Hebrew Christian vs. Messianic Jew: Does the Letter to the Hebrews Teach that the New Covenant Has Made Torah Obedience Obsolete?

Written by

As mentioned in recent posts, a Hebrew Christian has been jousting with me on Facebook, taking exception to positions I hold while expressing a wide range of views contrary to the kind of Messianic Judaism I favor. I told him I was going to take his objections and statements and respond to them one by one on my blog. Mr. Koenig  is a well-respected lawyer and Hebrew Christian who sees the proper home for Jesus believing Jews to be in the Church, while Messianic Jews like myself insist on a deeper engagement with Jewish community and therefore are likely to form Messianic synagogues and even participate in synagogues in the wider Jewish world.  His comments were part of a Facebook informal discussion, not an article or even a blog, so don’t expect his rhetoric to be polished, which is something he is well capable of under other circumstances.  He imagines that many of his views would be pretty standard for Jewish believers who attend churches, as opposed to messianic congregations, and for evangelical scholars and commentators, and that my Messianic Jewish view may be common in messianic congregations at this point, but likely would be viewed critically at any evangelical seminary like Dallas or Talbot. I think he is right in his assessment. 

He has raised many issues, But one that should not be missed is his evocation of the Letter to the Hebrews as evidence that I am wrong in holding that Jews, including Messianic Jews, should live Torah-centric Jewish lives in harmony with Jewish communal and historical consensus. His objection is not his alone. For that reason it should be addressed here. Here is what he says on the matter:

Hebrews 8, which is a long explanation of the Jeremiah 31 New Covenant passage, conclud(es) that the word new in that passage alone makes the old covenant obsolete, and if obsolete, just before the destruction of the temple, then ready to disappear.

Does the New Covenant make the Old, and with it the Law, obsolete?  That is our question.

A Scholar Rings In . . . And Surprises Us

When working on my PhD, I came across an article by Charles P. Anderson who interacts compellingly with this common argument. The article is “Who are the Heirs of the New Age in the Epistle to the Hebrews?” in Marcus, J., and M.L. Soards, eds., Apocalyptic and the New Testament (Essays in Honor of J. Louis Martyn), JSNTS 24.  Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989: 255-277.

Anderson slays the dragon. He holds that the standard view of the letter is distorted due to the presuppositions and the Paul-colored glasses worn by exegetes and indeed by the Western theological tradition.

Chuck-1-e1369509363251

Charles P. Anderson

He redraws the boundaries concerning what is said about “that law that has been done away with” in the letter. He states that the letter “never makes nor assumes a wholesale onslaught against the Law as such nor against Judaism as such.” Indeed, in Hebrews the author is not in any sense setting at variance Christianity as over against Judaism. Rather, in the letter, Anderson sees the religion of the Letter to the Hebrews as being “oriented primarily if not exclusively toward Jews. This form of Christianity, while opposing cultic or temple Judaism in the strongest possible terms, nevertheless considers itself Jewish, not just in a metaphorical but in a quite literal sense (1989:258).

Anderson states later that Hebrews is dealing with different questions than those arising in the context of modern Christian theologizing and the thinking of the Apostle Paul. In contrast to these, he says, “Here we deal with questions such as the following: ‘Does the community envisaged in Hebrews keep the whole Torah or any part of it? What is the relationship in Hebrews between covenant, the people, and the Torah?'” (1989:269). To Anderson, it is clear that the recipients of the Letter do indeed keep Torah and that the bond between covenant, the people and Torah remains intact. This is a very Jewish world!

But, is there no law that is done away with the coming of Messiah? Most certainly there is! Anderson affirms that Hebrews 7:11-12 refers only to a change in legislation as it regards the cult (Temple ritual), sacrifice and priesthood, not to a wholesale jettisoning of the Law of Moses. Discussing the use of the passive verb nomotetheo in this context, Anderson states “7.11 refers to specific commandments concerning the Levitical priesthood and their sacrificial service to the people, nothing more. . . . Those commandments were of course part of the Torah, but not its totality. . . . The Torah as such never enters the picture” (1989:269-270).

In other words, the change in law spoken of in 7:12 refers only to priestly law due to a change in priesthood, from the order of Aaron to that of Melchizedek. Contrary to the widespread evangelical assumption of overwhelming discontinuity in Hebrews, Anderson indicates that “What is referred to in 7.12 is the one elemental discontinuity permeating the epistle, the cultic life of Israel. . . It is ‘liturgical law’ (8.2,6), and only liturgical law, that is changed in Hebrews. Inferences concerning other aspects of Torah or the Torah as such are unwarranted” (1989:270).

Anderson reminds us,

Whereas discontinuity between the former and the present times is vigorously affirmed in Hebrews it must not be extended beyond the limits set for it there. Rather than covering the entirety of Torah, it applies only to cultic legislation. And rather than proclaiming, as Paul did, a new ethnic principle inherent in the new covenant which constitutes a fundamental departure from the first covenant, Hebrews contains no evidence of an envisaged rupture between traditional Israel and the heirs of the new age. In Israel then and now are found both those whose apistia (‘unfaithfulness’) barred them from inheriting the rest and those whose faith qualified them for it. The “seed of Abraham” (2.16), whose salvation is at stake, is “Israel.” (272-273)

Anderson highlights how the Church misreads Hebrews by reading it through Pauline glasses.

The arguments in Hebrews regarding Law and covenant are misunderstood if confused with Paul’s argument concerning the incorporation of the gentiles into faithful Israel. The religious world of Hebrews is narrower and more traditional than Paul’s. With the one fundamental exception relating to the cult, the Torah is still valid for those to whom it was given by Moses. No break with Jewish tradition apart from priesthood, sacrifice, and temple is assumed in Hebrews. Discontinuity centers upon cult, not Torah. Of course, cult implicates Torah. But Torah is a larger category, and apart from priesthood and other cultic aspects, is left untouched by the critique of Hebrews. The new covenant does not imply a new Torah, but a “changed” Torah in which earlier cultic legislation is replaced.

A World Class Scholar Reverses Himself

Unknown-4

Richard B. Hays

Richard B. Hays, one of the premier exegetes (Bible textual scholars and interpreters) of our day writes about Anderson’s article in his own essay, “’Here We Have No Lasting City:’ New Covenantalism In Hebrews” found in Richard Bauckham, et al, eds, The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology,” Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009:151-173. He begins his chapter in an interesting manner, quoting a Bible scholar who held that indeed the Letter to the Hebrews does teach the expiration of God’s law and the subsuming of the Jewish communal reality into that of the church. The person he quotes from is himself! He freely admits to having held a position very like Mr. Koenig’s. However, he says that having read Anderson’s article, Hays now sees himself as having been wrong, so wrong in fact, that here he prints his retraction.

I don’t have the time to summarize his entire argument which is elegant and detailed. But the following points are worth noting for the time being.

First, he shows how some scholars “have recently begun to question the supersessionis paradigm for reading Hebrews and to propose new models for understanding the text.” Here he references Anderson’s article, and also serveral essays in a book edited by Gabriela Gelardini, Hebrews: Contemporary Methods—New Insights (Leiden: Brill), 2005. Gelardini holds that the letter is a homily composed especially for Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of Av, a day for mourning the destruction of the two Temples), and Pamela Marie Eisenbaum, in the same volume, holds that in Hebrews we have something “in some ways neither Judaism nor Christianity . . . [presenting] a unique form of Judeo-Christian religiosity that perhaps existed briefly when Rome was the common enemy of Jews and believers in Jesus and before the rhetoric of Christian and Jewish leaders could constcut firm boundaries between Judaism and Christianity.”

To help us realize how we have subsciously misunderstood the letter, he quotes a student of his who asks that if we lay aside our Pauline glasses, and our assumption that Judaism and Christianity were two polarized established “camps” at this time, “is there anything that would lead one to conclude that the author of this homily is anything other than a Jew (albeit a messianic one) weighing in on a controversy within his own religion?” The answer is of course, “nothing.”

Once one asks such questions, the corroboratory evidence piles up. Hays comments:

Carrying out this experiment, we notice that the Letter to the Hebrews nowhere speaks of Jews and Gentiles, nowhere gives evidence of controversies over circumcision or food laws, criticizes nothing in the Mosaic torah except for the Levitical sacrificial cult, and contains no polemic against Jews or Jewish leaders. . . . Nowhere does Hebrew suggest that the Jewish people have been replaced by a new and different people of God. Indeed, it appears that the addressees of the letter are considered part of God’s “house,” the same house over which Moses was faithful—that is, “the house of Israel”

To pose the question whether Hebrews is “supersessionist” then, runs the risk of imposing anachronistic categories on the text.

Far from betokening a bailing out on Torah and the Older Covenant, Hays marks how Hebrews find evidence for newness within texts acknowledge by Jews as authoritative. It is a newness from within rather than a newness from without.

What’s New About the New(er) Covenant?

Hays finds eight ways in which newness is highlighted. For the sake of space, here are five of them.

  1. The revelatory message is spoken through a SON who is ontologically superior to the prophets and intermediaries through whom the Word formerly came.
  2. The text of Scripture spoke of a later “rest” into which the Jewish people had not formerly entered. “Whatever blessing Israel may have received in the pat remains provisional, looking to an eschatological future.”
  3. On the basis of Psalm 110, Messiah is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek, a status confirmed with an oath which came later.
  4. The earthly sanctuary is a sketch and a shadow. Thus the role of the old earthly sanctuary was always designed as provisional, a temporary copy of the real thing.
  5. He also deals with chapter eight of Hebrews  and its commentary on Jeremiah 31, which Mr. Koenig, wrongly in my view, declares to be sounding a definitive death knell for any continuing Messianic Jewish relationship to Torah and mitzvot. Of this chapter Hays says this:
    • It is God’s declaration of a New Covenant that makes the old covenant old. It is a speech act, just as declaring some woman to be my new wife automatically says something about other women with whom I have been linked.
    • The inadequacy of the Older Covenant was due to a fault in the people (“he found fault with them”) rather than with the Older Covenant itself. Because of this defect, the Older Covenant could not in itself bring God’s people to holiness. “The inadequacy of the first covenant may be thought of to consist precisely in its inability to create an obedient people.” God’s solution is to create a New Covenant in which he writes his Torah on his people’s hearts.
    • The author gives no indication that this covenant is meant for anyone but the House of Israel and Judah. Hebrews represents a kind of Jewish “restoration eschatology.” But it is a newness WITHIN Israel and not from the outside.

The Clincher

I find the following by Hays to be of special importance to our current considerations.

As we have already noted, the author of Hebrews is not interested in a blanket abolition of the Mosaic Torah. Rather, his concern focuses narrowly on the cultic practice of offering sacrifices for sins under the first covenant, particularly on the Day of Atonement, as Heb. 9 will show. The new covenant instituted by Jesus provides an alternative way for purification and atonement through Jesus’ once-for-all offering of his own blood. But to generalize the new covenant language of Heb. 8 into a comprehensive negation of Torah is to go far beyond anything found in the text.

The cumulative force of these observations is to suggest that the classic “new covenant” chapter in Hebrews has often been overinterpreted through a supersessionist hermeneutical framework. The possibility should be considered that Hebrews’ use of the new covenant image envisions not the rejection but the restoration of Israel; if so, Heb. 8 is less discontinuous with the original sense of Jer. 31 than Christian interpreters have often supposed (209:161-162, emphsis in the original).

I would say it this way. The Jeremiah 31 passage and the commentary on it in Hebrew speaks not of an abandonment of Torah but of a renewal of Torah faithfulness in Israel. This is clear from the text which substitutes not a new Torah but a new relationship to Torah, one in which God says “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33 ESV). This is fully in accord with other passages in the Torah and in the Prophets which speak of a divinely enabled eschatological spiritual renewal of the Jewish people, a renewal in the statutes and ordinances of Torah, and emphatically NOT an abolition of that Torah which God gave us at Sinai, and to which we gave ourselves.

I myself and those associated with me are likewise committed to a revival of Torah living among Jewish people, in the power of the Spirit, through the resurrected Messiah. In keeping with the New Covenant passage in Jeremiah 31, and the commentary in Hebrews, we are committed to taking Jewish people deeper into three realities clearly outlined by the Jeremiah passage.

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

Thus, a renewal in Torah living but energized and actualized by God himself!

And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.

Thus a renewal of relationship with God. 

For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

Thus a renewal of Yeshua faith, who is our sin bearer and Great High Priest. 

All three of these elements are intrinsic to the New Covenant God is making with the House of Israel and the House of Judah. None should be neglected. None is unimportant.

And with company like Anderson, Hays and others, I am not alone in saying that to jettison the Torah is to do violence to God’s intention for the Jewish people. Indeed, it seems clear that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews would agree.

Do you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Comments

  1. Very insightful article. Hebrews is a very challenging book for Christians to comprehend, especially considering its apparent dissonance with Acts 21. But as you have argued here, regardless of how we understand Hebrews, it certainly doesn’t support the view that the Torah as a whole has been abolished. I find it ironic that the author uses qal v’homer argumentation regarding obedience to the Torah and faithfulness to messiah. There’s no way he could argue this way, if he himself was not obeying Moses! Thanks Rabbi Dauermann!

  2. While I appreciate the citations showing progressive thinking among various theological writers, it seems to me that virtually all are still missing one of the most important perspectives in the sermonic letter to the Hebrews — which is that it addresses two parallel venues, one earthly and one heavenly, in each of which a sanctuary operates, both of them simultaneously or in tandem with the earthly one reflecting the heavenly one and receiving its authorization therefrom. Thus the notion of “metathesis” or “change” cited in Heb.7:12, for example, is not intended as a replacement of one by another but rather as a shift in perspective or transfer of the reader’s focus from one to the other. Hence the purported “change” of priesthood from Levitical to Melchitzedekian or change of “torah” procedures is not a matter of before and after but one of below and above. Among the advantages of the heavenly sanctuary is that it continues in operation effectively and uncorrupted even if the operations of the earthly one become temporarily unavailable, interrupted, corrupted, or even destroyed outright (all of which occurred either just before or just after this letter was circulated). When the Temple is restored along with the Levitical sacrifices and other operations, it will again receive the same authorization from the heavenly mikdash as it did in ancient times.

    Another often-missed perspective is that the apparent dichotomy between “old” and “new” covenantal structures, and the notion of obsolescence, are qualified by the identically comparable obsolescence of the heavens and earth themselves which “wax old like a garment” (viz: Is.51:6; Ps.102:26; Heb.1:11). Hence the covenant of Torah, though supposedly old or obsolescent, is described in Mt.5:18 as remaining valid in all its finest details as long as the heavens and earth endure. Thus, whether in its old form of writing on stone or on parchment scrolls, or in its new personally-internalized form metaphorically written on Jewish hearts, it continues to be valid.

    If R.Dauermann can locate and cite modern scholars who have managed to grasp and express these perspectives in their writings, that they might become more widely disseminated, I will consider true progress to have been accomplished.

    1. You are dealing here with here is a background in Platonic/Philonic thinking which influences some commentators. I will not go into this in detail as it would demand more research than I care to undertake at this time. However, from my dissertation . . . some thoughts from Donald Hagner.

      “The Greek dualism often mentioned as the background to this passage derives from the philosophy of Plato wherein every earthly object is said to be the manifestation of a corresponding archetypal ‘idea’ of ‘form’ that can only be known through the intellect. This dualism between earthly and ‘heavenly’ reality was influential in the Hellenistic world, especially in such a center as Alexandria, where it can be detected in Philo, the Hellenistic Jew (who was a contemporary of Christ). Some indeed have seen a considerable influence of Philo upon the author of Hebrews, and this has given rise to the speculation that the book was written from Alexandria, and even that Apollos, with his Alexandrian background (Acts 18:24), was the author. Although the debate concerning the influence of Philo upon our author has not ended, R. Williamson has presented a very convincing case that the author of Hebrews is not at all influenced by Philo. See ‘Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews’ (1970). Williamson also denies the influence of Platonism upon Hebrews’ author, arguing that the stress on the importance of history, as well as the temporal sequence of promise and fulfillment, is quite alien to Plato. See Williamson, ‘Platonism and Hebrews’ (1963:415-424). The ‘dualism’ in Hebrews is not of a metaphysical kind but of an eschatological kind, and the author’s background is more Jewish than Hellenistic” (Hagner 1990:119-120). That will be it for now . . .

  3. Yes, I agree, but I still have some concerns. Whilst I generally concur with the theology of the modern Messianic Jewish movement (in spite of its internal diversity), I do have difficulty understanding and explaining some parts, including the changes your post discusses. If one takes a strong stand on Matthew 5:17-20 plus James 2:10-11, it would seem that Torah is both persistent in the current era and also unchangeable, being an integral whole. How can we accept a change in priesthood and suspension/cancellation of cult-related mitzvoth whilst still arguing that the Torah is unchangeable? How can one accept Anderson’s explanation whilst still claiming that the Torah is intact?

    I work at a Christian seminary and was asked about this issue just this month, so your input would be greatly valued.

  4. Considering that the purported “dualism” reflected in Hebrews predates Plato, I think it can be argued that it is not representative of Greek dualism at all. It was at Sinai that Moshe was told to construct the earthly sanctuary and its furnishings according to what he was shown of heavenly originals. On the other hand, rabbinic commentary and even midrashic imagery that call attention to this earthly paralleling of a heavenly source do appear later than Plato and could be accused of drawing on such views. However, the Jewish notions of a heavenly throne-room and the prototypical arch-reality that later was associated with the “pardes” appear as early as the Babylonian exile which preceded Plato. Hence I think we might somehow distinguish between Greek dualism and Hebrew parallelism.

    Nonetheless, drawing on Hagner was a good try at citing someone who recognizes and tries to address the perspective.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *