Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Explicit statements continued: Hebrews 1:8

This is the third post in a thread about explicit New Testament statements pertaining to Christ's divinity. The thread has been spread across other posts, so if you need to see the progression of thought, then please recap first here (introduction) and then here (Thomas' declaration to Jesus). This is a new "sub-chapter" I am adding to my paper, Trinitarian Interpretations, which I initially published last August. So let's buckle up and look at the Hebrews 1 passage over the next three posts...

Hebrews 1:8-9 – About the Son: “Your throne, O God…”

The only text that remains to be treated in this sub-chapter is perhaps the strongest of all: Hebrews 1:8-9. The great late Catholic theologian Raymond Brown classified it as one of the three texts explicitly asserting the divinity of Christ (the other two being the previous passage of Thomas’ declaration of faith and John’s prologue). We shall see that translation is a key component in understanding and interpreting these two verses. In the popular NIV translation, we read:

But about the Son he says, ‘your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a sceptre of justice will be the sceptre of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.

There can be virtually no doubt about it. Not only does this text seem to describe Jesus as “God”, which is of course highly compatible with a triune-God view, but it seems to have the Father addressing his Son as “God”. Let us not content ourselves with a purely superficial reading, however; let us strive for a fuller understanding about what the author of Hebrews – and the author of the quoted Psalm – meant here. This would be a good practice regardless, but it is even more worthwhile as the passage is located in a context that has some components pretty dissuasive of a triune-God view (see development below[1]).

So let us attempt the following: firstly, to identify the key speakers and addressees in Psalm 45, then to ensure we have a biblical understanding of Elohim, the Hebrew word used here for “God”, and then to use this and our knowledge of the Hebrews passage to understand the assumptions underpinning two alternative interpretations.

Hebrews 1:8-9 Who’s doing the talking and who is/are the God(s)?

In order to achieve the first objective and reduce confusion about speakers and addressees, we must turn a spotlight onto the translators’ “helping hands”. To continue with the colour theme of this paper, words in blue are suggestive. This time, however, they are added or interpretative words, not necessarily original in the Greek manuscripts. Please read carefully, as it is such a small thing, and could be deemed not significant. Yet we all know that a tiny word can radically change the whole meaning of a sentence, right? Well, there is precisely one of those tiny words hiding in there in verse 6. Here is the passage in its context with emphasis placed on the key speaker words:

5 For to which of the angels did [God] ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? 
6 And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God's angels worship him.”
7 In speaking of the angels he says, “He makes his angels spirits, and his servants flames of fire.” 
8 But about the Son [he says], “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a sceptre of justice will be the sceptre of your kingdom. 9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” 
10 [He also says], “In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands….
13 To which of the angels did God ever say, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?

The way translations like the NIV set up the speaker here is downright confusing! It really does not need to be, but the way God is made to be the active speaker throughout indicates to me possible theological bias. We want to allow verse 8 to imply “God the Father addressing God the Son”. That would be so neat, placing the writer hundreds of years ahead of the pack, theologically. The word for “he said”, legei is quite frequently used in the New Testament to introduce an Old Testament quotation, and does not require a personal “he”. We should not ignore this possibility here. In verse 6, I am therefore suggesting, that we should allow interpretative space for one of the following more meaningful renderings:

  • And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, it says [legei], “Let all God's angels worship him
  • And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, God says through the Scriptures [legei], “Let all God's angels worship him.

This “it” would be comparable to “Scripture says”, such as we see as the more likely (and favoured translation in most modern translations) in Acts 13:34-35[2], Galatians 3:16[3], Ephesians 4:8[4] and 5:14[5]. The second option for legei is more of a compromise between the simple “it” or “he” dichotomy, and can be favoured based on Hebrews 4:7[6]. Donald Hagner, NIBC commentary contributor, does not consider these options, even leaping onto another possible reference to the deity of the Son as early as early as verse 6, containing our first legei: “What is remarkable in this passage […] is that the one who is worshipped is the Lord, or Yahweh […] and thus the Son is identified with Yahweh of the OT.”[7] However, this commentator’s enthusiasm does not develop the grammatical gymnastics required by making God the unique active speaker throughout, or at least some thought given to the imprecise ways in which the author would need to be using legei.

So if we can agree that it is at least possible and meaningful that legei here might be reserved for the God-inspired Scriptures (“it says”) as the active speaker, then verse 8 “pros de ton huion” (concerning the Son), could most naturally be understood: “About the Son, it says: “Your throne O God…”. This appears viable. Note, of course, that the addressee is still “God”, and that when the Hebrews author specifies that he is talking about the Son here, he is using Old Testament Scripture to show that Jesus can be called “God” in some way. All we have simply attempted to clarify is that it would be clearer as a quote from the God-inspired Scriptures rather than as a quotation of God calling his own Son, “God”. This distinct possibility gains momentum when we read Psalm 45, where the Psalmist is addressing the current King of Israel throughout[8].

Theologians have also pondered a lot over the following verse (Hebrews 1:9), where you get a curious repetition: “ho theos ho theos sou”, translated “God, your God”. Here, this time with a wider consensus, we can postulate that the Psalmist’s repetition in verse 9 (Psalm 45:7) serves to clarify that we are not talking about the same theos (or Elohim) as in the previous verse. Without the repetition and clarification, the two “ho theos” of Psalm 45:6 and 45:7 would have been otherwise confusing.

Please click here to see the Elohim options. Thank you.

[1] 7.4 Jesus implied to have had a beginning, or a time when he was adopted OR non-Christological NT precedent for “pre-existence” as conceptual / in God’s mind, p. 81.
[2] Acts 13:34-35: God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. As God has said, “I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.” So it is also stated elsewhere “You will not let your holy one see decay” (NIV). The “it” translations of the speaker in Acts 13:35 include NIV, NLT, Aramaic Bible in Plain English, GWT.
[3] Galatians 3:16: The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. (NIV). There is no “Scripture” in the Greek here, just just “ou legei” – he/it does not say. “It” or “Scripture” translations of the speaker in Galatians 3:16 include
[4] Ephesians 4:8: This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people’ (NIV). “It” or “Scripture” translations of the speaker in Ephesians 4:8 include NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB, HCSB, NET, Aramaic Bible in Plain English, GWT, Weymouth New Testament.
[5] Ephesians 5:14: This is why it is said: ‘Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’ (NIV). “It” or “Scripture” translations of the speaker in Ephesians 5:15 include NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB, HCSB, ISV, NET, Aramaic Bible in Plain English, GWT, Weymouth New Testament.
[6] Hebrews 4:7: God again set a certain day, calling it “Today.” This he did when a long time later he spoke through David, as in the passage already quoted: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
[7] D. Hagner, New International Biblical Commentary: Hebrews, p. 33, Paternoster, Carlisle, 1995. Hereafter, Hagner.
[8] The Psalmist sets it up without ambiguity in the opening verse: My heart is stirred by a beautiful song. I say, “I have composed this special song for the king; my tongue is as skilled as the stylus of an experienced scribe.” (NET)

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