December 1: Hebrews 1:3 (continued)

Hebrews 1:2b

The context of the “Christ hymn” in Hebrews 1:1-4 was discussed in the previous note. The hymnic portion is vv. 2b-3, a statement on the person of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, containing both of the key Christological views—the earlier exaltation Christology, along with the pre-existence aspect that emerged and developed in the second half of the 1st century.

One of the details that marks verse 3 (and vv. 2b-3) as a Christological hymn (or credal/confessional statement) is the use of the relative pronoun (o%$), referring to the subject of Jesus (the Son), to introduce and govern the poetic content (on the characteristic device, cf. the earlier note on Phil 2:6). This use is indeed confessional—that is, early Christians are making a fundamental statement regarding who Jesus is. More to the point, the statement expresses what it means to say that Jesus is the Son of God.

From the beginning, all believers would have embraced and accepted the exaltation Christology—i.e., the Sonship of Jesus defined in terms of his being raised and exalted to a place at God’s “right hand” in heaven. By all accounts, the pre-existence aspect represents a later development, and may still have been relatively new in the context of the hymns of Philippians and Colossians. This may explain the importance (and the rise) of these Christological statements; they were intended, at least in part, to familiarize believers with the idea of Jesus’ divine/eternal pre-existence, and to communicate this as an established (orthodox) belief in congregations throughout the Greco-Roman world.

There are actually three parallel relative clauses that govern vv. 2b-3:

    • “…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

The first two clauses (2b) reflect the exaltation and pre-existence aspects, respectively (cf. above).

o^n e&qhken klhrono/mon pa/ntwn
whom He set as heir of all things”

The initial relative clause draws on traditional (Messianic) language applied by early Christians to the exaltation of Jesus. The idea of God “setting” (vb ti/qhmi) a chosen one (i.e., the Davidic ruler) as His “son” and “heir” is part of the ancient royal theology, encapsulated in a number of Psalms that came to be interpreted in a Messianic sense—most notably Psalm 2 (vv. 7-8), but cf. also 89:28; and, on the Messianic application, cp. Isa 55:12; Dan 7:14; Ps Sol 17:23; 1 Macc 2:57. This language presumably underlies the declaration in the kerygma of Acts 2:36, that God “made” (vb poie/w) Jesus to be Messiah and Lord. The exalted Jesus had the place of God’s heir, as Son to the Father, close by His side in heaven. The inheritance motif is also utilized in Wisdom tradition, both in the sense of wisdom as a(n everlasting) possession of the righteous, and also for the eternal inheritance that belongs to the divine Wisdom itself—e.g., Sirach 24:8, 23; 1QS 11:7-9. It is also a theme that plays an important role throughout Hebrews, as believers in Christ are promised a share in his inheritance (1:14; 3:1; 6:17; 9:15; 12:25-29). Cf. Attridge, p. 40.

The second relative clause emphasizes the divine pre-existence of Jesus as God’s Son:

di’ ou! kai\ e)poi/hsen tou\$ ai)w=na$
through whom He even made (all) the Ages”

This is expressed in terms of Jesus’ role (as God’s agent) in the original creation of the universe, much as it was in the Colossians hymn (1:15-17, discussed previously), as also in the Prologue of the Gospel of John (1:2ff). In both the Colossians hymn and the Johannine prologue, Hellenistic Jewish Wisdom tradition has been applied to the person of Jesus. According to the ancient tradition preserved in Proverbs 8:22-31, the Wisdom of God (personfied) was viewed as His first and highest creation, and functioned as the means by which God created the world. This tradition was preserved and developed within the Greek wisdom literature (Sirach 24; Wisdom 7:22; 8:4ff; 10:1ff; 1 Enoch 42, etc), and became one of the strands of the distinctive Hellenistic Jewish Logos-theology that would be so influential on early Christian thought. The place of the Logos (Lo/go$), the personified Word/Wisdom of God, and its role in creation, is best seen in the writings of Philo of Alexandria; of the many passages that may be cited, see esp. Who Is the Heir? §§130ff; On the Special Laws I.80-81; III.83, 207; On the Migration of Abraham §6; On the Cherubim §125f; On Flight and Finding §95; On Dreams 1.215 (cf. Attridge, p. 40f). The influence of this Wisdom/Logos tradition on the Johannine prologue is obvious, but, as I previously discussed, the author of the Colossians hymn (whether Paul or another) almost certainly drew upon it as well. The pre-existent Son, Jesus, was the means by which (“through whom”) God the Father created the universe.

This brings us to the third of the relative clauses in the Hebrews “hymn,” and the one which is most central to the overall message and theology of the author. This is the dual-statement in verse 3 proper, and we will examine it closely in the next daily note.

References above marked “Attridge” are to Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1989).