Christmas Day (III)

What might it mean to read Hebrews in ways that consider Jesus as something other than unique?


December 25, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 1:1-4 [5-12]

The majestically celebratory opening of Hebrews merits a cautious approach at Christmas. The author’s portrayal of Jesus as unique and superior comes at the expense of Jewish traditions and practices. Understanding this portrayal can help audiences celebrate Jesus in ways that liberate us from this singularity and make room for difference.

Context matters

Biblical scholars frequently use terms like “enigmatic” to describe Hebrews. It sits among the letters of the New Testament, between Paul’s letters (genuine and pseudonymous) and the various eponymous letters (often pseudonymous as well) often categorized as the “catholic epistles.” Unlike the writers of those letters, the author of Hebrews remains anonymous; they never name or introduce themself. It is impossible to say anything firm about the historical context of this letter based on the text itself.

Most notably, this means the letter’s audience is likewise unclear (and oft-debated among scholars). Later Christian theologians added the designation “to the Hebrews” well after the letter was written. The letter draws heavily from the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of Jewish Scriptures) to make its arguments. Part of this argument—which we must consider more cautiously below—is that Jesus’ superiority renders God’s past covenant with Moses obsolete.

Traditionally, many commentators assumed the author and their audience were both Jewish, given their knowledge and use of these Scriptures. However, Pamela Eisenbaum points out that, in the first and second centuries C.E., Greek-speaking Jews and gentiles were familiar with these textual traditions. The author never refers to specific Jewish customs (such as Judaism’s relation to the Temple) that would have been characteristic of Jewish practice during this era. The author could have or could have not come from a Jewish background; their audience could have been exclusively Jewish or non-Jewish or included both.1

Though English readers can see the poetic nature of the letter’s opening in 1:5–12, they do not get the full sense of the author’s sophisticated literary style. Their word choices are intentionally alliterative: the first four verses set the tone for the opening poetic and rhythmic flow. Throughout Hebrews, the author uses language that evokes. Though, like Paul and other letter writers, the author makes a theological argument, their persuasion could be described as more poetic and less pointed. That said, the poetry still makes theological points.

The poetry of 1:1–4 introduces one of the author’s major emphases: Jesus’ uniqueness and superiority as the Christ (christos, the Greek translation of the Hebrew messiah). The author describes Jesus as “having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (1:4). This language—alongside the frequent references to Jesus’ proximity to God throughout the letter (for example, “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being,” 1:3)—contributes to scholars identifying Hebrews as having an especially “high” Christology compared to other early Christian texts.

The author’s language about Christ and God in this passage appears to be influenced by the Jewish scriptural tradition, including Psalms, Proverbs, and the Wisdom of Solomon. The theological power of this poetic presentation of Christ is undeniable, and Christians have long found these descriptions meaningful—especially when celebrating Jesus’ birth and incarnation.

This said, Hebrews—starting in 1:1–4—builds Jesus’ divine-like superiority upon a Jewish foundation in ways that presume that following Christ uniquely fulfills Jewish Scriptures. This uniqueness leaves no room for other Jewish interpretations, theologies, and practices. Eisenbaum therefore cautions, “Hebrews is the foundation of this idea that Christianity has ‘replaced’ Judaism.”2

The letter opens: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (1:1–2a). The author emphasizes the contrast between the “old” way God spoke and the way God speaks to “us” in this recent period. Hebrews is also about identity formation.3 The emphasis on us draws a boundary around the author and audience as the proper recipients of God’s speech. The temporal contrast sets the stage for the author to laud Jesus’ superiority in the next several verses—“Jesus’ superiority over all else,” as Eisenbaum puts it.4

Especially in Christmas liturgies, Christian theology tends to perpetuate supersessionist readings of Jewish Scriptures when it assumes Jesus obviously perfects the tradition’s prophecies and covenants.

A less unique Christmas celebration

The opening of Hebrews sets up Jesus as unique and singular in ways that pave over Jewish traditions. In an article about Mark, Katherine Shaner writes, “Liberation is never effective if singularly credited and enforced; empire is. The singular Jesus then becomes emperor Jesus, even with the insistence that this Jesus is included.”5 A liberative approach to the opening of Hebrews calls for finding ways to celebrate Christ’s coming without making him uniquely special. Christ—and his birth—can be just as special and celebratory among many different traditions and leaders.

While celebrating the meaningfulness of Hebrews’ poetic language, it is possible to warn against the author’s superior approach. Doing so makes room to call attention to the ongoing ways Christian texts and traditions have become unique in the world. In the West, Christmas takes a unique status among religious holidays, shutting down much of the world so that many people can assume they can celebrate the holiday with their loved ones without interference. Many folks assume they will have time off at Christmas. They do not have to celebrate this special day while balancing the regular demands of life.

What might it mean to read Hebrews in ways that consider Jesus as something other than unique? How might this impact your Christmas homily or liturgy? Asking these questions challenges our usual celebrations, but it opens us to more liberative options. It makes room for difference, in our congregations and in the wider world.


  1. Pamela Eisenbaum, “Hebrews,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd ed., ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 460–462.
  2. Eisenbaum, “Hebrews,” 462.
  3. See Jennifer T. Kaalund, Reading Hebrews and 1 Peter with the African American Great Migration: Diaspora, Place and Identity (London: T&T Clark, 2020).
  4. Eisenbaum, “Hebrews,” 461.
  5. Katherine A. Shaner, “The Danger of Singular Saviors: Vulnerability, Political Power, and Jesus’s Disturbance in the Temple (Mark 11:15–19),” Journal of Biblical Literature 140 (2021): 160.