Monday, March 16, 2009

Godet on Hebrews

Godet, Frederic. “The Note of Warning to the Judeo-Christian Churches.” Pages 307-39 in Studies on the Epistles of St. Paul. Translated by Annie Harwood Holmden. New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1889.

Frederic Godet (1812-1900) was a Swiss Protestant theologian who was professor of theology at Neuchâtel 1850-1887 and also held a pastorate there from 1851 to 1868. In 1873 he was one of the co-founders of the Evangelical Church of Neuchâtel. A nice biography of his life can be found here.

In this essay Godet sets out to answer three questions:
1) To what churches was this church addressed?
2) What was the object which the writer proposed to himself?
3) Who was the writer?

1) Godet believes that the superscription “To the Hebrews” was penned by the author himself! “Hebrews” refers to Judeo-Christians generally. Passages such as 5:11-12; 10:34; and 13:7 indicate that the epistle was addressed to one or more specific congregations. Godet notes that scholars have posited numerous locations for the audience: Cyprus, Asia Minor, Greece, Spain, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Palestine. Godet favors the last option declaring that there is no indication in the entirety of the letter that Gentiles are being addressed. As the readers had “an obstinate attachment to the worship of the visible sanctuary” (311), a location near Jerusalem is the most reasonable hypothesis. 2:3 suggests that they were converted by those who had personally heard Jesus, and 13:7 references the death of their leaders which accords well with what we know about James’ martyrdom in 62.

Godet then tries to refute alternative solutions. Hebrews 6:10 does not seem to apply to the Jerusalem church which was itself in deep poverty. However, the author may have been writing to a church elsewhere in Judea, or there may have been a few wealthy persons in the Jerusalem church, or it could be that even the poor in Jerusalem were generous in their giving.

Godet lists three things in favor of the hypothesis that the epistle was written to the church in Egypt: the “Alexandrine style” of the writer, the similarity of ideas to Philo, and the author’s penchant for quoting from the Septuagint. These facts, however, favor an Alexandrian origin, not a destination. Godet counters by arguing that the Alexandrian culture was rather widespread among the oriental Jews. Moreover, the church at Alexandria was far from being a purely Judeo-Christian group. Finally, he notes that Alexandrian teachers such as Clement and Origen never hint that Hebrews was written to the church at Alexandria.

Godet says that a Roman destination for the epistle was waning in favor in his day (It is interesting to note, then, that there are still strong advocates for this view to this day, 120 years after he wrote this). The support for a Roman destination is taken from 13:24 which says “they of Italy salute you.” Godet disputes this possibility: “does it seem probable that any Church of Italy . . . should have been so strongly tempted to fall back into Judaism, as those seem to have been for whom this Epistle was intended?” (315) Godet concludes, rather, that the epistle was written from Italy.

2) To answer the second question regarding the purpose of the writing, Godet proceeds to give an overview of the book. He divides the book into parts: the didactic (ch. 1-10) and the practical (ch. 11-13) with a concluding appendix (13:22-25). Of course, it has been demonstrated that the structure of Hebrews is far more complex than this simplistic outline.

Chapters 1-2 show the superiority of Christ to the angels. The comparison between Jesus and the angels was made because, from a Jewish point of view, the law was given through the agency of angels. Chapters 3-4 demonstrate the superiority of Jesus to Moses and Joshua. In the third section (5-10) the author demonstrates the superiority of Jesus and his priesthood to that of Aaron’s. The author also sets forth the substitution of the new covenant for the Sinai covenant.

In the practical part of the letter, Godet says this regarding chapter 11:

If we remember the tenacity with which the Churches addressed appear to have clung to the visible sanctuary at Jerusalem, and the value which they attached to the maintenance of their oneness with the chosen nation settled in the land of Canaan, we shall easily understand the scope of the writer’s observations in chap. xi., in which he held before them the picture of the life of faith and endurance led by the patriarchs and prophets. All these, each in his own manner, let go the seen that they might grasp the unseen. (324)

Chapter 12 deals with the duty of steadfast patience and chapter 13 with that of utter self-renunciation, to which the whole epistle had been leading. Godet believes this is the gist of the whole epistle:

At length (chap. xiii. 13) he speaks out, and demands the supreme act of sacrifice. . . . As Jesus was led forth in ignominy outside the walls of Jerusalem, bearing his cross, so the time is come for those believing Jews, who have cherished till now the bond of oneness with the Jewish nation and religion, to make the great surrender, and break with a bond which threatens to lead them to their ruin. “Break loose from Judaism. Be wholly His who is better to you than the angels, better than Moses or Joshua, better than Aaron and his priesthood. Be all for Jesus, in whom you possess the eternal reality of all the good things of which Judaism offers you only the shadow.” (325)

Thus, for Godet, the epistle was addressing the danger of these Christians of Jewish origin from lapsing back into Judaism. These Judeo-Christians had a great attachment to outward rites and ceremonial worship, which created a great hindrance in advancement in the Christian life. Other circumstances exacerbated their situation: the impending war with Rome, and the preaching of Paul among the Gentiles which downplayed the ceremonial law. Godet surmises that after Paul’s visit, messianic Jews were excluded from worship at the temple which inclined some to revert to Judaism. Other circumstances which contributed to their situation were the recent martyrdom of James and other early leaders, the continued refusal of the Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah, and the delay of the parousia. All this leads Godet to conclude that the epistle was written around 65-66 CE. This date is confirmed by the reference to Timothy who was probably imprisoned with Paul in Rome, and was only released after Paul’s execution. Godet disputes the dating of the epistle to 80 or later by such scholars as Zahn, Holtmann, Harnack and Von Soden. Why would the author of Hebrews need to argue about the obsolescence of the old covenant, if the sacrificial rites of the old covenant had already ceased? I find this part of Godet’s argument rather compelling.

3) Godet notes that Pauline authorship was readily accepted in the East, but was not accepted in the West until the Synod of Carthage in 397 under the influence of Augustine. The Eastern Fathers, however, did recognize the difficulty of ascribing the letter to Paul as the letter does not evince his characteristic style, nor does he identify himself in the letter as was his custom. Clement surmises that the epistle was written in Aramaic and then translated into Greek by Luke. In a brief history of interpretation, Godet identifies other candidates for authorship that have been proposed: Clement of Rome, Luke, Apollos, Barnabas, and Silas.

Godet rejects Pauline authorship due to the absence of an epistolary heading, its markedly different literary style, the fact that the author copies the Septuagint (whereas Paul corrected the Septuagint by the Hebrew), and by his citation practice. Moreover, there is a dramatic difference with respect to its “religious point of view” (333). Hebrews focuses on the redemptive work of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary, while Paul centers on the cross. In addition, 2:3 suggests that the author received the gospel secondhand, while Paul would have denied any such dependence on the other apostles (cf. Gal 1:11-17). Godet also rejects the theory that the epistle was written in Aramaic and translated into Greek: “it abounds in compound words which are essentially Greek, and have no analogues in Aramaic or in Hebrew, and it contains plays upon words such as could only occur in a composition originally Greek” (335).

Godet quickly dismisses Luke and Clement of Rome as authors due to literary style. He also dismisses Apollos since he could not claim to have learned the gospel from those who personally heard Jesus, nor is it likely that he would have written to Christians in Judea. Barnabas is a strong candidate for authorship: he was one of the early leaders of the church in Jerusalem; he was a Levite by birth and hence acquainted with the ceremonial law; he was a Hellenistic Jew from Cyprus and so was competent to write in excellent Greek; his description of his work as a “word of exhortation” (13:22) evokes the name the apostles gave him: “son of exhortation” (4:36); and there is at least some early patristic testimony to his authorship: Tertullian. Yet, he asks “how is it possible that a well-known and all but apostolic name, like that of Barnabas, should have been almost completely lost?” (337)

Godet then proposes Silas as a likely candidate for authorship. Silas was also a prominent member of the church of Jerusalem. He succeeded Barnabas as Paul’s traveling partner on his missionary journeys and helped form churches in Greece. He was also associated with the work of Peter (1 Peter 5:12). Thus, it was likely that he knew Timothy (cf. 13:23). Any similarities with Paul’s writings could also be easily accounted for due to his relationship with Paul. All that we can say about Godet’s advocacy for Silas is that it is possible, but his evidence is not decisive. The authorship of Hebrews remains as elusive as ever.


  1. If the heart means what is central, all the rhetorical signs point to the entry into the holy of holies in chapter 10. Per Vanhoye, it is the centre of centres, and the key words approach and enter clearly focus this completion as being the heart of the preaching.

    Re: Why would the author of Hebrews need to argue about the obsolescence of the old covenant, if the sacrificial rites of the old covenant had already ceased?

    Why did the author not mention the temple but rather only the tabernacle? Is it because the Torah has such an emphasis on the design and building of the tabernacle? Is it because this is where God lives with the people? I.e. the temple symbolism is already gone - if there was any. So not mentioning the destruction is not a key to dating.

  2. If I understand Godet correctly, he argues that the book moves towards the final chapter in a rather climactic fashion in order to spur the Jewish Christians to make a final break with Judaism. Of course Godet has an overly simplistic view of the structure of the book, as I have noted. But his view of the two-fold structure of didactic and practical--much like some of Paul's letters--seems to have been the predominant view in his time. It was not until the twentieth century when the likes of Thien, Vaganay, Vanhoye, Guthrie, Westfall et al demonstrated that Hebrews has a more sophisticated structure than that.

    I have always taken chapters 7-10 to be the heart of the author's theological argument. If I were to think about the author's purpose for writing the book, though, I think I would look to the hortatory sections which are dispersed throughout the book. The fact that he repeatedly warns his audience about the dangers of falling away and the necessity of holding on to one's faith must say something about the author's aim for writing the book.

    I have found the references to the tabernacle, rather than the temple, to be utterly perplexing when trying to nail down a date for Hebrews. If it was written before 70, why did the author not talk about the temple, rather than the tabernacle, since the temple was still existing? If it was written after 70, why did he not mention the destruction of the temple, since presumably this would have contributed to his argument about the obsolescence of the old covenant? So, no the destruction of the temple is not the key to dating Hebrews, but then Godet does not make much of this anyway, and his argument is more complex than that. What I found compelling is his argument that if Hebrews was written after 70 when the sacrificial cultus ceased to exist, then why does the author go to great lengths to discount the old sacrificial cultus in his argument?

    Godet connects the martyrdom of some of the leaders of the congregation with the martyrdom of James in 62. However, since none of the leaders are mentioned by name, this is by no means decisive. However, I wonder if the reference to Timothy might be a clue to the dating of Hebrews? If the reference to Timothy is genuine--and not a Pauline forgery or later addition to the letter as some have argued--then a date in the late 60s is quite plausible. It is quite plausible to me that Timothy could have been arrested after visiting Paul in Rome and that he was released sometime after Paul's execution.