Per Hebrews 1:1-2, how is the new revelation less "fragmentary and varied" than the older one?:

Heb 1:1 [ISV] God, having spoken in former times in fragmentary and varied fashion to our forefathers by the prophets, Heb 1:2 has in these last days spoken to us by a Son whom he appointed to be the heir of everything and through whom he also made the universe.

I, for one find the NT every bit as complex and convoluted as the OT to the point where it seems like an impenetrable "closed book" in so many ways. In fact, the ones to whom he was writing had to have a dumbed down version provided because they were too stupid (due to failure to do crossword puzzles?) to grasp what the author considered "the basic truths of God's message" which apparently included things that are actually a bit complex:

Heb 6:1 [ISV] Therefore, leaving behind the elementary teachings about the Messiah, let us continue to be carried along to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead actions, faith toward God, Heb 6:2 instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

The whole scroll is, to my mind very intricate. So what point is he trying to make about the NT vs the OT in the first verses?

Am I the only one that finds the whole of the scriptures to be complex and convoluted?


The word translated as "sundry times" in the KJV:

πολυμερῶς (μέρος) adv. (Diod S 5, 37, 2; Plut., Mor. 537d; several times in Vett. Val. [index III]; Jos., Ant. 12, 54) of πολυμερής, ές (Aristot.; Plut., Mor. 427b; 757d; PGM 13, 304; Wsd 7:22; Ar. 13, 5 body consists of ‘of many parts’; Tat. 15, 1 the soul is composite; s. also Porph., Sent. 34) of prophetic writing, in various parts w. πολυτρόπως=‘in various ways’ (the two words together also Maximus Tyr. 1, 2b; 11, 7a) Hb 1:1 (on the alliteration cp. the beginning of Philo, περὶ μετανοίας; for extreme fondness of π sounds s. e.g. Gorgias 11, 11). Many render in many ways (L-S-J-M cite Plut., Mor. 537d in support, but this pass. refers to the numerous aspects of Thersites’ deformed body, whose various parts are described in Il. 2, 217–19) so NRSV: ‘in many and various ways’. If ‘many ways’ in such rendering refers to a variety of Scripture passages, the translators have the support of the Vulgate: multifariam. But to avoid a suggestion of banality, it is best to render along the line suggested above. Also, the rhetorical structure of Hb requires some preparation in the prol. for the numerous reff. to the OT.—DELG s.v. μείρομαι II. M-M.

Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 847). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The word translated "in divers manners" in the KJV:

πολυτρόπως adv. (πολύτροπος ‘various, manifold’; Philo, Aet. M. 129; Geopon. 9, 11, 4; 4 Macc 3:21 v.l.) fr. πολύτροπος (Hom.+; PFlor 33, 15; Job 5:13 v.l.; 4 Macc; ApcMos 24; Philo, Vi. Mos. 1, 117, Dec. 83; Jos., Ant. 10, 142) pert. to a variety of modes of expressing someth., in many ways (w. πολυμερῶς, q.v.) Hb 1:1.—DELG s.v. τρέπω. M-M.

Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 850). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Voting to close as unclear because nothing in those verses says it was simpler. – curiousdannii Jan 30 '17 at 14:38
  • @curiousdannii Edited to correct what I see as a technicality. OP apparently used "simple" as the opposite of "varied". – Susan Jan 31 '17 at 6:13
  • @Susan We had a long chain of comments (which I guess have been deleted) where the OP stubbornly stuck with "simpler". But I guess that doesn't matter since they quit the site. – curiousdannii Jan 31 '17 at 6:17
  • @curious Ah, right you are. That's obnoxious, but since he/she is gone and there's a reasonable underlying question I'd still favor changing it and leaving it open, but if you or others feel strongly otherwise, that's fine. – Susan Jan 31 '17 at 6:20
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    @curiousdannii FWIW, the issue identified in the question -- however we regard the manner in which it was framed -- is one that elicits sustained attention from many (possibly all!) commentators. This suggests to me that the question is both real and valuable (as my answer implies), so also worth leaving open. Just my £0.02. – Dɑvïd Jan 31 '17 at 11:11

I think the question arises out of a dubious translation, and I'm not sure what accounts for the ISV's almost unique offering of "fragmentary" here.1 Even so, there is something here worth probing, although the way the question is framed partially obcures this. The central question (slightly tweaked for clarity) is:

[OP] ...what point is [the author of Hebrews] trying to make about the NT vs the OT in the first verses [of the book]?


In fact, the book of Hebrews begins with the phrase in question. It's first three words are:

Πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως...
Polymerōs kai polytropōs...

Since OP has already provided full lexical entries for these key (and resonant) terms, that need not be repeated. It is worth supplementing this with a couple other items that provide some semantic clarity. First, is the brief entry in Moulton & Milligan's (that's the "MM" with which OP's lexical entries conclude) The vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyri... (1914), p. 527:

πολυμερῶς ... denotes "in many portions" as distinguished from πολυτρόπως, "in many manners"...

with brief citations of their sources corroborating this claim. This has often been discussed by Hebrews commentators. And the older discussions by, e.g., B.F. Westcott or James Moffat have not really been superseded.2 Westcott offers the most insight via patristic commentary, but Moffat's brief reflection (see his p. 2) on the import of the phrase is worth quoting at length:

The writer does not mean to exclude variety from the Christian revelation; he expressly mentions how rich and manysided it was, in 24. Nor does he suggest that the revelation ἐν προφήταις was inferior because it was piecemeal and varied. There is a slight suggestion of the unity and finality of the revelation ἐν υἱῷ, as compared with the prolonged revelations made through the prophets, the Son being far more than a prophet; but there is a deeper suggestion of the unity and continuity of revelation then and now. Πολυμερῶς καὶ πολυτρόπως really "signalises the variety and fulness of the Old Testament word of God" (A. B. Davidson). On the other hand, Christ is God's last word to the world; revelation in him is complete, final and homogeneous.

The Contrast

As Moffat's comment makes clear, then, the essential contrast with 1:2 between the poly~/poly~ character of revelation through multiple prophets (and at multiple times) ἐν τοῖς προφήταις, with a singular revelation through one "source", "a son" ἐν υἱῷ. The claim here then is not so much one of simplicity over complexity, but singularity as against multiplicity.

Two other considerations reinforce this observation. First is the structure of the "letter" to Hebrews itself. Each of its main sections is designed to contrast the (singular) Son with the variety of precursors in previous ("old") revelation:

|    |    Hebrews    |       Contrast/Compare        |
| 1. | chs. 1-2      | Jesus v. Angels               |
| 2. | 3:1 – 4:13    | Jesus v. Moses, Joshua, Aaron |
| 3. | 4:14 – ch. 10 | Jesus & Melchizedek           |
| 4. | chs. 11-13    | Outcome for life of faith     |

Of course, some nuance could be added to that rudimentary structure, but it serves to show the essential contrast of Jesus, "the Son", with any of the exemplars that went before.

There is a further parallel to this line of thought in 2 Peter 1:19-21, which provides the same claim in miniature. Peter has been speaking of eyewitnesses at the moment of Jesus' "transfiguration", and goes on to say, as a result:

19 So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.... 20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

This gives us pretty much the same contrast as Hebrews 1:1-2 -- that is, prophetic revelation of old culminates in the singularity and certainty of revelation to through Jesus.


There still might be something to be said for the superiority of simplification here. This is, after all, part of Jesus' own logic in his instructions on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:7-8):

And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words....

However, perhaps closer still to the sort of "simplification" in mind in Hebrews 1:1-2 is that asserted by Josephus in identifying only "twenty-two books" of the Jews,3 in a famous passage in Against Apion, 1.37-38:

37 Naturally, then, or rather necessarily – seeing that it is not open to anyone to write of their own accord, nor is there any disagreement present in what is written, but the prophets alone learned, by inspiration from God, what had happened in the distant and most ancient past and recorded plainly events in their own time just as they occurred – 38 among us there are not thousands of books in disagreement and conflict with each other, but only twenty-two books, containing the record of all time, which are rightly trusted. [John Barclay translation]

It is not just the author of the letter to the Hebrews, then, that sees simplification from multiplicity to be something commendable. Of course, Hebrews reduces the "manifold" revelations of antiquity to the singular revelation of the Son, whereas Josephus praises the twenty-two Jewish holy books against "the thousands of books in disagreement and conflict" of the pagans -- but the rhetorical effect is the same.


  1. Although, to be fair, F.W. Farrar, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (Cambridge University Press, 1888), p. 52, does opine that:

    ...[t]he nearest English representative of the word is "fragmentarily," which is not meant as a term of absolute but only of relative disparagement. It has never been God's method to reveal all His relations to mankind at once. He revealed Himself "in many portions."

    It is perhaps telling that the New English Bible (1970) had "in fragmentary and varied fashion", but the 1989 revision ("Revised English Bible") changed that to "in many and varied ways".

  2. See B.F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews: The Greek Texts with Notes and Essays (Macmillan, 1892), pp. 4-5; James Moffat, A critical and exegetical commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (ICC; T & T Clark, 1924), pp. 2-3. Modern commentators repeat much of this same information: see, e.g., Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews (NIGTC; Eerdmans, 1993), p. 91, or Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary (NTL; Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), pp. 64-66.

  3. Josephus's "twenty-two books" have been the subject of much discussion. See, for orientation, the comments of Sid Leiman (from Josephus, the Bible, and History, ed. by Louis H. Feldman & Gåohei Hata [Brill, 1989]); also (out of many!), D.L. Christensen, "Josephus and the Twenty-two-book Canon of Sacred Scripture", JETS 29 (1986): 37-46.

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I don't see a problem. Hebrews starts by saying (Hebrews 1:1-2) that, over the centuries, God had spoken to his people through prophets, each prophet telling something different to other prophets. Now, Hebrews says, God has spoken through his son and his heir. Much of the theology in Hebrews is very different from that we find in the gospels or in Paul's epistles, but these verses simply say that God spoke through Jesus, something not inconsistent with the gospels or Paul's epistles.

Verse 6:1 should be read in the context of Hebrews 5:12-14:

Hebrews 5:12-14: For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
Hebrews 6:1: Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto maturity; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God

In 5:12-14, the author compares his audience to babies, who must be taught before they can teach, and who need milk, not strong meat. In Hebrews 6:1, he tells the 'babies' go on to maturity, by leaving (but not abandoning) the basic teachings they have so far learnt, such as repentance, faith towards God, baptism and so on, so that they can progress in their faith.

This lesson on Hebrews 6: 1-6 says that two foundations of the Christian faith here are repentance of dead works and faith toward God. The writer wants to get into some serious theological discussions with them about their problems, and he is frustrated that they really are not even ready to hear it. But nevertheless he is going to tell them what they need to hear anyway.

The New Testament need not be seen as overly complex. Just remember that each book was written by a different author, who had a different way of explaining things and, sometimes, a somewhat different view of theology. So rather than trying to harmonise Hebrews with, say, Mark's Gospel, accept that they were written by different authors for different purposes and with different messages. Then you can read Hebrews on its own merits and find what the author is really saying.

Far from saying the ones to whom he was writing had to have a dumbed down version provided because they were too stupid to grasp what the author considered "the basic truths of God's message", the author was acknowledging that they knew the basics, but needed to move on, to a more mature knowledge of God.

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