The Judaism of the Opening of Hebrews

If you sat through my rambling about manuscripts and text critical issues, you had as well taste some of the fruit of the process. Here's Hebrews 1:1-4 as I have it, with translation, notes on the text, and a little commentary.

(If the Greek doesn't come across, find the menu in your browser for changing the view settings, go to text encodings, and select Unicode (UTF-8). Or set it to auto-detect Unicode. No special fonts should be necessary.)

Greek Text:
Πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως πάλαι ὁ θεὸς λαλήσας τοῖς πατράσιν ἡμῶν(1) ἐν τοῖς προφήταις ἐπ’ ἐσχάτου τῶν ἡμερῶν τούτων ἐλάλησεν ἡμῖν ἐν υἱῷ, ὃν ἔθηκεν κληρονόμον πάντων, δι’ οὗ καὶ ἐποίησεν τοὺς αἰῶνας · ὃς ὢν ἀπαύγασμα τῆς δόξης καὶ χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ, φέρων τε τὰ πάντα τῷ ῥήματι τῆς δυνάμεως αὐτοῦ(2), καθαρισμὸν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν(3) ποιησάμενος ἐκάθισεν ἐν δεξιᾷ τῆς μεγαλωσύνης ἐν ὑψηλοῖς, τοσούτῳ κρείττων γενόμενος τῶν ἀγγέλων ὅσῳ διαφορώτερον παρ’ αὐτοὺς κεκληρονόμηκεν ὄνομα.

God, who spoke to our fathers the patriarchs at many times, and in many styles, by the prophets before, spoke to us at the end of these days by the Son, whom he designated the inheritor of all things, and through whom he made the eons. The Son is the luster of the appearance and the character of the substance of God, and conveys verbally everything about God's power and ability. After he had cleared away the guilt of sins(4) he sat down at the right-hand side of greatness, in pride of place, having become as much greater than the angels as the name he has inherited is better than them.

1) Likely reading of P12 (an amulet script), and superscripted into P46 as a correction. Minority report of Koine agrees. This makes it a plausibly older reading. Textually, it does not seem out of place, given its agreement with the existing first-plural pronoun. Omitting this leaves the only pronoun third from last in the comma, and suggests that the temporal comparison between the past and the present, between the prophets and the messianic Son, is in fact a contrast between the patriarchs and the audience. When they become "our fathers," however, the emphasis shifts to one of continuity. Both the revelation of God and the people of God are continuous, which stresses God's faithfulness.

2) So in "big three" and 33. P46 has δι᾽ αὐτοῦ, and 1739, 1881 and Byz have αὐτοῦ δι᾽ ἑαυτοῦ. SBL follows P46, with comma before; Tischendorf and NA27 follow big three, with comma after. The interpretive question is whether this is, as translated, about conveying “God's power,” or whether this is conveyed “through” the Son, or whether the emphasis lands on the Son as the genitive agent of the aorist participle ποιησάμενος. If we take the participle as a true middle, we don't need the Byzantine reading. If we take the context of the passage, there is no reason to stress the Son's agency here, and so no reason for the preposition modifying the genitive. The simple third-singular pronoun has been taken here because it makes positive parallels with the previous comma about God's appearance and substance.

3) So P46, "big three," and 1739. 33 and 1881 read καθαρισμον των αμαρτιων ημων ποιησαμενος; Byz reads καθαρισμον ποιησαμενος των αμαρτιων ημων. The more original reading seems to be less exclusive, while the later reading suggests that the atonement was made “for our sins.”

4) Here we have the equivalent of καθαρίζω, made from the aorist participle of ποιέω + καθαρισμόν. And so I have translated it as the aorist participle of καθαρίζω, rather than attempt to repeat the circumlocution in English. The κάθαρμα, the thing that is purged in this case, is αἱ ἁμαρτίαι, colloquially “sins,” here translated by hendiadys as “the guilt of sins” to more adequately capture the function.

This passage is the beginning of the problem, and the problem is the notion that Christianity supersedes Judaism. It's a very old idea, built out of political history and competition. And in Hebrews, if you start with it, that notion is easy to support—as long as you leave Judaism "tied to the horns of the altar" and think of it as dying with the Temple. But this is not what it means that Christ replaces the Temple cult, because Judaism doesn't live and die by its access to a given sanctuary.

Barth has this problem. It grounds his insistence on a Christological understanding of God. And as he shapes his doctrine of the Trinity in I.1, built out of the task of dogmatics with respect to the threefold form of the Word of God, he uses Hebrews to support the notion that Jesus Christ supplants Yahweh as revelation of God. Because, you see, Yahweh is embodied in the Temple. Barth speaks of "God a second time in a different way" (section 8.2, pp. 315-19), as the rubric for the place where the Name of God dwells. And so, when the Name of God comes to dwell in the Temple, there God is and works. And yet, as he passes on to the New Testament, Barth says,
God a second time in a different way is obviously the point here too, but in a manner incomparably more direct, unequivocal and palpable. It is so much more direct that even the hypostases of the Old Testament are weak in comparison; to use the well-known metaphor of Hebrews, they appear only as shadows. It is so much the more direct that especially the notable position and significance of the name Yahweh may be regarded quite simply, and yet at the same time quite meaningfully, as the Church has always maintained against Judaism even if only from this standpoint, as a prophecy of the fulfillment present here.
The man Jesus of Nazareth and his rejection by the Jews constitute the cause of the abandonment of the Temple such that the crucifixion and the destruction of the Temple are poetically linked as consequences. And so, for Barth, both Paul and Jesus are fighting against the Jews. "It was not a battle against the Old Testament, ... it was a battle for the Old Testament, i.e. for the one eternal covenant of God with men sealed in time, for acknowledgment of the perfect self-unveiling of God."

And this is a genuine problem! Let's begin with the simple fact that the "Jews" did not reject Jesus. The followers of Jesus, the disciples and the apostles, to whom Jesus made sense as incarnate revelation of God, as the messianic Son, son of Humanity and son of God, were Jews. This is not a controvertible point today. And yet, not a century ago, Barth can write as though Paul had been a Jew prior to following Jesus, as though Jesus was opposed to Judaism tout court in the end, as though it had had its chance and lost it, and as though those who accepted and followed Jesus were in no way exemplars of Judaism. And so of course Judaism is mistaken about who God is, in spite of the fact that the whole history of the Word of God to that point was prophecy about Jesus, and it continues to be mistaken, because the whole history of the Word of God after belongs to Jesus. The rejection of Jesus as Messiah is decisive—in the European context built out of a massive history of the victory of Christendom justifying the oppression of the Jewish people. Revisionist history that began a long, long way back.

And Barth is, in this way, a creature of his context. It's nothing special in him, nothing abnormal, nothing truly new. Read Justin against Trypho, or read Chrysostom. Barth is a European Christian, in a context in which bad feeling toward the Jews was simply in the water. It was normative. It was carved into the iconography of the church—just tour some medieval German cathedrals and pay attention. And he's a Calvinist, which sets him in an emphatic tradition of reading Christ into the OT as the fulfillment of every promise, every prophecy. His supersessionism is tame by comparison to his context, given that he's obliged to feel positively towards the Jews as a people against their oppressors, but it's present and unyielding all the same. He's not a racist—Barth is a "good white."

And this problem begins here, in the opening to Hebrews especially, because we are tempted to take the contrast between "us" and the patriarchs as good for us, and bad for them. After all, how do we understand the work of a prophet? As condemnation, by and large. As speaking God's word against the people, especially the people in power. We follow the parallel by making the Son continuous with the prophets, as readers of Matthew especially, but we contrast ourselves—followers of Jesus, people who recognize God—with the Jews. Which is again a mistake, to suggest that the prophets spoke out against the entire people, any more than Jesus spoke out against the entire people. It is the other side of the mistake of assuming that the leadership is the people.

And yet this is not what prophecy is. The prophet is a kindness to the people: the self-distancing of God in response to the people's fear of direct manifestation, and the continuing gift of God's word. God does not stop speaking to the people, even in times of correction. Moses himself is a prophet. The prophet is the one to whom God speaks, and the one through whom God speaks to the people. And the author of Hebrews begins by speaking of the variety of prophecy to the people. A history of God's speech coming in many forms, many styles, many pieces of divine speech across time. The fronting of these adverbs, polymeros kai polytropos palai, suggests the whole history of God's self-revelation to the people. If we understand the syntactical emphasis correctly, in English we must place the speaking subject first. "God, who spoke to our fathers the patriarchs at many times, and in many styles, by the prophets before ...." This is the God who speaks to us now: the same God who spoke to generations of the people of God by the prophets across history.

Further, we need to understand the context correctly. There's something factually correct underlying Barth's assertion, which is that Hebrews (like so much of the New Testament) stands in the wake of the destruction of the Temple and the despair of its reconstruction. Ezra-Nehemiah will not be repeated. This is the reason for the emphasis on God's speech now, "at the end of these days," in the eschatological moment signified by the destruction of the Temple and the occupation of Jerusalem. Something must be done to contextualize this properly, to understand what it means for us as the people of God now without the Temple. And the author of Hebrews speaks to an audience for whom the Temple and its cult, the ritual performance of necessary actions before God, are centrally important.

For Paul and the Pharisaic communities, the Temple was part of the identity of the whole people, but it had become a model to be adapted for daily life in the world. For the diaspora, the Temple was one of the key markers of being Judean—one sent offerings to Jerusalem in order to provide for its continued existence because it was part of who the people are. We see the kinds of responses of this group in the transition to the central importance of the Rabbi and the interpretation of Torah—which is to say, Pharisaism was able to adapt well to the loss of the temple. For the communities of the gospels, the Temple cult was not part of their identity. It was part of the story, but only as a place and a set of authority figures. These writings are themselves part of the adaptation to the destruction of the Temple. Local communities away from Jerusalem, dealing with the shift in ethnic identity by focusing on Jesus and discipleship, building a messianic Judean identity constituted against the Temple and the Jerusalem authorities and in favor of a different model of faithfulness to God.

Hebrews does not follow these paths. It is not Pharisaic, concerned with the piety of daily life and the adaptation of Torah in ways that were already leading away from the necessity of the Temple. It does not belong to out-communities who were just as glad to have and spread a way of faithfulness to God that let them be legitimate in their local identities. It belongs to a community that believes in the function of the sacrificial worship of God in the sanctuary. It belongs to a community that needs this function to continue in order for their trust in God to work. Hebrews belongs to a community for whom the Temple had never been optional. And it belongs to a community that trusts Jesus of Nazareth as the messianic Son. This is the only way that it works for the author of Hebrews to assign this necessary function of their piety to Jesus and his performance of human obedience before God. It is therefore wholly other to us, utterly oriental, and problematic in intersection with a mindset that believes in Christ against the Temple.

And yet this text believes just as profoundly as Barth in the fullness of divine self-revelation in Jesus. Not against Judaism, but as Judaism after the destruction of the Temple. It believes just as firmly that Jesus is the dwelling place of God's name, "the luster of the appearance and the character of the substance of God, who conveys verbally everything about God's power and ability." The active and speaking presence of God for us, who does replace the Temple—in a time when the Temple must be replaced because it has been destroyed! Jesus, who does what must be done, who purifies us by clearing away the guilt of our sin, and whom God has elevated above all other messengers and agents of the divine will.

What there is here is by no means the supersession of Judaism. The author of Hebrews speaks to his people of the continued faithfulness of God, and the faithfulness of Christ for us in ways that make possible the continued life of the people before their God. It is the very possibility of Judaism continuing in the face of imperial oppression, the destruction and desecration of the sanctuary, and the garrisoning of Zion. It is a possibility that does not require another Maccabean revolt to retake that sanctuary and those precincts; it is a cultic Judean trust in God that can survive without the Temple because its function continues in spite of the loss of its place.


Popular Posts