Self-Consuming Texts and the Quasi-Platonic Cosmology of Hebrews

Hebrews appears to have something of a Platonic conception of the cosmos, regarding, among other things, the heavenly tabernacle and the exalted Jesus as greater than the earthly realities that bear on the audience.

It may indeed be the case that Hebrews borrows terms and metaphors from Middle Platonism, but ultimately Hebrews’ cosmology is thoroughly faithful to the Scriptures of Israel.  It doesn’t denigrate the physical creation at all.

Paul, Not the Author of Hebrews

Richard Hays, drawing upon Stanley Fish’s discussion of self-consuming texts, suggests that perhaps the author of Hebrews subtly undoes the Platonic framework he uses to advance his argument.

Readers of Hebrews are invited to consider the problem, in terms universally familiar in Hellenistic antiquity, of how they might ascend from the finite realm of sense impression to the heavenly world.  They are offered a way to do this through Jesus, the Son of God, “the reflection of God’s glory” who is exalted above the angels.  But unexpectedly, they discover that this pre-existent heir of all things shared in blood and flesh, that the new means of access to the non-material heavenly realm is through the curtain of Jesus’ flesh, and that he has cleansed their consciences through the embarrassingly palpable act of sprinkling his own human blood around in the heavenly sanctuary, in the very presence of God.  This stunning paradox short-circuits the categories of the Platonic world-view and invites the readers to reconsider the terms—to rethink what they thought they knew about reality, particularly about the relation between God and creation.  Perhaps the heavenly world is not so non-material as we thought (p. 170-71).

I think Hays is spot-on here.  Here’s just a snippet of his compelling conclusion:

Hebrews, then, however elegant its rhetorical surface, is finally a self-consuming artifact.  Readers drawn into this dialectical discourse of the New Covenant will find themselves challenged, destabilized, and ultimately transformed.  The New Covenantalism of Hebrews is certainly not supersessionist in the classic sense that it replaces on religious system with a new stable religious system that allows readers to stand in a position of secure superiority.  Instead, they find themselves “naked and laid bare” (4:13); they are summoned on a pilgrimage in which they identify with Israel in the wilderness and constantly compelled to confess, “here we have no lasting city” (p. 172).

Quotes from Richard B. Hays, “‘Here We Have No Lasting City’: New Covenantalism in Hebrews,” pp. 151-173 in Richard Bauckaum, et al (eds.), The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).

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9 responses to “Self-Consuming Texts and the Quasi-Platonic Cosmology of Hebrews

  • S Wu

    Thanks for this post, Tim. Interestingly I have been thinking about ancient cosmology lately. In fact I was reading Beverly Gaventa and Edward Adams’ works yesterday (on Paul). Important topic. Hays is good, as always.

  • Daniel B

    Hey Dr. Gombis,
    Thanks for your continued posts on Hebrews. I like them. I am still wrestling with many questions from this book and synthesizing different themes in the NT.
    From my inadequate yet thoroughly interesting research in this area… I cannot help but see Hebrews as challenging the Middle Platonic worldview/cosmology (especially as seen in Philo). I wonder if Hebrews functions in a sort of “Apocalyptic” way in showing the reader what is happening in the heavenly realm and the breaking in of the heavenly realm to earth (in terms which shake the foundations of the heavens and earth.) For example, we see Jesus’ death and can understand its function as a sacrifice. However, we do not see Him seated at the right hand of God, which Hebrews reveals. Also, significantly, His enemies are defeated in this act. (Heb 10:12, 13) Related, could this be similar to Longenecker in his view (in Galatians) where the law functions as “analogous to the national angels” with the law being corrupted to detract attention from God? (Triumph of Abraham’s God, p. 54) Hebrews would function in this “self-consuming” manner, subverting this deteriorated law as “ultimate in divine power and authority.” Do you think this is accurate?

    • timgombis

      Hhmmm…, I’m going to have give that some thought. I do think that Hebrews, while borrowing some language and imagery from Middle Platonism, is thoroughly apocalyptic and not really platonic at all.

      I wonder if we could say that the author does to the temple apparatus what Paul does with the ethnically-particularizing function of the Law in Galatians. It seems that Hebrews isn’t after “the Law” so much as the sacrificial system that has been brought to completion by Christ.

      I’ll have to give that final question or two some thought — we got to hit some coffee soon, too!

  • Kamil M.

    I recommend two articles about Eucharistic themes in Hebrews:

    http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/bregeeucharistic.pdf

    http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/justchristologyhebrews.pdf

    It seems that the author of the epistle makes allusions to something very un-Platonic.

  • Steve W

    Interesting post, Tim. Lots to chew on. When I hear the term “cosmology” I think of conceptual structures of the universe–i.e. the Ptolemaic cosmos or the Copernican cosmos. I agree that the categories for NT writers (to the degree that I have been attentive to their clues) conceptualize a Hebraic (even ancient Near Eastern) cosmos. This would be the three-tiered cosmos (firmament, heavenly sea, pillars undergirding the disc-shaped earth and sheol below) prevalent in Mesopotamian and Egyptian epigraphy (you can find diagrams in most any intro to Hebrew scriptures textbook). For example, even in Philippians Paul seems to be alluding to this model (2:10) “… in Heaven and on earth and under the earth [sheol].” So I guess my question/observation has to do with how platonic/neo-platonic forms (real/ideal) mesh with the physical conceptualizations of the three tiered universe/cosmos, or not. And are there hints in Hebrews ( I am not as familiar with that epistle) that refer to a physical conceptualization of the cosmos?

    • timgombis

      Hebrews seems to operate with Platonic dualisms, like in the discussion of the tabernacle in Heb. 8 — it was made after the heavenly blueprint. Instances like this suggest the platonic notions of Ideals (morally pure) and their earthly forms (pale imitations, morally inferior). While Hebrews does use similar terminology elsewhere, Hebrews is working within a Hebraic eschatological framework where the “coming world” will invade and overtake and transform this earthly and earthy creation into a new and renewed earthly new creation. So, it isn’t really a platonized conception at all. Some of the terms and expressions come from that conceptual world, but Hebrews operates within a Hebraic, thoroughly eschatological conception of things.

      I’m not so sure about the physicality of the heavenly world, but it does seem that Hays may not be too far off to suggest that. Hebrews indicates that the heavenly city and the “coming world” (Heb. 2:5) is a real place that isn’t just “the heavens” but an entire realm of reality that is emerging into existence and will completely overwhelm this broken reality in God’s eschatological future.

      So, I guess I’d say that if you took a snapshot of a Platonic cosmology and that of Hebrews, they’d be the same. But on a narrative conception, or if you traced the trajectory of both cosmologies (where they’re going), they’re moving in different directions and on different planes.

  • John Thomson

    Tim

    What do you mean by ‘Platonic’? If you mean body/spirit dualism then you are right Hebrews nor the rest of the NT has any such concept. If you mean there is no earth/heaven form of dualism then you are backing the wrong horse, a non-runner. The earth/heaven below/above distinction shouts out form the NT again and again and again.

    Further, there is no mileage in trying to say it means anything other than heaven/above for that is its plain meaning. We are a ‘heavenly people’.seated with Christ in heavenly places. We belong to the ‘New Jerusalem’ that is ‘above’ and in Revelation is seen ‘coming down out of heaven’.

    Here in Hebrews we read,

    Heb 6:19-20 (ESV)
    We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.

    What does a ‘forerunner’ suggest?

    And again

    Heb 11:13-16 (ESV)
    These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

    Heb 12:22-24 (ESV)
    But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

    Tim, I feel your integrity wishes to lead you here where your theology is reluctant to go. I totally agree that OT hope does not disappear. Yet it seems beyond refuting that in the NT fulfilment takes this hope to a new level of reality. I am happy to say in the eschaton in some sense heaven and earth seem to become one. What I think is simply dishonest is to make Christian hope simply earthbound and no advance on the OT shadow; this leaves us with a hope that is sub-Christian.

  • John Thomson

    Hi Tim

    My comment took into account previous discussions where you firmly resist my advocating of a ‘heavenly’ hope/inheritance, accusing it of being ‘Platonic/gnostic. Here Hays rightly notes that this hope is not Platonic. Where he appears to go wrong (beyond Hebrews) is in speculating that this realm may be in itself non-material. The important point (in Hebrews) is that Jesus (a physical person) is there.

    It is equally speculation (beyond what Hebrews say, which you appear not to like) to suggest that the writer is concerned with Hellenistic concerns about how to enter the heavenly realm. There may of course be truth in it, but it is speculating. However, I am not inclined to accept that this hellenism is the focus, rather the focus is OT limitations on faith that troubled the believers to whom he writes.

    These Jewish believers were finding it hard to accept Christianity in its entirety. They had accepted its teachings where these aligned with firm this-worldly OT hope (the elementary doctrines of Christ) but found it difficult to accept the full implication of a Christ in heaven and the vastly increased arena of Christian hope (not unlike yourself, it seems). This the writer is spelling out for them. Hellenistic concerns belong more to Colossians.

    I do like,

    ‘they are summoned on a pilgrimage in which they identify with Israel in the wilderness and constantly compelled to confess, “here we have no lasting city” (p. 172).’

    This seems to me exactly the OT perspective. NT believers experience is that of OT Israel in the wilderness. They are not home. They do not yet have rest. Where they are is hostile and difficult and a place of testing and this should not surprise them.

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