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The Epistle to the Hebrews and Subsequent Christian Supersessionism

 The Epistle to the Hebrews: Introduction
  • Reception: though credited to Paul by some Patristic authorities (e.g. Clement and hesitatingly Origen of Alexandria) and included in a collection of Pauline epistles dating around 200 CE (P46), doubts about this attribution persisted among many ancient Christian commentators especially in the West.
  • Authorship: an anonymous writer familiar with members of Paul’s circle (13:23); the refined literary style and theology of Hebrews differs from Paul. Other candidates include Apollos, Barnabas, Silas, Luke, Priscilla, Clement of Rome, etc.
  • Date: the epistle is cited as early as 1 Clement at the end of the first century CE. The audience seems to be second generation followers rather than eyewitnesses of Jesus (2:3) and Timothy was imprisoned (13:23). It is unclear how much the author draws knowledge of the temple cult from observation or scriptural exegesis or whether it is presently functioning.
  • Audience: there is no specific address (1:1) and greetings are sent from “Italy” (13:24). There is debate over whether it was written to Hellenistic Jews or non-Jews (former “God-fearers”) wanting to adopt Jewish customs, perhaps in response to social ostracism or persecution (10:32-34; 12:4). The author stresses the superiority of the revelation of Christ and issues warnings against disobedience and admonishments to endurance (2:1-3; 3:12-13; 5:11-14; 6:1-12; 10:23-31; 13:7, 9, 17).
The Theology of Hebrews: the Superiority of Christ
  • Combines thorough knowledge and creative interpretation of the Septuagint and intertestamental Jewish traditions with Middle Platonism (e.g. the earthly sanctuary patterned after the heavenly one) .
  • Jesus is identified with God’s pre-existent wisdom (1:1-3). The text emphasizes his incarnation and exaltation.
  • Jesus is superior to the prophets (1:1-4), angels (1:5-2:18), Moses (3:1-4:13), and Aaron as well as the Levitical priesthood (4:14-7:28). Jesus ushers in a new covenant (8:7-13; Jeremiah 31:31-34) and is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices (9:13-10:18).
  • Jesus’ priestly office is compared to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20; Psalm 110:4; Dead Sea Scrolls fragment 11QMelch [11Q13]).
  • A call to endurance like the former pioneers in the faith (chapter 11).

Christian Supersessionism in the Patristic Period

Replacement Theology: the idea that the church replaced Israel as the covenant people.

  • “…be not made like unto some, heaping up your sins and saying that the covenant is both theirs and ours. It is ours: but in this way did they finally lose it when Moses had just received it, for the Scripture says: ‘And Moses was in the mount fasting forty days and forty nights, and he received the covenant from the Lord, tables of stone written with the finger of the hand of the Lord.’ But they turned to idols and lost it. For thus saith the Lord: ‘Moses, Moses, go down quickly, for thy people, whom thou broughtest forth out of the land of Egypt, have broken the Law.’ And Moses understood and cast the two tables out of his hands, and their covenant was broken, in order that the covenant of Jesus the Beloved should be sealed in our hearts in hope of his faith” (Epistle of Barnabas 4:6-8)
  • “We have been led to God through this crucified Christ, and we are the true spiritual Israel, and the descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, who, though uncircumcised, was approved and blessed by God because of his faith and was called the father of many nations.”(Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 11.5)

The Third Genos (race, people, tribe) that is neither Jewish nor Greek

  • “Since I see thee, most excellent Diognetus, exceedingly desirous to learn the mode of worshipping God prevalent among the Christians, and inquiring very carefully and earnestly concerning them, what God they trust in, and what form of religion they observe, so as all to look down upon the world itself, and despise death, while they neither esteem those to be gods that are reckoned such by the Greeks, nor hold to the superstition of the Jews; and what is the affection which they cherish among themselves; and why, in fine, this new kind or practice [of piety] has only now entered into the world, and not long ago…” (Epistle to Diognetus 1.1)

The Harmful Charge against Jews of Deicide (The Accusation of Killing God)

  • “The one who hung the earth in space, is himself hanged; the one who fixed the heavens in place, is himself impaled; the one who firmly fixed all things, is himself firmly fixed to the tree. The Lord is insulted, God has been murdered, the King of Israel has been destroyed by the right hand of Israel.” (Melito of Sardis, On the Passover)
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