Why Does Hebrews Start with Angels?

The writer of Hebrews begins his argument concerning the superiority of Christ to everything by discussing his superiority angels.  Why start with the angels?

Angels were very popular in Jewish mythology from the second century B.C. through the first century A.D.   A whole hierarchy of angels was developed along with some theological teachings that were not present in the Old Testament.  In the re-telling of Biblical stories writers often had angels performing acts that were acts of God in the Hebrew Bible.  Although the imagery is found in Daniel 10, the appearance of angels as glowing white, fiery, glowing, etc. was developed during this time as well.

What is more, the angels are associated with the giving of the Law in early Judaism.  This tradition appears in the Hebrew Bible as early as Deut 33:2, although the “holy ones” merely accompany the Lord as he arrives at Sinai. Stephen refers to the Law as “delivered by angels” in Acts 7:53.  The book of Jubilees predates Hebrews clearly has the belief that an angel wrote a text for Moses:

Jubilees 1.27-28 And He said to the angel of the presence: ‘Write for Moses from the beginning of creation till My sanctuary has been built among them for all eternity.’ (Charles)

This tradition is found in later Judaism as well:  “The presence of angels at the event of the giving of the law was a favourite bit of embroidery in rabbinic tradition, and was meant to enhance the glory of Sinai” (H. Schoeps, Paul, 182).  The emphasis in this literature is on the angels as intermediaries, delivering the Law to Moses.  When God revealed himself to Moses, he used angels.

Since the writer of Hebrews began his book by saying that God is new revealing himself through his Jesus, it is possible a Jewish reader might think of Jesus as an angel, like a Michael or Gabriel.  He must therefore begin by showing that Jesus is something other than an angel, he is “Song of God.”

One last observation:  Is this a “difference” between Jewish Christian literature and the Pauline Letters? Perhaps not.  While Paul cannot be accused of emphasizing angels, he does use the same sort of language as Stephen in Gal 3:19: The law was “put in place through angels” (ESV).

Faithful to the End on Hebrews

You can download a free PDF sample of Faithful to the End:  An Introduction to Hebrews Through Revelation by Terry L. Wilder, J. Daryl Charles, and Kendell Easley courtesy of Broadman and Holman.  It is the entire chapter on Hebrews and gives you a good idea of what the whole book is like.

I am using Faithful to the End as the textbook for my Jewish Christian Literature class this spring and have enjoyed it so far.  While there are not very many books covering this section in survey fashion, this is certainly one of the best.  It forms the last part of a NT survey set, with Craig Blomberg covering the Gospels and Acts and Epistles in two separate volumes.

The Purpose of the Book of Hebrews

One of the problems with reading Hebrews is identifying the date and recipient of the letter. I am fairly well convinced that the recipients were in Rome, living just before the Neroian persecutions.  I think the standard arguments for this position are solid (see Faithful to the End, for example).

Given this context, the recipients struggle with the promises of Christian faith.  If Jesus is the true sacrifice and the fulfillment of the promises of the Hebrew Bible, why have they suffered so much?   As J. W. Thompson says in his Hebrews commentary, the book is written to “reorient a community that has been disoriented by the chasm between Christian confession of triumph and the reality of suffering it has experienced.”

This is not apologetics in the modern sense, it does not argue against Judaism, nor does it state that Judaism was bad or wrong in any way.  Rather, the writer constructs a positive argument for Jesus’ superiority to various elements of Judaism; he is superior because he is the fulfillment of these things. (He is the substance to which the shadow pointed).  If I am right about the context of the book and the recipients have suffered for their faith already (and are about to suffer even more so under Nero), then the readers may very well have struggled with the shame of suffering in a culture which did not see suffering as a virtue.

  • Within a Jewish context, suffering is sometimes seen as a result of sin, or at the very least, a lack of blessing from God.  We only need to look at the discussion in the book of Job to see that there was a lively discussion of why humans suffer.  If Christians are right and Jesus has triumphed, then why are his followers not blessed?  Why are they suffering?
  • Within a Greco-Roman context, Christians were not seen as successful because they suffered.  Roman thinking was very much based on honor and shame, of one suffered shame and humiliation in public, one cannot be described as successful!

The book therefore addresses a very real problem.  If Jesus is already seated at the right hand of the Father, why is it that Christians suffer shame and persecution?  Christians are not “of this world,” they are part of the real, unshakeable reality which is not of this world at all.

The theological dissonance which the book of Hebrews addresses is certainly applicable to the church today, especially in America.   Evangelical American Christian can be described as “triumphant,” especially in the last half of the 20th century.  Evangelical churches expanded greatly and had a greater impact on culture than at any time in history.

We very well may be past that now.  Studies indicate that the church is still growing, but at a pace which is slower than the general population.  We are beginning to lose ground and we have in many ways lost our voice in the public square.   Perhaps this is due to Christians who have humiliated themselves and brought shame to the cause of Christ, or because some very bad people chose to use evangelical Christianity as a way to advance political careers.

Whatever the reason, the tide is turning in America and we may face a time when we can ask, like the recipients of Hebrews, “what good is being faithful”? We think we have been faithful and we continue to suffer shame and humiliation.  We are in fact losing ground to the secular world.   Certainly this has already happened in Europe, Christian is a minority voice, evangelical Christianity has virtually no impact on culture in Europe.

Reading Acts Makes the Top 50 BlblioBlogs

Reading Acts finally broke into the rarified air the the new-look  BiblioBlog Top Fifty list, coming in at #46 this week.   So let me take the occasion to celebrate the year-and-a-half anniversary of this blog experience with a little horn-tooting.  I am sure there are  a number of factors contributing to the ranking,  but I will say that I see steady traffic on the Blog with a decent number of search items every day.

The top search engine term for the Blog (aside from the name, “Reading Acts”)  is N. T. Wright, combining a couple of variations in spelling his name.   A number of these searches include questions like “Is NT Wright a Dispensationalist?”  or “NT Wright and Election.”  I suppose N. T. Wright is the BiblioBlog equivalent to hiding “Pamela Anderson” somewhere in your blog to drive up traffic. (Careful readers will notice that I just did both.)

The next two highest searches have been “Saul in Arabia” and “God-fearer column from Aphrodisias.”  I fine that interesting since I do not recall writing about the column.  Strangely enough John Wayne and Caleb Befus are high on the list as well.  Lots of similarities there, although I suspect it is just Caleb googling his own name.

I continue to get quite a few hits on the topic of the Judaizers.  I suspect that I am helping home-schoolers with their homework, but perhaps this signals a need that is not addressed on many blogs.

The most common referring Blog is the NT Blog, by Mark Goodacre, followed by BibleX, by Charles Savelle.  My post on 2 Corinthians made Biblical Studies Carnival XLVIII, which is a pleasant surprise.

I am thrilled to say that at least once I was ranked along side the big boys.

saul in arabia 11
god-fearer column from aphrodisias