series of commendable examples whose achievements should give courage and reassurance to his readers. He achieves a deeper theological purpose by showing in his list of Old Testament heroes that what gave to them their superlative qualities of courage and greatness was their faith in God. Far from faith’s being an alien and unimportant element to the Old Testament, it was in reality the most central and indispensable of all the human responses which the revelation of God demanded. Indeed creation itself demands a response of faith, since only by faith can we attain to the knowledge with which the Bible begins that the world was fashioned by the word of God (Gen. 1:1). So the opening words of the scriptures call for a response of faith.

It is perhaps significant that the writer then proceeds to list his heroes of faith and their exploits as far as the account of the entry into the land and the faith of Rahab the harlot (Heb. 11:31; cf. Josh. 2:1-21; 6:22-25). After this he enumerates his heroes only in summary form (Heb. 11:32ff.) It has been noted that the author’s understanding of faith is subtly changed from one where it is the pathway to justification to one in which it has become the essential prerequisite for all religious experience. The existence of the Creator himself can be grasped only through an act of faith. There is, however, no incompatibility with the teaching of St. Paul, but rather a concern to extend and elaborate upon the nature of faith. In this fashion the writer urges that the Old Testament is throughout a collection of writings that presuppose faith, and which recount the exploits of men and women filled with faith, and further point forward to the necessity of faith as the means by which the full benefits of God’s purpose for mankind can be achieved. Faith is the key to receiving the promise given by God (11:39f.).

So extensive and prominent is the author’s use of the Old Testament, even to the point of repeating several of his citations of passages referred to, that we may reiterate the contention set out at the beginning of this essay. It is not simply the writer’s purpose to quote the Old Testament in order to find in it support for his own Christian convictions. It is true that he does this, but it must be noted that he could have achieved this purpose readily enough, and straightforwardly enough, if he had simply employed a relatively small number of Old Testament references and allusions in the manner of St. Paul. He has clearly done more than this of set purpose, and this purpose can only be that he has been deeply motivated to establish that the Old Testament remains a valid and meaningful disclosure of the divine purpose for the Christian to grasp. Both in a practical fashion through its uncovering of the failure of those who had, in the past, turned their hearts and minds against God’s word in unbelief and in its theological disclosure of the status, glory, and priesthood that belongs to Jesus as God’s Son, the Old Testament has much to say to the Christian. It must, however, be rightly understood, and so it must not be read as though Jesus had not come to fulfill the revelation of God.

When we set such an understanding of this fascinating book against the background of the age in which it was written we can see how important was the author’s strategy in quoting so extensively from the Old Testament. Traditionally this has usually been understood as a consequence of the fact that the “Hebrews” to whom it was addressed were Jewish Christians, familiar with the Old Testament and wavering in their allegiance to the New. Increasingly, however, it has appeared to scholars in recent years that the author’s intention was rather different and that the intended readers were of another kind. As Christians they had come into possession of the Old Testament, but were uncertain as to what to do with it. On the one hand there existed the temptation to read it simply as a collection of Jewish writings, in which case the Christian church would have reverted back to Judaism. On the other hand there were voices beginning to urge Christians to abandon the Old Testament altogether. The author argues persuasively that neither course of action is right. When read with the eyes of faith the literature of the Old Testament remained important for the Christian since through it the Christian was given a genuine, though incomplete, revelation of God. What was necessary was that the light of Jesus Christ should shine upon these precious texts so that their full meaning, which even the original writers had not fully known, should be grasped. Such teaching remains of great importance today if the fullness of God’s word to humankind is not to be impaired.


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