Motives for the Incarnation in the Epistle to the Hebrews

James Swetnam SJ FAITH Magazine September-October 2010

Fr. James Swetnam SJ, vice-Rector Emeritus of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, offers an exploration of the motives for the Incarnation as presented in the letter to the Hebrews.

The Epistle to the Hebrews is one of the least understood writings of the New Testament corpus.[1] The present note will outline the motives for the Incarnation as presented in Chapter 2 of the epistle. No attempt will be made to "prove" what is presented, but an attempt will be made to make a plausible case for all that is asserted.[2]

Hebrews is a classic example of the importance of structure for ascertaining meaning.[3] The present writer's construal of Heb 1,1 - 3,6 is as follows:[4]

1,1-4 Prologue

1,5-14 Exposition on Christ as Son [of God][5]

2,1-4 Exhortation Based on 1,5-14

2,5-18 Exposition on Christ as "Son of Man"

3,1-6 Exhortation Based on 2,5-18

The structure indicates that the author of Hebrews is consciously and deliberately distinguishing between Christ as divine and Christ as human.[6] The section 2,5-18 is where the detailed motives for the Incarnation are presented.

"Son of Man" in 2,5-18 is understood with reference to a midrashic interpretation of Ps 8,5. This verse is understood in Hebrews not as referring to mankind in general, as in its original meaning in Ps 8, but as made explicit in Heb 2,13a: Jesus is being viewed in 2,5-18 as one who "trusts" in God the way Abraham "trusted" in God in Gen 22. (The word "man" in Ps 8,5 cited at Heb 2,6 is understood midrashically of Abraham and not of mankind in general as in the original meaning of the psalm.)

The structure of 2,5-18 is as follows:[7]

2,5 Introduction to 2,5-18

2,6-8a Citation of Psalm 8,6-8

2,8b-9 Jesus as Heavenly Victim

2,10-12 Jesus as Heavenly High Priest

2,13a Thematic Verse for 2,5-18: "I shall be trusting in Him"

2,13b-16 Jesus as Earthly Victim

2,17-18 Jesus as Earthly High Priest

This is a passage packed with theological meaning. Here is the classic treatment of Jesus as "high priest" in the New Testament. It should be noted that this treatment occurs in the section presenting Jesus as human, not as divine,[8] for only as human does he have the wherewithal (blood) to expiate sin (cf. Heb 9,22).

Requisite for understanding this passage is knowledge of the Old Testament cultic rite of the toda.[9] Briefly put, the toda (short for zebach toda, "sacrifice of praise") was an Old Testament rite involving: 1) a bloody sacrifice in the temple of Jerusalem offered by the temple priests; 2) a ritual public consumption of bread; 3) accompanying public hymns and prayers. The ritual involving the consumption of bread and hymns/prayers could be performed by any believing Israelite male. The motive was the public rendering of thanksgiving/ praise to God by the person commissioning the ritual in the presence of relatives and friends for God's signal intervention in saving the man (and his family, if the occasion called forit) from death in war or in some similar grave danger such as famine. The divine salvation could be past or future. Both, obviously, involved trust in God's providential care.[10]

In the New Testament adaptation of this ritual, Jesus at the Last Supper looks forward to the salvation which he believes (as human) that God will grant in the death he realises as imminent. The bread and hymns/prayers which mark Jesus' cultic action at the Last Supper are the New Testament fulfilment known as the Eucharist of the Old Testament zebach toda, with the unique bloody death of Jesus on the cross taking the place of the temple sacrifices. The unique death of Jesus on the cross anchors each Christian zebach toda in a supernatural unity, while the bread and prayers/ hymns of the Christian zebach toda are infinitely multipliable.

An allusion to the Christian zebach toda, i.e., Eucharist, is found at Heb 2,12 in the allusion to Ps 22,22. In the original meaning Ps 22,22 is a toda prayer uttered by the psalmist to celebrate his deliverance from a pressing danger by God.[11] In Hebrews, of course, the prayer is an allusion to the Eucharist as the thanksgiving by Christ for the salvation granted him by the resurrection.

The citation of Ps 22,22 at Heb 2,12 is crucial for the understanding of the entire section 2,5-18: the priesthood of Jesus is not intelligible apart from the Eucharist. In Heb 2,10-12 Jesus is portrayed as the heavenly high priest (i.e., as he exists in his risen state) officiating at the Eucharist, and at 2,8b-9 Jesus is portrayed as the heavenly victim (i.e., as he exists in the Eucharist). Parallel to these presentations of Jesus as heavenly victim and heavenly high priest are Heb 2,13b-16 which portrays Jesus as earthly victim, and Heb 2,17-18 which portrays Jesus as earthly high priest.[12]

Heb 2,13b-16 is fulfilled in Heb 2,8b-9. In Heb 2,13b-16 Jesus is said to have taken on "blood and flesh"[13] in order that through death he might destroy the power of the devil (2,14) and free those suffering from a fear of death, i.e., all mankind (2,15). These purposes of the Incarnation are fulfilled in Heb 2,8b-9. By gazing at the heavenly Jesus as victim, i.e., Jesus in the Eucharist, believers are able to profit from Jesus' experiencing death for each of them, thus enabling them to appreciate Jesus' earthly victimhood, which resulted in his heavenly victimhood in the Eucharist. Their faith-trust will be similarly brought to completion by God and thus their fear of death in their earthly life, and the power of the devil over them,will be eliminated.

Heb 2,17-18 is brought to fulfilment in Heb 2,10-12. The expiation of sin achieved by Jesus' priestly sacrificial death on the cross is brought to fulfilment in the Eucharist of which Jesus is the heavenly high priest. The purpose of Jesus' heavenly high priesthood in the Eucharist is portrayed as consisting in "announcing God's name". That name would seem to be "Father".[14] In this way Jesus "sanctifies" those who share in his faith-trust in God in the face of personal death.[15] In doing this in the context of the Eucharist Jesus the heavenly high priest "sanctifies" the believer ("the one sanctifying and those being sanctified are from one" -Heb2,11).[16]

These motives for the Incarnation are summed up in Heb 10,5-14 where the Son is portrayed as "entering"[17] into the world "to do God's will". Thus God's "will" is associated, ultimately, with the priesthood of Christ and its exercise.

In summary it can be said that the Incarnation has as its global purpose the doing of God's "will" which, in the context of Hebrews (and perhaps elsewhere in the New Testament), has a connection with the priesthood of Christ. This global purpose can be broken down into two sub-purposes:

1) Bringing about Christ as earthly victim in order to defeat the power of the devil and free mankind from the fear of death. This earthly victimhood of Jesus is achieved in the heavenly victimhood which permits the believer, in an atmosphere of faith-trust, to look on the Eucharistic Christ and see in him the result of faith-trust in God brought to fulfilment by God's gift of the resurrection.

2) Bringing about Christ as heavenly high priest in order to sanctify the believer by announcing God's name of Father in the context of the Christian todi, i.e., the Eucharist. This sanctification is achieved by union with the risen Christ in the faith-trust in God as Father which Christ showed as he offered himself on the cross. ■


[1] The standard reaction by knowledgeable persons to mention of "the Epistle to the Hebrews" is "Hebrews is not written by St. Paul". The present writer begs to differ from this standard reaction which, of course, expresses the standard view. But for the purposes of the present paper the author is irrelevant. Hebrews is part of the New Testament canon and is the inspired word of God to be received by faith by every believing Roman Catholic.

[2] For a much fuller treatment of the material presented in this note the reader may consult the author's website:\_Page.html (on the Google search engine, "James Swetnam's Close Readings"). There one finds a detailed commentary on Hebrews entitled "Hebrews — An Interpretation" with ample bibliographical references.

[3] The coincidence of a meaningful structure and the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church enhances the plausibility of the interpretation being advanced for those whose faith is guided by the Roman Catholic faith tradition.

[4] Cf. James Swetnam, "Tw'n lalhqhomevnwn in Hebrews 3,5", Biblica 90 (2009), pp. 98-99.

[5] The section speaks only of Christ as "Son". But the understanding is that the word "Son" is meant as the primary analogate of all sonship, so that the explicit use of "of God" is unnecessary, given the context.

[6] It would be anachronistic to say that the author is speaking of Christ's divine "nature" and Christ's human "nature" in the context of a divine "person" — such terminology and understanding will come only later with the ecumenical councils of Nicaea I, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon. But the foreshadowing of these terms and this understanding, based on Greek philosophical terminology, is present in Hebrews.

[7] The argumentation behind this structure is laid out in detail in James Swetnam, "The Crux at Hebrews 2,9 in Its Context", Biblica 91 (2010), pp. 103-111. In this article references are given to previous treatment of the section 2,5-18 by the author.

[8] This is not to imply that Chalcedon was innovating in understanding Christ as having divine and human natures united by a divine person ("hypostatic union"). The union between divine and human in Heb 1,5 — 3,6 is expressed by the use of a genera shawa uniting Ps 110,4 at Heb 1,13 and Ps 8,7 at Heb 2,8a, as explained in "Hebrews -An Interpretation".

[9] Cf "Hebrews —An Interpretation" for ample discussion.

[10] Cf the present writer's understanding of Chapter 13 of Hebrews as presented in "Hebrews — An Interpretation" in his website.

[11] Cf the first 21 verses of Ps 22, with expressions of extreme suffering alternating with expressions of faith-trust in God.

[12] The priesthood of Christ has two stages, earthly and heavenly, depending on the ontological status of his body. The heavenly priesthood, i.e., the risen Christ, "incorporates" the earthly priesthood and all that was achieved by it.

[13] The inversion from the usual "flesh and blood" is probably designed to emphasise the role of blood in the expiation of Jesus as high priest in 2,17.

[14] Cf James Swetnam, "oJ ajpovstolo" in Hebrews 3,1", Biblica 89 (2008), pp. 256-261.

[15] Cf James Swetnam, " jEx ejnov" in Hebrews 3,1", Biblica 88 (2007), pp. 521-524.

[16] In the Bible only God can sanctify. Hence this attribution of the act of sanctifying to Jesus implicitly indicates the belief of the author of Hebrews in the divinity of Jesus even in the act proper to his humanity of acting as a priest. Again, a foreshadowing of Chalcedon.

[17] The word "enter" (eijsevrcomai) has liturgical connotations in the New Testament.

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