Albert Vanhoye. A Different Priest: The Epistle to the Hebrews. Translated by Leo Arnold. Series Rhetorica Semitica. Miami: Convivium Press, 2011. Paperback, 450 pages.
Vanhoye was Professor of New Testament Exegesis at the Biblical Institute in Rome and Secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. He was appointed Cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006. Vanhoye is one of the most prolific authors on the book of Hebrews. His seminal work on the literary structure of Hebrews in 1963 is still influential today. He has produced many other books and articles on Hebrews.
This commentary is part of the Rhetorica Semitica Series and was produced in collaboration with the International Society for the Study of Biblical and Semitic Rhetoric. As expected, then, Vanhoye subjects the book of Hebrews to rhetorical analysis. He believes that Hebrews is a homily that was delivered to several communities by an itinerant preacher (19). The book preserves one instantiation of this sermon to a specific community, as indicated by the epistolary ending of 13:22–25 which was attached to the homily. Vanhoye claims that Hebrews utilizes biblical or Semitic rhetoric which is vastly different from Classical Greco-Roman rhetoric. He notes some differences: 1) In Greco-Roman rhetoric one announces the subject and then treats the themes in the order that they were announced. Hebrews, by contrast, because of its penchant for chiastic structures treats the themes in reverse order. 2) Greco-Roman rhetoric recommends the avoidance of verbal repetitions. Hebrews, by contrast, frequently uses verbal repetition to mark out literary units by the process of inclusion (20). 3) Greco-Roman rhetoric places the most important elements at the beginning and end of a composition, and the less important ones in the middle. Hebrews employs a concentric structure which places the most important elements in the middle (440–41). Hebrews also makes frequent use of synonymous and antithetical parallelism (441). Vanhoye claims that Hebrews does not conform to any of the three genres of classical rhetoric (i.e., forensic, deliberative, epideictic).
Chapter 1 presents a general outline of the composition. Vanhoye proposes the following structure: The sermon begins with an exordium (1:1–4) and concludes with a final invocation and doxology (13:20–21), and a dispatch note (13:19, 22–25). The main body is divided into five parts (1:5–2:18; 3:1–5:10; 5:11–10:39; 11:1–12:13; 12:14–13:18). Each part is preceded by an announcement of the subject (56–57). Vanhoye’s literary skill is on display in this chapter as he shows how key words help to set off boundary divisions in the text while at the same time indicate how the different sections relate to one another. One may quibble with the specific divisions such as his breakdown of chapters 8–10, or whether 12:14 really marks the beginning of the fifth part of the discourse, but his analysis gives a good sense of the overall argument of the book.
Hebrews begins with a presentation of traditional Christology. Jesus was glorified as the Son of God after his suffering in solidarity with humanity (chapters 1–2). Jesus thus became the ideal mediator between God and humanity (2:17). The author then deals with his priestly Christology at length. First, he shows the continuity with the Old Testament by demonstrating that Jesus was faithful like Moses (3:1–2) and that his priesthood has similarities to the Aaronic priesthood (5:1–10). Second, he highlights the differences and demonstrates the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood in the great doctrinal section of 7:1–10:18. Doctrine and ethics are not distinct from one another as the author intersperses his exposition with hortatory passages. The great doctrinal section prepares the way for the final chapters which are primarily exhortation.
Vanhoye disputes those who would argue that the epistolary section begins at 13:1. While he acknowledges that the change of rhythm at the beginning of chapter 13 is indisputable, he argues that this chapter is an integral part of the author’s argument (54–56). I tend to see 12:29 as the ending of the sermon proper with some general exhortations and comments attached to the end. 12:29 seems to me to be a good way to end a sermon, and the concluding section (12:25–29) begins with a warning to heed “Him who is speaking” (τὸν λαλοῦντα) which corresponds nicely with the opening exordium which declares that “God has spoken” (ὁ θεὸς λαλήσας), thus forming an inclusio.
Vanhoye proceeds immediately to a section by section analysis of Hebrews. One will look in vain for a treatment of standard introductory issues such as authorship, recipients, provenance, date, occasion, and the like, as usually found in commentaries. Each section of Hebrews is subject to a three-fold analysis: Composition, Biblical Context, and Interpretation (these last two elements are sometimes combined). Under Composition Vanhoye does a detailed analysis of the rhetorical structure and other literary issues. Under Biblical Context he treats intertextual issues, analyzing how Hebrews relates to the rest of the biblical canon. Here is where he deals with the numerous quotations and allusions in Hebrews. Under Interpretation he presents a sense of the overall flow of thought in the section treated and deals with critical issues as they arise. This part is more like a running exposition rather than a verse-by-verse analysis. It is impossible of course to cover the entire commentary in this review, so I will highlight certain key passages to give a sense of the types of exegetical decisions and interpretive comments that he makes.
At 1:6 when the author of Hebrews speaks about the introduction of the firstborn into the world, Vanhoye argues that the author is not referring to the incarnation, but to the resurrection and glorification of Christ (81). Commentators are divided over whether the passage refers to Jesus’ incarnation, exaltation, or second coming. In the quotation of Ps 44 LXX in 1:8–9 he views ὁ θεός as a title referring to the divinity of Christ. The phrase Ὁ θρόνος σου ὁ θεός does not mean “your throne is God.” In its original context it was used hyperbolically of the Israelite king, but when “[a]pplied to the risen Christ, the statement loses its hyperbolic character and becomes the expression of genuine reality, for the reign of Christ is not situated on the earthly level but on the fully divine one” (84).
At 2:3 Vanhoye believes that the beginning of the announcement of salvation began, not with the public ministry of Jesus, but after his resurrection, for it was then that God made him Lord and Christ (97). However, the title “Lord” is applied to the earthly Jesus in 7:14, so Vanhoye may not be right about this.
At 3:1 Vanhoye appeals to Malachi 2:7 stating that the title “Apostle” is equivalent to the Greek word aggelos, messenger. Since the author had already demonstrated how Jesus was superior to the angels in chapter 1, he tried to avoid confusion by using an equivalent term (125).
Vanhoye argues that 4:10 is not a gnomic statement about the believer in general, but that it refers specifically to Jesus (142). Vanhoye is certainly in the minority with this view, but notable scholars such as Harold Attridge and David deSilva hold out for the possibility of a Christological reading of the passage. A Christological reading of this passage is certainly consistent with other passages in Hebrews that talk about Christ’s entry into heaven (6:20; 9:12, 24).
On 5:2 Vanhoye makes the following interesting statement about the verb μετριοπαθεῖν: “The preacher did not want to ascribe compassion for sinners to the high priests of the Old Testament, which is nowhere found in it; he reserved that compassion for the new high priest; to the high priests of old he merely ascribed something approaching it” (161).
On 5:7 Vanhoye correctly states that εὐλαβείας refers to Jesus’ piety and not to Jesus’ fear of death (165). How was Jesus’ prayer heard? Vanhoye states that “the will of God consisted in granting Jesus the most perfect reply possible to his prayer: complete and definitive victory over death, by means of death itself” (166).
I found Vanhoye’s treatment of 6:4–6 disappointing. He seems to suggest that the persons in view in this passage are genuine Christians, although he never explicitly states this. These persons experience a “culpable fall” but “the author does not specify the nature of this fall” (189). Vanhoye seems to view this passage as a rhetorical device (190), but it is not clear to me whether he believes that “falling away” is a real or hypothetical possibility. In light of the history of interpretation of this most controversial of passages, I would have expected a much fuller treatment of this passage.
At 7:3 Vanhoye interestingly remarks that Melchizedek is not a prefiguration of the preexistent Son of God, nor the incarnate Son of God, but “is the prefiguration of the risen Christ, for the resurrection is a new creation, in which neither human father, nor human mother, nor genealogy have any part” (210).
At 7:11 Vanhoye states that the verb ἀνίστασθαι suggests an allusion to the resurrection (213). I have not found many scholars who have supported this contention, but a few notable scholars have allowed for this possibility (Craig Koester, Luke Timothy Johnson, Peter O’Brien). At 7:16 Vanhoye remarks that the “power of an indestructible life” occurred at the moment of Jesus’ resurrection (214).
In 7:26 the expression κεχωρισμένος ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτωλῶν has been taken either with the previous adjectives to refer to ethical separation, or with what follows to refer to spatial separation. Vanhoye takes the latter view, applying it to the glorified Christ. He explains that “In his earthly life, Christ was not ‘separated from sinners’, he accepted contact with them and even sought it out, for he had ‘not come to call the just, but sinners’” (219). At 7:27 Vanhoye makes the interesting comment that the author employs a different word for offering a sacrifice, ἀναφέρειν, which is more appropriate in a passage describing the glorified Christ (220).
On 8:2 Vanhoye believes that the “sanctuary” and the “tent” refer to two distinct things and not to the same reality (242–43). At 9:11 he will go on to argue that the “tent” refers to the glorified body of Jesus (276–77). While some scholars take “tent” in a metaphorical sense, Vanhoye appears to be unique by attributing it to the glorified body of Jesus. Most scholars seem to take it to refer to the heavenly forecourt or to the sanctuary as a whole.
In 9:14 the expression διὰ πνεύματος αἰωνίου has been variously interpreted as a reference to: 1) Christ’s internal disposition, 2) Christ’s divine nature, or 3) the Holy Spirit. Vanhoye rejects the first two options and favors the third (282–83). His view, that the expression is used as a contrast to the fire of the altar in the sacrifices of the Old Testament, has found few followers (283–84).
Vanhoye argues that διαθήκη has the sense of “testament” in 9:15–17 (267). The author has exploited the multivalency of this Greek term (289). Vanhoye points out that the notion of “inheritance” was prevalent in both the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants (267). Christ’s death not only procured forgiveness of sins, it obtained an eternal inheritance. Vanhoye remarks, “Christ has not only saved and redeemed us, he has acquired inestimably good things for us by his death. In the perspective of the New Testament, the action of ‘saving’ and of ‘redeeming’ corresponds to the departure from Egypt, obtaining ‘the inheritance’ corresponds to the entry into ‘the land of promise’” (290–91).
At 12:2 Vanhoye notes that the phrase ἀντὶ τῆς προκειμένης αὐτῷ χαρᾶς can be construed in one of two ways: 1) Jesus renounced the joy and chose the cross; 2) Jesus suffered the cross in order to obtain the joy. Both interpretations can find correlations with other passages in Hebrews and so Vanhoye leaves the matter undecided (368).
At 12:14 Vanhoye takes the view that “seeing the Lord” refers to Christ, and not God (387). At 12:24 Vanhoye rejects the interpretation that sees Abel’s blood as crying out for vengeance, while Christ’s blood brings mercy. He states, “This interpretation is attractive, unfortunately, it does not fit the immediate context, which does not speak of mercy, but of authority and severity” (395).
At 12:25 Vanhoye takes the minority view that “he who warned on earth” refers to Moses, while “he who warns from heaven” refers to Christ (396). Vanhoye even argues that the “voice” in 12:26 refers to Christ and not God. He explains, “It is the glorified Christ that the author ascribed, at the beginning of his homily, the final upheaval of earth and the heavens: ‘like a garment you will roll them up’ (Heb 1,12). Creator of heaven and earth as Son of God (1:1), the glorified Christ will be the eschatological judge of ‘the universe’ (Acts 17,31)” (396).
Finally at 13:10 Vanhoye argues that the “altar” does not refer to the Eucharistic table, but to the cross of Jesus, while the “eating” alludes to the Eucharistic table. The logic of 13:10–12 is hard to follow, but Vanhoye explains it succinctly: “[S]ince Jesus died in a situation that corresponds to the prohibition in Leviticus (Lev 6,23; 16,27), ‘those who pay worship at the tent do not have the right’ to ‘eat from this altar’, that is, they do not have the right to take part in the sacrificial meal associated with the cross, the ‘altar’ of the sacrifice of Christ. Attachment to former observances in worship in incompatible with sharing in the ‘Supper of the Lord’ (1Cor 11,20)” (415).
While Vanhoye’s commentary does not lack for erudition, the commentary is designed for a more popular audience. Footnotes are sparse and interaction with secondary literature or ancient sources is kept to a minimum. Greek and Hebrew are used sparingly and always given in transliteration. The one-page bibliography contains a highly selective listing of a few commentaries in various foreign languages. The commentary does contain an index of authors, but it would have been helpful also to include an index of scriptures used.
I did find the author’s treatment of passages a bit uneven. While some passages were dealt with in greater detail, other passages were treated more sparingly. For example, while Vanhoye devotes about a page to the textual variant in 9:11, he never even mentions the important textual variant at 2:9. While Vanhoye’s treatment of 9:11–14 encompasses about 18 pages, he devotes little more than one page to the highly controverted passage of 6:4–6.
Vanhoye’s most important contribution in this commentary is his analysis of the rhetorical structure of Hebrews. While this information can be found in some of Vanhoye’s other works, this commentary allows us to see how Vanhoye uses the rhetorical structure of the book to shape his interpretation of the book. This commentary is useful for helping one to get a sense of the overall flow of Hebrews’ argument. Vanhoye’s articulation of the differences between biblical and classical rhetoric is also a helpful corrective. Naturally, if one is looking for a more detailed analysis of the Greek text and an exploration of the various interpretive options on key passages, one should turn to other more critical commentaries.