Monday, May 12, 2014

Hebrews - Jesus, the Definitive Sacrifice 1

Continued from Saturday
The Definitive Sacrifice
Although the strange teaching of Hebrews 13:9 is related to the “main point” of Hebrews, the author doesn’t really address whatever situation is behind it in the direct way you would expect if it were the main problem that led the author to write this sermon. It feels like something more significant was going on with the audience, maybe the very same problem that also gave rise to the strange teaching. For me, the best guess again is the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. It would have raised the question of atonement in a powerful way that we can hardly imagine, because we don’t live in a world with temples.

In that day, temples were the earthly addresses of the heavenly gods. Even when the Romans surrounded an important city, they often offered to give the gods of the city temples if they would let them defeat the city. [1] The idea of a god without a temple was a difficult one. For non-Jews, it would have suggested that the God of Israel was weak or a joke.

Even Jews would not have assumed that the temple was gone for good. Josephus, writing decades after the temple's destruction, still spoke of the temple sacrifices in the present tense. [2] What seems obvious to us today was not at all obvious to them at the time. They would have interpreted its destruction the way they always did--as God's judgment on Israel for its sins. And they would expect God to rebuild it after Israel properly repented.

Again, it's easy for us to assume that the earliest Christians immediately realized that Christ's death represented the end of all sacrifices. But Acts 21:22-26 says differently. It suggests that even James, Jesus' own half-brother and leader of the Jerusalem church, did not realize that the atonement provided by his brother was the end of any need for the temple--and here we are talking almost thirty years after the resurrection. In 2 Thessalonians 2:4, Paul has no sense at all that the temple will be destroyed. Even Jesus' prediction in Mark 13:14 could easily have been taken to be about the temple's defilement or its temporary rather than final destruction.

If Hebrews were written before the destruction of the temple, it would have been radical indeed. Sure, the Essenes--another Jewish group--believed that the temple was defiled. But they looked for a time when God would let them restore it to its proper worship. Similarly, the philosophically minded Philo thought that the significance of the temple was symbolic, but he would have eagerly taken up arms if someone had dared to try and destroy it. Again, the absence of the temple is so normal for us that it is difficult for us to realize how central the temple was to Jewish faith at the time of Christ--and how devastating its destruction must have been to the overwhelming majority of Jews, including Christian Jews.

Whatever the precise date of Hebrews, the author aims to show systematically that Christ's death has forever made any earthly temple unnecessary. His strategy is comprehensive. He will show that Jesus was a superior priest in a superior sanctuary, with a superior sacrifice...

[1] See J. S. Kloppenborg, "Evocatio Deorum and the Date of Mark," Journal of Biblical Literature 124 (2005): 419-50.

[2] E.g., Josephus, Antiquities 224-57; 1 Clement 40. This is why the present tense used in passages like Hebrews 8:13, 9:9, and 10:11 does not in any way argue against a post-70 date for Hebrews. It was probably not until after the failed Bar Kokhba revolt of AD135 that it really became clear that the temple would not be rebuilt for a very long time. It is just very difficult for us to forget that the temple has been gone now for nearly 2000 years so that we can get into the thinking of first century Christians.

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