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The Use of OT Quotations by Hebrews

by Philip Yim Kwok Hung



Part A. Observations on the Quotations


Part B. Exegetical Presuppositions and Practices






Part A. Observations on the Quotations

1. The range of the Quotations.

According to Longenecker's classification: 38 quotations based on 27 OT passages, and lots of allusions are found.1 The author quotes from the Pentateuch to lay the framework of the redemptive history; and from the Psalms with a Christological interpretation.2 Only with a few exceptions, he ignores almost all the historical books and prophetic books.3

2. The mode of the Quotations.

Quotations are handled uniquely in Hebrews comparing to other NT writers; and 20 quotations are not cited elsewhere in NT.4 In contrast to other NT writers5, he ignores the human speakers and attributes almost all the quotations to God, Christ, and Holy Spirit,6 except 4:7; 9:19-20.7 This practice may reflect his emphasis on the divine authorship of the OT.

3. The text of the Quotations.

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;8 and variants come solely from the author's hand.9 Recent studies have revealed a more complicated picture.10 Howard 11 discovers 24 quotations which 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.12 In addition to this, insights acquired from recent Septuagintal research done by the Guetingen Commission have forced us to re-think the previous suggestion. The variants are now supposedly introduced from his vorlage, not by the author;13 though there are still some variants introduced for stylistic purposes 14 or special emphasis.15 Overall, we believe that the author follows his vorlage, only occasionally changes the readings for his own purpose.16

Part B. Exegetical Presuppositions and Practices

1. General Observations

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.17 This position is rejected by many modern scholars, because Hebrews' author does not have a complex and consistent allegorization like Philo;18 and he links events, persons or things within the historical framework.19 As Alexander Nairne states "Philo deals with allegories,20 the Epistle with symbols."21 In Hebrews, OT is treated as a mashal , a parable or mystery which awaits its explanation, (raz-pesher: "mystery-interpretation"),22 and explanation in model of messianic typology.23 For example, Christological interpretation24 is clear in 1:5-13,25 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.26 Besides, "Christ has inspired the writers of the OT" is expressed explicitly in 2:12-13 and 10:5-10.27 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).28

2. Ps 110 taken as an example.

The theme of Hebrews is in Heb 1:1-3,29 which 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:30

Heb 1:3 -2:4 Psalms, II Sam 7 and Deut 32(LXX)

His framework of arguments depends mainly on the quotations from the Psalter.31 He usually uses a form similar to Jewish "proem" midrash,32 like the following:33

He always starts from a psalm quotation, before turning to other OT passages.35 The whole "homily" concentrates on the theme of Christ's supremacy that is based on Ps 110 36 (LXX 109).37 Within this major midrash, there are several minor midrashim, which contribute to the principal one, Ps. 110:1-4.38 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.39 This psalm is re-interpreted in later times, referring to a pious 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.40 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."41

Ps 110.1 is quoted in Heb 1.13 and alluded to 5 times.42

While Ps 110.4 is cited in Heb 5.6, 7:17,21 and alluded to 3 times.43

In Heb 1.13, Ps 110.1 is applied to exaltation of Christ, which is the most popular application among NT writers.44 Yet in Heb 10.12-13 he emphasizes the subjection of Christ's foes that reflects an established tradition.45 When we compare this use of this Psalm with other NT writers, his stress on Jesus's perfect sacrifice is unique!46 Though, in Heb 1.13 he applies the verse directly to Christ (which resembles 'a prophecy'), but in Heb 10.12-13, his usage is clearly topological.

Jesus's intercession and priestly office are other emphasis of the author.47 Ps 110.1 is used to accentuate Jesus' role as an intercessor; while Ps 110.4 48 is aided by Gen 14.18-20 to show Christ's priesthood is above the Levities' system, and through Melchizedek. The author adheres to the OT and does not join his voice with many contemporary interpretation.49 He follows an Christocentric typology:50 the events of Jewish history are read as prefiguring the events of the end time that has begun in the revelation of Jesus Christ.51 In this interpretation, Melchizedek is a type of Christ, and represent as a Messianic Priest. 52 Though in 11Q Melch. the covenanters looked for the coming of Melchizedek as a messianic figure,53 "but they distinguished two Messiahs, a lay and a priestly..".54 However, his combination of the two kinds of Messiah is unprecedented in the early church, and finds no parallel in contemporary culture, even in some sects.55 Krodel has argued that the author derives it from Paul's use of Christ's death as a sacrifice (1 Cor. 11:24); and combines it with the extension of Ps. 110:1 and v.4, by which he arrived at his new doctrine.56 This interpretation ignores the significance of his "revolution": combining two concepts of Messiah! As Dodd writes, "...the author to the Hebrews is conscious here of being an innovator."57 Hence, the background of the new doctrine is still uncertain.58

  1. D.W. Rooke Biblica 81 (2000) 81-94, Jesus as Royal Priest: Reflections on the Interpretation of the Melchizedek Tradition in Heb 7
  2. McNamara, M., "Melchizedek: Gen 14,17-20 in the Targums, in Rabbinic and Early Christian Literature" , Biblica, Vol. 81(2000) 1-31.
  3. Fitzmyer, J.A., "Melchizedek in the MT, LXX, and the NT", Biblica, Vol. 81(2000) 63-69.


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 59,but he avoids pesher, midrashic and allegorical 60 approaches.61 In contrast to them, he uses the Christocentric perspective62 within traditions of the christian church; except the combination of the two "kinds" of Messiah.




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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.

Montefiore, Hugh. A Comm. on the Epistle to the Hebrews(London: Adam & Charles Black, 1979).

Westcott, B. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews.(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprinted 1980).

Wilson, R. Hebrews The New Century Bible Commentary (London: Marshall Morgan & Scott, 1987).



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