What would James make of Hebrews?

I have just been reading an excellent forthcoming book by Barry Joslin called Hebrews, Christ and the Law - top notch stuff. Anyway, it has compelled me to ask again a question that has bugged me for a while:

What would James think about the book of Hebrews?

Here's the puzzle. Hebrews appears to be very clear that Christ, a high priest in the order of Melchizadek, makes the Levitical priesthood redundant and his sacrifice replaces all the sacrifices of the Temple cult. The impression that one would get is that the coming of Christ brings about a change in the parts of the Law that apply to the cult and that participation in the Jerusalem cult would, in effect, be a denial that Christ had indeed initiated the new covenant.

But our evidence suggests that the earliest Jewish Christ-believers did participate in the Temple rituals including the sacrifices (I include the big names here like Peter, James and, yes even Paul). They did not seem to see any problem with maintaining that Christ's sacrifice was THE sacrifice and participating in the cult (which, one would imagine, they saw as being fulfilled in Christ).

So what would they make of Hebrews? And what would the author of Hebrews make of them? Or could it be that they are actually singing from the same hymn sheet and, if so, how does that work? Any thoughts? Did they think that their ongoing participation in the cult was a temporary and transitional phase? Hmmmmm. I guess that if Jesus has foretold the destruction of the Temple they may well have been aware that things would not go on this way forever but ... Hmmmmm. Help


M Slater said…
Tough one.
I think that part of the difference is the rhetorical context, Hebrews seems to have a theme where the audience is considering going back to a non Messianic Judaism and the author is trying to dissuade them.
Also, there is not necessaraly a contradiction between seeing Christ as the true atoning sacrifice, and participating in the sacrificial system at that time if the Christians saw it not as atoning but rather a culturally valid form of worship.
Jonathan said…
Plus, if we're being specific about Hebrews, we need to be cautious about when we date it. Pre- or post-70 affects how the writer/audience will have seen the cult.

Besides, is the thrust of the letter really a negative one about falling back into non-messianic Judaism? Are there any concrete texts for that? Mirror-reading is awkward here, which even allows some to argue for a Gentile audience. Esp., if, rather than carrying a negative spin, the letter is viewed as emphasizing and arguing positively for holding onto what the readers have in Christ. How we see the emphasis affects the manner in which we view the writer/readers' attitude to the cult.

Hmm... I'm confused too :)

Sounds like that's one I'll look forward to reading, when is the book due out?
Anonymous said…
I wonder if Acts 15 might have been a watershed change in the attitude of the Jewish believers. As noted many times in your blog the Gentiles were instructed to: "abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood."

No real evidence to back this up, but I imagine if Jewish believers had this as a base requirement for Gentiles then it might not have taken too long for them to adopt it as their own base requirement.

Eclectic Christian - Michael Bell
Ryan said…
This is all new to me. I'd be very interested to read up on this. Where are you getting this info that early Christians--the apostles no less--took part in temple sacrificies?
Weekend Fisher said…
I don't see a contradiction between the letter to the Hebrews and participating in the Temple cult while it remained. I also don't see evidence of Paul going back to Jerusalem for every single pilgrimage feast every year; it's debatable how observant he was of the Temple cult. I don't think they had any pressing reason to avoid the Temple even while proclaiming Christ as the final sacrifice, the final priest, the final Temple.

It's easy to anachronistically read our perception of history back onto that day and ask why the apostles didn't act accordingly; but for all they knew, Christianity / Messianic Judaism might become the predominant form of Judaism. The fact that the "Jesus is not the Messiah" Jews would eventually claim that the "Jesus is the Messiah" Jews weren't even Jewish and were accursed, that dark day had not yet come and may not have been fully imaginable to Paul and the other life-long Jews like Peter, the Jameses, and John.

The only place in the NT I can recall off the top of my head where observance of the old cult is actually criticized is in Paul's letter to the Galatians, and the point there is about Gentiles.

Take care & God bless
Robin Parry said…
M Slater

I supose that the earliest believers did see things in the way that you suggest. I am not convinced that Hebrews does - it LOOKS like he is disuading his audience from participation in the cult. I am very open to insights from rhetorical criticism to suggest otherwise but I have not come across them yet (but I am no Hebrews specialist so that means little)

I am pleased that you did not say that his audience was thinking of abandoning Christianity and going back to Judaism (you'd be amazed how many commentaries speak in such anachronistic terms).

Robin Parry said…

you are right about the problems of identifying the situation and audience (some question the idea that the audience is thinking of returning to their previous versions of Judaism). Also some do argue for Gentiles although I confess to being sceptical about such suggestions.

Robin Parry said…

I don't think that Acts 15 changed the way that Jewish Christians thought about how they should live before God. That was never at issue. They were to follow torah (as interpreted by Jesus) just as they always had. I don't think that allowing Gentiles to be seen as part of the community of God apart from being placed under the Law would change the way that they thought about themselves.

Robin Parry said…

well, I don't have a Bible to hand but I am thinking of Acts where we read that the early believers met in the Temple, etc. I am thinking of Paul's comment that he was keen to go to Jerusalem to celebrate the passover (which required animal sacrifice) and, of course, Acts 21 where Paul offers a sacrifice in Jerusalem (in order to show that he was Torah observant). That kind of stuff.
Robin Parry said…
weekend fisher

Thanks. Which part of Galatians did you have in mind?

Weekend Fisher said…
Well, I consider it more the central thesis of Galatians: that the Gentiles have no need to observe the Jewish cult. In particular he references circumcision because that was the point of contention, and in particular he mentions the dispute with Peter whether you interpret that as dietary or table fellowship, but the point Paul makes is broader than the specific issues, more about the Gentiles and the Jewish law, & that there's no point piecemealing the law but the issue then becomes, as soon as observance is admitted at one point, whether observance is then required at all points (5:3).

Take care & God bless

Popular Posts