R. J. McKelvey. Pioneer and Priest: Jesus Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Eugene, Oreg.: Pickwick Publications, 2013. Pp. xxiv + 250.
First, I want to thank William Poncy and Wipf & Stock Publishers for a review copy of this book.
R. J. McKelvey’s book is the newest contribution to the study of the Christology of Hebrews. He gives particular attention to Jesus’ dual role as pioneer and high priest. These two roles are inextricably linked to one another and are crucial for understanding the flow of the author’s argument in Hebrews.
Chapter 1 deals with the circumstances surrounding the writing of Hebrews. McKelvey believes that the audience was likely connected with a local synagogue and that they were having trouble fully appreciating their Christian identity. They had experienced some manner of persecution. The audience consisted of Christian believers who were ethnically mixed, but were predominantly Jewish. He believes that Christology is the key for identifying the problems that the audience was dealing with. While Hebrews argues that Christ’s work has nullified the Levitical system, it is not an anti-Jewish work. Hebrews is written from the perspective of realized eschatology. The pioneer motif goes along with the pilgrimage motif of the book, and it is also connected with the priestly motif. McKelvey notes the oral and homiletic character of the book. He notes that all we can know about the author is that he was a highly educated Hellenistic Jew who was converted to the Christian faith. The time and place of writing is unknown, but he proposes that it was written from Rome sometime before the Neronian persecution of the sixties.
Chapter 2 briefly surveys recent scholarship on the book of Hebrews, giving particular attention to Christology, and more specifically to the treatment of Jesus’ role as Son, pioneer, and high priest. McKelvey surveys some of the major commentaries of the last twenty-five years (Attridge, Koester, Ellingworth, Lane, deSilva, Thompson) and a few prominent monographs (Guthrie, Mackie, Käsemann, Schenck). He concludes that scholars have recognized the importance of Christ’s role as high priest in Hebrews, but that they have given less attention to his role as pioneer. McKelvey hopes that his study will remedy this deficiency.
Chapter 3 turns to an examination of Heb 2:10–18, the first passage which introduces Jesus as pioneer (2:10) and high priest (2:17). The familial language (“sons”) of 2:10 indicates the solidarity of Jesus with humanity. Jesus’ role as pioneer puts him in proximity to both suffering and exaltation. God has delegated leadership to his Son to lead humanity to glory in the heavenly world. This journey theme anticipates the pilgrimage motif of chapters 4 and 11. Believers get a glimpse of their future glory in the exaltation of Christ. Jesus was made perfect through suffering. The predominant idea of perfection in Hebrews is that of completion or fulfillment of a desired goal, but it may also include eschatological, vocational, moral and/or cultic associations. While Christ is perfected through suffering, believers are perfected through the work of Christ on their behalf. McKelvey also explores the question of when Christ became high priest. He finds the answer in the Day of Atonement analogy. On the Day of Atonement the high priest’s animal sacrifice and the offering of the blood in the sanctuary is one continuous action. Likewise, Christ’s death on the cross and the offering of his blood (metaphorically) in the heavenly sanctuary is one continuous action. In Hebrews heaven and earth are one great temple: the earth is the outer court where Christ’s sacrifice takes place, and heaven is the inner sanctuary where Christ makes his offering.
Chapter 4 focuses on the pioneer and pilgrimage motifs in Hebrews. The pilgrimage motif is prominent in Heb 3:7–4:11 where the author urges the audience not to repeat the example of the wilderness generation who did not enter God’s rest because of their failure to heed God’s word. McKelvey sides with scholars who view the rest in Hebrews as entry into heaven, rather than a reference to life on a renewed earth. Rest in Hebrews is both a future and present reality. While Hebrews puts a greater emphasis on the futuristic aspect of rest, this rest is also accessible for believers to enter into in the present. Jesus as the pioneer is at the heart of the pilgrimage motif. The Christian’s entry into rest parallels Christ’s entry into the divine presence and is made possible by his entrance into the heavenly realm. The pioneer motif continues with the transitional section of 4:14–16 which forms an inclusio with 10:19–22 to frame the central doctrinal section of Hebrews. Hebrews’ depiction of Jesus’ ascension collapses the death, resurrection, ascension, and session of Christ into one continuous uninterrupted action modeled on the high priest’s entry into the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement. While Hebrews appears to have a multi-tiered heavenly cosmology, cosmology is not the focus of Hebrews. The author visualizes the cosmos as a temple with the uppermost part as the holy of holies. McKelvey notes that the pioneer and high priest motifs combine in 6:19–20. Christ is not the high priest who enters alone into the sanctuary, but is the leader of a company who follows him. McKelvey concludes the chapter with an examination of the pilgrimage motif in Heb 11 in which the heroes of the OT times looked beyond their current situation to a better future promised to them.
In chapter 5 McKelvey treats the topic of Jesus as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Jesus’ human experience qualified him to become high priest. His prayer in 5:7, perhaps evoking Gethsemane, shows that Jesus acquired a capacity for compassion and his prayer becomes a model for his followers to emulate (4:14–16). McKelvey claims that the pioneer and high priest motifs combine in 5:9 where Jesus is described as the “source” of eternal salvation. McKelvey believes that the author of Hebrews introduced the figure of Melchizedek in order to solve the practical problem of Jesus’ lineage being from the tribe of Judah. The author found in Melchizedek a convenient example of priesthood that predated the Levitical priesthood and combined both royal and priestly roles in one person. He also found him to be greater than Abraham due to the fact that he blessed the latter and received tithes from him. The author of Hebrews may have also introduced Melchizedek because of his familiarity with extra-biblical Jewish traditions that viewed Melchizedek as a heavenly or angelic being. McKelvey helpfully lists a number of differences between 11QMelch and Hebrews, but he is sufficiently impressed with various affinities between the two texts that he argues that Hebrews must have been acquainted with these other biblical traditions. He comes up short of saying that Melchizedek is an angelic figure in Hebrews; the author was cautious about exalting Melchizedek too much. He notes that normally a person without an ancestry or genealogy was considered a nobody, but the author was able to turn the silence of Scripture to his advantage.
Chapter 6 deals with questions about the sanctuary in Hebrews. McKelvey gives a nice overview of the various scholarly opinions on why the author talked about the tabernacle and not the temple. He favors the view of Steve Motyer who argues that the author was making an indirect attack on the temple and its cultus. A direct attack would have been counterproductive. McKelvey makes a good case that when the author was discussing the tabernacle, he had the temple in mind all along. McKelvey then discusses the possible influences on the author’s view of the heavenly sanctuary. On the one hand, there appears to be Hellenistic (Platonic and Stoic) influences which viewed the entire cosmos as a temple. Heaven is the holy of holies and earth is the forecourt. The joining of heaven and earth to form one great temple provides an ideal backdrop for the author’s Day of Atonement analogy. On the other hand, there also appears to be the influence of Jewish apocalyptic, which believed in a heavenly sanctuary which was superior to the earthly sanctuary. Eventually, the belief emerged that this heavenly sanctuary would replace the earthly sanctuary. Hence, the spatial contrast of above/below became the temporal contrast of present/future. These various cosmologies are reworked in Hebrews from by the author’s Christian perspective.
Chapter 7 investigates the confusing language about the heavenly sanctuary and tent in Hebrews. McKelvey concludes that the “sanctuary and true tent” in 8:2 refer to the same thing: the heavenly sanctuary in its entirety. In 9:11 the “greater and more perfect tent” refers to the whole heavenly sanctuary, including the outer and inner compartments, earth and heaven, with the curtain removed, thus opening the way for believers to seek help from their heavenly high priest. In 9:24 ta hagia refers to the holy of holies, the topmost part of heaven, which Christ entered after passing through the lower heavens. McKelvey also explores the difficult language of 9:23 which states that the heavenly things needed to be cleansed. He surveys several proposals for explaining this language, but he concludes that all of them contain difficulties.
Having explored the heavenly sanctuary in the previous two chapters, McKelvey then turns to Christ’s work in the heavenly sanctuary in chapter 8. The heavenly sanctuary is where Jesus is enthroned at the right hand of God; the throne room is the holy of holies. Hence, Jesus has direct access to God to make intercession on behalf of humanity. Although Christ’s intercession is mentioned explicitly only once in 7:25, it is implied in the many references to Christ’s entering the heavenly sanctuary and in the repeated exhortations to the audience to draw near to God. Christ’s intercession is ongoing and it may include the forgiveness of sins for God’s people. McKelvey also suggests the possibility that Jesus’ parousia evokes the image of the reemergence of the high priest from the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement to the expectant crowd awaiting him, thus indicating the acceptance of the sacrifice that was made on their behalf.
Chapter 9 highlights the practical consequences of Christ’s work in the heavenly sanctuary. The parallel passages, 4:14–16 and 10:19–22, urge the community of believers to draw near to God in prayer and worship. According to McKelvey, these two passages portray Christ as the pioneer who opens the way to the presence of God, and as the high priest who welcomes his suppliants. Believers can approach God with confidence because of the knowledge that Christ partook of human nature, experiencing weakness and temptation, and hence is able to sympathize with human beings. The pioneer motif continues through chapter 11 to 12:1–3, where the athletic metaphor is used to depict Jesus as running the race appointed to him by God and as the forerunner who opens a new way into God’s presence. Here Jesus is more than just an exemplar of faith; he is the one who initiates faith and brings it to full completion.
Chapter 10 focuses upon Heb 12:18–24. In this passage Mount Sinai, representing the old covenant, is contrasted with Mount Zion, representing the new covenant. The scene at Mount Zion evokes the image of the assembly of pilgrims in Jerusalem at festival time. McKelvey convincingly argues that in this scene, the tabernacle has been replaced by the temple. The Christian’s pilgrimage, associated with the tabernacle, has come to its completion upon their arrival at the heavenly temple. The passage implies that the worship on earth is merely a foreshadowing of the worship continuously offered to God in heaven. Angels lead the celebration marking the arrival of the pilgrims. The assembly of the firstborn is enrolled in heaven, marking the completion of their pilgrimage. God the judge sits upon his throne in the heavenly holy of holies indicating that the barriers to his presence have been removed and he is accessible to all. Jesus, having led many sons to glory, now stands among the congregation of his followers.
Chapter 11 concentrates on Heb 13:9–14, which is the author’s final challenge to his audience. The author once again utilizes Day of Atonement imagery, but here the claim is made that Christ made his offering for the sins of the world, not on holy ground, but unholy. McKelvey surveys the various scholarly options for explaining the author’s command to go to Jesus “outside the camp.” He concludes that the most natural interpretation is that the author is urging his audience to leave behind the institutions and customs of Judaism. Once again, the pioneer/pilgrimage motif emerges as the author urges his audience to reaffirm their commitment to the pilgrim people of God by following Jesus outside the camp.
McKelvey has given us a fine monograph on the Christology of Hebrews. While seasoned Hebrews scholars may not find much new in this book, McKelvey does offer occasional fresh insights into the text. While scholars have readily recognized the importance of Jesus’ role as high priest, his role as pioneer has not received as much attention. McKelvey demonstrates that there is an inextricable link between Jesus’ dual role as pioneer and high priest. McKelvey’s book is both scholarly and yet accessible. He demonstrates a broad knowledge of Hebrews scholarship as he interacts with many of the most important scholarly works on Hebrews. He has an ability to lay out clearly and succinctly the various interpretive options for the many cruces interpretum of Hebrews. He writes in a readable style that makes his book accessible to the pastor or informed lay person. He transliterates Greek and Hebrew words and he provides brief summaries at the end of each chapter. The end matter includes some interesting and useful appendices. Appendix A discusses the meaning of archegos, prodromos, and aitios, while appendices B, C, and D discuss respectively the motifs of pioneer, high priest, and heavenly sanctuary in the Hebrew Bible and extra-biblical literature. The book also contains three indices on ancient documents, authors, and subjects.
One minor criticism is that he appears to have confused the rhetorical divisions of the book. On page 21 he says that the exordium functions as the narratio for the rest of the homily, but then on the next page he states that the narratio (1:5–4:13) follows the exordium. On page 45 he identifies 2:17 and 3:1 as the propositio which introduces the main argument, but these verses are located in the section he earlier identified as the narratio. Since this book is a monograph and not a commentary, McKelvey does not treat every passage with equal depth. While he occasionally touches upon chapter 1, it is surprising that he does not give a more sustained discussion of this chapter since his book is about the Christology of Hebrews. It would have been interesting to see how McKelvey views how this chapter functions within the pioneer/high priest trajectory that he traces in the rest of the book. Finally, I will say that his discussion of the heavenly sanctuary left me with some questions. If the author of Hebrews is working with a cosmos-as-temple model and an earthly-sanctuary/heavenly-sanctuary model, how are these models interrelated within the book of Hebrews? If the heavenly sanctuary does not have any compartments, how do we reconcile this with the notion that Jesus passed through the various levels of heaven in order to enter into the holy of holies of the highest heaven? Where then does the author conceive that the veil was located: between heaven and earth, or between the holy of holies of the highest heaven and the lower heavens? Despite these concerns, McKelvey has given us a very fine study on the Christology of Hebrews.