Two Powers in Hebrews 2?

Two Powers in Hebrews 2? April 14, 2013

Today my Sunday school class got up to Hebrews 2:5-13. I was really struck by the fact that the author says that he is speaking about the world to come. Was that obvious to everyone reading the epistle, prior to this point? Does that mean that the language about the exalted status of the Son is not about the first creation, but about the world to come, the new creation? Could that help one to reconcile the apparent presence of a Christology of pre-existence and an exaltationist one?

The close connection between Jesus and humankind in general is central to what follows. The author reads Psalm 8 chronologically. Since human beings cannot be both lower to angels and have all things under our feet, the author views Jesus’ experience as moving in advance of that of humanity as a whole, with Jesus currently exalted above the angels, having previously been made subject to them.

The application of words from Psalm 22 to Jesus would have made natural sense to an author familiar with the passion narrative that has Jesus quote that psalm.

But what about the quotations from Isaiah 8? It may be that it is primarily the Emmanuel context that made it seem appropriate to that author to attribute words from there to Christ.

But it could also be that, within the poetic section and thus apparently the prophetic oracle, there is a change of voice, so that, even though the introduction says that it is Yahweh who says what follows, an expression of trust in Yahweh is articulated, seemingly by someone else.

While the natural reading, from our perspective, would be to simply regard the final words as the voice of Isaiah (see where the quotation marks are placed in the NIV), ancient Judaism developed a tradition of noticing where one who is called Yahweh nevertheless speaks about Yahweh in the third person. And so I wonder whether the author of the letter to the Hebrews was engaging in that sort of “two powers” reading.

Are there readers of this blog who’ve explored the quotations from Jewish Scripture in Hebrews in detail? Do you have any thoughts on what logic, if any, made the use of certain texts, and the connection of them with Jesus, seem appropriate?


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  • ivan

    If Hebrews 1:10-12 is referring to the “world to come” and not about, say, the Genesis creation, how can the world to come be described as perishing, growing old, and so on?

  • helenmarplehorvat

    I have been listening to this series by T D Lancaster on Hebrews James. I dont fully understand the issues yet but I love the jewish idioms and rabbinic insight stuff he brings to the texts. Its been refreshing for me.

  • John Meade

    Does the oikoumene in 1:6 refer to the same one as in 2:5? If so, then the argument refers to the enthronement of the Son at his resurrection and ascension.

  • I have the meditation from Thais still running in my ears. My violinist son played that one too. Unfortunately re Hebrews, I got from there to the Psalms and not yet really back to Hebrews – to ‘figure it out’ as it were.

    The critical role for me and for us is I think to seek the same kind of obedience that the son in his humanity learned through the TNK – and particularly through the psalms (according to Hebrews where 98% of the conversation between father and son is from the Psalter). So learning what it means to be elect, to be a child of this Teacher, to be sovereign to represent the people, and so on – is still all mixed up in my mind as a set of questions. In some ways I would not dare to spell out ‘one’ meaning.

    But to throw out a sense of Psalm 102 as cited in Hebrews 1:10-12, I might be inclined to rethink the word ‘changed’ and imagine it as ‘renewed’. The reason for this is that the word is used in the Psalter as a double frame between the two prayers Psalm 90 and 102 in Book 5. And my experience of the teaching of this Teacher is one of renewal – yes for me, through the death of Jesus, but a real and present aspect of my faith, and not different from the faith of the psalmist, quite apart from viewing those poems after the fashion of simplistic prophecy (something I am not inclined to do). Also for others, such renewal could well come from within Torah – just another name for Teaching. If I am renewed – and as Paul puts it, a new creation through this death, why is the author and finisher of my faith not also renewed in the same way? As he shared my nature in Adam, so also I share his renewal through the life-giving Spirit. I suspect that the poet’s experience is not different, even within any part of the context of the canonical example of Israel.

  • I suspect that the author of Hebrews (Heb 2:7,9) was misled by the Septuagint translation of Psalm 8:5. It’s really strange how “lower than God” can somehow mean “lower than angels” …

  • Mark A. Matson

    This use of Psalm 8 is pretty intriguing as part of the Two Powers discussion. In particular the use of “son of Man” may have indicated a specific connection with Jesus. And, if Boyarin is correct, this term might well have been understood as a pre-Christian indication of a divine power (linking to Daniel 7).

    I am struck by how the NRSV of Psalm 8 (and Heb. 2), in the effort to be gender inclusive, has made “man” and “son of man” as plurals: to wit, what are “human beings”… and “mortals.” For the LXX it fits well with NT theology: “anthropos” and “uios anthropos”. But I note the Hebrew is mostly singular also: enosh (man, but a collective singular) and ben-Adam (for son of man). The use of the latter “son of man” is clearly singular. The NRSV makes it really hard to see possible connections with the christological term “son of man”.

    Wish I knew how the Targumim treated Ps. 8.

    • but ‘son of man’ (ben-adam) could well be child of humanity or human child, or child of the humus, or earthling. Psalm 144 has the same phrase ‘son of man’ in some English translations but is not the same words or tone (ben-enosh in this case). I think we read into these English titles a sense that may have been far from the poet’s or redactor’s minds. I render enosh as mortal to avoid confusing the two separate terms. So ben-enosh become mortal child. Compare also Job 7:17.

      • Mark Matson

        Granted that ben-adam or ben-enosh could have various meanings. But what struck me was that Hebrews clearly used the singular to make its exegetical/interpretational point. And yet the NRSV has completely obscured that possibility. Translations do have consequences.

        Often I think a translational text should be allowed to be more ambiguous, especially where it is clear that some other interpreters (such as Hebrews) have used the ambiguity as part of a significant translation

        • The singular and the plural are special in the Psalms. Take Psalms 42-44, the opening laments of Book 2, for instance – 42 and 43 in the singular, 44 in the plural. I think the translator seriously betrays the text when plural and singular are not respected. Your example here illustrates it well. It’s not because the singular is an individual but rather a spokesperson for the people.

          Another good example is the ambiguity of the Hebrew in Isaiah 6:6. Jerome notes an ambiguity “of whether the seraphim covered God’s face and feet or their own with their wings.” The KJV preserves the ambiguity. Most other translations switch to plural their rather than his. Ottley notes that the LXX switches to the plural. But Isaiah needs protection from the fire, so it would make sense that the angels who always behold the face of God, would cover his face on behalf of the human.

  • Jody Barnard

    I have only just stumbled across this post (hence the
    delay), but it is something of great interest to me. One aspect of the author’s
    use of Scripture that is customarily overlooked is the role of experience. I
    have recently written on the Mysticism of Hebrews in which I suggest
    that the author may be trying to articulate (and make sense of) his mystical
    experiences when he appropriates the Jewish Scriptures. So Hebrews 1, for
    example, pertains to certain heavenly realities (which is an implicit claim to
    knowledge of heavenly realities) and may be an attempt to articulate certain
    revelations received during mystical experiences, something that is perhaps
    already hinted at by the fact that these enscripturated revelations overtly
    engage with the angelology of apocalyptic and mystical traditions. Thus, I
    think that there is a need to include the role of experience in our discussions
    of the use of Scripture in Hebrews (and elsewhere) and would be interested to
    hear how this might impact your reading of Hebrews 2.

    • Interesting! I will try to keep mystical aspects in mind as I work through Hebrews in Sunday school and blog about it here.

      Please do share a link to what you’ve written on this topic!

      • Jody Barnard

        Of course, there’s The Mysticism of Hebrews (WUNT II 331; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), chs. 8-9, and ‘Ronald Williamson and the background of Hebrews’ (The Expository Times), forthcoming.

        • Thanks so much! Even though I am not doing research that takes me into Hebrews regularly at the moment, your book sounds fascinating, and I hope to find the time to dip into it!

  • newenglandsun

    Here’s from a commentary of Albert Barnes on Eph. 4:8 which does a similar thing that the Heb. author does.

    “Great difficulty has been felt, therefore, in determining on what principle Paul applied it to the ascension of the Redeemer. Some have supposed that the Psalm had a primary reference to the Messiah; some that it referred to him in only a secondary sense; some that it is applied to him by way of “accommodation;” and some that he merely uses the words as adapted to express his idea, as a man adopts words which are familiar to him, and which will express his thoughts, though not meaning to say that the words had any such reference originally.”