More perfect priest, superior sacrifice: Hebrews

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

There’s a long tradition of grouping Hebrews with Paul’s letters. In the Latin and King James Bible tradition it has usually been titled “Paul’s letter to the Hebrews” as well. Despite that, it has still always been placed after the letters which stand under Paul’s name. Paul’s letters come in order from the longest, Romans, with sixteen chapters, to the shortest, Philemon, with only a single chapter. Even when Hebrews was referred to as Paul’s letter, then, its position in the New Testament put a question mark over the attribution. The style and content have persuaded most contemporary readers that Paul, whose name is entirely missing from the anonymous text, cannot possibly be the author.

This, the longest of the miscellaneous letters is a single continuous argument, an exposition of Old Testament texts, with a final chapter of advice and greetings tacked on. The impression is of a sermon which the preacher has decided to turn into a letter and send to (probably) the Christians he knows at Rome. That seems to be the best way to make sense of why the writer ends with greetings from “our Italian friends” (Heb 13:24 REB). The traditional title of “to the Hebrews” seems to be based on an assumption that only Jewish Christians would be interested in such a detailed argument from scripture on the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice to those of the Jewish temple.

The lectionary uses a few of the more quotable short readings, particularly on key feasts, as Hebrews exhibits a very high understanding of both Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice. There is a limited selection from its overall argument, perhaps just enough to follow the argument, towards the end of Ordinary Time in Year B,1 with a few readings from the closing chapters in Year C.2 To understand these, it may be helpful to offer an outline of the central line of thought.

Pfarrkirche St. Peter: Neogotischer Hochaltar (1904)
Image by Wolfgang Sauber licensed under Creative Commons, via Wikimedia.

The author has some key concerns in his argument, all designed to persuade his hearers that the new covenant in Christ is superior to the Mosaic covenant. The first plank, with which he begins, is that Christ is superior to Moses. He applies a number of psalms which early Christians, and some other Jewish groups, read as Messianic, to argue that Jesus, as God’s son, is superior to Moses as God’s servant.

He then wants to argue, in a closely related pair of ideas, that Jesus’ priesthood and sacrifice are superior to those of Aaron and his descendants. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in actual temple practice – perhaps he had never actually got to Jerusalem to see it for himself – but in the biblical texts which describe and legislate for it.

One of the problems he faces, however, is that priesthood, in Jewish understanding, is inextricably tied up with heredity, and Jesus does not come from a priestly family. He resorts to the mysterious figure of Melchizedek, who appears briefly in the book of Genesis (Gen 14:18-20) and then again in Psalm 110, one of those psalms that was interpreted messianically, even, according to the gospel tradition, in a riddle Jesus himself posed while teaching in the temple precincts (Mark 12:35-37).

In this figure he finds a priesthood which is promised by God to the Messiah, and which is superior to that of Aaron, since Melchizedek had given God’s blessing to Abraham and his descendants (who, of course, included Aaron and Levi, the key ancestors of the priestly and levitical families – Heb 7:1-10). Jesus, as a priest after the order of Melchizedek, is superior to the temple priesthood.

Secondly, the temple where Jesus offers his sacrifice is superior. The Jewish high priest only enters the holy of holies, where God allows his glory to dwell on earth. Jesus has entered heaven, where the reality the temple points to is to be found, the actual presence of God. The writer appears to have an understanding of the world where invisible reality is more real than what we can see and touch. We can at present only see a world of shadows, reflections and copies: the real spiritual world is yet to be fully experienced.3 The earthly temple is based on a pattern of a heavenly temple revealed to Moses (Heb 8:5). Jewish priests only enter the copy, Jesus has entered the original heavenly one it is based on, the one in whose worship we now participate with Jesus (Heb 12:22-24).

Finally, Jesus offers a superior sacrifice, himself, which unlike the sacrifices of the temple priesthood, does not need to be repeated, but is a single offering made at the point of Jesus’ entry into heaven’s holiest of holies (Heb 9:23-26; 10:10-13). The writer makes use of a Greek translation of Psalm 40. If you are reading the epistle on the Feast of the Annunciation (or Advent 4, Year C) you will come across a quotation from Psalm 40 you will be unable to find in your Old Testament.

The Greek version used by Hebrews says “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.” (Heb 10:5) The difference between the Greek and the Hebrew text is somewhat baffling. If you look up Psalm 40:6 in your Old Testament you will find a quite different verse: “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear”.4 The Christian Church treated the Greek as an inspired translation. Jews and Christians accused each other of “altering the Bible”, and, probably as a result, Jews stopped regarding the Greek as an inspired translation. It is a reminder again that the Bible is not one single, simple, book, but a complex library.

The main line of argument leads to an unusual picture where the priest Jesus offers his dead body as a once-for-all-time sacrifice, entering into heaven at the moment of his death (Heb 9:24-26). Like John’s gospel, Hebrews seems to unite death, resurrection and ascension, and treat them as a single act of salvation.

At its heart, however, is the idea that Christ’s incarnation – assuming the same flesh and blood as his brothers and sisters (Heb 2:14) is the precondition of his death being effective. He needs to be both God’s son and a human being to make our humanity holy and fit to live in God’s eternal presence (Heb 10:10, 14). Christmas and Easter, in this letter, are held together as a single gospel.


  1. 27th – 33rd Sundays in Ordinary Time, Proper 22 – 2 before Advent.
  2. Propers 14–17, 19th – 22nd Sundays in Ordinary Time
  3. The extent to which the writer is or is not influenced by the thought of the Greek philosopher Plato is one on which there is no real consensus, but I think it’s hard to avoid accepting some influence.
  4. A literal translation might say “You dug out my ears”. Perhaps the metaphor is of digging out the wax, so that someone can hear clearly, and perhaps the Greek translator went instead to a mental picture of God making the first human out of clay, digging out the ears and shaping the body parts, and so preparing a body. One can only speculate!

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