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The Epistle to the Hebrews and Subsequent Christian Supersessionism

 The Epistle to the Hebrews: Introduction
  • Reception: although it was popularly accredited to Paul in the eastern churches (though hesitatingly by Clement and Origen of Alexandria) and included in a collection of Pauline epistles in the Chester Beatty Papyrus 46 (ca. 200 CE), doubts about this attribution persisted among many ancient Christian commentators, especially in Rome.
  • Authorship: an anonymous writer familiar with members of Paul’s circle such as Timothy (13:23); the refined literary style and theology of Hebrews differs from Paul. Other candidates include Barnabas, Luke, Apollos, Silas, 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 experienced social ostracism and imprisonment (10:32-34; 12:4; 13:3, 13, 23). It is unclear how much the author draws knowledge of the temple cult from observation or scriptural exegesis (i.e. the focus is on the tabernacle) or whether the Jerusalem temple was presently functioning.
  • Audience: although there is no specific address in an epistolary prescript and greetings are sent from “Italy” (13:24), the addressees seem to be Hellenistic Jews or non-Jews (former God-fearers or potential proselytes to Judaism?) who could grasp the author’s complex scriptural argumentation and philosophical reasoning. The audience is presumed to be in danger of relapsing from their faith, whether due to their experience of persecution or anxiety about the loss of participation in the Jerusalem temple cult (pre- or post-70 CE?), so the writer of Hebrews stresses the supremacy of Jesus as the high priestly intercessor over the Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system 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 both his incarnation to become completely human and his exaltation.
  • Jesus is superior to the prophets (1:1-4), angels (1:5-2:18), Moses (3:1-4:13), and the Levitical priesthood (4:14-7:28). Jesus ushers in a new covenant that provides the purification for sins and mediates direct access to God (8:7-13; Jeremiah 31:31-34); the temple sacrificial system was a shadow that pointed to the full reality of Jesus’ high priestly sacrifice (9:13-10:18). The Sabbath day also pointed to the fuller reality of the future rest that the faithful will receive (4:1-13)
  • Since he did not descend from the priestly tribe, Jesus’ priesthood is compared to the priest and king Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20; Psalm 110:4; Dead Sea Scrolls fragment 11QMelch [11Q13]).
  • Hebrews issues a call to endurance like the former pioneers in the faith (chapter 11), so that they might look forward to their future unshakable inheritance.

Christian Supersessionism in the Patristic Period

Question: do you think that the Epistle to the Hebrews reflects an intra-Jewish debate (e.g. how are sins purified and access mediated to God apart from the cultic apparatus of the temple and sacrificial system) or does it support Christian supersessionistic theology?

Supersessionism and Replacement Theology: the belief that the church has superseded and replaced Israel as the covenant people or the “true Israel.”

  • “…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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