The Temple in the Epistle to the Hebrews

Temple_P1040241Hebrews is a symbol-rich, complex text, and it can be a tribal campground for cultists, tending to attract more than its fair share of symbolic speculation, hermeneutical bank shots, and downright weird interpretations.” So claims Thomas Long in a recent commentary, and he is undoubtedly right.


Hebrews has long been a hunting ground for bizarre theories about Christ, the afterlife and heavenly reality. But at the same time this strange but magnificent piece of early Christian rhetoric has been a sourcebook for humorists who have seen in it a certain off-beat irony. Indeed, there is something nice about a document which claims to be God’s “final word” to the human race, but which at many points seems almost impossible to understand and leaves so many nagging questions unanswered; a book which has been called “To the Hebrews”, but is also described as the most “Greek” book in the Bible.

The words “without father, without mother, without genealogy” (7:3) might just as well be a description of Hebrews itself as of Melchizedek, one of its favorite characters. We know virtually nothing about the author of Hebrews, its readers, its date, or the urgent situation which called it forth. This, too, might seem something of a joke – Christians obsessed with finding certainty about the origins of their church. Only guesswork leads a scholar to speculate about its intellectual background: was it Philo of Alexandria, Qumran, Gnosticism, the Samaritans, the speech of Stephen in Acts 7 or St Paul. We do not know.

All of this academic disagreement does not mean we are left clueless. In the past fifty years, enormous strides have been made in piecing together a very likely set of circumstances surrounding this early “word of exhortation” (13:22). Hebrews was probably written to the same persecuted Roman church as Mark’s gospel: the Roman Christian church after the great fire of 64, when many Christians paid for their confession with their lives during Nero’s persecution. The difference is that the-author of Hebrews was addressing the Jewish; Mark was addressing the Gentile wing of that church. Before the catastrophe of 64 C.E., the Roman state thought that “Christians” were just another Jewish sect, and that they, like the Jews, had legal protection under Roman Law as a religio licita, a “lawful religion”. But inquiries in the wake of the fire discovered that the vast majority of Christians were Gentiles and therefore were under no such legal protection. This made them ripe for the dragnet of Nero, who needed a scapegoat to avert suspicion from himself for having started the fire (whether he did or not, nobody knows). Under such circumstances, it would have been natural for the Jewish Christians in Rome to retreat into the synagogue from which they came, in effect to hide, claiming “we are not Christians, but Jews – we are lawful members of society.” Cecil B. DeMille’s classic film The Sign of the Cross depicts the terror surrounding Nero’s persecution of the Christians.

But persecution by the Romans may not have been the only pressure faced by the Jewish Christians. According to Professor C. F. D. Moule of Cambridge, Hebrews was written to reassure Jewish Christians in Rome who were being attacked by their fellow Jews. “You Christians have no temple, do you?”, the non-Christian Jews were claiming, “Nor do you have a priest, or even a sacrifice. How then can you call your faith a true religion?” To this the author of Hebrews replies, “Nonsense. We have a high priest (4:14; 8:1) who is greater than Aaron; we have a sanctuary in the heavens’ (8:5-9:24) greater than that of Aaron; and we have a sacrifice from which the priests of the old covenant have no right to eat (13:10).”

This suggestion casts a crucial light on the Hebrews’ circumstances, but it does not get the modern reader out of the woods completely. One must still deal with arguments that, by today’s standards, appear “fantastic”, “outmoded” and “obscure”. Grappling with such descriptions demands an appreciation of the author’s overall purpose. Hebrews may be the earliest attempt to work through the Christian use of the Old Testament. Its author was clearly a pastor at heart, one who faced a very practical crisis in the life of his congregation. Under the pressure of persecution (12 :3-17), its members were tempted to “fall away” (6:6), to renounce Christ and go back to the old, comfortable and familiar world of the Jewish synagogue, the old covenant, safe from Nero. The author confronts this crisis by a lengthy argument intended to show that “what God spoke in fragmentary and varied fashion through the prophets” has now been fully revealed in the Son, to whom He has granted the task of achieving His purpose for the human race. The main argument of the letter is that the Old Testament is an incomplete book, a “shadowy outline” or anticipation of something better to come (10:1). For this author, it is an incomplete book repeatedly pointing to its own incompleteness. It cries out constantly, “Don’t take me as final, I am only a shadow.” Thus the epistle is full of warnings that its readers should not take up their home in the old covenant or see it as their lasting city (13:14). This he underscores by expounding four main texts: Psalm 8 (chapters 1-2), Psalm 95 (chs 3-4), Psalm 110 (chs 5-7), and Jeremiah 31 (chs 8-10).

The author interprets the final text (Jer 31 :31-34) by the use of temple imagery. It is true that the author talks exclusively of the Old Testament “tabernacle” (skene); but it is also clear that in the back of his mind stands the contemporary Jerusalem Temple. For this writer, religion consists of access to God. This is quite clear from his frequent use of the verbs proserchomai (“approach”: 4:16; 7:25; 10:1; etc.) and engidzo (“draw near”: 7:19; 10:19,25). To enter God’s presence is an end in itself, the chief end of human existence, but it is also the means by which the worshipper is consecrated (2:11), made fit for the service of God (9:14), and is enabled to worship God as God would be worshipped. Jesus, our great high priest, has made purification for sins (1 :3), has “offered himself once for all” (7:27), has “made for all time one sacrifice for sins”, and has “suffered outside the gate to make holy the people by his own blood” (13:12). The old regime claimed, to provide a purging of sins, but it could not purify the conscience (9:13-14) and, thus, provided only a shadowy outline of the reality that was to come (8:5; 9:23; 10: 1). Under the old system the way to God was barricaded, as only the high priest was allowed to enter the temple’s Holy of Holies, and only on one day of the year, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Jesus, however, has entered the true tent (9:2), of which the earthly tabernacle was a shadowy sketch-plan, and has pioneered a way of entry for all (9:6-14; 10:19-25).

Hebrews has been justifiably called “the epistle of priesthood”. Nowhere else in the New Testament is Christ’s work set forth against the background of the Old Testament priesthood. He is the Christian’s great high priest who is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” and who was “tempted in every point as we are” (4:15). But in setting forth Christ as high priest, the author does not limit himself to the common Jewish stereotypes of a Jerusalem priest. The epistle understands the sacrifice of Christ in language taken from the levitical ritual. In chapters 5-7, however, the author points the readers’ attention away from Aaron, who embodies what might be called “an exclusive priesthood”, to another Old Testament figure, Melchizedek. The priesthood of Christ is anticipated by Aaron only as a “shadow” (8:5; 10:1), whereas Melchizedek presents the actual “likeness” of Christ (7:15).

These words “shadow” and “likeness” are not used causally by the author; they point to two competing models of ministry. The Old Testament priesthood is “but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (10:1). Aaron had the external trappings of priesthood, but lacked the ability to enable worshippers to draw near to God. The sacrifices appeared to solve the problem of human misery, but they did not purify the conscience from dead works. It is different with Melchizedek, of whom it is declared “resembling the Son of God, he continues a priest forever” (7:3).

To describe Christ’s priestly office according to the order of Melchizedek in chapters 5 to 7 does not mean that the author has lost all interest in Aaronic priestly and temple imagery. Far from it. In chapters 8 to 10, he makes it clear that the representative office of Christ does not consist simply in being something; as high priest, he also has to do something. He must deal effectively with sin. In his own life, Christ has already done this. He was “tempted in all points as we are, yet without sinning” (4:15). But how does that holiness of Jesus become effective in the lives of those he is to save? That is the subject of the author’s next three chapters (8-10).

“To sum up what we have been saying,” he argues, “we have such a high priest who has taken his seat at the right hand of the majesty in the heavens, officiating in the true sanctuary which the lord established, not man … if he had been officiating on earth, he would not even have been a priest, since there already exist those who, according to the Law, offer gifts, who serve hupodeigmati kai skia ton epouranion.” Prior to 1985, this key phrase was translated as “a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary”. This translation assumed that hupodeigmati meant “copy”. This assumption rests on a Platonic interpretation of the verse that the author quotes next, Exodus 25:40. Here God instructs Moses to construct the earthly tabernacle according to what he saw “on the mountain”. Interpreters have maintained that what he saw was the eternally existing heavenly temple, of which he then made an earthly copy. We now know that this translation of the term hupodeigma is utterly false. A hupodeigma is a pattern to be followed, an outline to be filled in (cf. NRSV: “a sketch and shadow”). The author’s use of the term hupodeigma may be analogous to a tool which used to be used in English elementary education, the “copy book”. There, lightly printed letters were to be traGed over by the pupil. It was not a “copy” book in the sense of a copy of something else, but in the sense that it was something to be copied.

The author of Hebrews was not saying that Moses saw an eternally existing temple when he went up on the mountain. What he actually saw was a preview of the heavenly temple which was to come. This is an idea common to Old Testament notions of prophetic vision. The Hebrew prophet is one who sees visions of what is to be, and, for the author of Hebrews, Moses was a prophet who was given a heavenly preview of what was going to come, and of which he made an anticipatory, shadowy outline. The proof of this comes again and again in the next three chapters, when hupodeigma is understood correctly. God instructed Moses to make the tabernacle according to the pattern which he had seen upon the mountain.

But now Christ has obtained a more excellent ministry, as he is the mediator of a better covenant founded on better promises. Thus, the heavenly sanctuary previewed by Moses is connected with the new covenant, while the shadowy sanctuary built by Moses is connected with the old covenant, declared by Jerermiah 31 to be obsolescent. Chapter 9 opens with the comment: “The first covenant had its ordinances of worship and an earthly sanctuary.” It is followed by a fascinating catalogue of the furniture of Moses’ tabernacle. The lampstand and the table for the setting forth of the shewbread were all in the outer room of the sanctuary called the Holy Place. But behind the second veil was the hagia hagion (Holy of Holies), containing the golden altar of incense and the Ark of the Covenant, covered with gold and holding the golden vessels of manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, the tablets of the covenant, and the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. The make-up of the list shows that the author had neither been in the sacred shrine, nor had he read about it in his scriptures. When, then, did he get his information? Moreover, the section ends abruptly. “The preacher drops the curtain,” one scholar has noted, “and curtly announces that the show is over. Of these things, he says with a dismissive wave of the hand, ‘we cannot now speak in detail’ (9:5).” Why not? Why does the preacher fill our eyes with golden wonders and then bring us to such a precipitate close?

Clearly Professor Long is correct: the author does not want the glories of the old covenant to undermine his intention, obscuring what he is claiming for the new covenant. Chapters 9 and 10 of Hebrews are thus the writer’s exposition of the new covenant as God’s way of making the divine purpose effective for humankind, of which the old covenant was always just a shadowy prefigurement.

The temple again figures prominently in the opening section of Hebrews 9. Here the author describes the two differently located actions of the priests of Jerusalem’s temple. The priests enter constantly into the “first” tent to fulfill their liturgy. But only the high priest, once a year, is allowed to enter the “second”, “but not without blood which he offers for himself and the people.” Thus the author’s concludes: “thereby the Holy Spirit makes plain that access into the sanctuary is not yet made open as long as the first tent stands.”

The author’s use of the term “first” is ambiguous in these verses. He has probably shifted the meaning of “first”. Initially, it referred to the “outer” court. But in his second use, “first” means the entire old covenant tent. As long as it and the temple which followed it still stood, together with the priesthood and sacrifices of the liturgy, there was no way into the sanctuary for the ordinary worshipper. Now, unlike the old covenant h’igh priest who was an “exclusive” representative of the people, Christ is an “inclusive” representative who opens the way into the new sanctuary for others to follow. With the change of priesthood from Aaron to Christ, the way is open and is no longer barricaded. This assumes that Christ the high priest has dealt with the real barrier to God’s presence – sin – of which the veil of the old sanctuary was a shadowy symbol.

That barrier has now been totally removed. This would then be the meaning of the phrase, “which is a parable of the time now arrived” (9:9). Once again, the author’s “shadowy outline” comes into view. The fact that only the high priest can enter the Holy of Holies is a parable of the real high priest who is to come “in the time now arrived.” The old practices were only “fleshly ordinances” laid down until the present “time of reformation” (9:10). Christ is the high priest of the good things which have now come (9:11). The author’s claim that Christ has entered the Holy Place “through the greater and more perfect tent not made with hands, that is, not of this creation” (9:11), makes good sense in relation to the ideas of the apocalyptic writers. In the apocalyptic thought world, the sanctuary would be an actual sanctuary in heaven into which Christ has entered. This notion is in keeping with Jewish belief in a new temple which would be built by God. Key texts such as Dan (8:14, 2), Mac (2:4-8), and Tob (14:15) look to a new and more spectacular sanctuary to come. Eventually, this hope for a new temple joined growing speculation regarding a “heavenly” temple. God was now assigned God’s own temple in heaven.

The apocalyptic tradition focused on a new Jerusalem “that is now invisible [but which] shall appear” (4 Ezra 7:26; cf. 13:36). In 2 Baruch (4:3-6), the new Jerusalem is said to be: “prepared beforehand here from the time when I took counsel to make Paradise, I showed it to Moses on Mount Sinai when I showed him the likeness of the tabernacle and all its vessels. And now, behold, it is preserved with me, as also Paradise.” Here the “city”, “the tabernacle”, and “Paradise” are independent but related entities; they are prepared by God before or at creation, and yet are preserved with God for a future time. Thus the apocalyptic tradition offers writings contemporaneous with Hebrews which speaks of a “heavenly Jerusalem” – complete with a functioning sanctuary. Such notions of a heavenly Jerusalem and temple were not that unusual in the time of Hebrews. Paul, who also shows little or no influence of Plato, speaks of “the Jerusalem above” which already exists (Gal 4:26) – it is our “mother” – while for the author of the Book of Revelation the new city is “coming down out of God” after the destruction of the old heaven and earth (Rev 21:1 f).

In Hebrews we find slightly different tones: God has built the city already (11 :10), has “pitched” the heavenly tent (9:2), and has prepared it for the saints (11 :16). It can be approached now through faith, just as Moses did (12:22), while at the same time it is still “to come” (13:14). In addition to being “pitched” by God, the author claims that Jesus has already entered the heavenly tent. Within the apocalyptic tradition, entry into the new temple could only take place once the heavenly temple and city had ultimately descended to earth. Here the author of Hebrews makes an amazing adjustment: through their great representative high priest, Jesus, human beings have already entered the new, heavenly sanctuary. Its ultimate involvement in the affairs of the human race, in other words, has already begun in “these last days” (1 :2). What the author of Hebrews has in mind is clearly the inauguration of a new temple, and hence the new age of Jewish apocalyptic.

There are, of course, great dangers if we take this language about the heavenly temple in a crassly literal way. The ancients were not naive prisoners of their language. It is possible to “visualize” things in a certain way without having to believe that that’s how things really are. All metaphorical language derives its force by comparing one thing to another, a point made well by Marie E. Isaacs in her fine book, Sacred Space: In the Book of Revelation. John is visualizing things and events in heaven and on earth as if they were happening “locally”, in one place, yet without confining them in local terms. Things which are happening in heaven are also happening on earth. Our author, unlike John, is not a particularly visual writer. He actually portrays an anchor entering into the Holy of Holies (6:19)! That should tell us that he has little interest in, or even awareness of, the visual impact his language might be making. For him the point of comparison between the earthly and heavenly sanctuaries is probably that of function rather than appearance. Both the earthly and heavenly tents are places where God’s presence is centralized. It is not necessary therefore to be more specific as to what a heavenly temple might actually “look” like for this writer. The Epistle to the Hebrews will probably remain the most puzzling and fascinating document of the New Testament for the foreseeable future. As we learn more about the author’s language and thought world, it may be hoped that the puzzling aspects surrounding his language about the heavenly temple will fade, without a corresponding dimunition in the fascination it holds for scholars and laypeople alike.

By Lincoln D. Hurst
(was Associate Professor of Religious Studies, University of California, Davis).