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The Use of Old Testament in Hebrews


Part A. Observations on the Quotations

Quotations are handled uniquely in Hebrews comparing to other NT writers; and 20 quotations are not cited elsewhere in NT. In contrast to other NT writers, he ignores the human speakers and attributes almost all the quotations to God, Christ, and Holy Spirit, except 4:7; 9:19-20. This practice may reflect his emphasis on the divine authorship of the OT.

The author quotes mostly from LXX. However, what is the textual Vorlage he used? Years before, scholars think that the author had access to the LXX alone; and variants come solely from the author's hand. Recent studies have revealed a more complicated picture. Howard discovers 24 quotations that are unlike either the MT or the LXX. The study of the Dead Sea scrolls has facilitated scholars to grasp the diversity of textual versions available to people in NT times. In addition to this, insights acquired from recent Septuagintal research done by the Göttingen Commission have forced us to re-think the previous suggestion. The variants are now supposedly introduced from his vorlage, not by the author; though there are still some variants introduced for stylistic purposes or special emphasis. Overall, we believe that the author follows his vorlage, only occasionally changes the readings for his own purpose.

According to Longenecker's classification: 38 quotations based on 27 OT passages, and lots of allusions are found. The author quotes from the Pentateuch to lay the framework of the redemptive history; and from the Psalms with a Christological interpretation. With some exceptions, he ignores the historical books and prophetic books.

Part B. Exegetical Presuppositions and Practices

The author uses cultic images to symbolize both ontological and psychological elements (Heb 8-10) that resembles Philo's method. Together with some other affinities, some scholars have insisted that the author is influenced by Philo. This position is rejected by many modern scholars, because Hebrews' author does not have a complex and consistent allegorization like Philo; and he links events, persons or things within the historical framework. As Alexander Nairne states "Philo deals with allegories, the Epistle with symbols." In Hebrews, OT is treated as a mashal , a parable or mystery which awaits its explanation, (raz-pesher: "mystery-interpretation"), and explanation in model of messianic typology. For example, Christological interpretation is clear in 1:5-13, where common proof texts such as Ps 2:7 and 110:1 are taken not to an Israelite king (original historical context), but as God's oracles to Christ. Besides, "Christ has inspired the writers of the OT" is expressed explicitly in 2:12-13 and 10:5-10. Occasionally, he uses the original context in his interpretation (3:7; 7:10), but sometimes he applies them disregard of original context (Ps 110:4 at 7:21).

The theme of Hebrews is in Heb 1:1-2 that takes Christ as the centre and key of the OT. The whole epistle is structured into 5 sections to substantiate this theme with OT quotations:

Heb 1:3 -2:4 Psalms, II Sam 7 and Deut 32(LXX)
2:5 -2:18 Ps 8:4-6

3:1 -4:13 Ps 95:7-11
4:14-7:28 Ps 110:4
8:1 -10:39 Jer 31:31-34
His framework of arguments depends mainly on the quotations from the Psalter. He usually uses a form similar to Jewish "proem" midrash, like the following:

1. Initial text: The Psalter is quoted, somewhat verbatim.
2. Exposition : It is similar to Qumran pesher texts.
3. Final text : links with application related to initial text.

He always starts from a psalm quotation, before turning to other OT passages. The whole "homily" concentrates on the theme of Christ's supremacy that is based on Ps 110. Hence, we will focus on quotations from Ps 110 as an example to analyze his handling of the OT.

Though the original background of Ps 110 is still controversial, the majority opinion is that it is a pre-exilic royal psalm composed for a Davidic monarch in Jerusalem. This psalm is re-interpreted in lat piouser times, referring to a individual, human leaders, or to supernatural figures (like the heavenly Melchizedek). Judaism after A.D. 260 has applied it to the messiah, Abraham or other men. Hence, David Hay suggests: "it seems fair to suppose that in the NT era a messianic interpretation of Ps 110 was current in Judaism, although we cannot know how widely it was accepted."

Ps 110.1 is quoted in Heb 1.13 and alluded to 5 times,

While Ps 110.4 is cited in Heb 5.6, 7:17,21 and alluded to 3 times.

In Heb 1.13, Ps 110.1 is applied to exaltation of Christ, which is the most popular application among NT writers. Yet in Heb 10.12-13 he emphasizes the subjection of Christ's foes that reflects an established tradition. When we compare this use of this Psalm with other NT writers, his stress on Jesus's perfect sacrifice is unique!

Jesus's intercession and priestly office are another emphasis of the author. Ps 110.1 is used to accentuate Jesus' role as an intercessor; while Ps 110.4 is aided by Gen 14.18-20 to show Christ's priesthood is above the Levities' system, and through Melchizedek. The author sticks to the OT and does not join his voice with many contemporary interpretation. He follows an Christocentric typology: the events of Jewish history are read as prefiguring the events of the end time that has begun in the revelation of Jesus Christ. In this interpretation, Melchizedek is a type of Christ, and represent as a Messianic Priest, which may reflect a contemporary concept.


The author respects the OT text, and sticks to his vorlage as far as possible. Though the author uses the contemporary exegetical methods at times ,but he avoids pesher, midrashic and allegorical approaches. In contrast to them, he uses the Christocentric perspective within traditions of the Christian church.

Attridge, H.W. Hebrews Hermeneia. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988).

Anchor Bible Dictionary pp.100-104.

Balentine, Samuel E. "The Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New Testament" Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol.23 No.2, 41-57 Spr 81.

Bruce, F.F. The Epistle to the Hebrews NIC

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985).

Buchanan, G.W. To the Hebrews AB Vol 36. (NY: Doubleday, 1972).

Cadwallader, Alan H. "The Correction of the Text of Hebrews toward the LXX" Nov Test Vol.XXXIV Fasc. 3 July 1992 pp.257-292.

Cockerill, Gareth Lee. "Melchizedek or 'King of Righteousness'"

EQ 63:4 (1991), 305-312.

Froehlich, Karlfried. ed. Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).

Gaebelein, Frank E. ed. The Expositor's Bible Comm. Vol 12

(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981).

Guthrie, Donald. N T Theology. (Leicester: IVP, 1981).

Hay, David M. Glory at the Right Hand -- Psalm 110 in Early Christianity. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1973).

Koester, Helmet. History and Literature of Early Christianity.

(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).

Longenecker, Richard. Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975).

MacLeod, David J. "The Doctrinal Center of the Book of Hebrews"

Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1989 pp.291-300.

Marshall, I. Howard. (ed) "How the New Testament uses the old" New Testament Interpretation.

(Devon: Paternoster, 1985).

McCullough, J.C. "The Old Testament Quotations in Hebrews" New Test. Stud. 2, pp.363-379.

Westcott, B. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews.

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprinted 1980).