Tony Hodgson wonders whether things will last
Unquestionably, the effects of the lockdown have been disruptive and damaging to the life of our churches. Despite this, most of us have never doubted either the durability of the Church of England or the resilience of our clergy eventually to emerge ready for the resumption of services. Sadly, the long-term prognosis for many actors and theatres, especially those located in the provinces, is not so optimistic.
On June 8th an interview with James Graham was broadcast on the BBC programme HARDtalk, in which the acclaimed playwright discussed How much do we care about protecting our culture? Four days later BBC Radio 3, in its Arts and Ideas programme, held The Future of the Theatre Debate in which Bertie Carvel, the actor and executive producer of the Lockdown Theatre Festival, was a central speaker.
The separate experiences of hearing both Graham and Carvel got me thinking about 2017 when I witnessed these two prodigious talents collaborate in a production at the Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane. That play made such an impression that later it provided the basis for a sermon I preached for Evensong at Westminster Abbey on Sunday 19th August 2018, the twelfth Sunday after Trinity. The following article is taken from that sermon.
Hope springs eternal from our three readings – Exodus, Psalms and, by no means least, The Letter to the Hebrews. In the next ten minutes I will explain why, for me, and for many others, Hebrews is one of the most innovative and influential books of the Bible. To do this we will use the tried and tested six questions of journalism. Let us just remind ourselves. In the 2017 James Graham play Ink, which recently had an acclaimed run in the West End, there is a superbly scripted conversation between the character of Rupert Murdoch, the Proprietor of The Sun, played by Bertie Carvel, and his prospective editor, Larry Lamb, played by Richard Coyle. Lamb explains the five ‘w’s’ followed by the question how that constitutes a good story. Who, what, where, when, why and how? The Larry Lamb character said that the last question, how, is often inconclusive and is best substituted for ‘what next?’
Who? Historians have a dictum that to understand a book we must first read a book about the author, but this is not possible here because we do not know who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. For a long-time St Paul was believed to be the author. Even the King James Bible, the Authorized Version of 1611, attributed Hebrews to St Paul. However, experts have long agreed that Paul is definitely not the author.
What we do know is that it was written by someone with an extensive expertise of Jewish scripture and customs; so much so, that only someone of Jewish heritage could have produced it. Even so, the author also had a comprehensive command of the Greek language, philosophy and religion. Therefore, it was written by a Jewish convert to Christianity who also had a complete understanding of the Greek language and was strongly influenced by the philosophy of Platonism. So much for who wrote the letter, but to whom was it written? Obviously, it is addressed to the Hebrews. Yet it is emphatically Christian in its content. This suggests that it was intended for people from a Jewish religious heritage who had taken to following Christ. Essentially, Jewish converts to Christianity. So, it was written by a Jewish follower of Christ to, and for the benefit of, other Jewish followers of Christ.
What? The letter is a superb synthesis of three competing yet complimentary world-views. Judaism, Christianity and Neo-Platonism. The author verifies the identity of Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God and therefore a being worthy of worship. Maybe, within a decade or two after the death and resurrection of Jesus His followers were praying to Him as though He were God.
Today we take it for granted that, as Trinitarian Christians, we pray to God, through the person of Jesus, inspired to do so by the motivation and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Yet we have the gift of hindsight, two millennia of religious retrospection on what Christ means for humanity. In contrast, when the Letter to the Hebrews was written the Christian religion was still in its infancy, a fledgling movement, still existing within the nest of its mother faith, Judaism.
Until AD 70 the spiritual power-house of Judaism was the Temple in Jerusalem. It had a defined and historic sacrificial system and a priestly hierarchy. The High Priest, always a Sadducee, was regarded as a mediator between God and the people. One of the things we do know (from the Gospels) about the Sadducees is that (unlike the Pharisees) they did not believe in the Resurrection of the dead. This was clearly a problem for the followers of Jesus.
Now to us, the contemporary disciples of Jesus Christ, a religion based on sacrificing animals and birds might seem primitive, cruel and bloodthirsty. The fact that we may think so owes much to the argument pioneered in the Letter to the Hebrews. It made a massive evolutionary step forward in religious thinking and practise. It did this by emphasising that the Good Friday self-sacrifice of Jesus both rendered redundant and replaced the existing sacrificial system. As such Hebrews is a foundation document for Christianity because it placed the worshipping practises of the embryonic Christian Church on a radical new footing.
Of course, reading backwards in this way sounds critical of the Jewish faith into which God chose to be incarnate. Better to make comparisons with what went before or even alternative contemporary belief systems. For example, we must not lose sight of the fact that when Jesus was born, lived and died, Judaism was arguably the world’s most sophisticated faith. It was monotheistic, believing in just one God. This was superior to the pantheon of gods worshipped by the Greeks and Romans. Judaism was underpinned by an advanced ethical and legal structure. Admittedly, there were animal sacrifices, but this was at a time when other religions were sacrificing people and even their own children.
In order both to utilize and reform the sacrificial tradition, our unnamed writer had first to corroborate the priestly credentials of Jesus. Today, Christians obediently accept that Jesus was simultaneously prophet priest and king. The fact that we do so owes much to the author of Hebrews. As Christianity emerged from Judaism the concept of Jesus possessing a priestly identity was problematic for Jews. This was because Jesus was descended from the tribe of Judah and the Hebrews had a priestly cast descended exclusively from the line of Levi. To overcome this seemingly insurmountable obstacle, our mysterious author boldly and brilliantly used the obscure Old Testament figure of Melchizadek to establish the High Priestly credentials of Jesus.
The High Priest, Melchizadeck, King of Salem, is mentioned in the book of Genesis as blessing Abraham. Significantly, this reference of priesthood appears to pre-date the Levitic priesthood established in the book of Exodus. Notably, Melchizadeck, like Jesus was both priest and King. And because he was responsible for blessing Abraham, the Father of the nation of Israel, his seniority and precedence exceeded that of the Levitic priesthood. This was a tactic as astonishing as it was audacious. And it worked. Evidently the author of the Hebrews subscribed to the belief that “if you’re going to drop names, then make sure they are names that bounce!”
Moving on to the third of our three w’s, Where? Since the letter is addressed to the Hebrews it is self-evident it was intended for a community of Jewish people. who had taken to following Jesus. Perhaps in Jerusalem, maybe Rome. Certainly, a city (within the Roman Empire) that had a substantial Jewish-Christian community who would also have been familiar with the Greek language and philosophy employed in the Letter.
When? The date AD 70 is known to all students of the New Testament. This was when the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and the Jewish disintegration occurred. Because the Jerusalem Temple is the background against which the Letter to the Hebrews is set, we know that it was written before AD 70. Moreover, the very particular argument warning against apostasy suggests that it was written sometime after AD 50. It was around this time that Jewish followers of Jesus found it increasingly difficult to remain part of synagogue society. So, we can place it as being written sometime during the twenty years between AD 50 and AD 70. This leads us onto the last of our w’s. Why was it written?
The purpose of the Letter was to rally the faithful and strengthen the faint hearted. To reinforce the resolve of Jewish followers of Jesus to remain loyal to Him. Seemingly, pressure was being applied to them to abandon their allegiance to Christ. Our nameless writer urged them not to do this. Better never to have had the faith at all than to have had the faith and lost it. The message is “yes” you may now be experiencing criticism and discrimination, but never forget that Jesus suffered and sacrificed his life for you. Identify with Jesus. Draw strength from his example and inspiration from his Resurrection victory. Also, remember that Jesus is the ultimate Divine High Priest seated in the heavenly reality. By approaching Him in prayer and worship, He will mediate for us.
The Letter to the Hebrews was written at a pivotal moment during the birthing of the Christian faith. The followers of Jesus faced a drastic decision. Remain within the safe and familiar nest of the mother religion or risk the terrifying yet exhilarating challenge of independent flight. Jesus had to make a choice. The people for whom the Letter to the Hebrews was written had to make a choice. We too have to make a choice. That choice is different for each of us. For some it could be simply about listening to this radical and wonderful voice calling to us across two millennia. For others it is about engaging more fully with the existing relationship. We do so in the knowledge that the one who calls is faithful.
Fr Tony Hodgson is Vicar of
St Margaret of Antioch, St Anne’s on the Sea.