A slightly edited version of this review has appeared in Horizons: The Journal of the CollegeTheological Society 44.2 (December 2017): 513–14. Copyright: College Theology Society 2017. Used by permission.
Levitical Sacrifice and Heavenly Cult in Hebrews. By Benjamin J. Ribbens. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2016. Pp. XVII +297. $140.00.
In assessing Hebrews’ understanding of the relationship between the old covenant sacrifices and Christ’s new covenant sacrifice, many scholars conclude that Hebrews takes a negative view of the old covenant cult. Ribbens challenges this position by contending that Hebrews affirms the efficacy of the old covenant sacrifices while also asserting the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice.
Chapter 1 sets forth the need for this study. Some scholars have negatively evaluated Hebrews’ theology of sacrifice, claiming that Hebrews’ argument is self-contradictory and/or intentionally misinterprets the Septuagint. Ribbens’ survey of various proposals concerning the relationship between the old and new covenant sacrifices reveals a lack of scholarly consensus regarding Hebrews’ understanding of the efficacy of these sacrifices. This study attempts to remedy these defects.
In chapters 2–3 Ribbens attempts to situate Hebrews within its socio-religious context. Chapter 2 examines Second Temple Judaism’s understanding of the efficacy of sacrifice. Sacrifices were meant primarily to provide atonement, forgiveness of sins, and purification. Chapter 3 then considers the concept of a heavenly cult in Second Temple Judaism. The chapter focuses particularly on texts that describe a heavenly temple in which God dwells and angels function as priests. The earthly cult derived its legitimacy by properly imitating the heavenly cult.
Chapters 4–6 turn to an examination of Hebrews itself. In chapter 4, after dealing with the obligatory introductory matters, Ribbens turns to consider the possible conceptual background for Hebrews’ notion of a heavenly tabernacle. He rejects the Platonic/Philonic tradition in favor of the Jewish mystical apocalyptic tradition as the more likely background for Hebrews’ thought. After investigating several key passages in Hebrews, Ribbens contends that Hebrews follows a Day of Atonement pattern. Christ’s sacrifice is a process that begins with his passion on earth, but is not completed until Christ rises from the dead, ascends through the heavens, and enters the heavenly Holy of Holies as the heavenly high priest who offers himself as a sacrifice through the presentation of his own blood. Since the earthly tabernacle derived its validity by being modeled after the heavenly sanctuary, the same thing could be said about earthly sacrifices since they are patterned after Christ’s heavenly sacrifice.
Chapter 5 examines Hebrews’ view of the old covenant sacrifices. They are efficacious in that they provide atonement and forgiveness of sins. However, the author also critiques them for what they could not accomplish. They could not provide access to God, perfection, or redemption. Chapter 6, by contrast, enumerates the many salvific benefits that Christ’s new covenant sacrifice did accomplish. These benefits include atonement, forgiveness, purification, perfection, redemption, removal of sin, and cleansing of the conscience.
In chapter 7, in light of the results achieved in his study, Ribbens returns to evaluate the proposals surveyed in chapter 1 highlighting their inadequacies to account for the relationship between the old and new covenant sacrifices. He concludes the chapter by arguing that his study supports a more positive view of the old covenant sacrifices as sacramental, christological types. The old covenant sacrifices were external rituals which only derived their efficacy to achieve forgiveness and atonement by being linked proleptically to the efficacious sacrifice of Christ.
Ribbens writes with lucid prose and presents a well-crafted argument. His survey of the various scholarly proposals is clear and concise. He cogently develops his argument and keeps it tightly focused without getting sidetracked with peripheral issues. When assessing various interpretive options, he represents the views of others fairly while also charitably critiquing those that are inadequate. Ribben’s main contribution to the scholarly discussion of Hebrews is to get us to reconsider Hebrews’ attitude toward the old covenant sacrifices. Hebrews’ argument regarding sacrifices is neither self-contradictory nor does it mishandle the interpretation of the Septuagint. Hebrews instead offers a synkrisis which compares good versus better. While Hebrews views the old covenant sacrifices positively, it regards them as incomplete and anticipatory of the perfect, singular sacrifice of Christ which renders their observance no longer necessary. This monograph is more suited for graduate-level work and would be a valuable addition to any theological library.