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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Hebrews

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Exordium: The Definitive Word ( 1:1–4 )

Hebrews begins sonorously, with a ringing evocation of the person at the centre of the theology of the work. Alliteration and assonance mark the opening verse, which builds in a series of balanced clauses to the affirmation of the Son's exalted status. In the process, the homilist sounds several key themes interwoven throughout the homily. v. 1 , God's speech of long ago forms the foundation of Hebrews, which will use texts from the Torah, the Prophets, and the psalms to construct its message. The exegesis of those texts aims to make the word of God a vital reality. v. 2 , the final and definitive vehicle for God's revelation is the ‘Son’. That he has spoken ‘in these last days’ suggests not merely that he delivered his message recently, but that the context of his speech is the final act in the salvific drama, the imminent divine judgement; cf. 9:28; 10:25; 12:18–29 . The note that the Son is ‘heir of all things’ introduces a recurrent theme (cf. v. 4; 1:14; 3:1; 6:17; 9:15; 12:25–9 ), among both Hellenistic Jews (e.g. Philo, Quis Heres) and early Christians. The latter expected to be heirs of God's kingdom (e.g., Mt 5:5; 25:35; 1 Cor 6:9–10 ), immortality or eternal life (Mt 19:29; Mk 10:17; Lk 10:25; 1 Cor 15:50 ), salvation (1 Pet 1:4–5 ), or the heavenly city (Rev 21:2–7 ). The basic structure of the motif resembles Gal 3:23–4:7 , where Christ's status as heir secures the inheritance of his followers. An evocation of Christ's role in creation balances the affirmation of his eschatological status as heir. Like other early Christians (Jn 1:3; 1 Cor 8:6; Rom 11:36; Col 1:16 ), Hebrews exalts the significance of Jesus by transferring to him attributes of divine Wisdom (Prov 8:22–31 ). v. 3 , Sapiential tradition is transparent in the affirmation that the Son is the ‘reflection of God's glory’, which echoes Wis 7:26 . The description of Christ as the ‘imprint of God's very being’ juxtaposes a monetary image (charaktēr: ‘stamp’) and a metaphysical term (hypostasis). The former term parallels affirmations about Christ as the ‘image’ (eikōn) of the divine (cf. 2 Cor 4:4; Rom 8:29; Col 1:15 ). The philosophical term reappears at 3:14 and 11:1 with varying connotations. Creation is not the sole venue of the Son's activity. Like the powerful force of divine Wisdom who ‘pervades, penetrates and renews’ all things (Wis 7:24–7 ), the Son too ‘sustains all things by his powerful word’. The Jewish philosopher and exegete Philo also remarked frequently on the sustaining activity of the Logos or Word of God (Som. 1.241; Quis Heres, 7; Migr. Abr. 6). Such affirmations may underlie Hebrews, although here the divine word is embodied in a human person. The homilist is not concerned with cosmology, but with the way in which the Son sustains a community struggling to be faithful (cf. 4:14–16; 12:1–2 ). The heart of the Son's activity is his sacrificial death, whereby he effected ‘purification for sins’. This phrase adumbrates the complex theme of Christ's priestly action that will dominate the central chapters ( 8:1–10:18 , esp. 9:13–14, 26 ). Of equal structural significance is the picture of the Son's session ‘at the right hand’. The image derives from Ps 110:1 , the celebration of the enthronement of an Israelite king. Inspired by Jewish literature portraying the exaltation of the persecuted righteous (e.g. 1 Enoch 45:3; 79:27–9 ; T. Levi 2–5; Wis 2:4–5 ), early Christians regularly affirmed God's vindication of Christ in terms of his exaltation, using Ps 110:1 to refer to that event (Mt 22:44; Acts 2:34–5; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 3:22 ). The Psalm's imagery reappears at key points in Hebrews ( 1:14; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2 ), articulating its structure and advancing the heavenly status of the Son as a ground for hope. Unlike other early Christian texts, Hebrews also uses another verse from the Psalm to establish a relationship between Christ and Melchizedek (cf. Ps 110:4 at 5:6; 6:20; 7:1–28 ). v. 4 , the affirmation that the Son is ‘superior to the angels’ has been construed as polemic against Christians or Jews who accorded too high a status to angels or against Christians who considered the exalted Christ an angel. Hebrews offers no evidence of such polemical concerns elsewhere. The remark stands in continuity with the scenario of exaltation, in which a status higher than the angels is common (cf. Phil 2:9–10; Col 1:15–18; Eph 1:21; 1 Pet 3:22 ). The phrase affords a transition to the collection of citations about the exalted one in v. 5 . The exordium ends with an argument about Christ's ‘inherited’ name. To obtain a special name is also part of a process of exaltation (cf. Phil 2:9; 3 Enoch 12:15 ; Philo, Conf. Ling. 146). Though not specified, the name is certainly ‘Son’, a title that begins the following catena and plays a role in the contrast between Christ and Moses ( 3:6 ). The imagery of ‘inheritance’ associated with the moment of glorification stands in tension with the affirmation of the Son's role in creation. The homilist has not systematized his Christological traditions but has interwoven two formally distinct models in his affirmation of Christ's heavenly status.

Christ Exalted and Humiliated, a Suitable High Priest ( 1:5–2:18 )

( 1:5–14 ) A Catena of Scriptural Citations

The rest of the chapter consists of citations from Scripture, primarily the Psalms. Formally, the chapter resembles collections of citations made by members of the sectarian community at Qumran (4QFlor; 4QTestim). Like such collections, this catena applies scriptural verses to a contemporary situation. The catena in its entirety exalts the Son, arguing that he is superior to beings assumed to be of high status, the angels. v. 5 , the rhetorical question introducing Ps 2:7 links the catena with the exordium and, with the reference to the angels in v. 14 , frames the catena. The artificial connection between the frame and the contents suggests that, at least in part, the collection derives from a traditional florilegium serving catechetical or apologetic needs. The first text cited, Ps 2:7 , which reappears at 5:5 , is linked with 2 Sam 7:14 , a combination attested in the Dead Sea scrolls (cf. 4QFlor 1.10–11 and 18–19). Both texts originally expressed Israel's royal ideology, according to which the king, at his accession (‘today’), became God's adopted son. 2 Sam 7:14 is part of Nathan's oracle, promising YHWH's fidelity to David's household. Early Christians linked Ps 2:7 with Christ's baptism (Mt 3:16–17; Mk 1:10–11; Lk 3:21–2 ) and exaltation (Acts 13:33–4 ). 2 Sam 7:14 applies to believers, not Christ, at 2 Cor 6:18 and Rev 21:7 . v. 6 , the introduction of this verse has raised difficulties. The most natural reading suggests that the homilist construes the verse to be a call to angels to worship the Son at his birth. Some scholars refer ‘the world’ to the supernal or heavenly realm. Others take the adverb ‘again’ temporally and construe the event to be Christ's parousia. The adverb in this context has no temporal sense, but simply links verses in the catena (cf. v. 5; 2:13 ). The homilist apparently has appropriated a florilegium focused on the eschatological exaltation of Jesus and reinterpreted it within the framework of his understanding of Christ as the agent of creation as well as redemption ( 1:2–3 ). The text focuses on the lofty status of the Son, so high that even the angels must worship him even when he enters the cosmos. v. 7 , the next verse refers not to Christ but to the angels with whom he is compared. Ps 104:4 originally hymned the power of God who makes even winds and fire instruments of his word. The homilist exploits the grammatical ambiguity of the Greek translation to construe the text to mean that God can make his angels mere winds and his other, presumably supernatural, servants mere flames. vv. 8–9 , the image of mutable angels contrasts with the vision of eternal stability in Ps 45:6–7 , which originally praised the majesty of the Israelite king at his wedding. The psalm glorified the monarch for his righteousness and claimed that this quality distinguished him from other kings. Hebrews takes the ‘companions’ of the Son to be other members of the divine realm, or angels, to whom Jesus, because of his ‘anointing’ as heavenly priest, is superior. His throne, the locus of his authority, is also eternal (cf. 4:16 ). The ambiguity of the addressee proved attractive to the homilist. The first verse could be construed to say that the king's throne, or foundation of his authority, is God. Alternatively, ‘God’ could be taken as a vocative, a title of majesty applied to the Son. Similar ambiguity surfaces in v. 9 , which could be read as ‘O God, your God has anointed you’. Although Hebrews does not otherwise use the title ‘God’ for the Son, the ambiguity here was probably intentional. The Son who is the ‘stamp of God's very being’ ( 1:3 ) could well be styled ‘God’. vv. 10–12 , the next citation derives from Ps 102:25–8 , a lament contrasting the pitiable state of the supplicant with the Creator's majesty. Unlike the ambiguous vocative, ‘O God’, in the previous citation, the divine name ‘Lord’ is clearly a vocative in the first verse of this psalm. The psalm originally addressed YHWH; the homilist, who believes the Son to be involved in creation ( 1:2–3 ) applies the title to him. The remainder of the psalm evokes the assuring images of stability associated with the Son (cf. 6:18–19; 7:21–4; 13:8 ). v. 13 , the catena closes with an explicit citation of Ps 110:1 , forming an inclusio with the exordium ( 1:3 ). v. 14 , the concluding comment recalls the language of Ps 104 , cited in v. 7 . Angels merely serve the heirs, who share the Son's inheritance ( 1:2, 4 ).

( 2:1–4 ) Transitional Admonition: To Attend Carefully

The first of several warning passages interrupts the exposition of Scripture, which continues in 2:5–9 . The exhortation shifts focus and tone. Previously Hebrews had emphasized the heavenly status of the Son; the text now highlights Christ's participation in suffering humanity. v. 1 , the warning not to ‘drift away’ bespeaks anxiety about defection from the community that pervades the warning passages (cf. 6:4; 10:25, 29; 12:17, 25 ). Whatever the external factors, such as persecution ( 10:32–4 ), the image of casual drifting suggests that lassitude or indifference was perceived to be part of the addressees' problem; cf. 12:12–13 . vv. 2–3 , Hebrews regularly uses the threat of punishment as part of its exhortation to renewed fidelity. The ‘message declared through angels’ is the Torah itself. Scripture does not ascribe such a role to angels, although Ps 68:18 intimates their presence at Sinai. Later Jewish tradition does, however, accord a role to angels in delivering the Torah (cf. Jub. 1:27–9; 50:1–13 ; Jos. Ant. 15.126). The question ‘how can we escape?’ implies an a fortiori argument. Here the contrasting parts of the analogy are the ancient Hebrews, warned by angels about the consequences of transgression, and contemporary Christians. The chronological progression of the proclamation, from the Lord, to his followers, then to contemporaries, may reflect traditional formulations about the spread of the gospel (cf. Acts 10:36–9 ). v. 4 , the description of contemporary reality in terms of ‘signs, wonders and miracles’, based upon OT accounts (Deut 4:34; Ps 135:9; Jer 32:20–1 ), recalls Christian experience (e.g. Mt 11:20; Mk 6:4; 1 Cor 12:10; Gal 3:5 ). That displays of power confirm the gospel is an apologetic commonplace (Mk 16:20; Acts 3:1–10; 14:3–11 ).

( 2:5–9 ) The Subjection and Glorification of the Son

The text at the centre of the next section, Ps 8:4–6 , exhibits thematic connections to the scriptural catena of the first chapter. It may have been part of a traditional catena on which our homilist based his exposition. He subjects the verse to a Christological reading in terms of the incarnation and suffering of the Son. v. 5 , the introductory comment continues the contrast between Son and angels. Its reference to the ‘world to come’ reinforces the notions of imminent judgement and cosmic transformation intimated by Ps 102 , cited at 1:10–12 . vv. 6–8a , the studied imprecision of the citation formula (‘someone … somewhere’) is paralleled in first-century Jewish interpreters (Philo, Ebr. 61; Deus Imm. 74). Ps 8 praises God's powerful majesty and questions the significance of humanity in the face of the divine glory (‘What are human beings …?’). The psalmist responds to his query by affirming the lofty status of humankind, made ‘a little lower than the angels’, thus ‘crowned … with glory and honour’ and set in a position of dominion with ‘all things under their feet’. Thus the psalm finally celebrates humanity's status in the created order. The citation omits one clause from the original, ‘You have set him over the works of your hands’. The verse, focusing on the present world, might have made the homilist's rereading more difficult. The NRSV captures the psalm's original sense, but obscures the basis for the homilist's interpretation. In Greek the psalm reads: ‘What is man that you are mindful of him or the son of man that you care for him?’ In v. 7 the psalmist's response uses the singular pronoun in referring generically to the human beings to whom all things are subject. vv. 8b–9 , by exploiting ambiguities in the text, the homilist construes the primary referent of the passage to be not humankind in general but Christ. He may or may not know of the attribution of the title ‘Son of Man’, connected with Dan 7:13 , to Jesus (cf. e.g. Mt 8:20; 12:40; 24:27 and parallels; Jn 1:51; 12:23; Acts 7:56 ). He does interpret the singular nouns ‘man’ and ‘son of man’ in the first verse to refer to an individual, not a collectivity. He interprets the psalmist's response in v. 7 not as parallel affirmations of the exalted status of all humans, but as a brief synopsis of Christ's story. Finally, he construes the adverbial phrase, ‘a little bit’, in v. 7 as temporal (‘for a little while’), not ualitative. His first comment in v. 8 treats the notion of subjection. He continues to use the singular, not specifying its antecedent, but noting that, contrary to the absolute phrasing of the psalm, ‘all things’ have not been brought into subjection ‘to him’ (not ‘to them’ as in the NRSV). The subjection envisioned is apparently the subordination of Messiah's enemies promised by Ps 110 (cf. 1:13 ). The final eschatological victory remains to be achieved, as in 1 Cor 15:27 . In the interim what can be seen, at least with the eyes of faith, is Jesus, whose human name appears for the first time. The homilist refers to Jesus with phrases from the psalm, applying ‘for a little while made lower than the angels’ to his incarnation and ‘crowned … with glory and honour’ to his exaltation. These phrases frame the note that the exaltation took place ‘because of the suffering of death’. He concludes by recognizing that Jesus' death was for others. The biblical expression ‘tasted’ death (Isa 51:17; 4 Ezra 6:16; Mt 16:28; Jn 8:52 ) refers to death's bitter reality. For the phrase ‘by the grace of God’ some MSS and patristic citations read ‘apart from God’, which could evoke the forlorn cry of Jesus on the cross (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34 ), but this understanding conflicts with 5:7 which describes God as hearing the prayers of Jesus. The phrase was probably a marginal gloss, inspired by 1 Cor 15:27 , noting that God is not among things subjected to the Messiah.

( 2:10–18 ) Christ and his Family

The note in v. 9 that Christ tasted death for all foreshadows this section, which describes the salvific effects of Christ's death and explicitly introduces the title ‘high priest’. v. 10 , concern about what is ‘fitting’ to say of God is common in Hellenistic theology (cf. Ps.-Arist. De Mundo, 397b; Plut. De Is. et Os. 78, 383A). The emphasis of such theology on the loftiness of the divine suits the designation of God as Creator ‘for whom and through whom all things exist’. The homilist, however, focuses on the appropriate relationship between means and end in the salvific process. God's purpose to bring ‘many children [lit. sons] to glory’ may reflect the original meaning of Ps 8 , cited in vv. 6–7 . The divine plan clearly involves participation by Christ's followers as fellow heirs in his eschatological rule; cf. 1:13–14 . ‘Pioneer’ describes the agent of glorification, the one who has already been glorified (cf. 2:8–9 ). The relatively rare epithet (Gk. archēgos, lit. fore-leader) appears in Acts 3:15; 5:31, and Heb 12:2 . Both attestations in Hebrews involve untranslatable wordplays. The term here suggests Christ's role as the pathbreaker on the way to heavenly glory (cf. ‘forerunner’ at 6:20 ). What is fitting is God's making this agent ‘perfect through suffering’. Hebrews develops the notion of perfection in complex ways. Applied to Christ, it refers to the way in which he is made fit to fulfil his duties as a special kind of priest (cf. 5:8–10; 7:28 ). In that office he is able to bring perfection to his followers ( 9:9; 10:14; 11:40; 12:2, 23 ). The key to Christ's perfection is his experience of suffering that renders him compassionate and sympathetic ( 2:17–18; 5:9 ). v. 11 , what binds the Son to his siblings is not simply physical kinship but sanctity. The cultic language hints at the theme of Christ's priesthood and the effects attributed to his sacrificial death (cf. 9:13–14; 10:1–2, 10, 14; 13:12 ). There is ambiguity in the formulation of the unity between sanctifier and sanctified, which the NRSV resolves with the translation ‘have one Father’. The Greek states simply ‘are all of one’. While other interpretations of the ‘one’ are possible (e.g. Adam, Abraham), the resolution is appropriate in this context which had just pointed to God, the source and goal of all ( 2:10 ). Hebrews has thus applied to the Christian community the kind of expression of solidarity often found in Jewish sources (e.g. Philo, On Virtues, 79). Because of their spiritual relationship, Jesus can address his followers with familial language. v. 12, Ps 22:22 , construed as a remark of Jesus, provides evidence for his relationship to his followers. The citation reflects the early church use of kinship categories for the community of faith (e.g. Rom 1:13; 16:4; Acts 1:15 ). The only other saying attributed to Christ in Hebrews, at 10:5–7 , is also a citation from the Psalms. Ps 22 , a prayer of supplication in time of distress, is prominent in the passion narratives (Mt 27:35, 39, 43, 46 , and par.; Lk 23:35; Jn 19:24 ). The homilist may evoke such texts here, but he focuses on a verse not cited elsewhere. As a simple proof text, Ps 22:2 establishes that the speaker, presumed to be the Messiah, preaches to his ‘brothers and sisters’. The second clause indicates that the status of children of God is a matter of ‘the congregation’. The Greek term ekklēsia, used again at Heb 12:23 , is the common designation for the Christian assembly. v. 13 , two more scriptural verses support the solidarity of Christ and his followers. They probably derive from Isa 8:17–18 , although the first also resembles 2 Sam 22:3 and Isa 12:2 . The separation between the verses highlights the notion of ‘trust’ in the first. The attitude attributed to the ‘pioneer’ foreshadows the complex notion of faith that Christ and his followers are meant to share ( 11:1–12:3 ). v. 14 , attention shifts from the relationship between Christ and his followers to the act establishing that relationship. The fact that Jesus fully shares in ‘flesh and blood’ exemplifies the insistence of Hebrews on Christ's full humanity (cf. 2:17; 5:7–10; 12:1–4 ). Depiction of Christ's death as a struggle against ‘the one who has the power of death … the devil’, evokes an ancient mythical theme. In Jewish apocalyptic sources it comes to expression as the Messiah's victory over demonic forces (As. Mos. 10:1 ; T. Levi 18:2 ; 1 Enoch 10:13; 2 Esd 13:1 ; 1QM 1:11–17 ). Early Christian texts apply the scheme to Jesus, who conquers the diabolical world (Mt 12:25–30; Lk 10:18; Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 1 Jn 3:8; Rev 12:7–10 ), or more specifically death (1 Cor 15:26, 55; 2 Tim 1:10; Rev 20:14; 21:4 ; Od. Sol. 15:9; 29:4 ). v. 15 , the liberating result of Christ's combat with the devil resembles the key episode in the myths of heroes such as Orpheus or Heracles who descend to the underworld to free death's captives. The homilist was no doubt familiar with such myths and their metaphorical applications, where a major theme is the ‘fear of death’, often seen to be a basic human problem (Eur. Or. 1522; Lucr. De rerum naturâ, 1.102–26; Epict. Diss. 1.17.25). The Stoic philosopher and dramatist Seneca, for example, portrayed the story of Heracles as a model of liberation from the fear of death (Herc. Furens 858–92; cf. Herc. Oetaeus 1434–40, 1557–9, 1940–88). For Hebrews, it is not Stoic acceptance of death, but assured hope in heavenly glory that effects liberation. v. 16 , a parenthetical remark concludes the theme of Christ and the angels that framed the scriptural catena of the first chapter. Christ's action in ‘coming to help’ (lit. grab hold of) continues the imagery of the hero's quest to free death's captives. The object of the hero's quest to free death's captives. The object of the hero's attention are the ‘descendants [lit. seed] of Abraham’. This group includes not only the physical descendants of Abraham among whom Jesus lived but also those who stand in the tradition of Abraham's faith, the heirs of God's promises (cf. 6:13–17; 11:8–19 ). Hebrews thus shares an early Christian claim to be the true seed of Abraham; cf. Lk 1:55; Gal 3:8–9, 29; 4:28–31; Rom 4:1–25; Jn 8:33 . v. 17 , the reflection on the ‘fittingness’ of God's action concludes with a summary involving important Christological themes. The affirmation that Jesus was ‘like his brothers and sisters in every respect’ will later ( 4:15 ) be modified, but the insistence on his humanity remains constant. His human experience qualifies Jesus for his office of ‘high priest’. The title appears for the first time, although the exordium ( 1:3 ) alluded to it. The character of Christ's priestly office and ministry stands at the heart of Hebrews (chs. 7–10 ). The ‘merciful’ character of this high priest comes to expression in his intercessory function ( 4:14–16; 7:25 ). The fact that he is ‘faithful’ serves as the starting-point of the homily on fidelity in the next chapter. Both attributes have a pastoral function. Christ's mercy grounds Christian hope; his fidelity inspires those facing difficulty (cf. 12:1–2 ). v. 18 , the point that Christ, because tested, is able to aid, reappears at 4:14; 5:7–8; 12:1–2 . It is clear that the ‘perfection’ of Christ, mentioned at 2:10 , involves the qualities that make Christ the high priest that he is.

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