Sunday, October 18, 2015


Page from Codex Vaticanus; end of 2 Thes and beginning of Heb
This morning in my ward Sunday school class we covered briefly the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is one of my personal favorite books of scripture and it is impossible to do the book justice in one single Sunday school class. Commenting on its remarkable character Luke Timothy Johnson wrote the following:

"Hebrews is one of the most beautifully written, powerfully argued, and theologically profound writings in the New Testament. Its anonymous author summons readers to a vision of reality and a commitment of faith that is at once distinctive, attractive, and disturbing." (1)

As Johnson mentions, the author of the book is anonymous, although it has traditionally been attributed to Paul. Latter-Day Saints tend to adhere to this tradition despite the evidence to the contrary including the fact that in Paul tends to identify himself as the author in his writings and that the quality of the Greek in the letter is "by far the best Koine to be found among New Testament writings" (Johnson 8) unlike Paul's writings.

There are a couple points I would like to share that have shaped the way I understand the book. I simply don't have the time or inclination to fully develop all the ideas found in the book here in my blog but it is a rich and rewarding study and offers a wealth of insights into ancient and modern temple rituals. What follows are a few broad principles that can be applied to one's study of this important text.

The temple is a central theme to the book of Hebrews and as M. Catherine Thomas points out Hebrews: "might be divided into two main ideas: the promise of the temple and the price exacted to obtain the promise" (479)

The Promise

"Departure of the Israelites", by David Roberts, 1829 
The promise of the temple, according to the book of Hebrews, is to enter into the Lord's rest. The word "rest" is found ten times in the book and is mentioned in relation to the Israelites at the time of Moses. Hebrews teaches that God intended for the nation of Israel, after its deliverance from Egypt, to enter into his rest but that they failed to do so because of their rebelliousness (see Hebrews 3:8-11).

From the context, it would be natural to assume that the "rest" being referred to is Israel's entry into Canaan which the first generation of Israelites out of Egypt, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, did not participate in. While this certainly may be one meaning of the term there are indications that there is at least one other possible interpretation as well. 

Chapter 4 explains that the invitation to enter God's rest is still open: "the promise of entering his rest is still open" (NRSV Hebrews 4:1) and that "it remains open for some to enter it ... for if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day ... Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs" (NRSV Hebrews 4:6-9).

So, if "rest" as it is used in Hebrews does not refer to Israel's entry into the promised land what are we to understand by the term as it is used in Hebrews? The author provides a hint in Hebrews 4:4 where he says the following: "For he [God] spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, And God did rest the seventh day from all his works."

This verse connects the term firmly to the temple as explained by John Walton in his book The Lost World of Genesis One: "Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for. We might even say that this is what a temple is - a place for divine rest" (72). Therefore, as the Harper Collins Study Bible puts it: "that rest was obviously not the land of Canaan but a heavenly reality" (2255).

The Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 84:19-24) teaches more plainly what exactly God's rest is:

"And this greater priesthood [the Melchizedek] administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God,

"Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.

"And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh;

"For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live.

"Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God;

"But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory."

Therefore, God's rest is entering into God's resting place, beholding his face and a fullness of his glory.
Layout of Solomon's Temple - click for larger image.

What or where is God's resting place?

As indicated above, ancient Israel conceived of God as resting in his temple. The Israelite temple was a scale model of the cosmos with the areas outside the veil representing the created world. The area behind the veil, known as the Holy of Holies (Hebrew idiom simply meaning the most holy place), was God's resting place with the Ark of the Covenant representing his throne.

In ancient Israel, the only person to enter the Holy of Holies was the Aaronic high priest who did so only once a year on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). The Yom Kippur ritual consisted of the high priest entering the Holy of Holies and sprinkling the blood of the sacrificial victim on the ark. The author of Hebrews draws upon this imagery by representing Jesus Christ as the great archetypal high priest (after the order of Melchizedek, instead of Aaron - see Hebrews 5:10) who entered God's presence and made it possible for his followers to do the same. He does this in Hebrews 4:14-15:

"Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.

"For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities ; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin." (KJV)

And in Hebrews 6:20, that we have a "forerunner [who] is for us entered [the Holy of Holies], even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec."(KJV)

The author, then makes this remarkable appeal:

"Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need" (KJV Hebrews 4:16).

It is important to understand that the author is referring to the temple in verse 16. He is admonishing his readers/listeners to enter through the veil and proceed to the ark which is God's throne just as the high priest did on Yom Kippur. Furthermore, the blood that Christ carried into the Holy of Holies was his own:

"But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent [or tabernacle] (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption" (NRSV Hebrews 8:11-12).

And again, because Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest, has entered in through the veil we all have the opportunity to do the same:

"Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest [the Holy of Holies] by the blood of Jesus,

"By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh" (KJV Hebrews 10:19-20).

Rembrandt - Moses with the Ten Commandments
While the nation of Israel as a whole failed to realize that blessing, Moses himself did have the opportunity to experience it when God "spake unto Moses at a time when Moses was caught up into an exceedingly high mountain, And he saw God face to face, and he talked with him, and the glory of God was upon Moses; therefore Moses could endure his presence" (Moses 1:1-2).

Andrew Ehat, in commenting on this account from the book of Moses points out that Moses enjoyed this experience while he was still mortal, and that the temple endowment is a ritualized representation of entering into God's rest:

"As Moses' case demonstrates, the actual endowment is not a mere representation but is the reality of coming into a heavenly presence and of being instructed in the things of eternity. In temples, we have a staged representation of the step-by-step ascent into the presence of the Eternal while we are yet alive. It is never suggested that we have died when we participate in these blessings. ... The book of Moses is what the Lord permitted him to write of his endowment experience." (53-54).

Again, it is important to understand that it is God's intention for his followers to enter into his rest while yet in mortality.

Thomas points out that the author of Hebrews utilizes several terms for describing the realization of the promise including: "obtaining a good report (11:39), entering into the Lord's rest (4:3, 10), going on to perfection (6:1), entering into the holiest (10:19), being made a high priest forever (7:17), knowing the Lord (8:11; D&C 84:98), pleasing God (Hebrews 11:5), obtaining a witness of being righteous (11:4), and having the law written in the heart (8:10; 10:16; Jeremiah 31:31-34)" (480).

The Price

According to Hebrews, there is a price required for all of those who seek to obtain the promise of the temple. We read in Hebrews 2:10 that Jesus became perfect through the things that he suffered:

"It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation [Jesus] perfect through sufferings" (NRSV).

Before proceeding any further, it's important to understand what is meant by the term "perfect" as it is used in the New Testament. Jack Welch taught that the original Greek word from which "perfect" is translated in the New Testament is teleios (58). Welch also explained that the word has a specific meaning as it was used by the New Testament writers:

"Generally in the Epistle to the Hebrews, its usage follows a 'special use' from Hellenistic Judaism, where the word teleioō means 'to put someone in the position in which he can come, or stand, before God.' Thus, in its ritual connotations, this word refers to preparing a person to be presented to come before God 'in priestly action' or 'to qualify for the cultus'" (58-59).

We learn then, that Jesus placed himself in the position in which he could stand before God through his suffering. Hebrews teaches that we, in imitation of Christ, must also suffer trials and tribulations, in conjunction with faith in Christ's sacrifice, in order to purify us and place us in a position in which we can stand in God's presence.

Joseph Smith's revision of Hebrews 11:40 discusses those who have suffered for the sake of the Gospel and says that: "God having provided some better things for them through their sufferings, for without sufferings they could not be made perfect". In the next chapter the author of Hebrews speaks further concerning the part suffering plays in the sanctification of those who follow Jesus Christ when he admonishes his hearers:

"My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?" (Hebrews 12:5-7).

Reading these words may instill some with fear - fear of suffering or fear of being overcome by suffering. There are two thoughts, however, that must be kept in mind:

The first is that suffering is an inevitable part of mortality. There is no way to escape it. We can either suffer for a purpose or suffer pointlessly.

The third is that the suffering that comes in pursuit of holiness is tempered by the influence of God in our lives. Here is the promise:

"Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

"Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

"For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (KJV Matthew 11:28-30, emphasis added).

Works Cited

Attridge, Harold W., "The Letter to the Hebrews." Harper Collins Study Bible, The. Ed. Wayne
          Meeks et al. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. Print.

Ehat, Andrew F., Temples of the Ancient World. Ed. Donald Parry. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book
          & Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1994. 48-62. Print.

Johnson, Luke Timothy, Hebrews: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

Thomas, M. Catherine, Temples of the Ancient World. Ed. Donald Parry. Salt Lake City: Deseret
          Book & Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1994. 479-491. Print.

Walton, John, The Lost World of Genesis One. Downer's Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. Print.

Welch, John W., The Sermon At The Temple and The Sermon On The Mount. Salt Lake City:
          Deseret Book & Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990. Print.

Monday, July 20, 2015


"Give us Barabbas!", from The Bible and its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, 1910. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Chapter 27 of Matthew's gospel records the account of Pilate's release of an apparently well known prisoner named Barabbas. This event involves Pilate giving the assembled people the choice to release either Barabbas or Jesus and the people choose Barabbas. 

In reading the scriptures it must be kept in mind that the primary objective of the authors is not to simply record the events of history as they happened. Rather, their object is to promote their own particular viewpoint or ideas. The different gospel writers arranged the chronology and emphasized or deemphasized certain aspects of the events they wrote about in order to achieve their purposes.

The author of Matthew evidently wrote his gospel in such a way as to demonstrate how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Pentateuch, especially Deuteronomy 18:18 wherein God promises to send his people a new prophet like unto Moses. 

It is helpful to examine the account in Matthew 27 in light of this knowledge as we attempt to discern why Matthew chose to include it in his gospel. It's possible that Matthew's inclusion of the Barabbas episode is intended as an allusion to Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) to illustrate how this most sacred of Jewish holy days pointed to the eventual ministry and mission of Jesus.

Leviticus chapter 16 describes the required rituals that are to be performed in observing Yom Kippur, central among them is the designation of the well known scapegoat. Perhaps less well known is that along with the scapegoat another goat was chosen as part of the ritual. Leviticus 16 describes the key elements of the ritual: 
The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854. Courtesy Wikipedia
  1. Two goats were to be chosen and presented at the door of the tabernacle (verse 7).
  2. Aaron, the high priest, was to cast lots for the goats to designate one "for Yahweh" (aka Jehovah) and one "for Azazel" (verse 8).
  3. The goat for Yahweh was to be sacrificed as a sin offering and its blood was to be taken into the holy of holies and sprinkled on the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat (verses 9,15-16).
  4. Aaron was then to lay his hands on the head of the goat for Azazel and confess over it all the sins, iniquities and transgressions of the people of Israel and then was to be banished into the wilderness (verses 21-22).
According to the Mishnah (Yoma 4:2) at the time of Jesus the scapegoat was to have a "thread of crimson wool" tied to its head prior to being sent away. Likewise a similar thread was to be placed on the neck of the sacrificial goat before being slaughtered. We will return to this point shortly.

Regarding the account of the prisoner release its interesting to note that early manuscript evidence indicates that Barabbas and Jesus may have shared the same name. The Anchor Bible Dictionary notes the following regarding the name of Barabbas (ABD, Barabbas [person]):

"An interesting variant occurs in Matt 27:16–17, where he is called 'Jesus Barabbas.' While extant manuscript evidence is weak, Origen implies that most manuscripts in his day (ca. A.D. 240) included the full name. Many scholars today accept the full name in Matthew as original and suggest that it was probably omitted by later scribes because of the repugnance of having Jesus Christ’s name being shared by Barabbas (TCGNT 67–8). It is not improbable for Barabbas to have the very common name Jesus. Matthew’s text reads more dramatically with two holders of the same name: 'Which Jesus do you want; the son of Abba, or the self-styled Messiah' (cf. Albright and Mann Matthew AB, 343–4). There is some evidence that the full name 'Jesus Barabbas' also originally appeared in Mark’s gospel (Mann Mark AB, 637)."

Wilkins, M. J. (1992). Barabbas (Person). In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 1, p. 607). New York: Doubleday.

Therefore, based on this information about the observance of Yom Kippur and the detail of Barabbas' name it appears as though, as Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra points out in his book entitled The Impact of Yom Kippur on Early Christianity, the writer of Matthew may have been alluding to Yom Kippur motifs:

"...Matthew underscores the contrast between the two homonymous men (both called Jesus) and the choice between two similar entities. The people choose between Jesus A and Jesus B, who are very similar in name but extremely different in character. This description agrees with the halakhic ruling regarding the two goats on Yom Kippur. On the one hand the Mishnah demands similarity in look and value, on the other hand the ritual destinations of the two goats are totally different. While one goat is slaughtered and its blood brought into the holy of holies, the other goat is sent from the sanctuary into the desert." (169)

 It is also interesting to note that Matthew (in Matthew 27:28) has Jesus' Roman tormentors placing a scarlet robe on him perhaps suggestive of the scarlet thread which was placed on the neck of the sacrificial Yom Kippur goat.

It is also possible that the scarlet robe was instead suggestive of the scarlet thread placed on the head of the scapegoat and that the involvement of the assembled masses in the choice between the two men inverted the Yom Kippur ritual in which God chose between the two goats through the casting of lots. Ben Ezra says the following regarding this idea:

"The people usurp the role of God on Yom Kippur in choosing between the two goats, Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas, who is released in their midst (and consequently pollutes them), and hence as the sacrificial goat, the wrong goat, Jesus of Nazareth, whose blood spilled at the wrong place, also pollutes them. Matthew mocks the temple ritual, and the people disregard the atonement in Jesus." (170-1)

In conclusion, it seems reasonable to suppose that Matthew did indeed intend an allusion to the rituals of Yom Kippur in his account of the prisoner release found in chapter 27 of his gospel and seems to support the words of Amulek found in Alma 34:14 where he says:

"And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal."