“…Spirit and Life (continued): Spirit in the Pauline Letters and other Writings

“Spirit” (pneu=ma) in the Pauline Letters

Here I will survey the occurrences of the word pneu=ma in the Pauline letters, beginning with the undisputed letters (including Colossians and 2 Thessalonians), then addressing the letters where Pauline authorship is most often disputed (Ephesians and the Pastorals), as well as the related adjective pneumatiko/$ and adverb pneumatikw/$. The subject is enormous, as Paul refers to the Spirit more than a hundred times in the undisputed letters, and gives to the term a rich development which reflects his unique theological approach. On the other hand, he is very much in keeping with the early Christian view of the Spirit, of which we have seen signs in the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John.

To begin with, occasionally Paul uses pneu=ma to refer to an individual human person—i.e. his/her soul, mind or “presence” (e.g., 1 Thess 5:23; 1 Cor 2:11-12; 5:3-5; Rom 1:9, etc). There are also instances where the word is used in an abstract sense, in expressions such as “spirit of gentleness” (1 Cor 4:21), “spirit of trust” (2 Cor 4:3), etc. However, in the vast majority of occurrences, Paul is referring specifically to the Spirit—that is, the Spirit of God (and/or Christ). From a trinitarian point of view, it must be admitted that there is little evidence to indicate that Paul thinks of the Spirit as a distinct person, separate from either God the Father or Jesus. As in the Gospel of John, Paul can refer to the Spirit as being of God or of Jesus, without any obvious distinction, though specific references to the latter are far less common.

Here I summarize the Pauline evidence according to the most prominent expressions and concepts:

Other significant ideas and expressions:

    • The witness of the Spirit in/with our human spirit—Rom 8:16
    • The Gospel as manifestation of the Spirit—1 Thess 1:5-6
    • The teaching of the Spirit—1 Cor 2:13-14
    • The aid and help given to believers by the Spirit—Rom 8:26-27; 9:1
    • The “firstfruits” of the Spirit—Rom 8:23
    • The “fruit of the Spirit”—Gal 5:22ff (cf. also 6:8)
    • The “things of the Spirit” (cf. on the adjective pneumatiko/$ below)—1 Cor 2:14
    • Believers as the temple/shrine/house of the Spirit—1 Cor 6:19
    • The Spirit as a “deposit”, i.e. of the resurrection and the future/divine Life—2 Cor 1:22; 5:5
    • “Written” by the Spirit—2 Cor 3:3
    • Association of the Spirit with the (new) Covenant—2 Cor 3:6ff
    • Idea of “quenching” the Spirit—1 Thess 5:19

Especially worth noting are passages which identify God (and/or Jesus) as Spirit:

    • 2 Cor 3:17-18 (“the Lord is Spirit / Spirit of the Lord”)
    • 1 Cor 15:45: “the last Adam [i.e. Jesus] came to be (transformed) into a life-giving Spirit

It is interesting that Paul rarely, if ever, uses pneu=ma to refer to an unclean/evil “spirit” (i.e. a daimon or “demon”)—implied in 1 Cor 12:10, and cf. also 2 Cor 11:4; 2 Thess 2:2, and the expression “spirit of the world” in 1 Cor 2:12. Only in 1 Timothy 4:1 do we read specifically of “spirits” more or less identified with daimons/demons.

The “Disputed” Pauline Letters (Ephesians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus)

There are 21 occurrences of the word pneu=ma in these letters (14 in Ephesians, and 7 in the Pastorals). For the most part, the usage and semantic range corresponds with what we see in the “undisputed” letters (cf. above). The human “spirit” (mind/soul/person) is intended in Eph 4:23 and 2 Tim 4:22; while a “spirit” of sin/wickedness is referenced in 2:2, perhaps (but not necessarily) the same point of reference as the personal “spirits” in 1 Tim 4:1. Elsewhere, the word is used of the Spirit of God (and/or Jesus), in a manner similar to the Pauline references cited above:

    • Believers are “in the Spirit”—Eph 2:22; 3:5; 4:3, 30; 6:18
    • The Spirit dwells in believers—2 Tim 1:14
    • New life comes through the Spirit (resurrection/rebirth motifs)—Titus 3:5, cf. also Eph 3:16
    • The Spirit as a promise of future Life—Eph 1:13
    • Unity/community through the Spirit (“one Spirit”)—Eph 2:18ff; 4:3-4
      with a special emphasis in Ephesians 1-2 on the unity of Jewish and Gentile (non-Jewish) believers in Christ
    • An association between the Spirit and Baptism (washing/cleansing motif)—Titus 3:5
    • The Spirit reveals truth to believers—Eph 3:5; 1 Tim 4:1
    • Believers are led by the Spirit—Eph 2:18
    • Believers as the Temple/shrine (“house of God”) of the Spirit—Eph 2:22

Certain ideas and expression are unique to these letters:

The more abstract usage of pneu=ma in expressions such as “spirit of wisdom” (Eph 1:17), “spirit of power”, etc (2 Tim 1:7), almost certainly still has the Spirit of God in view.

One ambiguous occurrence of the word is in 1 Tim 3:16, which appears to be part of an early Christian credal formula or hymn. There are two ways of reading the words e)dikaiw/qh e)n pneu/mati:

    • “he was made/declared just in the spirit/Spirit”
    • “he was given justice [i.e. vindicated] by the Spirit”

The second option is to be preferred, and would certainly refer to the work done (on Jesus’ behalf) by the Spirit. However, if one opts for the first reading, it is not entirely clear whether pneu=ma refers to the human “spirit” (parallel to the earlier “flesh”) or God’s Spirit. The poetic character of the verse allows for a dual-meaning, both of the word pneu=ma as well as the preposition e)n (“in”).

Pneumatiko/$

The adjective pneumatiko/$ (“spiritual, of the Spirit”) is a popular term for Paul—of the 26 occurrences in the New Testament, all but 2 (in 1 Pet 2:5) are found in the Pauline letters. Quite often it is used in the plural, as a substantive—i.e. “spiritual (thing)s” or, perhaps, “(thing)s of the Spirit”: Romans 1:11; 15:27; 1 Cor 2:13; 9:11; 12:1; 14:1. The word is especially prominent in the first Letter to the Corinthians, in which Paul gives instruction to congregations which are clearly quite “charismatic” in character—experiencing (and expecting to experience) the regular manifestation of the Spirit in the corporate meetings and life of the congregation, through various means and ‘gifts’ (1 Cor 12:1ff). The word xa/risma (“favor [granted], gift”) appears in vv. 4, 9, 28, 30-31 of chapter 12, though the specific expression “spiritual gift” is found only in Rom 1:11. These are things “of the Spirit”, meaning they come from the Spirit of God (and Christ), but they can also be communicated to others by gifted believers.

Believers themselves can be called “spiritual (one)s” or “(ones/those) of the Spirit”, using the same plural substantive (1 Cor 2:15; 3:1; 14:37; Gal 6:1). In these passages, the adjective “spiritual” is meant to reflect a level of spiritual maturity for believers in Christ. In Eph 6:12, pneumatiko/$ refers to things (and/or beings) of spiritual wickedness (i.e. the opposite of things of the Spirit).

Occasionally the adjective is used with a specific object or in a particular expression, such as:

    • “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink”—Paul’s Christological interpretation of Exod 16:15ff and Deut 8:3 in 1 Corinthians 10:3-4; the baptismal and eucharistic associations are quite clear from the context.
    • “spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44 and 46)—referring to the believer after the resurrection; in verse 45, the resurrected Jesus is said to have become a “life-giving Spirit”.
    • “spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col 1:9)—Paul’s prayer is that believers will be so filled by God (through His Spirit).
    • “spiritual chants/songs” (Col 3:16, also Eph 5:19)—to be sung or recited by believers to God (through the Spirit)
    • “spiritual blessings” (Eph 1:3)—that is, “(word)s of good account” given/spoken over believers by God (through/by the Spirit)

In Romans 7:14, Paul states that “the Law is spiritual” (or “…is of the Spirit”), using the same adjective. As I have discussed elsewhere, I believe that here (and in other passages) Paul understands the Law [o( no/mo$] in a broader sense, using the specific expression “the Law of God”. It is not strictly equivalent to the written Law of the Old Testament (i.e. Torah), though certainly the latter is included under the former. Since God is Spirit, his Word (or “Law”) is also Spiritual.

The related adverb pneumatikw/$ (“spiritually, [done] by/in the Spirit”) occurs twice in the New Testament, including by Paul in 1 Cor 2:14—where he states that spiritual things can only be understood (and judged) spiritually, i.e. by the Spirit.

“Spirit” in the Remainder of the New Testament

Here I will briefly summarize the occurrences of the word pneu=ma in the rest of the New Testament (not including the Johannine Letters and the book of Revelation). There are 25 such occurrences:

Hebrews (12)
    • 1:7, 14—Heavenly Messengers (“Angels”) as ministering spirits (v. 7 cites Psalm 104:4), i.e. ministering specifically to Jesus and the spread of the Gospel (to believers); cf. also 12:9, where God is referred to as the “Father of the spirits”
    • 2:4—God manifests himself to believers through the various work of the Holy Spirit
    • 3:7—The special inspiration of Scripture (by the Holy Spirit) is indicated (citing Psalm 95:7-11); cf. also in 9:8; 10:15, where the idea of the Spirit witnessing to believers is emphasized
    • 4:12—The sharpness of the living Word of God is indicated by its ability even to divide between soul and spirit (i.e. inside a person). On the actual identification of the Word of God with the Spirit, cf. Eph 6:17
    • 6:4—Believers are said to have become (together) ones who hold the Holy Spirit
    • 9:14—Jesus is said to have offered himself (as a sacrifice) to God “through the (eternal) Spirit”
    • 10:29—The one who dishonors Christ’s sacrifice (through sin and disbelief) is said to have “cast insult upon the Spirit of (God’s) favor”
    • 12:23—Here the idea is that the righteous (i.e. believers), their “spirits”, come to be among the other spirits (i.e. Angels) in Heaven, as the “firstborn” (i.e. through Jesus)

It should be noted that the usage in Hebrews, especially in the way in which the title “Holy Spirit” is referenced, evinces a level of theological development, beyond what we find in Paul’s letters (cf. above), in the direction of a trinitarian distinction—i.e. the Holy Spirit as a distinct person.

James (2)

In James 2:26, the human/animal “spirit”—i.e., the life-animating power or “breath” is meant. By contrast, in 4:5, it would seem that the “Scripture” cited (identification remains uncertain) has been interpreted in reference to the Spirit dwelling in the believer. However, as there is no other specific reference to the Spirit of God (or Holy Spirit) in the letter, it is difficult to be certain of the author’s view of the matter.

1 Peter (8)
    • 1:2—As a central tenet, believers are “made holy” (i.e. sanctified) through the power and presence of the Spirit (“sanctification of the Spirit”)
    • 1:11-12—Three distinct points may discerned here:
      • The Spirit (of God) revealed future events to the Prophets whose oracles and visions are recorded in Scripture
      • This source of inspiration is actually called “the Spirit of Christ” (v. 11)
      • The “Holy Spirit” similarly inspired the apostles and other early Christian witnesses who declared the Gospel (v. 12b)
    • 3:18—Jesus is said to have been “made alive in/by (the) Spirit”. Compare with 1 Tim 3:16, where there is a similar ambiguity between the (human) “spirit” of Jesus (compared with “flesh”) and the Spirit of God. Perhaps something akin to Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 15:45 is intended here.
    • 3:19—apparently a reference to the tradition of “fallen Angels” (Gen 6:1-4), i.e. Angels as “spirits”, though it is at least conceivable that the spirits of the dead are also meant. For a more symbolic application, cf. 4:6
    • 4:6—A parallel statement to 3:18-19, though applied to believers, who are made alive by/through the Spirit
    • 4:14—The Spirit of God is said to rest upon believers

The author (indicated as Peter) also uses the adjective pneumatiko/$, twice in 2:5, referring to believers as a “spiritual house” (i.e. Temple or house of God), and as holy priests who offer “spiritual offerings” to God.

2 Peter (1)
Jude (2)
    • V. 19—The author refers to pseudo-believers, referring them as “souls” (yuxikoi/) who do not hold the Spirit; on a similar distinction between “soul” and “spirit” (or “Spirit”), cf. above
    • V. 20—The reference is to believers “praying in the Holy Spirit” (cf. Eph 6:18)

Yeshua the Anointed: Supplemental study on Hebrews

When discussing Jesus as a Priest (cf. Part 9), special attention must be given to this theme as it is presented in the Letter to the Hebrews. As previously discussed, references where Jesus is described or depicted as a priest are rare in the New Testament—more common is the image of Jesus as a sacrificial offering, rather than the priest who administers the sacrifice. However, in Hebrews, the theme of Jesus as Priest appears in a complex and highly developed manner, set in the very heart of the book (chapters 4-10). It is not possible to give a thorough exposition of these passages in one relatively short article, but I hope to present and outline and survey of how the author treats the theme.

To begin with, the Christological paradigm is set already in the prologue or introduction (Heb 1:1-4):

    • The Son as “heir of all things”—divine pre-existence—role in Creation (vv. 2b-3a)
      • His sacrificial and atoning death—”cleansing of sins”
    • The Son inherits a name and position greater than the Angels—exaltation to the right hand of God (vv. 3b-4)

The Son’s greatness over the other divine/heavenly beings (Angels) is not due to a special (eternal, pre-existent) relationship with God the Father (as would be the case in the Gospel of John and later Trinitarian orthodoxy), but rather as the result of his sacrificial death for the sins of humankind. Thus the atoning death (and resurrection) of Christ is the central tenet of the Christology in Hebrews, one that the author describes in terms of the Priesthood of ancient Israel. Interestingly, there is no attempt to define this in Messianic terms, for, in Hebrews, the Messianic elements of early Christianity (titles, terminology, Scripture passages) have already been fully assimilated into a Christological matrix. Note, for example, that there is not one instance where “the Anointed (One)” [o( xristo/$] occurs as a title (apart from the citation of Psalm 45:6-7 in 1:9); instead, it is used as a name, virtually identical with “Jesus” (Heb 3:6, 14; 5:5, et al). Similarly, “Son of Man” does not appear, except in the general sense of the expression as cited (Ps 8:4-6) in Heb 2:6, though the basic identification of Jesus with a heavenly/divine figure at the right hand of God is assumed throughout.

The Priestly motif is introduced at several points in the first two chapters, most notably in Hebrews 2:5-18:

    • Heb 2:11—where Jesus is referred to as “the (one who) makes holy”, and believers as “the (one)s (who) are made holy”. There is a strong incarnational aspect to the argument in 2:5-18—i.e. the extent to which Jesus shares and identifies with human weakness and suffering. This underlies the power and significance of Jesus’ death and is the basis for his Priesthood.
    • Heb 2:17—the climactic declaration of this section: “…he was obligated to be(come) like one (among) the brothers according to all things, so that he might come to be a merciful and trust(worthy) Chief Priest, unto [i.e. so as to be] providing acceptance [vb. i(la/skomai] (with God) (regarding) the sins of the people”.

The verb i(la/skomai (hiláskomai, found only in Heb 2:17 and Lk 18:13) is almost impossible to translate literally in English—in a religious/ritual context it has the sense of making God (or the gods) friendly/gracious to human beings, and is thus somewhat similar to the verb katalla/ssw (i.e. change, make things [completely] different), including the idea of reconciliation or restoration of the relationship (broken by sin) between humans and God. Equally rare are the related nouns i(lasmo/$ (hilasmós, 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10) and i(lasth/rion (hilast¢¡rion, Rom 3:25; Heb 9:5), which indicates the general lack of sacrificial language and terminology in the New Testament. For sacrificial offerings, Hebrews typically uses the concrete noun qusi/a (lit. the animal that is slaughtered), along with the verb prosfe/rw (“bring/carry toward”), i.e. of the priest bringing the offering toward God (by way of the altar).

In chapters 3 and 4 (Heb 3:1-4:13), the historical context and setting of the Wilderness period—Moses, Aaron, the Tabernacle and the establishment of the (Old) Covenant—provides the basis for the comparisons with Jesus (Old Covenant vs. New Covenant) which follows. The two main sections which describe Jesus as a (High) Priest are Hebrews 4:14-5:10 and 6:20/7:1-10:18.

Hebrews 4:14-5:10

Here Jesus is identified as the Great High Priest (4:14), partly on the basis of his exaltation to heaven and his status as the Son of God, but more properly as the result of his sacrificial death (the sufferings of which are due to his identification with, and sharing of, our human nature). The following points are made in this section:

    • 4:14-16: Jesus’ association with human weakness—incarnation and sacrifice
    • 5:1-4: Priests are appointed by God to sacrifice for sin
    • 5:5-10: God appointed Jesus to be High Priest (of the order of Melchizedek), atoning for sin by way of human weakness—suffering and submission of the Son

Hebrews 7:1-10:18

The association of Jesus with Melchizedek in Heb 5:5-10 (citation of Ps 110:1 in vs. 6) is stated again in 6:20—a transitional verse which concludes one section and leads into the next (7:1ff). The figure of Melchizedek, (Canaanite) Priest-King of ancient Salem, passed into Jewish and early Christian tradition through two Scriptural texts: (1) the Abraham narrative in Gen 14:17-20, and (2) the reference in Psalm 110:4. The original context of Psalm 110:4 is instructive for an understanding of how the figure had come to be interpreted by the 1st century A.D. (cf. below). here is an outline indicating how the author of Hebrews develops the Jesus/Melchizedek parallel:

  • 7:1-10—Melchizedek: introduction and summary from the Abraham narrative
    7:11-22—Application to Jesus (‘High Priest of the order of Melchizedek’, Ps 110:4)
  • 7:23-28—Jesus as Priest is greater than human priests
    8:1-13—He is High Priest of a New Covenant
  • 9:1-10—The service of priests in the Sanctuary, esp. sacrifice and the Day of Atonement
  • 9:11-14—Jesus as Priest is greater than human priests—replaces the sacrificial offerings
    9:15-28—He is High Priest of a New Covenant—Sacrifice
  • 10:1-18—Concluding statement on Christ’s Priesthood and Sacrifice

For additional references to the Priesthood theme in the remainder of the book, cf. Heb 12:24; 13:10-16, 20.

Jesus and Melchizedek

The reference to Melchizedek in Psalm 110 is somewhat obscure, but it seems to be based on an underlying royal theology in the Psalm, deriving from ancient Near Eastern tradition. Taking the old Abraham narrative in Genesis 14:17-20 at face value, “Melchizedek” was an historical figure, a Canaanite Priest-King. His name (qd#x# yK!l=m^ malkî-ƒedeq), vocalized originally as malk£-ƒidqu (according to Cross, p. 209) would have meant something like “my king is (the) Righteous (One)”, where “Righteous” (‚idqu) is a Divine name or epithet. Later Israelite/Jewish tradition rendered or interpreted “Melchizedek” as “just/righteous king” (in Greek basileu$ dikaio$), while Hebrews 7:2 translates it as basileu\$ dikaiosu/nh$ (“king of justice/righteousness”). He is said to have been the King of Salem, generally identified with the ancient site of Jerusalem (for the different understanding of šlm by W. F. Albright, cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 231-2) and Priest of °E~l ±Elyôn. la@ (°E~l, Canaanite/Amorite °Il[u]) was the name/epithet of the high Deity in ancient Canaan; the name originally would have meant something like “Mighty (One)”, and already in early Israelite tradition, it was identified with YHWH (cf. my articles on the names ‘El and Yahweh). The way Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek is narrated in these few brief verses suggests that it refers to a longer tale or tradition now entirely lost to us.

If the reference in Ps 110:4 is genuinely to the “Melchizedek” of Gen 14 (for a differing view, cf. M. Dahood, Psalms III: 101-150 Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 17A, p. 117), then we must ask just what the Psalmist meant by it. In the ancient Near East, kings typically functioned as priests as well, officiating on certain ceremonial occasions—palace and temple complexes being closely connected. This was also the case in ancient Israel, where kings and princes fulfilled a priestly role in the offering of sacrifices, and so forth (cf. 2 Sam 6:17-18; 8:18; 1 Kings 8:63-64; 2 Kings 16:12-13, etc). It would seem that only traces of this historical situation are preserved in the Old Testament, while in the Torah and Chronicles (both with a strong priestly/Levitical orientation) we find opposition to the idea of rulers appropriating the Priest’s role (cf. especially the episodes in Numbers 16 and 2 Chron 26:16-20). In all likelihood, Psalm 110 preserves a bit of the royal theology surrounding the kings of Israel/Judah, associated with Jerusalem and the Davidic line—i.e. they are priests, not according to the lineage of Levi and Aaron, but according to the pattern of Melchizedek, to whom even Abraham gave homage. It is possible that the Hasmonean (Maccabean) rulers drew upon this tradition as well (cf. 1 Macc 14:41) when they assumed the position of High Priest (1 Macc 10:18-21; 13:42; 14:4-47; Josephus Antiquities 13.299-300; 16.162, etc). In this regard, Psalm 110:4 appears to have played a role in Messianic thought, specifically in shaping the figure of the exalted Priest or Priest-King to come (cf. Jubilees 32:1; Testament of Levi 8:14-15).

If the interpretation of Psalm 110:4 suggested above is correct, then the author of Hebrews has made use of Melchizedek in a somewhat similar way, applying it of course to Jesus, within a very specific Christological matrix (cf. above). He lays out the line of argument in the opening verses (Heb 7:1-10):

    • Melchizedek is both Priest and King (vv. 1-2)
    • He has no genealogy (vv. 3ff)

In my view, these two points derive from the same basic royal theology that underlies the use of Melchizedek in Psalm 110 (cf. above); but note how the author develops these:

    • Jesus, like the Davidic rulers, is King and from the line of Judah, yet he is also Priest (the High Priest), even though he is not from the tribe of Levi or a descendant of Aaron. The priesthood of Melchizedek preceded that of Levi, and is thus superior to it.
    • Melchizedek, in fact, is a High Priest (i.e. Priest of the Most High), though there is no priestly lineage ascribed to him anywhere in the Old Testament. This argument from silence is given a very specific interpretation: that he has no natural, traceable genealogy. More importantly, this means that his (and Jesus’) qualification for the (High) Priesthood is not based on an earthly line of descent.

The specific way the author frames this last point has led commentators to question whether it is an imaginative (midrashic) application of the simple absence of any genealogy for Melchizedek, or whether he believed that Melchizedek was a divine/heavenly being of some sort. The phrasing and force of verse 3, along with the comparison in verse 8, perhaps suggest the latter:

“without father, without mother, without (any) account of (his) coming-to-be [i.e. genealogy], having no beginning of days (and) no completion of life, but having been made (very much) like [a)fwmoiwme/no$] the Son of God, remaining (the) Sacred-official [i.e. Priest] into the carrying-through [dihnke$, i.e. continually, unbroken]” (v. 3)

“…and (on the one hand) here men dying-away [i.e. who die] receive the tenth, but (on the other hand) there it is witnessed that he lives” (v. 8)

There are two possibilities: (1) the sketchy figure of Melchizedek has been fashioned according to what the author already believes about Jesus, in order to make the comparison fit, or (2) it reflects an existing tradition or belief that Melchizedek was a divine/heavenly (and immortal) being. The latter possibility is strengthened by several references in texts from the two centuries B.C./A.D.:

  • The Qumran text 11QMelch(izedek) [11Q13] (late 1st cent. B.C.?), in which Melchizedek is described as a Messianic (end-time) figure who will appear as Deliverer of the people of God and Judge of the wicked (Belial) who held his people captive. The application of Psalm 82:1-2, especially, has led many commentators to believe that Melchizedek here is Heavenly/Angelic being, similar to Michael (cf. 1QM 17:6-8; 4QAmram 3:2).
  • In 2 (Slavonic) Enoch 71-72, Melchizedek (as a child) is taken up by Michael into heaven and thus achieves an exalted status similar to Enoch in Jewish tradition, and Jesus following the resurrection in the earliest Christian tradition (Acts 2:33ff; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34, etc). The text of 2 Enoch is difficult to date, but its core probably stems from the late-1st or early 2nd century A.D.
  • We find the idea of a Heavenly/Messianic Priest in several writings of the period—e.g., the Testament of Levi 18; Assumption of Moses 10:2; and the earlier Qumran text 4Q541.
  • In Jewish tradition, the Angels are often depicted functioning as priests in Heaven—cf. 1 Enoch 9:1-11; 15:2; 40:6; 47:2; 99:3; 104:1; Jubilees 31:14; Testament of Levi 3:4-6, etc; and note especially the so-called Angelic Liturgy (or “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice”) from Qumran, 4Q400-407, 11Q17.

We might also note the allegorical image of the High Priest as symbolizing the Logos/Word of God in Philo—On Flight and Finding §117-8, The Migration of Abraham §102ff, On Dreams 1.215, etc.
For a number of the references above, cf. Attridge, Hebrews, pp. 97-103, 192-5.

In conclusion, let us see how the author of Hebrews expounds the Jesus/Melchizedek parallel in the remainder of chapter 7 (vv. 11-28):

  • 7:11-14—Two facts or points of belief are combined:
    (a) Jesus was from the royal line of Judah, not the priestly line of Levi (i.e. the priesthood according to the Law), and
    (b) Jesus is a (High) Priest by way of his sacrificial death => his priesthood must be of a different origin (i.e. a different Law or Covenant)
  • 7:14-19—Jesus’ priesthood comes through Melchizedek, however:
    (a) it is not by way of physical/biological or earthly lineage
    (b) it is according to (Divine) Power and (Eternal) Life
    This qualification is supported by the author’s gloss on Psalm 110:4—the phrase “the ta/ci$ [order/arrangement/succession] of Melchizedek” (v. 17) is interpreted as “the o(moio/th$ [likeness/resemblance] of Melchizedek” (v. 15). In all likelihood this means that Jesus is an Exalted/Heavenly being, just like Melchizedek (cf. above).
  • 7:20-28—Jesus’ (eternal) priesthood is confirmed and demonstrated by:
    (a) God’s own promise (oath), and
    (b) The holiness and sinlessness of Jesus

In spite of the comparison with Melchizedek, it is clear that, for the author of Hebrews, Jesus’ position as (true) High Priest is ultimately based on: (1) his position as the (pre-existent) Son of God, and (2) his death as an atoning sacrifice. This is emphasized in the concluding verse of this section, and is tied in with the idea of God’s oath regarding Jesus, that is, the word which He speaks (cf. Heb 1:1):

“but the word [lo/go$] of the oath th(at is) after the Law [i.e. changes the Law, cf. v. 12] has completed the Son into the Age”

This completion/perfection of the Son is the result of his sacrificial death for the sins of humankind (2:10ff; 5:8-10; 9:11-14), which, in turn, completes and perfects those who believe in him (10:1, 14; 11:40; 12:2, 23).

References marked “Cross” above are to F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).
Those marked “Fitzmyer” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament (Scholars Press: 1974)
Those marked “Attridge, Hebrews” are to Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Fortress Press: 1989)

Yeshua the Anointed, Part 9: The True Priest

In this article, I will be exploring the Messianic figure-type of Anointed Priest. This type appears to be less widely known or expressed in Judaism during the first centuries B.C./A.D., compared with the figures of Prophet (cf. parts 2 & 3) and King (parts 68). Our best evidence for it comes from the Qumran (Dead Sea) Scrolls and related texts (such as the Damascus Document), and, in at least several respects, it was influential on Messianic thought in the time of Jesus and the New Testament.

Background

In ancient Israel and Near East, priests and kings were both ceremonially consecrated and set apart through the ritual of anointing. This is described or expressed in the Old Testament (Torah) in numerous places—Exodus 28:41; 29:7, 21, 29; 30:30; 40:13, 15; Leviticus 6:20; 7:36; 8:12; 16:32; 21:10, 12; Numbers 3:3; 35:25; including use of the substantive noun j^yv!m* (m¹šîaµ, “anointed”) in Lev 4:3, 5, 16; 6:22[15]. The special place and position of the Priest is indicated by the epithet “holy, holiness” [vd#q)]—Exod 28:36; 31:10; 35:19; 39:30, 41; 40:13; Lev 14:13; 21:6-8; 22:14; 23:20; Num 5:9-10; 6:20; 18:9-10; Ezra 8:28, etc. In early Israelite tradition, Moses and Aaron—Ruler/Lawgiver and Priest—provided two-fold leadership for the community. Following the era of kingship—where the anointed Ruler was dominant—with the fall of the kingdoms of Israel/Judah and the Exile, this dual leadership was restored in the early Post-exilic community—see especially the equal position of Zerubbabel (ruler from the line of David) and Joshua (the High Priest) indicated in Hag 1:1, 12, 14; 2; Zech 3-4 (esp. the two “sons of oil” in Zech 4:14); 6:9-14.

During much of the Post-exilic period, the High Priest was unquestionably the dominant ruling figure in Judah/Judea, which doubtless explains the prominence of the Priesthood in certain writings of the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. In the book of Sirach (early-mid 2nd cent.), at least as much praise is given to the Priestly figures (Aaron, Phineas, Simon son of Onias) as to the Kings (David etc)—cp. Sirach 47 with Sirach 45, 50. The Hebrew hymn at Sir 51:12 offers thanks to the (Messianic) “horn” sprouting for the house of David and the chosen “sons of Zadok” in tandem. The book of Jubilees has Levi (Priest) and Judah (Ruler) in the leading position among the tribes of Israel, with priority given to Levi (Jubilees 31, cf. Deut 33:8-11). A number of the texts from Qumran, such as 4QTLevi (related in some way to the later Jewish/Christian Testament of Levi), likewise give clear priority to the Priest (cf. below).

This elevation of the Priesthood, emphasizing its superiority over secular rule, may have a polemic role—i.e., against the Hasmonean (Maccabean) rulers of the 2nd-1st centuries B.C., who also obtained to the position of High Priest (until the time of Hyrcanus II c. 40 B.C.), despite the fact that they were not from line of Aaron/Zadok (nor were they kings from the tribe of Judah). This probably underlies much of the critique against the Priesthood and the Temple cultus in the Qumran texts. The situation became even worse after Pompey’s invasion (63 B.C.) and the installation of Herod as king with Roman support. This historical background is expressed vividly in the so-called Psalms of Solomon (mid/late-1st century B.C.), especially the Messianic Ps Sol 17. Given the corruption of the Priesthood and the nepotistic power of the leading Priestly families (also clearly targeted in the Gospels and Acts), it is not surprising that many devout Israelites and Jews at the time of Jesus would hope for a coming Priest or Ruler who would restore (or rebuild) the religious sanctity and prestige of the Temple, etc.

The Qumran Community

There are three prominent Messianic themes or motifs which can be found in the Qumran (and related) texts, related to the Priesthood: (1) the dual-leadership of Priest and King, (2) the figure of an Anointed Priest-King, and (3) the priority and superiority of Priesthood over Kingship.

1. Dual-Leadership of Priest and King

This is expressed primarily in the Community Rule documents—the Rule of the Community (1QS) and the Damascus Document (CD, QD), where there appears to be an expectation of two future/end-time Messianic figures: “the Anointed (One)s of Aaron and Israel [larvyw /wrha yjyvm]” (1QS 9:11). In the Damascus Document, we find a similar expression, but with the singular “Anointed (One) of/from Aaron and Israel” (CD 12:23-13:1; 14:19 [= 4Q266 10 i 12]; 19:10-11; 20:1). Scholars continue to debate whether this use of the singular is the same as the plural in 1QS 9:11—i.e. refers to separate Messiahs—or rather reflects the belief in a single Anointed Priest-King (cf. below). In the related rule-documents 1QSa and 1QSb, for the future/ideal Community envisaged in the texts, a leading High Priest appears to officiate in tandem with the Anointed Prince/Ruler—cf. 1QSa 2:11-22; 1QSb 5:20-21ff. Moreover, the Testimonia [4Q175, lines 1-18] seems to envision distinct eschatological figures—Prophet (Deut 18:18-19), Ruler (Num 24:15-17), Priest (Deut 33:8-11). In the Florilegium [4Q174], the Anointed Ruler (“Branch of David”) will arise along with the “Interpreter of the Law” at the end-time; this latter title would appear to be generally synonymous with the “Teacher of Righteousness” (CD 6:10-11), representing the same eschatological figure. The historical Teacher was a priest (4QPs a col. iii, line 15), and the future Teacher/Interpreter would certainly have been understood as a Priest as well (cf. the context of CD 6:2-11). This dual-Messiah paradigm may have been influenced by the “two sons of oil” in Zech 4:14.

2. An Anointed Priest-King

The possibility that the “Anointed of Aaron and Israel” in the Damascus Document (cf. above) refers to a single Priest-King figure receives support from the text 11QMelch(izedek) [11Q13]. In this fragmentary pesher-style commentary (on various Scriptures), “Melchizedek” represents an end-time figure who will bring freedom for those held captive by Belial (theme of the Jubilee, Lev 25:13; Deut 15:2). He will judge the nations (Psalm 82:1-2; 7:8-9) and carry out punishment/vengeance on the wicked (Belial). This figure is further associated with an Anointed Messenger (Isa 52:7; Dan 9:25) who will announce salvation (and judgment) for God’s people. According to the narrative in Genesis, Melchizedek was the Priest-King of Salem-Jerusalem (Gen 14:18ff) in the time of Abraham. Though the Torah, and much of the Prophetic tradition, would condemn the appropriation of the Priestly role by rulers (as the Hasmoneans later did)—see the examples in Numbers 16; 2 Chronicles 26:16-20—it is recorded that David and other Israelite kings/princes did, on occasion, function as priests (cf. 2 Sam 6:17-18; 8:18; 1 Kings 8:63-64; 2 Kings 16:12-13, etc). This was very much in accord with the ancient Near Eastern view of Kingship (as attested in the case of Melchizedek), where the ruler held priestly privileges and prerogatives, and would exercise them, at least on certain occasions. Indeed, it is this sort of royal theology which presumably underlies the mention of Melchizedek in Psalm 110:4—in its original historical context.

Many scholars would hold that Melchizedek in 11QMelch is a Heavenly/Angelic Redeemer figure, such as Michael in the book of Daniel, or the “Son of Man” in the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71). This view is probably influenced largely by the reference to Psalm 82:1-2 in column ii, lines 9-10; however, as is clear from the Qumran texts, the Enoch literature, as well as of Jesus in the Gospels, there can be a fine line between the conception of a Heavenly being and an eschatological (human) King/Redeemer appointed by God to bring about the end-time Judgment and establishment of the Kingdom for the people of God.

3. The priority/superiority of Priesthood over Kingship

Given the fact that the Qumran Community (and/or the community of the Damascus Document) was likely founded by priests, and the central/leading role that priests held in the Community, it is not surprising that “Aaron” (and the Anointed One of Aaron) would come ahead of “Israel” (and the Anointed One of Israel) in their eschatology and Messianic thought. In 1QSa 2:11ff, the (Anointed?) Priest enters and is seated ahead of the Anointed One of Israel. The “Levi” documents (4Q[T]Levi) at Qumran give to the Priesthood an exalted status and position, and in 4QLevia ar [4Q213] fragments 1+2 col. ii, Levi appears to be connected with both the priesthood and the kingdom (cf. also the language in 4Q541 frag. 9, col. i). These Levi texts are likely representative of the kind of Jewish source material that underlies the later Jewish/Christian Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. For a similar exalted view of the priesthood, see Testament of Levi 18; and, for the priority of Priest over King, cf. Testament of Judah 21-22.

Priestly Themes and motifs in the Gospels

It must be admitted that the Priesthood and Priestly motifs are not especially prominent in the Gospels, by comparison with some of the Qumran texts cited above. On a number of occasions, Jesus is shown as being at odds with the ruling Priestly authorities, but only in connection with the events surrounding his Passion (cf. the predictions in Mk 8:31; 10:33 par, also 11:18, 27; 14:1 par, etc), and they play a leading role in the opposition to him prior to his death (cf. especially the scene before the Sanhedrin, Mk 14:53-65 par). Elsewhere in Synoptic tradition, Jesus refers to the priesthood only twice—once in the positive context of fulfilling the ceremonial aspects of the Law (Mk 1:44 par), and once in the context of the Sabbath-controversies (Mk 2:26 par). Throughout the Gospels and Acts, positive references to the priesthood are rare, found only in the Infancy narratives (the parents of John the Baptist, Zechariah and Elizabeth [Lk 1:5-25, 67-79]), and the brief notice in Acts 6:7 that many priests in Jerusalem became obedient to the Christian faith.

Jesus’ relationship to the Temple and the cultic/ritual apparatus of sacrificial offerings, etc., overseen by the Priests, is rather more complex. The principal passages are: (1) the Temple action by Jesus (i.e. the “cleansing” of the Temple), and (2) the Temple saying, variously reported in the Gospels and Acts. As I have discussed these in some detail in an earlier article, I will only give a brief outline here:

  1. The Temple “cleansing” is recorded in all four Gospels—Mark 11:15-18; Matthew 21:12-17; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-17. Commentators continue to debate the precise interpretation and significance of the episode. Certainly, Jesus shows great concern for the sanctity and holiness of the Temple, but there is no indication that he is acting in the role of a Priest. However, he does level a definite objection to the current apparatus surrounding the Temple sacrifices (if not to idea of sacrificial offerings themselves), and, with it, a harsh critique against the priesthood. The citation of Isa 56:7 may indicate that he envisions a somewhat different purpose for the Temple—as a place of prayer, rather than of sacrificial offerings (bound up in commercial transactions).
  2. The Synoptic tradition (Mk 14:58; Matt 26:61) records an alleged claim by witnesses, during Jesus’ appearance before the Sanhedrin, that he claimed he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Mark/Matthew regards this as false testimony, but a similar saying by Jesus is recorded in John 2:19. Luke does not include this in the Passion narrative, but there would seem to be a reference to it in Acts 6:14. The Markan version of the (alleged) saying states that the physical Temple (“made with hands”) would be destroyed and a new Temple (“made without hands”) will be built in its place. The idea that Jesus might build a different kind of Temple, or that he effectively replaces it in his own person, seems to underlie the polemic against the Temple in Stephen’s speech, where the idea of being “made with/without hands” is central (Acts 7:40-41, 43, 48, 50; cf. also Acts 17:24). In John’s account, the Temple saying (Jn 2:19ff) is connected with the Temple cleansing (Jn 2:14-17), and given a specific interpretation: the “Temple” is Jesus himself (his body), and the destruction/rebuilding is a reference to his death and resurrection. Thus, while it does not depict Jesus as a Priest, he is viewed in a spiritual/symbolic sense as the sacred Place where the Priesthood operates. Cf. Matthew 12:4-6 for a similar idea in the Synoptics.

Jesus as (High) Priest

Here we will explore: (1) Sayings of Jesus which might identify him as a Priest in some way, (2) Narrative episodes or actions where he may be fulfilling a Priestly role, and (3) Other motifs in the New Testament and early Christian thought which specifically relate to Jesus as a Priest.

First, with regard to specific sayings of Jesus, there are only a few which seem to refer to the Priesthood in some meaningful way:

  • Jesus’ words in Mark 2:5-10 par, etc—the power/authority to declare forgiveness of sin, apart from the ritual means outlined in the Law, could be taken to imply that Jesus was fulfilling a Priestly role in this regard
  • Matthew 12:3-8 par—part of the Sabbath Controversy episode in Mk 2:23-28 par, in which Jesus compares himself and his disciples with the Priests of the Holy Place. The sequence of sayings in Matthew’s version strongly suggests, that, in some sense, Jesus (in his own person and teaching) takes the place of the Temple and Priesthood:
    —”He entered the House of God…” etc (vv. 3-4)
    —”the priests in the Temple cross over [i.e. violate] the Sabbath and are without cause (for guilt)” (v. 5)
    —”(Something) greater than the Temple is here (in this place)” (v. 6)
    —”I wish for mercy and not slaying (of sacrificial offerings)” (v. 7)
    —”For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (v. 8)
  • The words of institution at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22-24 par), associated with the (Priestly) act of blessing/benediction (cf. below). It is the words over the cup which are especially significant, in reference to:
    (1) The (new) Covenant—the ritual/ceremonial aspects and elements of the (old) Covenant were administered by the Priests
    (2) The Blood—the sprinkling and pouring out of blood was connected with the consecration of the Priesthood, etc, and the administration of sacrificial offerings
    (3) “Over many (for the forgiveness of sins)”—the atoning aspect of sacrifice, especially that of the sin offering, and the sacrifices offered on the Day of Atonement (for the entire Community)
  • The great Prayer-Discourse in John 17 is sometimes referred to as the “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus, but this is rather misleading, since there are few specific priestly images or allusions in the prayer. Only in a loose sense—in terms of Jesus representing his disciples before God, and interceding on their behalf—can it be interpreted in this way. Perhaps the closest we come to a direct priestly reference is in vv. 17-19:
    “Sanctify them in the truth…even as I sanctify myself over them, that they also might be sanctified in the truth”

Similarly, examples in the Gospel narrative where Jesus fulfills a Priestly role are few; I highlight what I consider to be the three most notable areas:

  • Jesus role in blessing the bread and the cup of the Last Supper (Mk 14:22-23 par). In Matthew and Mark, the verbs eu)loge/w and eu)xariste/w are used for the bread and cup, respectively (Lk 22:17-20 uses eu)xariste/w for both). While this need not mean anything more than the head of table giving the blessing for the (Passover) meal, Jesus’ words associated with the cup (“my blood of the [new] Covenant which is poured out…”) certainly indicates something deeper (cf. above). Jesus is depicted in a similar act of blessing during the (two) feeding miracles (Mk 6:41; 8:7 par), and cf. also in Lk 24:30.
  • In Luke 24:50-51, the Gospel writer clearly depicts Jesus in the role of Priest delivering the blessing/benediction to the people. This is confirmed by the parallel with Zechariah (father of John the Baptist, and priest serving in the Temple) in Lk 1:21-22. In that episode (the first in the Gospel), the Priest (Zechariah) is unable to give the expected benediction to the waiting crowd; here, in the last episode of the Gospel, Jesus finally does so—giving the blessing to his disciples before his departure (and ascension to the Father).
  • In the Gospel of John, Jesus frequently identifies himself (i.e. his own person and teaching) in various ways with: the Temple (Jn 2:13-22, cf. above), the Sabbath (Jn 5), and elements of the great Feast-days such as Passover and Sukkoth/Tabernacles (Jn 2:13-22; 6; 7-8)—all representing ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law which were administered and officiated by Priests. Most notable, are several key details which identify Jesus specifically with the sacrificial offering at Passover—the Paschal Lamb:
    • The Baptist’s declaration of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” in Jn 1:29-36. Most likely, the lamb sacrificed for Passover is intended, though the qualifying phrase in v. 29 “…the (one) taking away the sin of the world” perhaps better fits the sacrificial animal of the sin offering (Lev 4:3). There is also a plausible connection with Isaiah 53:4-7, 12. Cf. also 1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:18-19; Rev 5:6, 9 etc.
    • In John, Jesus is crucified on the eve of Passover (Jn 19:14) at the time the lambs would be slaughtered (cf. also Mark 14:12 par).
    • John 19:31-32, 36 is a clear reference to the Passover lamb (Ex 12:46; Num 9:12, cf. also Psalm 34:20).
    • The mention of hyssop in Jn 19:26 [MT] may possibly be an allusion to the blood applied to the door frame in Exod 12:22.

In light of the fact that the eschatological/Messianic figure of the “Teacher of Righteousness” and the “Interpreter of the Law” in the Qumran texts has certain definite parallels with Jesus as Teacher (of the Law) in the Gospels (cf. Part 4), it is worth pointing out again that this figure-type very likely would have been understood as an (Anointed) Priest.

Finally, we should consider other priestly motifs or descriptions of Jesus as a Priest in the remainder of the New Testament. It must be admitted that, here again, these are very few, apart from the notable exception of the letter to the Hebrews. We have:

    • The association with Passover sacrifice (cf. above) in 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Pet 1:18-19; however, it should be noted that Jesus is identified with the sacrificial Lamb, not the Priest who administers the sacrifice. Similarly in Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10.
    • In 2 Corinthians 3:6-18 Paul speaks of the “new covenant” for believers in Christ (marked by the Spirit), which supersedes and replaces the old (governed by Moses, the Priesthood, and the Law); cf. also Gal 3:15-18ff. In Romans 11:27, Paul speaks of this New Covenant in Christ in atoning/sacrificial terms (“when I take away their sins”, citing Isa 59:20-21); note also his citation of Jesus’ words over the cup at the Last Supper in 1 Cor 11:25 (cf. above).
    • The language of sacrificial offering (administered by priests) is also used in Romans 15:16; Phil 2:17; 4:18; Eph 5:2; 2 Tim 4:6; 1 Pet 2:5, 9, but these references have more to do with the idea of believers as sacrificial offerings, or functioning as priests in the service of Christ and the Gospel.

It is only in the Letter to the Hebrews that we see the image of Jesus as a Priest (High Priest) clearly expressed, and in considerable detail, reflecting a decree of theological/Christological development in the theme that is simply not found elsewhere in the New Testament. For a detailed survey and examination, see the Supplemental Study on Hebrews. In terms of Messianic thought at the time of Jesus, there are two aspects of the treatment in Hebrews which are noteworthy:

    1. The emphasis on the Priest offering sacrifice for the atonement/forgiveness of sins—Where a Messianic Priest-figure appears in Jewish writings of the period (cf. above), it tends to be associated with Teaching/Instruction, Blessing and the (joint) role of Ruler. However, in at least one text from Qumran (4Q541, fragment 9), it is said that this Priest “will atone for the children of his generation” and “…darkness will disappear from the earth” (cf. Testament of Levi 18:4).
    2. The figure of Melchizedek as (Heavenly) Priest-King—Melchizedek plays a central role in the fragmentary text 11Q13 (11QMelch[izedek]) from Qumran (late 1st-cent. B.C.?), as an end-time Deliverer of the people of God and Judge of the wicked (Belial). He is connected with the Anointed (One) of Isa 61:1 (cf. Isa 52:7) and Dan 9:25-26, and is often viewed by commentators as a Divine/Heavenly figure. In 2 Enoch 71-72, Melchizedek also has an exalted position alongside the Angels in Heaven.

For other early Christian reference to Jesus as a High Priest, see Ignatius Philadelphians 9:1; Epistle of Polycarp 12:2; Martyrdom of Polycarp 14:3; and also 1 Clement 61:3; 64:1, which may be influenced by the language of Hebrews.

Birth of the Son of God: Hebrews 1:1-4

Today’s note, on the Christmas theme of the “Birth of the Son of God” will look at the ‘birth’ of the Son in terms of divine revelation. I begin with the introduction (exordium) of the Letter to the Hebrews.

Hebrews 1:1-4

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. The author of Hebrews will present the two views side-by-side at a number of points in the letter (cf. below).

In verses 3-4, the Son is described in greater detail; four elements are stressed in v. 3:

  • Reflection/manifestation of God’s glory and nature (3a)
  • Role in creating/sustaining the universe—”by the utterance of his power” (3b)
  • Salvific work—priestly cleansing of sin (by way of sacrifice, i.e. his death) (3c)
  • Exaltation to the right hand of God (3d)

The outer elements (first and last) indicate the Son’s divine/heavenly status, the inner elements (second and third) parallel creation and incarnation (Christ’s work in both). This is the sort of chiastic conceptual framework—

    • pre-existence
      —incarnation
    • exaltation

which the author of Hebrews makes use of elsewhere (2:8-13, cf. also the famous Christ-hymn of Phil 2:6-11). In verse 4, Christ’s divine/heavenly status is emphasized—that it is greater than that of other heavenly beings (“angels”). This superiority is understood in terms of the name that he has inherited (cf. Phil 2:9ff), which, though not specified here, is best identified with ku/rio$ (“Lord”), the conventional rendering of the divine name YHWH.

There can be little doubt that Sonship (i.e. Son of God) here is defined in the context of divine pre-existence—a blending of the Davidic “Messiah” with the concept of a heavenly Redeemer-figure which is also known from Jewish tradition at roughly the same time as the (later) New Testament, such in the Similitudes of Enoch and 4 Ezra (2/4 Esdras). In Hebrews, this is indicated by the citations of Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14—both passages given Messianic interpretation—in verse 5. Recall that in Acts 13:32-33ff, Psalm 2:7 is cited in the context of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation—i.e., the Son is “born” following the resurrection. Verse 6, however, shows that the author of Hebrews has a view of Christ that is comparable to the prologue of the Gospel of John (esp. Jn 1:1ff, 9, 14, etc; cf. also Rom 1:3; Gal 4:4; Phil 2:6ff):

  • Christ is already God’s “firstborn” (prwto/tokon)
  • God leads him into the inhabited-world (oi)koume/nh, possibly the heavenly realm of angels in addition to the world of human beings)—ei)$ th\n oi)koume/nhn as parallel to the Johannine ei)$ to\n ko/smon (“into the world”)

As indicated above, the author presents two different Christological portraits, and continues this in vv. 8-12 (citing Scripture):

  • vv. 8-9—in more traditional language of exaltation (citing Psalm 45:6-7)
  • vv. 10-12—of Jesus’ divine status and existence encompassing the beginning and end of creation (citing Psalm 102:25-27, cf. also verse 2b above)

As I have already pointed out, there are a number of similarities with the basic Christology of the author and that presented in the Gospel of John; for more on Jesus as “the Son” in relation to God the Father, see the previous Christmas season note. Elsewhere in the New Testament writings, Jesus as God’s Son is an important theological identification, especially in: (1) Paul’s letters, (2) the first letter of John (par. with the Gospel of John), and (3) here in Hebrews.

  1. Paul’s letters—in the context of
    a) God’s work through Christ, esp. his sacrificial and atoning death: Romans 1:3-4; 5:10; 8:3, 32; Gal 1:16; 2:20; 4:4; 1 Thess 1:10; Col 1:13.
    b) specific association with the Gospel message: Rom 1:9; Gal 1:6
    c) the unity and bond of believers (with Christ, the Spirit): Rom 8:29; 1 Cor 1:9; 2 Cor 1:19; Gal 4:6; Col 1:13, and also Eph 4:13
    Note also 1 Cor 15:28
  2. The letters of John—similarly, along with the Gospel of John:
    a) the union of believers with God and Christ: 1 Jn 1:3; 2:23-24; 3:23; 4:9b, 15; 5:12-13
    b) Christ’s redemptive work: 1 Jn 1:7; 3:8; 4:9-10, 14; 5:11
    c) the identity of Christ: 1 Jn 2:22-23; 4:15a; 5:5, 9-10, 20
  3. Hebrews—in addition to 1:2, 8 we have (context indicated):
    Heb 3:6—role as heir/master of the household, emphasizing his faithfulness
    Heb 4:14; 5:5, 8; 7:3, 28—role as (exalted) High Priest, indicating his sacrificial work; 5:5 cites Ps 2:7 [as in 1:5]; 7:3 has spec. title “Son of God”
    Heb 5:8—his suffering (incarnation and death) and obedience (to the Father)
    Heb 6:6—his death on the cross (spec. title “Son of God” is used)
    Heb 10:29—his holy/sacrificial work, i.e. his death (“blood of the covenant”)
  4. Other passages:
    2 Peter 1:7 (referring to the Transfiguration scene [Mark 9:7 par])
    Revelation 2:18—the message (to Thyatira): “the Son of God relates these (thing)s…”

This last reference to the Son of God speaking brings us back to the first verses of Hebrews—”God spoke…in (the) Son”. How did God speak? We do not find much mention in Hebrews of the things Jesus actually said; the emphasis is rather on: (1) who he is, and (2) what he has done—in classic theological terms, this means the person and work of Christ. God speaks first through the person of Christ, i.e. his (pre-existent) divine status and/or nature as Son, and then through his work—in creation, his sacrificial (and atoning) death, his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father in heaven. Here New Testament Christology reaches perhaps its fullest and most rounded expression—of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.