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Do Not Drift Away

An exegetical reflection on
Hebrews 2:1-9

Presented to David Rensberger, Ph.D

Alcenir Oliveira
BSL-555 - The Epistle to the Hebrews
Interdenominational Theological Center
Atlanta, November 2nd, 2007
1) We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do
not drift away. 2) For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation
and disobedience received its just punishment, 3) how shall we escape if we ignore such a
great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to
us by those who heard him. 4) God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various
miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. 5) It is not to
angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. 6) But there
is a place where someone has testified: "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son
of man that you care for him? 7) You made him a little [a] lower than the angels; you
crowned him with glory and honor 8) and put everything under his feet." Now in
putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present
we do not see everything subject to him. 9) But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower
than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by
the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

A reflection on the background of the chosen passage has to take into
consideration the context of the document as a whole. It means to consider the social
contingencies that made up the psychological and spiritual profile of the individual of the
time. We have to draw in mind a picture of who were the peoples. We are aware of two
main social groups: people of Jewish origin and “the others”. Therefore, the reflection has
to pinpoint the dominant philosophical or theological thoughts of both sides.
Authorship of the Epistles to the Hebrews remains yet in dispute. Through the
centuries many possible authors were proposed, but there were not enough evidence to
support it. From among many candidates, mentioned in the readings gathered for the
purpose of this discussion, three of them are contemporary of the Apostle Paul. They are
Apollos, Priscilla and Barnabas, who were part of the circle of relationship of the Apostle
Some evidences contribute to believe that Apollos was the writer of the epistle to
the Hebrews. First of all, we’ve got to read carefully Acts 18:24, where we raise the
following background of him: a Jew, native of Alexandria, well-versed in the scriptures,
spoke with burning enthusiasm, taught accurately about Jesus and spoke boldly in the
synagogues; he was new in the ways of the Lord and had to go through a discipleship
with Priscilla and Aquila. This description matches well with the profile of the Epistles`
writer, who reflects the culture, the eloquence, the way of teaching and arguing of an
Alexandrian Jew. Luther was convinced that he was the author of the letter. In a sermon
on I Cor. 3:4, as well as in his commentary of Genesis, he affirms that Hebrews was
written by Apollos. The author of the Epistles includes himself in his reference to those
whom had heard the Gospel from teachers who heard straight from Him (2:3). This is
evidence in favor of Apollos
Other evidences point to Barnabas as the author. As Apollos, Barnabas was highly
educated and was a Levite natural of Cyprus (Acts 4:36). Tertullian believed he would be
the author for many reasons: he was a Jew, he was a Levite (priests are supposed to be
very well instructed in the Hebrew Bible), he was a great believer, and the people of
Cyprus were famous for their excellence in the spoken Greek and the Epistle to the
Hebrews was considered by Tertullian as the best New Testament Greek.
However, these two most quoted to authoring the epistle have no other
authoritative written material. One fact that makes it difficult to go together with the
assumption of authorship of Apollos or Barnabas is the greetings of the brothers and
sisters from Rome. Therefore, even though they have profile that would qualify them for
the authorship, there is no concrete evidence and all remains as conjecture.
On the other hand, Priscilla was also appointed as possible candidate. Aquila was
a teacher and their house functioned as a church in Rome. They were closely related with
Paul and Apollos (Acts 18:26 and Rom 16:3,4,5a), as well as with Timothy. The German
Scholar Harnack believed that both could have worked together and omitted Priscilla’s
name in the document because of the role of women in that society, as for women were
not allowed to teach. The other evidence that enforces this idea is that all of them are
covered in 2:3b (salvation confirmed to us by those who heard him). This same verse is
the one of the evidences that raises doubt about the authorship of Paul.
The evidences presented here are all good, but they are not enough. The fact that
the name of the author is omitted in the introduction of the letter, as well as the lack of
enough evidence of where it was written from and of where it was addressed to, keeps the
determination of authorship yet incomplete. This impossibility to determine authorship
led Origen to say that only God knows the truth about who wrote the Epistle.
The title “To the Hebrews” may have been edited later to include the definite
article “the”. It is believed that it was originally “To Hebrews”. Bruce says that the title
alone doesn’t help to understand to whom the Epistle is addressed.
In the very first verse, we are challenged to believe the writer was addressing the
Jews, when he says that God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets, because the
prophets spoke to the ancestors of the Jews.
When he argues in 2:2 of how we can escape if we neglect so great salvation, he
may be addressing to Gentiles converted to Jewish religion and then to Christianity. The
apostasy may be much more certain within this class of people than to the Jews, whom
would leave Christianity and go back to their doctrine.
In Ch 3:3-6, again, he compares Jesus with Moses to say that he is worthier of
glory. He may be addressing the Christian Jews as a confirmation of what they believed.
However, there is a slight possibility that the argument may also be convincing for those
non-Christian Jews and Gentiles converted to Judaism, but not necessarily addressed to
them. There is not much evidence that it was usual among the addressees of this letter,
but most the ministry of the apostles at the beginning happened within the synagogues.
In chap 7, talking about the priesthood of Christ as from the order of
Melchizedek, he goes back to an argument that is mostly intend to clear the memory of
somebody raised in the Jewish tradition.
The passage in Chap 8:8-13 is a clear reference of the Jewish tradition of the
Covenant, which is replaced by the new one. He brings flashes of the Greek culture to the
sermon, the platonic realism, when he refers to the sketch of the sanctuary, what do not
disqualify the idea that he is addressing the Jews. It may mean that he was bringing
together the Jewish Gentiles and the Jewish by birth.
Even though, we could list many arguments to the idea that the author was
addressing the Jews, none is enough to confirm.
There are evidences that these addressees had suffered persecution (10:32) and
that some had renounced their faith (2.3; 6.4-6; 12.25).
According to Bruce, the writer was possibly addressing a group that was
presupposed to have a profound literary knowledge of the Old Testament and
consequently of the Levitical ritual. However, he says that it is not enough argument to
affirm that the Jews are the sole addressees of the epistle.
He says that some scholars have referred to the church in Rome as basically
formed of Christian Jews and that they were concerned about the Jewish tradition.
Therefore, there are arguments that point to the possibility that the letter was intended for
them. If it was, it would make more sense to assume it was addressed primarily to the
Christian Jews.
The exhortation of the author in chapter 6 leads us at the beginning to think he is
addressing Christian Gentiles. However, he immediately refers to the sacrifice saying that
those who fall away are crucifying Christ again, which happens in the Jewish tradition, to
repeat the sacrifices, the yearly Day of Atonement. This is a paradox for Christians, as far
as Christ gave access to the “Holy of Holies” once and for all. The sacrifice is not
required anymore. It he emphasizes that Christians are living a better worship with access
behind the curtain, which evokes the platonic realism.
Therefore, it is more likely that the author is addressing Christian Jews and
Christian Gentiles who were converted to Judaism. However, the evidences are not
enough to make one completely convinced.
In Hebrews 5:1-10, the author explains in the first 3 verses that priests are
appointed. They are chosen among men, they are subject to the same feelings. They
empathize with men, are gently with those who are suffering the guilt of sin, they are also
subject to weakness. In other words, they are fully human.
Jesus Christ is describe as Son of God, but likewise human. As the levitical
priests, his humanity revealed his weakness before the horror of death. This shows Jesus
as fully human in his days on earth, when he offered prayers and cried to God in suffering
for the hour that was coming, as he was going to double act both as priest and the object
of the sacrifice. Even being the Son of God, but yet in his human nature, the intensity of
becoming the sacrifice for humanity was too painful. In his ordeal, he goes through the
process similar to that of the levitical priests.
However, with a great difference: he is both the priest and the sacrifice. God made
him Priest forever, what makes him similar to Melchizedek, who, like Jesus, is not from
the levitical order. He does not impose himself for priesthood, but is chosen, appointed
and obedient. Through his suffering and obedience, God made him the source of eternal
salvation, now in his fully divine nature become high priest forever in the order of
The second passage, Heb 9:11-14, shows Christ in his full divine nature, as the
High Priest of all believers, but not to the physical tabernacle of the Levitical worship,
sacrifices and atonement. Now he is a High Priest, as in the order of Melchizedek, the
one who have no traces of inherited priesthood, not from levitical root. Bu he is revealed
to a greater and perfect tabernacle, not man-made, not part of creation. He was able to
achieve the perfect reality of which we have only a shadowed representation, according
the Greek realism.
While in his human nature, as in the atonement, his sacrifice was much more
precious than the old ones. This led him into the Most Holy Place once and for all to
obtain eternal redemption. Blood of animals is sufficient for atonement in the Levitical
order, for an outwardly cleansing, and has to be performed continually, including the
High Priest himself before entering the Holy of Holies. Much more is the blood of Christ
that cleanses our consciences from the acts that lead to death and enables us to serve the
living God.
This sacrifice and atonement makes Jesus Christ the High Priest forever and open
the curtain, giving us access to the Holy of Holies through him.
This argument evokes a parallel of the two covenants. The Old covenant, the
moral and the social laws, is concerned with the body, the physical and temporal things.
The New covenant is about the spiritual law which is related with the transformation that
breaks the barrier between humanity and God. These are the two sides of the platonic
realism, whereas the temporal reality is but a shadow of the perfect transcendent one.
We have to consider the two main social and political dominant powers for the
purpose of this discussion: the Roman Empire and the Jewish community. We have to
consider as well that the non Jewish community was highly shaped by the basics of the
Greek thought. The empire seemed not to have as much influence on the individual’s
perspective of life and religion as did the Greek culture and the Jewish tradition.
However, we have to have in mind that the Roman Empire adopted the idea that
syncretism - which means accepting all religious beliefs, philosophical teachings, and
government system - is compatible with the Roman perspective of society. In fact it was a
political system that practiced religious freedom and freedom of thought, despite of its
tough control.
As we see in the readings of the New Testament, even the Jewish religious feud
was influenced by the perspective of the Greek Philosophy, the platonic realism.
We have not enough elements to affirm, but if the Epistle to the Hebrews was
addressed to the Jewish in general, it would enrich our reflection if we knew how the
Jewish society was structured. First, the hierarchy was made of the Rich Class, which
were composed by the Court staff and the wealthy families, mostly the priestly
aristocracy and members of the Sanhedrin; the Middle Class, composed of merchant,
retail traders, innkeepers, tavern traders and most of the priests; and the poor class,
composed by day workers, slaves, some priests, some scribes and beggars.
Secondly, the clergy was in fact the most powerful and influential group in the
Jewish society, independent of their economical position. The estimated population of
Israel, according to informal statistics, was around 500.000 of which 10.000 were clergy
at the time of Jesus.
Some scholars believe that the Epistle was written before the destruction of the
temple. If it is true, it is quite easy to imagine how disturbed the Jewish community was
when the writer decided to deliver the sermon. By that time, James, the Bishop of the
Church in Jerusalem had been killed; there were some persecutions and Jewish
dissatisfaction. In a community of such a strong religious tradition as the Jewish, which
ruled every aspect of the individual’s life and society with a clergy system that
represented about ten percent of the community, it is quite certain that the readers of the
Epistle would be liable to detach themselves slowly and quiet from their profession of
faith until it had no influence at all on their lives. Therefore, the Christian community
would be in need of strong and continuous teachings about the foundations of faith.
The doctrines of the Jewish community were so strong and so carefully practiced
that it developed a wrong understanding of the purpose of the law. It is quite similar to
the perspective a modern citizen has of paying tax; he may do it not because he is
contributing for the survival of the community on which his life depends, but to avoid
punishment; he may not believe in it, hate tax and may never pay it if it was an alterative.
In his commentary of Hebrews, Barclay says that there are four conceptions of
religion. First, it is an inward fellowship with God; second, a standard for life and a
power to reach that standard; third, the highest satisfaction of the mind; and fourth,
religion is access to God.
The last is the most close to the Jewish conception, in the view of the writer to the
Hebrews. The access to God was forbidden, broken, interrupted. In many biblical
passages, whenever somebody realized he had seen God he thought he was going to die,
because nobody was supposed to see God.
Sin is a barrier to access to the presence of God. The Levitical priesthood and
sacrifice system was constructed with the purpose to be the means through what mankind
would have access again to the presence of God. Then, God made a covenant with these
people to pave the way to the access to Him. This covenant was the law, a complete
system, which had to be very strictly obeyed. A great ritual of sacrifices and priesthood
was developed.
However, these practices were imperfect. The access to the Holy of Holies was
limited and had to be continuously performed. In fact it was a difficult and inefficient
battle to remove this barrier. During the time of Jesus until the temple was destroyed in
the seventies, there were thousands of priests and practices of sacrifices monthly. There is
an assumption that eighteen thousand sacrifices were performed monthly. In fact, it
developed into a clerical economy to make the temple and all these sacrifices ritual to
This covenant was received by Moses who was the intermediate between the
people and God (angels, according to Hebrews).
The Greek background of the Hebrews writer is evident in some passages when
he defines our reality as a shadow or a sketch of a perfect reality. It is a reflection of the
platonic realism, the Greek idea of a perfect world existing somewhere from which our
world is just a shadow or an imperfect copy. For Plato, the creator has a perfect and
unchangeable, eternal pattern of which the world is a copy.
By the time Hebrews was written, the Jewish people had about 350 years living
under the influences of the Greek culture. First, they became under a powerful political
system initiated by Alexander the Great; and now they were living under the Roman
political system where the Greek language and culture prevail.
The life according to the Greek Philosophy consisted of a search of the truth, a
search of the way to come out of the shadows and imperfections to reality, a transcendent
perfect reality. The writer states that Jesus is the way to come out from the shadows to the
In this passage, we read between the lines the purpose of the writer to show a
parallel between the Greek realism and the Jewish priesthood and sacrifices system. In
his perspective, what happens with the Jewish system is a shadow of the perfect sacrifice
that could break once and forever the barrier that brings mankind forward to the presence
of God. These obsolete practices burdened the people and priests; and they did not reach
satisfactory result.
The solution the Jewish community and priest were yet waiting for, which is the
perfect sacrifice, has happened in Jesus Christ and is not necessary to happen again. This
perfect real sacrifice that breaks the barrier to the access to the presence of God is Jesus;
the only thing one has to do is to accept him as the High Priest and the only sacrifice
The confrontation of the Levitical system drawn in Moses, given by God (angels
in LXX) becomes inefficient and, yet the punishment for its non-fulfillment is so tough.
What could be the consequences of neglecting the perfect one? If the shadow or sketch
brings such a curse, what would be required of those who neglect “a so great salvation”,
the perfect sacrifice that brings mankind back to the presence of God, to the status it was
originally created for?
Jesus, the son of God, is superior to the angels. Then his covenant, himself as
High Priest and his sacrifice forever make it much more reliable to be obeyed.

BARCLAY, William. The Letter to the Hebrews – Revised Edition. In the daily study
Bible series. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1976.
BRUCE, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977.
COOGAN, Michael, ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha. NRSV. New
York: Oxford, 2001.
FONCK, Leopold. Epistle to the Hebrews. New Advent - The Catholic Encyclopedia,
Volume VII. 1910. New York: Appleton, 1910.
HUGHES, Philip Edgcumbe. The Letter to the Hebrews. In “The Oxford Companion to
the Bible”. Ed. Bruce M. Metzger & Michael D. Coogan. New York: Oxford,
PREGEANT, Russel. Engaging the New Testament: An Interdisciplinary Introduction.
Mineapolis, MN: Fortress, 1997.