Cloud of Witnesses: Jewish Scriptures in the Letter to the Hebrews

How should we relate to the Jewish scriptures? Professor Susan Docherty explores the relationship between the Old and New Testaments through the writings of one of Jesus’ early followers, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews.

“Old“ and “New” Testaments

As Christians we often struggle to understand how we should relate to the Jewish scriptures. These texts can seem old-fashioned and irrelevant – a record of teaching now superseded by the revelation of God in Jesus. This view of their status is even implied by the traditional name for them of the “Old Testament”. Consequently, almost all the attention is given, in schools, church sermons and bible-study groups, to New Testament works like the Gospels and Paul’s letters. Many Christians today engage with the Jewish scriptures in only a partial and selective way, therefore: they may have some familiarity with Genesis, Isaiah and the Psalms, for instance, but very little knowledge of Deuteronomy, Ruth, or the writings of prophets like Haggai and Zephaniah.

This tendency to marginalise many of the writings which were held as sacred by Jesus and his disciples is not a new one. For example, the second century Christian teacher Marcion is infamous for his desire to remove the Jewish scriptures from the canon altogether. Later Christian scholarship, too, often over-emphasised the differences between the religions of Judaism and Christianity, assuming the essential superiority of Christianity and its ‘replacement’ of Israel as the covenant people of God. This situation has been changing rapidly since the 1980s, however, so that modern commentators now generally take very seriously the rootedness of the first Christians in Israel’s scriptures and religion. In our contemporary search to understand the relationship between the “Old” and “New” Testament scriptures, I want to suggest that there may be lessons to learn from the way this problem was approached by one of the early followers of Jesus, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews.

The Letter to the Hebrews

Throughout the New Testament there are glimpses of the first disciples wrestling with the question of how their encounter with Jesus fits with their previous experience of God’s revelation in the Jewish scriptures. They try to relate him to the scriptural figures they know, like Moses and David; they ask how his teaching squares with the Torah they have received as God’s word; and they understand him as somehow having ‘fulfilled’ Israel’s hopes as expressed in the scriptures. In the Letter to the Hebrews, this issue actually takes centre stage. Very little is known about either this author or his community, but the work appears to have been composed in the late first century CE, to guide a group of believers with a Jewish background.

One Revelation in Scripture and Jesus

The first lines of the text demonstrate the writer’s direct and passionate engagement with this fundamental question of the relationship between the word spoken by God in the Jewish scriptures and the divine revelation in Jesus:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds
(Hebrews 1:1-2; all quotations taken from the NRSV).

He declares unambiguously from the outset that it is the same God who speaks in both scripture and in Jesus, in a way that is consistent. Because of this, he will go on to argue that Israel’s scriptures should retain their authority within the early Christian communities as the primary source of theological and ethical ‎teaching.

Scripture is Relevant

The author highlights the enduring validity of the Jewish scriptures for his audience by saturating his entire letter with biblical language, imagery and quotations. There are actually over 30 direct scriptural citations within its 13 chapters, together with a vast number of allusions, drawn from almost every Old Testament book. These texts are presented as the living words of God, so they are introduced with verbs of saying, often in the present tense, emphasising their ongoing relevance for contemporary believers:
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice…’ (Hebrews 3:7, followed by quote of Psalm 95:7-11) and ‘Have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as children?’ (Hebrews 12:5, followed by quote of Proverbs 3:11-12).

Scriptures as Ground for Theology and Ethics

These scriptural citations and allusions are used throughout Hebrews to ground both doctrinal and ethical teaching. The Psalms are interpreted as demonstrating that Jesus is son of God (Psalm 2:7 at Hebrews 1:5) and eternal high priest (Hebrews 5:5-6), and that he has offered his own body in place of the ritual offerings of the Temple (Psalm 40:6-8 at Hebrews 10:5-7). Meanwhile, Abraham is invoked as a positive model to encourage the practice of hospitality within the community (Hebrews 13:2; Genesis 18:1-15), and the negative example of Esau is employed to illustrate the dangers of giving up on the promised blessings of God (Hebrews 12:16-16; Genesis 25:29-34).

Use of the Psalms in Hebrews

This author’s level of appeal to the Psalms is particularly striking, as he cites them 18 times, far more often than any other New Testament writer. Their prominence within the letter is very likely due to their familiarity to him and his audience from their use in individual and communal worship. He expressly calls on his audience to give voice to their words in prayer:
Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence,
‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’ (Hebrews 13:6).

Furthermore, Jesus himself is depicted as using the Psalms in his own prayer and dialogue with the Father, quoting Psalm 22:22 at 2:12, for example:
’I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you’”; and
“‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me…’” (Psalm 40:6-8 at Hebrews 10:5-7).

The Psalms, then, are to be understood both as divine words and as human words. Since they encapsulate the hopes, the fears, and the daily lived experiences of those who have walked this earth before us and loved the same God whom we love, those who follow Jesus as messiah can continue to find in them a language to express our own longings and anxieties.

Salvation History

One final important aspect of the treatment of scripture in Hebrews is its focus on the ‘big picture’ of Israel’s history of salvation. There is always a danger in quoting a biblical verse out of context and interpreting it without any nuance or consideration of the historical setting and purpose of the whole book from which it is taken. Now, of course this author is not immune from this tendency to cite isolated texts and mould them to his own agenda, but he does not lose sight of the larger scriptural story in which he wants his hearers to feel rooted. In chapters 11 and 12, for example, several major scriptural narratives are recalled, including those about of Cain and Abel, Abraham’s election and journey to Canaan, Moses and the exodus, and the conquest of the land:
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us… run with perseverance the race that is set before us…
(Hebrews 11:39-12:1).

These worthy scriptural figures of the past are presented as inextricably linked with the contemporary followers of Jesus. They initially received God’s promises and the author’s community can now expect to see those same promises fulfilled; this “great cloud of witnesses” still surrounds us and inspires us to keep running the race towards heavenly glory. Significantly, however, it is not only their individual stories that are in view – they are part of a collective narrative of God’s dealings with his people.

Positive View of Scripture in Hebrews

This is a reading of scripture that has profound theological implications as well as considerable rhetorical force. It calls on those who want to follow Jesus to see ourselves as part of the one community of God’s people as we wait for the full realisation of the hopes we share with these Jews who first heard the divine word. In summary, therefore, the author can describe the Jewish scriptures as a heavenly revelation (2:2-3), an accurate witness to Christ (3:5), a message of “good news” (4:2), and a living and active voice which should be heeded (4:12), because their words are true (2:5; 3:16-18; 4:10; 7:4; 10:30; 12:7, 16-17, 26) and their promises will be fulfilled (4:1, 6, 9; 6:13-18; 10:36-39). He expects a detailed and thorough-going engagement with Israel’s authoritative scriptures to continue among Christian believers, because they still speak powerfully of God’s deeds and intentions to those who would hear them “today” (3:7; 4:7; cf. 12:5).

Implications for Today

So what might be the implications of the approach of Hebrews for our church “today”? Three potential areas seem ripe for further exploration: in the Liturgy; in adult faith formation; and RE in Catholic schools.

Scripture in Liturgy

We have seen that the Letter to the Hebrews is permeated with scriptural language and imagery, and that the author encourages his hearers to use biblical words for their own prayer. So how can we make our own liturgy equally scripturally-saturated, and how can we draw most fruitfully on this author’s favourite scriptural resource, the psalms? There are already some excellent resources available to help us do this, including the Power of the Psalms resource on this website and the Bishops’ Conference Spirituality Project on the Psalms. There is also a marked increase in the number of people engaging prayerfully with the Psalms and other scriptures through lectio divina. Opportunities remain, however, to encourage greater use in parishes of hymns that consciously draw on scripture passages for their inspiration, to find new ways of increasing the appeal to biblical language within the Sunday liturgy (perhaps within the Prayers of the Faithful, for instance), and to improve scriptural training and resourcing for the catechists engaged in Children’s Liturgy.

Scripture in Faith Formation

The author of Hebrews was confident that the scriptures provide the deepest and soundest basis for doctrinal and ethical teaching. That raises the question of how we might make greater use of the scriptures in Christian formation today, and perhaps especially how we can more effectively place engagement with the Sunday readings at the heart of adult initiation programmes such as RCIA.

Scripture in RE in Schools

Finally, the emphasis of Hebrews on reading scripture as an over-arching and consistent narrative could strengthen school-based RE programmes. The Church of England’s RE syllabus “Understanding Christianity”, for example, aims to introduce pupils to the big story of salvation which is told in the bible and which contains within it all the central Christian beliefs – God, creation, redemption, incarnation, kingdom – and empower them to think about what the biblical texts might mean for the way people live their daily lives. This may provide a model and useful material for teachers and catechists in Catholic schools.

Susan Docherty is Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, and Head of Theology and Philosophy at Birmingham Newman University.