Hebrews: On Earth as it is in Heaven?

Hebrews: On Earth as it is in Heaven? June 14, 2013

I’ve discussed Hebrews a lot lately, since I’ve been working through it in my Sunday school class. A comment on a recent post got me thinking once again about an aspect of Hebrews that continues to puzzle me: How the author can speak about the Son both as a celestial reality that seems to be timeless, and a human being who learns obedience and only attains his exalted status as a result of that obedience?

This is a challenge even (or perhaps especially) when one has the later creeds in view. But the extensive debates that occurred f0r the next several centuries indicate that the end results of those debates were not simply assumed and taken for granted among early Christians. And so what assumptions did this author have that made these statements intelligible?

I wonder whether perhaps the author’s Platonic background can help us make sense of this. Perhaps the author treated the earthly and human as parallel to and a shadow of a fuller celestial reality, and assumed that when Jesus was exalted to heaven, these two realities were merged.

Maybe some who have more background in Plato can chime in on whether this background could clarify the author’s viewpoint? And we might want to discuss whether the idea of a heavenly doppelgänger might be relevant in making sense of other texts from the New Testament and its context.

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  • Nietzsche describes Christianity as “Platonism for the masses” and criticizes both Plato and St. Paul (who he calls the founder of Christianity) for turning away from life toward purely imaginary (“otherworldly”) hopes. And there is always the temptation (in times of despair, especially) to read the tradition in this way.

    But there is another way of reading it that does justice both to our experience of life and to the tradition (including Plato and St. Paul, IMO).

    Let us acknowledge that there is a “real world” (the REALITY OF LIFE, here & now), but that there is also an imaginary world that obscures it (i.e. the projection of the carnal/egoic mind — cf. the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave). As fallen human beings, we struggle in a dream world (“the carnal mind”). But we are not simply fallen human beings–we also have “the mind of Christ” (cf. the form of the Good — the Sun of “aware presence” that shines eternally outside the cave).

    It is a necessary part of the human experience to become lost in thought
    and in time and to become preoccupied with shadows. But the “end” of
    this prodigal adventure is that moment of clarity in which we awaken to the
    truth (NOW). The Biblical narrative– generally speaking –offers an “image”
    of all this, but one that remains ambiguous and subject to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Literally construed, it often becomes just another ego trip. Rather than working for gold that perishes, we endeavor to “lay up treasure in heaven”, oblivious to the fact that what we are really doing is trying to save our skins (remaining in our dream-world and persisting in our attempt to evade our

    In contrast, the gospel encourages us to “take up our cross” and informs us that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (within us; among us). We are told that “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” is “with us always” (the light that lights everyone who comes into the world — whosoever will may come and drink of the water of life freely). But we are also told that we must lose our life in order to save it (i.e. we must say goodbye to the story of ‘me’).

    As such, Jesus is BOTH an individual learning obedience (in an unfolding
    story line) AND “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” that IS before Abraham was (having realized that he is the light of the world and atOne with the Father). But contrary to dominant interpretation of his life (as expressed in orthodox theology), this is not only true of him, it is true of us, as well.

    But how do you communicate this truth to people who are lost in their story-line? Whatever you say is necessarily idealized and projected into afterlives and otherworldly hopes. And all too quickly, Jesus is pedestalized (as the only begotten Son) and the good news of the kingdom morphs into “going to heaven when you die.”

    So, to speak to your question more directly– and without pretending to be an expert on the subject –I have always felt that there is an element of Platonism in the first century zeitgeist that is influencing the author of the book of Hebrews (and other New Testament authors as well). Its influence on subsequent generations of Christians is unquestionable (St. Augustine being the paradigmatic example). But Platonism, too, is ambiguous and I am reluctant to abandoned either Plato or Christianity (the poignancy of Nietzsche’s critique
    notwithstanding). As far as I am concerned, we participate in the life of the Trinity, here and now. This IS the cosmic REALITY and Jesus is the archetype of the human being that recognizes this. We are members of his body and members one of another. Take up your cross — the kingdom of heaven is at hand! 🙂


  • ScottBailey

    I’ve wondered if something like the religious thought world extending from Jubilees–which describes itself as an eternal pact written on the heavenly tablets–
    was not influential for the community that Hebrews was written to, and is not partially responsible for the argumentative line taken by the
    author of Hebrews who goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Jesus is
    God’s final word, that he is superior to the angels and to Moses (thus
    their revelation), and attempts to demonstrate that the first covenant
    is “obsolete”, and that Jesus provides a better covenant enacted on
    better promises.

    • I’ve never focused much on Hebrews in my research, so I don’t know, but I too would be interested in hearing about whether there has been any work on Hebrews and Jubilees, and if so what its conclusions were.

  • arcseconds

    I don’t think Plato himself is going to be much help here, I’m afraid.

    Plato’s ‘otherworldly’ material consists of a lot of different things said in different works with apparently different motivations. It doesn’t clearly form a systematic theory. I think it’s a mistake to try to divine a systematic theory behind it, although obviously many disagree on this point. But without going a long way beyond what Plato actually says, I don’t think such a theory will shed much light on this, either.

    Just briefly, there’s the (in)famous ‘theory of forms’, which itself isn’t as systematic a picture as its often presented. The motivation for this seems to be to a large part logical (or semantic, or philosophy of language): it’s an account of meaning. This doesn’t actually appear (explicitly, at least) in that many dialogues, and when it does, it’s not always the same (and Plato presents some of the obvious objections himself against the picture in the mouth of Parmenides, against a young Socrates who’s enthusiastically proposing the idea).

    There’s also the idea of the immortality of the soul and reincarnation, which comes up from time to time. Usually this is when Plato is waxing mythological, and it seems pretty clear that we shouldn’t suppose that Plato means exactly what he says on these occasions, so it’s difficult to know how serious he was about this.

    Then there’s the kind of quasi-mystical picture that comes up from time to time (most famously in the allegory of the cave) that true knowledge goes beyond appearances and involves, somehow, contact with a reality that can’t be spoken of except indirectly.

    It also needs stressing that the dialouges, at least in terms of the number of words expended on a subject, are not primarily about these topics.

    Now, you can take these elements and build them into a theory, but it’s not a theory that Plato ever articulated. The Meno does give the picture that people know things from before they were born. Did they dwell with the Forms during that time? There’s no explicit suggestion of that. And this discussion is almost a sideline to the main topic, which is whether virtue can be taught.

    And even if we do start seeking a single picture here, I don’t think there’s anything that suggests that an individual in the world of becoming can be identical with (or a shadow of) an entity in the world of being in the manner you seem to be suggesting.

    I suppose if we take Meno literally, Jesus can know all moral truths from before he was born, but only recollect them under conditions of guidance and mistake-making, like the slave boy in the dialogue (and everyone else), but that doesn’t help much.

  • arcseconds

    Now, of course, many of Plato’s followers and interpreters throughout the centuries have taken the further step and produced a theory out of Plato’s otherwordly subject matter, and it may be that later Platonists or Neoplatonists could shed some light on this matter.

    Neoplatonism (the term is a modern one) refers to the synthesis of Platonic and Aristotelian views, usually considered to have begun with Plotinus (I mean, the term ‘neoplatonism’ is usually used to refer to the tradition from Plotinus on. The synthesis was clearly occuring before that). The systems usually present a triune divinity, consisting of the One, the divine mind, and the world-soul.

    One thing in the neoplatonic view that seems to have some similarity to the problem of Christ having both an ordinary temporal existence and a timeless, eternal existence is the creation of the world. Pagan neoplatonism takes the world to be eternal, and therefore interprets the creation story in Timaeus as not describing any historical event, but by being an allegory for the relationship of the divinity with the world.

    Plotinus is too late to have influenced Hebrews, but the synthesis is, as I said, older than Plotinus. Philo is a good example of an early proto-neoplatonist, and he already has the Logos as God’s creative principle (which is, if I recall correctly, identified with the divine mind in the later tradition).

    Of course, the Gospel of John identifies the Logos with Jesus, so we have this situation of an eternal, kind of abstract existence as well as a temporal, human one set up there, too, pretty explicitly cast in ‘neoplatonic’ language.

    Later neoplatonists (Proclus) introduced ‘henads’, which are kind of semi-seperable but not really completely distinct from both themselves and the One and the divine mind, and I think they can have worldly influence as well. Pagan neoplatonists identified these with the gods, and I understand Christian neoplatonists identified them with angels.

    So that’s another example of things having both eternal, timeless existence and temporal existence in the neoplatonic tradition.

    Neoplatonism became virtually synonymous with philosophy in later antiquity, and these ideas were presumably quite prevelant earlier too, so it’s extremely plausible to suggest that they had an influence on the author of Hebrews, especially given Philo as an example of someone seeking a synthesis of the Platonic tradition with Judaism.

    I’m afraid I don’t know much about this stuff, but I reckon that’s the place to look for answers.

    • That’s all very useful, whether as a refresher for some of us and a brief introduction for others. You can see how Neoplatonism is a major influence in the various Gnostic systems, in particular, but also in other strands of Christian thought.

      • arcseconds

        Arguably, the Trinity is a neoplatonic import, so yes, I’d say that counts as a major influence 🙂

  • arcseconds

    Here are some other things this discussion brings to mind:

    *) some forms of Buddhism view the dharma as existing eternally, and rediscovered many times over the infinite extent of the cosmos. Gautama Buddha is just who discovered it for us.

    *) in the midrashic literature, the Torah sometimes seems to be presented in a similar way. It’s also presented as not being entirely distinct from G-d (sometimes G-d is depicted as having the Torah enscribed on his skin)

    *) someone in the comments on a previous post made an interesting remark to the effect that seeing a heavenly dopplegänger of oneself was frequently attested to in visions in Israel (or at least, the accounts of visions can be read to support such a phenomenon. The commenter was wondering whether the ‘Son of Man’ was originally such a figure from Jesus’s visions, or something.

    I’ve looked for a bit and I haven’t managed to track down this comment. I think it was on a post critiquing Carrier or some other mythicist, possibly those involved with translation issues on a targum from last year.

    • It sounds like I may have been the commenter in question. I probably referred to Dale Allison’s recent book on Jesus and historical methods, in which he suggested that interpretation.

      • arcseconds

        Ah, thanks for that. I still haven’t found the comment, and in my head it wasn’t you. But it’s an interesting idea, and I’ve found your review of Allison’s book.

        Is it possible that the author of Hebrews meant something more like this, than anything neoplatonic?

        • It is hard to say. In this case, Jesus seems to have become fused with the heavenly Son – the question is when, and it may be that the author thought it was at his exaltation, while later authors would come to retroject it further into the past.

          My review of Allison’s book is here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2010/09/review-of-dale-allison-constructing-jesus.html

          But I’m not sure whether it was that you were recalling, or something else.

          • arcseconds

            No, it wasn’t the review. It was definitely in a comment, and I’m pretty sure it was on a post relating to a mythicist’s (probably Carrier’s) discussion of some text. I think it was where he was trying to prove the existence of dying-and-rising messiahs prior to Jesus. The comment was somewhat tangential, but related to something in the text.

            It’s kind of an interesting transition (if it happened) isn’t it? Jesus sees a heavenly doppelgänger in visions. The author of Hebrews takes Jesus to have fused with his heavenly doppelgänger at some point during his life. Eventually people suppose them always to have been fused. And John ends up identifying the celestial being Jesus with an abstract principle.

            Carrier’s take on this, if I recall correctly, seems to be that none of this happens, and ‘Jesus’ is just Philo’s pet name for the Logos. That’s always seemed completely bizarre to me, like calling modus tollens ‘Bob’ or the second law of thermodynamics ‘Katy’ or something.

          • 🙂