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"Heard Because of His Reverence" (Heb 5:7)

Harold W. Attridge

Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 98, No. 1. (Mar., 1979), pp. 90-93.

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Mon Aug 6 22:41:35 2007


In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears,
to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear.

The remarks about the prayers of Jesus in Heb 5:7 present an interesting crux for which
numerous interpretations have been proposed.' The problem centers on the last phrase in the
verse, ei~akousrheisapo tPs eulabeias. The most common interpretation' holds that the phrase
means "having been heard becairse of his reverence (or godly fear)." This is indeed the correct
interpretation, but for a reason that, to my knowledge, has not been adduced, namely that these
remarks about the prayer of Jesus conform to a pattern delineating the ideal prayer of a pious
man as that was understood in Hellenistic Judaism.
The problems with the common understanding of the phrase arise because of the ambiguity of
the preposition apo, the ambiguity of the noun eulabeia, and the apparent impropriety of the
assertion that Jesus "was heard."
The preposition can meaneither "from" or "because of."3 Deciding which of these alternatives
is to be preferred depends on the interpretation of the other parts of the phrase. The noun can
mean "fearnor "reverence."It is possible to understand that fear as the emotion felt by Jesus in the
face of his death. In that case apo will be understood as "from"and the whole phrase translated,
"heard (and saved) from fear."%s the translation indicates, this understanding involves a rather
harsh ellipse.5 The alternative is the common understanding, "heard because of his reverence."

'For a general survey of positions taken on the verse, cf. C. Spicq, L'Epitre aux Hebreux(2
vols.; 3rd ed.; Paris: Gabalda, 1953) 2. 114-17 and 0. Michel, Der Brief an die Hebraer
(Gottingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1966) 222-23. The solution to this crux offered here
agrees with L. K. K. Dey (The Intermediary World and Patterns of Perfection in Philo and
Hebrews [SBLDS 25; Missoula: Scholars Press, 19751) that the theology and literature of
hellenized Judaism is most relevant to the interpretation of this epistle. This does not mean that
the author of Hebrews was a close disciple of Philo. For criticism of that hypothesis, cf. R.
Williamson, Philo and the Epistle to the Hebren,s (ALGHJ 4; Leiden: Brill, 1970). Hebrews
certainly displays numerous similarities with the apocalyptic literature of Palestinian Judaism, as
has been pointed out by many recent commentators, such as F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the
Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964); G. W. Buchanan, To the Hebren,s (AB; Garden City:
Doubleday, 1972); and P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976). Nonetheless, it is a mistake to neglect the affinities of the work with
Jewish literature heavily influenced by Hellenism.
*This understanding is that of John Chrysostom and the Greek exegetical tradition. It is
followed by the Vg, which translates "pro sua reverentia." T o the list of modern commentators
who adopt this understanding in Spicq, L'Epitre, 2. 115, may be added Michel, Der Brief, 222;
Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 93; and Hughes, A Commentary, 181-86.
3Cf. W. Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of
Chicago, 1957) 85-88. For the sense "because of," note p. 87, section V. 1.
T h i s understanding is reflected in the O L "exauditus a meru"; Ambrose, who translates
"exauditus ab illo metu"; Calvin; Beza; and several modern commentators, the most recent of
whom are J . Hering (The Epistle to the Hebrews [London: Epworth, 1970; French original,
NeuchPtel and Paris: Delachaux and Niestlt, 1954139-40), and H. W. Montefiore (The Epistle to
the Hebrews [London: Black, 1964199). The objection of Hering to the common understanding,
that it leaves eisakoustheis without an object or compliment, is hardly compelling!
5Cf. Blass-Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament (Chicago: University of
Chicago, 1961) #211. It hardly helps matters to term this ellipse a consrructiopraegnans.

A basic objection to that common understanding is that Jesus is not in fact heard. As
Bultmann notes "This explanation seems to be excluded, however, by the fact that the hearing
could then consist only in His deliverance from d e a t h . " V o resolve this difficulty several
suggestions have been proposed. Bultmann's own solution is to follow Harnack' and emend the
text by inserting a negative, ouk, before the participle, eisakoustheis. This emendation does not.
however, really resolve the problem, since the phrase would either mean "not heard (and saved)
from his fear," which involves the harsh ellipse or "not heard because of his fear." The latter
understanding is theoretically possible, although why the fear of Jesus could prevent his being
heard is unc1ear.b As we shall see, the proper understanding of eulabeia precludes these
One further attempt to resolve the problem of the inappropriateness of the remark should be
noted. Blass-Debrunner9 suggest that the prepositional phrase is to be construed with what
follows, not what precedes. As Bultmann notes,lO this understanding is very artificial and does not
give due weight to the phrase kaiper dn h u i o ~ .
The objection to the common understanding made by Harnack, Bultmann and others, is that
the prayers of Jesus to the one who "is able to save him from deathn(Heb 5:7a) were not, in fact,
heard. This clearly is not the understanding of Hebrews. As Heb 5:9 indicates, Jesus by his
obedient suffering was perfected and made a "cause of eternal salvation to all who obey him." In
one sense Jesus is clearly "delivered from death," by his exaltation and session at the right hand
(Ps 110: 1, in Heb 1:3andpassim). He was not delivered in the sense that he did not undergo death,
but in the sense that death had no lasting dominion over him."
The objection raised by Harnack, et al., has a certain plausibility primarily because Heb 5:7 is
normally associated with the story of the agony in Gethsemane (Matt 26:3646 and par.), where
the prayer of Jesus that he be spared the cup of suffering is not granted. It is by no means obvious,
however, that this verse in Hebrews alludes to the Gethsemane story.12
A better framework than the Gethsemane story for understanding Heb 5:7 is provided by
Philo's discussion of the prayers of Abraham and Moses in Quis Here3 1-29, which consists of an

hR. Bultmann, "t$Aap4s, t$AaptioOrur, t$A&Ptra,"TDNT 2 (1964) 753. The same objection
is made by Hering, The Epistle, 39, and Montefiore, The Epistle, 98.
-A. von Harnack, "Zwei altedogmatische korrekturen im Hebraerbrief," SPAW (1929) 69-73
(= Studien zur Geschichte des Neuen Testaments und der alten Kirche [Berlin and Leipzig: de
Gruyter, 19311 245-52. The emendation is also adopted, with some hesitation, by H. Windisch,
Der Hebraerbrief (2nd ed.; Tiibingen: Mohr [Siebeck], 1931) 43-44.
bNote the objections to this understanding of the phrase in J . Jeremias, "Hbr 5.7-10," ZNW44
(1952-53) 107-1 1.
9Blass-Debrunner, Greek Grammar, #211. This suggestion follows the understanding of the
lOBultmann, "tt;Arup4s,"753, n.3. Note also the criticism of Harnack in Jeremias, "Hbr 5.7-
10," 108.
!!This interpretation of the prayer of Jesus is essentially that of Jeremias, "Hbr 5.7-10," 109-
10, who distinguishes two senses of the phrase sozein auton ek thanatou: (1) t o save from an
impending death and (2) to deliver from death once it has occurred. The latter is the meaning
involved here. The prayer of Jesus mentioned in Hebrews is thus a prayer for glorification, as in
John 12:27, and 17:5. The same understanding of the content of the prayer of Jesus is suggested by
B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (3rd ed.; London: Macmillan, 1909) 128.
'*Jeremias ("Hbr 5.7-10," 109) suggests that Hebrews is interpreting the Gethsemane story.
That remains a possibility, although it seems unlikely. In any case the Gethsemane story does not
provide the context for understanding the eulabeia of Jesus, any more than it accurately indicates
the content of his prayers. This is not to deny that Hebrews heavily emphasizes theimportance of

extended commentary on Gen 15:2-18. In the opening paragraphs of this discussion, Philo treats
Abraham's remarks to God in Gen 15:2-3, "Master, what will thou give me? I go hencechildless.
The son of Masek, she who was born in my house, is this Damascus Eliezer." Philo senses a
problem with the style of this address, but justifies the boldness of the patriarch by noting that
"courage and well-timed frankness @arrZsia) before our superiors are admirable virtues" (Heres
5). He then digresses on the circumstances in which it is proper to usesuchfrankness, notingalso
the circumstances and types of people for whom silence is appropriate (Heres 6-19).
These remarks onparrPsia provide the first significant parallel with the context of Heb 5:7. In
Heb 3:6 the author of Hebrews suggested that Christians are the household of Christ if they hold
firm to theparrPsia and the boast of their hope." Although the key Greek term may be translated
here in a more abstract way, as "confidence," the association with the boast (kauchema) suggests
that the basic etymological sense of "boldness of speech" is felt. Similarly in the next use of the
term, in Heb 4:16, the author exhorts his readers "Let us therefore approach the throne of grace
with parrPsia, so that we might receive mercy and find grace for a timely aid." Again a general
sense of "confidence" might be appropriate as a translation for parrPsia, but the image of humble
subjects approaching their regal master is precisely the sort of situation envisioned by Philo in his
description of the circumstances in which a bold frankness is appropriate:
And so when else should the slave of God open his mouth freely to Him Who is the ruler and
master both of himself and of the All, save when he is pure from sin and the judgements of his
conscience14 are loyal to his master, when he feels more joy at being the servant of God than if
he had been king of all the human race (Heres 7).

The next characteristic of the frank prayer of the one who trusts in and loves his master in
Philo's account is its loudness. Further in his digression on boldness of speech Philo comments on
Exod 14:14-15, "What is it that thou shoutest (boqs) to me?" He reflects on the verse:
The meaning is that those should keep silent who have nothing worth hearing to say, and
those should speak who have put their faith in the God-sent love of wisdom, and not only
speak with ordinary gentleness, but shout with a louder cry (kraugPs meizonos) (Heres 14).

This comment then is further interpreted by the observation that the cry is not an ordinary
vocal shout, but an expression of the soul.l5 Such spiritualization is not found in the text of
Hebrews and it may well represent a secondary interpretation on Philo's part of the ideal model of
prayer. What we do find in Hebrews is the remark that the prayer of Jesus in the days of his flesh

the passion of Jesus generally. Nonetheless the passion tradition which Hebrews relies on need
not have been that familiar from the synoptic tradition. Such a tradition may in fact have been
heavily influenced by the martyrological literature of Hellenistic Judaism. For a discussion of this
possibility, cf. Sam K. Williams, Jesus'Death as Saving Event: The Background and Origin ofa
Concept (HDR 2; Missoula: Scholars Press, 1975) 239-41. In any case the emphasis on the
significance of the passion of Jesus distinguishes Hebrews from the hellenistic Jewish texts on the
ideal mode of prayer which enable us to understand the terminology of Heb 5:7.
]'The use of the termparresia in Hebrews is distinctive. In Acts it is used with legal overtones
of boldness in proclaiming the gospel or in teaching before men. In Paul there is a similar
emphasis on the openness and frankness of the apostle's proclamation, but it can also bedirected
toward God, as in 2 Cor 3:12. In the Johannine literature the term is used particularly of the
revelatory work of Jesus. Cf. H. Schlier, ".rrruppqaia, .rrruppqur&~oprur"T D N T 5 (1967) 871-86.
"To syneidos. Note the importance of conscience (syneidesis) in Heb 9:9-14; 10:2,22; 13:18.
I5Note the ideal of interior prayer advocated by Apollonius of Tyana in the fragment from his
work on sacrifice in Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica 4.13.1 (ed. Mras, 1.185).

was made with a mighty cry (krauges ischyras, Heb 5:7). That this is not simply a fortuitous
parallel with the "cry" of Heres 14 is suggested by the fact that Philo subsequently links the shout
of a holy man's prayer with emotion, as these elements are linked in Heb 5:7 (meta krauges
ischyras kai dakrydn). In Heres 19, Philo comments on the prayers of Moses in Exod 32:32 and
other texts:
But the man of worth has such courage of speech (parrPsia) that he is bold not only to speak
and cry aloud, but actually to make an outcry of reproach, wrung from him by real
conviction (ex alPthous pisreos) and expressing true emotion (gnPsiou tou pathous).l6

After the lengthy digression on boldness of speech, Philo returns to the prayer of Abraham in
Gen 15:2. He notes in Heres 22 that bold confidence is not its only characteristic, for that boldness
was accompanied by eulabeia. Philo finds this attitude in the use by Abraham of the title "Master"
(despota) for God. He goes on to explain what the use of the title suggests and thus provides a
precise content to the term eulabeia. A desporesin Philo's view is a terrible lord (phoberon kyrion,
Heres 23), capable of inspiring fear and terror. By using this title Abraham recognizes the power
and absolute sovereignty of God and humbly submits himself to the divine will (Heres 24-29).
This of course is what Jesus does in Heb 5:8.17Jesus, like Abrahamand Moses, is "heard because
of his reverence" for and submission to the sovereign who can deliver from death.
Thus the opening chapters of Philo's tractate Quis Heres provide the proper background for
understanding the description of the prayer of Jesus in Heb 5:7. Philo comments on the
characteristics of the prayers of Abraham and Moses. These characteristics are precisely those
which appear in the context of Heb 5:7. The Jewish heroes spoke to God witha boldness that the
readers of Hebrews are encouraged to adopt (Heb 4:16). The readers of Hebrews can do so
because of their High Priest, whose earthly prayers manifested his empathy with them. Those
prayers conformed to the characteristics highlighted by Philo. Jesus, like Abraham, prayed with a
loud shout, and like Moses, manifested genuine emotion. The boldness in all their prayers,
however, was tempered by a humble recognition of divine sovereignty, a "religious awe" or
"reverence" that guaranteed that the prayers would be heard.

Harold W. Attridge

Perkins School of Theology, Dallas, T X 75225

I6The shout and tears of Heb 5:7 were recognized components of an ideal of prayer in the
Hellenistic-Jewish tradition by Dey (The Intermediary World, 224), who notes significant
parallels to the language of Hebrews in 3 Macc 1:16, 5:7, 5:25, and Philo, Ques. Gen. 4.233 and
Quod Deus 115.
I7Cf. also Heb 10:s-10, where the significance of the sacrifice of Jesus is seen to consist in its
conformity to the divine will.