“Bringing Many Sons to Glory”: Anthropology in Hebrews in Conversation with Judaism and Islam

Hebrews brings the distinct theological anthropologies of Christianity, Judaism and Islam into focus. Three areas of Hebrew’s approach stand out, which I will compare with related perspectives in Judaism and Islam: (1) Humanity’s place as priestly “sons” in the divine image, (2) the extent of our defilement and distance from God, and (3) divine purification for sins and access to the divine presence. I will show that not only Hebrew’s rich Christology but also its anthropology differs significantly from that of the other so-called Abrahamic religions.

(1) The phrase “bringing many sons to glory” expresses God’s goal for humanity (Heb 2:10). The mutually interpretive concepts of image, son and priest seen in Hebrews’ Christology (1:2-3; 5:4) are aspects of the divine intention for the glorified “assembly of the firstborn” (12:23). While this image of God concept differs from that of Judaism, it differ far more from the Qur’an’s “vicegerent” and “servant”, and from Sufism’s “perfect human being.” In Hebrews God’s is “making perfect” many sons (7:1; 10:14; 12:23), through the sanctifying work of the “firstborn” (1:6; 2:11). Through incarnation he shares in humanity’s “flesh and blood” nature, and through suffering is made “perfect forever” (2:10; 5:7-8; 7:28).

(2) In Theological Anthropology in Interreligious Perspective, Winter says that the “most stubbornly persistent and perhaps most indicative issue at stake has been the definition and ontology of our intuited sense of guilt and our capacity for moral failure.” In Hebrews humanity’s ongoing estrangement from God stems from defilement from sin (1:3) and rebellious unbelief (3:17-19). Hebrews 3-4 shows that rather than simply encouraging Israel to keep the Law, “the Torah anticipates lawbreaking.” Even Aaron must offer sacrifices for his own sins (5:1-3), an idea contrary to the Islamic doctrine of ‘Isma (the moral infallibility of the prophets).

(3) Hebrews’ anthropology coincides with its soteriology. Its use of tabernacle imagery highlight’s humanity’s banishment from the holy place of God’s throne as well as the divine plan of restoration. Human sinfulness and defilement are met by the priestly atonement and mediation of Christ who has come at the consummation of the ages to “put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:26) and to bring us near to the “throne of grace” (4:14-16; 10:19-25). Despite Islam’s emphasis on cleansing, Islam rejects atonement and denies the death of Jesus. Judaism rejects Jesus’ messianic identity and hence his resurrection, presenting Torah-centered practices in place of the absent temple cult. Christianity’s presents the Christ-event as fulfilling the temple “shadows” with the reality of His sacrificial death and heavenly priesthood.

While superficial similarities should be avoided, it is evident that the anthropologies of Judaism and Islam are closer to one another in their assessment of human perfection, the human plight and God’s provision than they are to that of Hebrews (and the NT as a whole).

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