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Hebrews 9.23: Cult Inauguration, Yom Kippur and the Cleansing of the Heavenly Tabernacle

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 September 2016

R. B. Jamieson*
Selwyn College, University of Cambridge, 36 Selwyn Gardens, Cambridge CB3 9BA, United Kingdom. Email:


The prima facie sense of the assertion of Hebrews 9.23 that the heavenly things themselves needed to be cleansed is often rejected as fantastic or preposterous. Consequently, the verse is often read as describing the cleansing of conscience or the inauguration, not purification, of the heavenly tabernacle. Both interpretations are critiqued here. Positively, this essay argues that in Heb 9.23 Christ's sacrifice cleanses the tabernacle in heaven from antecedent defilement in order to inaugurate the new covenant cult. I argue that the structure of 9.23–8 and the manner in which Hebrews appropriates both cult inauguration and Yom Kippur support this conclusion.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 Moffatt, J., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (ICC 40; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1924) 132 ; Schenck, K. L., Cosmology and Eschatology in Hebrews: The Settings of the Sacrifice (SNTSMS 143; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 168 ; Montefiore, H., A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (BNTC; London: Adam & Charles Black, 1964) 160 .

2 The most detailed recent treatments are MacLeod, D. J., ‘The Cleansing of the True Tabernacle’, BibSac 152 (1995) 6071 ; Gäbel, G., Die Kulttheologie des Hebräerbriefes: Eine exegetisch-religionsgeschichtliche Studie (WUNT ii/212; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006) 419–24; B. J. Ribbens, ‘Levitical Sacrifice and Heavenly Cult in Hebrews’ (Ph.D. diss., Wheaton College, 2013) 161–6.

3 Cf. the nine views identified by MacLeod, ‘Cleansing,’ 63–70.

4 Vanhoye, A., Prêtres anciens, prêtre nouveau selon le Nouveau Testament (Parole de Dieu; Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1980) 231 (‘l’évangile chrétien et de l’Église’); Loader, W. R. G., Sohn und Hoherpriester: Eine traditionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung zur Christologie des Hebräerbriefes (WMANT 53; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1981) 169–70; Attridge, H. W., Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989) 260–2; Bruce, F. F., The Epistle to the Hebrews (rev. edn; NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990) 228–9; Schenck, Cosmology, 168; Backhaus, K., Der Hebräerbrief (RNT; Regensburg: Friedrich Pustet, 2009) 335–6.

5 Lünemann, G., Kritisch exegetisches Handbuch über den Hebräerbrief (KEK 134; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1878) 301–3; Spicq, C., L’Épître aux Hébreux: ii. Commentaire (EBib; Paris: Gabalda, 1953) 266–7; Hurst, L. D., The Epistle to the Hebrews: Its Background of Thought (SNTSMS 65; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 38–9.

6 Braun, H., An die Hebräer (HNT 14; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1984) 281 ; Lane, W. L., Hebrews (WBC 47A–B; Dallas: Word, 1991) 246–7; Koester, C. R., Hebrews: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 36; New York: Doubleday, 2001) 421 , 427; Karrer, M., Der Brief an die Hebräer: Kapitel 5,11–13,25 (ÖTK 20/2; Gütersloh: Gütersloher, 2008) 166–7.

7 Kraus, W., Der Tod Jesu als Heiligtumsweihe: Eine Untersuchung zum Umfeld der Sühnevorstellung in Römer 3,25–26a (WMANT 66; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1991) 238–45; Gäbel, Kulttheologie, 418–24; Moffitt, D. M., Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews (NovTSup 141; Leiden: Brill, 2011) 225–6; Ribbens, ‘Heavenly Cult’, 161–6.

8 Since Hebrews emphatically insists on the singularity of Christ's sacrifice, the plural θυσίαις is surprising. Most scholars explain it as either generic, a ‘plural of category’, or as attraction to τούτοις. For generic, see Spicq, Hébreux, ii.266; Attridge, Hebrews, 261; Grässer, E., An die Hebräer: 2. Teilband, Hebr 7,1–10,18 (EKK 17/2; Zurich: Benziger, 1993) 188 . Young, Attraction: N. H., ‘The Gospel according to Hebrews 9’, NTS 27 (1981) 206 ; Lane, Hebrews, 247.

9 The term has this sense in Aquila's translation of Deut 4.17 and Ezek 8.10. In the former, ὑπόδειγμα refers to idols as the ‘likeness’ of animals and birds; in the latter, Ezekiel sees the likenesses of ‘creeping things and loathsome beasts’ engraved on the sanctuary walls. These references are noted by Attridge, Hebrews, 219 n. 41; Gäbel, Kulttheologie, 241 n. 122. Hence, although Hurst, Background, 13 may be technically correct that there is no instance in Hellenistic literature in which ὑπόδειγμα has the precise sense of ‘copy’, his broader point is undermined by these two instances that depict a mimetic likeness between a crafted object and that on which it is patterned.

10 In support of the idea that the use of Exod 25.40 in Heb 8.5 evidences a conception of a tabernacle extant in heaven, see e.g. Löhr, H., ‘“Umriß”und“Schatten”: Bemerkungen zur Zitierung von Ex 25,40 in Hebr 8’, ZNW 84 (1993) 221–4; Gäbel, Kulttheologie, 241–4; Moore, N. J., Repetition in Hebrews: Plurality and Singularity in the Letter to the Hebrews, its Ancient Context, and the Early Church (WUNT ii/388; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015) 152–3; contra e.g. Laub, F., ‘Ein für allemal hineingegangen in das Allerheiligste' (Hebr 9,12) – Zum Verständnis des Kreuzestodes im Hebraërbrief’, BZ 35 (1991) 72 .

11 Given that 9.23b consists of a verbless clause, καθαρίζεσθαι should be understood as implied from 9.23a. So e.g. Braun, Hebräer, 280; Kraus, Heiligtumsweihe, 243; Gäbel, Kulttheologie, 420.

12 This structural analysis attempts to fill a gap noted by Gäbel, Kulttheologie, 297: ‘Eine begründete Kompositionanalyse zu v. 24–28 liegt bisher nicht vor.’ In Fig. 1, indentation represents either conceptual or grammatical subordination. For instance, I have indented 9.25–6a (ii.C–ii.C.2) to match the subordinate infinitival clause of 9.24b (ii.B.1), since the clause on which the two subsequent subordinate clauses depend is itself a subordinate clause (ἵνα plus the subjunctive προσφέρῃ) that depends on the main verb εἰσῆλθεν in 9.24a.

13 BDAG, 743.

14 Cf. Braun, Hebräer, 281, who, grouping 9.27–8 with 9.25–6, calls 9.24–8 the ‘doppelte erläuternde Weiterführung’ of κρείττοσιν in 9.23. Similarly Spicq, Hébreux, ii.267; Lane, Hebrews, 248–9; Weiss, H.-F., Der Brief an die Hebräer (KEK 1315; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991) 485 ; Grässer, Hebräer 2, 190; Gäbel, Kulttheologie, 420.

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15 So e.g. Moffatt, Hebrews, 131; Attridge, Hebrews, 260; Bénétreau, S., L’Épître aux Hébreux, vol. ii (Commentaire Évangélique de la Bible; Vaux-sur-Seine: Édifac, 1990) 91 ; Lane, Hebrews, 247; Grässer, Hebräer 2, 186; deSilva, D. A., Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle ‘to the Hebrews’ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 311 ; O'Brien, P. T., The Letter to the Hebrews (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) 335 ; and the editors of the NA28.

16 Vanhoye, A., La structure littéraire de l’Épitre aux Hébreux (Paris: Desclée de Brower, 1963) 152 , 154. Similarly Weiss, Hebräer, 485; Koester, Hebrews, 427; Gäbel, Kulttheologie, 295, 420. In principle, this obscures the link between the ‘better sacrifice’ of 9.23 and its elaboration in 9.24–6, though Weiss and Gäbel nevertheless perceive the thematic connection.

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17 This analysis also rules out the structural proposals of Cockerill, G. L., ‘Structure and Interpretation in Hebrews 8:1–10:18: A Symphony in Three Movements’, BBR 11 (2001) 192–4 (cf. id., The Epistle to the Hebrews (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) 419–20) and Ounsworth, R., Joshua Typology in the New Testament (WUNT ii/328; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012) 155–6, who both propose that the new section begins with 9.25. In addition to obscuring the manner in which 9.24–6 elaborates 9.23, their proposals founder on the insurmountable difficulty of beginning a new section in the middle of a sentence, which both writers overlook.

18 Hurst, Background, 38. See §2.3 below.

19 M. R. D'Angelo notes both moves: ‘The most striking element of the revision is that the inauguration of the covenant and the inauguration of the tent and the worship have become a single event’, and, Thus the purpose of the blood in the ceremony is refocused … in Hebrews the blood of the covenant is a cleansing’ (Moses in the Letter to the Hebrews (SBLDS 42; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1979) 244, 246). Similarly Gäbel, Kulttheologie, 407: ‘Hebr hat den als Reinigungsritual verstandenen Bundesschluss (Ex 24) und die Heiligtumsweihe (Ex 40) zu einem einzigen Kultakt zusammengefasst.’

20 In 1 Kgdms 11.14 the verb describes the renewal of the kingdom, in 3 Kgdms 8.63 and 2 Chr 8.5 the dedication of the temple, and in 1 Macc 4.36, 54, 57 and 5.1 the (re)dedication of the sanctuary.

21 Similarly Koester, Hebrews, 418.

22 E.g. Attridge, Hebrews, 258; Weiss, Hebräer, 481; Koester, Hebrews, 420; Backhaus, Hebräerbrief, 331.

23 My treatment of both passages, including the translation of Exod 29.36–7 given here, is informed by Gane, R., Cult and Character: Purification Offerings, Day of Atonement, and Theodicy (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005) 130–3, 140–1. For similar analyses of Lev 8.15, see e.g. Milgrom, J., Leviticus 1–16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 3; New York: Doubleday, 1991) 521–2; Gorman, F. H., The Ideology of Ritual: Space, Time and Status in the Priestly Theology (JSOTSup 91; Sheffield: JSOT, 1990) 122–3. For similar treatments of Exod 29.36–7, see Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, 278–9; Sarna, N. M., Exodus (JPSTC; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991) 191 .

24 Cf. Josephus, Ant. 3.206, who does precisely this in his narration of the consecration of the tent and the priesthood.

25 Ellingworth, P., The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 468 .

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26 E.g. Elliger, K., Leviticus (HAT 4; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1966) 214 ; Milgrom, J., ‘Israel's Sanctuary: The Priestly “Picture of Dorian Gray”’, RB 83 (1976): 390–99; Gorman, Ideology, 51–52, 55, 61–102; Jürgens, Benedikt, Heiligkeit und Versöhnung: Levitikus 16 in seinem literarischen Kontext (HBS 28; Freiburg: Herder, 2001) 108–9; Dennis, J., ‘The Function of the חטאת Sacrifice: An Evaluation of the View of Jacob Milgrom’, ETL 78 (2002) 115, 125–6; Gane, Cult, 133–6, 144–62, 217–41; Nihan, C., From Priestly Torah to Pentateuch: A Study in the Composition of the Book of Leviticus (FAT ii/25; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007) 370–5.

27 That this understanding was shared by the LXX translator of Leviticus is evident in his rendering of וכפר על־הקדש in 16.16 as καὶ ἐξιλάσεται τὸ ἅγιον. Cf. the similar direct object constructions in 16.20 and 16.33, and the comments of Wevers, J. W., Notes on the Greek Text of Leviticus (SCS 44; Atlanta: Scholars, 1997) 249 , 251. That Hebrews’ portrayal of Yom Kippur was influenced by a Greek version of Leviticus in substantial continuity with modern editions is suggested by the near-verbatim quotation of Lev 16.27 in Heb 13.11, as well as by its use of ἅγια to denote the Holy of Holies and σκηνή to denote the tabernacle as a whole (8.2, 5; 9.8, 11, 12, 21, 24, 25; 13.11), which seems influenced by Lev 16.20 LXX. For the latter point, see Hofius, O., Der Vorhang vor dem Thron Gottes: Eine exegetisch-religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung zu Hebräer 6,19f und 10,19f (WUNT 14; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1972) 57 .

28 For discussion of the ways in which 9.24–8 (esp. 9.24–6) draws on Yom Kippur and intersects with Hebrews’ depiction and use of the rite elsewhere, see Gäbel, Kulttheologie, 294–309; cf. Telscher, G., Opfer aus Barmherzigkeit: Hebr 9,11–28 im Kontext biblischer Sühnetheologie (FB 112; Würzburg: Echter, 2007) 269–72; Moffitt, Atonement, 226–7, 280–1; Ribbens, ‘Heavenly Cult’, 166–71; Moore, Repetition, 170–1.

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29 That Hebrews 9.24–6 presents Christ's heavenly sacrifice as an eschatological Yom Kippur offering is confirmed by the comparison set up in 9.1–14, which 9.23–6 resumes. While the earthly high priest entered an earthly sanctuary with another's blood, attaining only external cleansing (9.6–10), Christ the high priest entered the heavenly sanctuary by means of his own blood, obtaining an eternal redemption (9.11–12).

30 On these points, see further §2.3 below.

31 On 12.24 as a summary reference to Christ's self-offering, see Attridge, Hebrews, 376; Gäbel, Kulttheologie, 384–5.

32 I take τὰ ἐπουράνια in 9.23b to refer to the heavenly tabernacle as a whole and possibly also its cultic implements, which are unspecified in Hebrews. Yet rather than drawing specific attention to particular items in the heavenly tabernacle, it is possible that the plural has a generic sense similar to θυσίαις. In any case, the vertical typology by which, in both 8.5 and 9.23, the earthly tabernacle and its furnishings are designated ‘copies’ of their equivalents in heaven indicates that the heavenly ‘tabernacle complex’ as a whole is in view in 9.23b. Similarly e.g. Spicq, Hébreux, ii.267; Lane, Hebrews, 247; Weiss, Hebräer, 484; Gäbel, Kulttheologie, 420; Moffitt, Atonement, 225–26. Contra Schenck, Cosmology, 170–3, who sees the referent as (only) the heavenly Holy of Holies, which he equates with heaven itself.

33 Cf. B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays (London: Macmillan, 19033) 272; Attridge, Hebrews, 260–1; Lane, Hebrews, 247.

34 It is suggestive that Lev 16.19b seems to indicate that the blood daubing on the inner altar purified it (וטהרו), and the blood sprinkling on the inner altar consecrated it (וקדשו). For this interpretation of Lev 16.18–19, see Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, 1036–9; Gilders, W. K., Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible: Meaning and Power (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) 131 . This suggests that Yom Kippur both cleansed and reconsecrated the altar. Not only does inaugural cleansing involve purification, but yearly purification seems to entail reconsecration.

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35 Contra Moffitt, Atonement, 225 n. 20; Ribbens, ‘Heavenly Cult’, 166.

36 On the importance of access to God in the heavenly Holy of Holies for the new covenant cult, see Filtvedt, O. J., The Identity of God's People and the Paradox of Hebrews (WUNT ii/400; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015) 146–53. For discussion of practices associated with new covenant worship in Hebrews, see e.g. ibid., 173–80; Moore, Repetition, 188–204.

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37 Classically Aquinas, Thomas, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (tr. Baer, C.; South Bend, IN: St Augustine's Press, 2006) 195 , commenting on this verse, ‘But on the contrary, in heaven nothing is unclean.’ Cf. Moffatt, Hebrews, 132; Spicq, Hébreux, ii.267; Hughes, P. E., A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977) 379 ; Schenck, Cosmology, 168, 181; Backhaus, Hebräerbrief, 336; Schreiner, T. R., Commentary on Hebrews (BTCP; Nashville, TN: B&H, 2015) 283 .

38 Gane, Cult, 319.

39 So Hays, R. B., ‘“Here We Have No Lasting City”: New Covenantalism in Hebrews’, The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (ed. Bauckham, Richard et al. ; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) 171 : ‘Perhaps the heavenly world is not so non-material as we thought.’ Cf. Moffitt, Atonement, 302 on the related issue of how Jesus, as a human being, could enter heaven: ‘It may be difficult for us as modern readers to grasp how mortal bodies could be transformed into incorruptible, glorious bodies with a kind of blood and flesh that could enter heaven … But this does not mean that such conceptions were not viable and intelligible in the ancient world (cf. Luke 24:39–40, 51; Acts 1:9–11).’

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40 Karrer, Hebräer 5,11–13,25, 167 considers this the closest extant parallel to our verse. In contrast to my suggestion above, Clines, D. J. A., Job 1–20 (WBC 17; Dallas: Word, 1989) 353 suggests identifying ‘the heavens’ with the heavenly beings.

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41 Newsom, C. A., Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice: A Critical Edition (HSS 27; Atlanta: Scholars, 1985) 93 , cf. 103.

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42 In the highly fragmentary 4Q402 4, 3–10, there is apparently a statute requiring angels not to be unclean. Gäbel, Kulttheologie, 423 and Calaway, J. C., The Sabbath and the Sanctuary: Access to God in the Letter to the Hebrews and its Priestly Context (WUNT ii/349; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013) 157–8 take this to indicate a concern that the heavenly sanctuary not be defiled. However, it could be, as Newsom, Songs, 157 argues, that the statute is specific to the angelic muster for eschatological battle (cf. lines 7–10).

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43 Moffitt, Atonement, 225–6 n. 20. Cf. Himmelfarb, M., Ascent to Heaven in Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) 22 ; Klawans, J., Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) 131 . Contra Moore, Repetition, 169 n. 90, the relevance of the 1 Enoch passages to Heb 9.23 does not depend on Hebrews conceiving of heaven as defiled by fallen angels. Instead, the parallel consists in the presupposition of the possibility of the heavenly sanctuary's defilement.

44 Those who highlight significant commonalities between Hebrews’ portrayal of the heavenly tabernacle and those of early Jewish apocalyptic literature include Eskola, T., Messiah and Throne: Jewish Merkabah Mysticism and Early Christian Exaltation Discourse (WUNT ii/142; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001) 202–11, 251–69; Alexander, P., Mystical Texts (CQS 7; London: T&T Clark, 2006) 139–40; Mackie, S. D., ‘Heavenly Sanctuary Mysticism in the Epistle to the Hebrews’, JTS 62 (2011) 77117 ; Moffitt, Atonement, 203–4, esp. n. 140; Barnard, J. A., The Mysticism of Hebrews: Exploring the Role of Jewish Apocalyptic Mysticism in the Epistle to the Hebrews (WUNT ii/331; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012); Ribbens, ‘Heavenly Cult’, 119–32.

45 As Moffatt, Hebrews, 131–2 suggests.

46 So Koester, Hebrews, 427: ‘Christ did not purify the heavenly sanctuary because he was bound to follow the Levitical pattern; rather, the reverse is true. Levitical practice foreshadows Christ's cleansing of the heavenly tent at the turn of the ages.’

47 So e.g. Eberhart, C. A., ‘Characteristics of Sacrificial Metaphors in Hebrews’, Hebrews: Contemporary Methods – New Insights (ed. Gelardini, G.; BIS 75; Leiden: Brill, 2005) 3764 . Cf. the fuller discussion in Eberhart, C. A., Kultmetaphorik und Christologie: Opfer- und Sühneterminologie im Neuen Testament (WUNT 306; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013) 131–56. Those who rightly critique this construal of Hebrews as deploying ‘sacrificial metaphors’ include E. W. Stegemann and W. Stegemann, ‘Does the Cultic Language in Hebrews Represent Sacrificial Metaphors? Reflections on Some Basic Problems’, Hebrews: Contemporary Methods – New Insights, 13–23; Gäbel, Kulttheologie, 20–1; Moore, Repetition, 154–5. Vanhoye, Prêtres, 235 shrewdly suggests that it is the earthly priesthood and sacrifices that are ‘metaphorical’, not Christ's, since they derive their meaning from Christ's rather than vice versa.

48 Cf. Radcliffe, T., ‘Christ in Hebrews: Cultic Irony’, New Blackfriars 68 (1987) 501 : ‘So it is not the case that Christ is merely metaphorically a priest; we all know that he was really a layman. It is rather the case that the old cult was merely metaphorically recreative … It is as if this cultic language had been awaiting its proper application, the act of real transformation to which it pointed but was unable to achieve.’

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49 Attridge, Hebrews, 261–2.

50 Loader, Sohn, 169–70; Backhaus, Hebräerbrief, 335–6.

51 Cf. Hughes, Hebrews, 381, who points out, against any anthropological reading of 9.23, that all such readings require ‘an identification between “the heavenly sanctuary”, or, as the next verse defines it, “heaven itself” into which the risen Christ has entered, and the community of the redeemed’.

52 Cf. Barnard, Mysticism, 95–109, esp. 97–8.

53 Hurst, Background, 38.

54 Spicq, Hébreux, ii.267.

55 Hurst, Background, 39; cf. Ellingworth, Hebrews, 477.

56 For a concise, illuminating discussion of pure/impure and holy/common as ‘distinct pairs of antonyms’, and of the relation of these concepts to the cultic inauguration described in 1 Macc 4.36–59, see Bauckham, R., ‘The Holiness of Jesus and his Disciples in the Gospel of John’, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) 254–62. My account of 1 Macc 4.36–59 is informed by his; see esp. pp. 257–8.

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57 Cf. Bauckham, ‘Holiness’, 260.

58 Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, 593. See esp. Num 7.84 LXX (cf. 7.88), which translates the construct phrase חנכת המזבח with ὁ ἐγκαινισμὸς τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου. In the words of both the Hebrew and Greek texts, the post-purification, post-consecration inaugural offerings are themselves the altar's inauguration in the strict sense.

59 My translation. Note that Hurst, Background, 39 mistakenly identifies the first verb as ἁγιάζω rather than ἁγνίζω.

60 Bauckham, ‘Holiness’, 260–1.

61 Caird, G. B., ‘The Exegetical Method of the Epistle to the Hebrews’, CJT 5 (1959) 44 .

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62 As Attridge, Hebrews, 262 n. 23 alleges, but see rightly deSilva, Perseverance, 312–13; cf. more broadly Moffitt, Atonement, 302.

63 I am very grateful to Simon Gathercole and Peter Gurry for their constructive comments on this essay.

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