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Jewish Scholars on the Epistle to the Hebrews

I have addressed the theology of Hebrews from my Christian perspective and it is important to listen to Jewish voices on this text. Many readers might be familiar with Pamela Eisenbaum and Mark Nanos for their significant contributions to the “Paul within Judaism” perspective, so below are their reflections on the issue of Hebrews and supersessionism based on conference papers that they have posted online:



New Covenant Theology and Interfaith Dialogue

Traditionally, Hebrews has been read as written to Jews wavering in their commitment to this new messianic sect and feeling nostalgic about the cultic or cultural practices they may have left behind, so consequently the author stresses Jesus’ superiority over the angels, Moses, Joshua, Aaron, the Levitical priests, and the “old covenant.” This was my starting assumption, though I was open to the option that there was a primary non-Jewish audience who was attracted to the antiquity of the Jewish tradition given the Romans’ suspicion of new and potentially subversive voluntary associations or cults. In light of some of my reading, it may be that the epistle was more focused on compensating for the loss of the temple by presenting Jesus as the ultimate high priest offering the definitive sacrifice. Even so, there is a sense that Hebrews argues, at the least, that Jesus mediates direct access to God in a way that was not previously available through Torah and we must deal with the issue of supersessionism.

Full-fledged supersessionism, or “replacement theology,” insists that the (primary non-Jewish) Christians inherited the new covenant that the Jewish people are alleged to have rejected and, therefore, Christians replaced them as the people of God or the “new Israel.” Of course, Hebrews does not say this and does not even identify the audience explicitly (!), but the language of a new covenant making the old obsolete was read in this way. However, its author worried that his audience was about to abandon their inheritance and so used the rhetorical device of comparison to emphasize why Jesus was of unrivalled importance. Indeed, moving to the fiercest Christian anti-Jewish polemic in later centuries, such as the 4th century rhetorician John Chrysostom’s anti-Jewish homilies, it still seems to have been aimed internally to prevent lay Christians from attending synagogues, participating in Jewish festivals, or adopting Jewish customs to varying degrees. If “Judaizing” was still an attractive option when Christians ended up as the powerful majority, it is evident that the social interactions between Jews and Christians on the ground were far more extensive in those early centuries. Thus, much of the earlier anti-Jewish polemic reflects a minority faction attempting to articulate its own reason for being and constructing sharper social boundaries. What happened, though, when this same rhetoric was used by Christians in political power against Jewish (and other religious) minorities? Regrettably, the weapons of ostracism and persecution were aimed at them for not assimilating to the partakers of the “new covenant.”

How then does the epistle of Hebrews factor into interfaith dialogue? A Christian who accepts the worldview of Hebrews accepts that Jesus is the self-revelation of God and the mediator who intercedes between God and humankind. It is okay to be honest about this distinctive, just as other religious adherents might insist that the locus of revelation is found elsewhere, and dialogue does not have to reduce genuine differences into a generic sameness. Christians can share their self-understanding with gentleness and respect. However, Christians need to remember that all humans are bearers of the image of God and have the humility to recognize that we do not know how God may be at work throughout the world outside our immediate circles. Canonically, the emphases within Hebrews can be read alongside Romans 9-11 with its reminder that God is faithful to all of the divine promises and may have a far bigger plan for “all Israel” and the “fullness of the nations.”

Addendum on the “New Covenant” Language in the New Testament

If you are further interested in the discussion about the references to the “new covenant” in the New Testament, here is a brief piece from Daniel J. Harrington entitled “Jeremiah 31:31-34 and the New Testament” at the Society of Biblical Literature’s Bible Odyssey website.

Also, if you are interested in the text-critical issues over Luke 22:19b-20 that I alluded to in the last post, you can see some general discussions about the so-called “Western non-interpolations” (or alternatively scribal omissions producing the shorter readings found in a group of Western witnesses) here, here, here, and here. A few other pieces online focused on Luke 22:19b-20 in particular can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

New Covenant Language in the New Testament

Considering that the Greek term diathēkē has been translated as “covenant” or “testament” and the Christian Scriptures are collectively labelled under the title “New Testament,” it may be surprising how rare the language of the “new covenant” actually appears in the New Testament. Here are the examples:

The Wording of the Eucharist according to Paul and Luke

  • “In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ”This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'” (1 Corinthians 11:2)
  • “And likewise the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.'” (Luke 22:20)
Note: there are text-critical issues surrounding the words after “this is my body” in Luke 20:19b-20, which are attested in the huge majority of manuscripts but omitted in some Western witnesses like Codex Bezae.
 The Spirit Writing the Law on our Hearts
  • “[God] who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6)
The Fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:31
  • “For he finds fault with them when he says: “The days will come, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Hebrews 8:8)
  • “In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” (Hebrews 8:13)
  • “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.” (Hebrews 9:15)
  • “and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:24)
From this data, I might make some preliminary observations pending further research. First, it seems to me that the adjective “new” was added to the term “covenant” in Paul and Luke’s transmission of the Lord’s Supper tradition (compare its absence in Mark 14:24 and Matthew 26:28). Second, I am not sure if the category “new covenant” was a central one for all or most first century Christ followers, unless it is seen to be implied in the idea that we are living in the new eschatological age. Rather, it seems to be distinctive to Paul and those within Paul’s sphere of influence (see Hebrews 13:23-24). Finally, I am also not sure how developed the concept of “new covenant” is within Paul’s own understanding, unless Paul’s general understanding that we live under a new dispensation of the Spirit who has internalized the commands of the Torah within us was informed by the promise in Jeremiah 31:31. It does seem that the anonymous author of Hebrews has particularly elaborated on Jeremiah 31:31 to argue that Jesus is the heavenly high priest who has mediated a new covenant that both fulfills and displaces the “old” (or at least the ancient Levitical and sacrificial system).

Textbook for my Hebrews Class

I think I have settled on the textbook that I plan to use for the unit on the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is Reading the Epistle to the Hebrews: A Resource for Students (ed. Eric F. Mason and Kevin B. McCruden; Atlanta: SBL, 2011). The table of contents and the introductory chapter has been made available here. I found out this unit will actually be offered in the winter, while I am teaching “General Epistles” as my senior exegetical course in semester 1, so I look forward to having more time to figure out supplementary articles for this enigmatic epistle.

A Priest Like Melchizedek?

Whenever I taught on the epistle to the Hebrews in my introductory Bible class, I have had my students read over the extended section (4:14-7:28) about Jesus’ priestly qualifications and many have been confused about the text’s argument. Why in the world did the epistle devote so much space to how great Melchizedek was in chapter 7 when he barely shows up in Genesis 14:18-20 and Psalm 110:4 (LXX Psalm 109:4)? Of course, the text of Hebrews was not the only example of Jewish speculation about this mysterious figure (see 11QMelchizedek; 2 Enoch 71;  Testament of Levi 8 courtesy of Dr. Andrei Orlov). Nevertheless, here are the epistle’s main points:

  • Psalm 110 was a favourite proof-text for the early Christ followers because they believed that the psalmist was David and that he was speaking prophetically about how his messianic heir (“my Lord”) would be exalted and enthroned at the right hand of God in a position of universal sovereignty. The Psalm’s address to this ruler as a priest in the order of Melchizedek is what launches the discussion in Hebrews.
  • Jesus was not a member of the priestly tribe of Levites nor did he have any known priestly genealogy, so Hebrews validates Jesus’ credentials by showing that he was a priest in the legitimate “order of Melchizedek” that was predicted as displacing the Levitical priesthood.
  • Just as Melchizedek was both the king of Shâlêm (=Jerusalem?) and the priest of “God Most High,” Jesus also combines the royal and priestly offices in one person.
  • Hebrews draws an analogy from the Melchizedek priesthood to the eternal nature of the Son which has no beginning nor end, though it is unclear if Hebrews held the view of Melchizedek as a chief angelic figure as did Qumran or whether it was merely making an exegetical observation about how Genesis never disclosed Melchizedek’s ancestry or origins.
  • Since Abraham paid a tithe to Melchizedek, Hebrews can show the superiority of Jesus as the priest in the order of Melchizedek to the great patriarch as part of general pattern of comparing Jesus to other scriptural figures (e.g. Moses, Joshua, Aaron).

For peer-reviewed scholarship on Melchizedek that is open-access online (courtesy of http://polumeros.blogspot.ca/p/electronic-articles-essays.html):

The Genre of Hebrews

The Genre of Hebrews

An Epistle?

Generic Conventions of an Epistle:

  • Salutation including the sender, recipients, and greetings: X
  • Opening thanksgiving, prayer, or report of circumstances:  X
  • Body of the letter including specific arguments relating to the occasion, scriptural interpretation, and paraenesis or ethical argumentation (1:1-13:19) ✔️
  • Postscript including a benediction, personal remarks, and a farewell (13:20-25): ✔️

Text critical arguments that the epistolary prescript has been lost early on in the transmission process (e.g. damage to the manuscript or intentional omission by a scribe) or that the postscript was interpolated to conform to Paul’s epistles has not persuaded most text critics and exegetes.

The superscription “to the Hebrews” was added and the text was included in a collection of Pauline epistles by later scribes.

A Sermon or Exposition

The author describes his work as a “word of exhortation” (λόγος τῆς παρακλήσεως) (13:22)

An orally communicated speech: the use of either deliberative rhetoric to persuade the readers to adopt the course of faithfulness in response to the threats of persecution and backsliding or epideictic rhetoric to reinforce their present convictions about the praiseworthiness of Christ’s person and ministry and the value of faith. It has several rhetorical features that suggest that the text was designed to be read aloud and heard. Ben Witherington III has a useful summary of the text’s use of Greco-Roman rhetorical categories and other literary features here.

A synagogue homily: given the parallel with how Paul’s speech in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch is described as a word of exhortation (Acts 13:15), some scholars specify that the text is an example of a homily delivered in a diaspora synagogue and relate it to the Jewish liturgical calendar or note the presence of Jewish midrashic (midrash means “inquiry” or “interpretation”) techniques. For example, see Gabriella Gelardini, “Hebrews, an Ancient Synagogue Homily for Tisha be-Av: Its Function, Its Basis, Its Theological Interpretation” in Hebrews: Contemporary Methods – New Insights (Leiden: Brill, 2005).


Outlines of Hebrews

I was searching online for outlines of the content of the epistle to the Hebrews and came across the following. First, there is D.A. Carson’s “Analytical Outline of Hebrews” and he also has four video lectures on Hebrews as part of his TEDS [Trinity Evangelical Divinity School] Lecture Series. Daniel Wallace’s outline is found at the end of his introductory post “Hebrews: Introduction, Argument, and Outline.” Harold W. Attridge’s commentary The Epistle to the Hebrews (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989) is highly regarded and his outline on page 19 has been posted here and here (HT “Conferences WSWG 28“). Ashby L. Camp has posted this outline from George Guthrie’s popularizing commentary Hebrews (NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998). Felix Just posts three different outlines from commentators Raymond Brown, Albert Vanhoye, and Pheme Perkins. Please email me if you know of other scholarly outlines online.


The Audience of Hebrews

The Audience of Hebrews


Jerusalem or Judaea in General:

  • This is supported by some Patristic authorities and by Miniscule 81 (11th century) which has the title “To the Hebrews, written from Rome by Paul to those in Jerusalem.” This is a conjecture based on the presumed audience in the standard superscription attached by scribes (“to the Hebrews”).


  • The line “those from Italy greet you” (ἀσπάζονται ὑμᾶς οἱ ἀπὸ τῆς Ἰταλίας) (13:24) can be read in one of two ways. Either the author was in Rome and passing along greetings from the Christ believers there to an audience located somewhere else or the author was accompanied by Roman Christ believers in another location and they were sending their personal greetings back to the church in their homeland. If the latter is the case, the epistle was addressed to an audience in Rome.
  • The earliest external attestation for the epistle is in 1 Clement which was sent from Rome.

Other suggested locations:

  • The degree of plausibility assigned to other locations such as Antioch, Alexandria, Corinth, Ephesus, or Colossae depend on the question of authorship (e.g. where did various NT figures like Paul, Barnabas, Apollos, Luke, Priscilla, or Silas visit), the affinities that Hebrews may have with other Jewish or Christian writers (e.g. Philo of Alexandria, Luke-Acts, the Pastorals, 1 Peter, 1 Clement), and the reconstruction of the situation of the audience (e.g. allusions to persecutions and imprisonment).


A General or Specific Audience?

  • Given that the superscription was attached later and the text lacks an epistolary address, it is possible that this text was a homily or a general “word of exhortation” (13:22) about how Jesus was the supreme revelation of God, the high priestly mediator of a new covenant offering purification of sins and direct access to God, and how Christ followers ought to endure in their faith(fullness) to receive their everlasting reward or rest.
  • References to the audience as not among the original eyewitnesses of the Lord (2:3), as failing to advance beyond preliminary instruction or catechesis (5:11-14), as having an initial zeal that is waning with some members no longer attending communal meetings (6:10-12; 10:23-25), and as victims of persecution during their initial enthusiasm for the Christ movement (10:32-35) seem to be most naturally read as referring to a specific situation faced by a particular congregation(s).
  • The epistle was composed in high literary Greek and relies exclusively on the Greek Septuagint, so it likely addressed a Greek-speaking audience. The audience is acquainted with Paul’s co-missionary Timothy (13:23) and seems to be part of the Pauline sphere of influence.

The Ethnic Identity of the Audience

  • A predominantly Jewish audience is supported by the superscription “to the Hebrews” and the long history of Christian interpretation of the letter. The audience has to have had a high regard for the Greek translation of the Scriptures and for other scriptural figures (e.g. angels, Moses, Joshua, the Levitical priests, the other heroes listed in Hebrews 11) in order to facilitate the comparison with Jesus. Traditional approaches to the epistle have proposed that the audience was tempted to renounce their beliefs about Jesus, perhaps in response to ostracism or persecution, and resume observing the Torah and the sacrificial cult in the Jerusalem temple. Alternatively, a recent proposal is that Jewish Christ followers were struggling with how to compensate for the loss of the temple and are comforted with how Christ has provided the ultimate priestly sacrifice.
  • A mixed or even pre-dominantly non-Jewish audience who could have been won over to the Christ movement by the Pauline mission and may also have a high regard for the Jewish Scriptures in their Greek translation. The abandonment of “dead works” and the necessity of being instructed in Jewish beliefs such as repentance, faith(fullness), resurrection, and eternal judgment may suggest non-Jewish recipients (6:1-2; 9:14). Moreover, since the Roman authorities tolerated the ancestral traditions of their subject peoples and were suspicious of new voluntary associations or cults, grounding Jesus in the antiquity of the Jewish Scriptures and an ancient priestly order may have been attractive. The emphasis that the exalted Jesus is the supreme mediator who has provided the final sacrifice may also challenge the prevalence of sacrifices in Graeco-Roman religious piety or the imperial cult and the Roman emperor as Pontifex Maximus (“greatest pontiff”).


The Date of the Epistle to the Hebrews

The Date of the Epistle to the Hebrews

  • The explicit external attestation of the Epistle to the Hebrews was covered here.
  • While it does not contain any explicit citations, there may be strong evidence of literary dependence in the allusions to Hebrews in 1 Clement (e.g. 1 Clem 36:2-5/Heb 1:3-13 and the discussion in Andrew F. Gregory, “1 Clement and the Writings that later formed the New Testament” in The Reception of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, pp. 152-53). 1 Clement has traditionally been attributed to the bishop Clement of Rome around 96 CE, but various scholars have proposed conflicting dates ranging from the mid-60s to 140 CE.
  • The author and recipients seem to be second-generation Christ followers: they were dependent on the first hearers (apostles?) of Jesus (2:3), instructed to admire their leaders (13:7), suffered persecution and imprisonment for their early enthusiasm for the Christ movement (10:32-34), and were familiar with Paul’s (former) assistant Timothy (13:23). Indeed, the author is frustrated that his audience has not yet moved beyond preliminary instructions in the faith (5:12-14).
  • The sacrificial cult is described in the present tense (5:1-4; 7:20, 23, 27-28; 8:3-5, 13; 9:6-8, 13, 25; 10:1-3, 8, 11; 13:10-11) and does not capitalize on the destruction of the temple in 70 CE as proving the point that the sacrificial system has been rendered obsolete. On the other hand, the author’s knowledge of the sacrifices carried out by the Levitical priests at the tabernacle may be entirely based on Scripture, other Jewish and Christian writers refer to the temple cult in the present tense after 70 CE, and the author may presuppose the absence of the temple in the reflections on how Jesus is the high priest now mediating access to God.
  • The readers had undergone some local forms of ostracism, persecution, and imprisonment (10:32-34), but they apparently had not suffered to the point of martyrdom (12:4). It may be difficult to correlate their suffering with the persecution of the Hebrews and the Hellenists in Jerusalem (Acts 7:1-8:1; 9:1-2; 12:1-2), the expulsion of some Jews (and Jewish Christians) from Rome under the emperor Claudius (Acts 18:2; Seutonius, Claudius 25), Nero’s scapegoating and execution of Christians for the fire in Rome (1 Clement 5:4-6:2; Tacitus, Annals 15.44.4), or other isolated acts of political suppression (cf. the correspondence of Pliny the Younger and Trajan around 112 CE).
  • There are stylistic or theological parallels with 1 Peter (ca. 70 – 110 CE), Luke-Acts (ca. 65 – 130 CE), and the Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 64 – 135 CE). There may be knowledge of oral or written Jesus traditions including his emotional prayers or petitions to God (5:7), his death outside the city gate (13:12), and the way provided through the temple curtain (6:19-20; 10:19-20).
  • There is a developed Christology in Hebrews 1:2-3 (but see 1 Corinthians 8:6; Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-18).