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Some observations about divine Sonship in Hebrews 1

What is primarily said about Jesus in Hebrews 1 is that he is the Son whom God has “appointed the heir of all things”. After making purification for Israel’s sins—not the sins of the world—he “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high”, which of course invokes Psalm 110:1-2 and the assurance that YHWH’s king will rule in the midst of his enemies. He has inherited a “name” superior to that of the angels—presumably the name “Lord” (cf. Phil. 2:9-11). He is the Son “begotten” today, in the language of Psalm 2:7, which means that he has inherited the nations. It has nothing to do with being “eternally begotten” of the Father, which is a totally different ball game. Jesus is the king to whom YHWH says, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (cf. 2 Sam. 7:14), whose throne will last throughout the ages (Heb. 1:8-9). This is the dominant story about Jesus in the New Testament.

The language of the passage, however, appears in places to be suggestive of a more direct identification of Jesus with God.

Through whom also he made the ages 

The assertion that Jesus has been “appointed the heir of all things” refers to the resurrection and his exaltation to the right hand of God: Jesus has inherited the future. Parallel to this, however, is a statement about Jesus’ involvement in the beginning of all things: through him God made the ages (aiōnas). We find the same juxtaposition in Paul. On the one hand, all things were created “through him and for him”; on the other, he is “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Col. 1:16, 18).

This clearly depends on some sort of identification of Jesus with Wisdom as the agent of God in creation (cf. Prov. 8:22-31). The word for “radiance” in Hebrews 1:3 is apaugasma. It is found nowhere else in the New Testament and only once in the LXX: wisdom is “a reflection (apaugasma) of eternal light and a spotless mirror of the activity of God and an image of his goodness” (Wis. 7:26). The phrase “exact imprint (charaktēr) of his nature” may be compared with Philo’s argument that the soul is stamped with the charaktēr of the “eternal word” (Philo, Planter 1:18).

This Wisdom-christology further accounts for the application to Jesus of Psalm 102:25-27 in Hebrews 1:10-12:

You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.

Presumably the association depends on the name “Lord” (kyrie), which is the name that Jesus “inherited” at his exaltation to the right hand of God (Heb. 1:4). There remains a tension, though, between this affirmation of direct creative action and the indirect agency entailed in the earlier statement.

Let all God’s angels worship him

Jesus is the “firstborn” of whom God says, “Let all God’s angels worship him” (Heb. 1:6). In the first place, this identifies Jesus with the “firstborn” who is the king in Ps. 88:28 LXX (= 89:27 ET) because of the reference to 2 Samuel 7:14 in the preceding verse. The image probably suggests pre-emninence rather than temporal priority: YHWH’s “firstborn” will be “high among the kings of the earth”. So according to the writer to the Hebrews, God says “let all the angels do obeisance (proskunēsatōsan) to” the king.

(This is not exactly the wording that we have in Deuteronomy 32:43: “bow down to him, all gods” (ESV). The Masoretic Text actually omits the line: “Rejoice, O nations, his people, for he avenges the blood of his servants”. 4QDeutq has “and worship him all you sons of God”; cf. “let all the divine sons do obeisance (proskunēsatōsan) to him” (LXX). The wording in Hebrews, with “angels” rather than “sons of God”, corresponds to the form of the verse in the Greek Book of Odes (Odes 2:43), which perhaps points to the existence of a Greek translation independent of the LXX. It’s complicated.)

But perhaps the important thing to note about the Deuteronomy verse is the context. The Song of Moses climaxes in the vindication of Israel and divine vengeance against their enemies. YHWH declares that “there is no god beside me” (Deut. 32:39)—he asserts himself over and against the pagan nations. So the Song concludes:

Rejoice with him, O heavens; bow down to him, all gods, for he avenges the blood of his children and takes vengeance on his adversaries. He repays those who hate him and cleanses his people’s land. (Deut. 32:43)

So the gods or angels or divine sons or heavenly powers bow down to the one who has vindicated his people, taken vengeance on his adversaries, and cleansed the land.

Notice then what the writer to the Hebrews says: when God brings his king, his “firstborn”, into the oikoumenē, into the political arena of the Greek-Roman world, the angels will do obeisance to him. This suggests that we have a very Pauline argument here: YHWH gains sovereignty over the nations of the ancient world, vindicating his people and overthrowing their enemies, through the agency of the faithful servant who has been given the name which is above every name, authorised to exercise divine lordship, and at whose name every knee shall bow, etc.

This also perhaps suggests that Psalm 96:7 LXX (= Ps. 97:7 MT) may be more relevant than is usually assumed:

Let all who do obeisance to carved images be put to shame, those who make their boast in their idols. Do obeisance (proskunēsate) to him, all his angels!

The Psalm declares that “The Lord became king!”, and that he was was seen by Israel and the nations to be “the Lord most high over all the earth… exalted far above all the gods”. The rhetorical move in Hebrews 1:6 would then be to redeploy the Psalm on the ground that God has given the right to be acknowledged as king to his obedient Son.

Subjects and predicates

There are numerous statements in the New Testament where it appears that a predicate (e.g., “is Lord”, “is worshipped by angels”) that is attached to YHWH in the Old Testament has been transferred to Jesus.

A conventional high christology argues that the effect of this is to assimilate Jesus to YHWH by way of a syllogism: A) YHWH is Lord; B) Jesus is Lord; therefore C) Jesus “is” YHWH.

But if we give due weight to the apocalyptic argument and the consistent affirmation that Jesus was appointed to a position of authority, given the name Lord, etc., it would surely make more sense to say that the predicate is assimilated to Jesus than that Jesus is assimilated to the original subject. In effect, the argument has a narrative shape: YHWH was Lord; now Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The fundamental novelty in the New Testament argument is not that God includes Jesus but that divine sovereignty has been assigned to Jesus.

Your throne, O God…

In Hebrews 1:8 the writer asserts that God says of the Son, “Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever, the sceptre of uprightness is the sceptre of your kingdom.”

The only problem with taking this as a simple confession that Jesus is God is that the words are a quotation from a Psalm addressed explicitly to Israel’s king, with no indication given that he was regarded as a uniquely divine or messianic figure. There may be other ways of reading Psalm 45:6: eg. “Your divine throne…” as in RSV, or “Your throne is God’s…” (cf. 1 Chron. 28:3). But as it stands, the Psalmist appears to have spoken of Israel’s king as “God” or as a divine figure.

Since the surrounding quotations generally highlight Jesus’ kingship, the assumption should probably be that the writer means to speak about Jesus in the same way that the Psalmist spoke of the king. To make sense of the statement in Hebrews, therefore, we first have to ask why the Psalmist addressed Israel’s king as “God”.

It is interesting that the writer to the Hebrews has included the lines “therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions” from the Psalm (Heb. 1:9). Jesus stands out above his “brothers” (cf. Heb. 2:17).

Easy with the highlighter

A theological reading of the passage will highlight verse 8 in dayglo pink and then take it more or less for granted that the Son is everywhere implicitly the second person of the Trinity. But if we come at it without the theological preconceptions, it’s clear enough, I think that the controlling narrative is the apocalyptic one about the Son who will inherit the future as Israel’s king. How the Wisdom-creation argument intersects with this narrative is not easy to explain, but it certainly does not provide a straightforward path to Trinitarian orthodoxy.