Alan C. Mitchell, Ph.D., is associate professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Origins at Georgetown University and is director of the Annual Georgetown University Institute on Sacred Scripture. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, and the Society for the Study of the New Testament.
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
The Exordium: An Interpretation
Hebrews opens with one of the most rhetorically polished statements in the New Testament. Although such stylistic elegance is characteristically displayed throughout Hebrews, the exordium shows clearly that the author has mastered the principles of advanced rhetorical composition. Its effect on the readers is compelling and persuasive. The original Greek, all one sentence, pleases the ear with its alliteration and cadence. No less are the mind and spirit satisfied by the carefully structured phrases, leading the reader and/or listener to grasp ideas that are central to the exposition that follows.
The significance of the nature of God as Speaker/Revealer and the definitive establishment of the Son as Speech/Revelation are established through pairings and parallels carefully subordinated to permit the explanation of the central ideas of the main clause, that God has spoken anew. The implication is that what has been said is effective because of the means of God’s speech, which is more closely bound to the Speaker than any previous vehicles, because he is none other than God’s Son.
Speech in Hebrews reveals the character of God and is an integral aspect of the sermon’s theology. One cannot help but wonder if such an accomplished author as this one did not have a special appreciation of God as a communicator. The portrait of God as a speaker shows interest in fundamental principles of oratory: good oratory in the ancient world appealed to the pathos of the audience and demonstrated the ethos or character of the speaker. The most effective speech managed to achieve a balanced harmony between the two. Thus in Hebrews the very nature of God is to speak, to disclose, to reveal.
To accomplish these ends, there are a variety of media at God’s disposal. The opening verse mentions the prophets as a prelude to the manner of speech that is of special interest to the author, namely the Son. In the next chapter communication between God and humans will include the mediation of angels (Hebrews 2:2). So the author of Hebrews speaks of the manifold attempts on God’s part to communicate through the ages, suggesting that God’s desire for self-communication is an ongoing process of self-disclosure, which culminates in the revelation of the Son.
The exordium is structured in three parts:
(1) verse 1: God’s speech in the past;
(2) verse 2: God’s speech in these last days; and
(3) verse 3-4: a summary of the place and role of the Son.
These verses function to introduce the main theme of the sermon, and they may serve as a summary of the Christology of Hebrews. The Son is introduced as the new means of God’s communication and is described with terms spanning his pre-existence to his exaltation. At the heart of that description is the central tenet of Hebrews that Christ made purification for sins. The author will develop the elements of this brief description in what follows, in order to show how effective was God’s speech in the Son by portraying him as the mediator of a better covenant.
The goal of showing what is new and different in the manner of God’s speech is dramatically accomplished by the shift of subject from God to the Son in the second verse. Vanhoye (La Structure Litteraire de L’Epitre roux Hebreux [Paris: Desclee de Brouwer, 1963] 65-68) has shown how this shift creates an interesting inversion of emphases, with the second half of the unit dominating the first, despite the fact that both halves of the exordium are centered on its most important part, the opening of v. 2, “In these last days, however, God has spoken to us through a Son.”
The latter two verses, 3 and 4, are rich in content. As relative clauses, they depend on the first half of the exordium (1:1-2). Thus grammatical subordination highlights the importance of the central statement while defining the role of the Son in terms of his functions, which themselves will be expanded on throughout the sermon: his nature, his role in creation, his atoning once for all self-offering, and his exaltation.
The opening verse of the exordium eludes easy interpretation. Some commentators have suggested that the two adverbs, polymerōs kai polytropōs imply that the author understood God’s revelation to Israel through the prophets as incomplete, whereas the revelation in the Son is complete (Attridge, 37; Bruce, 46; Hughes, 36; Lane,1:10; Montefiore, 33-34). Hebrews does show an interest in completeness and fullness elsewhere (2:10; 5:9;7:19, 28; 9:9; 10:1, 14; 11:40; 12:23) and the author’s use of comparison supports such an interpretation (1:4; 5:14; 6:9; 7:7, 19, 22; 8:6; 9:11, 23; 10:3 11:16, 35, 40; 12:24). The manifold nature of the revelation, however, need not connote incompleteness (Koester, 176). Moreover, what may be more important for the author is the time and manner of what God has done. Hebrews also shows interest in the present time as an opportunity (1:5; 3::7,13, 15; 4:7; 5:5; 13:8) and the means of salvation offered by the Son. The contrast of what God has done in the past through the prophets and has now done in Christ fits well with the sermon’s hortatory function to encourage the readers not to lose confidence at the present moment. The vehicle of God’s present revelation, the Son, is the ground of their confidence in this sermon.
The conclusion of verse 2 introduces the important series of qualifications that suit the Son for his work. The reference to his being heir of all things is frequently seen by commentators as an allusion to Psalm 2, where the kings inherit the land (Attridge, 40; Koester, 178; Lane, 1:6). The association of this notion of inheritance, and the extension of it from the land to the universe, not only applies a royal motif to the Son but also draws a comparison between the Son and previous royal figures of the LXX tradition (i.e., The Septuagint) Implicit in the comparison is the difference between the royal Son’s inheritance and theirs. Drawing such comparisons becomes a staple of the way the author of Hebrews argues. The entire exordium makes a series of these comparisons, and that tactic will be continued in the remainder of the sermon.
The beginning of verse 3 underscores the nature of the Son as capable of communicating the realia of God. Difficult as it may be to understand the meaning of the terms used here, the affinity of the Son with God is at the heart of the attribution “as the reflection of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s essential being.” To say that the Son reflects the glory of God is not the same as saying that he is the exact representation of God’s essential being. So the author does not merely express one idea through these two clauses, but tries to give distinct content to the way he sees the relation of the Son to God in the work the Son must do as bearer of God’s final revelation, now spoken through him. With what seems to be a clear reference to Wisdom 7:26, “For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness,” the author further qualifies the identity of the Son.
The fact that the word “reflection” is paralleled with the expression “spotless mirror” in this LXX text may lead us to think that the author of Hebrews understood the reflection of the Son in some way to mirror the reality of God. The LXX text makes a further synonymous parallel attributing to Wisdom the “image” of God’s goodness. The author of Hebrews chose not to reproduce this part of the LXX verse, preferring to call the Son the “exact representation” of God’s essential being. The Greek word charaktcr, “exact representation,” carries the meaning of a “stamp” or an “imprint,” so the idea is not far from that of an image.
What may be decisive here, however, is the dependent noun. In the LXX text Wisdom is the “image of God’s goodness,” whereas in Hebrews the Son is the “exact representation of God’s essential being.” One may rightly question whether this goes further than what the LXX author attributes to Wisdom herself, since “goodness” may be a metaphor for the whole nature of God. In his interpretation, however, the author of Hebrews seems deliberately to have spelled out how he understands the Son to carry the imprint of God. The word “nature,” hypostasis, means “essential being” or “reality,” what makes things what they are.
That a child should somehow be a representation or reflect the character of the parent is part of the tradition of Hellenistic Judaism as seen in 4 Maccabees 15:4: “In what manner might I express the emotions of parents who love their children? We impress upon the character of a small child a wondrous likeness both of mind and of form” (NRSV). As both the “reflection of God’s glory” and the “exact representation of God’s essential being” the Son is eminently qualified for the role he must play as the vehicle of God’s revelation.
The continuation of verse 3 brings into play the Son’s function in sustaining the universe, which he shared in creating. Commentators usually call attention to the loose connection of this verse to the wisdom tradition, in the absence of any clear textual parallels. Frequently cited are Wisdom 7:24, 27, which mention that Wisdom not only has the power to do all things but renews them as well, and 8:1, where Wisdom orders all things. Attridge refers to the Philonic tradition, where the Logos guides “all things on their course” (The Migration of Abraham 6), is portrayed as a “pillar” (On Noah as a Planter 8), or is described as a “bond” that holds all things together (On Flight and Finding 112; Attridge, 45; see also Ronald Williamson, Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews. ALGHJ 4 [Leiden: Brill, 1970] 95-103).
A closer biblical parallel is found, however, in Sirach 43:26, where toward the end of an extended wisdom meditation on the glory of God manifested in creation the author proclaims: “Because of him each of his messengers; (angeloi) succeeds, and by his word all things hold together” (NRSV). The LXX author most likely intends to refer the pronouns in both prepositional phrases to God, but it is possible for the second phrase to refer back to the immediately preceding noun “messenger.”
The author of Hebrews may have taken advantage of this ambiguity and extended this function of sustaining all things to the Son. If this is the case, the allusion to Sirach 43:26 still falls within the wisdom tradition. The subject of the allusion, however, is different and makes a still closer identification of the Son with God in his designated role as the means of God’s spoken word. The point is that the Son is no mere messenger of God’s word, as the further qualifications of the exordium will demonstrate. An allusion to Sirach 43:26 with its mention of the messenger (angelos) might also help to explain why the comparison with the angels in verse 4 is important for the author. This comparison will be developed further in the next section (Wisdom 1:5-14).
The following clause introduces the priestly function of the Son, which will become one of the major themes of Hebrews. At this point the wisdom tradition of the previous verses gives way to the tradition of Jesus’ sacrificial death. Here the stress on purification for sin anticipates the attention the author will give to this aspect of the Son’s priestly function in the central section of the sermon (Wisdom 8:1-10:18). The fact that only this aspect of the priesthood of the Son is mentioned in the exordium indicates something the author felt needed to be addressed. It is important, then, that as the major motifs are introduced in the exordium, the reader’s attention be drawn to the Son’s self-offering, which qualified him to be a High Priest. The placement of this aspect of the qualifications of the Son in the center of vv. 3 and 4 gives it the prominence the author wanted it to have in the structure of the exordium.
At the end of verse 3 the author mentions yet another important motif in the sermon, the exaltation of the Son and his heavenly enthronement. Allusions to Psalm 110 play a major role in the Christology of Hebrews. Later in this chapter (1:13) a similar allusion will help make the comparison of the n11 with the angels. In 8:1 the psalm will again be evoked to highlight In heavenly enthronement of Christ as High Priest. In 10:12 the session at the right hand of God follows on the unique sacrifice for sins, which Christ has made. In this last instance we have a close parallel to 1:3, which announces what will later be claimed for the qualitatively different priesthood of Christ in Hebrews.
The author of Hebrews is, of course, not unique in the appropriation of Psalm 110 to help develop his Christology. Other allusions to the psalm in Christological contexts are found elsewhere in the New Testament, indicating that this is a firm element of early Christian tradition (Matthew 22:44; 26:64; Mark 12:36; 14:62; 16:19; Luke 20:42; see David M. Hay, Glory at the Right Hand: Psalm 110 in Early Christianity. SBLMS 18 [Nashville and New York: Abingdon,19731). In a number of instances an allusion to this psalm comes in a context where either Christ’s death (Luke 22:69) or his resurrection (Acts 2:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossian 3:1) relates to his exaltation. In Romans 8:34 and 1 Corinthians 15:25 Paul brings all three together. Lack of direct attention to or extensive discussion of Christ’s resurrection in Hebrews suggests that the author has done something similar in joining it to his exaltation. In a related vein it may be that the author of Hebrews joins Christ’s death to his resurrection in the context of his exaltation (Attridge, 46).
The inclusion of the Son’s session here emphasizes his glory above all things. The very definite act of sitting down at the right hand of God is an unmistakably powerful biblical image. As Hay (Glory at the Right Hand, 86-87) points out, this is not done at the expense of the power and glory of God, but nonetheless underscores the unsurpassable exaltation of the Son after his having undergone the humiliation of death on a cross.
It is frequently asked whether Hebrews 1:3 derives from an ancient hymnic source. The explanation of this part of the exordium as earlier hymnic material is, however, beset with many problems. In general the identification of hymnic material in the New Testament is itself questionable. The usual texts grouped under this category are John 1:1-18; Philemon 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-18; 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:18-19. The formal characteristics of these New Testament hymns vary one from another, so it is not easy to typify what exactly constitutes formally hymnic material (Lane 1:7). To complicate matters further, commentators do not agree on the limits of the hymnic material in the exordium of Hebrews. Some include the last part of verse 2 because they believe the form of the relative clause to be especially hymnic (Lane 1:8).
Still others believe the exordium to be integral in itself and look skeptically on the suggestion that this part of it was taken from earlier hymnic material (Grasser 1:49; Janusz Frankowski, Early Christian Hymns Recorded in the New Testament: A Reconsideration in Light of Hebrews 1,3, BZ 27 [19831 183-94; John P. Meier, Structure and Theology in Hebrews 1,1-14, Bib 66 [19851 168-89; Donald W. B. Robinson, The Literary Structure of Hebrews 1:1-4, AJBA 2 119721 178-86). The abrupt change of subject from God to the Son, the use of the extended relative constructions, the fact that the author uses several words here (apaugasma and charakter) that are not used elsewhere in the sermon, the notice that the author diverges from the text of Psalm 110 in the choice of the preposition en in the expression “at the right hand,” when it is correctly cited in 1:13 as ek, have fueled speculation that these anomalies all point to the appropriation of hymnic material that antedates Hebrews itself.
Some commentators (Ellingworth, 97-98), not convinced by these lines of argumentation, point out that the so-called anomalies can all be reasonably explained within the context of Hebrews to show that the verse is well integrated into the exordium and does not show signs of earlier material deriving from an ancient Christian hymn. Craig Koester, on the other hand, entertains the possibility that the exordium contains traditional elements (179).
The last verse of the exordium turns to the matter of the Son’s name, which unequivocally is superior to that of the angels. Naming plays an important role in the biblical tradition, whether it has to do with the naming of a newborn or the change of a name already given. In Hellenistic Judaism the interest in the significance of the name is grasped in Philo’s treatise on the changing of names. The verse claims that the Son became superior to the angels to the extent that he had received a name that is more excellent than theirs. Noticeable here is the stress that it is not only in name that Christ is superior to the angels. The name signifies his superiority, which derives from his status as Son. Obviously the author understands the verse as a transition to the next section, 1:5-18, which will make a formal comparison between the Son and the angels.
The name is not specified here, but many commentators understand it to be “Son,” the only term by which Christ is designated in the exordium. The circular composition of the exordium supports this assumption, as “Son” is the critical term in 1:2a and the subject of the exordium as a whole (Meier, Structure and Theology, 188-89).
Some commentators note that the exordium ends on a note of comparison similar to the way it begins. At its opening the comparison focused on the superiority of God’s revelation in a Son over what had preceded it through the prophets. In its conclusion the view shifts to the comparison between the Son and the angels. Ostensibly it appears that prophets and angels have little to do with one another. In the context of an announcement about God’s revelation, however, one may find a common ground.
Commentators also note that the Hellenistic Jewish tradition that angels mediated the revelation of the Law may come into play in this verse, supplying yet another stage in the ways God communicated before the definitive way announced in the opening of the exordium: through a Son. They point to Hebrews 2:2 for support, on the assumption that the “word spoken by angels there” is none other than the Jewish Law.
A problem with that view is that even though the Hellenistic view of such angelic mediators of the Law postdates the prophetic era in biblical history, what they reveal, the Law, predates it. Thus in the exordium the sequence of revelation does not follow a linear development. One way out of the dilemma may be to understand the wider role of angelic mediators in Hellenistic Judaism to be at work here (Job 1:27, 29; 2:1; Philo, On Dreams 1.141-43; On Abraham 115; Josephus, Antiquities 15.136; Acts 7:30,38,53; Gal 3:19; Attridge, 65), which would then provide yet another means of revelation between the prophets and the Son. Such a tradition may lie behind the synonymous use of “angels” and “prophets” in Philo (On Abraham 113; Questions on Exodus 2.16). This option is attractive not only because it preserves a sequential order, but also because it may explain the anomaly of the definite article, which precedes the word “angels” in the text.
The exordium of Hebrews briefly presents the main theme of the sermon in the role articulated for the Son, first as the means of God’s final revelation and then as the one who makes complete purification for sins, i.e., purification of the conscience of the worshipers (9:14; 10:22) and is exalted at the right hand of God. Thus he is the eternal Son and eternal High Priest (2:9-10; 9:12-15; 13:20-21) who mediates access to God in a way superior to those of the past.