Earlier this summer I had a chance to read and review a new and increasingly-influential book on Hebrews by David Moffitt, assistant professor of NT at Campbell University Divinity School. The review’s slotted to be published in the Fall edition of Trinity Journal. Here, however, I wanted to post a lightly revised, pre-publication version, principally because I think the book’s fundamental thesis is just plain wrong. I’ll explain why. But, first, a summary.
Summary. Moffitt tries to overturn two common assumptions in Hebrews’ scholarship. Against those who argue that (1) Jesus’ resurrection is unimportant for Hebrews and (2) Jesus’ resurrection has been conflated with his exaltation, he insists that Jesus’ resurrection should be distinguished from his exaltation and that Jesus’ resurrection stands at the center of Hebrews’ theology. He supports this intriguing thesis with three arguments.
First, he argues that Jesus’ human presence in heaven is what makes him greater than angels, which, therefore, presumes his bodilyresurrection (and ascension). The argument of Heb 1 turns, in other words, on ontology: the son, as an exalted human, is greater than angelic spirits. The focus on Jesus’ humanity in Heb 2, then, is less on humiliation than it is on eligibility and eschatology. The son became “like his peers” and, thus, eligible for the sort of eschatological exaltation described in Heb 1 and anticipated, according to Heb 2, in Ps 8. Second, Moffitt argues that Jesus’ qualification for priesthood—his perfection—required his resurrection. After all, Jesus’ appointment as heavenly (Melchizedekian) priest (Heb 8:1–2, 4) required death (Heb 2:9–11; 5:8–10) and an “indestructible life” (Heb 7:16). Jesus perfection, therefore, “st[ood] between [his] death and elevation to the heavenly priesthood” (p. 199). Third, Moffitt argues that Jesus’ resurrection, rather than his death, is at the center of Hebrews’ atonement theology. Hebrews, he insists, consistently presents Jesus’ offering as taking place inheaven, not on earth (e.g., Heb 9:11–12, 23–25), and Jesus’ offering as his offering of his resurrected, not bloody body (e.g., Heb 10:5–10; 13:12). Were it otherwise, the author’s Day-of-Atonement typology would be undone. Hebrews would bring to the center—sacrificial slaughter—what Leviticus leaves on the periphery. Jesus’ death, instead, serves as a model of exemplary suffering and, moreover, as a necessary, if still preparatory step for his (heavenly) atoning work (p. 294).
Critique. Moffitt’s thesis, while nicely argued, is nevertheless untenable, primarily for two reasons. First, Moffitt’s understanding of Jesus’ priesthood is reductionistic. Moffitt forces precision where Hebrews simply will not allow it. Hebrews—however frustratingly—never gives us a clear idea when Jesus became a high priest. While it could suggest that Jesus’ priesthood began only after his resurrection (Heb 7:16) or only once Jesus entered heaven (Heb 8:4), it could also suggest that Jesus’ crucifixion—his voluntary death—was itself a priestly act. After all, while one might, with Moffitt, separate sacrificial slaughter from atonement, no one—especially anyone familiar with the Day-of-Atonement ritual—would suggest only the latter was a priestly activity (see, e.g., Lev 16:11, 15). Second, Moffitt’s understanding of atonement is reductionistic. Whether or not sacrificial slaughter—death—is less central to atonement than the presentation of blood/life can presently remain an open question. Neither Hebrews nor the OT, however, will allow death to function simply as the preparation for atonement, which is to say, as simply the preparation for the atoning manipulation of blood in God’s presence. This sort of conclusion would make nonsense of those instances in the OT where atonement is secured by death alone, without any reference to the Levitical cult, much less to the ritual manipulation of blood (see, e.g., Exod 32:30–32; Num 25:13; 35:33; Deut 21:1–9; 2 Sam 21:3ff. et al.) or, related, to those cultic contexts which accent the atoning value of some ritual element other than manipulation (see, e.g., Lev 1:4; 4:26). Moffitt’s reading, moreover, is also out of step with a more traditional and, arguably, convincing reading of Lev 17:11, which emphasizes death—life given in the place of another’s life—rather than life released and, therefore, available for atoning purgation. Much the same, in fact, could be said for Hebrews, which stubbornly refuses to view Jesus’ death as simply preparatory for and, thus, “peripheral” to atonement (cf. p. 276). Rather, it is Jesus’ death itself that restores humanity’s lost glory (“because he suffered death,” Heb 2:9), frees humans from the devil’s grip (“by his death,” Heb 2:14), and provides the forgiveness necessary for the inauguration/mediation of the new covenant (“now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from…sins,” Heb 9:15; et al.). None of this, of course, requires a metaphorical reading of Jesus’ archetypical blood ritual, which is to say, none of this undercuts Moffitt’s more fundamental point about the literal nature of the Day-of-Atonement antitype. What does, however, is Hebrews’ one explicit reference to Jesus’ resurrection in 13:20. There the author says that Jesus was raised because of the efficacy of his covenant-inaugurating—and, thus, atonement-securing—death (“through the blood of the eternal covenant”). In other words, Jesus’ death—his blood—had atoning virtue prior to his resurrection and, thus, prior to the moment at the center of Moffitt’s thesis.
In sum, in an attempt to interpret Jesus’ priesthood consistently and his atoning presentation non-metaphorically, Moffitt has overcooked his evidence and, thus, misread Hebrews. Hebrews simply will not allow Jesus’ sacrifice to be separated from his priestly, atoning work.