Research Note: Hebrews as Judean

I'm getting this out as a research note because I have to clear the decks, and it keeps coming back around in my head. So I'm going to tell you a story, as best as I have it worked out right now. I can't write the paper at present, but I will keep writing the commentary, and this is where it's coming from. Testing and feedback will be appreciated!

The New Testament text that we call the epistle to the Hebrews, which circulates in the Pauline canon for its entire recorded existence—even though it is clearly not Pauline—is not a Christian writing. But we fall back on the assertions and speculations of Christian origin and audience because it also does not fit the next natural context: the Jerusalem Temple and its priestly cultus.

It is frequently asserted that the text must be Christian, because we fail to be able to imagine the sectarian environment in which its polemic could be situated entirely within Judean and Jewish concerns. But such a sectarian environment certainly existed, at numerous points, and even exists behind the texts of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings that Christians have arranged into the Old Testament. Polemic internal to Judaism and contest over the markers of Judean identity are far from new inventions in the New Testament.

The drastic and often binary reduction of that reality made possible by typically scriptural reflection on the "causes" of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 tends to obscure this plural and sectarian history. Our canonical gospels are examples of such literature. This reductive tendency is amplified by the loss of textual data that results from the destruction of a fortified city by the legions as an example to others in the region. When history is erased and memory changes through story, what existed beforehand is often unrecoverable. We are left with sources that exist only outside, or after the fact, of the event.

The question, then, is where we may find a set of historical realities, available to us and not merely imagined, that provide plausibility to a Judean and Jewish reading of Hebrews according to its text. In this note I wish to propose one such possibility for further exploration: Jericho during the years of the first Judean revolt.

Why Jericho?

The first question to be asked of this proposal is, why does it even occur as a possibility? Why would one even think of Jericho? And the corresponding first answer is, because Jericho appears in the text of Hebrews—and in a place in which it is hardly essential to every Judean retelling of history of the inheritance of the Patriarchs. Hebrews 11 tells a story of salvation history across three books: Genesis, Exodus, and Joshua. It begins with Abel and Cain, then Enoch and Noah, then Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and his sons Jacob and Esau, and Jacob and his son Joseph. As Jacob, it is only necessary to mention his son Joseph, but Jacob is also given his ethnonym, Israel, at which point all of his children become connections back to the prophecy to Abraham. So far, so canonical. This is Israel's heritage.

The continuation into the story of Moses is also canonical, representing the redemption of the people from Egypt across the Sea of Reeds just as Joseph represents the redemption by which the people were settled in Egypt in the first place. And yet the audience is teleported instantly from the dry land of the opposite shore to the military victory resulting from the siege of Jericho, in which Rahab is saved from the destruction of the city and its people by her faith. And this ends the story! The author proceeds to gloss over the many other possible exemplars of the faith in history, as stories that might also prove the point but aren't worth the time it would take to tell them. Even David and Samuel are footnotes—but Rahab saved from the fall of Jericho by her faith is the fitting end of this story.

Now, in narrative terms, it should be obvious that Rahab is the exemplar for the audience. But this is a significant departure from the canonical narrative, which follows the people into the land that is to be their inheritance. Faithful gentiles like Rahab not only abet the conquest narrative, in which we are following the rightful people of God; they also encourage the inclusion of outsiders within that people. But they are not the point of the canonical narrative, which orbits around the twin poles of the people and the land. The canon is unabashedly in favor of settlement at all costs, and its ethics revolve around the necessities of deserving to stay in and return to the land. Everything gets bent to this end—but not in Hebrews.

And yet Hebrews is not a text that belongs to faithful gentiles or outsiders. The author of Hebrews seizes upon such absolutely central Judean imagery as the messianic hope of the Davidic line, and the cultic language of the Temple. There are no indications that this language is being appropriated for an audience that does not understand it natively—such as we find throughout the gospels, and especially in John. Scriptural citations with deep resonance for the people are not explained, but simply cited and the new implications drawn. And yet this Temple cultus doesn't match the one we have records for, the one that was dominant when Jerusalem fell.

The Hasmonean Priesthood, and the Herodian Temple

The next obvious question is, if this is a priestly Judean text, why doesn't it match what we know of Second Temple Judaism as it existed in Jerusalem prior to its destruction? And the answer to that question is that there are two "second" Temples. The one everyone knows, the one our stories take place in, the one we model layouts of, the Temple of record, is the one shaped by the remodeling ordered by Herod the Great after his conquest of Judea. Herod wanted to control Judea and its people; to that end he didn't want to alienate them or destroy their primary institutions, but he did mean to replace their rulers.

But there was no way to replace the Hasmonean rulers without impacting the Hasmonean priesthood, as the Hasmonean kings were also the high-priests of the Temple cultus. (This is the imagery that Hebrews leans upon in designating Jesus as the anointed messianic ruler and high-priest of the cult.) The primary residence of the Hasmonean rulers was not Jerusalem, but Jericho, and in that connection a sizable priestly apparatus developed in Jericho, attached to the ruling high-priest and traveling by turns to Jerusalem for Temple service. There were priests in Jerusalem as well, and out of respect it is said that the Jericho priesthood would send a smaller complement for service in order to leave place for the Jerusalem priests. However, the priesthood of Jericho was so large that they therefore divided their labors, supporting those who went to Jerusalem by working at home in Jericho. Offerings are recorded as having been divided accordingly, supporting not only the priests who went up to serve, but also those who stayed in Jericho.

Herod, in conquering Judea, gave Jericho a wide berth—refusing to harm their agricultural lands, for example. And yet that respect does not seem to have extended to continuing the pattern of Temple service that was created by and supported the previous ruling dynasty. Respect for the cultus and its role in Judean life would have certainly been tempered by the need to conform the Temple to his own rule—and not merely with construction materials. If sacrificial worship continued, as we are assured it did, that is no assurance that the same people remained in charge of it. And, indeed, surviving later writings show a recognizably priestly Jericho that is significantly at odds with the standards demanded of the Jerusalem sect, granted variances in some situations while being chastised in others.

The progressive alienation of a once-entitled priestly community whose way of life is tied to power and circumstances that have all been decisively changed. Such a situation could easily produce a population that thinks as the author and audience of Hebrews appear to—especially when presented with the potential for the utter destruction of a Temple and a cultus whose purpose they still believe, but whose actuality no longer inspires lasting loyalty. That reality is provided by the results of the Judean uprising, which was inspired by the fact that the Parthian war (58-63) had forced Rome to compromise and seek a peaceful settlement.

IVDÆA (not yet) CAPTA

I'll headline the most relevant portion: after Vespasian left to return to Rome, and eventually to end the "year of the four emperors," Legio Decima (X) Fretensis overwintered on the Jerichonian plain—which would appear to present the clear analogy to Joshua, but with reason to side with Rahab, whose survival was guaranteed by faithful action. From there, in the spring, Decima would occupy the Mount of Olives, and the siege of Jerusalem would begin in earnest. This is the same legion that would take Jerusalem as its permanent garrison after 70.

Jericho survives, but eventually falls off the map, as its reason for existing becomes more surely a matter of history. We know that the Temple would never be restored, and that after the Bar Kochba revolt a new, imperial city would eventually be built there in honor of Hadrian and his patron Jupiter Capitolinus. And yet the continued presence of the conquering legion in fallen Jerusalem during the intervening time provides reason for preservation of a message understood as providing hope for the priesthood of the people. And the dispersal of that community to Jewish enclaves elsewhere in the Hellenistic world provides a potential route for a manuscript of Hebrews to wind up out of context in one of the communities in which a form of the Pauline canon was assembled.

Any case that Hebrews reflects the destruction of the Temple as already having occurred faces serious uphill challenges—even against the language of the text, which only suggests the eventual, even the expected, obsolescence of the Jerusalem Temple. If this is a Judean text, its author and audience are preparing themselves for the Temple to be taken out of play, not reacting to it after the fact as the gospel communities do. But if they know this in advance—and we rule out genuine prophecy, not in evidence, or self-interested wish—then it would appear that they have seen what is coming. The best place to have seen what is coming for Jerusalem is to have seen the legions preparing to destroy it.

Simultaneous Roman and Civil War

It is entirely possible, given the history of the Judean uprising, that their faith in the Temple and in Jerusalem had already been compromised by the Judean occupation of Jerusalem as a fortified city against Roman forces. In the first phase of the war, the Duodecima (XII) Fulminea was sent, heavily augmented, from Syria south through the Galilee and coastal Samaria, eventually attacking Jerusalem through the mountains from the west. When that siege failed, the Duodecima withdrew, and was ... shall we say, duodecimated? ... by Judean warriors in the mountain passes, losing both their honor and their Aquila. Which was a great morale boost for the Judeans, but guaranteed what came next was going to be much, much worse.

The following year, Vespasian is given the Decima, along with the Quinta (V) Macedonica and the Quinta Decima (XV) Apollinaris—both hardly rusty after the Parthian war!—and they retake the Galilee and Samaria decisively. Vespasian declines to repeat the debacle of attacking Jerusalem from the west, and then the whole thing is interrupted by the year of the four emperors—during which time surviving factions have their own internal Judean civil war, and Jerusalem becomes internally divided. In the end, Jerusalem falls to Titus' concerted assault down the Jordan valley, not only because three full legions are out for revenge and ably commanded, but also because the internal factions can't fight the legions without also trying to fight each other for control.

Put simply: none of this can have been good for the normal exercise of Temple service, much less the faith of the people in its continuity. Jerusalem was both holy city and military citadel, the historic capitol of the united kingdom, the mountain of messianic hope—and therefore it became the prize fought over in the civil war. To control Jerusalem is to control what it is to be Judean. We don't know what happened to Temple service in this time, during four straight years of military conflict; one is left to assume that it officially continued, given the high cultural and political value placed on the symbolism, but under what auspices? With what political compromises? Manipulated by whose interests?

If Jerusalem had not fallen—which was impossible at this point—all of this would be whitewashed and painted over by the new regime. Since it did fall, all of this was forgotten for stories of imperial desecration and prior peacetime failures of religious morality. But for people who lived in the middle of it? People who had no choice but to react to it as it was happening, without knowing the outcome and without any stake in existing factions? Stories of the timely and messianic replacement of the Temple by a more-than-sufficient priesthood that carried out the same functions in superior fashion seem quite possible.

Judean Priests who Believe in Jesus as Messiah?

This is, historically, the least plausible piece of the whole thing, the one reason we have always assumed this was a Christian writing. Of course, we also thought that Paul's "conversion" meant he was no longer a Jew, and abused the properly Judean and Jewish texts of the New Testament to proclaim our superiority as faithful Christians over against the failed people of the Jewish religion. And now we know that Paul remained a Jew, that the Synoptic Gospels (at least) are stories of outsider Jewish communities, likely rippling out in the wake of the fall of Jerusalem, and that the "parting of the ways" between Christianity and Judaism is far more complicated and far later than we had preferred to believe. But if Paul is able to speak truly of Jerusalem authorities who are recognized by Judean and Jewish communities throughout the region, people who are unproblematically "in Christ" even while they contend over what that means for Jewish practices and the ways of converts, then we are already halfway to affirmation of the same possibility for Hebrews.

We have records from the missionary fronts, information that survived because it was out of danger when Jerusalem fell. But behind those fronts was a center, and Paul tells us that no few people regarded Jerusalem as that center, and that Jesus as Messiah was not merely the opinion of a single minority faction opposed by majority Judaism—though it was opposed. Indeed, Paul himself opposed it, and suggests for us that it was the most traditionalist and pro-Judean political factions, "zealots," that opposed it most vehemently—possibly because the movements in Christ incorporated gentiles with a freedom that stood to dilute their carefully-maintained national identity. As Paul himself would come to do, joining a Judean missionary movement with vast openness to gentiles, a movement that significantly predated his change of heart.

Ultimately, if you're going to reject the premises used to get to this point, you're not going to accept this possibility, either. But Jericho isn't very far from Jerusalem, with a long-standing relationship that continued even into the first century. They're both in the Jordan valley, in territory that would have been traveled by Jesus and his disciples even if the stories of the gospels aren't accurate reconstructions of events. The gospels leave us no notion that Jesus opposed the Temple cultus—only the practices of those who capitalized upon it. When he debates the Sadducees, it is on abstruse theological concerns—eschatology, hardly the primary worry of those who perform the reconciliation of the people to God on a daily basis. When Jesus is depicted opposing the Sadducees on principle, it is for corruption, the abuse of social power by those charged with the right use of their priestly functions on behalf of the people. Jesus clearly did not share our modern disdain for sacrificial cults, even as he agreed with Torah and the prophets that just relationship to God and neighbor is superior to any number of sacrificial offerings for failure—a sentiment Hebrews likewise supports.

However, the "how" cannot be allowed to interfere with the "that." We are left face to face with a text that demonstrates clear trust in Jesus as messiah, as the anointed son of YHWH on behalf of the people, and as the one truly reliable high-priest in charge of an ongoing necessity for the people to be reconciled to God. This is not supersession; it is succession. The facts of priestly concern and messianic faith in Jesus stand inseparably connected in this text, even if we have no evidence of how that came to happen, or what it looked like as a living faith outside of this text. If we are not to convert the clear Judaism of the text into something metaphorical, something that must be Christian and so cannot mean what it says, and we accept that this text has only by accident of history and absence of context become associated with the Pauline canon, then Jericho between 67 and 70 seems a defensible option for its origin.