Sunday, October 31, 2010

Epistle to the Hebrews: Delay of the Name "Jesus"

Icon on Altar Side near Royal Doors
Libotin Wooden Church
(Image from Wikipedia)

In preparing for this morning's group study of the Epistle of Hebrews, a New Testament text noted for its High-Priestly Christology -- namely, a priesthood placed above even the Levitical one and identified with the priestly order of Melchizedek -- I noticed that the "Son of God" is only first called "Jesus" in verse nine of chapter two. Except for the very short letter of Third John, a text of merely one chapter consisting of just fifteen verses (which does not use "Jesus" at all), only Hebrews, among all the epistles, delays so long -- in effect, twenty-three verses -- before supplying the name "Jesus."

Why? Why this delay?

The epistle opens by emphasizing that God has spoken to mankind, or at least to believers, through his Son, a status quickly affirmed as superior to that of the angels by virtue of reflecting the glory of God, bearing the stamp of his image, and sustaining the universe, in whose creation he was the agent

The Son's subsequent role as High Priest is also soon affirmed, albeit less explicitly, in verse three of chapter one, which refers to the Son as having made purification for sins.

By first emphasizing the high status and eminent role of the Son, the author of Hebrews takes pains to ensure that there be no doubt about the theological and soteriological understanding before providing the human name "Jesus," a name quite common among first century Jews.

Note therefore that when the author of Hebrews does finally refer to the Son as "Jesus," he does so in 2:9 with implicit allusion to the incarnation and emphasizes the brevity of this 'humble' state:
τὸν δὲ βραχύ τι παρ’ ἀγγέλους ἠλαττωμένον βλέπομεν Ἰησοῦν διὰ τὸ πάθημα τοῦ θανάτου δόξῃ καὶ τιμῇ ἐστεφανωμένον ὅπως χάριτι θεοῦ ὑπὲρ παντὸς γεύσηται θανάτου

But the one who for a little while was made lower than the angels we see, Jesus, through the suffering of death with glory and honor crowned so that by the grace of God for all he might taste death. (translation mine, largely to preserve word order)
The allusion to the incarnation comes in the expression "who for a little while was made lower than the angels" (βραχύ τι παρ’ ἀγγέλους ἠλαττωμένον), which refers back to verse seven in its citation of Psalm 8:6 from the Septuagint, the Greek rather than Hebrew text of the Old Testament. The author of Hebrews understands this expression -- that the Son was, for a short time, made lower than the angels -- as meaning that the Son took on the lower status of human nature.

Even in acknowledging that the Son lowered himself, however, the author insists that this was merely temporary, for the purpose of the Son's suffering and death, and at any rate resulted in his being crowned with glory and honor, an affirmation of his supra-angelic status.

From the evidence, then, I tentatively suggest that the author of Hebrews was concerned with countering an argument to the effect that as a human being, Jesus was necessarily lower than the angels and therefore could not be divine. This is the issue of status, which the writer deals with immediately and directly by insisting on a high, pre-incarnate existence as "Son." This leads to the second issue, that of role, which explains the Son's earthly function as a priestly one in offering himself up as purification for sins, a purpose whose incarnational necessity is explicated in the remainder of chapter 2 (verses 10-18), which is at pains to justify why the Son took on flesh and blood. And note that the priesthood is later proclaimed to be of the order of Melchizedek (2:6, 10), a priestly order that appears to transcend human nature (7:1-3).

These interlinked issues of status and role are, I think, why the author of Hebrews only belatedly refers to the human name "Jesus."

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At 4:41 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

affirmation of his supra-angelic status

......... but right that, according to Milton, led to Satan's rebellion.
Any theologic solution hides a worse problem.

At 5:34 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Unfortunately, the author of Hebrews hadn't read Milton and thus didn't know that.

If only he could have transcended space and time . . .

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 7:22 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

If only he could have transcended space and time

How could you show that he could not?

Anyway, the links between / among concepts exist in the readers' minds, rather than in the writers'. No, better: they exist in the total dynamics of the information bits which shape both author and reader, and text, and mind.

Have a nice cyber-Halloween, dear Horactil (that's the current word verification).


At 7:26 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Or, more plainly: Milton turned the Epistle to Hebrews upside down, as he loved to.

At 9:01 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the Halloween wishes. As for hermeneutics, I suppose that we're always caught within our own horizens, but if we can expand ours enough, we might see what others saw.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 10:36 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

if we can expand ours enough, we might see what others saw

My standpoint would sound slightly different: "Let the horizon itself encompass you". Since everything exists in the Present, the (Halloween?) trick is more about having good ears than good eyes.

See e.g. "Magic" according to the philosopher Tommaso Campanella.

So, Hebrews, Milton etc. are part of the same Whole, where every proposition A is true just insofar as Non-A also is true. Sorry, Mr. Wittgenstein (but he knew more than he wrote).

Afraid this would prove a bit too scary, even for tonight :-D
I vanish immediately *hoooooo... puff*

At 6:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, then, perhaps we will hear what others heard. And texts do, at times, encompass contradictions such that A and non-A might both be true of a particular text. But of the world? Really of the world? What might that mean?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:17 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

But of the world? Really of the world? What might that mean?

will tell you

At 7:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I can only see what you mean . . .

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


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