By Rev. Isaac C. Rottenberg
A few years ago, Rabbi Leon Klenicki recommended two “New Testament” writings for joint studies by Christians and Jews: Paul’s letter to the Romans and the Epistle to the Hebrews. My response at the time was that these are excellent choices. I found the idea so exciting because those two writings could pose a real challenge to the dialogue and test its maturity. Both contain materials that have raised many eyebrows. This is particularly true of Hebrews. Chapters 9-11 of Romans, with their affirmation of God’s irrevocable covenant with the Jewish people, could at least offer a modicum of comfort to readers who may have serious questions about the apostle’s attitude toward Torah. But to some of our dialogue partners, Hebrews has no such redeeming features at all.
I claim that those two writings could pose a challenge to the dialogue. Professor Clark Williamson finds some of the statements in Hebrews simply bizarre, while the late professor Paul van Buren declared that we today had better not repeat what we read in Hebrews 8:6ff. In short, some Christian scholars and those who follow them share major Jewish objections against the epistle, and in that case there isn’t much argument left. Both parties believe that the letter is infected with the virus of supersessionism or replacement theology.
In the book, Classical Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: Comparing Theologies, by professors Bruce Chilton and Jacob Neusner (Baker, 2004), Hebrews is a subject of discussion. In their opening remarks, the authors complain that the dialogue thus far has lacked theological engagement, “much less actual dialogic argument” (p. 9) or “intellectually substantive debate” (p. 10). So, they set out to do something about that, because “in theology there can be no dialogue without confrontation” (p. 12).
The authors deal with many topics, expressing honest disagreements on key issues such as creation and the Fall, sin and atonement, Christ and Torah, Israel and the kingdom of God, resurrection and eternal lifeall subjects worthy of serious discussion. In this article, however, we shall limit ourselves to focusing on their treatment of Hebrews (p. 204ff.). Despite their different perspectives, the authors agree that Hebrews “develops an argument of direct replacement” (p. 210).
“Hebrews develops a religious system,” they say, “which derives completely from Jesus” (p. 217). A life of sanctification leads exclusively along the path of loyalty to Jesus (p. 211). The Jerusalem Temple has been replaced by “a purely ideological construct” (p. 210). Israel is considered a thing of the past (p. 213)relegated to history. Christ “replaces every major institution, every principal term of reference, within the Judaism of its time” (p. 214). An autonomous Christianity takes its place; “because all that is Judaism is held to have been provisional upon the coming of the Son, after which point it is no longer meaningful” (p. 214)”nothing within Judaism has value independent of Jesus” (p. 215).
Neusner sums it all up as follows: “With Hebrews, a Christian Judaism becomes a closed system, Christianity complete within its own terms of reference.” After Hebrews, we are told, “ it will be apparent to Christians that any loyalty to Judaism is a throw-back, to be tolerated or not, but always off the center of the religious system” (p. 17). He later comes to the conclusion that “Christianity misses the point because it substitutes the individual for the community, Christ for Israel, the world to come that is attained through faith for the world that we know and endure in patience” (p. 260).
We shall return later to this characterization of Christianity. For the moment, we might grant that Neusner does identify some of the dangers that confront a de-Judaized Christianity. But, is that the message of the “New Testament” in general, and the Epistle to the Hebrews in particular? In what follows, I shall briefly outline my own non-supersessionist approach to this letter.
AN ACT OF GOD
The Lord of the Universe has acted in a new and decisive way in the midst of his covenant people Israel. That is the fundamental underlying perspective of Hebrews. In other words, the letter must be read in the context of Israel’s covenant history. The God of Israel, who does new things all the time (Isaiah 43:19) and whose word is deed, has now spoken and acted in the Son (Hebrews 1:1f.).
As a result, an entirely “new newness” has appeared on the stage of history. Time has been touched in a qualitative way, and the “last days” have been inaugurated (1:2). Through faith, we now live in “the end of the age” (9:26). God’s acting in and through Jesus of Nazareth is confessed as the “Christ-event”a “once for all” messianic moment in world history. The meaning of this divine act is interpreted in terms of the Tabernacle/Temple sacrificial cultus. The Son, serving as High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek (5:5-10), has “made a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (2:17). With the new age comes a new order. YHVH himself has dealt with the Torah and holy law in an ultimate and redemptive way.
Divine righteousness has been fulfilled in holy love. Once this “Christ-event” has been embraced in faith, guilt is “covered” and the conscience is cleansed (10:22). The radicalism of this message is the source of what might seem to some the hyped rhetoric of Hebrews.
EXHORTATION AND ENCOURAGEMENT
The dramatic divine initiative in and through the Christ/Messiah has turned things for the better: a better covenant, better sacrifices, better promises and a better hope (8:6, 7:22, 9:23, 7:19). The “hope of Israel” (Jeremiah 14:8,17:13) has a new dimension and foundation. Through faith in the God who has acted, the believer moves beyond an “I do hope so” attitude to “the full assurance of hope” (6:11). The promises to Israel have once again been confirmed, and the future of God’s kingdom beckons ever more brightly. This hope, which is “an anchor of the soul,” must be “seized” (6:18f). It does not well up from our inner beings; rather, it is proclaimed and must be accepted in faith and obedience….
But pilgrims, especially when losing sight of Jesus, do grow weary (12:3) and“drifting away” (2:1)they are in danger of losing heart. Hence, words of exhortation and encouragement resound through out this letter to the Hebrews (3:13). “Let us hold fast to our confession” (4:14), because it is a loss of eternal proportions if people who “have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” fall away (6:4-6). The pilgrim’s journey calls for endurance (10:36), training (5:13f.), and discipline (12:7).
I submit that words of exhortation and encouragement, not anti-Judaic polemics, constitute the primary theme that runs through this epistle. How do “pilgrims of the future” (Teilhard de Chardin) persevere in the face of hardship, even martyrdom?
REPLACEMENT OR FULFILLMENT?
Yet, some of the language used in this letter may seem overly jarring, if not excessively judgmental toward Israel’s heritage. Take, for instance, chapter 7:11-19 or chapter 8:6-13. Hebrews 7:18 sounds outright provocative, seemingly contradicting Matthew 5:17 where we read, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Hebrews uses a different verb, usually conveying the idea of “abrogation” or “cancellation.” Some translations use the milder term “set aside.” This is immediately followed by the notion of an introduction, namely of a better hope “through which we approach God.” Most versions state that a better hope has been introduced or provided. The Jerusalem Bible unfortunately renders the verse as follows: “Now this commandment is replaced by something better,” thus unnecessarily giving the text a clearly supersessionist slant.
Christ has fulfilled the law, i.e., he has done what no human has been able to do: fulfill God’s righteousness. As to our efforts, we cannot achieve the goal of “purification for sin” (1:3) by means of the law. In the sense of approaching a Holy God, the law could be described as “weak and ineffectual,” although such language can easily lead to wrong conclusions. Neusner is quite right when he writes that the Torah’s intention is “to purify the heart of man” (p. 67). However, the existential/historical reality has shown that we cannot fulfill the righteousness of God as embodied in Torah. Hence the need for God to “take matters into His own hands,” which happened when Christ made “a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (2:17). It is belief in this fait accompli that forms the background of the writer’s daring language.
The theme is further developed in chapter 8. If the first covenant had been faultless, the author argues in verse 8, there would have been no need for a second covenant. Once again, the approach taken is totally in terms of God’s acts. A decisive event has taken place in the realm of covenant history. The first covenant had not been faultless. Where does the fault lie? Our writer finds the answer in Jeremiah31.God found fault, not with the covenant, not with Torah, but with the people who did not continue in the covenant. So, the prophet declared, God will do something new.
Many translations render verse eight as follows: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel.” However, the writer of Hebrews changes the verb found in the Septuagint, using suntelesõ instead of diathçsomai. Would he have made this change in nuance if it were not for the purpose of making a point? James Moffatt uses the word “conclude” instead of “establish,” thus indicating an element of process in covenant history; a new thrust rather than a totally new beginning. A check of various biblical dictionaries yields the following possibilities: complete, carry out, fulfill, and accomplish. If those terms reflect the true meaning of the verb, the organic relationship between the old and the new is not broken.
The old order may be “growing old” and “in the process of disappearing” (8:13), but that is true of the Church as well, even of the messianic rule (1 Corinthians 15:24) God will be “all in all” (15:28). In the glaring light of the glorious future of the Lord, all things are viewed as “provisional.” In the New Jerusalem, all things will be made new (Revelation 21:5). The glory and the honor of the nations will enter therein (21:26), but there will be no temple. It is a magnificent vision. But, as professor Neusner reminds us, we live in the here and now; and as he sees it, it is that reality which Christianity neglects because it is so focused on the world to come. That even such a learned scholar can come to that conclusion should give us food for thought about our proclamation and practices. I find no basis for such a position in either the gospels or the apostolic writings.
THE BELIEVER’S LIFE IN THESE LAST DAYS
“Loyalty to Jesus as the great high priest,” we hear Chilton say, is the only means to the perfection that will allow one to stand before the God of Righteousness. Following Jesus is indeed what Christian discipleship is all about. Rather than adopting the language of moral striving, however, the writer of Hebrews expresses things in the kerygmatic mode of a good news message. Faith in the perfect sacrifice of the great high priest becomes the foundation of a new life that leads to loyal service to the Lord Jesus. It is the kind of faith that was manifested in the life of Abraham, who believed God and obeyed the voice “from beyond” that sent him on a journey to a promised future. Through faith we inherit that promise (6:12,17); become children of Abraham, partners with Christ (3:14), and servants of the kingdom.
Neusner’s claim that in Hebrews, every principal term of reference within Judaism is replaced by Christ seems out of sync with the text. There may be re-interpretations in light of God’s act in and through Christ, but the essential elements remain in place. Love, the heart of Torah (Leviticus 19:17-18), returns as a divine mandate (13:1). Rather than a rabid individualism, we find a strong emphasis on life in community with lines of accountability and authority established (13:7, 17). Marriage is exalted (13:4), the stranger in the gate remembered (19:2) and works of charity recommended (13:16).
Neusner is certainly right when he states that there is a “radical disjunction” between Judaism and Christianity with regard to the remedy for sin and atonement (p. 219). That is what the Epistle to the Hebrews is all about. But, even considering the occasional jarring language in some “New Testament” writings, he seriously overstates the differences between the two faiths, posing dichotomies where none exist. Frankly, after reading Neusner’s description above of a Christianity that misses the point, I wondered where he might have met all those Christians who believe and live that way. Beside mostly small sectarian movements, I find slight evidence in either Christian theology or the church’s historical experience that supports such a view. A predominantly privatized, individualized and other-worldly Christianity is indeed what many people would like to see, but to their chagrin fail to find in our contemporary society.
Is the Epistle to the Hebrews a post-Judaic and supersessionist document? We ought to have an honest and open dialogue about that, both among Christians as well as between Christians and Jews. I offer the above reflections not as an exercise in polemics, but rather as a preliminary contribution to such conversations. Using the once popular imagery of D-Day and V-Day, at the center of the World War II saga, we see that after the beachhead had been established the battles that followed could be fought in “the full assurance of hope” that the ultimate victory had been ensured. I read Hebrews as a chapter in the cosmic drama of redemption. In Christ, a decisive breakthrough of God’s kingdom has occurred. Through the Spirit, we have “tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come”; and now, trusting God’s promises, we face the continuing struggles of this world in “the full assurance of hope.”
Rev. Isaac Rottenberg is a retired general executive of the Reformed Churches in America. He is author of Christian-Jewish Dialogue: Exploring our Commonalities and our Differences. © 2007 Hebraic Christian Global Community. This article is reproduced with publisher’s permission from the “Supersessionism” issue of Restore!, the official journal of Hebraic Christian Global Community. For more information see http://www.hebraiccommunity.org/