It's Not Revelation
No, it's not Revelation. But it will be helpful for us to consider Revelation, the "most unusual book in the New Testament" before movimg on to the "most difficult book" below, which is Hebrews (it's not "the letter to the Hebrews," because it's not a letter). We first briefly consider Revelation before Hebrews because of the striking difference between the two different states of mind needed to understand first, Revelation, and second, Hebrews. Revelation, to the extent it was meant to be understood on a rational, cognitive level requires a vivid imagination. If you have a vivid imagination, then you can make it through Revelation and understand it correctly as long as your imagination does not run away with you. If, for example, you can rationally conceive of "four living creatures, each of them with six wings" (Rv 4:8), or seven angels blowing their trumpets with all sorts of natural disasters following upon the sound (Rv 8 - 11), or a beast with ten horns and seven heads (Rv 13) and so on and so forth through the end of the book, your conception of Revelation is as good as the next imaginative person's.
Actually, imaginative thinking is no less valid in understanding the reality of Revelation than the mathematical certitude, as you will see below, that is required to understand Hebrews. Think of the great inventors, whose creations started in their imaginations and then were developed into rational and concrete by-products. Thomas Edison, for example, imagined some technical means of helping people light their homes, other than with a fireplace, candles and torches One night, at 3:00 a.m, he jumped up from a sleepless bed after his imagination led him to conceive of the idea of a glass bulb containing filaments that glowed when electricity was applied to the bulb. He drew his imagined light bulb on a poster and from there light took over darkness in American homes. Revelation requires a bit of Edisonian imagination to understand it. The genre of Revelation that is responsible for calling forth imagination to understand it, is known as "apocalyptic" literature. This genre was popular from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. Most such writings took the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, the apocalyptic work par excellance, as their model. In fact, the earlier original title of the book of Revelation in the Bible was "Apocalypse."
The point about Revelation is that there is no one, perfect meaning intended by the author, John of Patmos, who may or may not have been the Apostle John. Perhaps he was a disciple or close associate of the Apostle, that is, maybe he was writing from within "the school" of John the Apostle. This shared style of writing by someone under the name of his teacher and spiritual leader -- who was named the author of a book -- was popular in several New Testament books. That includes some of the epistles written under the name of Paul, and likewise the letters written under Peter's name and the Letter of James. In fact, even the Gospels were anonymously written. They were not written by the men whose names appear in the title of the individual books, although the authors may well have been students or otherwise associated with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Whoever John of Patmos actually was -- whether John the Apostle or someone else -- the author nonetheless intended to be understood as presenting John the Apostle's ideas in the writing of Revelation.
After a rather straightforward, rational warning to the congregations of the seven churches named in Rv 1-3, urging them not to lose their original zeal in living out the gospel, the author writes the remainder of the book as if in a vison. And as visons are not precise and methodical occurrences, we cannot expect a logical, rational or academic presentation from the author. He has his own unique apocalyptic symbols in stating his underlying theme. He presents these symbols to show the reader how tumultuous the end times will be. He does this to prepare his readers for a grand upheaval. For example, he wants to assure his readers that even if there actually won't be "a huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns" (Rv 12:3) menacing the world in the last days, Jesus -- called both "the Lamb " thirty times, and the "King of Kings" twice (Rev 19:11), will bring final defeat to Satan and his horribly monstrous cohorts.
But in keeping with our title to this article, Revelation is not actually difficult to understand. It may strike one as uniquely strange and perhaps even shocking, but none of the words and phrases are beyond the reader's imaginative (not "imaginary") understanding. People reading Revelation may be thinking back to their childhood years when they used a vigorous imagination for reading folk tales and fables. Yet, Hebrews, the most difficult book to understand in the New Testament (discussed below) can not be understood by the same frame of mind to which you will have brought your imaginative mind to the reading of Revelation. Instead, the frame of mind that you must bring to Hebrews may be likened to that of a university student scratching his head to come to an understanding of his mathematics professor in teaching the student advanced calculus and differential equations.
What, then, is the winner of the search for that book which is most difficult book to understand? Here are some clues: We said above that imaginative thinking can lead to mathematical certitude. But what if our most difficult book was written with mathematical certitude, absent all of the symbolic phrasing of Revelation, so that imagination will not help us to understand it? And what if the words and phrases of the book seem to be intended for people who are well trained in academic discourse? And what if a a virtually perfect knowledge of the entire rabbinical understanding of the Old Testament is applied by the author to the New Testament? These difficulties would have made for the early Jewish-Christians, for whom Hebrews was intended, trudging along with difficulty, just as we Christians today sometimes do, to understand the book. So, without further beating around the bush, let's move on to the New Testament book of Hebrews.
The Learned and Enigmatic Book of Hebrews
Background to & Summary of Hebrews' Teaching and Argumentation.
Let's first list some facts about the background to Hebrews (in the paragraphs below), which in themselves show that even before reading the book you are starting out in the arcane world of an intellectual author well advanced in an understanding of Old Testament theology. In order to understand Hebrews, it's helpful to learn all you can about the author, where he wrote Hebrews, the style of the book, and who his audience was and what the author urged his readers to do after reading the book.
1. In the early years of the Church scripture scholars attributed the work to St. Paul, but even as early as the third century -- and continuing into the 19th and early 20th centuries -- St. Paul's authorship was denied by the Church. This was especially the case after the publication of three papal encyclicals transforming and modernizing the Catholic approach to biblical research: (1) Pope Leo XIII's Providentissimus Deus (1893); (2) Pope Benedict XV's Spiritus Paraclitus (1920); and Pope Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943). This papal revamping of Catholic biblical,scholarship led to a final scholarly pronouncement dropping St. Paul as the author in favor of a person unknown to this day in the eyes of all modern Scripture scholars (see paragraphs 2 & 3 below).
2. Hebrews was written originally in Greek, and not as a translation from Hebrew to Greek. The author is anonymous, but he undoubtedly was thoroughly schooled in rabbinical Jewish theology. And since his Greek is perhaps the best and most polished in the New Testament, it is probable that he lived and wrote in the Diaspora ("Dispersion of the Jews" from Israel to Greek-speaking, non-Jewish nations). Since St. Pope Clement I in 96 A.D. seems to be referring to Hebrews in his First Letter to the Corinthians, it was surmised that Hebrews must have been written shortly before 96 A.D. However, Hebrews itself is addressed to an earlier audience than one existing in the papacy of Clement. The book is intended for Jewish-Christians suffering from the chaos and persecution gripping Judea from 65 A.D. through 69 A.D., stemming from the Romans' extinguishing of the last days of the Jewish-Maccabean revolt that had sought freedom from the yoke of the Romans starting in 175 B.C. and ending with the Romans crushing the Jewish uprising in 70 A.D. The underlying exhortation in Hebrews is to move its readers from their loss of faith because of these hardships, and instead bolstering the readers' faith in Jesus to the point of holding firm against oppression. This would mean it was written before 70 A.D., because in that year the Romans burned down the Jerusalem Temple with a large Jewish congregation inside (probably including Jewish-Christians who still attended synagogue).
3. While the readers of Hebrews vacillated in their Christian faith because of persecution, they certainly had not yet suffered from or complained about the Roman destruction of their Temple. Hence the date of the book's writing must be before 70 A.D., that is, a little later than the last letters of St. Paul, who was put to death in 62 A.D. (But see the quotation from Colosians and explanatory point in paragrph 12, below.) Hebrews emanated from the Egyptian city of Alexandria in the first century. That city had a significant Jewish population, second only to Jerusalem. Alexandria's Jewish population was probably about 4 - 5%, a large number in a city with nearly two million inhabitants, and Alexandrian Jews were raised as Greek speakers, using Hebrew speech only in synagogue worship. The author of Hebrews is regarded by scholars as Greek-Jewish, most likely born and living in Alexandria during the period when Hebrews was written. The book was first known and read in Alexandria before it was carried by Jewish-Christian preachers to Israel for dissemination there. This has led many scholars to consider Apollos of Alexandria, who was "an authority on the scriptures" (Acts 18:24, cf. 1 Cor. 3:4), as the author. Centuries later, even the heretic, Martin Luther (1531 A.D.), the translator of the Greek Septuagint into German, considered Apollos as the author of Hebrews. But there is no direct evidence linking Apollos to the writing of Hebrews. Catholic synods and councils, beginning in 1215 A.D., had ruled against the naming not only of of St. Paul, but also of Apollos as author.
4. Its title at first was, in Greek, Pros Ebraious, or "To the Hebrews." underscoring early belief that the document was intended as a letter. Yet, as further and more erudite scholarship progressed, the opinion that it was a letter was dropped in favor of the viewpoint that it was a homily, and the Pros ("To") was also dropped. Hence the title became simply "Hebrews." This one-letter title might be seen as a relinquishment by scholars of the belief that whatever this document was it certainly was not an epistle like those of St. Paul or other New Testament letter-writers.
5. If in fact it was a homily, it seems unlikely that any audience of believers could possibly have sat listening to the the author's delivery of this abstruse and esoteric document with any but the slightest bit of understanding. It seems more correct after centuries of study of this somewhat mystifying instrument to call it not a homily (as if delivered orally), but a treatise (i.e., as something needing intricate and careful study by reading rather than by listening). Hebrews does not really belong in the New Testament section on Letters, even though it is stuck between Paul's letter to Philemon and the Letter of James.
6. Hebrews is so intensely intellectual, historical and academic that it might easily have been placed by Catholic biblical scholars of the Second Century -- when they were arranging books of the New Testament -- immediately after the Gospel of John, or else after Acts of the Apostles. Then it would have been followed by St. Paul's Letter to the Romans and further New Testament Letters. Placement of Hebrews earlier in position among the New Testament books would have avoided the implicit instruction given to readers of the New Testament to approach Hebrews as a letter. As it is, Hebrews sits among New Testament letters lonely and forlorn. Readers hoping for another Pauline-style letter before they begin to read Hebrews for the first time are startled to come upon this document that is scarcely understandable as a letter, and certainly not a cordial letter with personal details by the author to a church which the author had founded, as was characteristic of several of Paul's Letters.
7. The author of Hebrews, in writing this penetrating but shrouded teaching, does not follow the development of the Letters of the New Testament by discussing doctrinal themes and moral exhortations separately. Rather, his in-depth development of theoretical ideas merging Old and New Testament theologies, and his urgings to his readers to exert greater discpline in times of harassment and persecution are intertwined throughout Hebrews. The author emphasized to his readers the need to return to their earlier hope as the basic virtue for keeping their original faith intact. It is this hope which his readers had displayed with great enthusiasm when they first accepted the gospel. In this sense Hebrews, as much as it is a major and concentrated doctrinal teaching, is merged with an emphatic exhortation by the author for his readers to renew and solidify their baptismal vows.
8. In the doctrinal passages of Hebrews, the author develops his essential, innovative teaching of Jesus as the "great high priest" (Heb. 4:14). The title of "priest" for Jesus is used twenty-seven times in Hebrews, but not once in the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles or Paul's letters. In those books, the use of "priest" is applied solely to the Jewish priesthood of Jesus' day. What is meant in Hebrews by use of the title "priest" for Jesus? Let's first look at the role of the Jewish priests as recorded in the Old Testament. Moses' brother Aaron was a priest because God ordered Moses to make Aaron and his sons priests -- thus the origin of the Levites. The Levites were one of the twelve tribes of Israel, but unlike the other eleven, all of whom respectively were given large tracts of land by Joshua when they entered Canaan, the Levites received no land because they were the tribe of priests. Their role was to oversee Temple and synagogue worship throughout Israel, and especially to offer sacrifices as sin offerings in order to persuade God to forgive the people's sins (as well as the sins of the priests).
Jewish priests offered both cereal offerings and animal sacrifices (the latter depicted in the most revolting and gory detail) as sacrifices. When an animal was sacrificed the priests were to "splash its blood on the sides of the altar." [Further,] the priests were commanded to "offer as an oblation to the Lord the fatty membranes over the inner organs, and all the fat that adheres to them, as well as the two kidneys, with the fat on them near the loins, and the lobe of the liver, which he [i.e., the priest] shall sever above the kidneys. All this Aaron's sons shall then burn with the holcaust, on the wood over the fire, as a sweet-smelling oblation to the Lord." (Lv. 3: 2-5). It is difficult to imagine that this bloody mess would be "sweet-smelling" tothe Lord.
9. The author takes into account in naming Jesus a priest, the nature of the Old Testament Levitical priesthood, concerning which his Jewish-Christian readers would undoubtedly have understood in detail. Likewise they would have believed that the only way to have their sins removed was by a priestly sacrifice. Instead of debunking his readers' belief in the Levitical priesthood's sacrifice for sin, the author reaches out for a pivotal, even "stunning" doctrine. He does away with the Levitical priesthood altogether and replaces it with the priesthood of the Son of God, which is also a priesthood based on sacrifice for sin. The author considered that he had to give his readers some major principle from the Old Testament to rely on as he developed for them the mystery of Jesus as "Great High Priest." He accomplishes this with his concentrated emphasis on Jesus as faithful and compassionate high priest, whose eternal priesthood was "according to the order of Melchizedek." (Heb. 7:17) To support this doctrine, the author relies on Psalm 110:4 to support his doctrine of Jesus' high priesthood. This eternal priesthood surpasses the Levitical priesthood and abolishes it. The author says: "The Lord [God the Father] has sworn and will not waver: 'Like Melchizedek,' you [the Messiah and Son of God] are a priest forever." (Ps. 110:4). Jesus, unlike the Levitical priests of the Old Testament, does not exercise a priesthood through family lineage, but through his immortal existence. This is why Jesus' priesthood is "according to the order of Melchizedek," that is, like Melchizedek's priesthood, so, too, Jesus' priesthood is based on "the power of a life that cannot be destroyed." (Heb. 7:16). The difference between the Levitical priests and Jesus as priest in Hebrews, is that Jesus does use sacrifice as a means to expiate the people's sins, but he does this as offering himself as the sacrifice.
10. Since Melchizedek is such an essential figure upon which to base Jesus' priesthood, we should finish the discussion of Jesus' priesthood by saying more about Melchizedek. Why is Jesus' eternal priesthood "according to the order of Melchizedek," and who was Melchizedek anyway? He is a shadowy figure mentioned eight times in Hebrews, but only twice elsewhere in the Bible, namely, in Genesis 14:18-20, and Psalm 110:4. In Genesis 14:18-20, Abram (in the later decades following 1650 B.C. when the Genesis passage is written, had not yet been named "Abraham") was returning from battle as a victor over the king of Elam (whose kingdom was somewhere in the eastern part of today's Iraq in the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates). Abram, apparently camping after his victory somewhere north of Damascus in today's Syria, was unexpectedly met by a stranger named Melchizedek, identifed in Gn. 14:18 as "king of Salem [i.e., Jerusalem]...and priest of God Most High," showing up unexplained to commend Abram on his victory. He entertained Abram with bread and wine and, as a priest, blessed Abram in the name of "God Most High, who delivered [Abram's] foes into [Abram's] hands. Then Aram gave him a tenth of everything." (Gn. 14:18-20).
Melchizedek is spoken of again in Psalm 110, where God the Father ("The Lord") speaks to (the "lord," who is the Messiah) and tells him, "Take your throne at my right hand while I make your enemies your footstool...Like Melchizedek you are a priest forever." (Ps. 110:1,4). Hebrews Chapter Seven points out the mysterious identity of Melchizedek in these words: "Without father, mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life, [he is] thus made to resemble the Son of God, [and] he remains a priest forever." (Heb. 7:3) So Hebrews advances the theological doctrine of Melchizedek as a type of Christ. The rabbis maintained that anyone in the Old Testament whose ancestry, birth or death are not mentioned, thereby "remains...forever." Melchizedek's priesthood was acknowledged with superiority in the rabbis' eyes, because there is no mention of his death and thus Genesis implies that Melchizedek's personal priesthood is permanent. It is this eternal nature of Melchizedek's life that led the author of Hebrews to declare: "Jesus has entered on our behalf as forerunner, becoming high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek." (Heb. 6:20). Hebrews is that book of the New Testament which alone brings together in a masterful, though complex theological discussion and argument, the meaning of Jesus' priestly sacrifice for the people.
11. The other writings of the New Testament focus on the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus by largely connecting those events to the coming of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church further, after Jesus has returned to the right hand of the Father in heaven. This is made clear in John's Gospel, where Jesus says to his apostles:
When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me. I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you, But if I go, I will send him to you.[I] am going to the Father and you will no longer see me. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.
The question naturally arises as to whether the author of Hebrews was ill-informed about the role and purpose of the Holy Spirit, basing so much of Hebrews as he did on Jesus. This is not a likely judgement, as Hebrews places the Holy Spirit in a crucial role in everything that is said in Hebrews about Jesus' eternal priesthood and eternal sacrifice. The author points to the will of God the Father verifying Jesus' sacrificial death and resurrection beyond the words of witnesses and other believers in Jesus' resurrection, and also through the granting of "signs, wonders, various acts of power, and distribution of the gifts of the holy Spirit according to his will." (Heb. 2:4).Thus the Spirit participated in Jesus' entire high priestly ministry, including bringing Jesus to his priesthood and his sacrifice of suffering and death for sinful humanity as a faithful, compassionate and eternal high priest. Jesus' role as a priest, namely, sacrifice, which defined the Levitical priesthood of Judaism, was based on Jesus' suffering unto death, which "for a little while made him lower than the angels, that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone." (Heb. 2:9).
Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, names the Holy Spirit thirty-three times, and in First Corinthians, thirty-nine times. Hebrews refers to the Spirit eight times. In the Gospels, together with Acts of the Apostles, the title "high priest" or "priest(s)" is used forty-nine times but is never used as a name, title or attribute of Jesus, or of Jesus' service or sacrifice for believers. In Hebrews, "high priest" or "priesthood" is used twenty-seven times, always as a name, title and attribute of Jesus' service to and sacrifice for the Church. In addition, in the Gospels the word "angel(s)" is used infrequently, and when so used, it is never spoken of Jesus as higher than the angels. Rather, "angels" in the Gospel is used by Jesus as applying it to certain people or circumstances, as in Luke 20:36, where Jesus speaks of those who are deemed worthy of the resurrection of the dead as those who "no longer die, for they are like angels." In Hebrews, "angels" is used eleven times, always of Jesus, as a great "high priest" in relation to Jesus' priestly sacrifice of himself for sinful humanity. It is his high priesthood and his sacrifice that make Jesus a superior being to the angels.
12. In Hebrews 1:1-14 the author expresses his conclusive statement about Jesus' superiority to the angels because of his sonship to the Father. Through this conclusion, the author emphasizes Jesus' divinity, which is irresistibly proclaimed: "[I]n these last days [God the Father] spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe." (Heb 1:2). This point -- naming the son as the agent of creation -- is equally expressed in Paul's teaching:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers (i.e., the heavenly choirs of angels); all things were created through him and for him.
This similarity between Hebrews and Colossians on this powerful truth about Jesus' divine role and participation with the Father in carrying out the creation of the universe has suggested to some scholars that the author of Hebrews had Paul's letters available to him. Paul would have written Colossians sometime between 48 and 60 A.D. His writing ended in 60 A.D. because he was living in Rome at that time, and the Roman police prohibited his activity amomg the people on behalf of his ministry of forming churches. Paul was then put to death in 62 A.D. As we have stated, Hebrews was written at some point from 65 A.D. through 69 A.D. The point made by the author concerning Jesus' role in creation of the universe is very likely separate and distinct from Paul's words on that subject in Colossians.
13. We have discussed the major doctrinal points above. All that remains is to say something about the author's closing remarks to his readers, whuch are not more about doctrine as we have discussed in Paragraphs 1-12 above. Instead, the central themes of Hebrews 11 - 12 sum up the author's urging his readers to be disciplined in the face of hardship and persecution, or, in other words urging his readers not to disobey him when urging them to be strong in their faith. Faith is the core virtue here, and is defined as "the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen." (Heb. 11:1).
The author gives the most extensive description of faith provided in the New Testament. Yet, his interest in faith does not lie in a technical, theological defintion -- "technicality and theology" having already thoroughly summed up Hebrews in the preceding chapters. In view of the needs of his audience the author describes what authentic faith does, not what it is in itself. Through faith God guarantees the blessings to be hoped for from him, providing evidence in the gift of faith that what he promises will eventually come to pass. He summarizes the heroes in faith from the Old Testament and how firmly they maintained their faith -- giving examples of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel. He emphasizes in these stalwarts their lifestyles of faith: "All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth." (Heb. 11:13).
The author tells his readers that they must not entertain the notion that Judaism and Christianity can be intermingled. As Jesus died separated from his own people, so must the Christian community remain apart from the religious doctrines of Judaism. Christ must be the heart and center of the community. He concludes his exhortation to faith and obedience by saying, "[W]e who are receiving the unshakable kingdom should have gratitude, with which we should offer worship pleasing to God in reverence and awe. For our God is a consuming fire."