Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ebrard's Commentary on Hebrews

Ebrard, John H. A. Biblical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, in Continuation of the Work of Olshausen. Translated by John Fulton. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1853.

Johannes Heinrich August Ebrard (1818–1888) was professor of theology at Zürich (1844) and Erlangen (1847-1861).

Ebrard’s commentary begins with a brief introduction setting Hebrews within the larger biblical story and a consideration of the occasion that gave rise to its writing.  Traditional introductory matters are relegated to an appendix in the back of the commentary.  Ebrard does not consider Hebrews to be an ordinary epistle, but more along the lines of a theological treatise.  Nevertheless, it is addressed to a specific group of readers, more likely to a circle of individuals rather than to an entire church.  The audience was comprised of Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem.  They belonged to a later generation that had not witnessed the ministry of Jesus.  Ebrard supposes that this group had been excluded from the temple and the temple worship. 

The epistle was written sometime after Paul’s arrest in 58 and before the beginning of the Jewish War in 66.  The book still speaks of the sacrificial ritual in the present tense.  The church had already experienced some hardships: certain leaders had already been martyred, they had experienced the loss of possessions, and some believers had been imprisoned (13:7; 10:34).  Ebrard narrows the writing of the epistle to either the summer of 64 with the breakout of the Neronian persecution or in 62-63 after the death of James (likely the one mentioned in 13:7).  It is likely that Timothy was imprisoned (13:23) with Paul when he visited him at Rome and this supposition also supports a date around 62-64.

The difference in style from Paul’s letters led some church fathers to conjecture that Hebrews was translated from Aramaic into Greek, but Ebrard rightly notes that the Greek style is so fine that it most likely was composed in Greek originally.  Ebrard weighs the external and internal evidence for authorship.  The eastern church generally regarded Hebrews as Pauline, while the western church did not.  The contrasting testimonies do not cancel each out, though; the testimony of the eastern church should be weighed more.  Ebrard next considers the internal evidence of doctrine, diction, and style and concludes that while the spirit and doctrine of the epistle is Pauline, the diction suggests it does not come from Paul.  After weighing various theories of authorship Ebrard concludes that “Luke worked out the epistle for Paul, and as in his name, not however in Rome, where perhaps he himself might have been involved in the procedure against Paul, but in another place in Italy, somewhere in the neighborhood of Theophilus.  When the work was finished, the news reached him that Timothy had been set free in Rome” (426).

The commentary itself is a verse-by-verse exposition.  The commentary demands considerable technical skill on the part of its readers since ancient languages are not translated.  Ebrard’s interpretation of some key passages will give us a glimpse into the kinds of exegetical decisions he makes:

In 1:3 ἀπαύγασμα denotes the light that has radiated from another light, but becomes an independent light.  In 2:5-9 Ebrard interprets Ps 8 anthropologically—all things are not yet subjected to humanity.  At 2:9 he prefers the more difficult reading of χωρὶς θεοῦ.  At 2:16 ἐπιλαμβάνεται means “to assist” and not “to assume the nature of.”  In 3:3 κατασκευάσας refers to Christ as “the founder of the household to which Moses belonged as part or member.”  At 3:5 τῶν λαληθησομένων refers to the revelations that God intended to give after the time of Moses.  In 4:10 Ebrard takes the minority view that the expression εἰσελθὼν εἰς τὴν κατάπαυσιν αὐτοῦ refers not to the believer in general, but to Jesus.  At 5:7 Ebrard construes the passage as follows: “He prayed to be preserved from the death which threatened him, and was heard and saved from the fear of death.”

On the controversial passage of 6:4-6 Ebrard believes that the passage “declares the possibility that a regenerate person may fall away.”  In 7:26 the expression κεχωρισμένος ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτωλῶν means that Christ was untouched by sin, and does not refer to his departure from the world.  In 9:14 διὰ πνεύματος αἰωνίου refers to Jesus’ own spirit, that is, his disposition of mind or heart.  At 9:16-17 διαθήκη means “covenant” and not “testament.”   At 10:20 Ebrard construes the passage to mean that the killing of Jesus’ body corresponded symbolically to the rending of the veil.  At 12:2 the expression ἀντὶ τῆς προκειμένης αὐτῷ χαρᾶς indicates the heavenly joy as the reward for enduring the cross.  At 13:10 the “altar” refers to the holy supper.

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