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Earl Doherty's use of the Epistle to the Hebrews

by Christopher Price

On his website, Doherty claims that all the pieces of his Jesus Puzzle can be understand by reviewing the Epistle to the Hebrews. As he puts it: "More than any other New Testament document, the Epistle to the Hebrews contains all the elements needed to understand the general nature of early cultic Christianity."  His article on the Letter to the Hebrews is Supplementary Article No. 9, A Sacrifice in Heaven, The Son in the Epistle of Hebrews.


The Author's Worldview
The Human Jesus
Hebrew's Reference to the Second Coming of Christ
Supposed Silences


After reviewing Doherty's book, The Jesus Puzzle, and articles on his website (including the one devoted to Hebrews), I'm sceptical of his claim that all the elements of his theory--even if true--can be illuminated by reviewing Hebrews. For example, Hebrews provides no basis for examining Doherty's highly speculative theories of Q and the Gospel of Thomas, little grounds for explaining his radically late dating of the Gospels and Act, and no relevance to the already refuted idea that the Gospel of Mark and the other canonical gospels are non-historical midrash. Nevertheless, Doherty's review of Hebrews does provide us with many insights into the failure of the "Jerusalem Tradition" aspect of Doherty's theory (The "Jerusalem Tradition" part of Doherty's theories seeks to explain the New Testament epistles and other documents which he believes predates all of the gospels). Because Doherty uses, to a great degree, the same arguments regarding the Pauline corpus and other early Christian literature, the mistakes he makes in analyzing the Epistle to the Hebrews reveal substantial flaws in his general theory.

The Author's World View

A. Plato, Philo, and Judaism

Doherty places much emphasis on the influence of Platonic thought on Hebrews. According to Doherty, "there can be no denying that Hebrews' thought world is fundamentally Platonic. This is a divided, dualistic universe of realms heavenly and earthly, genuine and imitation." Although I agree that there was Platonic influence on the author of Hebrews, Doherty greatly overestimates it. Moreover, he tends to ignore and explain away many references in Hebrews which affirm other, Jewish influences which stress the linear thought of Jewish eschatology and Jewish messianic expectations. Those Jewish ideas stressed God's direct intervention in human affairs. "YHWH, as the creator and covenant God, was irrevocably committed to further action of some sort in history...." (N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, page 247). Along these lines, Jewish messianic expectations centred around a human messiah--not a purely mythological saviour active only in the "lower celestial realm." The Epistle to the Hebrews affirms and reinforces these beliefs, but with its own spin.

For comparative purposes, a useful way to describe Platonic thought is that it is vertical. The imperfect on earth is but a shadow of the perfection in the heavens. The relationship is vertical and static. Jewish belief, however, though containing its own vertical relationship between God's actions in heaven and effects on earth, stresses a horizontal perspective. The world--even the heavens--is not static, it is moving forward according to God's plans to a final reconciliation of heaven and earth. In Hebrews there is undoubtedly some Platonic influence; at least in language. However, it is subordinated to the horizontal Jewish perspective stressing God's intervention in earthly affairs. To the great detriment of a dispassionate understanding of Hebrews, Doherty chooses to view Hebrews only through a Platonic lens.

Indeed, the first passage in Hebrews demonstrates the fallacy of cramming Hebrews into a Platonic box. It stresses both Jesus' role as a human agent of God and a decidedly non-Platonic worldview:

Hebrews 1:1-2: "God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world."

Jesus' actions take place not in a static, murky realm, but in a set place in history. While actions in the platonic heavenly realm are timeless and static, Jesus did not speak as God's son until "these last days." Additionally, Jesus' role as God's spokesperson is compared to the flesh and blood prophets of the Jewish forefathers "long ago." Hebrews uses the same terms to describe the actions of the prophets "long ago" and Jesus "in these last days." There is a definite parallel being drawn between God speaking through his earthly prophets and God speaking through his earthly Son. "Each of the main phrases in the first verse (of old, to our fathers, by the prophets) is matched by a corresponding, and to some extent contrasting phrase in the second (in these last days, to us, by a Son)." (R. McL. Wilson, The New Century Bible Commentary: Hebrews, page 30). This is far from platonic.

Whatever uses will be made of the 'Platonic' category of ideas later in the letter, we must see with complete clarity that here in the opening statement the relationship between the two forms of revelation--the imperfect and perfect--is given not as between an imperfect human or earthly form and a spiritual and heavenly form, but as earlier and later forms. The disclosure of the Word of God takes its shape as a history, a history which has a past and a present (and, indeed, a future).

(Graham Hughes, Hebrews and Hermeneutics, page 36).

As Luke T. Johnson puts it:

Platonism is ... entirely reworked by Hebrews. First, Hebrews shows a very acute awareness of history: God spoke of old, and speaks now, but differently. The past also serves as a type or example for the present, which is "greater" and "more real" (see 4:11). Second, the distinction between heaven and earth is not only cosmological, it is also existential. "Heaven" describes God's existence and all that can participate in it, whereas 'earth' denotes merely human existence. Third, Hebrews exalts rather than denigrates the physical. Only because Jesus was and had a body could he be a priest. His body, furthermore, is not cast off at death but exalted. Fourth, Hebrews emphasizes change: Christ came once and will come again; he was, for a little while, lower than the angels but is now exalted and enthroned. Platonism is here stretched and reshaped around belief in a historical human saviour whose death and resurrection made both his body and time axiologically rich.

(Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, page 422).

This distinction between a Platonic approach and the author of Hebrews is highlighted by his use of the Old Testament. For example, Philo--perhaps the most Platonic of Jewish thinkers and a common example cited by Doherty--used the Old Testament in a fundamentally different way than the author of Hebrews. "Philo does not treat the Old Testament history as history, but as a framework for his philosophical ideas. But for the writer to the Hebrews the history is treated literally, as the catalogue in chapter 11 shows." (Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, page 707). Hebrews 11 is the so called "Hall of Faith." The author of Hebrews recounts example after example from the Old Testament to demonstrate the power of faith. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Noah, Enoch, and Rahab are all historical examples of God's intervention in earthly affairs. Moreover, he places them in a horizontal, eschatological framework: "And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect." Hebrews 11:39-40. According to Ronald Williamson, "In the use of the Old Testament made by the two writers is striking and fundamental differences appear.... On such fundamental subject as time, history, eschatology, the nature of the physical world, etc., the thoughts of Philo and the writer of Hebrews are poles apart." (Ronald Williamson Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews, page 38).

Another way to describe the difference between Philo's platonic approach to the New Testament and that of the author of Hebrews, is the difference between allegory and symbolism/typology. According to Alexander Nairne, "Philo deals with allegories, the Epistle with symbols [or typology]." (Alexander Nairne The Epistle of Priesthood, page 37). An allegorical approach is "the search for a secondary and hidden meaning underlying the primary and obvious meaning of a narrative." (KJ Woolcombe, 'The Biblical Origins and Patristic Development of Typology' Essays on Typology, page 40). Symbolism and typology, on the other hand, emphasizes "linkages between events, persons, or things within the historical framework of revelation." (ibid.). Philo employed the former, the author of Hebrews the latter. As a result, "we must make a rigorous distinction between such a typology--which is historical symbolism--and the kind of allegorism practiced by Philo and adopted by certain Fathers of the Church. For the latter is really a reappearance of a cosmic symbolism without an historical basis." (Jean Danielou 'The New Testament and the Theology of History' Studia Evangelica  I ed. K. Aland, page 30).

E.F. Scott places the differences in this lucid commentary:

But while he combines the Alexandrian strain of thought with the primitive Christian beliefs, we have to take account of certain marked differences of the two worlds and idealism of Philo.... The divine realities are conceived of in a literal and concrete fashion. With Philo they resolve themselves into moral and spiritual abstractions, while in Hebrews they are actual things, corresponding on a higher plane to their earthly copies. There is a heavenly Jerusalem, a heavenly sanctuary. The priesthood which Christ exercises is the counterpart, in no merely figurative sense, of the levitical priesthood. In Philo we have an idealism of the genuine Platonic type, which ascribes to the intelligible forms of things an existence apart, kike that of the plan of a building in the mind of the architect. The writer of Hebrews adopts this metaphysical conception, but interprets it in the light of Jewish typology. He thinks of the realities laid up in the higher world as not merely ideal forms, but as heavenly patterns, such as were revealed to Moses on the Mount.

(E.F. Scott, The Epistle to the Hebrews, page 116-17)

In summary, although the view that the author of Hebrews writes from a strongly Platonic perspective used to hold much sway in the academic community, more thorough and recent scholarship has rightly rejected this notion. There are simply too many important differences.

B. The Essenes and the Author of Hebrews

Another potential influence on Hebrews that Doherty ignores is that of Essene thought. Indeed, the more we have learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls the more it appears that the author of Hebrews had as much, if not more, in common with the Essenes than with Plato and Philo. There are many similarities between Hebrews and the Qumrun community. "Both there and here, we find a New Covenant community, separation from cult with appropriation of its symbols, the expectation of a priestly as well as kingly messiah, even an interest in the figure of Melchizedek." Johnson, op. cit. page 420). Indeed, two of the most striking and unique similarities go to the heart of two of Doherty's points.

First, both the author of Hebrews and the Dead Sea Scrolls associate the Messiah with a priestly office. The idea that Jesus the Messiah held a priestly office in Hebrews is foundational to the letter's entire argument. Indeed, although the author acknowledges Messiahship along Davidic lines, it has little place for him. Jesus' priestly role or the activities of priests are referred to 27 times in Hebrews. David is mentioned only twice. Obviously, Jesus the Messiah as High Priest overshadows Jesus the Messiah as King. So too with much of the Dead Sea perspective. Many of the Dead Sea Scrolls speak of a priestly Messiah "of the house of Aaron." 1QS 9:11 speaks of "the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel." The title "the Messiah of Aaron and Israel" is used three times in the Damascus Document: CD 12:23-13:1; 14:19; 19:10-11. CD 20:1 speaks of "a Messiah from Aaron and from Israel." There has been some dispute about whether the Dead Sea Scrolls envisions one Messiah combining priestly and kingly attributes, or two separate messiahs with their respective roles. More recent scholarship has moved towards the two messiah perspective, though some still dissent. In any event, what is important is that it was the priestly messiah (or priestly attributes of the one messiah) that was more important figure. According to John P. Meier, "the priestly Messiah clearly takes precedence over the royal Messiah." (John P Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol. III, page 495). See also The Rules of the Congregation, 1QSa 2:12-21. The congruence is actually remarkable. I am not aware of any other Jewish sect of the time that associated the Messiah so strongly with priestly attributes as the author of Hebrews and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Second, the interest in Melchizedek in Hebrews and the Dead Sea Scrolls is similar. Hebrews refers to Melchizedek, and comparing Jesus to him, no less than eight times. The Dead Sea Scrolls also places Melchizedek in an important role in their community. Indeed, much like Jesus, he is depicted as a heavenly figure who at one time resided on earth. In The Coming of Melchizedek, 11Q13, he is depicted as an agent of jubilee salvation who will preside over the final judgment. The similarities with Jesus and with the emphasis on Melchizedek is unique among Jewish literature. Later rabbinic material largely ignores him, with some negative treatment in Nedarim 32b and Sanhedrin 108b.

These similarities shows that Doherty has ignored or downplayed a promising source of ideas for Hebrews. Why? Apparently so he can cram all of Hebrews' main ideas into his Platonic box. But it does not fit. Indeed, the evidence of similarities with Essene ideas reinforces the Jewishness of the letter. It also reinforces Jesus' actual humanity.

The Human Jesus

The linchpin of Doherty's argument is that the author of Hebrews, and all early Christian literature, demonstrates no inkling of a historical--that is, earthly--Jesus. As he states: "We can conclude, therefore, that no earthly life or event is implied by anything the writer says, and that the Epistle to the Hebrews knows of no historical Jesus." But Doherty is wrong. Hebrews contains many references to a historical, earthly Jesus. According to Hebrews, Jesus 1) came "into the world," 2) "took part" "in all things" human in "flesh and blood" form, 3) was of the "the seed of Abraham," 4) was born of "the tribe of Judah," 5) "cried out to God" during "his days on earth," 6) was "crucified" at a geographical location "outside the gates" of a city, 7) suffered and died as a result of his crucifixion, 8) was resurrected from the dead, and 9) ascended into heaven. I discuss the most prominent of these passages in detail.

A. Jesus, God's Spokesperson on Earth Like the Prophets of Old

As discussed above, Hebrews 1:1-2 describes Jesus as God's spokesperson on earth just as the prophets of old were God's spokespersons on earth. The prophets were the medium then. Jesus is the medium now.

B. A Flesh and Blood Messiah

Hebrews 2:14-18: "Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil. For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted."

On the surface, the reference to Jesus and his "flesh and blood" would seem clearly to be a reference to Jesus as a human being. Additionally, the context of the passage focuses on how Jesus was "made like" human beings "in all things." Other passages in Hebrews speak of Jesus' "flesh." See Hebrews 10:19-20; 5:7; 9:13. Doherty, however, appeals to his trademark "lower celestial realm" explanation:

In the last Supplementary Article (No. 8) I described how the philosophy of the period regarded the upper spiritual portion of the universe as containing the primary and ideal counterparts of material world things, giving saviour gods like Christ features which sound like human attributes. Not only could the Lord be "sprung from Judah" (Hebrews 7:14) because scripture indicated that this would be the Messiah's lineage (see the discussion in Sprung From Judah in Article No. 8, Christ As "Man"), but he could also be said to possess the likeness of "flesh" and "blood" and to undergo sacrifice. Says 2:14: "Since (Christ's children) have blood and flesh, he too shared the same things in a like manner (the Greek word means "similar, near to," not "identical"), so that through death he might break the power of him who had death at his command." This is a classic expression of the parallel between the higher world paradigm and the believers linked to him on earth.

Doherty is being very inventive here, but he ignores the well-established meaning of having "flesh" or "flesh and blood." "The phrase flesh and blood is a common expression for human nature. The rabbis use it chiefly where the corruptible nature of man is compared with the eternity and omnipotence of God, but the usage is older than the rabbinic literature and the idea of mortality and creature lines seems to be bound up with it from the outset." Wilson, op. cit. page 60). His decision to ignore the established meaning of the terms for his "lower celestial realm" argument is also unpersuasive because he fails to provide relevant examples. In other words, where is the evidence that people during the first century, especially Jews, spoke of purely spiritual beings who had never been to earth as having such attributes as "flesh and blood"?

This failing has not gone unnoticed by even sympathetic reviewers. Richard Carrier, while discussing Doherty's similar attempts to explain away references to Jesus being "born of a woman" or "descended from David" takes notice of Doherty's failure to provide any examples of such usage:

There are some specific places where Doherty needs to do more convincing by adducing more primary evidence. For instance, when he argues that the "born of woman" of Gal. 4:4 could be a mythical/scriptural attribute rather than an assertion of earthly incarnation, he says it is "something that was said of certain mythical saviour gods, like Dionysos," that Isaiah 7:14 "was taken by Jew and early Christian alike to refer to the Messiah," and that "national gods were often regarded as having the same lineage as the nation itself" (p. 124). He does not demonstrate any of these claims. Many examples are needed to establish all three generalizations as not only valid, but relevant to the given passage. For example, citing cases where Dionysus had a mother because he was euhemerized as a real person, or had a goddess for a mother, are not relevant, since Paul can be doing neither here. And so on. Given the fact that this passage is the most problematic for his theory, Doherty needs to spend a great deal more time validating his interpretation, certainly more than two pages, which consist mostly of argument rather than evidence.

(Richard Carrier, Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity)

Richard Carrier's criticism applies to the above scriptures as well. Where are the examples? Other than vague allusions in his book and website, I have yet to find any. If, as Doherty suggests, referring to spiritual beings in the manner above--which so clearly describes Jesus as human--was common among the ancients, where are the references?

In addition to failing to cope with the language and usage of these terms, as well as his failure to provide appropriate examples to support his theory, the context of the discussion further suggests that the author believed Jesus became a human being. The only reason Jesus is an acceptable High Priest for us is because he took on human form just as we did. There is no hint here that a "kinda-became-human-but-not-really-and-in-a-different-spiritual-realm" would satisfy the "became human" requirement of the High Priest.

Who are those 'children' whom God has given to Christ? Men and women, creatures of flesh and blood. But if his solidarity with them is to be real, he also must be a true human being, a genuine partaker of flesh and blood. Moreover, he must partake of flesh and blood 'in like manner' with them--that is to say, by the gateway of birth. No docetic or Apollinarian Christ will satisfy their need of a Saviour or God's determination to supply that need. And if they, entering this earthly life by birth, leave it in due course by death, it was divinely fitting that he too should die. Indeed, this is stated here as the purpose of his incarnation--that he should die, and in the very act of dying draw the sting of death.

(FF Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, page 84-85)

Indeed, the text plainly states that a purely spiritual saviour could not be an adequate high priest. Jesus literally had to "take hold" of human form to bring salvation to humans.

Take hold (epilambanomai) does not mean 'take on the nature of' as in the King James Version, but 'to take hold in order to help.' The word was used of Jesus when he 'caught' Peter as he began to sink while attempting to walk on the water (Matt. 14:31), when He 'took' the blind man by the hand in order to heal him (Mark 8:23), and when He 'took' the man with dropsy so as to heal him (Luke 14:4). This also provides a better understanding in the present passage, since to translate as 'took on the nature of' would be a repetition of verse 14. The point here is that Christ became a man, even to the point of suffering and death, because it was men, not angels, whom he planned to save.

(Homer A. Kent, Epistle to the Hebrews, page 60)

The author actually goes out of his way to distinguish Jesus' "partaking" from a purely spiritual endeavour by clarifying that "he does not give help to angels" but to the "descendants of Abraham." So he had to be "like" the humans, not the angels, "in all things." The use of "like" here is much the same as how the author of Acts uses the term at Act 14:11, "When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they raised their voice, saying in the Lycaonian language, 'The gods have become like men and have come down to us.'" To make sure there was no doubt what he meant, the author of Hebrews further clarifies that Jesus became "like" human beings "in all things."

C. A Little Lower than the Angels

Hebrews 2:9: "But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honour, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. "

Suffering and death certainly do not happen in the Jewish concept of heaven, and the reference to being "lower than the angels" certainly implies that the pre-existent Christ lowered himself to a human level. Note too the use of the simple name "Jesus." The author of Hebrews tends to use that simple name when highlighting Jesus' humanity. "The author has a predilection for the simple name Jesus, corresponding to his interest in the humanity of the Messiah (2:9; 3:1; 4:14; 6:20; 7:22; 10:19; 12:24; 13:12, 20), as well as for the simple title Christ, reflecting his interest in the messianic work (3:6, 14; 5:5; 6:1; 9:11, 14, 24, 28). He uses the combination Jesus Christ only three times, each solemn (10:10; 13:8, 21)." (LT Johnson, op. cit. page 425). In any event, Jesus lowered himself for a "little while" so he could suffer and die. It appears, therefore, that we have a clear reference to Jesus' incarnation.

But Doherty strives to interpret this phrase as meaning something other than Jesus becoming human. To Doherty, being "lower than the angels" means "the lower celestial realm." However, Doherty is clearly wrong because the Old Testament passage being quoted here uses the phrase "a little lower than the angels" to describe mankind, not the lower celestial realm. I was actually surprised that Doherty fails to deal with the clear meaning of the Old Testament passage because the author of Hebrews quotes the relevant passage in its entirety:

For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying, "What is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him? Yet You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You crown him with glory and majesty! You make him to rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet.

(Hebrews 2:5-8)

"Hebrews 2:5-8a is thus a recitation of Psalm 8:5-7 (LXX), which in its original context speaks with awe and wonder at God's care for humanity and the great honour God has bestowed on human beings, entrusting them with the care of creation. " (David A. DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude, page 109). Being a "little lower than the angels" is not a reference to a place--such as the "lower celestial realm"--but describes a specific creature with a specific place in God's plans--human beings. The "Son of Man" is a human being. He is a "little lower than the angels." Indeed, it can be paraphrased as "But we do see Him who God made a human, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honour, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. "

Additionally, the passage plainly states that Jesus actually died. Not that his death was symbolic or merely representative. The term "taste"--geuomai--here is stronger than it sounds in English. "Taste was a common metaphor which meant 'to experience.' It did not suggest a mere sip or sampling, but the full experience of eating." (Homer A. Kent, op. cit., page 54). The implication here is that Jesus did not just "sip" or "sample" death, or something like it, he actually experienced it. Which is exactly how the term is used elsewhere in the New Testament. (see Matthew 16:28, Mark 9:1, Luke 9:27, John 8:52).

D. Descended from Judah

Hebrews 7:11-14: "Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law), what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be designated according to the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also. For the one concerning whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no one has officiated at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests."

On the surface, we have here a reference to Jesus being a human being from the tribe of Judah. Certainly that is how scholars, from diverse perspectives, have understood the passage. Doherty, of course, rejects this interpretation. Instead he focuses on the Greek terms for "evident" (prodelon) and "sprung" (anatetalken):

The word prodelon means "clear, manifest" to the senses or to judgment (compare 1 Timothy 5:24, 25); it does not mean "a matter of historical record." It fits the sense of "clear to someone who knows the scriptures," which in itself fits the thought world of the entire epistle.  The verb anatellein, to spring (by birth), is also the language of scripture. It is used in several messianic passages, such as Ezekiel 29:21 ("a horn shall spring forth"), and Zechariah 6:12. Hebrews pointedly never says that Jesus is a descendent or "son" of David; the latter is a figure the epistle shows no interest in. The author simply needs scriptural support for the concept of a priest arising from a tribe which has never "had anything to do with" the old cult (7:13), a priest who can establish a new law to supplant the impotent old one, and a new hope (7:18 and 19).

Nothing about the term prodelon implies that Jesus being descended from Judah is known only from scripture. In fact, it's more akin to saying "it's common knowledge" or "everybody knows that...." That Jesus was known to be born of the House of David, as is attested by Paul's letters as well as Hebrews, because it was an important part of the early Christian message would fit the term very well because it would be considered common knowledge among Christians that Jesus was of the tribe of Judah. Although Doherty argues that Hebrews' "failure" to state that Jesus was a "descendent" of David, his argument is unpersuasive. First, Paul specifically does state this in Romans 1:3 (Jesus was "born of a descendent of King David"). Nevertheless, Doherty still rejects it as a reference to a historical Jesus. (E. Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle, page 99). So his argument is highly disingenuous. Second, stating that Jesus was "by birth" of the House of Judah is just as clear an attestation of his humanity as a reference to being a "son" of David would be. The distinction Doherty tries to draw makes no difference. Finally, it makes more sense for the author to refer to the tribe Jesus was from because the issue is "how can Jesus be a Priest if he's from the wrong tribe." The mosaic law makes no mention of King David and discusses such matters in terms of tribal ancestry. Only Levites could be priests. Indeed, the fact that the author sees this as a problem at all suggests that he is referring to actual, historical facts. If Jesus was not a historical figure but merely had the attributes described in OT scripture, there would be no issue. In other words, if the author and audience knew that Jesus never was actually born of any tribe but is merely described as representing or possessing certain attributes, there would be no difficulty. But there is a problem. Jesus was born into the wrong tribe to be a Priest. He is from Judah, not Levi. The author, therefore, has to explain how Jesus can be a Priest despite his lineage. The author does not treat the issue as "how can a spiritual figure have messianic and priestly attributes." Far from it, the issue is "how can Jesus be a priest if he was born into the tribe of Judah." Thus, this scripture strongly attests Jesus' tribal ancestry in an early and convincing manner.

The second argument--that anatellein is "the language of scripture"--tells us nothing. Christians, as any Jewish sect would, went out of their way to find OT scriptures which fit their situation, including any OT scriptures they could find to describe the person they thought was their messiah. Josephus, not even a particularly religious Jew, did the same--interpreting Numbers 24.17 19 to refer to Vespasian as Messiah:

What did the most to induce the Jews to start this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how, about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth. The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular, and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination. Now this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea.

(Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 6.312 -  313).

When he described the Roman Emperor Vespasian as the Messiah, are we to believe that Josephus simply made him up? Of course not. Josephus was using OT scripture and ideas to prove his point. The Christians did the same.

Another example demonstrating the fallacy Doherty commits here is the Dead Sea Scrolls community. As discussed above, they had a very prominent place for a Messiah of the "house of Aaron." Where did they get this idea? Obviously from the Old Testament. Despite that (or, more accurately, because of it), the Essenes still believed that the priestly Messiah would come to earth as a human being to perform his role in God's salvation plan. So too the Christians. Even if it is true that the author of Hebrews got many of his ideas from the OT, nothing about that fact suggests that the author did not believe it to be historically true. Clearly, therefore, to assert that every Christian idea or reference that can be traced to the OT, either linguistically or ideally, is therefore fiction is a very poor methodology.

This position is hardly controversial. The sceptic GA Wells, responding directly to Doherty's theory, stated:

Doherty likewise holds that Paul speaks of Jesus 'in exclusively mythological terms'. I have never in spite of what some of my critics have alleged subscribed to such a view: for Paul does, after all, call Jesus a descendant of David (Rom. 1:3), born of a woman under the (Jewish) law (Gal.4:4), who lived as a servant to the circumcision (Rom. 15:8) and was crucified on a tree (Gal.3:13) and buried (I Cor. 15:4). Doherty interprets these passages from the Platonic premiss that things on Earth have their 'counterparts' in the heavens. Thus 'within the spirit realm' Christ could be of David's stock, etc. But, if the 'spiritual' reality was believed to correspond in some way to a material equivalent on Earth, then the existence of the latter is conceded. In any case, what was the point of Christ's assuming human form (Phil.2:6 11) if he did not come to Earth to redeem us? It is of course true that the source of statements such as 'descended from David' is scripture, not historical tradition. But this does not mean, as Doherty supposes, that the life and the death were not believed to have occurred on Earth. The evangelists inferred much of what they took for Jesus life history from scripture, but nevertheless set this life in a quite specific historical situation.

(GA Wells Earliest Christianity)

Finally, we again have no examples of Doherty of any similar usage by any Jewish source. Did any other Jewish writers use the term "descended from Judah" to describe a purely spiritual being? Is there any evidence that any other Jewish writers ever described any purely spiritual being as being descended from any of the Twelve Tribes of Israel? Not that Doherty has offered.

E. The Garden of Gethsemene?

Hebrews 5:7-8: " In the days of His flesh, (NEB: "in the days of his earthly life") He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered."

Doherty writes:

If "flesh" could refer to the lower celestial regions, or more generally to the counterpart spirit world of myth where all the activities of saviour gods and goddesses took place, then Hebrews 5:7 can readily be placed in such a context.

"If" is right. But Doherty has failed to give us any reason to believe that there is such an "if" here. What is his evidence that writers at this time would refer to the "lower celestial regions" with terms like "flesh"? What evidence is there that Jews employed such language? Do we have examples of divine beings going into the "lower celestial regions" and praying to God in the upper celestial regions? As discussed, above--and noted by Carrier--Doherty offers us no evidence that this kind of language was used, especially by Jews, to describe God's action in a "lower" celestial region.

As it stands, from what we know about the terms being used and the predispositions of Jews of this time, this is a clear reference to Jesus' activities on earth. Doherty, however, spends a good deal of time arguing that this cannot be a reference to Jesus' prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. At best, his argument is irrelevant.

Scholars regularly claim that this passage is a reference to an incident in the earthly life of Jesus, namely the Passion scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. But is it? Some recognize the problems in such an interpretation. At Gethsemane, Jesus' anguished plea that the cup of suffering should pass him by was in fact not answered by God, which contradicts the point the writer wishes to make. From 4:14 on, he is anxious to show that Jesus is qualified to be High Priest for human beings, and one of his tasks, like the earthly high priest, is to petition God on their behalf. The reference in 5:7 is designed to show that on the latter score Jesus has already proven himself. For "in the days of his flesh" his prayers to God on his own behalf were answered. Not that the writer of Hebrews envisions his Jesus as having successfully avoided death through prayers to God for such a thing; those prayers were rather that Jesus be delivered out of death (that is, brought up from it: see below) and that he be perfected through suffering and obedience in order to serve as the source of humanity's salvation (cf. 2:10). And in fact, says the writer, this request was granted.

This is really beside the point. The question is not whether this is a reference to a specific narrative also found in the Gospels, but rather what the text before us means. Whether or not this passage finds a correlation in the Gospels, it refers to specific human activities undertaken during the "days of his flesh."

F. The Incarnation

Hebrews 1:6: "And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world...."

Although the term "firstbegotten" need not imply a physical birth, the reference to bringing Jesus "into the world" is a clear reference to the incarnation. Doherty no doubt would argue that this need not mean that Jesus came "into the world," but into a "lower celestial realm." But that is not what Hebrews says. Jesus came "into the world" not into a "lower celestial realm." The choice of terms here to describe "the world" is significant. Other terms translated as "world" have subtle but important differences. Aion means "Age," as in "the age to come." Ge means "Earth," as in soil, land, or the planet Earth. Kosmos has a variety of meanings, including "universe," the "ungodly multitude," and the "circle of earth." Ktisis means "creation." (The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, page 979-982; The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, page 886-90; Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon). The term chosen by the author of Hebrews, however, is oiloumene. This term refers to the world inhabited by humanity, sometimes to the Roman Empire. Thayer's translates the term "the inhabited earth." (ibid. page 440. The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels translates it "the inhabited world." (ibid. page 889. And, the New Testament overwhelmingly uses the phrase oikoumene to refer to the world inhabited by humankind. (Matthew24:14, Luke 2:1, Luke 4:5, Acts 11:28, Acts 17:6, Acts 17:31, Acts 19:27, Acts 24:5, Romans 10:18, Hebrews 1:6, Revelation 3:10, Revelation 12:9, Revelation 16:14, Luke 21:26). So too Josephus (Antiquities 8.13.4). Accordingly, by choosing the term referring to the "inhabited world" the author indicates that Jesus appeared on earth in physical form, not in the demon realm of the "lower celestial world." Doherty offers no evidence that the phrase "world" here can, or more importantly, should be translated as his theory demands.

G. Taking on Humanity

Hebrews 4:15: "For we have not a high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as [we are, yet] without sin."

Doherty does not spend any time on this scripture, but it is similar to the statement that Jesus became "in all things" like a human being. The idea that Jesus had to become human to save humans is strongly reinforced by this passage.

H. Jesus Executed Outside the Gate

Hebrews 13:11-14 "For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come."

The thrust of Doherty's argument is that Hebrew's reference to Jesus' suffering "outside the gate" is not based on any historical tradition, but is entirely created from the author's imagining of Hebrew scripture. However, as the discussion below demonstrates, the author is not creating accounts from scripture, but attempting to make existing historical traditions fit, often in a rather forced way, existing Hebrew scripture. Doherty:

The first thing to note is that the name of Jerusalem is not used. Only the Gospel story would lead us to identify the author's thought about a gate with that city. Nor does the name of Calvary or Golgotha ever appear.
The idea that the lack of a references to "Jerusalem," "Calvary" and/or "Golgotha" has any relevance to the issue of whether the author of Hebrews is referring to earthly events or historical tradition is demonstrably false. Example after example of later Christian writings which even Doherty admits refer to an earthly Jesus discuss Jesus' death, crucifixion, or passion without ever mentioning "Jerusalem," Calvary" and/or "Golgotha." I will discuss some notable examples:

Ignatius' Letter to the Ephesians (105 - 115 CE)

This letter mentions the cross twice, Jesus' death four times, and includes this explicit reference: "If, then, those who do this as respects the flesh have suffered death, how much more shall this be the case with any one who corrupts by wicked doctrine the faith of God, for which Jesus Christ was crucified!". Ch. 16. Nevertheless, there is no mention of Jerusalem, Golgotha, or Calvary.

Ignatius' Letter to the Magnesians (105 - 115 CE)

This letter refers to Jesus' passion twice, as well as his resurrection and crucifixion. Nevertheless, there is no mention of Jerusalem, Golgotha, or Calvary.

Ignatius' Letter to the Trallians (105 - 115 CE)

This letter refers to Jesus' death and his passion. Nevertheless, there is no mention of Jerusalem, Golgotha, or Calvary.

Ignatius' Letter to the Romans (105 - 115 CE)

This letter compares Ignatius' own upcoming martyrdom to that of Jesus. "Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God." Yet there is no mention of Jerusalem, Golgotha, or Calvary.

Ignatius' Letter to the Philadelphians (105 - 115 CE)

This letters discusses Jesus' "cross, and death, and resurrection" and his "passion." Yet there is no mention of Jerusalem, Golgotha, or Calvary.

Ignatius' Letter to the Smyrnaeans (105 - 115 CE)

This letter discusses Jesus' "passion" on several occasions. He is very explicit about Jesus' human death: "in the name of Jesus Christ, and in His flesh and blood, in His passion and resurrection, both corporeal and spiritual." Yet there is no reference to Jerusalem, Golgotha, or Calvary.

Polycarp's Letter to the Phillipians (110 - 140 CE)

This letter discusses the cross and Jesus' "suffering unto death." Yet there is no mention of Jerusalem, Golgotha, or Calvary.

Martyrdom on Polycarp (150 - 160 CE)

This letter mentions Jesus' death by crucifixion without mentioning Jerusalem, Golgotha, or Calvary.

The Octavius of Minucius Felix (160 - 250 CE)

This treatise discusses very specifically Jesus' death on a cross. Indeed, the author devotes a chapter to defending Jesus' innocence of the crime for which he was crucified. Nevertheless, there is no mention of Jerusalem, Golgotha, or Calvary.

A Letter of Mara, Son of Serapion (73 - 200 CE)

This letter mentions Jesus' death, but makes no reference to Jerusalem, Golgotha, or Calvary.

The Epistle of Barnabas (80 - 120 CE)

Although Barnabas is obsessed with the cross referring to it and discussing it over and over again there is no mention of Jerusalem, Golgotha, or Calvary.

Obviously, therefore, the fact that the author of Hebrews mentions Jesus' crucifixion without specifically mentioning Jerusalem, Golgotha, and/or Calvary, does not tend to show that the author was ignorant of such traditions. It only shows that the author did not see fit to include them in the particular letter before us.

But Doherty claims:

Jesus suffering "outside the gate" is an element which is dependent, not on some historical record, but on the idea in the previous phrase. Jesus did this because bodies of sacrificed animals were burned outside the camp.
For this writer, everything to do with Christ and his sacrifice must be modelled on the sacrificial cult of the Jewish religion, as described in scripture. Scripture determines the picture he creates of Christ and his activities in the spiritual world, and if animals were sacrificed outside the boundaries of the camp at Sinai, then Jesus had to undergo the same thing, in a higher world mythic parallel to the earthly copy. The idea of "outside the gate" also provides a symbolic parallel to the experiences of the believers, as we see by the succeeding verse which suggests that the author saw both Jesus and his own sect as rejected outsiders, living 'beyond the pale' with no permanent home. This is suggestive of the paradigmatic relationship between earthly and heavenly counterparts, as outlined in Article No. 8. Thus we can discount any necessary reference in this passage to Jerusalem or an historical event.

Doherty's claim that Jesus undergoes the "same thing" and is merely a "copy" of what happens to animal sacrifices in the Temple Cult as stated by Hebrew scripture is clearly erroneous. The differences are obvious and significant.

First, there author changes his terminology. In Leviticus, after the sacrifice, the carcass of the animal is "taken outside the camp." Leviticus 16:27. Once there, the carcass is burned. Leviticus 16:28. The author of Hebrews faithfully reproduces the text in Hebrews v. 11, noting that the animal is burned "outside the camp." When speaking of Jesus, however, the author of Hebrews does not say that Jesus suffered "outside the camp." The author conspicuously avoids using the same terminology found in Hebrew scripture and instead uses different phrases. Rather than being "burned," Jesus "suffers." And, even more significantly, rather than suffering "outside the camp," Jesus suffers "outside the gate."

Doherty offers no explanation for the shift in terminology. It is clearly incompatible with his claim that Jesus is merely the "same thing" or a "copy" that is based on Hebrew scripture. So, if Doherty's interpretation fails to explain the change in terms, what does? The explanation is obvious. The author of Hebrews is not creating myth from Hebrew scripture, he is adapting scripture to fit into historical tradition. And, frankly, his attempt is somewhat forced because of the differences between the historical tradition he is working with and Hebrew scripture.

The historical tradition that is being "forced" to fit into the sacrificial system of Leviticus 16 is that Jesus was executed outside the city. That is why the author refers to "gate" instead of "camp." In fact, according to Thayer's Lexicon, the Greek term that the author of Hebrews uses for "gate", pule generally means "a gate of a larger sort", such as to a city, town, or large structure. The same term is used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to a gate to a city or town (Acts 3:10; 9:24: 12:10; Luke 7:12).

But is there any indication that such a historical tradition even existed about the location of Jesus' death? Yes. Three of the four gospels confirm that Jesus died outside the city.

  • Matthew27:32 33: "As they were coming out, they found a man of Cyrene named Simon, whom they pressed into service to bear His cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha, which means Place of a Skull...."
  • Mark 15:20: "After they had mocked Him, they took the purple robe off Him and put His own garments on Him. And they led Him out to crucify Him."
  • John 19:20: "Therefore many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin and in Greek."

Jerusalem, as a walled city, was exited by use of one of the many gates to the city. Accordingly, the best explanation for the shift from "camp" to "gate" is that the author of Hebrews was attempting to fit an existing historical tradition into an analogy with the sacrificial system described in Leviticus.

Second, there are other substantial differences between the animal sacrifices in Leviticus and the sacrifice of Jesus. The location and sequence of events is different. Very different. In the Temple Cult, the animal was taken into the camp, and killed therein. (Lev. 16). The blood was then used to make the appropriate sacrifices. Only after the sacrifice was complete was the animal's body removed from the Temple and taken outside the camp to be burned. Not so with Jesus. Jesus' suffering, a reference to his crucifixion, occurred outside of the gate. Only after he died on the cross (Hebrews 6:6; 12:2), did Jesus enter the temple. The sequence and location of events is actually the opposite of the Levitical system. If Jesus was simply a model of the Hebrew scripture's system of sacrifice, he would have died/suffered inside the camp (as the animal does), not outside the gate (as the Gospels indicate). Obviously, the author is struggling to fit an existing tradition into existing scripture. And, frankly, it is something of a stretch given the differences highlighted.

Two commentators on Hebrews explain it as follows:

The fact that the bodies of the animals sacrificed on the Day of Atonement were burned outside the camp suggests a parallel to the fact that Jesus was crucified outside one of the city gates of Jerusalem [cf. John 19:2]. The parallel may seem inexact, since the animals of the sin offering were actually slaughtered within the camp.

(FF Bruce, op. cit. page 380)

The analogy was not meant to be pressed, and that may be why the author used the word suffered (epathen) rather than 'died." The Old Testament sin offering was actually slain within the tabernacle precincts, and only after its blood was sprinkled on the altar was the carcass carried outside the camp for burning. In the case of Jesus, of course, His death occurred outside the city. The main point in view is the disgrace involved.

Homer A. Kent, op. cit. page 285)

Clearly, therefore, the most reasonable understanding of the differences between what the author of Hebrews says about Jesus' death on a cross outside the gate before the offering and the Levitical system's sacrifice within the camp and burning outside of it, is that the author of Hebrews is trying to fit what he knows about the historical facts of Jesus' death into Hebrew scripture. It's not a perfect fit by any means, but he uses it to make his point. He obviously did not create the accounts of Jesus to be the "same thing" or a "copy" of the scriptures.

Doherty continues:

In any case, we have strong indication from an earlier passage (7:1 3) that the writer of Hebrews possesses no concept of Jesus ever having been in or near Jerusalem. Jesus in his role as heavenly High Priest finds his archetype, his scriptural precedent, in Melchizedek. This figure was "king of Salem and priest of God Most High," who is mentioned briefly in Genesis 14:18 20. (There is an even briefer reference to him in Psalm 110:4.) In comparing Melchizedek to Jesus, the writer is anxious to milk everything he can from this shadowy character; one who serves the role of prototype for Jesus the new High Priest. And yet he fails to make the obvious point that Melchizedek had officiated in the same city where Jesus later performed his own act as High Priest, the sacrifice of himself. This is only one of many unthinkable omissions in this epistle.

First, the reference to Melchizedek, along with other features about Hebrews, actually points away from a heavy reliance on Platonic thought here. The figure of Melchizedek is obviously considered to be historical, and hints at Qumran influence and their belief in an earthly Messiah.

The symbolism of Hebrews is complex, deriving from a variety of traditions. The search for a perfect correspondence between one tradition and this writing is futile, for Hebrews reshapes the available symbols around the figure of a crucified and exalted Messiah. A discussion of the symbolic framework is valuable only insofar as it helps us understand that new shaping. It has recently been argued, for example, that Hebrews most resembles the thought world of the Qumran sectarians. Both there and here, we find a New Covenant community, separation from cult with appropriation of its symbols, the expectation of a priestly as well as kingly messiah, even an interest in the figure of Melchizedek.

(Luke T. Johnson, op. cit. page 420)

Second, there is there no "unthinkable omission." Jesus did not "officiate" as high priest in Jerusalem. Rather, Christ officiates as high priest from heaven. Jesus simply suffered and died near Jerusalem, he presented himself as a high priest and the offering in heaven. The author, if anything, wants to de emphasize any connection between Jesus' movement and the Temple Cult of Jerusalem.

In sum, Hebrews 13:11 - 13 most likely refers to a historical tradition recounting how Jesus was crucified outside the city as recorded in three of the Gospels.

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Christopher Price 2003.
Last revised: 08 December, 2009