This week I heard the very beginning of a CBC “Ideas” program entitled, “Mythologizing Empire”. As so often happens, I was driving when the program came on but when I reached home I turned the car, and the program off. I need to go back and listen to the whole program. But what intrigued me was the discussion of Shakespeare’s two plays, Coreolanus and Julius Caesar set in the time of the Roman Empire, actually as was pointed out in the program, set in the time of the Roman Republic prior to the development of the Empire. The discussion began with talking about what we know about Rome and about how much of that is a Hollywood version of what Rome was. We think we know what it was about but when we scratch the surface even a little bit we find out that, of course, it was much more complex than what can be portrayed in a Hollywood movie, even with the stellar performances by the likes of Richard Burton or Russell Crowe. For those of us who have studied Shakespeare in school, some of our impressions of Rome may also come from his plays. “Julius Caesar” was the first Shakespearian play we looked at when I was in Grade 9. It was hard going but the image of Julius Caesar being stabbed in the back by his erstwhile friends and colleagues and the line, “Et tu Brute” remains in my mind and imagination.
The panel on the Ideas program, and particularly Kate Cooper, a research associate at the Royal Ontario Museum, who specialises in Greek and Roman culture, point out that we need to look beyond what we learn about Rome in Shakespeare’s plays, to the context in Britain in Shakespeare’s time, to learn something about how Rome in portrayed in that context. Britain’s empire was in its early stages but its potential to be great, like the other great empires of history, and particularly like Rome, was clear to see. What could be learned from the time when the Roman Republic was becoming the Roman Empire that could give insight into what was or could be happening when Britain was moving from the constraints of its island home to the vistas of the greater world that lay beyond it. Well, we need to read the plays, and a bit more Roman and British history and listen to the Ideas program to find out.
There is the text and there is the context. When we read the Bible, just like when we read Shakespeare or any other book or story, we can read the words and perhaps gain some knowledge or insight through them. The text in itself, can tell us something. But when we know the context in which the text was written and also the context in which the story is set, we can gain a much deeper knowledge and insight of what it might be saying to us.
This is the case with the Epistle or letter to the Hebrews that we began reading today. We will continue with a series of readings from this Epistle over the next few weeks. There are some things that are known and some things that remain mysteries about this letter and both what is known and what is mystery can give us insight into the text.
From very early on, the authorship of the letter has been in doubt. Although traditionally attributed to Paul the Apostle, it has long been disputed as to whether it was written by Paul or not. The style has some similarities to other Pauline letters, but its Greek is much more polished than Paul’s and its content and formulation is very different from other of Paul’s letters. It is generally agreed that the author is unknown although some scholars attribute it to Priscilla. This is in part because in ancient manuscripts the name of the author is blotted out and it is thought that this may have been an attempt to deny the validity of the leadership of women in the church. Other possibilities are Luke, Clement of Rome, Barnabus, or Apollus who was a student of Priscillas.
One thing that is clear is that the letter is directed to a community that is primarily Jewish in its origin and composition. The name of the letter suggests this of course but also the content makes frequent reference to the Hebrew scriptures and to religious practices within Judaism. It would be almost impossible to read and understand the letter without a knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and the life of the Temple and the synagogue. It may have been written to the community of believers in Jerusalem or perhaps to those of Jewish origin in the Church in Rome.
Although some commentators suggest a very early date for the letter to the Hebrews, most agree that it was written at a later time, perhaps well into the second century. It would seem that its emphasis on the priesthood of Jesus and his taking the place of the ritual sacrifices and offerings in the temple suggest that it was written after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. This priestly emphasis gives a very high view of Jesus, with an emphasis on his divinity and his being a mediator with the divine rather than on his humanity and his earthly ministry.
The passage we read from the opening chapter of Hebrews sets the stage for this. God speaks through Jesus, as God has spoken through the prophets, but Jesus is also qualitatively different from the prophets. Like the figure of Wisdom in the Old Testament books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Jesus was present with God and the creation came into being through him. And not only was he present at Creation, he also continues to sustain all things that have been created. Jesus is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being – in Jesus we see God. This is something that brought distinction for those who followed Jesus from others in the traditions of Judaism. God cannot be seen, or represented or known, and certainly not in human form. But for those who followed Jesus, he was God. Some may have identified him as a prophet or as an angel, but the author here clearly states that he is greater than either. Although reference is made to the work of Jesus in making purification for sins, he clearly does not remain in this earthly role but is seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high. He is present with God.
In a world where the memory of Jesus was fading and where some were becoming weary because of the opposition from the synagogue and from the broader culture in the Roman world, the author begins the letter with a reminder that Jesus is Lord, that in Jesus we have seen the Divine and that the work of this Divine being continues for them even in their present context, greater than anything they had ever known.
A good reminder in our own context. When we grow tired. Or discouraged. Or apathetic. This was good news for the community to which the letter was addressed. And it is good news for us. Thanks be to God.