November 30: Hebrews 1:3

Hebrews 1:1-4

As with Paul’s greeting in Romans (1:1-7, discussed in the previous notes), the opening of Hebrews (1:1-4) contains a portion that many commentators believe derives from an early Christian ‘hymn’ on the person of Christ. The term “hymn” in such instances is perhaps misleading, as it suggests a self-contained composition of multiple stanzas, performed (sung/chanted) in a worship setting. The expression “confessional formula” may be closer to the mark, as short creeds or confessions of faith tend to be written in poetry (or rhythmic prose) and often have a hymnic character. All of the “Christ hymns” in the New Testament, many of which we have already studied in these notes, share certain formal, stylistic and thematic details. Hebrews 1:1-4, and verse 3 in particular, contain a number of these common features, and reflect a distinctive Christology that developed in the second half of the 1st century A.D.

The point of Christological development marked by the Hebrews “hymn”, along with its date, is problematic, due to the longstanding questions regarding the authorship (and genre) of the book, as well as the relative dating of Hebrews in relation to Colossians and 1 Timothy, etc. Though attributed to Paul by tradition, Hebrews is anonymous, nor can the circumstances of when, where, and to whom it was written be determined with any certainty. It lacks many features typical of a letter or epistle, and is best viewed as a work of instruction, with strong expository and exhortational aspects, meant to be distributed and read by believers over a wide territory. In this regard, it is similar to the ‘letters’ of James and 1 John, as well as certain other New Testament writings.

The dating of Hebrews has varied widely and has been difficult for commentators to pin down. The tendency has been to date the work to the late-first century (c. 90-100 A.D.), based primarily on the high Christology and the extent of the typological interpretation employed by the author. In terms of the Christology of Hebrews, the best we can say is that is almost certainly post-60 A.D., since it evinces a pre-existence Christology that goes somewhat beyond the Pauline references in Romans and the Christ-hymn in Philippians. However, the Christology in Heb 1:1-4ff is comparable, in many ways, to that of Colossians (especially the hymn of 1:15-20); and, if that letter is genuinely Pauline, then a date of 60-70 for Hebrews becomes more plausible. If Hebrews was known by the author of the work known as 1 Clement (see 36:2-6), usually dated to c. 90-95 A.D., then it increases the likelihood that Hebrews had been written and distributed by 90 A.D. I am not sure that it is possible to establish a more precise date for the composition of Hebrews than the period 70-90 A.D.

The exordium (introduction) to Hebrews covers the first four verses of chapter 1 (1:1-4), a single flowing sentence in Greek. This opening passage sets the tone and theme for the entire work, and has a fundamental Christological emphasis. Here is how the passage begins:

“(With) God (hav)ing spoken (in) former (time)s to the Fathers, (in) many parts and many ways, in the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets], upon these last days He spoke to us in a Son…” (vv. 1-2a)

The initial contrast is between the Old and New Covenants—between God speaking to His people (Israel) through the Prophets, and to His people (believers) through His Son (vv. 1-2a). Out of this initial statement, a complex Christological declaration is developed (vv. 2b-4). Verses 1-2 deal specifically with the idea of God’s revelation, beginning with “God spoke”, and indicating a contrast:

V. 1: God (has) been speaking [lalh/sa$] V. 2: (God) spoke [e)la/lhsen]
    • (in) many parts and many ways
    • (in) old (times) [pa/lai]
    • to the Fathers [toi=$ patra/sin]
    • in the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] [e)n toi=$ profh/tai$]
    • in one new way (implied)
    • in these last days [e)p’ e)sxa/tou tw=n h(merw=n tou/twn]
    • to us [h(mi=n]
    • in (the) Son [e)n ui(w=|]

The new revelation (to us) is marked primarily by two elements or characteristics: (1) it is eschatological, set in the “last days”, (2) it takes place in the person of the Son. The Greek e)n ui(w=| does not have the definite article, so it is possible to translate “in a Son”, but it is clear from the context that God’s Son—the Son—is meant. Verse 2b presents the nature of this Son, with a pair of relative clauses:

    • whom [o^n] He has set (as the) one receiving the lot [i.e. heir] of all (thing)s
    • through whom [di’ ou!] He made the Ages

The first of these draws on the idea of Christ being exalted to heaven following the resurrection, in common with the earliest Christian tradition; the second expresses Christ’s role in creation, implying some sort of divine pre-existence. These two Christological approaches were shared by several strands of early tradition (e.g. Paul, the Gospel of John), and were not deemed to be contradictory in any way. Indeed, we have seen them incorporated in the “Christ hymns” we have already examined (Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20; 1 Tim 3:16; Rom 1:3-4). The author of Hebrews will present the two views side-by-side at a number of points in the letter.

Before proceeding with a detailed study of vv. 2b-4, let us present the entire passage, the whole sentence, in translation:

“(With) God (hav)ing spoken (in) former (time)s to the Fathers, (in) many parts and many ways, in the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets], upon these last days He spoke to us in a Son, whom He set (as the one) receiving the lot of all (thing)s, (and) through whom indeed He made (all) the Ages, (and) who, being a beam (shining) forth of the splendor (of God), and an engraving of th(at which) stands under Him, and (himself) bearing all (thing)s by the utterance of his power, (hav)ing made cleansing of sins, he sat on the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the Greatness, in (the) high (place)s, (hav)ing come to be so much mightier than the Messengers, (even) as he has received as (his) lot a name (that) bears through (beyond what is) alongside of them.”

Not only is this masterful and majestic sentence a summary of the key themes that will be developed in the letter, it also effectively summarizes the Christian Gospel of Jesus Christ at the time the letter was written (c. 70-90 A.D.). The Christology of the passage follows a paradigm comparable to that in Phil 2:6-11, moving from the Son’s divine pre-existence to his exaltation (as Son) following his death and resurrection; this paradigm may be summarized:

    • Divine pre-existence as the Son
      • Incarnation (human life)
        • Sacrificial Death
      • Resurrection (restoration to life)
    • Exaltation as the Son to God’s right hand

The pre-existence (pre-incarnation) side is presented in vv. 2b-3a with a series of clauses that modify the word “Son” (ui(o/$). Each of these relates to that noun with a relative pronoun (o%$):

    • “…in a Son” (e)n ui(w=|)
      • whom He set as heir of all things”
        o^n e&qhken klhrono/mon pa/ntwn
      • through whom He even made (all) the Ages”
        di’ ou! kai\ e)poi/hsen tou\$ ai)w=na$
      • who, being…carrying…”
        o^$ w*nfe/rwn

If the author is drawing upon a pre-existing hymn or confessional formula, it is not clear at what point in the passage this begins; it may be that all of vv. 2b-3 reflects a type and style of hymnic statement on the person of Jesus Christ that was widely in use at the time. We will begin a detailed study on this portion in the next daily note.