December 2: Hebrews 1:3 (3a)

Hebrews 1:3

Verse 3 contains the third (and most complex) of the three relative clauses in vv. 2b-3 (cf. the discussion in the previous note), and represents what may be considered the start of the ‘hymn’ proper. Syntactically, the initial relative pronoun (o%$) in v. 3 governs the entirety of vv. 3-4, a complex sequence of four participial clauses:

    • o%$ (“who”)
      • w&n a)pau/gasma… (“being [the] beam [shining] forth…”) [3a]
      • fe/rwn ta\ pa/nta… (“bearing all [thing]s…”) [3b]
      • kaqarismo/n poihsa/meno$… (“[hav]ing made cleansing…”) [3c]
      • tosou/tw| krei/ttwn geno/meno$(“[hav]ing come to be so much stronger…”) [4]

The first two participles are present-tense, the last two are aorist (past-tense). There is a definite (and multifaceted) parallelism to this structure, with the outer clauses emphasizing being (who the Son is), and the inner clauses doing (what the Son has done). Moreover, the first two clauses attest to a pre-existence Christology, while the last two clauses highlight the more traditional exaltation aspect. The complexity of this structure, strongly suggests that, if an earlier hymnic statement was used by the author, it was heavily adapted, shaped according to the distinctive language and thematic emphasis characteristic of Hebrews.

Today’s note (and the following) will focus on the first two participial clauses (v. 3ab) and the pre-existence aspect of the hymn.

    • (the Son) “who” (o%$)
      • being…” (w&n) [3a]
        • “…a beam (shining) forth of the splendor (of God)”
          a)pau/gasma th=$ do/ch$
        • “…an engraving of th(at which) stands under Him”
          xarakth\r th=$ u(posta/sew$ au)tou=
      • “and bearing all (thing)s by the word of his power” (fe/rwn te ta\ pa/nta tw=| r(h/mati th=$ duna/mew$ au)tou=) [3b]
Verse 3a

w&n a)pau/gasma th=$ do/ch$ kai\ xarakth\r th=$ u(posta/sew$ au)tou=
“being a beam (shining) forth of the splendor (of God), and an engraving of th(at which) stands under Him”

The wording of this clause draws heavily upon Hellenistic Jewish philosophical language and Wisdom tradition. This may indicate that v. 3 is only patterned after a 1st-century hymnic statement, and not a quotation of an actual hymn-fragment, the traditional confessional/kerygmatic phrasing (cf. Rom 1:3-4) being reformulated in more sophisticated terms.

The predicate of the statement in v. 3a consists of a pair of genitival phrases, which need to be examined in some detail.

1. a)pau/gasma th=$ do/ch$—The noun a)pau/gasma (occurring only here in the New Testament) literally refers to a beam or ray [of light] (au&gasma) coming out from (a)po/) a source. Here is another indication that the author is drawing upon Wisdom traditions, since in Wis 7:26 the Divine Wisdom (Sofi/a) is said to be an a)pau/gasma “of the splendor of the All-mighty” (cf. also Philo of Alexandria, On the Creation §146; cp. On the Work of Planting §50; On Dreams 1.72; On the Special Laws IV.123b, etc). As is typically the case, the word do/ca (“esteem”), when used of God, refers to that which makes Him worthy of our esteem and honor, expressed in a visual manner as an overriding greatness or splendor. It can also refer to the divine/heavenly state, in which God Himself dwells. To say that the Son is an a)pau/gasma means that he (himself) is a manifestation of the very glory of God, and that the ray of light he possesses, or embodies, comes from the same Divine source.

2. xarakth\r th=$ u(posta/sew$ au)tou=—The noun xarakth/r, here parallel with a)pau/gasma, literally means “engraving” or “imprint”, something cut or stamped into a surface. Sometimes the related motif of a seal (sfra/gi$) is employed, to express the idea of a Divine image (ei)kw/n) being imprinted. Again, this reflects Wisdom traditions, and Philo uses this imagery a number of times (On the Creation §25; The Worse Attacks the Better §§83, 86; On Flight and Finding §12; The Work of Planting §18). The Logos is the Divine Image, which is then imprinted upon creation, and, in a special sense, upon the human mind. Like a)pau/gasma, the noun xarakth/r occurs only here in the New Testament; however, Paul uses the common noun ei)kw/n (“image”), in a similar Christological sense, in 2 Cor 4:4 and Col 1:15 (cf. the earlier note), the latter being closer to the thought and wording of Hebrews.

The noun u(po/stasi$ (occurring 5 times in the New Testament, including 3 in Hebrews [3:14; 11:1]) literally means that which “stands under” (u(po/ + the verbal root i%sthmi), and is a technical philosophical and scientific term for the “substance” or “essence” of something, or that which underlies a particular phenomenon. Thus, the Son is an imprint of God’s essential nature and identity, which is very much built into the idea of the Son as reflection of the Father. Eventually, the term took on a special theological significance, within the developing Christology of the 3rd and 4th centuries (cf. Origen, Against Celsus 8:12 for an early example of this trend), and came to be used to denote the distinct ‘persons’ of the (Trinitarian) Godhead. It would be quite anachronistic (and a mistake) to read this developed and specialized meaning of the term back into a first-century passage; however, it cannot be denied that the use of u(po/stasi$ here in Hebrews contributed to the Christological development of its meaning. Cf. Attridge, pp. 42-5.

There are highlighted in verse 3 two distinctive aspects of the early pre-existence Christology that came to prominence in the second half of the 1st-century, and are reflected in the ‘Christ hymns’ we have studied:

    • That the pre-existent Jesus, in some way, represents the “image” of God the Father, and shares in the divine honor and splendor (do/ca)
    • That he functioned as God’s agent, as the means by which God the Father created the universe

The first of these is emphasized in the 3a clause, the second in the 3b clause that follows, and which we will examine in the next daily note.

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