Book Reviews

Book Review: Within the Veil (Félix Cortez)

Félix Cortez, associate professor of New Testament at Andrews University, has published his 2008 dissertation through Fontes Press under their Studies in Jewish and Christian Literature series……

The content of Cortez’s book, spanning 310 pages, is contained within only four chapters.

Chapter 1

In chapter 1, Cortez introduces the state of affairs among scholars over how Jesus’ ascension functions in Hebrews.  What did his ascension accomplish and/or complete? Cortez provides two current streams of thought:

  1. Some believe the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 provides the analogy to Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
  2. Others believe that Moses’ inauguration of the sanctuary provides this analogy.

After critiquing both views, Cortez provides his own view as a third option. He understands Jesus’ ascension to fulfill the enthronement of the ideal Davidic king. Six passages refer explicitly to Jesus’ ascension in Hebrews (1:6; 4:14-16; 6:19-20; 9:11-14, 24; 10:19-22), and they associate his ascension with different aspects of what Jesus achieved (27). Cortez writes that “all of these events form part of Jesus’ exaltation at the right hand of God (1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2) and contribute to his identity as ‘Son’” (27). 

According to Cortez, the author of Hebrews used the title “Son”/“Son of God” as a royal title. The ascension inaugurated Jesus’ office as “Son” at the “right hand of God” (Heb 1:3, 13; 4:14-16; 8:1-2; 10:12-13; 12:1-2), and it uses the title of “Son” to show that fulfilled the promises made to David. This is “claimed for Jesus explicitly in Heb 1:5,” which reads,

For to which of the angels did God ever say,

“You are my Son,
    today I have begotten you”?

Or again,

“I will be to him a father,
    and he shall be to me a son”?

All that Jesus’ ascension achieved is derived from “his installation as Israel’s promised Davidic king” (27). The OT promises a future righteous Davidic king, and within Jewish history this kingly rule was characterized by seven actions. After he ascended the throne, the king would:

  1. renew the covenant between God and the nation,
  2. cleanse the land,
  3. build/repair the temple,
  4. reform the cult and reorganize the priests and Levites,
  5. promote the reunification of Israel,
  6. and achieve rest by defeating the enemies.
  7. When the Davidic king rose to power, this often coincided with “the emergence of a faithful priest” (27).

Cortez then lists out how Jesus fulfilled these actions (28):

  1. Jesus mediates a new covenant (9:15-23),
  2. cleanses his people (9:11-14),
  3. built the “house of God” (3:1-6; 8:1-5),
  4. reforms the cult by establishing one sacrifice that is effective “once for all” (9:24-10:18) and multiple spiritual sacrifices (13:10-16), all of which conclude in a joyous celebration at Mount Zion (12:22-29)—as the reforms of ancient Jewish kings did
  5. (On the last page of the book Cortez briefly notes that the reunification of Israel is implied in Hebrews 8:8, but it isn’t developed further in the letter.)
  6. Jesus provided “rest” for his people (4:1-10) and defeated “death,” the enemy (2:14-16),
  7. His ascension to the throne implies as well the emergence of a new faithful priest of the order of Melchizedek (chaps. 5-7) and a reformation of the cult (see #4)—specifically of the law of sacrifices (9:24-10:18) and priesthood (7:13-28).

Chapter 2

Chapter 2 explores the range of beliefs the Jewish people “toward the end of the early Judaic period (ca. 100 CE)” held about the Davidic covenant. He does this in four ways:

  1. He surveys the institution and purposes of the Davidic covenant,
  2. surveys the story of the righteous Davidic kings to see how they reached the ideals for a Davidic king,
  3. examines references to the Davidic covenant in the rest of the OT,
  4. examines references to the Davidic covenant in the writings of early Judaism.

The two kings who were closest to reaching the ideal were Hezekiah and Josiah. God would fulfill his promise unconditionally in that there would be a king who would build a house for God’s name and glory, and for whom God would establish the throne of his kingdom forever (2 Sam 7:13). However, the Davidic covenant was conditional for each Davidic king. God deserved the right to punish individual members and wait for the next king to ascend the throne. When the Davidic dynasty ultimately failed, the prophets (rightly) made grand prophesies about the Davidic covenant and a coming Davidic king. Early Judaism  responded in a variety of ways though. Some gave up hope, others held on to the belief of the coming king, but one who would liberate the people from their political oppressors and who would be a religious reformer.

Chapters 3–4

Chapter 3 analyzes each of the six passages in Hebrews that refer to Jesus’ entrance into heaven (1:6; 4:14-16; 6:19; 9:11-14, 24; 10:19-22). Cortez works “to understand ‘how’ the ascension is described in each passage and what that implies” (145). He does this by asking (1) “where” has Jesus entered? and (2) “what for”? Then Cortez analyzes the rhetorical function of the ascension in the flow of Hebrews. Why did the author of Hebrews think it was necessary to talk about the ascension in, say, Hebrews 1:6? Why so early in the book?

I had never known that Hebrews 1:6 was about the ascension since it reads, “when he [God] brings the firstborn into the world.” Cortez notes that the Greek word for “world” (οἰκουμένη) in Heb 1:6 is also used in Heb 2:5, which reads, “For it was not to angels that God subjected the world (οἰκουμένη) to come, of which we are speaking.” Usually when the author of Hebrews refers to our world, he uses the Greek word kosmos (κόσμος, 4:3; 9:26; 10:5; 11:7, 38). The oikouménē (οἰκουμένη) is the coming world, not our present one. It “denotes… the sphere over which the Son reigns, that is, the world to come” (152). 

Cortez argues that the catena of OT Scriptures in Hebrews 1:5–13 describes Jesus’ enthronement to God’s right hand. These texts are the basis for interpreting Psalm 8 (in Heb 2:6–10) one two levels. First, Psalm 8 tells us about God’s purpose for us is that we would rule over creation (see Gen 1:26-28), but as Psalm 8 notes, this hasn’t happened yet. We are not ruling over creation as we should. Second, we read in Hebrews that “God has fulfilled this purpose in the person of Jesus” who has received dominion over all things (183).

What is important about the ascension here in Hebrews 1:6? Jesus suffered unto death on the cross (Heb 2:9), destroying the one who has the power of death—the devil (2:14). After this, Jesus ascended and was enthroned at the right hand of God (1:5–13). By doing this, Jesus is “bringing many sons to glory” (2:10). We have received and will ultimately receive “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (12:28). Cortez notes seven instances of familial language in Hebrews 2:10–18. The author of Hebrews wanted us to see that Jesus became like one of us “so that… he might taste death for everyone” (2:9). Now is not the time to drift away, but to consider Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.

Cortez ends the chapter analyzing Hebrews 12:18-29, which refers to the “ascension” of believers to Mount Zion. He includes this because “this passage articulates the varying descriptions of Jesus’ ascension as a single, multifaceted, yet harmonious event and its place in the general argument of Hebrews. This passage is key to understanding the Davidic traditions as essential to the exposition of the ascension in Hebrews… explain[ing] the relationship of the Davidic traditions to the argument of the Letter as a whole” (145–46).

Chapter 4 concludes the book with some final thoughts on how Jesus fulfills the seven actions of a future righteous Davidic king.

Recommended?

If you are studying Hebrews, I think this will be a very helpful book to have since Cortez shows the reasons for and benefits of Jesus’ ascension. For most of my life I’ve heard and read very little about Jesus’ ascension. I merely knew it was something he did to go back up to God, not that it had any real importance to me. It is important for Christians to know why Jesus ascended and how it has any relevance to us, and Cortez’s work is a true help to not only see the importance of the ascension, but how Jesus was enthroned as the righteous Davidic King promised long ago.

Lagniappe

    • Series: Studies in Jewish and Christian Literature
    • Author: Félix H. Cortez
    • Paperback: 410 pages
    • Publisher: Fontes Press (January 15, 2021)

Buy it on Amazon or from Fontes Press

Disclosure: I received this book free from Fontes Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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