"Without Beginning of Days or End of Life" (Heb 7:3):
Topos for a True Deity"

Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J.
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Indiana 46556

I. Focus and Hypothesis

The author of Heb 7:3 affirms of Melchizedek: "He is without father or mother or genealogy; he has neither beginning of days nor end of life . . . he continues a priest forever." Scholars argue that the author draws on Gen 14:17-20, which introduces Melchizedek without the customary identification of his clan or lineage. Because Scripture is silent on these matters,(1) we infer that he is "without father or mother or genealogy." Melchizedek's eternal priesthood is deduced from Ps 110:4, "You are a priest forever. . .," a text which is developed at great length in Hebrews. The discovery of 11QMelch, while it indicates that Melchizedek was called one of the elohim, adds nothing to the interpretation of Heb 7:3.(2) Investigations of the Jewish background of Heb 7:3, however, entirely miss the sense of Hellenistic technical terminology used there.

This study focuses on the Graeco-Roman background to the language and concepts in Heb 7:3. Paraphrased in terms of Greek philosophy, the author states three things of Melchizedek: he is (1) ungenerated, (2) uncreated in the past and imperishable in the future, and (3) eternal or immortal. According to my hypothesis, these three things are topoi from Hellenistic philosophy on what constitutes a true god.(3) In light of the topoi, the figure in 7:3 should be acclaimed a true deity. That predication, however, is directed not to Melchizedek, but to Jesus. The author of Hebrews inflated the character of Melchizedek in 7:3 beyond anything found in Scripture or midrash, so as to make comparable statements about Jesus, who is unquestionably acclaimed a divine figure in Hebrews. Thus the author supplies specific content to his acclamation of Jesus as a deity, for like true gods he is fully eternal.

Although commentators occasionally cite parallels to Heb 7:3 from Hellenistic literature,(4)

much more data can be brought to bear on the interpretation of that passage. And while suggestions have been made about the hymnic shape of this passage,(5) there has been no formal analysis of it in terms of topoi or theological commonplaces. Hence abundant new data and a formal analysis will contribute greatly to a fresh understanding of Heb 7:3.

II. The Shape of Hellenistic God-Talk

How are true gods described in Graeco-Roman literature? What specific topoi are appropriate for understanding the background of Heb 7:3? First we note the form in which the remarks about Melchizedek are cast, namely "negative theology." He is apatôr, amêtôr, agenealogêtos. Although the alpha privitive is not used of the negation of his beginning and end, the logic is the same: he does not have beginning or end. This type of predication is common in the theology both of the Greek philosophers and later Christian writers.(6) The material which follows basically describes a deity by negative descriptions: god is uncreated (agenêtos), ungenerated (agennêtos), immortal (athanatos), imperishable (aphthartos), without beginning (anarchos) and without end (ateleutêtos).(7)

A. Eternal in the Past/Imperishable in the Future

When Hebrews describes Melchizedek as having "neither beginning of days nor end of life," it speaks a language in which true deities were commonly described, namely, full eternity both in the past and imperishability in the future. True deities are defined in contrast with morals; they are uncreated and eternal, whereas mortals come into being and pass out of existence.(8) Hence, gods must be truly eternal, eternal in the past and imperishable in the future. This concept, while clear and consistent, is expressed in the literature in many different linguistic configurations. Let us briefly survey these various forms of "eternal in the past/ imperishable in the future" with a view toward comparing them with what is said in Heb 7:3

1. Aidios/aphthartos Philosophers commonly express God's past and future eternity in the terms aidios . . . aphthartos. For example, Diodorus of Sicily compares and contrast true gods with mortals made gods after death. His distinguishing characteristic of a true god is eternity of existence, both in the past and in the future: "As regards the gods, men of ancient times have handed down to later generations two different conceptions: Certain of the gods, they say, are eternal and imperishable (aidious kai aphthartous) . . . for each of these genesis and duration are from everlasting to everlasting" (6.1.2).(9) Frequently the term aidios is neutrally translated as "everlasting" or "eternal"; and often it looks to the future eternity.(10) But here it clearly means "eternity in the past" because of the reference to "genesis from everlasting." And he concludes his discussion of Egyptian gods with the remark: "So far as the celestial gods are concerned whose genesis is from eternity (genesin aidion), this is the account given by the Egyptians" (1.12.10).(11)

Diodorus did not originate this concept, which we frequently find in other writers. For example, Sextus Empiricus spoke of god: ". . . the idea that god is eternal (aidion) and imperishable (aphtharton) and perfect in happiness" (Adv. Phy. 1.45). Plutarch remarked: "Now we hear the theologians affirming and reciting, sometimes in verse and sometimes in prose, that the god is deathless (aphthartos) and eternal (aidios) in his nature" (E Delphi 388F). Although the terminology is the same as that found in Diodorus, Sextus and Plutarch here may simply be speaking of future eternity, not past and future.(12)

2. Agenêtos/aphthartos Citing Zeno's doctrine of God, Diogenes Laertius records: "(god) is indestructible (aphthartos) and ingenerable (agenêtos)" (7.137). Philo likewise describes the biblical God with this pair of predicates.(13) Speaking of how creatures reflect divine qualities, he states, "For the good and beautiful things in the world could never have been what they are, save that they were made in the image of the archetype, which is truly good and beautiful, even the uncreate (agenêton), the blessed, the imperishable (aphtharton)" (Cher. 86). It should be noted, moreover, that when the world was considered "eternal" by the ancients, they acclaimed it "eternal in the past" (agenêtos) and "imperishable in the future" (aphthartos).(14)

3. Agennêtos/aphthartos There was considerable confusion in the ancient world over the terms agenêtos and agennêtos.(15) Thus it is not accidental to find variations of this formula in which God is said to be not just uncreated, but unbegotten, as well as imperishable. Plutarch, for example, spoke of Isis and Osiris as true gods because of their eternity: "In regard not only to these gods (Isis and Osiris), but in regard to the other gods, save only those whose existence had no beginning (agennêtoi) and shall have no end (aphthartoi), the priests say. . ." (de Iside 20 359C). Likewise, Christian theologians proclaim of God: "God alone is unbegotten (agennêton) and incorruptible (aphtharton)" (Justin, Dial. 5).

4. Agenêtos or agennêtos/aidios The pagan writer Plutarch sings the praises of Apollos Tegyraeus by contrasting him with heroic mortals who were subsequently divinized. The essential difference is that true gods are eternal in the past as well as eternal in the future: "My native tradition removes this god from among those deities who were changed from mortals into immortals. Like Heracles and Dionysus, whose virtues enabled them to cast off mortality and suffering; but he is one of those deities who are unbegotten (agennêton) and eternal (aidion), if we may judge by what the most ancient and wisest men have said on such matters" (Pelopidas 16).(16) Similarly, the Christian apologist Athenagoras distinguishes god from matter because "the deity is unbegotten (agennêton) and imperishable (aidion)," whereas matter is created and perishes (Leg. 4; see chs 6.2; 10.1; 19.1; 22.2,3; 30.3).

Philo commonly speaks of God as "uncreated and eternal" (agenêtos kai aidios).(17) Jewish worshipers of the true god corrected the error common among others by "passing over all created objects because they were created and naturally liable to destruction and chose the service only of the Uncreated (agenêtou) and Eternal (aidiou)" (Spec. Leg. 2.166). Defending Moses, who gave the Jews the truest conception of God, Josephus tells how Moses described God as "One, uncreated (agenêton) and immutable to all eternity (pros ton aidion)" (Ap. 2.167).

5. Aiônios/aphthartos Describing the nature of true gods, Diodorus of Sicily states: "With regard to the gods . . . some of them . . . have a nature which is eternal (aionion) and imperishable (aphtharton)" (3.9.1; see Philo Immut. 142).

6. Agennêtos or agenêtos/anôlethros At the head of a small treatise "On How Many Heads Ought We to Praise God," Alexander Rhetor said: "God is unbegotten (agennêton) and indestructible (anôlethron)."(18) Clement of Alexandria quotes Parmenides in Plato's Sophist describing god as "uncreated (agenêton) and indestructible (anôlethron)" (Strom. 5.14).(19)

7. Agenêtos/aphthartos/aidios Occasionally we find not just two terms expressing the fullness of divine eternity, but three. Philo frequently spoke in this manner when, for example, he said of God: ". . . the uncreated (agenêton) Father, the Imperishable (aphtharton), the Eternal (aidion)" (Jos. 265).(20)

8. No Beginning/No End God's eternity may just was well be expressed in other terms, namely, as having neither beginning nor end. In discussing whether gods were made of atoms, Cicero recorded a discussion which argued that this would be impossible, for it would imply that god was not eternal in the past, much less imperishable in the future: "Suppose we allow that the gods are made of atoms: then it follows that they are not eternal. For what is made of atoms came into being at some time; and if gods came into being, before they came into existence there were no gods; and if the gods had a beginning they must also have an end" (DND 1.24.68; see 1.7.20 and 10.26).(21)

Writing after the period we are studying, Tertullian reflects traditional god-talk when he speaks of the eternity of the true God: "I give that definition (of God) which all men's common sense will accept, that God is supremely great, firmly established in eternity, unbegotten, uncreated, without beginning and without end (sine initio, sine fine)" (Adv. Marc. 1.3; see Adv. Herm. 5). Three terms explicitly refer to eternity in the past: "unbegotten," "uncreated" and "without beginning." Yet that is necessarily balanced with notions of eternity in the future: "without end."

Philo described "Fate" as something which has neither beginning nor end: "Fate (heimarmenê) has no beginning (anarchos) or end (ateleutêtos)" (Aet. 75).(22) Theophilus, listing the attributes of God, states that the deity is "without beginning (anarchos) because He is unbegotten (agennêtos); and he is unchangeable, because he is immortal" (ad Autol. 1.4).

The specific linguistic formulae may differ, but all of the eight variations noted above describe as a characteristic of a true god eternity in the past and imperishability in the future. They testify to popular, widespread topoi on the deity's full eternity. Hence, when Heb 7:3 speaks of a figure as having "no beginning and no end," this formula immediately and necessarily suggests that such a figure must be divine, a true god.

B. Remains Forever

Not only is Melchizedek "without beginning of days and end of life," he "remains forever" (menei eis to diênekes, 7:3). This is the second of three notices in Hebrews that someone "remains." Earlier in Heb 1:11-12, the author quoted Ps 102:25-27 apropos of Jesus; it makes a sharp contrast between things perishable/ imperishable and changeable/unchanging: "They will perish, but thou remainest . . . they will be changed, but thou art the same and thy years will never end." In this context "remaining" must refer to future immortality, imperishability and eternity inasmuch as it is contrasted with what "perishes," "changes" and "ends."

The same meaning should be understood in 7:24 when the author states that Jesus "remains forever." This statement about Jesus' "permanent priesthood" functions precisely in terms of the contrast with the priesthood of the Levitical priests who are "prevented by death from remaining in office" (7:23; see 7:15-16). Again, Jesus' "remaining forever" must be understood as the opposite of perishing and dying.

And so, when the author describes Melchizedek as "remaining forever" (7:3), this too must be understood in terms of some sort of deathlessness, imperishability, unchangeableness and eternity, all characteristics of a true god. This becomes clearer when we examine further the ways in which the ancients described deities.

In one sense by surveying above the Graeco-Roman formulae for a deity's past and future eternity, we have already surfaced four of the key predicates which explain "remain forever." A true god must be aidios, aphthartos, anôlethros, and aiônios. A true god, moreover, must be athanatos (deathless), and so gods are regularly called "the immortals." In the Apostolic Constitutions, moreover, God is often described as ateleutêtos (8.37.1, 38.5, 41.4). All of these predications compare and contrast a true god with human beings, who are called "mortals" and "perishables." Or when the true god is contrasted with idols, the latter perish, but god remains.(23) Occasionally we read that true gods aei ôn, they continually or eternally exist.(24)

But true gods "remain forever" because it belongs to their natures not to change. Hence we find Philo contrasting the immortal and unchanging deity with mortals and things mutable: "Separate, therefore, my soul, all that is created, mortal, mutable, profane from thy conception of God the uncreated (agenêtou), the unchangeable (atreptou), the immortal (aphthartou), the holy and solely blessed" (Sacr. 101). Similarly, of the unchanging God Philo says: "We find that stability or fixity or permanent immobility, in virtue of its immutable and unchangeable quality, subsists as an attribute primarily to the Existent Being" (Somn. 2.237).(25) As well as calling God aidios, aphthartos, agenêtos, and athanatos, Philo regularly calls God "unchanging" (atreptos): Leg. All. 1.51; 2.33, 89; Cher. 52, 90; Post. 28; Immut. 22; Conf. 96; Mut. 28, 54, 175; Somn. 1.232; 2. 221.(26)

And so, it belongs to a true deity to be "eternal" in the sense of enduring forever in the future, imperishable, without end, and without change. When the author of Hebrews says of the figure in 7:3 that he "remains forever," he is using a commonplace or topos about the future eternity of a true god.

C. Without Father or Mother or Genealogy The terms "without father" and "without mother" most commonly refer to children, either illegitimate, orphaned or abandoned.(27) That shameful sense is totally absent from Heb 7:3. On the contrary, Philo, discoursing on Gen 20:12, notes that Sarah is amêtôr, but not "without a father" (Ebr. 61; Heres 62). Moreover, from the ancient world we learn that Athena was amêtôr, but not "without a father," who was Zeus.(28) Hephaistos was "without a father," but had a mother.(29) Thus although some gods were either "without mother" or "without father," they were never said to be "without father or mother or genealogy," that is, totally ungenerated.

Yet there are two texts which describe a true deity in this fulsome fashion. Lactantius quotes an ancient oracle of Apollo about god: "Self-produced, untaught, without a mother, unshaken." But this cannot refer to Juppiter, who had a mother. Lactantius quotes Mercury to the effect that a true god must be without both mother and father:

Mercury, that thrice greatest . . . not only speaks of God as "without a mother," as Apollo does, but also as "without a father," because He has no origin from any other source but Himself (Div. Inst. 1.7.1).(30)

We find evidence from ancient Greek sources, then, that it belongs to a true deity to be both "without father" and "without mother."

A comparable passage occurs in the Apocalypse of Abraham, in which we find the following acclamation of God:

Eternal One, Mighty One, Holy El, God autocrat

self-originate, incorruptible, immaculate,

unbegotten, spotless, immortal,

self-perfected, self-devised,

without mother, without father, ungenerated (17:8-11).(31)

The form is clearly "negative theology," even if some of the terms suggest a certain transcendence, such as "self-originate," "self-perfected," and "self-devised." We easily recognize phrases about the true eternity of this god -- (a) eternal in the past: "unbegotten," "self-originate" and (b) imperishable in the future: "incorruptible" and "immortal." In addition, this god is "without mother, without father, ungenerated," that is, sourceless. Both Lactantius' citations from Greek theology and the Apocalypse of Abraham suggest that when some figure is acclaimed "without father or mother or genealogy," such a one is a true deity.(32)

The references, however, to "without father" and "without mother" do not occur frequently. Yet in the literature surveyed above, ancient authors regularly and more simply claimed that a true god was "unbegotten" (agennêtos). They asserted this in combination with other terms, such as "eternal" or "imperishable" or "unchanging."(33) Although there is considerable confusion among the ancients over the terms agenêtos (uncreated) and agennêtos (unbegotten), the remarks about Melchizedek in Heb 7:3 unmistakably claim that he is agennêtos, unbegotten.

It is not uncommon to find the claim that a deity is "self-begotten" (autogenêtos). For example, Justin cites an ancient Greek oracle, which he claims is prophetic of the true god of the Christians: "Only the Chaldaeans have obtained wisdom, and the Hebrews, who worship God Himself, the self-begotten (autogenêton) King" (Cohort. 11). This term occurs in the Sibylline Oracles 3, 8; 8, 429 (see also Cyril of Alexandria (Adv. Jul. 5).(34)

In summary, a full and convincing appreciation of the background of Heb 7:3 requires that we note both the diversity of expression yet the consistency of concept in regard to the eternity of a true deity. A true god must be completely "eternal."

Hellenistic Terminology Hebrews 7:3

1. ungenerated 1. no father, mother, or genealogy

2. eternal in past/ 2. without beginning of days or

imperishable in future end of life

3. continuous existence 3. remains forever

The terminology, moreover, is found regularly in the topoi of the Hellenistic world which describe a true deity.

When the descriptions of Melchizedek in Heb 7:3 are understood against this background, they immediately and cogently suggest that we are hearing popular and common descriptions of a true god. In form, Heb 7:3 resembles the negative theology found in classical discussions of god, and in content it corresponds point for point with what is said there about the complete eternity of a true god.

Although the remarks in Heb 7:3 are predicated of Melchizedek, this is not to say that the author is necessarily drawing on targumic or midrashic traditions about this figure. Writing about the way Moses was exalted in Hebrews beyond anything found in Jewish traditions, Mary Rose D'Angelo argued that such an overdevelopment of Moses only serves to promote Jesus all the more.(35) So it is with Melchizedek. If he is presented in terms used to describe a deity, the point is not to exalt Melchizedek for his own sake, but to promote Jesus: ". . . resembling the Son of God" (7:3). All of this discussion of eternity, then, should be seen in function of the author's clear and nuanced acclamation of Jesus as a true deity.

III. Jesus, True God or Heroized Mortal?

Alongside these topoi which describe the nature of a true deity, we find other commonplaces which compare and contrast true gods with heroized mortals, who were divinized after their deaths because of their benefactions to humankind. This material has a bearing on how we understand the remarks about Jesus. Did Hebrews acclaim Jesus a divine figure made god because of his benefactions to humankind or did the author consider him a true god, fully eternal in past and future?(36)

Two classical authors, who discussed the nature of true gods, contrasted genuine gods who are eternal in the past and imperishable in the future with heroes who were made immortal after death because of their benefactions. Diodorus of Sicily wrote in the waning days of the first century BCE; Plutarch flourished in the late first century CE. Their writings, roughly contemporary with Hebrews, offer a discussion of a true deity which has a bearing on the figure of Jesus in Hebrews.

For Diodorus of Sicily the difference between true deities and divinized heroes lies exclusively in the fact that true gods are fully eternal, that is uncreated in the past and imperishable in the future, while divinized heroes were born as mere mortals, but attained to "immortality" because of their benefactions to humankind:

As regards the gods, men of ancient times have handed down to later generations two different conceptions: Certain of the gods, they say, are eternal and imperishable (aidious kai aphthartous) . . . for each of these genesis and duration are from everlasting to everlasting. But the other gods, we are told, were terrestrial beings who attained to immortal honors and fame because of their benefactions to mankind, such as Heracles, Dionysus, Aristaeus, and the others who were like them (6.1.2).(37)

Plutarch echoes just this sort of stereotyped description of the gods when he acclaims the excellence of Apollos Tegyraeus:

My native tradition removes this god from among those deities who were changed from mortals into immortals. Like Heracles and Dionysus, whose virtues enabled them to cast off mortality and suffering; but he is one of those deities who are unbegotten (agennêton) and eternal (aidion), if we may judge by what the most ancient and wisest men have said on such matters (Pelopidas 16).

From these examples, we can sketch the differences between true gods and divinized benefactor-heroes:

True Gods Divinized Benefactor-Heroes(38)

1. ancient 1. recent, new

2. celestial 2. terrestrial

3. without a beginning 3. came into being

and ungenerated and born in time

4. imperishable 4. died, translated in death

5. eternal 5. made immortal

According to this topos, then, what type of deity is Jesus? Is he a true god or a divinized benefactor-hero? From what we have seen in regard to Heb 7:3 and other passages in that document, we must conclude that the author of Hebrews acclaims Jesus as a true deity because of his full eternity in the past and imperishability in the future. Granted that other documents acclaim his death as a benefaction to us, the author of Hebrews never states that God exalted him for his benefaction. After all, he was a "priest forever."

IV. Confirmation in Hebrews

Our reading of Heb 7:3 can be confirmed by a careful examination both of the initial remarks about Jesus in chapter one and of a final acclamation of Jesus at the document's end. As we all know, the premier rhetorical places in a text are its beginning and ending; for in beginnings an author initially shapes a reader's imagination, while in endings clear conclusions may be drawn or initial themes repeated. Such rhetorical emphasis seems to hold true both for the beginning and the ending of Hebrews.

A. Opening: Past and Future Eternity

In chapter one the author states the most honorable and exalted things that he can about Jesus. Readers or hearers are thus conditioned how to label Jesus. In the traditional culture of the author, appeal is regularly made to authority, in this case the most solemn of authorities, the Scriptures. In a chain of quotations from the Psalms and other biblical writings, the author unmistakably calls Jesus "god" (1:8//Ps 45:6) and predicates of him divine eternity, both eternity in the past and imperishability in the future.

Citing Ps 102:25-27, the author first acclaims Jesus' eternity in the past. We have already been told that it is Jesus "through whom God made the world" (1:2b). Of him the Psalm says: "Thou, Lord didst found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands" (1:10). Since the argument here rests on the radical contrast of earthly vs heavenly and created vs eternal, I suggest that both Ps 2 in 1:5 and Ps 102 in 1:10 speak to Jesus' past, namely to his eternity before creation.(39)

The author balances this with further remarks from Ps 102 about his eternity in the future.

They will perish, but thou remainest,

they will grow old like a garment

(like a mantle) thou will roll them up.

And they will be changed.

But thou art the same

and thy years are without end (1:11-12//Ps 102:26-27).

Unlike the perishable world which is subject to change, Jesus is imperishable, and will not change. He "remains" and his "years are without end."(40)

Eternity in past and future would seem to be the plain meaning of Ps 102. If so, it speaks unmistakably of Jesus as a true god according to Hellenistic topoi about god. This may be confirmed by noting another topos about a true deity which is predicated of Jesus here: he is said to have the two basic powers of God, creative and executive power.(41) As we have seen in 1:2 and 10, he has "creative power," whereby he caused the world to be. Likewise 1:8 tells us that Jesus enjoys "executive power":

Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever,

the righteous scepter is the scepter of thy kingdom.

The author expresses this sense of Jesus' complete sovereignty in other terms, calling him "the heir of all things" (1:2) who is "seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (1:3).

Finally, when the author says of Jesus that he "reflects the glory of God and bears the stamp of his nature" (1:3), this may be interpreted as sharing in God's incorruptible nature (see Philo, Migr. 132; Opif. 134; see 4 Macc 18:3 and Wis 2:23).

Yet it must be quickly noted that the author of Hebrews seems considerably more interested in Jesus' imperishability and eternity in the future than he is in his eternity in the past. Using Ps 110:4 as another indisputable authority, Jesus' future existence is proclaimed: "You are a priest forever (eis ton aiôna) . . ." (5:6; 7:3, 17, 21). God's oath establishes Jesus' future eternity in the precise role of a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Yet as this study has shown, Melchizedek is described in the terms used of a true god, uncreated/ungenerated in the past and imperishable in the future (7:3).

B. Document Ending: Past and Future Eternity

At the end of the document, the author makes one final predication of Jesus: "Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever" (13:8). This remark seems to be repeating what was said about Jesus in the first chapter.

Thou art the same (autos) and thy years will never end (1:12)

Jesus Christ the same (autos) yesterday, today and forever (13:8)

The author cited Ps 102:28 in Heb 1:12, a psalm which in the early church was used primarily to affirm the unchangeableness and imperishability of the true god against pagan and gnostic gods.(42) Hebrews likewise understands the psalm in the same way, but applies it to Jesus, implying that he too is a true deity because eternal and imperishable.

Commentators have noted the parallels to "yesterday, today and forever" in Greek and Christian literature.(43) But they neither sorted them out in a form-critical analysis, nor suggested how they might constitute a topos on a true deity, both of which must be done. As we saw in regard to Heb 7:3, so the remarks in 13:8 should be understood as a topos about the eternity of a true god.

Ancient philosophers and theologians describe a deity as a unique being who was, is and will be. Plato stated that it is improper to speak in terms of god's past, present and future. Properly, the deity simply "is" (Tim. 37e-38a). Philo reflects this same thought when he says that God's life is not a time, but an eternity: ". . . in eternity there is no past nor future, but only present existence" (Immut. 32).

Philo, moreover, frequently names the true God as the Existent One whose existence is "now." Sometimes he expresses this in Platonic terms (God = to on) and in terms drawn from Exod 3:14 (God = ho ôn).(44) Nevertheless, it was part of the popular and common description of god to speak of the deity in terms of continuous existence. As in the case of the topoi about a true deity in Heb 7:3, this continuous existence was expressed in many ways.

1. First and Last Eusebius cites in his Praeparatio Evangelica an ancient hymn to Zeus in which this supreme god was acclaimed: "Zeus first, Zeus last" (3.9). It goes without saying that if god was "first" and will be "last," then god "is." This, of course, makes a striking parallel with the remarks about the deity as "first and last" in Isa 41:4; 44:6 and 48:12. A variation of this appears in the book of Revelation, where we find a progressive formula used to describe the heavenly being: first, "I am the Alpha and the Omega" (1:8), then "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end" (21:6), and finally "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end" (22:13).

2. Beginning, Middle, End We occasionally find statements about divine activity which parallel the remarks about god's past, present and future. For example, an inscription on the statue of Aion at Eleusis reads: ". . . who has no beginning, middle, end."(45) Likewise Plato remarked: "God, as the old tradition declares, holds in his hands the beginning, the middle and the end of all that is" (Laws 715e; see Tim. 37b). But Josephus contains the clearest example of this formula. Discussing the first commandment in the Decalogue, he speaks of God's perfection: "God is the beginning, the middle and the end of all things" (Ap. 2.190). Who holds the beginning, middle and end of all things must himself be eternal in past, present and future.

3. Is, Was, and Will Be Although the data are not numerous, over the years scholars have pointed out a number of statements about god which explicitly describe the divine eternity in terms of past, present and future. For example, Pausanias records a fragment of a hymn which acclaims Zeus' eternity: "Zeus was, Zeus is, and Zeus will be" (Desc. Graec 10.12.10). In the Hermetic Corpus there is a very fulsome description of god's eternity: "God is everlasting, god is eternal. That he should come into being or should ever have come into being is impossible. He is, he was, he will be forever" (Asclepius 2.14b).(46) At the beginning of the third book of the Sibylline Oracles a summary statement about god is made, in which we find the phrase: ". . . as existing now, and formerly and again in the future" (3.16).(47) This type of remark resembles God's own confession in the book of Revelation: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come" (1:8; see 1:4; 4:8; 11:17).(48)

And so, just as the author acclaimed Jesus' eternity in the past and imperishability in 1:10-12, so he repeats it in 13:8. The repetition seems consciously intended, with Ps 102:28 ("thou art the same") being the common link. Yet beyond the citation of a Jewish psalm, the predication contains the same material found in Hellenistic topoi on true gods in terms of their timeless existence. These materials, moreover, confirm the hypothesis of this study that the predications in Heb 7:3 of eternity in the past and imperishability in the future were truly acclamations about Jesus' status as a divine figure. For 1:10-12 and 13:8 confess the same thing of Jesus, although in different terms. Yet the author seems to use popular topoi on the nature of a true deity, giving further salience to these predications.

Summary and Conclusions

1. By examining in great detail the Hellenistic parallels to the statements made in Heb 7:3, this study has shown that the language originates in and reflects the mode of thought found in Greek and Hellenistic philosophical speculation about a true deity. Unmistakably, the author of Hebrews intends his readers to understand the figure described in 7:3 as a true deity, completely in accord with the topoi which describe true gods as fully eternal, uncreated or ungenerated in the past and imperishable in the future.

Hebrews 7:3

Greek Philosophy

1. "without father or mother
or genealogy"
1. ungenerated (aggenêtos)
2. "without beginning . . .
or ending"
2. eternal in the past;
imperishable in the future
3. "remains forever" 3. eternal (aidios):
always existing (aei ôn)

2. Some commentators gloss over the substance of what is predicated in 7:3 with the generic label that this figure is "eternal," but without specifying what that means.(49) This study would nuance such remarks by explaining quite clearly that full eternity is understood in 7:3 -- uncreated and ungenerated eternity in the past and imperishability in the future. The figure so described is a true deity.

3. Whatever the author says of Melchizedek must be understood as stated in service of Jesus. The assertions about complete eternity in Heb 7:3 are made apropos of Jesus in the rhetorically significant places of the document, its beginning and end.

4. In recent years some commentators have argued for a hymnic structure for Heb 7:3, even a non-Christian vorlage.(50) By virtue of the parallels to Hellenistic philosophy, this investigation in part confirms that line of thinking. The language, which derives from the "negative theology" of Greek philosophy, is definitely non-Biblical, neither Jewish or Christian. The rhetorical cadence of the terms and the structure of the verses resembles many of the snatches of Greek philosophical poetry which describe the true god. Among the poetic verses cited in this study are: Plutarch, E Delphi 388F; Orphic Hymns 10.10 and 15.7; Pausanius, Desc. Graec 10.12.10; Eusebius, P.E. 3.9; Sib.Orac. 3.16; and Clement, Strom. 5.14.

5. Finally, when the author acclaimed Jesus as "god" in Heb 1:8, he intended that title to have specific content. Jesus may properly be called a divine figure because he enjoys God's two basic powers, ruling power (1:8) and creative power (1:11). Similarly, Jesus is a true divine figure because he fulfills the category of a genuine deity by his full eternity, a point made explicit both in the first and last chapters, as well as the typology of Melchizedek in 7:3. In this the Christology of Hebrews makes significant strides toward formally acclaiming Jesus as "true God from true God." In this he begins to make ontological and not just functional statements about Jesus.


1. See Str. B. 3.694-95.

2. In 11QMelch, Ps 82 ("I said: 'You are gods'") was cited apropos of Melchizedek; see A.S. van der Woude, "Melchizedek als himmlische Erlösergestalt in den neugefundenden eschatologischen Midraschim aus Qumran Höhle XI," in Oudtestamentliche Studien XIV (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1965) 354-73 and J.A. Emerton, "Melchizedek and the Gods: Fresh Evidence for the Jewish Background of John X.34-35," JTS 17 (1966) 400-401. But scholars indicate that Melchizedek's heavenly status and role is that of a judge, which is not what Heb 7:3 argues at all. See Paul J. Kobelski, Melchizedek and Melchiresa . CBAMS 10 (Washington DC: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1981) 59-62.

3. By topos, we mean a rhetorical commonplace or sententia; see Henry Fischel, Rabbinic Literature and Graeco-Roman Philosophy (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973); E. Mertner, "Topos and Commonplace," Strena Angelica (G. Dietrich and F. W. Schultze, eds.; Halle: XX, 1956) 178-224; T. Y. Mullins, "Topos as a New Testament Form," JBL 99 (1980) 541-47; D. G. Bradley, "The Topos as a Form in Pauline Paraenesis," JBL 72 (1953) 238-46; John Dillon, The Transcendence of God in Philo: Some Possible Sources. Center for Hermeneutical Studies. Protocol 16. (Berkeley: The Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture, 1975) 171-78.

4. See C. Spicq, L'Épitre aux Hébreux, 183-84; Hans Windisch, Der Hebräerbrief (HNT 14; Tübingen: Mohr, 1931) 58; and Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989) 189-91.

5. For example, Otto Michel, Der Brief an die Hebräer (MeyerK 13; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966) 261-63 and Gerd Theissen, Untersuchungen zum Hebräerbrief (Gütersloh: Mohn, 1969) 20-28.

6. See H.A. Wolfson, "Albinus and Plotinus on Divine Attributes," HTR 45 (1952) 115-30 and "Negative Attributes in the Church Fathers and the Gnostic Basilides," HTR 50 (1957) 145-56; John Whittaker, "Neopythagoreanism and Negative Theology," Symbolae Osloenses 44 (1969) 109-25; Frances M. Young, "The God of the Greeks and the Nature of Religious Language," Early Christian Literature and the Classical Intellectual Tradition (ed. W.R. Schoedel and R.L. Wilken; Paris: Beauchesne, 79) 53-54.

7. For example, Theophilus writes of God: "The form of God is ineffable . . . in glory uncontainable, in well-doing indescribable . . . He is without beginning because He is uncreated, and He is unchangeable because He is immortal" (ad Autol. 1.3).

8. George L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London: SPCK, 1964) 80.

9. All translations of classical citations are from the Loeb Classical Library, unless otherwise stated.

10. See H. G. Lidell and R. Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968) 36; yet in texts such as Plutarch's De Stoicorum Repugnantiis 1052 A, aidios refers to what is not subject to generation: ". . . the sun and the moon and the rest of the gods, since they have a similar principle of constitution, are subject to generation, but Zeus is everlasting (aidios)."

11. In another place Diodorus speaks of Isis and Osiris as "gods . . . both eternal and first" (1.11.1).

12. In antiquity discussions of deitiess were intertwined with those about the world. It is not uncommon to find the same terminology and concepts used about god's eternity extended to reflections of the world's eternity. For example, in speaking of principles, Aristotle used the same expression: "What is eternal (aidia) does not come into existence (agenêta) or perish (aphtharta)" (Nic.Ethic. 6.iii.2 1139b).

13. See Philo, Leg. All. 1.51; Dec. 41; Sac. 63; Gig. 14; Heres 14; Somn. 1.94; Mos. 2.171 and Legatio 118.

14. For example, Plutarch attributes to Epicurus this sense of complete eternity: ". . . the universe is infinite, ungenerated (agenêton) and imperishable (aphtharton)" (Adv. Colotem 1114 A). This may be found frequently in the writings of Aristotle (de Caelo 1.12 282 a 25) and Philo (Aet. 7,10,12,20,69,93; Somn. 2.283).

15. See Jules Lebreton, Histoire du Dogme de la Trinité (Paris: Gabriel Beauchesne, 1928) 2.635-47.

16. Plutarch noted that Herodotus said of Heracles and Dionysus that they belonged to the second and third class of gods because "they had a beginning to their existence and had not existed eternally (aidious)" (Malice of Herodotus 857D).

17. See Leg. All. 3.101; Dec. 60, 64; the world likewise is agenêtos kai aidios in Opif. 171.

18. Christianus Walz, Rhetores Graeci (Stuttgart: J.G. Cotta, 1835) 9.336.

19. In his discussion of the soul, Plato makes the same claim, namely, that it is "uncreated (agennêton) and indestructible (anôlethron)" (Tim. 52A).

20. See Philo, Dec. 41; Leg. All. 1.51; 3.31.

21. In one of the Orphic hymns (10.10), Zeus is acclaimed as the one who "is the beginning of all and of all the end" (Apostolos N. Athanassakis, The Orphic Hymns. Missoula MT: Scholars Press, 1977, p. 24); see Tatian, Ad Graec. 4.1; Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 6.5.

22. Speaking of "time," Philo records the opinion: "Time by its nature has no beginning (anarchos) or end (ateleutêtos)" (Aet. 53; see Plato, Timaeus 37E). A similar argument is mounted in philosophical literature about the eternal nature of the soul. For example, Cicero cites Plato's Phaedrus (245 C-D) that the soul has no beginning or end: ". . . a beginning has no birth, for all things have origin in a beginning, but the beginning itself can be born from nothing else, for the thing that should be begotten from anything else would not be a beginning. Nor if it never has origin, it never perishes either . . . it cannot be born or die" (Tusc. Disp. 1.23.54).

23. See Cicero, DND 1.11.27; Philo, Cher. 51; Mos. 2.171; Ep. Diog. 2.4-5. On the contrast between created and eternal figures, see James W. Thompson, The Beginnings of Christian Philosophy. The Epistle to the Hebrews (CBQMS 13; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1982) 119, 125.

24. Proclus 52 (ed. E.R. Dodds, Proclus. The Elements of Theology [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963] 51; Alexander Rhetor, C. Walz, Rhetores Graeci, 9.336; Plato says the same thing of the soul (Symp. 211a).

25. See Joseph C. McLelland, God the Anonymous (Philadelphia: The Philadelphia Patristics Foundation, 1976) 37-40.

26. See Origen, Celsum 1.21 and 4.14; Theophilus ad Autol. 2.4.

27. Ceslas Spicq, L'Épitre aux Hébreux, 183; Gottlob Schrenk, "Apatôr," TDNT 5.1019.

28. See Plato, Sym, 180D; Philo, in commenting on the number "7," notes that it is neither begotten nor begets: "this number is likened to the motherless (amêtori) and virgin Nike, who is said to have appeared out of the head of Zeus" (Opif. 100). In an Orphic hymn Physis (Nature) is acclaimed: autopatôr apatôr (10.10). See Thompson, The Beginnings of Christian Philosophy, 119.

29. Pollux, Onom. 3. 26, cited in Hans Windisch, Der Hebräerbrief, 58.

30. In another passage, Lactantius repeats this: "For God the Father Himself, who is the origin and source of all things, inasmuch as He is without parents, is most truly named by Trismegistus 'fatherless' (apatôr) and 'motherless' (amêtôr), because He was born from no one" (Div. Inst. 4.13.1).

31. Apocalypse of Abraham 17:8-11, translated by R. Rubinkiewicz in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (ed. James H. Charlesworth; Garden City NY: Doubleday and Company, 1983) 697.

32. See Schrenk, "Apatôr," 1020.

33. See Alexander Rhetor (C. Walz, Rhetores Graeci, 9.336); Plutarch, de Iside 359 C and Pelopidas 16; Justin, Dial. 5; Athenagoras, Leg. 4; Theophilus, ad Autol. 1.5.

34. See John Whittaker, "A Hellenistic Context for John 10,29," VC 24 (1970) 246-49. He has researched this concept in greater detail in "The Historical Background of Proclus' Doctrine of authupostata," De Jamblique à Proclus (Fondation Hardt, Entretiens 21; Geneva: Vandoeuvres, 1975, 193-210 and "Self-Generating Principles in Second-Century Gnostic Systems," The Rediscovery of Gnosticism. Proceedings of the International Conference on Gnosticism at Yale, 1978. Ed. Bentley Layton (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1980) 176-89.

35. Moses in the Letter to the Hebrews. (SBLDS 41; Missoula MT: Scholars Press, 1979) 3-15, 151-99.

36. See Charles H. Talbert, What is a Gospel? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).

37. See also Diodorus: "With regard to the gods, the Ethiopians entertain two opinions: they believe that some of them . . . have a nature which is eternal (aionion) and imperishable (aphtharton), but other of them, they think, share a mortal nature and have come to receive immortal honours because of their virtue and the benefactions which they have bestowed on all mankind" (3.9.1).

38. Diodorus frequently spoke of divinized human benefactors: "Besides these there are other gods, they say, who were terrestrial, having once been mortals, but who, by reason of their sagacity and the good services which they rendered to all men, attained immortality" (1.13.1); "Regarding the gods, the most learned Diodorus also says in his writings that those gods whom men were wont to address as immortal, considering them to be so because of their beneficences, had indeed been born human beings; but that certain of them had acquired the appellations they have after the lands they conquered" (6.2.1); and "Because of their exception valour (aretes) they have been judged to be sons of Zeus, and when they departed from among mankind they attained to immortal honours (timon)" (6.6.1). See Lewis R. Farnell, Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality (Oxford: University Press, 1921); F. W. Danker, Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Field (St. Louis: Clayton Publishing House, 1982) and "Graeco-Roman Cultural Accomodation in the Christology of Luke-Acts," SBLASP 1983 409-10.

39. Rare is the commentators who comments on Jesus' past eternity in 1:10-12; see Spicq, L'Épitre aux Hébreux, 20; Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964) 21.

40. See the same argument in Origen, Celsum 1.21 and 4.14.

41. For a discussion of Jesus as "equal to God" because of his possession of God's two powers, see J.H. Neyrey, An Ideology of Revolt. John's Christology in Social-Science Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988) 18-29.

42. See Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 4.3.1; Tertullian, Herm. 34.1; Origen, Celsum 1.21; 4.14 and 56; Princ. 3.5.1; Eusebius, P.E. 11.10.16 and 13.3.42.

43. See Spicq, L'Épitre aux Hébreux, 422; Attridge, Hebrews, 392-93.

44. See John Dillon, The Transcendence of God in Philo: Some Possible Sources, p. 5.

45. Wilhelm Dillenberger, Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1960. 3.1125.

46. Walter Scott, Hermetica (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924) 1.312.

47. See Plutarch: "I am all that has been, and is, and shall be" (de Iside 9 354C); Acts of John 88 speaks of the glory around Christ: "it was and is and will be unto forever."

48. Were we pursuing Jewish expressions of this, the targums on Exod 3:14 provide convincing evidence that "I am who am" was popularly interpreted as referring to God's activity in the past, the present and the future. See J.H. Neyrey, An Ideology of Revolt, 213-17; see also Martin McNamara, The New Testament and the Palestinian Targums to the Pentateuch (AnB 27; Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1966) 103-5.

49. While many commentators cite parallels to Heb 7:3 from Greek philosophy, they say nothing about the divinity of the figure so described. For example, Ceslas Spicq (L'Épitre aux Hébreux [Paris: Gabalda, 1952-53] 184) was content to argue of such a person, "c'est un être supraterrestre qui transcende l'histoire." L. Kalyan K. Dey (The Intermediary World and Patterns of Perfection in Philo and Hebrews [SBLDS 25; Missoula MT: Scholars Press, 1975] 187-92) argued that this figure belongs to a "middle taxis," in between God and humankind. James W. Thompson (The Beginnings of Christian Philosophy, 119-120, 135-138) describes Jesus as an eternal, heavenly figure contrasted with earthly, transitory creatures; but he falls short of clarifying Jesus' heavenly character or status. However, F.F. Bruce (The Epistle to the Hebrews, 138) more accurately observed: "It is the eternal being of the Son of God that is here in view." The current hypothesis is dramatically stronger than these, for it asserts that Jesus is acclaimed as a true deity in virtue of his full eternity.

50. See note 6 above.

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