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Earl Doherty's use of the Epistle to the Hebrews

by Christopher Price

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Hebrews' Reference to the Second Coming of Christ

Another passage in Hebrews that proves troublesome to Doherty's theory is Hebrews 9:27-28, where the author discusses the second coming of Jesus Christ. Of course, because Doherty believes that early Christians expected Jesus to come to earth at the end of time, a description of that upcoming earthly visitation as a second clearly requires that Jesus has previously come to earth.

Hebrews 9:27 - 28: "And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him."

Either translation shows the obvious problem for Doherty it refers to a second coming of Christ. That this coming will be earthly and visible to all is confirmed by Doherty himself ("It is certainly the coming in glory at the End time that he has in mind").

Doherty argues every modern translation of this scripture is wrong. Contrary to every modern authority from diverse backgrounds, Doherty argues that 9:27 - 28 does not refer to a second coming, but to the first coming that follows Jesus's (nonearthly) death and offering.  He says:

If the ek deuterou means a second time, the parallel with verse 27 is destroyed. Verse 27 is saying that "first men die, and after that (or 'next') they are judged." There is no sense here of a "second time" for anything; the writer is simply offering us a sequence of events: death, followed by judgment. Does this not imply that verse 28 is offering a sequence as well? "Christ was offered once, and after that (next) he will appear to bring salvation."
The idea of appearing "a second time" would be intrusive here. Since the writer is clearly presenting his readers with some kind of parallel between verses 27 and 28 (note also the "once" in both parts), it seems unlikely he would introduce an element which doesn't fit the parallel, especially one he doesn't need. Ek deuterou can have the alternate meaning of "secondly" or "next in sequence," like the similar word deuteron, which appears in this sense in 1 Corinthians 12:28. Just as men's death is followed by judgment, so is Christ's sacrifice followed by his appearance, but with no indication of how long a time between the two. Before the turn of the century, Vaughan (quoted in The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol.4, page 340) translated verse 28 this way: "Christ died once and the next thing before him is the Advent."

Basically, therefore, Doherty offers two arguments. First, any reference to a second coming would be intrusive because of the unspecified purpose of keeping 27 and 28 parallel. Second, one authority suggests this should be translated "next." Both arguments are complete failures.

A. Doherty's Translation is Contrived and Completely Unsupported

There is a reason Doherty has to reach back to the 1800s to find any support for his argument. Every modern translation or commentary I have been able to find rejects his interpretation. And, the overwhelming usage of the term in contemporary literature and in Hebrews itself is that the term means "second."

The only authority Doherty has been able to point to for his own personal interpretation is one commentary from the 1800s. In contrast, every translation I could find interprets this passage as either "second" (RSV, NRSV, NIV, NEB, KJV, NKJV, ESV, AMP, ASV, WE, YLT, WYC, DARBY) or, less seldom, "again" (CEV, NLT, LNT). I also reviewed several commentaries on Hebrews from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives and found none that translated this passage to mean "next" or "after" as does Doherty.

Even more damaging to Doherty's argument is the clear and overwhelming attestation that Ek deuterou means "second." The term "dueteros" is used throughout the New Testament to mean "second" (Matthew 21:30; 22:26, 39; 26:42; Mark 12:21, 31; 14:72, Luke 12:38, 19:18, 20:30; John 3:4, 4:54, 21:16; Acts 7:13; 10:15, 12:10, 13:33; 1 Corinthians 15:47; 2 Corinthians 1:15; 13:2; Titus 3:10; 2 Peter 3:1; Revelation 2:11; 4:7; 6:3; 8:8; 11:14; 16:3: John 3:4; 9:20, 11:9; 19:3). Out of 44 usages in the New Testament, the term deuteros is 38 times used to mean "second" and 3 times to mean "again." As for the author of Hebrews, he uses the term repeatedly and exclusively to mean "Second." The term is used four other times by the author of Hebrews. Every time it is used mean to mean "second." (Hebrews 8:7; 9:3; 9:7, 10:9).

As for the exact phrase, ek deuterou, is only used in the New Testament to mean "second." It never has any other meaning:

Matthew 26:42: "He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, "My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done."
Mark 14:72: "Immediately a rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had made the remark to him, 'Before a rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.' And he began to weep."
John 9:24: "So a second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, 'Give glory to God; we know that this man is a sinner.'"
Acts 10:15: "Again a voice came to him a second time, 'What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy."
Acts 11:9: "But a voice from heaven answered a second time, 'What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.'"

Accordingly, the evidence of usage in all other early Christian literature overwhelmingly supports a translation of "second."

B. The Use of "Second" is Not "Intrusive," but Necessary and Coherent

Doherty argues that the term "second" is intrusive because of the unspecified purpose behind a purported "parallel." I am sceptical that any "analysis" as subjective as this could overcome the overwhelming attestation described above. However, it is clear that if such an analysis could be produced, this is not the one. Doherty's purported parallel is contrived and unconvincing.

First, he argues verse 28 is best translated "Christ was offered once, and after that (next) he will appear to bring salvation." According to him, it must be translated this way because it must parallel verse 27, "first men die, and after that (or 'next') they are judged."

This translation fails because the author of Hebrews specifically chose a different term to indicate a different meaning. The term used in verse 27 to mean "after" is the Greek term "meta." If, as Doherty insists, the author meant to indicate the same sequence for Jesus in verse 28 as he did for mean in verse 27, why did he intentionally avoid using the same word, meta? I have been unable to find any reason other than the obvious one the author did not intend to recreate the same sequence and used a different term because he meant to say something different: second, instead of next. Rather than use "meta" the author uses a word he has elsewhere used four times to clearly mean "second." There is no ambiguity here. The author's word choice demonstrates that Doherty's argument is a contrived fallacy.

Second, the context of the passages clearly shows that the author means exactly what he says Christ will come a second time. Doherty misses the obvious connection between verse 26 and verse 28. verse 26 refers to Christ' first coming, verse 28 refers to his second coming (RSV):

But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Note the real focus of the author here. Jesus died once as an offering for sin. So to do men die once. verse 26 explicitly states that Jesus "appeared" before to died for humanity. verse 28 clearly refers to him "appearing" a second time to those he saved. The sequence is obvious, verse 26 is the first coming and verse 28 is the second coming. Clearly, the parallel is between both Jesus and man having to die once.

C. Doherty's Translation Ignores the Obvious Parallels with the Temple Cult

Doherty completely and inexplicably ignores the obvious symbolism here. Throughout Hebrews its author refers to the temple cult system of sacrifice and contrasts Jesus' sacrifice and authority as High Priest with the temple cult. That is why the author focuses so much on Jesus having only died once. Whereas the temple cult had to make sacrifices every year, Jesus' is superior because he only had to die once.

In verse 27 - 28, the author is continuing this comparison and symbolism. The High Priest of the temple cult would appear before the people in front of the Holy of Holies where no one else was allowed to enter. He would then enter the Holy of Holies with his sacrifice on behalf of the nation. Once inside, he would make his sacrifice. The people would wait expectantly outside for the reappearance of the High Priest. Why? Because the mere fact that he survived to leave the Holy of Holies meant that God had accepted the sacrifice.

This is being played out with Jesus. Just as the High Priest appeared before the people, so to did Jesus. Just as the High Priest took the sacrifice into the Holy of Holies, so to did Jesus. The joy that the Israelites felt at seeing their high priest reappear after the offering is actually recounted in Ben Sira 50:5 - 10). Just as the High Priest would reappear to confirm that God had accepted the sacrifice, so to will Jesus appear a second time to his people to show them that God has accepted his sacrifice.

Men and women die once, by divine appointment, and in their case death is followed by judgment. Christ died once, by divine appointment, and his death is followed by salvation for all his people. This is because in his death he bore 'the sins of many,' offering up his life to God as an atonement on their behalf... The Israelites who watched their high priest enter the sanctuary for them waited expectantly for his reappearance; that was a welcome sign that he and the sacrifice which he presented had been accepted by God. His reappearance from the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement was an especially welcome sight.

(FF Bruce The Epistle to the Hebrews (Revised) page 232)

Christ's first coming was as the sinbearer. That task has been finished forever. His priestly work of making sacrifice is done, and His representation of believers in the sanctuary of God's presence is now being accomplished (verse 24). There remains one final action of this high priest. Even as the Jewish priest emerged from the holy of holies, signifying by the very fact of his emergence that his sacrifice had been accepted (otherwise he would have been divinely stricken in the inner chamber), so Christ will also appear a second time. Those who wait him are all true believers, for whom Christ's second coming will mean the consummation of their salvation. All of the blessed results of Christ's sacrifice will be brought to fulfilment. At Christ's second coming, His purpose will be apart from sin, for that was dealt with by His once for all sacrifice when He came the first time. For believers, salvation in its fullest realization will occur as they share God's blessed presence for eternity.

(Homer A. Kent, Jr. The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary page 190)

Accordingly, Hebrews 9:27 - 28 refers, quite clearly, to the second coming of Christ.

V. Speaking in the Present Tense

Another argument that Doherty makes regarding Hebrews is that he sometimes uses the present tense to refer to the words of Jesus. Exhibit A:

Hebrews 10:5-7: "That is why, at his coming into the world, he says: 'Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire, But thou hast prepared a body for me. Whole offerings and sin offerings thou didst not delight in. Then I said: 'Here am I: as it is written of me in the scroll, I have come, O God, to do thy will.'"

Doherty says:

The writer presents Christ as speaking in the present ("he says"). Yet this speaking is "at his coming into the world," which must also be in the same present. Such actions are placed not in history, but in scripture, in whatever the writer regards as represented by the words of the Psalm. Nor does he show any sense of confusion between this "coming" and any recent coming of Jesus into the world in an historical sense, at Bethlehem or on earth generally.... We are skirting Platonic ideas here, with their concept of a higher world of timeless reality. Why not suggest, then, that the writer views scripture as presenting a picture of spiritual world realities, and it is in this spiritual world that Christ operates? The writer of Hebrews has gone to the sacred writings for the story of Christ, the newly revealed "Son." In that case, the "he says" (here and throughout the epistle) becomes a mythical present, reflecting the higher world of myth, which seems to be the common universe of so many early Christian writers.

First, Doherty's argument that the use of the present tense is strange or suggests Platonic ideas is simply wrong. In his otherwise favourable review of Doherty's book, Richard Carrier refuted this argument. In his "List of Problems," Carrier explains (note the non-awkwardness of my present tense to refer to something written in the past?):

Doherty makes too much of the present tense when he interprets the use of "he says" as suggesting a present rather than a past speaker (p. 94). For in Greek it was not unusual, especially in Koinê, the vernacular of the NT, to refer to past events using verbs in the present tense (we do the same today when we treat a book as speaking in the present even when the author is long dead).

(Richard Carrier, Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity)

Second, the passage at issue expresses some decidedly non-Platonic ideas. Far from being timeless and static, the author puts all of this in a chronological time frame. The law, although platonically "shadowy," is non-Platonically a shadow of "things to come." (Hebrews 10:1). Christ "comes into the world." These statements reflect Jewish eschatology, not Platonic philosophy.

The author of Hebrews departs from Platonic thinking, however, in his temporal frame: the Law is the shadow of the real things that are, in respect to Torah, future--the "good things about to come" and that "have come" in the high priesthood of Jesus (see 9:11, where Jesus is described as 'high priest of the good things that came into being').

(David A. DeSilva  Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews page 317)

Third, the author of Hebrews explicitly speaks of the incarnation of Jesus into a human body (the term "soma" is used in the LXX, not the Hebrew Bible). Because the practice of animal sacrifice was inadequate, God prepared a body for Jesus so that he could be the once-for-all sacrifice that resolved the issue.

Psalm 40 refers to a speaker who recognized his body as the gift God has prepared so that the divine will may be accomplished. Beyond that reference the preacher recognizes the figure of God's Son who became man in order to fulfil the divine purpose for the human family. In him intention and the commitment of his body were fully integrated. He accomplished what he came to do.

(William Lane Call to Commitment page 134)

Fourth, as I have discussed elsewhere, the Greek term used here is soma. Soma is Greek for "body" and it carries the same emphasis on physicality as does its English equivalent.

The soma denotes the physical body, roughly synonymous with flesh in the neutral sense. It forms that part of man in and through which he lives acts in the world. It becomes the base of operations for sin in the unbeliever, for the Holy Spirit in the believer. Barring prior occurrence in the Parousia, the soma will die. That is the lingering effect of sin even in the believer. But it will also be resurrected. That is its ultimate end, a major proof of its worthy and necessity to the wholeness of human being, and the reason for its sanctification now.

(Robert H. Gundry Soma in Biblical Theology page 50)

Finally, the author of Hebrews has a propensity to describe Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit as speaking in the present tense through scripture. Of course, this is hardly unusual because he believes that all three are eternal beings. The Old Testament "is the voice of God; and as a necessary consequence the record is itself living. It is not a book merely. It has a vital connection with out circumstances and must be considered in connection with him." (BF Wescott Hebrews page 477).

Supposed Silences

Doherty points to two important purported "silences" that are supposed to demonstrate that the author of Hebrews had no knowledge of any earthly ministry. Arguments from silence are notoriously tricky. Knowing what an author intended or considered when writing a particular letter is tricky enough. When you then start reading into what he did not say, you are venturing into very speculative territory. In any event, whatever value an argument from silence can be given, neither purported silence alleged by Doherty is persuasive.

A. The Last Supper

The first purported silence Doherty points to is the "failure" of Hebrews to mention the Last Supper.

The core of Hebrews' attention is focused on the concept of sacrifice. The Jewish sacrificial cult as expressed in the ritual of the Day of Atonement and at the inauguration of the old Mosaic covenant is set against the sacrifice offered up by the new High Priest Jesus which has established a new and superseding covenant. In the Gospels, Jesus' act of institution at the Last Supper places a sacramental significance on the atoning sacrifice he is about to undergo, and is presented by Jesus himself as the establishment of a new covenant. If such a thing had existed within the tradition of the author of Hebrews, there are few statements in the entire field of New Testament research which could be made with more confidence than that he would not have failed to bring in Jesus' establishment of the Eucharist for the closest examination.
And yet we read in chapter 9: 15 - 22: "And therefore he (Christ) is the mediator of a new covenant . . . to bring deliverance from sins . . . The former covenant itself was not inaugurated without blood. For when Moses had recited all the commandments to the people, he took the blood of the calves . . . saying, "This is the blood of the covenant which God has enjoined upon you." . . . And without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness."
This passage cries out for a detailed comparison with the establishment of the Christian Eucharist at the Last Supper. There Jesus inaugurated the new covenant as Moses had the old; the words of Jesus (e.g., Mark. 14:24: "This is my blood of the covenant, shed for many") were spoken in parallel to Moses' own; Jesus' blood was shed "for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28), the same purpose for which the Law of the old covenant had required the shedding of blood. Can there be any feasible explanation for why the author of Hebrews would ignore the entire tradition of Jesus' establishment of the Eucharist with all these important features-other than the inescapable conclusion that he could have known of no such thing?

Before wading into the substance of Hebrews, we should note that Paul, who was familiar with the Last Supper, only mentions it in one of his seven undisputed letters. I am sure that as creative as Doherty is, if it would suit his purposes he could come up with arguments as to why Paul should have mentioned the Last Supper in the other six letters. Whether Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, or Titus were written by Paul or some of his disciples or admirers, they were likely familiar with the Last Supper narrative Paul recounts in 1 Corinthians, yet no mention of it is found therein. As a result, we should take note of the caution of E.F. Scott. "The Lord's Supper is never mentioned.... Certainly it would be rash to attribute any deep intention to this reticence." (EF Scott  op. cit. page 62).

Regarding the above argument, a comparison with Moses, not the Last Supper, fits in exactly with the author's theme. He is comparing the old covenant with the new one. Throughout Hebrews the Old Testament is used to foreshadow Jesus. The old covenants were inaugurated with blood. So too did Jesus inaugurate the new covenant with his own blood.

In any event, the author of Hebrews was likely familiar with the Pauline version of the Last Supper but neglected, for whatever reason, to make any use of it in this one letter. It was undoubtedly an important part of Paul's teachings to his churches, and we know that Paul was in contact with the Jerusalem Church and spent time with it. It is also clear that some of Paul's followers were important members of the Roman church. Hebrews was, most likely, written to or from Rome. The author shows some signs of Pauline influence. And, he is familiar with Timothy, Paul's companion. Given his familiarity with Pauline thought, Pauline friends, and churches influenced by Paul, it is extremely unlikely that he had never heard of Paul's version of the Lord's Supper. As such, his "failure" to use it was by choice or neglect.

Furthermore, it appears that there were two prominent versions of the Last Supper in early Christian circles--making it an old and well attested tradition. The first was Pauline and finds its way into the Gospel of Luke. The second is found in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Interestingly, Doherty uses the Matthew/Mark version to argue that the author of Hebrews must have used the Last Supper if he was familiar with it. It is more likely, however, that he was familiar with the Pauline version of the Last Supper:

1 Corinthians 11:23 - 27: I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, "This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me." In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.

Notably lacking from Paul's version is the statement that Jesus' blood is shed "for the forgiveness of sins." Instead, Doherty has to refer to the Matthew/Mark version of the Last Support to find this statement.

B. The Resurrection

Doherty says:

The second of those startling voids in Hebrews is the absence of any concept of a resurrection for Christ, either in flesh or for a period on earth. Héring, in addition to labeling the epistle an "enigma" on this account, observes (op.cit., p.xi) that the writer seems to have no regard for the Easter miracle, since "events unroll as though Jesus went up to heaven immediately after death," an idea found in more than one early Christian document. After "enduring the cross" (a reference which can easily fit into the mythical setting, as discussed above), Jesus takes his seat at the right hand of the throne of God (12:2). A similar process is described in 10:12: "But Christ offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat at the right hand of God." This mimics the sequence in 1:3 as well, noted above. Finally, in 13:20, in a passage which has in any case been questioned as authentic to the original epistle, the writer speaks a prayer which begins: "May the God of peace, who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep . . ." Here the Greek verb is "anago," meaning to "lead up," not the usual word applied in other New Testament passages to the idea of resurrection. Not surprisingly, the whole phrase is modeled on an Old Testament passage, Isaiah 63:11 (Septuagint): "Where is he that brought up from the sea the shepherd of the sheep?" Once again, we see that ideas about Jesus and his activities are derived not from history, but from scripture.

As Doherty recognizes, the resurrection is clearly attested by verse 13:20-21: "Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen."

What is "brought up from the dead" if not a reference to the resurrection? Doherty has no answer to this question. Instead, he hints at it not being "original" to the text. He gives no support for this allusion. Nor does he list any authority that reaches this conclusion. Indeed, he gives it no attention whatsoever. It's an obvious throwaway. It is in all of the texts and no commentary that I have read while researching this book have suggested it is an interpolation (and I have reviewed quite a few).

Doherty's only other argument is that this reference uses a term related to a passage in the Old Testament. But so what? No Jew worth his salt writing to other Jews would ignore Old Testament parallels or verbiage when discussing a belief so central to their religion as the resurrection. Whether cloaked in Old Testament language or not, it remains a reference to the resurrection. It in no way suggests that the words do not mean what they mean.

Besides, the term is used elsewhere to clearly refer to the idea of being raised from the dead. Paul uses it in Romans 10:7-8 refer to the resurrection of Christ from the dead:

Romans 10:6-7: But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: "Do not say in your heart, 'who will ascend into heaven?' (that is, to bring Christ down), or 'Who will descend into the abyss' (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead)."

It is also used in the Septuagint to refer to the concept of being raised from the dead.

Psalms 30:3 "O Lord, You have brought up my soul from Sheol; You have kept me alive, that I would not go down to the pit. "

Psalms 71:20: "You who have shown me many troubles and distresses Will revive me again, And will bring me up again from the depths of the earth."

Psalms 86:13: "For Your lovingkindness toward me is great, And You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol."

So we see that Hebrews clearly does refer to the resurrection of Jesus. And Doherty's "startling void" is nonexistent.


Having reviewed Doherty's comments on the Epistle to the Hebrews, we can see many the flaws in his conclusions and methodology. In bullet points, here are the lessons we have learned:

  • Early Christianity affirmed a belief in a preexistent and spiritual Jesus Christ who came to earth as a human being.
  • Early Christianity affirmed a belief in a "second" coming of Jesus Christ to earth.
  • Early Christian literature provides biographical information about Jesus' life on earth.
  • Early Christianity's use of the Old Testament regarding Jesus indicates a belief in a historical Jesus rather than indicating a purely mythological saviour.
  • To the extent early Christianity was influenced by Platonic thought, it did not overwhelm Jewish eschatological belief and its linear perspective, or its expectations of a human messiah.
  • Doherty's arguments from silence are unpersuasive and cannot rebut the many passages affirming a belief in a historical Jesus.


Bruce FF The Epistle to the Hebrews 1994

Carrier, Richard Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity 2002 ( - accessed 10/12/03)

Danielou, Jean 'The New Testament and the Theology of History,' in ed. Kurt Aland
Studia Evangelica 1971

Doherty, Earl The Jesus Puzzle Canadian Humanist Publications, 1999

Hughes, Graham Hebrews and Hermeneutics Cambridge, 1980

Guthrie, Donald New Testament Introduction Intervarsity Press, 1990

Johnson, Luke T. The Writings of the New Testament Fortress Press, 1986

Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew (3 volumes) Anchor Bible Reference Library, 1991 -

Nairne, Alexander The Epistle of Priesthood Edinburgh, 1915

Scott, EF The Epistle to the Hebrews Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2003

Wells, GA Earliest Christianity 1999 ( - accessed 10/12/03)

Williamson, Ronald Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews Brill, 1970

Lampe, GWH. and KJ Woolcombe Essays on Typology London, 1957

Wright, NT The New Testament and the People of God London, 1992

Thayer, Joseph Thayer's Greek English Lexicon Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1996

Painter, J., "World" in eds. Joel Green et. al. The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters Downer's Grove, 1993

Painter, J., "World, Cosmology," in eds. Gerald Hawthorne, et. al. The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels Downer's Grove, 1992

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