Earl Doherty on Hebrews
[Hebrews 2:10-11] [Hebrews 13:11-13] [Hebrews 5:7-10] [Melchizidek] [Hebrews 13:20] [Platonism] [Hebrews 12:18-24] [Hebrews 10:37, 9:27-8, 8:4] [Hebrews 13:7-9]

We will here be going over some of the ideas from an article in Doherty's series about the Book of Hebrews. Although much of this latest addition to the Doherty roster consists of the same sort of errors that are found elsewhere, there were a few unique points that we considered worthwhile to highlight. We will skip over those places where replies that we have previously made cover the same basic ground.

Our first cite of concern is Hebrews 2:10-11 -

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.

Of this, Doherty writes:

In Hebrews, the "voice" of the Son comes entirely from scripture, and it is a voice which speaks in the present, not from the past. When the author first quotes the Son's perceived words in the Psalms and Isaiah (2:12-13), he introduces them in the present tense: "he says" (the Greek present participle legon). The Son is an entity who is known and communicates now and today, through the sacred writings.
The words in these particular quotations are used to illustrate the contention that the Son is not ashamed to call believers his brothers. Yet more than one commentator has wondered why, instead of going to the Old Testament to prove his point, the writer does not draw on any of Jesus' several statements on the subject, as recorded in the Gospels. Why not Luke 8:21 (and parallels): "My brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it." Or Mark 3:35: "Whoever does the will of God is my brother." Or Matthew 25:40: "Anything you did for one of my brothers . . . you did for me." Even John 20:17 might have served: "Go to my brothers and tell them that I am now ascending to my Father. . ." Does the writer lack all knowledge of such sayings by Jesus in an earthly ministry?

We have already discussed the matter of the authority of the OT elsewhere. As for the rest, it is a category error: The saying in Hebrews is used with reference to sanctification that takes place through salvation, whereas the Gospel sayings refer to good deeds done on earth (except for John 20:17, which probably refers to Jesus' siblings). They therefore have no applicability for the writer of Hebrews.

Next, on Hebrews 2:9:

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.

Of which, it is written:

In this passage, we can see the type of source which could have given rise to the idea that the spiritual Son had taken on or entered "flesh", as well as the idea that he had undergone sacrifice. At first this was envisioned as taking place within the lower celestial realm. For the writer of Hebrews, this would have placed the Son "for a short while . . . lower than the angels" (2:9). Into this mythological realm Christ had "come" to receive the body prepared for him, to provide a new sacrifice and a new covenant to supplant the old one with its animal sacrifices which God no longer wanted.

The phrase in 2:9, of course - as is clear from its usage in 2:6 as well - refers back to Psalm 8, and means nothing else but humanity:

Psalm 8:3-5 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.

Read straightforwardly, the verse in Hebrews indicates nothing else but that Jesus became a man on earth.

Perhaps one of the most clear references in Hebrews to a historical Jesus occurs in verses 13:11-13 -

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.

Of this, it is said:

The first thing to note is that the name of Jerusalem is not used. Only the Gospel story would lead us to identify the author's thought about a gate with that city. Nor does the name of Calvary or Golgotha ever appear.

We have dealt with objections like this before: Let it only be pointed out that this is as much a "problem" for Doherty, since any spiritual-region city would also presumably have a name. Continuing:

Note, too, that the flanking verses above use the word "camp". Here we need to look at the Greek word "parembole". It means a fortified military camp, and it is used in Exodus and Leviticus to refer to the Israelite camp in the wilderness of Sinai. Hebrews, in its presentation of the cultic rituals of sacrifice, seems to have this ancient 'historical' setting in mind rather than any contemporary Herodian Temple. The present passage, then, lies far from the site of Jerusalem in the writer's mind; and all of it has the mark of symbolic significance. Jesus suffering "outside the gate" is an element which is dependent, not on some historical record, but on the idea in the previous phrase. Jesus did this because bodies of sacrificed animals were burned outside the camp.

This and later comments amounts, again, to the "Scripture-searching Christians" notion, as well as a bit more circular reasoning: "Gate" is dispatched on the presumption that the case for "camp" is proven, which is far from certified. The author may well be hearkening back to a Levitical allusion; but he would do so on the basis of genuine history.

Further, it is written that "(W)e have strong indication from an earlier passage (7:1-3) that the writer of Hebrews possesses no concept of Jesus ever having been in or near Jerusalem." How so? Thusly:

...In comparing Melchizedek to Jesus, the writer is anxious to milk everything he can from this shadowy character; one who serves the role of prototype for Jesus the new High Priest. And yet he fails to make the obvious point that Melchizedek had officiated in the same city where Jesus later performed his own act as High Priest, the sacrifice of himself.

This omission Doherty regards as "unthinkable". And yet, for someone who has without justification read "anxiety" into the words of this writer, this is an "incredible" presumption. What compels the Hebrews writer to bring out such low-context trivia? What possible application could it have? Jesus' role as High Priest is in Heaven, unlike the earthly Melchizedek, and the latter offered no sacrifices in Genesis.

But now to another historical reference, in 5:7-10 -

During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.

Of this, we have the usual argument about lack of place names, and it is also written:

Scholars regularly claim that this passage is a reference to an incident in the earthly life of Jesus, namely the Passion scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. But is it? Some recognize the problems in such an interpretation. At Gethsemane, Jesus' anguished plea that the cup of suffering should pass him by was in fact not answered by God, which contradicts the point the writer wishes to make...in fact, says the writer, this request was granted.

This point could be argued relative to Gethsemane, but in fact, we need not pursue a Gethsemane connection further, or even at all: The key to the passage is the first phrase, referring to Jesus' days on earth, is actually more literally rendered "days of his flesh", and we have seen the arguments that Doherty employs to explain of such references.

This next is regarded as "a clincher" against human historicity:

But there is more than the one omission described earlier in his use of Genesis 14:18-20. Verse 18 begins:
Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought food and wine . . .
A writer whose main occupation is making parallels between his own brand of Christian theology and its embodiment in the sacred scriptures, fails to point to Melchizedek's "food and wine" as a prefiguring of the bread and cup of the eucharistic sacrament established by Jesus!

This, too, is called an "unthinkable omission" - but how on earth is this so? Melchizedek brought out the food and wine (note: NOT "bread and wine") for the refreshment of Abraham's troops as an offer of hospitality. He was not offering any kind of ritual or sacrament, and so there is no "prefiguring" here whatsoever.

One of the "startling voids in Hebrews", we are told, "is the absence of any concept of a resurrection for Christ, either in flesh or for a period on earth." But what about this verse, 13:20 -

May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep...

Sounds like the Resurrection, but no, we are told:

...(I)n 13:20, in a passage which has in any case been questioned as authentic to the original epistle, the writer speaks a prayer which begins: "May the God of peace, who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep . . ." Here the Greek verb is "anago", meaning to "lead up", not the usual word applied in other New Testament passages to the idea of resurrection. Not surprisingly, the whole phrase is modeled on an Old Testament passage, Isaiah 63:11 (Septuagint): "Where is he that brought up from the sea the shepherd of the sheep?" Once again, we see that ideas about Jesus and his activities are derived not from history, but from scripture.

So it's the same appeal to Scripture-searching Christians, along with a suggested interpolation - which I have yet to see any textual evidence for. We may concede the point about anago being an unusual word to use for the Resurrection - for it is only used thusly once elsewhere in the NT, at Romans 10:7. But this is hardly cause to discount Hebrews 13:20 as a description of the Resurrection, and the same sense is found in the Psalms [30:3, 71:20, 86:13].


That the Book of Hebrews shows Hellenistic influence is not to be doubted. That it reflects evidence in support of a Christ-myth and a type of dualist Platonism is another matter. As has been noted by many commentators, the difference between Hebrews and Platonism is the anchoring of events in history.

Doherty says, though: "But that a document which inhabits an Alexandrian-style milieu would nevertheless not embody the fundamental principles of Middle Platonism is impossible."

Impossible? Did every Jew who entered Alexandria become a Platonist automatically and adopt every single principle of it? Did they arrive at the city limits and have a sudden and irreversible revelation?

But interestingly, we have this admission by Doherty:

That sacrifices could be offered in heaven is shown by the Testament of Levi, third part of the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, a Jewish document (from probably a little earlier time) with certain amendments which scholars label "Christian". In chapter 3, sacrifices are depicted as being offered to God in a heavenly temple by angels of the third heaven. In this multi-layered universe, the third heaven contains an archetypal sanctuary whose copy is the earthly temple. Here the archangels "offer propitiatory sacrifices to the Lord in behalf of all the sins of ignorance of the righteous ones" (as in the earthly rite on the Day of Atonement). "They present to the Lord a pleasing odor." Such sacrifices are declared to be "bloodless", although sacrifices in heaven involving blood are found in later Kabbalistic thinking.

Doherty is on the right track, but he needs to go further: Several commentators have pointed out that the concept of heavenly and perfect copies of things on earth is found already in the ANE and in Judaism - in some cases even before Plato (Ps. 78:69, Is. 60:11-14, Ezekiel 40-48). So there is no need to call upon Platonism to any depth to explain the picture in Hebrews.

(Our) conclusion is clinched by the epistle's climax in chapter 12, a final peroration in which the writer urges steadfastness on his readers and gives dire warning against apostasy. "Remember where you stand!" he cries (12:18), first calling to their minds the scene of the granting of the old covenant, before the blazing fire of Mount Sinai where a cowering Moses heard the oracular voice of God. When he turns to the scene of the new covenant, where does he place his readers' vision? Are they invited to stand upon the mount of Calvary? Beneath the cross where Jesus of Nazareth hangs? Perhaps in front of the empty tomb? No, where Mt. Sinai symbolized the old covenant, it is Mt. Zion-still a scriptural motif-which for this writer symbolizes the new.

Let's look at our cite in context:

Heb. 12:18-24 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned." The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am trembling with fear." But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Doherty has erred here: He has latched unto Mt. Sinai to say that the subject here is the giving of the covenant; but in fact, the subject is mediation - access to God through his representative. The tomb, cross, etc. would not be suitable for this purpose, whereas the ascended Jesus at the right hand of the Father would be ideal, for it is there that Jesus enacts his role as broker of God's patronage for us today.

Incidentally, the name "Mt. Sinai" is mentioned nowhere in the text of Hebrews. Isn't this sort of thing a "problem"? Doesn't Doherty here have to "read into the text" what is clearly not there?

For this section we will look at what Doherty calls "A Pair of Smoking Guns" that supposedly prove that the writer of Hebrews knew of no earthly Jesus. The first refers to verse 10:37 -

For in just a very little while, "He who is coming will come and will not delay."

Doherty notes that this language was used in the OT by Habakkuk to express the notion of a Savior figure who would come at the end of time. Of this, he asks:

Is he referring to the Gospel Jesus and his supposed Second Coming in glory? It is certainly the coming in glory at the End time that he has in mind, but how can this be a second coming, for the writer has made no room for a previous one. If the prophet had prophecied Christ's coming, this would have been earlier fulfilled in his incarnation, when he came to earth as Jesus of Nazareth. This in fact is how Christians later interpreted all those prophetic passages about the Messiah: they referred to Christ's life on earth. But the writer of Hebrews makes no allowance for such a thing. Even if he wishes to apply Habakkuk's words to the Parousia of Jesus instead of the incarnation, he needs at least to make some reference to that earlier coming, if only to avoid confusion. Yet he does not. His silence plainly shows that for him Christ's coming is still to be, that he has no concept of him already having been here. As 10:37 expresses itself, the scriptural promise of Christ's arrival has not yet been fulfilled.

What's this? The writer "needs" to make a reference to the earlier coming? Why? "To avoid confusion"?? Confusion by whom? The readers of Hebrews are already Christians and by this stage would know perfectly well about the "first coming" of Jesus on earth.

Once again Doherty completely neglects to consider that foundational and missionary preaching would by this time have been a thing of the past, and we would not even need to have them be "high context" readers to say so.

But even so, we do indeed have a passage that is more explicit, Hebrews 9:27-8 -

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Seems that the idea of a second coming is very clear here. How does Doherty do away with this? He circularly argues that 10:37 suggests otherwise, and adds of the verse itself:

If the "ek deuterou" means a second time, the parallel with verse 27 is destroyed. Verse 27 is saying that "first men die, and after that (or 'next') they are judged." There is no sense here of a "second time" for anything; the writer is simply offering us a sequence of events: death, followed by judgment. Does this not imply that verse 28 is offering a sequence as well? "Christ was offered once, and after that (next) he will appear to bring salvation."
...The idea of appearing "a second time" would be intrusive here.

One hardly sees how any parallel is destroyed. The parallel is clear: 1) Men - die once; Christ - offered once (died); 2) Men - get judged; 2) Christ - judges.

But now the last verse. 8:4, which reads:

If he (Jesus) were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law.

Of this, Doherty writes:

No matter how one tries to detect a feasible qualification to this phrase, there is no denying that the writer seems to be saying that Jesus was never on earth. The Greek is "ei men oun en epi ges," which is literally: "Now, if accordingly he were on earth . . ." The verb en is the imperfect, which is strictly speaking a past tense, and the NEB (above) chooses to reflect this. But the meaning within the context is probably present, or at least temporally ambiguous, much like the conditional sense in which most other translations render it: "Now if he were on earth (meaning at this time), he would not be a priest."
However, the writer has qualified this statement in no way whatever. He does not say, if he were now on earth (instead of earlier), if he returned to earth, if he were still on earth; not even: "While he was on earth, he was not a priest . . ." The writer says nothing which shows any cognizance of the fact that Jesus had been on earth, recently, that it was on earth where an important part of his sacrifice, the shedding of his blood, had occurred.

In point of fact, the writer HAS qualified his statements, in a way that Doherty fails to recognize. Let's start with a larger quote of Hebrews 8:1-6 -

The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man. Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already men who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: "See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain." But the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises.

Our highlighted words reveal the key: In this passage the writer is talking about the ascended Jesus in heaven - and it is this ascended Jesus who, "if he were on earth" would not be a priest - since 1) they already have priests to officiate, and 2) the earthly copy is hardly a thing for the ascended Jesus to serve at, since he ALREADY serves at the real altar in heaven.

We would add here comments from one of our consults who is an expert in Koine Greek:

As Ellingworth states in his commentary (p. 405), the translation "had been," while technically allowable can easily be misunderstood since this is a Greek conditional contrary-to-fact conditional sentence, which means it cannot be true in what it asserts. The point is that Jesus is not NOW on earth, since he is NOW offering sacrifices. It requires that Jesus was at one time on earth, otherwise the argument does not work.

"Had been" is a poor translation simply because (the Greek word used) does not nor can it have a pluperfect (past perfect) form. It is what we call aspectually vague, but if a pluperfect form were needed by the author, he would have to use a different word or formula to get it (e.g. a periphrastic construction).

Even the commentaries who translate the verse as "had been" note that it only excludes Jesus' present ministry as being on earth, not his presence on earth ever (see Attridge).

And, another reader with similar experience has added:

Goodwin, Smyth, and Wallace's Greek grammars all indicate that in a contrary-to-fact conditional, the imperfect form of the verb in the "if" clause (as found in Heb. 8:4) commonly refers to a /present/ state of affairs, not a past state. This means that the author of Hebrews is saying "If Christ were /now/ on earth, then he would not be a priest..." The context very clearly emphasizes this, as 8:1 makes it clear that Christ ascended (and 7:14 gives Christ's earthly descent).

"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever." We are asked, of this verse, "Could a divine Son, pre-existent in heaven before his incarnation, who was born fully human in Bethlehem in the days of Herod the Great, who grew up and ministered in Galilee, was slain in Jerusalem and rose bodily from the dead to return to heaven-could he be spoken of in this fashion?"

If this Son were indeed God's Word incarnate, then of course he could be; just as God was spoken of similarly in Psalm 102. But even then, the application is wrong. As the context shows:

Heb. 13:7-9 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them.

The references to the leaders and the strange teachings make it clear: "Jesus Christ" here means not the person of Jesus Christ, but the gospel proclaimed of him. The words are used in the same way that Paul uses the terms "gospel" and "Christ crucified". Doherty's plea to recognize in this verse "a mythical Christ who operated entirely in the spiritual sphere, in a timeless, Platonic existence," is an assertion with no substance.