Saturday, March 12, 2011

Gurney on the Canonical Authority of Hebrews

Gurney, Joseph John. “On the Canonical Authority of the Epistle to the Hebrews.” Pages 1-39 in Biblical Notes and Dissertations, Chiefly Intended to Confirm and Illustrate the Doctrine of the Deity of Christ; with Some Remarks on the Practical Importance of That Doctrine. London: Rivington, 1833.

Joseph John Gurney (1788-1847) was a banker in Norwich, England and an evangelical minister of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

Many believe that the canonical authority of Hebrews rests on the question of whether Paul was the author of this epistle.  Gurney thus proceeds to argue for Pauline authorship of Hebrews. 

1) He states that 2 Peter 3:14-16 alludes to Paul’s letter to the Hebrews.  First Peter was written to the diaspora Jews (1:1), as was 2 Peter (3:1).  Gurney reasons that the epistle that Peter referred to was also written to Hebrews.  He claims that the whole argument of Hebrews corresponds to what Peter is writing in 2 Peter 3.  The “things hard to understand” (3:16) correlate to what Hebrews says in 5:11.

2) In the ecclesiastical tradition the Greek and eastern fathers are unanimous in affirming Pauline authorship.  Beginning from the Alexandrian fathers (Pantaenus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen) Gurney lists numerous eastern fathers who affirmed Pauline authorship.  Some of the Latin fathers (Caius, Tertullian, Irenaeus), however, did not affirm Pauline authorship.  However, from the fourth century on, the western fathers (e.g., Jerome, Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine) appear to be unanimous on Pauline authorship.

3) Gurney next considers the internal evidence: a) the few personal circumstances mentioned in Hebrews corresponds well with the history of Paul: the author displays intimate knowledge of the OT; he appears to be writing from Rome to Christians in Judaea (13:24); the mention of Timothy, who was a close associate of Paul’s (13:23); b) the author of Hebrews displays a similar disposition to that of Paul; c) the arrangement of the epistle into doctrinal and practical sections is similar to Paul’s writings [It should be noted that scholars today do not adhere to this simplistic structure of Hebrews anymore]; d) much of the theological language in Hebrews finds correlations with the Pauline writings.

Gurney next addresses the objection that Hebrews evinces a superior Greek style to that of Paul’s letters.  Some early fathers tried to account for the differences: Hebrews was translated from Hebrew into Greek by Luke or Clement, or that someone else recorded the sentiments of Paul in his own language.  Gurney rejects both of these explanations.  Hebrews is not a translation: a) there is no ancient evidence of any Hebrew original; b) the author makes frequent use of paronomasia, or play on words; c) the author quotes and bases his arguments on the Greek translation of the OT; d) the writing evinces a fluid Greek style.

Nevertheless, Gurney argues that Hebrews stylistically shows similarities to Paul’s writings: a) the use of Hebraisms and Jewish idioms; b) the frequent separation of premises from conclusions with parenthetic discourse; c) similarities in certain peculiarities of grammatical construction; d) modes of expression peculiar to Paul are also found in Hebrews; e) the use of words which are common to Paul and Hebrews but found nowhere else in the NT.  He argues that Paul was much more careful in the construction of this letter than in his other letters.  He concludes that if Paul was the author then one cannot hesitate to ascribe the character of divine inspiration and canonical authority to the work.

Gurney argues, however, that independent of the question of authorship, Hebrews can be considered inspired and canonical.  First, it was written during the apostolic age.  Evidence for this includes: a) Clement of Rome appears to have made use of Hebrews; b) The early date can also be ascribed to the fact that the author appears to say that the sacrificial cult was still functioning at the time of the writing of Hebrews [this argument can no longer be sustained as scholars have found instances in which writers referred to sacrificial cultus in the present tense even after the destruction of the Temple]; c) The mention of Timothy; d) Its appearance in the earliest existing versions of the NT; e) the audience received their instructions from the immediate followers of Christ (2:3).

Second, the epistle was addressed to the Christian church in Palestine: a) The title “To the Hebrews” is found in all ancient versions, manuscripts, and editions.  This is confirmed by the testimony of the early church fathers; b) The whole tenor and argument of the work evinces intimate knowledge of the Jewish law.  The Jerusalem church was held in particular respect and authority by the rest of the Christian world, so it could only take a person endowed with divine inspiration to address such a church with such a doctrinal treatise.

Third, Hebrews’ inspiration and authority is grounded upon “its own internal excellence and scriptural weight” (36).  Hebrews reveals truths not found in any other NT writing.

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