Monday, March 30, 2009

A Critical Reading of Hebrews 4:2

Milligan, Wm. "Some Recent Critical Readings in the New Testament. II." Expositor. First Series, 7 (1878): 194-215 (especially 205-8).

Although Milligan deals with a number of NT passages in this essay, I will only consider what he says about Hebrews 4:2. The Authorized Version renders 4:2 as follows:

“For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.”

This translation is based on the variant reading συγκεκερασμενος, a nominative participle modifying λογος. There is another reading which takes the participle to be accusative (συγκεκερασμενους) modifying αυτους. The translation would thus read:

“not having been mingled by faith with those who heard it.” (205)

Milligan prefers this reading. According to the canons of textual criticism, the accusative reading is better attested by the manuscript evidence, and it is the harder reading, so Milligan is correct in preferring this reading. Milligan thus tries to make sense of this reading within the context of the passage.

The difficulty of this reading is that those who did not profit by the word were the whole congregation of Israel except Joshua and Caleb. These two were the ones who “heard.” Is it proper to speak of a multitude of people as “mingled with” the two? He rejects Alford’s attempt to view the passage, not in a historical sense, but a “categorical” one, “as descriptive not of any particular persons, but of a class of hearers” (205). Alford is not satisfied with this interpretation, and neither is Milligan. Milligan prefers to understand it historically.

Milligan goes back to 3:16 which most commentators interpret as a pair of questions: “For who, having heard did provoke? Was it not all who came out from Egypt by means of Moses?” Milligan instead takes the verse as an indicative sentence: “For some, having heard, did provoke: howbeit not all that came out from Egypt by means of Moses.” Thus Milligan interprets τινες, not as an interrogative pronoun, but an indefinite one. Milligan claims that the author, whom he takes to be Paul, wanted to soften the statement so as not to offend. By saying that “some” did provoke, the inference is that “some” were saved.

Milligan applies the same reasoning to 4:2. There were “some” who did not have faith, and there were “some” who listened and thus were saved. Milligan claims that the author “introduce[d] qualifying expressions into his charges, in order that he might thus win rather than repel, and might look at offenses from the most favourable, rather than from the most unfavourable, point of view” (207).

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