1. Prologue: The Nature of Faith (11:1–3)
1 Now faith is the firm foundation 1 of what we hope for; it is a conviction regarding things which are not seen.
2 It is by faith that the men and women of old established their record.
3 It is by faith that we understand the universe 2 to have been fashioned by God’s utterance, so that what is seen has not come into being from things which are visible.
1 Our author might well have proceeded from 10:39 to the exhortation to “run with steadfast endurance the race for which we are entered” (12:1); but first he encourages his readers further by reminding them of examples of faith in earlier days. In Old Testament times, he points out, there were many men and women who had nothing but the promises of God to rest upon, without any visible evidence that these promises would ever be fulfilled; yet so much did these promises mean to them that they regulated the whole course of their lives in their light. The promises related to a state of affairs belonging to the future; but these people acted as if that state of affairs were already present, so convinced were they that God could and would fulfil what he had promised. In other words, they were men and women of faith. Their faith consisted simply in taking God at his word and directing their lives accordingly; things yet future as far as their experience went were thus present to faith, and things outwardly unseen were visible to the inward eye. It is in these terms that our author now describes the faith of which he has been speaking. It is, he says, the hypostasis of things that are hoped for. 3 This word hypostasis has appeared twice already in the epistle. In 1:3 the Son was stated to be the very image of God’s hypostasis; in 3:14 believers are said to be Christ’s associates if they hold fast the beginning of their hypostasis firm to the end. In the former place it has the objective sense of “substance” or “real essence” (as opposed to what merely seems to be so). 4 In the latter place it has the subjective sense of “confidence” or “assurance.” 5 Here it is natural to take it in the same subjective sense as it bears in 3:14, and so the ERV/ARV and the RSV render it “assurance.” 6 There is, however, something to be said for the objective meaning, represented by the AV/KJV (“faith is the substance of things hoped for”) and the NEB (“faith gives substance to our hopes”). 7 That is to say, things which in themselves have no existence as yet become real and substantial by the exercise of faith. But on the whole the subjective meaning “assurance” is the more probable, especially as this meaning chimes in well with the companion word “conviction.” From another use of the word attested in the Hellenistic papyri Moulton and Milligan “venture to suggest the translation ‘Faith is the title-deed of things hoped for.’ ” 8 In the instances which they cite from the papyri this meaning is indicated by the context. It might no doubt be said that if we adopt this meaning here, we have something comparable to Paul’s language about the Holy Spirit as the “firstfruits” or “earnest” of the coming inheritance of believers; 9 but one would require stronger evidence from the present context before adopting it here. Our author is making much the same point as Paul makes in Rom. 8:24f.: “hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” 10
The word rendered “conviction” (Gk. elenchos) has the same twofold sense as the English word. In 2 Tim. 3:16 it occurs as a variant reading for the cognate elegmos to denote the “conviction” or “refutation” of error which Holy Scripture provides; here it means “conviction” in much the same sense as “assurance” in the preceding phrase. Physical eyesight produces conviction or evidence of visible things; faith is the organ which enables people (like Moses in v. 27) to see the invisible order. 11 Philo similarly links “faith towards God” with “apprehension of the unseen.” 12
2 It was for faith of this kind that men and women of old 13 received the divine commendation, and this has been placed on permanent record as an example to their descendants. The record is surveyed in vv. 4–38. This catalogue of spiritual heroism belongs to the same literary category as “The Praise of the Elders” in Sir. 44:1–50:21, beginning: “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.” 14 Ben Sira celebrates at length all the commendable qualities of the men of God whom he commemorates; our author, more concisely, confines himself to those features of his heroes’ careers which illustrate their faith in God, for the encouragement of those who come after them. In some ways a better parallel is presented by the last words of Mattathias, father of Judas Maccabaeus and his brothers, in which he stimulates the zeal of his sons by reminding them of the faithfulness under testing of Abraham, Joseph, Phinehas, Joshua, Caleb, David, Elijah, the three Hebrews who were saved from Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, and Daniel (1 Macc. 2:51–60). 15 Indeed, the literary genre is by no means confined to the Judaeo-Christian tradition; it shares many characteristics with the diatribē of Stoic-influenced rhetoric, which was given to the accumulation of historical or legendary examples of the particular quality under discussion. 16 Our author, however, does not only accumulate a series of examples; he sets them in historical sequence so as to provide an outline of the redemptive purpose of God, advancing through the age of promise until at last in Jesus, faith’s “pioneer and perfecter,” 17 the age of fulfilment is inaugurated.
3 Before he proceeds to celebrate the faith of the elders, however, he illustrates in another way his statement that faith is a conviction or proof of things not seen. The visible universe, he says, was not made out of equally visible raw material; it was called into being by divine power. “By faith 18 we understand 19 that the worlds have been framed by the word of God” (ERV/ARV). Here, as in 1:2, the “worlds” are the aiōnes (lit. “ages”); in both places the universe of space and time is meant. 20 There God is said to have made the universe by the agency of the Son; here he is said to have fashioned it by his word. It is unlikely that “God’s utterance” here is hypostatized as in John 1:1–3, so as to be practically synonymous with “the Son of God”; for one thing, the Greek substantive translated “utterance” here is not logos (as in John 1:1–14) but rhēma, referring to the utterance by which God summoned into existence what had no existence before. 21 Our author is thinking of the creative command “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), interpreting it and the following commands after the fashion of the psalmist:
By the word of Yahweh were the heavens made,
and all their host by the breath of his mouth …
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood forth. 22
Thus “the visible came forth from the invisible” (NEB). But how do we know this? By faith, says our author. Greek speculation about the formation of the ordered world out of formless matter had influenced Jewish thinkers like Philo and the author of the book of Wisdom; 23 the writer to the Hebrews is more biblical in his reasoning and affirms the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, a doctrine uncongenial to Greek thought. The faith by which he accepts it is faith in the divine revelation; the first chapter of Genesis is probably uppermost in his mind, 24 since he is about to trace seven living examples of faith from the subsequent chapters of that book.
2 Gk. αἰῶνες (lit. “ages”), as in 1:2 (see p. 47, n. 17).
3 The form of the definition (ἒστιν δὲ πίστις …) is paralleled in Philo; cf. his definition of prayer: “Now prayer is (ἒστιν δὲ εὐχή) a request for good things from God” (On the Unchangeableness of God 87).
10 Gk. ὑπομονή (cf. Heb. 10:36).
11 This “conviction of things not seen” (πραγμάτων ἒλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων) embraces things which are invisible because they belong to the spiritual order and things which are invisible because they belong to the future, like the fulfilment of God’s promises (cf. F. R. Tennant, “The Central Problems of Faith,” ExT 32 [1920–21], pp. 561–65).
13 Gk. οἱ πρεσβύτεροι (lit. “the elders”); cf. “the fathers” in 1:1.
14 Cf. also the illustrations of wisdom from early OT narratives in Wisdom 10:1ff., the list in CD 2.16ff. of those who went astray through “guilty inclination and lustful eyes,” the lists in 1 Clement of those who suffered through envy and jealousy (4:1ff.), of those who were found faithful, obedient, and hospitable (9:1ff.), of those who sacrificed themselves for the good of others (55:1ff.).
15 So in 4 Macc. 16:20ff. the mother of the seven martyr-brothers encourages her sons to faithful endurance by reminding them of Abraham, Daniel, and the three Hebrews; in 4 Macc. 18:11ff. she adds Abel, Isaac, Joseph, and Phinehas as examples for them to follow.
16 Cf. O. Michel, Der Brief an die Hebräer, MK (Göttingen, 1949), pp. 244f.; H. Thyen, Der Stil der jüdisch-hellenistischen Homilie (Göttingen, 1955), pp. 40ff. A question-mark has been placed by H. D. Jocelyn against the whole concept of the Stoic (or “Stoic-Cynic”) diatribē (“Horace, Epistles 1,” Liverpool Classical Monthly 4.7 [July 1979], pp. 145f.): he suggests that it was invented ex nihilo by H. Usener in 1887.
17 12:2 (pp. 337f.).
18 Here begins the succession of sentences commencing with πίστει which “provides the finest example of anaphora in the whole Bible and perhaps in all literature, secular as well” (C. Spicq, L’Épître aux Hébreux, I [Paris, 1952], p. 362).
19 Gk. νοοῦμεν. So in Rom. 1:20 Paul speaks of “the invisible things” of God as “being perceived (νοούμενα) through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity.” Moffatt (ICC, p. 161) quotes A. T. Goodrick’s note on Wisdom 13:4 (where this verb occurs) to the effect that “νοεῖν is in Hellenistic Greek the current word for the apprehension of the divine in nature.”
21 Cf. ρἧμα in 1:3 (pp. 48f.); note also the quotation from Philo, On Flight and Finding 137, on p. 146, n. 43.
23 “Just as nothing comes into being out of that which has no existence, so nothing is destroyed into that which has no existence” (Philo, The Eternity of the World 5, where Empedocles and Euripides are quoted in this sense). Elsewhere Philo expresses himself more biblically, as when he says that “God, the begetter of all things, not only brought them into sight, but even made things which previously had no existence, being not merely an artificer but the Creator himself” (On Dreams 1.76). Cf. Wisdom 11:17, where the “all-powerful hand” of God “created the world out of formless matter (ἐξ ἀμόρφου ὕλης).” The author of Wisdom might have appealed to tōhû wā-ḇōhû in Gen. 1:2 (see n. 24 for the LXX rendering); but the idea of imposing form on preexistent matter is Greek rather than Hebrew in origin. See also R. A. Stewart, “Creation and Matter in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” NTS 12 (1965–66), pp. 284–93.
24 He may have thought of the LXX rendering of Gen. 1:2, “the earth was invisible (ἀόρατς) and unfurnished” (ἀκατασκεύαστς), although in the LXX this seems to refer to the condition of the earth after its creation. With his language we may further compare 2 Macc. 7:28, where the mother of the seven martyrs reminds her youngest son how God made the world “out of things that had no existence” (ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων); 2 Baruch 21:4, “O thou … that hast fixed the firmament by the word, … that hast called from the beginning of the world that which did not yet exist”; 2 Enoch 25:1–4, “I commanded … that visible things should come down from invisible.” Creatio ex nihilo is an inference from Gen. 1:1–2:4a and not an unambiguous statement of those verses; neither Heb. bārāʾ nor Gk. κτίζω in itself bears this meaning. Indeed, even in the passage now under consideration our author does not in so many words assert creatio ex nihilo, but that is practically what is implied in his denial that the universe was created out of things phenomenal. Cf. A. Ehrhardt, “Creatio ex Nihilo,” in The Framework of the New Testament Stories (Manchester, 1964), pp. 200–233 (on p. 216 he compares Jub. 12:4, “the God of heaven … makes everything on the earth, and created everything by his word”); also The Beginning (Manchester, 1968), pp. 162–68.