Common Mistranslations – The Book of Hebrews

Acts and Epistles, Title page of the Epistle t...
Title page of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Walters Manuscript W.533, fol. 291r (Photo credit: Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts)

The book of Hebrews has long been interpreted to be a kind of Galatians to the Jews, warning Jewish Christians not to go “back” to the religion of Judaism. For example, Albert Barnes writes in the introduction to his commentary,

The general purpose of this Epistle is, to preserve those to whom it was sent from the danger of apostasy. Their danger on this subject did not arise so much from persecution, as from the circumstances that were fitted to attract them again to the Jewish religion. . . It was that of being affected by considerations like these, and of relapsing again into the religion of their fathers, and of apostatizing from the gospel; and it was a danger which beset no other part of the Christian world.1

Likewise, Matthew Henry’s famous commentary introduces this book:

As to the scope and design of this epistle, it is very evident that it was clearly to inform the minds, and strongly to confirm the judgment, of the Hebrews in the transcendent excellency of the gospel above the law, and so to take them off from the ceremonies of the law, to which they were so wedded, of which they were so fond, that they even doted on them, and those of them who were Christians retained too much of the old leaven, and needed to be purged from it. The design of this epistle was to persuade and press the believing Hebrews to a constant adherence to the Christian faith, and perseverance in it, notwithstanding all the sufferings they might meet with in so doing.2

Indeed, nearly every Christian commentary assumes that Hebrews is a warning to Jewish Christians against keeping the Torah that defines what is is that makes us Jewish. However, when we properly interpret two key verses, the whole argument comes apart.

Hebrews 4:9

KJVThere remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God.

NIV There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God;

ESVSo then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God,

YLTthere doth remain, then, a sabbatic rest to the people of God,

The King James Version is the worse offender here, but while modern translations draw closer to the true meaning of this verse, they still miss the mark. The word commonly translated as “rest” or “Sabbath rest” is sabbatismos (σαββατισμος). Thayer’s Lexicon notes that the correct translation is “a keeping sabbath.” Likewise, Barnes’ writes in his Notes on this verse,

It properly means “a keeping Sabbath” from σαββατίζω sabbatizō – “to keep Sabbath.” This word, not used in the New Testament, occurs frequently in the Septuagint; Exo. 16:30; Lev. 23:32; Lev. 26:35; 2Ch. 36:21; and in 3 Esdr. 1:58; 2 Macc. 6:6.

Indeed? If the meaning of the word is so plain, why obscure it behind the phrase, “Sabbath rest,” suggesting (as indeed many commentaries take it) that this rest is either optional, or else refers to a future “rest” after the return of Messiah (either the eternal state or the Millennium, depending on your eschatology)?

It is not difficult to understand. For at least nineteen centuries, after all, Christian doctrine has stated that since the seventh-day Sabbath is (allegedly) not commanded in the New Testament, then either it has been set aside as part of the old law or else has been superseded by a new sabbath given on the first day of the week in honor of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the correct translation of this passage were given, that argument would fall apart.

Here is how we would understand the passage if it were rendered correctly:

For if Joshua [Yeshua] had given them rest, he would not have spoken of another day [of rest] after that [in Psalm 95:7-11]. So there remains a Sabbath to keep (lit. ‘Sabbath-keeping’) for the people of God, for the one who has entered into [Messiah’s] rest also rests (aorist tense) from his works as God did from his (Heb. 4:8-10) . . . For he has said elsewhere concerning the seventh [day], “And God rested on the seventh day from all of his works” (v. 4, quoting Gen. 2:2) . . . Therefore let us be diligent to enter that [Sabbath] rest [of the seventh day], so that no one will fall through the same example of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11).

ISV CoverAs I noted long ago in Mistranslation Pet Peeves and the ISV, I actually got in touch with Dr. William Welty on this one. He agreed, reluctantly, and told me that the ISV would be amended to read, “There remains, therefore, a Sabbath rest for the people of God to keep . . .”

Now, does this mean that Christians of Gentile birth who fail to keep the Sabbath are under the condemnation of God as those who fell in the wilderness were (as we might suppose from the overall argument of Hebrews chapter 3-4)? Not necessarily. After all, Hebrews was written to, well, the Hebrews, those born and circumcised as Jews, not to Gentiles like the book of Galatians. While there is a Divine invitation for those Gentiles who wish to draw near to Israel and participate in her Sabbaths and sacrifices (Isa. 56:3, 6-7, quoted in Mat. 21:13, Mark 11:17, and Luke 19:46), there is also an argument to be made that certain commandments, like the Sabbath, are “signs” and cultural markers distinct to Israel (Exo. 31:13). Such commandments, many argue, are not and have never been required for Gentile Christians.

However, regardless of one’s stance on the “Jewish” commandments, the correct translation of Hebrews 4:9 makes it clear that there is no New Testament warrant for forbidding Jewish disciples of a Jewish Messiah from keeping the Sabbath, which is sadly how the Christian Church has interpreted this book for literally thousands of years.

Let us move on to the second example.

Hebrews 7:12

KJVFor the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.

NIV For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also.

ESVFor when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.

YLT for the priesthood being changed, of necessity also, of the law a change doth come,

While I fault the King James translators for getting this passage wrong, I believe that the ongoing propagation of the error that I will explain below has less to do with a conspiracy to change the Bible than with simple bias. After all, all Christians know, or think they know, that it is an obvious truth that the Law was changed with the coming of Christ. I’ve actually had some that I’ve engaged claim that to deny a change in the Law, which is to say the Torah, is tantamount to denying the work of Christ on the Cross.

However, regardless of what theological implications about the Law that one draws out of the Messiah’s sacrifice, that’s not what the passage actually says. The key words translated “changed” and “change” are metatithemenes (μετατιθεμενης) and metathesis (μεταθεσις). Both of these words indicate a transference, a change of place or location, not an alteration in an existing body or the switching out of one for another.

Enoch TranslatedDifferent conjugations of both words are together by the author of Hebrews later in the book: “By faith Enoch was taken up (lit. “translated,” metatethe / μετετεθη) so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken (“translated,” metatheseus / μεταθεσεως) him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God” (Heb. 11:5, ESV). Metathesis is further used in Heb. 12:27 to denote a removal of those things which can be shaken (as in, moved, not destroyed) to make way for those things which cannot. In addition, metatithemi is used to indicate a transference of place in Acts 7:16 (Jacob’s bones to Shechem), and a transference from the metaphysical “position” of true doctrine to a position falsehood in Gal. 1:6 and Jude 1:4.

So what’s the difference? The translation as it stands in nearly all versions of the Bible implies that the Torah itself has been either severely altered or else swapped out for another law. This idea is untenable for several reasons. First and foremost, Yeshua himself claimed that he had not come to abolish the Torah, but to “fill” it—that is, to demonstrate its full measure and meaning (Mat. 5:17-19).3 Secondly, the Torah itself states that one cannot add to or take away from its commandments (Deu. 12:32). It goes so far as to state that anyone who attempts to change it, to “seduce you out of the way the LORD your God has commanded you to walk,” no matter what signs or miracles they perform, is de facto a false prophet (ibid., 13:1-5).

But moreover, even Hebrews itself mandates against such an interpretation. Just two verses after the verse in question (Heb. 7:14), the book reads, “For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests.” If the Torah were really radically altered, or changed out for another law, why would this matter at all? Only on the context of the Torah still having the full weight of God’s authority does the author’s argument make any sense at all.

Understanding the Point of Hebrews

So what, then, is the point of the passage? Simply this: Hebrews was written at a time when the Temple still stood, but Yeshua’s followers knew by his own word that it was soon to fall (Mat. 24:2, Luke 21:6)–and it was not difficult for them to infer that this second destruction would last far longer than the seventy years of the first (see Lev. 26:18, 21, 24, and 28). To a Christian, this seems like no big deal, but to the early Jewish disciples, it was an almost inconceivable thought. We know that they were zealous for the Torah (Acts 21:20) and that many of them were even Pharisees (Acts 15:6, 23:6). To an observant Jew, the whole Torah is effectively one commandment (cf. Rom. 7:9-12); how then could they continue to keep the Torah if whole segments were about to be rendered impossible to observe by the coming judgment on Jerusalem?

The entire book of Hebrews was written to answer that question. In short, its answer is thus: The coming destruction of the Temple was anticipated, and the prophets, David in particular, foresaw a coming Anointed One who would be like Melchizedek, both a priest and a king. However, since this Messiah is, as prophesied, of the tribe of Judah, he could not possibly serve in the earthly Temple / Tabernacle, since that is reserved to the Levites (Heb. 7:14). However, even in the Torah it is made clear that the earthly Tabernacle was only a copy of a Heavenly reality. Therefore, to fulfill both Psalm 110 and keep the Torah, this High Priest of Judah serves in the Heavenly throne room—and he does so forever, having offered a perfect sacrifice that encompasses and surpasses all of the previous sacrifices!

Therefore, Hebrews’ author argues from logic, since there is a transference of the High Priesthood from Levi to Judah, there must be a corresponding transference in law (not “the” Law as commonly translated) as well. Since the author has appealed to logic, we must approach this logically as well: This is not to say that every commandment has been set aside by virtue of being transferred into the Heavenly realm. One cannot claim, for example, that since the Law has been transferred, adultery against one’s earthly wife is okay as long as one does not commit spiritual adultery against God!

Nor can one simply claim, as Christians are wont to do, that the “ceremonial” Law is what has been transferred, leaving us only the “moral” Law to follow. Quite aside from the fact that one cannot so easily separate the two (e.g., Is giving one’s servant the Sabbath off moral, or merely ceremonial?), as we have seen from the proper interpretation of Hebrews 4:9, there still remains a Sabbath for the people of God to keep—and therefore there still remain certain ceremonial observances for the disciples of the Messiah Yeshua that are not directly connected to the Temple sacrificial service.

To put it another way, since the author of Hebrews is focused on the “law” (Gr. nomos) of the Temple’s sacrificial service, we must limit our interpretation of just what “law” has been transferred along with Yeshua into the Heavenly Tabernacle to the Temple’s sacrificial service as well.

Many will object to limiting the language of Hebrews in this way. However, the logic is eminently sound—and is not restricted to the musings of Messianics. For example, John Calvin writes of Hebrews 7:12,

By the word Law, we understand what peculiarly belonged to Moses; for the Law contains the rule of life, and the gratuitous covenant of life; and in it we find everywhere many remarkable sentences by which we are instructed as to faith, and as to the fear of God. None of these were abolished by Christ, but only that part which regarded the ancient priesthood.4

Simply by letting these two key passages speak for themselves as the plain Greek demands, we find that the book of Hebrews teaches almost precisely the opposite of what most Christians believe it to. Far from telling Jews not to “return” to their old faith, it actually provides the Scriptural and logical rationale for a post-temple Messianic Judaism.


1 Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, introduction to the Book of Hebrews

2 Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, introduction to Hebrews

3 Compare to Gal. 5:14, “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” This obviously cannot mean that if I love my neighbor as myself just once I have fulfilled the Law so as to see its mission fulfilled and it set aside—and then can punch him in the face and steal his wallet. Rather, Paul clearly intends for us to understand “fulfilling” the Law by love to our neighbor as an ongoing act. In the same way, Yeshua “fulfilled” (lit. ‘made completely full’) the Torah by demonstrating its full meaning. Since he insists that this fulfillment does not “abolish” the Law in any way, and even goes on to insist that one should keep and teach even the least commandments, we must understand his use of the term to be in agreement with Paul: While the Messiah certainly fulfilled the Torah to a degree that no other man ever could, this does not release us from the obligation to keep the commandments (cf. John 14:15, 1Jn. 5:3).

4 John Calvin’s Commentary to Hebrews 7:12

2 Replies to “Common Mistranslations – The Book of Hebrews”

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