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).

14 thoughts on “Why Does Hebrews Start with Angels?

  1. The last question to the emphasis of angels in Hebrews to other Pauline literature reminded me of a question to which we will never have a definitive answer to: Who is the author of Hebrews? I think Paul could have wrote it. I think he is sophisticated enough to write it, but why would he write it? If the original intended audience is Jewish Christians in Rome it would seem weird to write a letter to someone who is according to church tradition is also in Rome. Any thoughts or comments on this would be great.

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    • I think your reason is tracking in a right direction. The book to the Hebrews is a complex mesh of stylistic and literary features. It does not contain author identification, greeting, or prescript which are common features in the epistolary genre. However, there are several citations of the LXX; the rhetoric is quite similar to Greek philosophical rhetoric, possibly Stoicism, of which Paul would have been very familiar in. It may also be said that the the language of Hebrews is unlike that found in the majority of his established epistles. I would like to submit a possible difference in regards to content. There is a large emphasis on ‘faith’ in Hebrews. However, faithfulness in Hebrews is largely emphasized in human response whereas in Paul, faith is rather a divine gift, independent of human activity (FttE, 16). This may be textually supportive reason against Pauline authorship.

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  2. I think it is a good thing that in the beginning of Hebrews they compare Jesus to angels because of the mythology in the time. It is still relevant to explanation today because I have heard some people that have obliviously not read Hebrews was coming up with all kinds of things like Jesus was an angel or just a plain man and now having the knowledge of the ability to use references to correct them on their belief would be great.

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  3. Who is the author of Hebrews? What a question. I must have annoyed so many people asking that when I was younger. Although many people would try and explain different possibilities to me it always ended the same way, ‘we don’t know’. In FttE it mentioned many possibilities for authorship. Everyone from” Paul, Barnabas, Luke or Clement of Rome, Calvin, Apollos, to Priscilla” (p. 46). I always wonder about Priscilla. Why is her name mentioned before her husband’s name more often than not in the Bible? Perhaps she was very involved in a leadership role of some sort? With the possibility of Priscilla writing Hebrews it could make sense that no name was given because who would have listened if they knew it was written by a woman? I think even now some (not all by any means) people would struggle to listen to the words of the book if it was proven to be written by a woman. The important thing to remember is that whoever wrote this book was inspired by God to write it, because ALL Scripture is God breathed (2 Tim 3:16).

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    • Dear Shelby,

      Your comments on the authorship of Hebrews caught my attention because I have researched and written about Harnack’s hypothesis that Priscilla was the author of this epistle. You can find a recent review of my book “Priscilla’s Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews” on google by typing: Wiley Clarkson, Church of Christ. There you will find links to several of my articles about Priscilla.
      I hope you will look into this further, as I believe the case for Priscilla is very strong.

      Ruth Hoppin

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  4. I agree with you Kristin. I think that it was a good idea that the writer of Hebrews compared Jesus to angels. But I think that we have to be careful when we say that because He is not just an angel. He is God. Comparing Jesus to angels may have helped them understand better, but if you do not be careful, they may start to think that Jesus is only an angel and nothing more.

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  5. I’m with Aaron on this one. The author is obviously something to speculate. It seems like there would be parallels between who wrote it, and who and when it was being received. P. Long mentions a ‘difference’ between the Pauline Letters and Jewish Christian literature. It would be interesting to hear some of the arguments for and against different proposed writers and their correlation to proposed recipients. I’m no biblical scholar, but it seems like it could be somewhat like a logic puzzle. If Paul were the author, that would support a certain set of recipients, and if the recipients were in Rome, that would support arguments for a certain author.

    Just some more food for thought. 🙂

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    • 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). – Plong.

      I think I’m in agreement with you Plong with the “perhaps not.” One of the main points of emphasis in FTTE is that one of the purposes of angels is to demonstrate Jesus Christ’s authority and status over them, in sitting at the right hand of God, and giving that up to become human.

      “Upon closer inspection, we find that it does not reflect anti-Jewish tendencies or polemical features, which would be anticipated were the recipients considering a return to Jewish religion. Significantly, nothing in Hebrews PARALLELS Paul’s argument to the Galatians-no argument against law or legalism or works-righteousness, no mention of circumcision, no sustained emphasis on the cross” [FTTE, 6]. Is this sufficient enough to cancel Paul out of authorship? I think so. Further into the book, the author gives reasons as to the differences of the book of Hebrews in comparison with the other epistles [language, style, more of a sermon, etc…].

      Good thoughts.

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  6. 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). – Plong.

    I think I’m in agreement with you Plong with the “perhaps not.” One of the main points of emphasis in FTTE is that one of the purposes of angels is to demonstrate Jesus Christ’s authority and status over them, in sitting at the right hand of God, and giving that up to become human.

    “Upon closer inspection, we find that it does not reflect anti-Jewish tendencies or polemical features, which would be anticipated were the recipients considering a return to Jewish religion. Significantly, nothing in Hebrews PARALLELS Paul’s argument to the Galatians-no argument against law or legalism or works-righteousness, no mention of circumcision, no sustained emphasis on the cross” [FTTE, 6]. Is this sufficient enough to cancel Paul out of authorship? I think so. Further into the book, the author gives reasons as to the differences of the book of Hebrews in comparison with the other epistles [language, style, more of a sermon, etc…].

    Good thoughts.

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  7. I think that Hebrews 2:1-4 gives us some good reasons as to why this book starts with angels. As was already pointed out angels were part of the old Jewish mythology and in this section of scripture it calls the recipients to pay attention to the things that God has done to prove that angels are not the way to salvation. I could be completely off, but after reading for myself chapter one then into chapter two, that is just something I saw. The writer points out through chapter one all these things that God will not and has not said to the angels but will say to his Son, therefore in the beginning of chapter two warning the readers/recipients not to find their salvation in the angels, but rather in Jesus. Just some thoughts.

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  8. Another possible explanation for why angels figure so prominently at the start of Hebrews, where the author argues for the superiority of Jesus precisely as “Son,” might be on account of the fact that “angels” are so frequently called “sons of God” in the Hebrews bible (MT bene’ ‘elohim; LXX huioi theou). If so, the author may be anticipating a rather predictable objection: “So what if Jesus is ‘son of God,’ so are the angels.” The author shows the superiority of Jesus precisely as the “Firstborn Son” (1:6), whom the angels must worship. The author thus uses a preemptive strategy by showing how even the angels (“sons of God”) submit to the Firstborn Son. Just a thought.

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  9. >the fact that “angels” are so frequently called
    >“sons of God” in the Hebrews bible

    This is a good point, especially in the light of 2:7 and the translation of “angel” (as in the LXX) instead of God (elohim). That strikes me as theologically motivated in the first place, but I do like your point here.

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  10. I think the idea of angels as mediators in the mind of 1st century Judaism is the key to unlocking what’s going on in Hebrews 1, especially as so much of the content of the epistle as a whole is on what mediation and intercession is. Angels were the mediators of the old covenant at Sinai with Moses. Jesus is now the true and greater mediator of the new covenant.

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    • I agree, although “angels as mediators of the covenant” is found only in Galatians 3:19. But since it is such a solid tradition in Second Temple Judaism, I am confident this is the point in Hebrews 1.

      Thanks for reading!

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