Eric F. Mason and Kevin B. McCruden. Reading the Epistle to the Hebrews: A Resource for Students. Resources for Biblical Study 66. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011. 354 + xv pages.
First, I want to thank Eric Mason, Kathie Klein, and the Society of Biblical Literature for a review copy of this book.
This book is designed as a handbook that supplements the kinds of information normally found in commentaries. The work contains a collection of introductory essays on topics relevant to the study of Hebrews that go beyond the scope of issues covered in the standard critical commentaries. Most of the contributors to this volume are some of the leading experts on the book of Hebrews. The book was written for the advanced undergraduate student in mind, but the book can also be profitably used for graduate and seminary students as well.
In the introductory essay Mason groups the collection of essays under five general headings: 1) the conceptual and historical background (the essays by Gray, Thompson, Mason, and Moffitt); 2) the structure of the text (Koester, Gelardini); 3) emerging methodological approaches (Neyrey, Schenck); 4) theological issues (Matera, McCruden); and 5) reception history (Greer, Mitchell, Torgeson).
Patrick Gray’s essay, “Hebrews among Greeks and Romans,” argues that knowledge about the Greek and Roman milieu is important for understanding the book of Hebrews. He gives two reasons why one should study the Greek and Roman milieu, if the book was addressed to “Hebrews”: 1) it is by no means certain that the audience was predominantly Jewish-Christian; there are some indications that the author had a Gentile audience in mind; 2) even if Hebrews was addressed to Jewish-Christians, Jews by this time were widely dispersed throughout the Greco-Roman world; moreover, Hellenistic culture had fully permeated Jewish culture, even in Palestine (14–15). Gray then demonstrates how knowledge of such things as Greek and Roman language, rhetoric, philosophy, families, athletics, politics, and religious practices can help illuminate an understanding of Hebrews. While Gray’s essay certainly reflects his own interests from his dissertation, such as his discussions of superstition (19–20) and brotherly love (23–25), he gives a nod to the theories of other scholars.
The background of thought to Hebrews has been a highly contested issue in Hebrews’ scholarship. James Thompson, in his essay, “What Has Middle Platonism to Do with Hebrews?,” explores the extent to which Hebrews reflects Platonism. After briefly describing Middle Platonism, as depicted primarily in the writings of Philo and Plutarch (33–35), Thompson works his way sequentially through large portions of Hebrews highlighting numerous affinities of language and thought to Middle Platonic writings (35–51). Hebrews’ frequent comparisons between the heavenly and the earthly, the permanent and the temporal, oneness and multiplicity evoke the dualistic metaphysics of the Middle Platonists. While Thompson acknowledges that the author of Hebrews was not a full-fledged Platonist, he does conclude that the author does employ Platonic language and categories to express his convictions.
As the title, “Cosmology, Messianism, and Melchizedek: Apocalyptic Jewish Traditions and Hebrews,” suggests, Eric Mason considers the relationship between Hebrews and apocalyptic Judaism by examining three topics that Hebrews shares in common with the Dead Sea Scrolls (this essay is a revision of a 2010 article in Perspectives in Religious Studies). They share a similar cosmology which consists of angelic beings engaged in a heavenly liturgy around the throne of God in a heavenly sanctuary (56–60). Qumran messianism is harder to pin down, but the texts seem to project either a messianic priest figure, or at least a high priest who plays a prominent role in the eschaton (60–66). Hebrews depicts Christ as both high priest and Davidic Messiah (67–68). Some Dead Sea Scrolls portray Melchizedek as a heavenly angelic figure (68–74). Mason believes that the language of Hebrews 7:3 also points to Melchizedek as a heavenly angelic figure (74–76). This last point is highly contested, a fact acknowledged by Mason only in a brief footnote. While Hebrews also evinces significant differences from the Dead Sea Scrolls, these various affinities suggest that apocalyptic Judaism provides an important part of the author’s conceptual background.
In his essay, “The Interpretation of Scripture in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” David Moffitt first deals with some of the “contextual issues” regarding Hebrews’ interpretation of Scripture. He first discusses the complicated issue about the text that the author of Hebrews used. He notes that the author most likely used a version of the Septuagint, but the issue is further complicated by the fact that the Septuagint often differs from the Masoretic Text. The reason for this can be attributed either to the author’s translation practice or that the Greek text he was using was translated from a different Hebrew Vorlage than our current version of the Masoretic Text. Hence, identifying the precise text that the author used is extremely difficult. Moffitt concludes that the “better default assumption would be to take the author’s citations as renderings of the words of Scripture in the form that he and his original audience knew” (81). He then describes some of the Jewish interpretive practices that Hebrews uses such as pesher, qal wahomer, and gezerah shawah. The remainder of his essay illustrates Hebrews’ interpretation practice in four passages: the catena of quotations in 1:5–13, the quotation of Ps 8 in Heb 2, the quotation of Ps 110 in Heb 7, and the quotation of Ps 40 in Heb 10.
Craig Koester’s essay, “Hebrews, Rhetoric, and the Future of Humanity,” a revision of a 2002 Catholic Biblical Quarterly article (see also his commentary), illustrates the application of rhetorical criticism to Hebrews. As for the rhetorical genre, Hebrews does not neatly fall into either epideictic or deliberative rhetoric since it evinces features of both. Koester presents the rhetorical structure of Hebrews as follows: I. Exordium (1:1–2:4); II. Proposition (2:5–9); III. Arguments (2:10–12:27): containing a series of three arguments with transitional digressions; IV. Peroration (12:28–13:21); Epistolary Postscript (13:22–25). The bulk of the essay sets out to justify the proposed rhetorical structure. Along the way Koester also points out other rhetorical features of the text. Koester’s structure is not accepted by all scholars. In fact differing structural arrangements have been proposed by Walter Übelacker, Keijo Nissilä, Ceslas Spicq, Hans-Friedrich Weiss, Knut Backhaus, Lauri Thurén, A. T. Lincoln, and James Thompson. I wonder whether it would have been more instructive for a resource book like this to have a more general essay that surveys the differing proposed rhetorical structures, as well as other rhetorical approaches to Hebrews.
In “Hebrews, Homiletics, and Liturgical Scripture Interpretation,” Gabriella Gelardini is particularly concerned with how the Scripture quotations (she identifies 34 of them) contribute to an understanding of the structure, content, and genre of Hebrews. She identifies Hebrews as an ancient synagogue homily. She first gives an overview of the ancient synagogue’s origins, legal status, distribution, nomenclature, architecture, sacred geography, organization, and sociocultural and religious-cultic functions (123–126). She then describes the practice of the liturgical reading of Scripture (i.e., the Law and the Prophets) in ancient synagogues (126–130). The homily was intended to interpret and apply the Scripture readings for the audience. She identifies the two longest quotations, Ps 94:7–11 LXX and Jer 38:31–34 LXX, as key for understanding Hebrews. These two quotations, along with the remaining supporting quotations, address the theme of covenant breaking and covenant renewal, themes that would have been particularly pertinent for Tisha be-Av (which commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples) and Yom Kippur. She identifies a tripartite structure consisting of a two-part hortatory introduction (1–2; 3–6), a comforting middle part (7:1–10:18), and a two-part eschatological resolution (10:19–12:3; 12:4–13:25).
Jerome Neyrey offers the social-scientific contribution with his essay, “Jesus the Broker in Hebrews: Insights from the Social Sciences.” As the title indicates, the essay is concerned about Jesus as “broker” in Hebrews. Neyrey defines “broker” as “an abstract term that identifies the specific role of mediation between patrons and clients” (155). Brokerage can take place between mortals or between immortals and mortals. Neyrey briefly examines the nomenclature and function of patrons and clients in the Greco-Roman world and shows how this language is also used in Hebrews (146–152). Neyrey then turns to an examination of brokerage in the Greco-Roman world enumerating a host of terms describing intermediary figures (153). The latter half of the essay sets about answering a set of five questions. A person becomes a broker by being authorized, called, or appointed, as Jesus was (157). Brokers are successful when they belong to both the worlds of the patron and the client and are loyal and faithful to both, even as Jesus was (158–161). The necessity of Jesus’ brokerage is demonstrated by showing how his brokerage was unique and superior to other brokers (161–166). Jesus brokers several benefactions such as purification, atonement, sacrifice for sins, redemption, and perfection (166). Finally, Jesus receives honor, glory, and respect as payment for his services as broker (166–168). The contribution of this essay is that Neyrey offers new conceptual language by which to understand the mediatorial roles of Jesus in Hebrews.
Kenneth Schenck, in his essay, “Hebrews as the Re-Presentation of a Story: A Narrative Approach to Hebrews,” examines the underlying “story world” behind the discourse of Hebrews. While Schenck is mindful that discursive genres do not necessarily provide a “continuous, all-encompassing story” (174), he finds that “the categories of story can serve as very helpful heuristic devices” (174). Schenck notes that the author of Hebrews likely saw the stories of Jewish Scriptures as part of his own past, hence one cannot fully appreciate Hebrews “unless we understand the way its author merges the stories within the individual narratives of the Jewish Scriptures with his own story” (174). Schenck views Hebrews as “a rhetorical re-presentation of a story that the author holds in common with his audience to varying degrees” (175). He proceeds to examine Hebrews as a re-presentation of events, characters, and settings. The re-presentation of events includes selective stories from the Jewish Scriptures and events related to Jesus and the situation of the audience. While there have been various reconstructions of the situation of the audience, Schenck proposes that Hebrews was written as a consolation to a people who were troubled by the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (177). Hebrews also re-presents the character of Jesus by depicting him as a high priest. This depiction entails a re-presentation of earlier priests (Levitical priests, Melchizedek) in the story of Israel (180). Other characters include Moses, angels, the wilderness generation, Esau, and the “cloud of witnesses” of Hebrews 11. Hebrews also re-presents the settings of the story in terms of time (two ages) and space (heaven and earth).
In a nicely organized essay, Frank Matera discusses “The Theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews.” He begins by noting the alternation between doctrinal exposition and moral exhortation throughout Hebrews (190–191). Since Hebrews describes itself as a “word of exhortation,” it is best to see its doctrinal exposition as serving its moral exhortation. Matera first examines the expository sections (1:1–14; 2:5–18; 5:1–10; 7:1–10:18) to get at the author’s Christology and soteriology (191–198). He summarizes the overall movement of these sections as follows:’ “the eternal Son of God became lower than the angels (the incarnation) in order to become high priest who could atone for the sins of his brothers and sisters once and for all (the redemption)” (192). Matera next examines the hortatory sections (2:1–4; 3:1–4:16; 5:11–6:20; 10:19–13:17) to uncover the author’s ecclesiology and eschatology, which builds upon his Christology and soteriology (198–205). He summarizes it as follows: “The church is the eschatological people of God because it lives in the last days in which God has spoken through his Son. As the eschatological people of God, the church is a pilgrim people in search of a lasting city where it will find the eschatological rest into which Jesus, the ‘pioneer’ of its salvation (2:10) and the ‘perfecter’ of its faith (12:2), has entered” (204). Matera concludes with four ways in which the theology of Hebrews is significant for contemporary faith and theology.
In the other theological essay, “The Concept of Perfection in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” Kevin McCruden argues that perfection has a two-fold dimension in Hebrews for both Jesus and believers. First, Jesus’ perfection relates to his exaltation or glorification into the eternal presence of God, for it is his exaltation that enables Jesus a more perfect mediatorial role than that performed by human priests (215, 218). Second, Jesus’ perfection relates to the faithfulness that Jesus displayed in his earthly existence, beginning with his incarnation and continuing up to his suffering and death. His earthly existence was exemplified by obedience to God, solidarity with humanity, and self-giving towards others (219–224). With respect to believers, perfection has both a future and present dimension. First, perfection relates to the experience that “in the age to come . . . they inherit a kingdom that transcends all manner of corporeal existence . . . and enter fully into the glory of God’s transcendent presence” (225). Second, believers achieve perfection in this life when they experience direct access to God (226) that is made possible through Jesus’ own purificatory sacrifice.
In “The Jesus of Hebrews and the Christ of Chalcedon,” Rowan Greer discusses how Hebrews was appropriated during the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. Greer notes that the NT, and Hebrews in particular, present a “double judgment” about Christ: he “is both one of us and at the same time somehow identical with God” (233). The Arian controversy of the fourth century dealt with this theological puzzle. Greer focuses his analysis on how two theologians, Athanasius of Alexandria and Theodore of Mopsuestia, interpret Hebrews in different ways in order to counteract the Arian heresy. Their differing views set the stage for the Nestorian controversy of the fifth century; Cyril of Alexandria built upon Athanasius’ theology, while Nestorius did the same with Theodore’s theology. Greer describes the differences as follows: “Athanasius and Cyril focus upon the second person of the Trinity, the divine Word, as the sole subject in the incarnation, distinguishing his divine nature from the humanity that belongs to him not by nature but in virtue of the incarnation, often called the economy, that is, God’s final providential dispensation. In contrast, Theodore and Nestorius insist upon two natures in Christ that nonetheless are joined together in the one Christ” (234).
Alan Mitchell deals with a hot topic in Hebrews’ studies with his essay, “‘A Sacrifice of Praise’: Does Hebrews Promote Supersessionism?” Mitchell defines Supersessionism, when related to Christianity, as “Judaism is annulled or rendered useless because Christianity is placed above it and takes its place” (252). Mitchell gives five brief examples from early Church fathers illustrating supersessionism (252–252) and then identifies three types of supersessionism (253–254). Mitchell claims that supersessionism undercuts Christian theology and contributes to anti-Semitism (254). Mitchell notes that Hebrews’ use of synkrisis and a fortiori argumentation may lead to the impression that Hebrews is supersessionistic, but these rhetorical strategies do not necessarily imply that something bad is being replaced by something good. Mitchell analyzes three texts dealing with the priesthood of Christ (7:1–12) and the covenant (8:8–13; 10:1–10) and concludes that these texts are in fact not supersessionistic (258–263). He then proposes a new way forward, utilizing essays from Pamela Eisenbaum and Richard Hays (263–267).
Mark Torgerson, in his essay, “Hebrews in the Worship Life of the Church: A Historical Survey,” gives representative examples of how Hebrews has been appropriated in the worship life of the Church. Although Hebrews has not played a large role, it has had an influence. Hebrews certainly has influenced historical creeds and affirmations and confessions of faith (270). Hebrews has been the subject of many homilies, such as those of John Chrysostom (270–272). Hebrews has not had much influence on baptism, but has been appropriated in some baptismal homilies (272–273). Hebrews has been influential in eucharistic liturgies (273–277) and in the ordered ministry (particularly priesthood) of the Church (278–279). Hebrews also plays a significant part in lectionary use; many passages have become associated with particular days in the Church calendar (280–287). He provides a chart comparing the use of Hebrews in the Lectionary for Mass, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Revised Common Lectionary (283–286). Hebrews has also been the inspiration for some hymns (287–291). He provides a chart listing some of the more prominent examples. Naturally, Hebrews has been appropriated for a variety of other worship elements such as responsive readings, confessions, prayers, offerings, funeral services and so forth (291–293). Finally, Hebrews has been influential on visual art (293–296). The two most common themes are the story of Melchizedek and Jesus as high priest (here it would have been nice to have some pictures illustrating his examples).
Harold Attridge, in a concluding epilogue, summarizes and evaluates the essays in this collection, occasionally suggesting further avenues for research. The end-matter includes a composite bibliography, a list of contributors, and indices on ancient sources and modern authors.
Let me make a few observations about the collection. First, some of the essays will not be particularly new to seasoned Hebrews scholars (which is to be expected for an introductory level work). Two essays (Mason; Koester) are revisions of earlier essays, while other essays (Gray; Thompson; Gelardini; Schenck; McCruden) seem to arise out of earlier published work. The remaining essays, more or less, appear to be new contributions, although the topics may not be particularly new. To my knowledge the newest contributions are by Torgeson and Neyrey (although his essay was anticipated by deSilva).
Second, for a resource book, I would have expected some essays to be more introductory or general in nature. What I mean by this is that some of the essays do a good job acknowledging the work of others on the topic covered, while others do not. For example, as already noted, Koester’s proposed rhetorical structure is only one of several structures that have been proposed by scholars, and to my knowledge Koester’s structure is not widely embraced. Perhaps it would have been useful to indicate the theories of other scholars regarding the rhetorical structure of Hebrews. There have been a few social-scientific studies on Hebrews and Neyrey’s contribution only represents one example. For a resource book for students, it would perhaps have been useful to acknowledge other works that have been done from a social-scientific perspective. Hence, what I see this collection of essays accomplishing is giving a representative sampling of the types of critical issues and approaches that are pertinent to the study of Hebrews.
Third, the compilation of these essays allows students to explore a variety of perspectives regarding Hebrews. Some of the essays emphasize the Greco-Roman background (Gray; Thompson; Koester; Neyrey) of Hebrews, while others emphasize the Jewish background (Mason; Moffitt; Gelardini). Differences of opinion may be discerned between the essays. For example, is Hebrews best construed in light of Greco-Roman rhetoric (Koester) or as a Jewish synagogue homily (Gelardini)? Does 7:3 suggest that the author of Hebrews viewed Melchizedek as a heavenly, angelic figure (Mason), or is the language here reflective of a type of Jewish argument from silence (Schenck)?
Finally, I think that this book represents a fine collection of essays that could be used profitably as a supplemental text for a class on Hebrews. I could envision using this book in a semester-long class: one could assign a chapter a week from the book, which would become the basis of in-class discussion for that week. If I were teaching a class on Hebrews, I certainly would consider using this book for such a purpose. I heartily recommend the book.