Friday, March 26, 2010

Hebrews Research in the Early to Middle Twentieth Century

Hillmer, M. R. “Priesthood and Pilgrimage: Hebrews in Recent Research.” Theological Bulletin 5 (May 1969): 66-89.

Melvyn R. Hillmer is Principal and and Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario. His 1966 Harvard Divinity School Th.D. dissertation was on “The Gospel of John in the Second Century.”

Hillmer sets out to survey Hebrews research since the appearance of Harris MacNeill’s monograph, The Christology of the Epistle to the Hebrews (1914). The essay focuses on four central themes of study: 1) the backgrounds of Hebrews and its literary relationship with other literature; 2) its interpretation of the Old Testament; 3) Christology; and 4) eschatology. Hillmer notes by general observation that a consensus seems to have emerged that Paul is not the author of Hebrews, but who the author is has been a matter of considerable conjecture, although Apollos seems to be the most heavily favored candidate (68). He also notes that the trend seems to be to view Hebrews more as a hortatory document than a theological one (68).

With regard to the backgrounds behind Hebrews, some scholars confidently assert Alexandrian Platonic influence (Moffatt; Scott), while others advocate for an orthodox Jewish background (Purdy; Burch). The relationship to Philo has received much attention; some scholars claim that Hebrews is heavily influenced by Philo (Spicq; Bristol; Montefiore), or at least Alexandrian Judaism (Cody), while others note the similarities between Hebrews and Philo but deny any direct influence (Michel; Käsemann; Koester). Some scholars see a direct connection between Hebrews and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Yadin; Kosmala), while others scholars reject any direct relationship (Coppens; Bruce). Hillmer (as does Bruce) concludes that the distinction between Judaism and Hellenism is a false dichotomy; Judaism was pervasively Hellenized, and this milieu provides the likely background for Hebrews. Some scholars have tried to make connections with Gnostic thought (Bornkamm; Manson; Käsemann), but as of this writing the study of the Nag Hammadi writings was in its infancy. (69-73)

With regard to the Old Testament, some earlier scholars assumed that Hebrews employs the same allegorical method as practiced by Philo (Moffatt; Scott; Kennedy). However, more recently, it is recognized that Hebrews utilizes a typological exegesis instead (73-74). This realization has led to fresh studies on Hebrews’ exegetical methods. For Caird, Hebrews regarded the old covenant as a foreshadowing of the good things to come, which finds its fulfillment in the new covenant inaugurated by Christ. Four themes in Hebrews find their basis in prototypes in the Old Testament: the doctrine of humanity, the promise of rest, the priesthood, and the sacrificial ordinances (74). Markus Barth studied the hermeneutical principles of Hebrews’ use of the Old Testament, which he argued was based more on pastoral concerns, rather than academic interests (75). Synge contends that Hebrews made use of a Testimony Book which already contained a selection of scriptural passages. He also sees a promise-fulfillment scenario in the book, with Jesus being the Fulfiller of the Scriptures. His thesis was rejected by Grässer and Koester (75).

There is a general consensus that Christology is at the heart of Hebrews’ message. However, there is no universal agreement about the underlying influence on the author’s Christology. Moffatt locates its origin in Hellenistic thought, while Käsemann sees connections with Gnostic ideas such as the “Redeemed redeemer” and the heavenly Anthropos. Manson, by contrast, sees the basis of Hebrews’ Christology beginning in “the Messianic terminology of Palestinian Judaism and then taking the vocabulary of the Jewish-Alexandrian school of Wisdom-theology” (78). While Hebrews employs a variety of expressions to refer to Jesus, it is clear that the high priesthood of Christ is the predominant christological conception. Some scholars find this idea as a development from Old Testament expressions (Nairne; Cullmann). Some scholars have attempted to find correlations with Qumran texts (Yadin; Kosmala), and in particular, those dealing with Melchizedek, while others have denied any association (Higgins). Hillmer suggests that the similarity in terminology indicates common traditions of a messianic high priest underlying Hebrews and other Jewish literature. At the same time, though, Hebrews has utilized these traditions in an original manner. (79-80)

There is also a revived interest in the eschatology of Hebrews which is replete with eschatological references (e.g., 2:3; 6:2; 9:28; 10:25-30; 12:27-29). Scott and Moffatt believe that the eschatological references derive from apocalyptic traditions and are inconsistent with the rest of the thought-world of Hebrews. Barrett, on the other hand, sees Hebrews as thoroughly and consistently eschatological in its orientation and this is acknowledged by other writers as well. Héring proposes that Hebrews evinces a combination of biblical eschatology and Platonic idealism. Carlston claims that there is an emphasis on realized eschatology in the book, while Dahl says that realized eschatology is experienced by the Christian through prayer and worship. (80-83)

In conclusion, Hillmer notes that the trend in recent years (that is the five or six decades leading up to 1969) has moved from viewing the book as primarily influenced by Alexandrian thought to seeing greater connections with Judaism and closer affinities with other early Christian writings. This trend has also led to a more positive evaluation of the book for modern readers. (83-84)

While Hillmer’s article is now over forty years old, it is still worth reading to get an overview of the trends in Hebrews research in the early to middle years of the twentieth century.

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