It is difficult for a student of the New Testament to miss the significance of the Old Testament. These two sections of the Canon are like two acts of a play that depend upon each other for the proper presentation of the plot, conflict, and resolution. Character development—a necessary tool for any successful play—usually spans from the first raised curtain to the final curtain call. To properly understand the conclusion, one must understand the beginning. Like the two-act play, the New Testament depends upon the foundations set in the first act, which is typically called the Old Testament. Hebrews, probably more so than any other New Testament book is a second-act book that is highly dependent upon the first act. Its author demands that the reader know the Old Testament in order to fully understand the claims made by the book.
Hebrews, written to an audience with an old covenant background, makes heavy use of the Old Testament. George Guthrie writes of the book, “Thirty-five quotations from the Greek translation of the Old Testament and thirty-four allusions work to support the development of Hebrew’s argument. In addition, the writer offers nineteen summaries of Old Testament material, and thirteen times he mentions an Old Testament name or topic, often without reference to specific context.” Carson and Moo write, “[T]he author cites the Greek Old Testament as if he assumes his readers will recognize its authority.” Clements believes that the original readers are “men and woman who are assumed to be fully familiar with the scriptures of the Old Testament, although they themselves are Christian.” Regardless of the exact identity of the original readers (which will be discussed below), George Guthrie argues, “The author assumes his audience has an extensive knowledge of the Old Testament. Of all the writings of the New Testament, none is more saturated with overt references to the Old Testament. The author so filled his discourse with Old Testament thoughts and passages that they permeate every chapter.”
The Hebrews author exhorts that the new is better than the old. “His line of approach,” according to Donald Guthrie, “was that everything in fact was better – a better sanctuary, a better priesthood, a better sacrifice, a better covenant. Indeed, he aims to show that there is a theological reason for the absence of the old ritual, glorious as it may have seemed to the Jews.” And Scott contends, “The Epistle to the Hebrews clearly affirms that because the final age (‘these last days,’ Hebrews 1:2) is present, the new covenant has made the former obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear; (Hebrews 8:13).” Thus, to understand the thing that is better, it seems that the reader must have some familiarity with the former.
In an effort to understand the exhortation of author of Hebrews, this post will examine the author’s of use of the Old Testament. First, a brief discussion of the potential identity of the author and the most likely original audience should serve to provide an appropriated backdrop for the author’s Old Testament usage. Once the background is set, specific passages will be explored; however, for the scope of this post, not every reference to the Old Testament will be mined for additional understanding. In concluding this post, attempts will be made to understand how dependent the book of Hebrews is upon the Old Testament. Can the key points of Hebrews be understood by a reader with no previous knowledge of the Old Testament passages cited or alluded to in Hebrews? Does Hebrews require further study of the old covenant or does the author provide enough background information that right new covenant understanding can come from the book of Hebrews alone? How should a present-day teacher or preacher approach Hebrews in light of the examination of this post?
The author of Hebrews is a mystery. Most introductions contain convincing arguments on why the author was not likely Paul, who wrote Romans and many other Epistles, despite that P46 places Hebrews behind Romans in the Pauline corpus. And it may have been an Eastern Church belief that Hebrews was associated with Paul that allowed it its inclusion in the Canon. Even with the support of Jerome and Augustine, after the forth and early fifth centuries the idea of a Pauline authorship was drawing fire. Today, Carson and Moo write, “The Greek of Hebrews is more polished than that of Paul, and the consistent quality of the rhetoric is quite remarkable.” Hagner points to Hebrews 2:3 as proof that Hebrews was not written by Paul because the author claims to have only second-hand knowledge of the gospel but in passages like Galatians 1:12 and 1 Corinthians 9:1, Paul claims to have learned directly from God. And Davies contents, “It would be very unusual to find a modern scholar holding this view, for there are no positive reasons for it, and strong reasons against it.” But if Paul is not that author, who might the author be?
Luther first proposed that Apollos might be the author. Hagner provides a case for this authorship pointing to Acts 18:24, which states that Apollos was a “learned man” and held a “thorough knowledge of the Scriptures.” And Apollos would know Timothy enough to reference his release from prison (Hebrews 13:23). Tertullian supported Barnabas as the author. Hagner lists that Barnabas was a Levite and would be interested in the livitical system, he was from Cyprus, and was likely influenced by Hellenistic culture. Other suggested authors include Clement of Rome, Priscilla, Jude, Philip, and Silvanus. Presently however, only aspects of the author can be gleaned from the text but there is still no clear evidence—internal or external—that leaves scholars with any solid suspects.
The audience on the other hand is shrouded in slightly less mystery. From Hebrews 10:23, it is fair to assume that the author had some specific people in mind when writing his Epistle. There is silence on the temple, and the Old Testament is quoted from polished Greek, leaving one to conclude that either author or the audience did not know Hebrew. The audience was either not in Jerusalem or if in Jerusalem, they were most likely Greek-speaking expatriates. And while there is no clear identification of who the original audience was, Hagner argues, “the early church was very probably correct in understanding the first readers to have been Jewish Christians. The vast majority of modern scholars have agreed with this conclusion from analysis of the content of the book.”
As one tries to understand how the Hebrews author uses the Old Testament, one must first ask how the author viewed the Old Testament. Yisa believes that the author was not arguing against the Old Testament, but rather building upon his position with a strong trust and understanding of the Old Testament. He writes, “At surface level, it may seem that the author of Hebrews uses the Old Testament in an allegorical and fanciful way. However, that is far from the truth. A closer examination of the book proves that the author shared the Jewish and early Christian presuppositions and exegetical principles of the literal and natural sense of the text, a high view of Scripture, and the divine inspiration of the Old Testament as the Word of God.” Like Yisak who essentially argues that the author of Hebrews holds to a Christocentric hermeneutic, Hagner writes, “Christ is seen to be the key to the real meaning of the OT as it can now be understood in this era of fulfillment. From this point of view, all of the OT points directly or indirectly to Christ, who is by definition the telos (goal) of God’s saving purpose.” And Yisak rightly points out, “[The author] intended to teach that Jesus is the unifying factor of Scriptures.”
Also worth noting is the source (or sources) from where the author drew his information. “In quotations,” writes Hanger, “the author regularly follows the Greek (LXX) rather than the Hebrew (or Masoretic) text that has come down to us.” Bruce identifies two Greek texts that are in agreement with the author’s quotations (Alexandrinus and Vaticanus), but twice as many quotes are in agreement with Alexandrinus than Vaticanus. Interestingly, some of the quotations agree with neither. Bruce explains, “[The author] may have selected his variants (where he knew more readings than one) for interpretational suitability. These variants were sometimes borrowed from the other parts of the Greek Bible or from Philo, but appear for the most part to have been introduced on his own responsibility. It has been argued on the basis of his use of certain Old Testament quotations that he was familiar with the interpretations of Philo and used some quotations in such a way as to counter these interpretations.” And it may even be argued (as Bruce does) that the author of Hebrews actually influenced other Greek texts.
From the broad background, this post will now adjust the attention to some specific Old Testament passages found in Hebrews. One way to outline Hebrews by major themes is to look at Chapters 1-10 as an argument that Christ is superior. In nearly every case, the inferior items are something argued from the Old Testament. Christ is superior to angels, Moses, the previous priesthood, the previous sacrifices, and even the entire old covenant. The remaining three chapters are centered upon the necessity and superiority of faith. To understand the thing that is better there is a necessity to understand the previous thing, and the author often reminds his readers of the Old Testament to make his case. Examining the book of Hebrews in this fashion will not give equal treatment to every Old Testament quote and allusion found in Hebrews, and in fact, some quotations will be neglected all together; however, this approach should provide enough examples to support the thesis of this post.
Christ is superior to the angels. The book of Hebrews wastes no time with an introductory opening and is quickly arguing that Jesus is superior to the angels. To make this argument, the author appeals to Deuteronomy 32:43, 2 Samuel 7:14, Psalm 2:7, Psalm 45:6-7, Psalm 102:25-27, and Psalm 110:1. Most of the entire first chapter is actually comprised of Old Testament quotes. Davies points out that all the Scripture appealed to in this specific argument is ascribed to God as the speaker, showing the author’s belief of divine authorship of the quoted passages. Also worth noting is how short many of the quotations are. Most of them are one sentence, and of those, the first four quotes are rather short sentences. It is as if they are to serve as merely a reminder rather that a first-time presentation of the material. And the reader must already trust these statements as God’s Word, that is, divine Scripture, or there is no value in using the passages to support the argument for Christ.
Christ is superior to Moses. In Chapter 3, the author compares Jesus to Moses, saying, “For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses […].” And while the author provides a little glimpse of who Moses was in verse 5 when he says, “Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant,” he provides very little about Moses the character. It is as if the reader must already be aware of Moses or the author wants to the reader to do some research. In providing commentary on this passage, Bruce discusses aspects of the golden calf, the relationship with Aaron, and even the unfavorable report from spies. None of this is mentioned in the Hebrews passage, but Bruce seems to feel the need to express it to explain the comparison. Guthrie feels that he must do the same thing in order to explain the rebellion in verse 8. In order to see a complete picture of Moses, one must read the Old Testament, and it seems the author understood this and expected it of his readers, just as Bruce, Guthrie and many others have done.
Christ is superior to the Old Testament priesthood. Much like the author’s argument about Jesus’ superiority to Moses, he also argues that Jesus is superior to any present priesthood system. This argument spans from the tail end of Chapter 4 through Chapter 7 with some minor breaks. For this argument, the author specifically only quotes Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 110:4, but he alludes to the order of the Melchizedek priesthood and even of the high priest system that his readers would likely be familiar with. But unlike the Moses argument, the author provides some background on the mysterious person called Melchizedek. It is as if he expects the readers to be slightly less informed of Melchizedek—maybe aware of the person but not the magnitude of meaning wrapped up in him— because Hebrews 7:1-10 offers an explanation of who Melchizedek was before the author compares Melchizedek and Jesus. One might point out that the author of Hebrews provides enough information that the reader may not need to do additional research to understand the comparison, and this is a valid observation. This demonstrates the author’s awareness of his original audience and his awareness of the common understanding of Moses compared to that of Melchizedek. When likened to the author’s treatment of Moses, there is an indication the author must teach where necessary but depend upon the audience’s knowledge of the Old Testament where he can afford to do so.
Christ is superior to the old covenant. In making the argument that Christ as the new covenant is better than the old covenant, the author appeals briefly to Exodus 25:40 and extensively to Jeremiah 31:31-34. In appealing to Jeremiah, the author cites what might be the largest quotation from the Old Testament found in Hebrews. Hagner suggests that this citation is “of major importance to the epistle,” and “the explicit reference to the new covenant in this text makes it ideal for his purpose.” This Old Testament passage is so useful in the argument in fact, that is quoted again in Hebrews 10. And just as with the previous uses of the Old Testament, little is outlined or summarized of the old covenant. It seems that the original readers must already hold some understanding of the old covenant, or at least the author assumed they did. And there must be some foundational information the author is assuming because the author is making an appeal that Jesus is better than the thing the reader already knows. What is different here compared to previous passages is that the author is using the Old Testament to demonstrate that the new covenant is actually spoken of in the Old Testament. The new covenant is actually inline with previous writings and the author wants his readers to see what they may have missed.
Christ is superior than the old sacrifices. In Chapter 10, the author argues that Christ is the ultimate sacrifice and writes, “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” Like the argument about the better covenant the author is using the Old Testament to demonstrate that his point has already been made in the Old Testament. The readers should have seen the perfect and final sacrifice in Jesus. In this section, the author turns to Psalm 40:6-8 and again to Jeremiah 31:33-34. Here, the Old Testament supports the displeasure of the old sacrifices and then commentary is offered by the author. He states, “[E]very priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” The author finds not only support in the Old Testament, which is treated as if spoken by God, but also boldness from within God’s Word.
So great a cloud of witnesses. The latter portion of the book of Hebrews argues for the superiority of faith. While many Old Testament allusions and quotations may be examined here, the cloud of witnesses proves most interesting. In a single chapter, the author uses 16 characters from the Old Testament as examples of 14 faithful men and two faithful women. This “great cloud of witnesses” includes Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel. Some background is provided for some of these figures, but hardly more than a sentence. And Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel are lumped together in the explanation. Clearly, the author believes his readers know who these individuals were and need only a simple reminder. But to get a better understanding, the reader could consult Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Chronicles, and Ruth, where the accounts and writings of these individuals are found within the Old Testament. The author also includes many unnamed people who have suffered and then he said of them, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” With the exception of the unnamed and more recent faithful witnesses, it is almost a requirement for one to know at least some of the names listed if one is to truly understand the better thing that God has in store. After all, how can one understand the thing that is better without first seeing the thing it is compared to?
John Patrick’s stage play, “The Hasty Heart” (1945), takes place in a World War II allied field hospital. In Act I, the hospital patients learn that a Scotsman named Corporal Lachlan "Lachie" MacLachlan is being transferred to the spare bed in their recovery area. Lachie sustained a wound to his kidney and had to have it removed; however, his other kidney is not functioning properly and within about four weeks, Lachie will die of the toxins in his own unfiltered blood. He has no family and he is a bitter, angry man. The commander in charge of the hospital felt that it would be best if Lachie did not know of his condition. While he informed the other patients in the hospital, he asked them to keep it a secret. He also asked the patients and floor nurse to befriend this lonely transfer patient in an effort to improve the quality of his short remaining life. The drama that unfolds shares a remarkable story of the condition of the heart. However, if a theatergoer were to enter and find her seat at intermission between the first and second acts, there is almost no way she would understand the activities playing out before her. In many ways, the play would make no sense. While many things could be learned about Lachie, Yank, and Sister Parker, the overarching plot and conflict would be rather hazy at best. The development of the characters would be only half the story. The same is true of many New Testament books, most especially the book of Hebrews.
As much as the author of Hebrews depends on the specific Old Testament passages, he depends even more upon the reader’s understanding of the scrolls from where those quotes were drawn. Like a playwright, the author is expressing the second act of a two-act play. This is where the conflict is resolved, the plot is concluded, and the character’s development is show to its full capacity.
Hebrews teaches the world much about Jesus; but if the student of the book is to gain the understanding the author intended, it is almost demanded of the student to turn back a few pages and examine the Old Testament. The student must see to what the author is alluding. He or she must observe what was before so there is a solid understand of what is better. In most cases, the author does not provide enough of a summary. The original readers were most likely Jewish Christians and it is assumed that they had the background knowledge of the material. This may not always be the case for modern-day readers; which is why pastors and teachers should be prepared to provide the summary that most students need in order to gain the two-act understanding.
Reading Hebrews a number of times and even studying the Old Testament verses will not fully plum the depths of this rich book. In its pages there is much to be learned, applied, and lived. There is an amazing Savior to be loved. Many commentaries provide additional insight into the author’s use of the Old Testament and these may serve as additional material for further study. However, it is the recommendation of this author that further study consist of starting with Hebrews 1:1 and reading line by line. At any point a quote or allusion to the Old Testament is presented, place a bookmark in Hebrews and explore the passage from where the quote came. Once the Old Testament passage has been read and studied to the point that a good understanding is achieved, turn back to Hebrews and continue where the reading left off. When the end of the book is reached, try it again and see what was not seen the first time. Chances are, this will take years and the journey will move the reader through much of the Old Testament. But the reward will be well worth the journey. It is the prayer of this author that this post is not where the investigation ends, but rather, this post has only served as an appetizer to such a rich reading of the book of Hebrews and even of the Old Testament upon which Hebrews depends.
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews (Revised). The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans Publishing, 1990.
Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2005.
Clements, Ronald E. "The use of the Old Testament in Hebrews." Southwestern Journal of Theology 28, no. 1 (September 1, 1985): 36-45. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 23, 2011).
Davies, J. H. A Letter to Hebrews. The Cambridge Bible Commentary. London, Engl: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Guthrie, Donald. Hebrews. The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, Illi: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983.
Guthrie, George. Hebrews. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zonderan, 1998.
Hanger, Donald A. Hebrews. New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1990.
Scott, Julius, J., Jr. Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 1995
Yisak, Suru. “The use of the Old Testament in Hebrews: Understanding the interpretive method of the writer of Hebrews.” Th.M. diss., (2007) Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dissertations & Theses: Full Text [database on-line]. http://www.proquest.com (publication number AAT 1450952; accessed April 24, 2011).
1 George Guthrie, Hebrews, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1998), 19.
2 D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2005), 610.
3 Ronald E. Clements, "The use of the Old Testament in Hebrews" (Southwestern Journal of Theology 28, no. 1, September 1, 1985: 36-45, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost) [accessed April 23, 2011], 36.
4 Donald Guthrie, Hebrews, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, Illi: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 19.
5 Guthrie, Hebrews, 1998, 32-33.
6 J. Julius Scott Jr. Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament (Grand Rapid, Mich: Baker Academic, 1995), 327.
7 Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2005, 600.
8 Donald A. Hanger, Hebrews, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, Mass: Henderickson Publishers, 1990), 8-9.
9 Carson, An introduction to the New Testament, 2005, 601.
10 Hagner, Hebrews, 1990, 9.
11 J. H. Davies, A Letter to Hebrews, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (London, Engl: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 10.
12 Hagner, Hebrews, 1990, 10.
14 Guthrie, Hebrews, 1998, 23.
15 Carson, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2005, 608.
17 Hagner, Hebrews, 1990, 2.
18 Suru Yisak, “The use of the Old Testament in Hebrews: Understanding the interpretive method of the writer of Hebrews,” Th.M. diss., 2007 (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dissertations & Theses: Full Text [database on-line. http://www.proquest.com, publication number AAT 1450952; accessed April 24, 2011), 83.
19 Hagner, Hebrews, 1990, 15.
20 Yisak, 2007, 62.
21 Hanger, Hebrews, 1990, 15.
22 F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Revised), The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans Publishing, 1990), 26.
24 Ibid., 27
25 Davies, A Letter to Hebrews, 1967, 22.
26 Hebrews 3:3a.
27 F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 1990, 91-92.
28 Guthrie, Hebrews, 1983, 102-104.
29 Hanger, Hebrews, 1990, 122.
30 Hebrews 10:18.
31 Hebrews 10:11.
32 Hebrews 12:1.
33 Hebrews 11:39-40.
*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.