Come Follow Me: Hebrews

Hebrews is fun and different. Note that it comes at the end of Paul’s letters (which are arranged in order of length), because even way way back in the day, they were uncertain if it was one of Paul’s letters. And they were right, it’s not. Authorship

With very rare exceptions, very few think Paul wrote it anymore, although LDS tradition has been resilient.

LDS have generally tended to take the position that Paul was its author, based on the fact that Joseph Smith consistently referred to the author of the epistle as Paul.  This assumes, however, that the Prophet specifically considered the question of authorship and received revelatory insight on the matter, yet there is no evidence whatsoever that this is the case…. LDS scholar Sidney B. Sperry considered this question and the evidence very carefully, and concluded that given “the very great dissimilarity in style or literary form between Hebrews and the uncontested letters of Paul . . . the author cannot honestly believe that Paul was its actual writer and responsible for its literary form.” (in Paul’s Life and Letters [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1955], 268-72).  Certain LDS leaders, including B. H. Roberts, James Talmage, Hugh B. Brown, Mark E. Peterson, Howard W. Hunter, Jeffrey R. Holland and Thomas S. Monson, have recognized the uncertainty of the authorship of the epistle, and therefore generally have referred obliquely to “the author” or “the writer” rather than “Paul” when referring to the person who wrote it…- Kevin Barney, ed. Footnotes to the New Testament for Latter-day Saints(This was going to be published, and then the company had a change in management and backed out, so it’s been put online as a free pdf. It’s like a good KJV study Bible.)

What was Joseph Smith doing, then?

Joseph was simply following the view of Pauline authorship as he read it in the title, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews,” rather than making an overt statement about the authorship of Hebrews. On one occasion, Willard Richards recorded the Prophet saying, “St Paul exhorts us to make our Calling & Election shure.” We know, however, that these teachings appear in 2 Peter 1:10 and not in any of Paul’s writings. Certainly no one should use this statement as evidence that Joseph Smith considered Paul the author of 2 Peter. Thus the phrase “Paul said,” followed by a quote from Hebrews, does not necessarily mean that the Prophet was weighing in on the question of the authorship of Hebrews. -BYU Prof. Terrence Szink, “Authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews” in How the New Testament Came to Be: The Thirty-fifth Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium. Article link.

Jesus does something quite similar in the New Testament. Like Joseph Smith, Paul, and Hebrews,  Jesus and “Moses said” has often been taken to be the clincher for authorship of the Pentateuch.

Several of these references indicate that “Moses” is understood as indicating other than the author of a Scripture portion. Rather it is used as an identification marker for the piece, somewhat like “Jane Eyre,” which is a title, not an author. First, Luke 24:44 indicates that the designation “Psalms” indicates a body of literature including, but larger than, the canonical book by that name. It would also include other material from the Writings (e.g., Proverbs, Job). The Prophets corresponds to the canonical portion known as the Former and Latter Prophets, including the historical books, which are not technically prophetic books but are included in that canonical section. These two canonical categories are referential rather than descriptive of either authorship or literary genre. One should then allow the third category, the Law of Moses, also to be referential rather than indicating either a strict genre (i.e., law, which is only one of the mixed genres of the Pentateuch) or an author (i.e., Moses).

The referential function is clearer in John 7:22–23, in which Jesus is quoted as saying: “Moses gave you circumcision (it is, of course, not from Moses, but from the patriarchs).… If a man receives circumcision on the sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken …”  Here there is a clear distinction between a literary work in which the circumcision regulations are recorded, called “Moses” and “the law of Moses” on the one hand, and the author or originator, called “the patriarchs,” on the other. Jesus seems to realize that his hearers might commit a category error, confusing title, which is what he intended here, with author, which was not his intent, so he makes his meaning clear. We, therefore, based on Jesus’ own usage, need to be careful in claiming that “Moses” always indicates author and not title.DOTP, “Source Criticism”

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism article on Hebrews says nothing about authorship.

What is Hebrews?

“Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews is neither Paul’s nor an epistle. Discuss.”

How do these epistles typically begin?

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God… To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 1:1, 7 NRS)

Paul an apostle… To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:1-3 NRS)

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 1:1-2 NRS)

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God… To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 1:1-3 NRS)

By contrast, how does Hebrews begin?

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds (Heb. 1:1-2 NRS)

On the other hand, the last verses of Hebrews end like a letter.

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been set free; and if he comes in time, he will be with me when I see you. Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those from Italy send you greetings. Grace be with all of you. (Heb. 13:22-25 NRS)

In terms of form and genre, Hebrews appears to have been a homily or sermon (a “word of exhortation”) which was then written down and a post-script attached and sent off to some others… perhaps not too much like sending someone a copy of your really awesome Stake Conference talk.

[In 13:22] The writer characterizes his discourse as “the word of exhortation.” This descriptive phrase recalls the invitation extended to Paul and Barnabas by synagogue officials at Antioch of Pisidia after the reading from the Law and the Prophets: “Brothers, if you have a word of exhortation… for the people, deliver it now” (Acts 13:15). The expression appears to have been an idiomatic designation for the homily or edifying discourse that followed the public reading from the designated portions of Scripture in the hellenistic synogogues…. When the writer appeals to the members of the assembly to listen willingly to “the word of exhortation” he has prepared, he uses the customary idiom for a sermon.

The liturgical pattern of the synagogue, in which the public reading of Scripture was followed by preaching, was adopted by the early Church. Evidence for this is provided by the instruction in 1 Tim 4:13: “devote yourself to the public reading [of Scripture], to the exhortation, to teaching.” The definite expression “the exhortation” is a synonymous designation for the sermon. It referred specifically to the exposition and application of the Scripture that had been read aloud to the assembled congregation. -Lane, Hebrews 9–13, Word Biblical Commentary, my emphasis

So, Hebrews began as a homily by a gifted speaker who knew his audience well, and skillfully wove together many Old Testament quotations. The KJV does not set these off in any way. Whereas Old Testament quotations elsewhere are often set off by something like “it is written” (62x in the New Testament), Hebrews does not. Modern Bible translations indicate these with quotation marks or indentation or italics (Wayment), and so this is one place where using a modern Study Bible really helps. At minimum, it indicates visually just how much of Hebrews is quotations.

For example, virtually all of chapter 1 is Old Testament quotations and allusions, although sometimes adapted, combined, or modified from the Greek Septuagint/LXX, a translation of the Hebrew.

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

5 For to which of the angels did God ever say,

“You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? (Psalm 2:7) Or again,

“I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? (2Sa 7:14)

6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.” (Combination of Deu 32:43 and Psa 97:7.)

7 Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.” (Psa 104:4)

8 But of the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom. 9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” (Psa 45:6-7)

10 And, “In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands; 11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing; 12 like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.” (Psa 102:25-27)

13 But to which of the angels has he ever said, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”? (Psa 110:1)

14 Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?

I’ve put the chapter and verse numbers there, but these did not exist in the Biblical period. They were added to the Biblical text in medieval times, which is why Hebrews sometimes has very vague references like “…  someone testified somewhere (OT QUOTE)…” (Heb. 2:6 NET) Cf. Hebrews 4:4, God “somewhere spoke of the seventh day like this, OT QUOTE” Sounds like Gospel Doctrine class, “I heard once in General Conference, can’t remember who or when…”

These extensive quotations are interpreted non-contextually. That is, if you go back to the original passage in Hebrew, it might read differently, and in context, it probably doesn’t seem to mean what the New Testament implies it means. That’s because contextual interpretation is a relatively modern thing. Non-contextual interpretation was the standard in the Old Testament, Book of Mormon, New Testament, Dead Sea Scrolls, and rabbinic Judaism. (See my old post here, especially the handout and powerpoint down at the bottom.) I’ve done a good bit of work on using contextual interpretation to help make sense of the Bible, at both the Sperry Symposium and Education Week (not available).


Theme and audience- I once taught an Honors Acts-Revelation class at BYU, and on the open-scripture final  I asked,

What is the theme in Hebrews? The shortest answer possible, worth full points, is only three words. (Hint: The chapter headings won’t help you.)

Hebrews, apparently written to Jewish Christians, makes the same point over and over, by quoting from the Old Testament extensively.  That acceptable 3-word answer was this: “Christ [the Messiah] is superior.”

Superior to what, though? –

i. Superior to Angels 1:4-14
ii. Superior to the High priest 4:14-5:10
iii. Superior to Moses 3:1-6 (3)
iv. Superior to Abraham, Melchizedek, the high priest, and Torah, chapter 7
v. Superior to the First covenant, chapter 8
vi. Superior to the Tabernacle/temple 9 (11-12)

All of these things held prominent places in the Jewish worldview, and they were ranked, categorized, and put into hierarchies, particularly angels. (Think of the young man asking Jesus “which is the greatest commandment?” How do you rank them?)

And the point was that Jesus, as Messiah, is superior to all of them. Jesus was at the top of the heavenly rankings, so to speak.

Hebrews offers a distinct and elevated Christology. As the son of God, Jesus is superior to all other beings, including angels—he is uncreated, immortal, and permanent. He is also superior to all biblical heroes, including Moses and Abraham, as well as institutions like the Levitical priesthood. As both perfect sacrifice and heavenly priest who intercedes for humans, Jesus supersedes the Jewish sacrificial system, rendering it obsolete. Indeed, the text states that sacrifices performed by the Levitical priests are ineffective precisely because they had to be repeated (10.1–5), while Jesus’ sacrifice was only offered once. Yet, for Hebrews, Jesus is also fully hu- man: although sinless (4.15), he died to atone for the sins of others.

Because Hebrews argues for Jesus’ superiority over all else, Hebrews can be read as supersessionist. Drawing on Jeremiah’s reference (31.31) to a “new covenant,” the author calls Mosaic Law “only a shadow of the good things to come” (10.1) and insists that “in speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear” (8.13). Such language helped foster the view that Judaism was an inferior religion, a temporary guide prior to Christ. In recent years, scholars have made efforts to address the problem of anti-Judaism in Hebrews and have attempted to offer alternative understandings of these key verses. – Jewish Annotated New Testament


Tidbits and Specifics

Hebrews has some really fantastic, interesting, moving stuff.

High Priest- 2:17-18 and 4:15-16 describe Jesus as high priest, but in a way that lends itself very well to struggling with repentence and our own weaknesses. Although he divine, he was like us in every respect. Although without sin, he struggled to be so and thus understands temptation.

Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested…. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (NRSV)

Love the last line. Jesus is not Marie-Antoinette, who, having never hungered, does not understand the hunger of her people and says “let them eat cake.”  Not at all.

Hebrews 3 says Jesus is not just high priest, but an apostle. How does that work? We use apostle with a technical sense, but it wasn’t always that way in the New Testament. It probably just means that Jesus is an authorized messenger of the father, who has sent (Gr. apostellein) him. A “sent one” is one who is sent.

There’s a JST on the apparently odd beginning of 6:1. KJV “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God…”

Joseph Smith apparently read this “leaving the principles” as something like “abandoning the principles” and inserted a “not” “Therefore NOT leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God.”

The KJV English simply did not make sense to Joseph, he simply “didn’t believe it,” he says. I suspect, though, that the original text is correct, and it was the KJV that was throwing him. Why? Context, context, context.

Going back into the end of the previous chapter (and remembering that hard chapter and verse divisions are modern impositions on the text) note once again the meat/milk metaphor. Let’s get that fuller context in here.

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And we will do this, if God permits.

In other words, he’s not saying, “let’s jettison this stuff, we don’t need it.” Rather, Hebrews says “come on people, we need to progress, not regress! This should be your theological bread and butter, known and practised backwards and forwards! I want to get to the ‘meat’ of Christ’s doctrine!”

Also note those things he considers basic “milky” teachings about Christ, namely,  repentence, faith, baptism, laying on of hands, and eventually resurrection and judgment. Sounds a lot like a certain article of faith.

Melchizedek- In chapter 7, we hear a bit of the Melchizedek tradition. He’s a mysterious figure in the Bible, found only in Genesis 14, Psalm 110, and here in Hebrews 7. (Then again in Alma 13 and in D&C.) The point in Hebrews is that if Abraham pays tithes to Melchizedek, that means Melchizedek “outranked” Abraham. But if Melchizedek was a type or forerunner of Jesus, than logically, Jesus is logically superior to Abraham. The Dead Sea Scrolls elevate Melchizedek to a high quasi-divine role.

Covenant- In Hebrews 9:15-19, the JST changes show us that  Joseph Smith understood at least part of an ancient covenant pattern. Hebrews concatenates death, “testament” or covenant, and blood. I’ve made the JST changes in italics below.

And for this cause [Jesus] is the mediator of the new covenant, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. 16 For where a covenant is, there must also of necessity be the death of the victim.17 For a covenant is of force after men are dead the victim is dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the victim liveth. 18 Whereupon neither the first covenant was dedicated without blood. 19 For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and all the people, 20 Saying, This is the blood of the testament which God hath enjoined unto you.

It’s been debated whether the concept here is one of “last will and testament” or “covenant” and given the JST, LDS tend to fall into the latter category.

“The striking association of [diatheke], “covenant,” and [thanatos], “death,” in v 15 is reiterated in vv 16–17, which strongly suggests that [diatheke] continues to be used uniformly to mean “covenant.” The meaning of [diatheke] in vv 16–17 is qualified by its meaning in v 15, where the proper frame of reference for the interpretation of v 15b is the death of the covenant-victim whose blood sealed and ratified the covenant.The recognition that the topic of vv 15–17 is covenant ratification indicates that vv 16–17 have been introduced to explain why Christ had to die in order to become the priestly mediator of the new covenant. The [Greek] clause of v 16 (“For where there is a covenant”) explicates the circumstantial clause of v 15b (“a death having occurred”), not the final clause of v 15b (“in order that … they may receive the promised eternal inheritance”). – Word Biblical Commentary

In the ancient Near East, covenants were usually ratified with the death of an animal (“the victim”), often by cutting the throat. The idiom is thus “to cut a covenant” instead of  “to make a covenant.” The blood collected became “the blood of the covenant.” Hebrews quotes Exodus 24, which inagurates the Mosaic covenant; the Torah is read to the people, they agree to keep it by saying “amen,” then the blood of the covenant is splashed on them as if their own throats had been cut.

The Ratification Ceremony.-This seems to have two elements, the first a verbal assent to the covenant (“All that the Lord has spoken we will do,” Exod 19:8; 24:3; cf. Josh 24:24 for a quite different formula), and the second a ritual act involving the sacrifice of an animal, the blood of which is thrown upon an altar and upon the people (Exod 24:5–8). The latter was a symbolic action in which the people were identified with the sacrificed animal, so that the fate of the latter is presented as the fate to be expected by the people if they violated their sacred promise (i.e., it is a form of self-curse). Thus the ratification ceremony was, in effect, the pledging of their lives as a guarantee of obedience to the divine will. (In time the ratification ceremony simply became a ritual form signaling membership in the ritual society; i.e., circumcision.)”- Anchor Bible Dictionary”

This is also what’s happening with the odd ritual in Genesis 15, when God covenants to give Abraham land by cutting animals in half and passing through the pieces. It’s a simile curse. God will keep the covenant made by passing through the pieces, or what happened to those animals is what will happen to God. On covenant in general, see here. On simile curses (a typical part of covenants) see here.

Now, what’s the implication in Hebrews and the New Testament? Remember that when instituting the sacrament at the last supper, Jesus described the wine as his blood, which was the blood of the new covenant. There and here, Jesus is the sacrificial animal whose death ratifies the new covenant. He is both high priest and sacrifice, the mediator of the new covenant and the one whose death makes it valid and possible.

Back in 2015, I wrote a paper on this for a BYU Conference, “Joseph Smith and Covenant Curses in Hebrews 9:15ff.” I argued that the JST changes indicate that by 1832 Joseph Smith had learned that Israelite covenant patterns required the sacrifice of an animal, or the death of a victim; further, he may have learned this from Adam Clarke’s commentary (on which see here and here).  Unfortunately, a technical snafu meant my paper didn’t get recorded, but you can read my rough text here (lacking complete footnotes, attribution, slides, etc.)

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8 thoughts on “Come Follow Me: Hebrews

  1. Thanks for this, Ben. I’ve been reading Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, by Richard Hays, who argues (in his chapter on Romans, at least) that Paul uses scriptures (read: the LXX) in ways that either intentionally or unintentionally echo the context of a passage he uses in ways that intensify his argument and aid transitions from one idea to another. In fact, he offers what I think is the most intuitive readings (which doesn’t mean it’s correct) of the “from faith to faith” passage in Rom 1:16-17 by drawing on the context of Paul’s quotation of Habbakuk. It’s an interesting counter to the idea that 1st century scriptural interpretation was non-contextual. Certainly there’s a wide variety of non-contextual reading, but I wonder if the blanket statement is too strong. I think Julie Smith’s discussion of Mark’s use of Jeremiah’s “den of thieves” in the “cleansing” of the temple similarly supports this. (That said, I do find it curious that John seems to rework Mark in such a way as to support the reading we usually find there).

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    1. There may be more reflection of literary context in the quotations. But the idea of historical/linguistic context really doesn’t figure in for a long time. Protestants have long had to argue that the NT doesn’t *really* take things out of context, because that provides such a challenge to modern views, in which taking things out of context is a cardinal sin of interpretation.

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    1. Sure. As with many of the New Testament quotations/allusions, 1:6 creatively adapts text from the Greek translation (LXX) of Deuteronomy 32, not the Hebrew. The Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament says,

      Here we encounter one of the most interesting and most difficult histories of the quotations in Hebrews…. [The LXX reads]

      O heavens, rejoice together with him,
      and let all the sons of God worship him.
      Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people,
      and let all the angels of God regain their strength.

      …It is, therefore, quite possible that the author of Hebrews accessed this form of Deut. 32:43, which would have been widely known among Greek-speaking Jews of the day, due to its reference to the angels and its emphasis on worship. This

      G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007), 931.

      I’ve posted that section, http://cl.ly/1Y3k1p350P0F

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  2. Thanks for this, Ben!
    On a related OT-Messianic prophecy note, could you suggest some direction towards anything definitive on interpreting Isaiah 53:10? The KJV chapter uses various 1st and 3rd person subject pronouns throughout, then startlingly introduces “thou” for the person making the servant’s soul an offering for sin. Comparing translations in BibleGateway, some use 2nd person and others 3rd person (“he” or “the Lord”). The notion that the author wants me to see myself as placing the servant (or his soul?) on the altar as an offering for (my) sins has been really moving for me, but I’d like to make sure that interpretation is justifiable.

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  3. I always enjoy your posts and have learned a lot and referred to you tons in Sunday school, but there was a minor misidentification in this one. The image that goes with the discussion topic, “Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews is neither Paul’s, nor an epistle,” was the Church Lady, when it should have been Linda Richman, host of the show Coffee Talk. 😀
    BTW, I loved that you went there; that’s what immediately came to mind as I read your opening paragraph!

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  4. I dont buy the “Paul didnt write Hebrews” thing. Differences in the text dont require a different author. I’ve been reading through Moses Stuart’s commentary on the subject. I dont see anything that requires a different author, and Stuart destroys all of the arguments against Paul being the author. I havent found anything since Stuart that makes any substantively different or new points. Paul had compelling reasons to not include his name (e.g., he hated Judaizers, had a bad reputation among still Jewish Jews, and a problematic early personal history persecuting Christians, cf. Hebr. 10:32-36), all of which would have been a distraction from the purpose of the text. His intention likely was to write to all Jewish Christians everywhere, hence the lack of a superscript explicitly identifying a target audience with specific people being addressed. Whether it is an “epistle” or not is a semantic argument.

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