Thursday, July 16, 2009

Westcott on Hebrews' Use of the OT

Westcott, Brooke Foss. “Epistle to the Hebrews: Its Bearing upon the Study and Use of Holy Scripture, Especially the Old Testament.” Pages 289-94 in The Official Report of the Church Congress, Held at Wolverhampton, on October 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th, 1887. Edited by C. Dunkley. London: Bembrose, 1887.

Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901) was a noted biblical scholar who became Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University in 1870 and later was appointed as Bishop of Durham (1890-1901). He was most famous for his text-critical edition of the Greek NT along with Fenton John Anthony Hort. Westcott also wrote a Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (1889).

This essay is found in the record of the proceedings of the congress of the Church of England at Wolverhampton in 1887. Links to both the report of the congress and the commentary on Hebrews can be found under electronic books on the sidebar.

In his introduction Westcott notes that OT quotations are more frequent in Hebrews than any other book of the NT. According to his statistics there are 29 OT quotations, 21 of which are unique to the book. 23 are quoted from the Pentateuch and the Psalms and are largely quoted from the LXX with 4 partial exceptions. The author never identifies the author of the quotations but attributes them to God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit. This mode of citation is unparalleled in comparison to the rest of the NT. There is no distinction between the Word spoken and the Word written; both are the voice of God.

According to Westcott, the epistle contains a “philosophy of revelation,” that is it “discloses a comprehensive outline of the education of the world for Christ, as traced in the books of the Old Covenant” (290). All creation was made with a certain end in view. God “appointed His Son heir of all things, through Whom He also made the worlds” (1:2). The foundation of hope is in Christ’s heirship which rests on the fulfillment of God’s original purpose in creation. Even though sin entered into the world, God renewed his promise beginning with Abraham.

Westcott sees two stages in the preparation of humanity for the Incarnation. The first is the “natural growth of mankind through the unfolding of the life of the nations.” The second is the “special discipline whereby God moulded a people against their nature for Himself.” Melchizedek is the representative of the former while Abraham represents the latter. Melchizedek is the “image of the primitive and normal relation of man to God” while Abraham was the “beginning of a new order based upon the personal call of one out of many” (291). Since the Law was also involved in molding the people of God, the work of Moses is placed alongside the call of Abraham in Hebrews.

The meeting of Melchizedek and Abraham was the “turning-point in the religious history of the world.” Here the past and future come together. The one points to the “primitive communion of God and man which had been practically lost,” while the other anticipates a “fellowship which should hereafter be consummated, without the possibility of loss, through the ministry of a Messianic nation and a personal Messiah.” The Old, while superior, blesses the New, which replaces the Old temporarily. I found this reading of Hebrews curious. It seems to me that Melchizedek should be the representative of the New, since he is a type of Christ who inaugurates the New Covenant which replaces the Old.

Westcott argues that in Hebrews “all that was glorious in the national life of the Messianic people was concentrated . . . in the prophetic portraiture of a personal Messiah” (292). The quotations of chapter 1 reveal how the majesty of the Christ could be read in the OT, while chapter 2 shows that the sufferings of Jesus could also be perceived in the OT. The prophecies of the OT are not merely fulfilled in Christ in the “coincidence of isolate phrases with isolated details in the Gospels.” Rather the quotations are representative of broader ideals “which enable us to see, not only that the Old Testament contains prophecies, but that the Old Testament is one vast prophecy, even as Israel itself” (293).

I found Westcott’s explanation of Hebrews’ use of the tabernacle, rather than the temple imagery, to be fascinating: “The temple . . . was an accommodation to man’s infirmity, and so he goes back to the tabernacle, which in its very structure declared its transitory purpose, and pointed to a spiritual and not a material antitype.” In other words, the use of tabernacle imagery better exemplified the transitory nature of the Old Covenant than the temple did.


  1. Brian,

    Interesting perspective on the tabernacle instead of the temple in Hebrews. Matt Thiessen (currently working on Ph.D at Duke, I believe) has an article entitled "Hebrews and the End of the Exodus" (NovT 49 2007) in which he has some helpful things to say about this issue. His argument is that in Hebrews, the history of Israel has been suspended in the wilderness prior to entering the promised land, and so for Hebrews, the temple never really happened (in a sense) because Israel never REALLY entered the land of promise. So for the community of faith picking up where the wilderness generation left off, the tabernacle is the associated arena of worship. You may have read it already, but just in case...

    Mike Kibbe

  2. Thanks Mike:

    I have the article but I haven't read it yet. I am assuming that chapter 3 comes to play in his argument, where the author declares that the exodus generation did not enter into God's rest. I will of course read the article with great interest when I get to it.