Tuesday, April 6, 2010

McCullough's Survey of Research on Hebrews

McCullough, John C. “Some Recent Developments in Research on the Epistle to the Hebrews.” Irish Biblical Studies 2 (1980): 141-65; 3 (1981): 28-43.
John Cecil McCullough, an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, was professor of New Testament at Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon and later at Union Theological College and Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, and is (was?) editor of Irish Biblical Studies. His dissertation was on “The OT Quotations in Hebrews” and he has published several articles on Hebrews.
The purpose of McCullough’s article is to trace and assess the trends in Hebrews scholarship in the previous two decades.
Part I:
Authorship: numerous authors have been proposed over the years. In recent years scholars have proposed Apollos (Roncaglia; Spicq; Manson; Héring; Lo Bue), Priscilla and Aquila (Hoppin), and Barnabas (Robinson). A consensus has emerged that Paul is not the author, even among Catholic scholars who now suggest that Hebrews was written by one of Paul’s pupils (142).
Religious Background:
Philo: after examining the author’s “vocabulary, literary style, theological arguments, exegetical methods, schemes of thought, [and] psychology,” Spicq concluded that the author was heavily influenced by Philo and was probably his pupil who later converted to Christianity (143). Friedrich Schröger more cautiously suggested that Philo and the author of Hebrews had a common Alexandrian background (144). Sidney Sowers similarly claimed that the author came from the same school of Alexandrian Judaism as Philo (144). Ronald Williamson dismantled Spicq’s thesis of Philonic influence in a detailed study of the linguistic evidence, themes, ideas, and use of scripture (144-145).
Qumran: the discovery and publication of the Qumran scrolls brought new interest to the religious background of the book of Hebrews. Scholars began to note some important parallels between Hebrews and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Michel; Yadin) and to surmise that the addressees had some connection with the Essene community (Yadin; Kosmala). But by the early sixties scholars began to urge greater caution about seeing direct connections with the scrolls (Bruce; Coppens; Braun). It was more likely that Hebrews and the Qumran community shared a common cultural milieu (Flusser). (145-146)
The publication of fragments containing references to Melchizedek again prompted Yadin to posit a direct connection with Hebrews; he claimed the author was addressing converted Essenes. But again, other scholars were more cautious; the Melchizedek figure in the scrolls merely helps us understand the Jewish environment within which the author of Hebrews was working (Van der Woude; de Jonge; Fitzmyer). Other scholars do not think that one needs to appeal to the Qumran scrolls to understand why Hebrews referred to Melchizedek (Horton; McCullough; Buchanan). (146-148)
Gnosticism: Some scholars have claimed that Hebrews was written to oppose a type of Gnosticism (Perdelwitz; Bornkamm; T. W. Manson), while others have proposed that Gnosticism provided the thought patterns for the book (Käsemann). While there is little evidence that Gnosticism existed during the first century, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi scrolls have prompted scholars to look for early forms of Gnostic thought in Judaism. Some scholars have tried to trace Hebrews and Qumran within a Gnostic trajectory (Batdorf; Dey). (148-150)
Merkabah Mysticism: Some scholars have suggested that the religious background to Hebrews is the Merkabah mysticism of Jewish Apocalyptic (Hofius; Schenke; Williamson thought it possible). More research needs to be done before this connection can be made tenable (150-151).
Date and Destination: no clear census has emerged regarding the destination of the book. The terminus ad quem for the dating is fixed at 96 AD since Hebrews is utilized by 1 Clement. Scholars are also divided about whether 70 AD is a relevant date for Hebrews. Some scholars have argued for a date prior to 70 AD because the fall of the Jerusalem cultus would certainly have been mentioned (Robinson; Buchanan; Strobel; Bruce; Montefiore). (151-152)
Literary Genre: Some scholars have argued that the epistolary ending is not original to Hebrews (Thyen; Buchanan), while other have claimed that the typical greeting is now missing from Hebrews (Spicq; Marxsen). Renner suggested that Hebrews is a pseudepigraphal letter. The prevailing opinion is that Hebrews is a sermon. Thyen has argued that Hebrews is a sermon in the style of the Jewish Hellenistic homily. (152-153)
Literary Structure: In 1940 Leon Vaganay proposed an outline with five sections that evince a symmetrical pattern; the center section being the largest and thus the central theme of the book (153). Albert Vanhoye also presented a symmetrical structure by highlighting six literary devices that the author employed (154). James Swetnam offered an alternative outline based on content rather than literary criteria. While the literary structure is still up for debate, McCullough concludes that literary devices must be taken into consideration when discerning the structure of Hebrews, but content is “the final decisive factor in determining what outline the author followed” (156).
Part II:
Use of the OT:
Text: scholars generally agree that Hebrews quotes from the LXX, rather than from the Hebrew OT. Some have proposed that the author knew no Hebrew at all (Sowers; Nairne). The question then became, what version of the LXX did the author use? Some argued that the author utilized a text resembling Codex Alexandrinus (Bleek; Büchsel; Swete), while others argued for Codex Vaticanus (Leonard). Various scenarios have been proposed to explain the divergences of Hebrews’ quotations from any extant LXX text (Padva; Spicq; Thomas). Schröger concluded that many of the quotations are from a version known to us, four quotations are from a version unknown to us, and some quotations are due to the author’s own emendation of the text. Others have suggested that the author utilized a testimony book (Harris; Synge), a pre-Massoretic Hebrew text (Howard), a synagogue lectionary (Burch), or that simply the author had a lapse in memory (Grässer). Recent text-critical work in the LXX has demonstrated that Codices Alexandrinus and Vaticanus are just two versions that happen to survive; one should not expect the precise version which Hebrews utilized to also have been preserved. Also the author’s textual vorlage might differ from one OT to another, so that one must examine the textual tradition of each book individually (28-30).
Exegetical Methods: scholars have tried to discern the exegetical methods employed by the author of Hebrews. Some scholars have detected rabbinic methods (Padva; M. Barth et al), while others find Qumranic pesher exegesis (Gärtner). Scholars have also tried to explore the underlying attitude of the author towards the OT. McCullough explains that Hebrews does not reflect the rabbinic attitude which tended “to find a complete code of life to serve the needs of the Palestinian Jewish community” (32). Schröger argued that Hebrews displays a Qumranic approach which viewed the OT as a mystery (raz) which could only be interpreted correctly by a pesher which would be given to God’s chosen person at the right time, i.e., in the end time (32-33). Yet, while scholars note the similarities between Hebrews and pesher exegesis (e.g., Bruce; Kosmala), there is no evidence that Hebrews viewed the OT as a mystery which had to be deciphered (Coppens). According to McCullough, Philo “assumed texts have a twofold meaning, a literal meaning and an allegorical meaning” (33). Kümmel claimed that Hebrews unambiguously employed the allegorical method, while Vénard states that the author only used it in a limited way, while Sowers asserts the lack of any allegory in Hebrews (33). Hebrews’ approach to the OT is best described as typological, which finds parallels between the OT and the NT; the OT prefigures the NT and finds its fulfillment in it (34). Some scholars believed that Hebrews frequently employed typology (Bleek; Riggenbach; Delitzsch), and many acknowledge that it occurs at least some of the time in the book (Westcott; Moffatt; Spicq; W. Manson; Michel; Bruce; Goppelt). However, some scholars suggested that Hebrews sought a sensus plenior in the OT passages (Van der Ploeg), while others denied this (Grässer).
Individual Themes and Passages:
Covenant: there has been considerable debate over the meaning of diatheke in Hebrews. Diatheke can mean either “covenant” or “last will or testament” (35). In 13 of the 17 usages in Hebrew, diatheke appears to mean “covenant.” However, the four occurrences in 9:15-17 seem to require the connotation “last will or testament.” Quell claims that the author of Hebrew envisages both meanings, but in doing so he contradicts himself. Campbell, however, attempts to defend Hebrews, claiming that Greek wills were similar to the OT covenant (36). Others scholars have attempted to argue that one consistent meaning runs through the whole work. Some scholars claimed that the meaning is “covenant” throughout (Moulton; Westcott; Kilpatrick; J. Hughes), while others assert that “last will or testament” is the meaning (Riggenbach; Deissmann; Payne; Swetnam).
Hebrews 6:4-6: Some scholars have tried to soften the teaching of this passage (Spicq; Proulx & Schökel; Sabourin; Elliott). Others have tried to determine how the author came to this opinion that appears to go against the grain of other early Christian writings (Carlston; Buchanan).
This article provides a useful survey of the period covered.


  1. Do you yourself see Hebrews as containing pesher midrash? I am using 'pesher midrash' in the sense that it attempts to demonstrate the fulfillment of prophecy was occurring in the authors lifetime (an eschatological perspective is an important part of this sort of midrash).

    Also, do you agree with Susan Docherty that terms such as 'midrash' and 'pesher' are "indiscriminate and inaccurate" in reference to Hebrews?

  2. I will say that my current understanding is that Hebrews exhibits a type of Jewish exegesis that I would call midrashic. Hebrews employs such techniques such as "lesser-to-greater" (qal vahomer) arguments and word plays (gezerah shavah), for example. See Herbert Bateman's monograph, Early Jewish Hermeneutics and Hebrews 1:5-13 for a fuller discussion. I am not sure I would call it pesher, since--and correct me if I am wrong--pesher sees the meaning of an OT passage only in the present context and not in the original context. That is, the true meaning is not evident until someone has the hermeneutical key to unlock the meaning of the passage for the contemporary situation. I don't see Hebrews doing this, as the original OT context is also important for Hebrews.

    Currently, I am working through commentaries and will get to the monographs later. So, I have not had a chance to look at Docherty yet, so I can't address her argument fully. My sense is that she sees these terms as vaguely defined by most scholars and perhaps that is so. I glanced at her bibliography and she does not seem to deal with Bateman's monograph at all, which is very surprising, considering the fact that she is dealing with the use of the OT in Hebrews.

  3. Thanks for the reply. I have not fully read Docherty's book either, but from the pages I did read it seems she sees terms like 'midrash' and 'pesher' as too vaguely defined and so can mean widely different things to different people (which I would agree with to an extent).

    By the way, while I would say that Hebrews exhibits Midrashic exegesis, I think it is barking up the wrong tree to call it pesher midrash. Though, from what I understand, a few commentators on Hebrews have seen it as pesher (Kistemaker is one I think).

  4. I will read with great curiosity Docherty's book when I get to it. I am wondering what contribution she makes since so much has already been done on Hebrews' use of the OT.

    I will say that just because midrash has been vaguely defined, does not mean Hebrews isn't using it. I don't think one follows from the other. I sure hope she doesn't make that type of argument. Also, I am wondering if midrash should be broadly defined. It might be a word like "interpretation" or "exegesis" which obviously cover a wide range of approaches. I will have a better sense of all this once I get into the literature.