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  • He Answered Them

Christology in the prologue to the book of Hebrews

English Translation of Hebrews 1:1-4


1 Many times and in many ways long ago, God spoke[1] to the fathers by[2] way of the prophets. 2In these last days, he has spoken to us by way of a son whom he appointed the heir of all things and through whom he created the ages. 3 The Son[3] is the reflection[4] of God’s[5] glory and the exact imprint of his being[6], upholding[7] all things by his[8] word of power. After providing purification for sins[9], he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 becoming so much greater than the angels as he has inherited a far superior name than theirs[10].

 

Introductory Matters


Despite being labelled a ‘letter to the Hebrews’ there are no clear epistolary elements beyond the closing remarks of 13:22-25.[11] As Ellingworth points out, this is literary language that Braun called this gehobene Kunstprosa.[12] It displays a very polished rhetorical style constituted by long and complex Greek sentences; it reads like a homily, but with rich theological understanding, and is likely intended to be heard by the addressees. The authorship of the letter is unknown, scholarship has proposed several possibilities from amongst the Apostles but with Pauline authorship now ruled out. The purpose of the epistle is clearer: words of exhortation are mixed with pastoral encouragement to a group who may be suffering persecution and losing faith; the author desires them to persevere in their faith but warns of future catastrophe. The prologue sets the tone for the entirety of the epistle and establishes many important themes that the author will develop. The first four verses mark the prologue. Ellingworth describes a participle phrase followed by a main clause, and two subordinate clauses, in which God is the subject; this is followed by two further subordinate clauses, in which the Son is the subject. The limit of the text can be extended to verses 1-14; reviewing the text through a literary form, Rhee suggests a chiastic structure, this aids in the understanding of the epistle’s Christology.[13]

 

Exegetical Detail


1. This carefully constructed opening sentence is marked by alliteration. Ellingworth states that it is thematically more important than perhaps its grammatical subordination suggests.[14] Immediately, the temporal contrast of the two ages, which will be expanded upon in verse 2, and more so throughout the entirety of the epistle, is made apparent: there was a pre-Christian revelation of God, and there is now a new revelation ‘in these last days’. There is nothing to fear in this new development, as at the heart of this new revelation is the unchanging faithfulness of God.[15] ὀ θεὸς is the subject of the verbs throughout verses 1 and 2.  Verbs associated with speaking or with hearing are especially prominent up until 4.13.[16] The aorist participle λαλήσας is indicative of a completed action; therefore, τοῖς προφήταις is likely meant as the previous generations of God’s prophets, and not in reference to the collective writings of the Nevi’im. Where the prophets no longer physically speak for God, God does still speak (ἔτι λαλεῖ) through the scriptures.[17] The importance of the prophets, however, is not overlooked, many will be recalled in chapter 11. The εν is used instrumentally and is reflected in the present translation; speaking ‘in’ the Prophets depicts a more ‘divine indwelling’ language which is more common to John and Paul than the Hebrew’s author.[18] ἐν τοῖς προφήταις parallels ἐν υἱῷ in verse 2.


Ellingworth states that the absolute use of τοῖς πατράσιν is an uncommon usage found in John 6:58 and 7:22. In these passages, the fathers is the expression used by Jesus ‘in order to distance himself from the Jewish interlocutors.[19] In speaking of the wilderness generation in 1 Cor 10:1, Paul uses the term our fathers despite addressing both jews and gentiles; this opening verse poses questions for the intended readership of the letter, but it is likely that gentiles are included.[20] Attridge states this is an unnecessary correction which disturbs the balance of the first two clauses.[21]Ellingworth assumes the more general meaning of ‘ancestors’ or ‘previous generations’;[22] yet, some manuscripts (p12,p46) do include τοῖσ πατράσιν ἠμων and would indicate Jewish addressees.[23]


Many times, and in many ways is emphatic by its position in the text and reproduced as such in the present translation. Πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως is idiomatic and cannot be brought into English easily. Several translations place παλαι in pole position.[24] Πρότερον could also have been used, as it is in 4:6, without detriment to the alliteration, leading Ellingworth to suggest distance rather time is implied.[25] In view of the temporal language that follows, this does not seem likely. It is more appropriate that παλαι should be read considering 8:13 where the root verb is used to produce πεπαλαίωκεν and παλαιούμενον. In 8:13, the act of speaking is used again, but this time with more obvious overtones of negative results. Negative connotations are not necessary applied to this verse. However, returning to the many, Johnston presupposes a platonic worldview of the author; he points out that in Platonic philosophy the many was indicative of an inferiority: that the many was always resolved by the one.[26] Certainly, the author of Hebrews contrasts πολύσ with ἅπαξ throughout the text, often indicating superiority;[27] although, stressing the inferiority of the many actions of the prophets may be an overreach to the authors intentions. Ellingworth sees this verse as a positive statement about the pre-Christian order;[28] showing contrast by the superiority of Christ does not indicate a supersessionism, merely the deployment of the Greek rhetorical tool of synkrisis.[29] The superiority of Christ is developed throughout the epistle.


2. Literally reading ‘at the end of days’: this is common to the LXX in describing the prophesised time of judgement.[30] The author adds the word τούτων to this construction affirming the eschatological present. We learn in 9:26 that the purpose of the revelation in the Son will be the ‘consummation of the ages.’ The current translation maintains the temporal nature of this verse by translating ἐποίησεν τοὺς αἰῶνας as created the ages.[31]

ὃν ἔθηκεν shifts the focus of the author onto the Son, whilst God remains the grammatical subject.[32] The appointment of the Son as ‘heir of all things’, is an allusion to psalm 110 which will be quoted from directly in v13; it is indicative of a future state expressed more fully in the Psalm. We also see Christ’s protological work highlighted, making Him the metaphorical bookend to the entirety of creation; this has strong allusions to Proverbs 8 and the functions of lady Wisdom, drawing a strong parallel between the two roles and thus bringing the OT into the current passage.


3. Verses 3 and 4 contain the strongest Christological statements. Cockrill highlights that several scholars hold to the view of the presence of a hymn or statement of confession such as Phil 2:6-11 or Col 1:15-20.[33] Johnston too writes of the chiastic expansion of verse 2b-c.[34] Most translations mark a beginning of a new sentence, as in this translation, but what follows is a relative clause beginning whom in reference to the Son.


Both ἀπαύγασμα and χαρακτὴρ are NT hapax, in the case of the former, it is used in the OT as a descriptor of Wisdom in 7:26;[35] the latter is a biblical hapax reserved only for the Son. Ellingworth cites Romanuick to remind the reader that despite allusion to Wisdom, Christ is never identified as such, and the term σοφια is avoided.[36]


The word ὑποστάσεως which caused such debate for the gathering at Nicaea is used in this verse. Many biblical translations use the word to mean ‘nature’, but as Ellingworth implores, in the present context is more representative of the essential being of God, perhaps even ‘the reality of God’.[37] Advancing the question of Christology, Ellingworth expands further:

The patristic distinction between the three υποστασεῖσ and the one οὐσια in God is irrelevant, since υποστασις is in fact here used with a meaning closer to that which οὐσια acquired in later Christological discussion.[38]


Johnston translates the phrase χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως as the imprint of the very being, expressing the same force as Ellingworth.[39]

Attridge draws attention to φέρων, appearing in a textual variant as φανερῶν. The scribes have an interesting toing and froing with the correction.[40] Although an easier reading it does not support the following τὰ πάντα.[41] The present participle provides a clearer understanding of the continuous nature of Christ’s work. The author uses φέροντες later in 13:13 to indicate a patience in the bearing or endurance of putting up with.


There are textual variations of the phrase τῷ ῥήματι τῆς δυνάμεως αὐτοῦ. [42]It can be followed by δι’ εαυτοῦ with the αὐτοῦ omitted or in addition to it (αὐτοῦ δι’ εαυτοῦ). Braun believes this reading arose in Syria as a manner to emphasis Christ’s self-offering; Metzger thinks it is used to ‘enhance the force of the middle voice in ποιησάμενος.[43]  Lane disagrees and prefers the shorter reading which can be compared to διὰ τῆς θυσίας αὐτοῦ in 9:26.[44]

The phrase καθαρισμὸν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν provides a preview of Christ’s work as high priest that will become a major theme in the latter chapters.


4. Verses 2-3 have been leading up to this point; the relationship between the Son and God has been firmly established so a third divine party is introduced, that of the angels. The translation of τῶν ἀγγέλων could be read as of the messengers. This would chime with the role of the aforementioned prophets, but as the author will soon speak of exultation above, the heavenly connotation of this verse implies that the celestial entities are required. Johnston remarks that this verse not only concludes the prologue it also provides a transition into the proper paraenesis of the author.[45] The comparison of Christ to the angels is important to mark the Son’s superiority which will be fleshed out in the book; τοσούτῳ κρείττων is used as the basic structure of the comparison. The author will use κρείττων and its conjugations eleven more times in the book.


Attridge alludes to the notion that both the words γενόμενος and κεκληρονόμηκεν imply adoptionist language; however, he goes on to state that ‘the implication that Christ became the Son should not be pressed’ given that the preceding verses have established a primordial relationship with the Father.[46] He resolves this by stating that the focus of Hebrews is not the inauguration of Christ’s position but on His developing superiority. However, the aorist γενόμενος and the perfect κεκληρονόμηκεν is suggestive of the author viewing the exultation as a completed singular event in the past. Sonship is spoken of as a permanent attribute of Christ elsewhere in Hebrews and not a title he inherits. So, what is the ὄνομα He inherits? Ellingworth writes of the bible generally:

A change of name entails a change of status, practically of nature, as negatively for Jehoiachin (2 King 24:17), and positively for Simon Peter (Mt 16:18); compare the ‘great name’ conferred on Kings (2 sam 7:9), to which the exaltation of Christ in Hebrews has close analogies.[47]


It can be argued that Christ ­reassumes his title as ‘Son’ after putting it aside temporarily in 2:9 (βραχύ τι παρ᾽ ἀγγέλους ἠλαττωμένον) or perhaps became more fully Son after what He suffers, indicated in Heb 5:8-9.


A Summary of the Christology of Hebrews


The prologue of Hebrews is consistently paralleled with other Christological texts as Phil 2:2-11, Col 1:15-20, Eph 1:20-23 and the prologue to John’s Gospel. Jesus as both fully divine and fully human are expressed particularly in John 1:1-3, Col 2:9 and by extending the Hebrews reading from 1-15.[48] Bauckham states that the ‘protological and cosmic Christology’ is apparent in the first four verses, but that the new addition to Christology discussion is Jesus’ role as the cosmic high priest.[49] His purification for sins expresses Jesus’ significant role as both author and mediator of a New Covenant: a role only He was in a position to perform. Noting this helps the reader to understand that the Christology of Hebrews is grounded firmly in the scriptures of the OT. The Deuter-Isaiah idea of the first and the last (Is 44:6) is heavily emphasised; in Hebrews this is attributed to the Son in a form of nascent Trinitarianism. Not only is the Son the creator of all things, but also the heir of all things. A second claim: the Son is like God’s own self, as both a ‘reflection of his Glory’ and the ‘exact imprint of his being’ may be the clearest assertion of Jesus’ divinity in the NT and expresses a high Christology.[50] Christ’s works in the passage include not only his high priestly role but also his upholding of all things; thus, the notion of God’s providence is also placed firmly on the Son.




 

Bibliography

Attridge, Harold, Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989)

 

Baukham, Richard, ‘The Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews’ in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, ed Richard Bauckham, Daniel Driver, Trevor Hart and Nathan MacDonald (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009)

 

Cockrill, Gareth L., The Epistle to the Hebrews, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012)

 

Ellingworth, Paul, The New International Greek Commentary: The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993)

 

Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd Edition, (London: IVP, 2020)

 

Harriman, Ross, ‘Through Whom He Made the Ages: A Salvation-Historical Interpretation of Heb 1:2c.’ Novum Testamentum, 61.4 (2019), pp. 423–39.

 

Johnston, Luke Timothy, Hebrews: A Commentary, (Louisville Ky: John Knox Press, 2012)

 

Lane, William, Hebrews 1-8 World Biblical Commentary vol 47a, (Dallas,Texas: Word Books, 1991)

 

Mitchell, Alan C., ‘A Sacrifice of Praise: Does Hebrews Promote Supersessionism?’ In E. F. Mason & K. B. McCruden (Eds.), Reading the Epistle to the Hebrews: A Resource for Students, (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011) pp. 251–268.  <https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1bhkpdr.17>  [11/11/2023]

 

Musser, Donald W., in Feasting on the Word ed David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (John Knox Press: Louisville, 2013) pp.137-140

 

Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, ed. By Barbara and Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini. Bruce Metzger (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012)

 

Rhee, Victor, ‘The Role of Chiasm for Understanding Christology in Hebrews 1:1-14, Journal of Biblical Literature 131.2 (2012) <The role of chiasm for understanding Christology in Hebrews 1:1-14 - Document - Gale General OneFile (oclc.org)> [17/11/2023]


[1] Aorist Participle – past action

[2] Εν used instrumentally

[3] ὃς – the son is the now the subject but not explicitly stated.

[4] Literally radiance, but this translation helps understand the Christology.

[5] God’s not present in the text but grammatically implied.

[6] See exegetical detail.

[7] Present active participle implies ongoing action. Literal translation bearing.

[8] Textual variants, see exegetical detail.

[9] καθαρισμὸν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ποιησάμενος taken as a periphrastic construction

[10] Considerable smoothing of the Greek is required to bring this into English.

[11] Luke Timothy Johnston, Hebrews: A Commentary, (Louisville Ky: John Knox Press, 2012) p.69

[12] Paul Ellingworth, The New International Greek Commentary: The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) p. 89

[13] Victor Rhee, ‘The Role of Chiasm for Understanding Christology in Hebrews 1:1-14, Journal of Biblical Literature 131.2 (2012) <The role of chiasm for understanding Christology in Hebrews 1:1-14 - Document - Gale General OneFile (oclc.org)> [17/11/2023]

[14] Ellingworth, The New International Greek Commentary: The Epistle to the Hebrews p. 89

[15] Ellingworth, The New International Greek Commentary: The Epistle to the Hebrews p. 89

[16] Ellingworth, The New International Greek Commentary: The Epistle to the Hebrews p. 91

[17] 11:4 and the present active participle λαλοῦντι of 12:24

[18] Ellingworth, The New International Greek Commentary: The Epistle to the Hebrews p. 91

[19] Ellingworth, The New International Greek Commentary: The Epistle to the Hebrews p. 92

[20] Ellingworth p.92 cites Vanhoye’s work of 1969 Le Christ est notre Prete, but I was unable to obtain a translation from the original French.

[21] Harold Attridge, Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989) p. 35

[22] Ellingworth P. 92

[23] Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, ed. By Barbara and Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini. Bruce Metzger (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012) p. 657

[24] ESV, NIV, HCSB

[25] Ellingworth p.93

[26] Luke Timothy Johnston, Hebrews: A Commentary p. 65

[27] Heb 6.4; 7:27 (ἐφάπαξ); 9.7; 9:26-28; 10:2; 12:26-27

[28] Ellingworth p.89

[29] Alan C. Mitchell, ‘A Sacrifice of Praise: Does Hebrews Promote Supersessionism?’ In E. F. Mason & K. B. McCruden (Eds.), Reading the Epistle to the Hebrews: A Resource for Students, (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011) pp. 251–268.  <https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1bhkpdr.17>  [11/11/2023]

[30] Gareth Lee Cockrill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) p. 101

[31] Harriman holds a similar view in Ross Harriman, ‘Through Whom He Made the Ages: A Salvation-Historical Interpretation of Heb 1:2c.’ Novum Testamentum, 61.4 (2019), 423–39. (p.425) <https://www.jstor.org/stable/26777783> [20/10/2023]

[32] Ellingworth, p.94

[33] Cockrill, The Epistle to the Hebrews p. 101

[34] Luke Timothy Johnston, Hebrews: A Commentary p.68

[35] Johnston, Hebrews: A Commentary p.69

[36] Ellingworth p.99

[37] Ellingworth p. 99

[38] Ellingworth p. 100

[39] Johnston p.69

[40] Attridge, p.35

[41] Ellingworth p.100

[42] Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, ed. By Barbara and Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini. Bruce Metzger (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012) p.657

[43] Ellingworth p.101

[44] William Lane, Hebrews 1-8 World Biblical Commentary vol 47a,  (Dallas,Texas: Word Books, 1991) p. 41

[45] Johnston p.72

[46] Attridge p. 47

[47] Ellingworth p. 104

[48] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd Edition, (London: IVP, 2020) p.79

[49] Richard Baukham, ‘The Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews’ in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, ed Richard Bauckham, Daniel Driver, Trevor Hart and Nathan MacDonald (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) pp. 26-43 (p.30)

[50] Donald W. Musser, in Feasting on the Word ed David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (John Knox Press: Louisville, 2013) pp.137-140 (p.138)


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