Friday, May 31, 2013

Hebrews Carnival May 2013

Gene Green gives some brief recommendations on commentaries on Hebrews (as well as other NT books).

James McGrath has some ramblings about "He Learned Obedience" in Hebrews 4.  He also has some musings on Christ's Elementary Word in Hebrews 6.

Matthew Montonini draws attention to a George B. Caird Video Clip which briefly shows Caird lecturing on the book of Hebrews.  Caird was originally slated to write the replacement volume on Hebrews for the ICC series, but he died before completing it.  Since then, the volume has been assigned to Philip and Loveday Alexander.  The first volume is expected to come out this fall.

Review of Kuma, Centrality of Blood in Hebrews

Hermann V. A. Kuma. The Centrality of Αιμα (Blood) in the Theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews: An Exegetical and Philological Study. Lewiston, N.Y. : Edwin Mellen Press, 2012. Pp. x + 422.

First, I would like to thank Edwin Mellen Press for a review copy of this book.

According to the blurb in the back of the book, “Dr. Hermann V. A. Kuma is the Director of Multi-Ethnic Ministries at the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Manhasset, New York, and is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  Dr. Kuma holds a Ph.D. in New Testament Language and Literature from the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.”  This book is ostensibly based on his doctoral dissertation submitted to the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary.

Chapter 1 briefly introduces the purpose and methodology of his study (pp. 1–4).  He states that the problem is that despite the centrality of the theme of blood in Hebrews, there never has been a thorough study of this theme.  He seeks to rectify this problem by investigating thoroughly the role and significance of blood in the theological argument in Hebrews using a philological and exegetical approach.  He, however, never states his thesis in the introduction leaving the reader wondering what his argument will be and the particular contribution his study will make.

Chapter 2 contains a review of literature on the topic of blood.  In the first part he surveys literature from the late nineteenth century up until the mid-twentieth century (pp. 6–34).  He discerns three major schools of thought regarding the blood of Christ.  The first views the shedding of Christ’s blood as the releasing of life for the benefit of others.  The second views the shedding of Christ’s blood as referring to the death of Christ in its soteriological or redemptive significance.  The third group sees more ambivalence or ambiguity in the meaning of blood, as it may denote both life and death.  Kuma claims that this third view becomes the prevailing view after the 1950s thus putting an end to this aspect of the blood debate.  The second part surveys general studies on blood in the NT after the 1950s (pp. 35–51), while the third part surveys studies more specific to Hebrews since the 1950s (pp. 51–78).  These studies note the more multifaceted nature of the symbolism of blood terminology (p. 50).  The terminology of blood is linked to various themes in Hebrews, but most seem to further some understanding of the Christology or soteriology of the book (pp. 76–78).  Kuma does not really explain how these earlier studies are inadequate other than that they were limited in scope and thus there is a need for a more comprehensive investigation of the topic (pp. 78–81).  Once again, Kuma leaves the reader wondering what his specific contribution to the discussion will be.

Chapter 3 deals with the significance of blood in ancient near eastern and Old Testament contexts.  Kuma begins by briefly surveying the significance of blood in ancient near eastern contexts (pp. 83–96).  Kuma concludes that sacrifices were intended for food for the sustenance of the anthropomorphic deities (p. 168), but blood itself plays no significant role in sacrificial rituals (p. 94, 168).  Understandably, this section was relatively brief, given the scope of Kuma’s project, but I think a more in-depth exploration of sacrifice in ancient near eastern contexts is warranted if he is going to make a broad claim about the role of blood in these sacrifices.  By contrast, blood plays a significant role in the OT cultus.  Kuma briefly discusses the role of blood in pre-Israelite stories (that is, in the primeval history; pp. 97–100).  Surprisingly, Kuma gives little attention to the prohibition of eating of blood in Gen 9:4.  He then examines, in turn, the role of blood in the ritual impurity of bodily emissions in Lev 15 (pp. 100–106), in the prohibition against eating blood in Lev 17 (pp. 106–18), in the Day of Atonement ritual and the various other blood sacrifices (pp. 118–41), in rites of purification and consecration (pp. 142–46), and in covenantal ceremonies (pp. 147–63).  He also briefly discusses the problem of bloodshed and blood-guiltiness in the OT (pp. 163–66), and the view of blood by the eighth-century prophets (pp. 166–68).  Blood thus plays a multifaceted role within the life of ancient Israel.  Blood was symbolic of both life and death, and it could defile or cleanse (p. 172).  The shedding of blood was the means of atonement and was at the heart of the sacrificial system, consecration rites, and covenant-making ceremonies.

In chapter 4 Kuma examines the use of blood language in the context of the NT world (pp. 175–242).  He broadly surveys blood language in the Jewish Apocrypha, OT Pseudepigrapha, Qumran literature, Philo, Josephus, Rabbinic literature, the Greco-Roman context, and in the NT itself.  In the conclusion, he oddly restricts the use of blood language to five major categories, even though he had identified other usages (p. 243):
            1) Blood is used in the sense of life/death/murder.
            2) Blood is used in the context of cult.
            3) Blood is used to designate humanity.
            4) Blood is used in the symbolic context.
            5) Blood is used purely in the physiological sense.
In his survey, he also identified blood as referring to family relationships, but perhaps he is subsuming this category under “humanity.”  Likewise, Kuma identifies blood language in contexts of ritual defilement or pollution, but perhaps he has subsumed this category under “cult.”  The general pattern of usage is also found in the NT, but derives its origin in the OT (pp. 243–44).  Kuma asserts that the author of Hebrews found the multivalency of blood language a convenient “medium for expressing and encapsulating the work of Christ in the epistle” (p. 244).  Since Kuma covers so much ground in such a few pages, his analysis of blood language strikes one as a bit superficial, and surely some of the passages he cites could fall under more than one category.  For example, the murder of another human being certainly brings defilement, and the use of blood in cultic context surely has in view a more literal physiological sense as well.

Kuma’s study culminates in chapter 5 where he investigates the use of blood terminology in Hebrews.  After giving a brief overview of the argument of Hebrews (pp. 245–52), Kuma proceeds to the heart of his project: giving a detailed analysis of every passage that is pertinent to the study of blood terminology in Hebrews (2:14; 9:7; 9:12; 9:13–14; 9:18–22; 9:23; 9:24–28; 10:4; 10:19–25; 10:29; 11:28; 12:4; 12:24; 13:11–12; 13:20–21).  For each passage Kuma provides the Greek text with his own original English translation.  He then discusses exegetical considerations for each passage before concluding with a discussion on the significance of “blood” in the text.  In his summation, Kuma says that blood “constitutes the medium of power” (p. 346).  It gives access to God, sanctifies/consecrates, cleanses/purifies, inaugurates the new covenant, effects perfection and brings about “decisive purgation” (αφεσις; 9:22).  The author also demonstrates the superiority of Christ’s blood to the blood of animals, and he makes a strong connection between blood and life (pp. 346–47).  According to Kuma, “the death of Christ is not the focus of the author of Hebrews.  His chief interest is life, which is the result of Christ’s death” (p. 347). 

Chapter 9 concludes with a summary of his results and some implications for future study (pp. 351–62).  End matter includes a bibliography and an authors’ index.  One particular weakness of Kuma’s study is his heavy dependence on English-language works.  For example, Kuma does not utilize any of the major German commentaries and he uses only a handful of German and French articles.  An index of biblical and extra-biblical passages would also be helpful.  Edwin Mellen press only sent me a “review” copy, so I am not sure if the various typos throughout the text are corrected in a more final edition.  One prominent error is that in the introduction and conclusion, Kuma claims that are 31 verses containing the word “blood” in Hebrews, whereas in the main body of the book, he states there are 21 verses.

Although Kuma is not the best stylist, his book is still very readable and the presentation of his argument is very clear.  He provides summaries throughout the book to help the reader draw together the results from his longer, more detailed discussions.  Kuma’s book appears to be the most comprehensive treatment of blood language in Hebrews.  He provides a literature review of the major discussions of blood in the NT and Hebrews and he has gathered together numerous passages from comparative literature.  I found his distinction between ancient near eastern and Old Testament attitudes towards blood very helpful.  His highlighting the multivalent meanings of blood in Hebrews and comparative literature is also useful.  While one may not agree with all of Kuma’s exegetical decisions, since sometimes he adopts a minority opinion on certain passages, readers should derive some benefit from perusing his monograph.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review of Lamp, The Greening of Hebrews?

Jeffrey S. Lamp. The Greening of Hebrews?: Ecological Readings in the Letter to the Hebrews. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012. Pp. xii + 134.

First, I want to thank James Stock of Wipf and Stock Publishers for a review copy of this book.

With our emerging consciousness of the importance of environmental stewardship, it is no surprise that an emerging field within biblical studies is ecological hermeneutics.  The Society of Biblical Literature held a series of Consultations on Ecological Hermeneutics in 2004–2006, out of which was published Exploring Ecological Hermeneutics (edited by Norman C. Habel and Peter Trudinger).  Another collection of essays, Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical, and Theological Perspectives, emerged from a collaborative research project at the University of Exeter (the book was published in 2010).  David Horrell, professor at Exeter and one of the editors of the preceding volume, is one of the leading voices in ecological hermeneutics, publishing in 2010 two books on the topic: The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology and Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in an Age of Ecological Crisis.  To this growing body of literature Jeffrey Lamp, Professor of New Testament at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa Oklahoma, has contributed this ecological reading of the book of Hebrews.

In the introduction Lamp indicates that the book began as a series of papers given at SBL conferences.  I personally had attended some of these paper presentations.  Lamp states that given the uncertainty surrounding the circumstances of the writing of Hebrews, it gives him the freedom to engage the text itself (pp. 2–3).  Ecological hermeneutics is intentionally an ideological reading of texts that seeks to hear the suppressed voice of Earth “in, through, or even against the text” (p. 3).  Lamp chose to do ecological hermeneutics on Hebrews because it seems to give greater significance to the heavenly realm as over against the earthly realm.  He states “if an ecological hermeneutic . . . can produce plausible readings that argue for the integrity and intrinsic value of Earth in such a presentation, then it may reasonably do so in less apparently hostile biblical texts” (p. 4).

On pages 4–5 Lamp lays out a definition and six principles of ecological hermeneutics that emerged out of the Earth Bible Project.  Since then, these principles have undergone revision.  Lamp lays out three criteria that will guide his reading of Hebrews: 1) Suspicion: traditional readings of the text are inherently anthropocentric; humans sees themselves as a separate order of being with respect to the non-human order of creation; 2) Identification: seeking to empathize with the non-human created order; humans must recognized kinship with the earth; 3) Retrieval: seeking to discern how creation speaks in the text (p. 6).  His criterion of suspicion will be tempered by three other methodological approaches: the use of intertextuality, consideration of the canonical context, and limited theological readings (p. 7).  Lamp rigorously applies these criteria in the studies that follow.  Lamp concludes the introduction by laying out the contours of the book.  The book is neither a commentary, nor a systematic theology or ethic of creation care, nor an exercise in traditional exegesis, but simply a series of seven studies that will employ the ecological hermeneutic (pp. 8–9).

Chapter 2 is entitled “Creational Christology: Recovering the Christological Voice of Creation (Hebrews 1:2–3a).”  Lamp begins with the criterion of suspicion: the voice of Earth has been ignored by both the biblical author and later interpreters.  Creation is merely a datum in the author’s christological formulation (pp. 11–12).  He then applies the criterion of identification: the quotation of Ps 8 in chapter 2 suggests that the Son shares the same material substance as human beings who were birthed from the Earth; hence the incarnation is one of the strongest affirmations of the intrinsic worth of human beings and creation (pp. 12–13). Lastly, he applies the criterion of retrieval: creation can teach us about the person and work of the Son.  The depiction of Wisdom in Wisdom of Solomon 7:22–8:1 shares similarities with the depiction of the Son in Hebrews 1:2–3a.  The relationship of these two passages to one another suggests the following: a) Earth and humans have a common origin in the agency of the Son and hence is also an object of divine benevolence as human beings are; b) the incarnation embodies the common experience of Earth and humans, including the common experience of suffering; c) Earth and humans share a common destiny of redemption from death and decay (pp. 13–20).  Honoring the world which Christ creates and sustains is an appropriate means of honoring the Son.  What is not entirely clear to me from Lamp’s discussion is why Christ’s incarnation is necessary for human beings to identify with creation.  It seems to me this connection can be made directly from the creation stories in Genesis without appeal to Christ’s incarnation.  What the incarnation does accomplish is to affirm the value of human beings and the rest of the created order.

Chapter 3, “What’s With Cutting up All Those Animals?,” attempts to read the sacrifice of Christ in Hebrews from the perspective of the animals. Lamp briefly surveys the biblical depiction of animals and concludes that the portrait is an ambivalent one (pp. 22–24).  The biblical witness values animals as the objects of care and concern, but also affirms the superiority of human beings over animals.  Humans exploit animals for food and sacrifice.  In discussing the inadequacy of animal sacrifices in Hebrews 9:11–10:18, the author differs from the OT prophets in his critique of the sacrificial cultus (pp. 24–27).  The prophets’ critique was not that the sacrifices were ineffectual but that the people failed to live in obedience to God’s commandments; God prefers obedience over sacrifice.  Hebrews, however, charges that sacrifices were in fact ineffective to accomplish forgiveness of sins and cleansing of conscience.  Lamp claims that Hebrews has an anthropological and christological bias when discussing the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice to the animal sacrifices of the old covenant (p. 27–28).  The voice of the animal world may be heard in three ways.  First, the animals may “respond in the protest that they are the innocent victims in the human drama of sin and redemption, and to critique them is to diminish them for their role in a system not of their own device” (p. 22; see pp. 28–30).  Second, animals are also objects of Christ’s redemptive work.  Christ’ sacrifice makes the shedding of animal blood unnecessary (pp. 30–31).  But animals are also redeemed in a larger sense as part of the created order when Christ will redeem all things (p. 31).  Third, since animals are co-recipients of redemption with human beings, then human beings have the ethical obligation to treat animals with dignity (pp. 32–35).

This chapter raises many questions for me.  Since the author’s anthropological and christological bias has led him to argue that Christ’s blood is superior to animal blood, might the animals protest that Christ’s blood is no more precious than animal blood?  And if so, what does this do to our understanding of the redemptive value of Christ’s death?  Does Lamp see any qualitative difference between humanity and animals?  Do animals have souls?  Will they experience an afterlife?  Are they redeemed in the same way that humans are redeemed?  While Lamp says that he does not intend to give an exhaustive treatment of animal ethics (p. 33), if animals are equal in dignity to human beings, what kinds of implications might follow?  Should Christians become vegetarians or even vegans?  Should Christians refrain from using insecticides?  Is it unethical to hold animals in captivity in zoos, aquariums, and game farms?  Is it wrong to use animals as pack animals or to plow a field?  Should scientists stop using animals as test subjects?

Chapter 4 is entitled, “The Promise of God’s Rest (Hebrews 4:1–11): Joshua, Jesus, Sabbath, and the Care of the Land.”  Lamp uses the criterion of suspicion to reveal a number of biases that the author of Hebrews (and his interpreters) has about the land in 4:1–11.  First, the author has “restricted the consideration of the land to the possession of the land only” and not for the care of the land (p. 39).  The promise of God’s rest is not fulfilled in the possession of the land, but in the Son.  Second, there is a spiritualization of the promise of the land; there is “a reinterpretation of the promise of the land that denies any place to the literal fulfillment of the promise in terms of geography” (p. 39). A third bias is found in a minority interpretation of Heb 4 that discerns a literal fulfillment of the promise as possession of the land, but that this fulfillment only serves “anthropologically determined ends” and does not consider the land in its own right (p. 41).

While the author of Hebrews has used the concept of Sabbath to remove the significance of the land from consideration in the promise of rest, Lamp tries to reverse this interpretive move by using the Sabbath as the point of identification with the land.  Lamp appeals to OT passages that deal with the relationship of land and Sabbath.  The land belongs to God but is given in trust to the Israelites who are to work the land in accordance with Sabbath regulations, that is, the land is supposed to experience the benefits of Sabbath rest, and this rest is brought into connection with the Sabbath rest experienced by the Israelites (p. 43).  Lamp further notes that the “Sabbath establishes a context for human care for the land, and human righteousness and sinfulness have consequences for the land” (p. 45).  His final move is to bring in the servant passages of Second Isaiah, which speak of the renewal of the land preceding the appearance of the servant, to suggest that when the author of Hebrews says that the Sabbath rest of God is found in the Son, that the land is also included in this rest (pp. 45–46).  Lamp suggests several ways in which the voice of the land can be retrieved (pp. 46–49).  According to Lamp, the land calls us “to live out our identification with the land and so expand our understanding of the promise of God’s rest to include the land, and indeed, the whole of creation” (p. 50).

In chapter 5, “A Whispered Voice in the Choir,” Lamp attempts to move toward an ecological pneumatology in Hebrews.  After briefly surveying all the passages in Hebrews that mentions the Holy Spirit (pp. 52–56), Lamp concludes that Hebrews has an anthropocentric bias.  This bias favors Christology over pneumatology, and in particular, by showing how Christ’s saving work benefits humanity.  Moreover, all the references to the Spirit are used in support of the christological and soteriological emphases of the discourse (p. 58).  They key passage for Lamp is 9:14, which contains the phrase “through eternal spirit.”  He believes this phrase refers to the Holy Spirit, rather than to Christ’s divinity, or the realm or mode in which Christ’s sacrifice was made (p. 59).  The phrase suggests that the presence and power of the Spirit sanctifies Jesus for his dual ministry as priest and sacrifice (p. 60).  Since Christ’s sacrifice involves the physicality and materiality of his body and blood, and since his offering is made in connection with the Holy Spirit, then “a connection between human beings and Earth is forged” (p. 61).  Hence, the relationship between the Son and Spirit does not only bring redemptive benefits for human beings but for all material creation (p. 62).  In order to hear the voice of Earth, one must recover the biblical emphasis of the role of the Holy Spirit in creation (pp. 63–65).  Lamp declares, that the “Spirit, by virtue of its presence in all phases of creation . . . is central to the redemptive work of Christ that entails all of creation” (p. 66).

Chapter 6 is entitled, “‘He Has Prepared a City for Them’ (Hebrews 11:16): Escapist Eschatology or Ecological Expedience?”  According to Lamp, Heb 11:8–16 has been used to justify an “escapist eschatology that minimizes attention on the present order and its afflictions in favor of a rather singular focus on the world to come” (p. 69).  The dangers of such an idea are that it can lead to disregard care for the created order in the present and to the exploitation of creation for economic gains (p. 70).  Lamp finds two trajectories in the eschatology of Hebrews.  The first is the trajectory of “rest” (4:1–11; 10:19–25; 12:22–24); in these passages earthly realities are usually spiritualized into heavenly realities (pp. 71–72).  The second trajectory (1:10–12; 11:8–16; 12:18–29) deals with the “transience of the created order” (p. 72).  Creation is thus viewed as something from which one escapes and is something that will eventually be destroyed (p. 76).  With the help of the work of N. T. Wright, Lamp turns to the allusion to the resurrection in 11:17–19 to attempt to bring about an identification of humanity with creation (pp. 76–79).  He explains that “the resurrection of Jesus is that which connects the present order to its redemption in the future.  It does so by bringing together heaven and earth in the glorified man Jesus and through the encroachment of the coming kingdom into the present.  But because human beings are connected to the man Jesus by virtue of a shared humanity, which includes a shared connection with creation, human beings are further identified with an Earth that is not to be abandoned but is rather awaiting its full redemption in the future” (pp. 78–79).  The voice of Earth may declare that 11:8–16, then, is not inconsistent with an ecological agenda, and Hebrews itself has some balancing passages (p. 79–81).  Moreover, the concept of a “resident alien” does not preclude one from living beneficially in the present.  After all, resident aliens do have a vested interest in the lands in which they live (p. 81).

Chapter 7, entitled “‘We Have an Altar’ (Hebrews 13:10),” is concerned with the reclamation of the Eucharist for ecological responsibility.  Lamp discerns a non-Eucharistic bias in Hebrews which suppresses liturgical traditions that might have proved useful for an ecological agenda.  Lamp turns to the interpretation of the controversial passage of Heb 13:10.  He notes that many scholars deny that there is any connection with the Eucharist in this passage and some scholars even discern an anti-Eucharistic emphasis (pp. 86–90).  Lamp supposes that a latent anti-sacramentalism has led some scholars to reject any Eucharistic interpretation of this passage.  Of course, one could respond: perhaps scholars do not see a Eucharistic reference in this passage because it simply is not there and those scholars who do discern a reference to the Eucharist do so from a pro-sacramental bias.  At any rate, Lamp is heavily dependent upon the work of Denis Edwards who develops “an ecological theology of the Eucharist” (p. 91) in order to forge an identification of humanity with the created order.  Lamp then turns to the discussion of Melchizedek in Heb 7.  The author of Hebrews has omitted any reference to the bread and wine that Melchizedek brought out to Abraham in Gen 14, thus revealing his bias against the Eucharist (pp. 92–93).  However, patristic writers have claimed that the bread and wine was a prefiguring of the Eucharistic meal.  Hence, according to Lamp, the employment of the story of Melchizedek “forces the Eucharist into consideration in the minds of a church so powerfully shaped by Eucharistic devotion” (p 95).  In order to hear the voice of Earth, Lamp suggests that instead of applying traditional historical-critical exegesis, we resort to a “history of effects” approach to 13:10, which in the history of the church has had powerful influence on Eucharistic consciousness.  Moreover, the “history of effects” approach would also appeal to the patristic interpretations, which see a Eucharistic prefiguration in the Melchizedek story (pp. 95–97).  Earth’s voice might also urge us “to integrate a more conscious identification with Earth in our practice of Eucharistic devotion, with the result that such an identification might shape a more robust ecological awareness as part of a Eucharistically-shaped life in the world” (p. 97).  Lamp once again turns to the work of Edwards to indicate how this might be accomplished (pp. 97–98).  In a footnote on page 110, Lamp also indicates that the same approach applied in this chapter could also be applied to show how baptism also brings about a human identification with the Earth.

Chapter 8 is entitled, “Creational Christology Redux: Angels, Torah, Son, and Creation (Hebrews 2:1–4).”  In his examination of Heb 1, Lamp again concludes that the author has a bias against the Earth (pp. 102–6).  First, the author chooses “to pursue a christological rather than a creational agenda” (p 103).  Second, in the catena, the author contrasts the transitory nature of the created order with the eternal nature of the Son, hence relegating the importance of the Earth “as an entity of intrinsic worth and consideration in itself” (p. 105).  Third, the author shows the superiority of the Son over Torah, which in Second Temple Judaism was associated with Wisdom which was the agent of creation in the OT (p. 106).  For Lamp, Wisdom again functions as the means to bring together humanity and creation.  Since Jesus is identified with Wisdom, and his wisdom is superior to the wisdom of the Torah, then as superior Wisdom, Jesus provides the appropriate means for caring for the Earth (pp. 106–7).  In order to retrieve the voice of Earth, Lamp examines the larger context of the quotation in 1:7 of Ps 104:4.  Psalm 104 is a hymn of celebration of creation and God’s work as creator and sustainer (p. 109).  The voice of Earth urges us to consider the full message of the psalm: “first, to convince us that God indeed finds joy in the creation brought into being by the creative and sustaining agency of the Son, and secondly, to adopt the stance of the psalmist in assuring that God continues to find pleasure in creation as faithful human beings praise God for creation and seek God’s guidance in battling the degradation of the ecosystems God has established on the Earth” (p. 111).

Chapter 9 is the conclusion which sums up the results of this study.  The end matter includes a bibliography and indexes of authors and ancient documents.

I am certainly sympathetic to Lamp’s project.  I do not endorse an ideology that believes that since God will soon bring about a new earth, we should then be unconcerned about taking care of the environment.  The earth, though vast, does not have limitless resources.  If we consume and pollute all of our planet’s natural resources, we really have no other viable options for sustaining life.  God has entrusted humanity to be stewards of the earth.  In many ways, humans have been poor stewards as we have, often unwittingly, done irreparable harm to our planet.  But now that we have become more aware of our impact upon our world, we should seek ways to become better stewards of our planet.  And so I am all for doing things like the conservation of natural resources, recycling, the preservation of endangered species, the pursuit of cleaner forms of energy, and the like.

One can certainly admire Lamp’s ingenuity; he has managed to take passages that have nothing to do with environmental care and turned them into texts that support an ecological agenda.  However, one does wonder if biblical texts can be made to support any agenda if the interpreter has enough ingenuity.  Environmental and ecological matters are very much a modern concern and we should be careful about retrojecting these ideas back into ancient texts or expect that ancient authors would have the same concerns that we have.  It is perhaps, then, a bit unfair when Lamp accuses the author of Hebrews of having a bias against the Earth or against animals.  The author had other purposes for his writing and he certainly did not have the ecological consciousness that a modern person has.  Perhaps this is the way that the criterion of suspicion works: the interpreter assumes that the author of the texts one is studying has an agenda that is hostile to one’s own biased agenda.  Lamp was certainly quite creative in finding ways to get around what he perceives is the author’s inherent bias against ecological concerns.  There are certainly other biblical texts that are more conducive than Hebrews in supporting an ecological agenda.  At best, I believe, Lamp has shown that at least Hebrews is not inconsistent or opposed to an ecological agenda.  Lamp has certainly provided some provocative essays on this important trend of the ecological interpretation of Scripture.

New Email Account Set Up

Apparently, some people have had trouble contacting me privately through the email form I had set up on the sidebar.  For whatever reason, Blogger has never provided an email feature for people to contact bloggers privately, so I have had to rely on a third-party service for this feature.  Every time I test it, it works for me, but others are having trouble.  So, I have just set up a new email account specially for this blog, which can be found on the sidebar underneath my name.  Of course you would replace the [at] with the @ symbol.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Review of deSilva, Hebrews in Social-Scientific Perspective

David A. deSilva. The Letter to the Hebrews in Social-Scientific Perspective. Cascade Companions. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012. Pp. xv + 187.

First, I want to thank James Stock of Wipf and Stock Publishers for a review copy of this book.

David deSilva, Trustees’ Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary, is one of the most prolific writers on the book of Hebrews, particularly from a social-scientific perspective.  His dissertation was published as Despising Shame: Honor Discourse and Community Maintenance in the Epistle to the Hebrews (now in its second edition); he wrote a more popular presentation of his thesis as Bearing Christ’s Reproach: The Challenge of Hebrews in an Honor Culture; and he has written the Socio-Rhetorical Commentary for Eerdmans.  In addition, he has written numerous other articles, some from a social-scientific perspective, in various journals and book chapters, so he is well-qualified to write this companion volume on the social-scientific perspective in Hebrews.

This companion contains five chapters and an introduction.  The introduction briefly justifies the enterprise of social-scientific interpretation and introduces the chapters that follow.

In chapter 1 deSilva examines the social profile of the author.  The author was well-educated and probably had some formal training in rhetoric and oratory as evidenced by his mastery of rhetorical argumentation, the employment of topics from deliberative and epideictic oratory, and the implementation of stylistic devices in his work (pp. 3–9).  In terms of cultural location, the author was a Jewish Christian of diaspora origin.  He was an expert in the Jewish Scriptures, as demonstrated by his frequent use of quotations from and allusions to the OT, and he was skilled in Jewish modes of interpretation (pp. 9–10).  The author was also well-acculturated in the Greco-Roman environment as he shares the same fundamental tenets regarding education and shows some acquaintance with Greco-Roman philosophy (pp. 10–18). 

Regarding his authority, the author is not a personal witness of Jesus, nor is his authority the same as the community’s founder(s).  He is not a leader from within the community, but he does support the local leadership.  While the author often includes himself as standing under the same message of Jesus and its obligations, the author often distinguishes himself as standing over the community, from which stance he is able to evaluate the behaviors of the community and to issue commands.  The author appears to be a part of a circle of people who have oversight over a wider region that includes many congregations.  His authority derives in part from his ability to connect his exhortations to the authoritative traditions of the community, that is, the OT and the teachings of Jesus.  The audience accepts the authority of the author based on the faithfulness of his message to these authoritative traditions (pp. 23–28).

Chapter 2 explores the social profile of the audience.  While there is some connection with Italy, it is unclear whether Hebrews was written from or to Italy.  DeSilva chooses to remain agnostic about the destination of the writing (pp. 28–32).  The title “to the Hebrews” is not original to the work and has undue influence on reconstructing the social situation of the audience.  Arguments for the traditional view of a Jewish Christian audience include the extensive use of the OT, interest in the Jewish cult, and the ostensible issue of the audience’s desire to return to Judaism, but the internal evidence is in fact indecisive for the traditional view.  The author’s sophisticated Greek and the use of the LXX undermine the traditional view of the audience.  The topics of 6:1–2 and the mention of Timothy, who was part of the mission to the Gentiles, may point to a Gentile audience.  Most likely, the audience was a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles (pp. 33–36).  The audience may not have been from the lowest strata of society.  They were learned enough to understand the sophisticated Greek of the work and there is evidence that some of them owned property worth confiscating and some had the means for charitable work and hospitality.  The audience probably consisted of persons from all strata of society (pp. 36–37). 

DeSilva detects three phases of the community’s history.  First, the author makes reference to the conversion of the audience or the formation of the community (p. 37).  Second, the author hints at the process by which “the converts were socialized into the worldview of the new group and forged into a new community” (p. 38).  The elementary teachings of 6:1–2 suggest a comprehensive socialization process which “heightened the boundaries between the group and the larger society” (p. 45).  The community began to receive opposition from the larger society of which it was a part.  Their society tried to shame community members to abandon their values and to return to the values of the society.  The community was subject to ridicule and shame, having their property confiscated and some were imprisoned (pp. 45–50).  Third, it appears that the present situation of the audience was that many were wavering in their faith.  Some were not attending the community meetings and they were exhibiting spiritual immaturity.  The problem does not seem to be a case of deviant theology or of impending persecution.  The community was receiving significant societal pressure to conform and because of the loss of property and esteem, many in the community were not receiving the promised rewards and hence were reconsidering their commitment to the community.  The author’s agenda was to motivate the audience to persevere in their commitment to the community (pp. 50–56).  In a brief excursus deSilva considers the date of Hebrews and concludes that it more naturally reads in a pre-70 setting (pp. 56–58).

In the next three chapters, deSilva considers the socio-rhetorical strategies of the author.  Chapter 3 deals with the strategy of negating the social pressure of shame.  Honor and shame conventions were used by the dominant culture in order to pressure individuals to conform to the prevailing values of the culture.  But they were also used by minority groups in order to uphold the values of the group.  The author of Hebrews tries to counteract the pressures of the dominant culture on the community by “holding up as praiseworthy models for imitation precisely those people who chose a lower status in the world for the sake of attaining greater and more lasting honor and advantages” (p. 63).  The author sets forth Jesus as the foremost example of faith/faithfulness:  Jesus’ move to lower status began with the incarnation but found its ultimate expression in the humiliation of crucifixion.  Jesus “despised the shame” for the sake of obedience to God and he looked forward to the reward that awaited him (pp. 66–70).  Likewise, the witnesses of faith, such as Abraham and Moses, embraced a lower status in the world’s eyes for the sake of heavenly reward (pp. 71–79).  The exemplars of faith were used to reinforce the community’s own example of faithfulness in the past (p. 83).  The author also adopts the strategy of reinterpreting the community’s experience of shame at the hands of the dominant society so as to remove the disgrace of those experiences (p. 85–92).

Chapter 4 covers the second socio-rhetorical strategy of grace and reciprocity.  The author of Hebrews employs the social institution of reciprocal relationships, whether of patronage or friendship, in order to reinforce the group’s worldview and to motivate individuals to adhere to the group in the face of social pressures (p. 95).  The patron-client relationships of society are analogous to the divine-human relationship (p. 96).  In general, patrons bestow a variety of benefits, gifts, and privileges upon the client.  The client, in turn, is expected to show gratitude towards the patron.  This gratitude can take the form of giving honor to the patron through demeanor and testimony about the patron’s goodness, seeking to be of service to the patron, or to show loyalty even at one’s own expense (p. 109).  DeSilva shows that the language of “grace” (χαρις) falls within the socio-semantic field of patron-client relationships.  “Grace” may refer to the bestowing of benefits, the actual benefits received, or the proper response of a client to a benefactor (pp. 101–6).  The language of “faith” or “trust” (πιστις) is also used in patron-client relationships.  In general, it may refer to “the firmness, reliability, and faithfulness of both parties in the patron-client relationship or the relationship of ‘friends’” (p. 111).  DeSilva gives a close reading of one passage, 6:1–8, that illustrates the social logic of reciprocity (pp. 113–25).  The accumulation of participles in verses 4–5 enumerates the “multiple, valuable, persistent” benefits that God bestows (p. 120).  The “falling away” of verse 6 then indicates that the beneficiary has slight regard for the gifts God gives and hence brings insult and disgrace upon God as benefactor (pp. 120–21).  DeSilva then gives a larger overview of reciprocity in the book of Hebrews as a whole (pp. 126–37).  God has granted many benefits to the believer through his Son Jesus.  In return, believers should show gratitude towards God by bringing honor to him and to Christ through public testimony, loyalty, and acts of service.  Negatively, the author attempts to discourage ingratitude to God through the various warning passages sprinkled throughout the discourse.

Chapter 5 turns to the final socio-rhetorical strategy: reinforcing group identity and commitment.  Since a person lives within a society with competing values, a person must learn whose opinion to value and whose opinion to discount with regard to honor and shame; this constitutes a person’s “court of reputation” or “court of opinion” (p. 139).  Minority groups often try to establish an alternate court of opinion in contrast to the larger society by appealing to God (or Nature), a higher court of opinion whose judgments are of greater and more lasting value than the opinions of the majority culture (p. 140).  For the author of Hebrews, of course, God and Christ are at the center of this higher court of opinion, but this court of opinion is reinforced by the community of believers, who give mutual encouragement to one another and reinforce the loyalty and commitment of each member to the group. (pp. 143–46).  The alternate court of opinion is broadened in Hebrews to include the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before the community (pp. 146–47).

The author employs a variety of “commitment mechanisms” to assure loyalty to the community (pp. 149–61): 1) Sacrifice & Investment: members surrender something in order to belong to the group; it costs them something and so their membership in the group is valued accordingly; 2) Renunciation: members give up competing external relationships and commit to the individualistic exclusive attachments within the group.  For the audience of Hebrews, it involves separation from non-Christians. The author accomplishes this mechanism in part through the image of pilgrimage; 3) Communion: members come into a meaningful relationship with the collective whole so as to experience oneness with the group.  The author accomplishes this mechanism through the use of kinship and partnership language; 4) Mortification: members exchange their former identity for one defined and formulated by the group; members hence “die” to their former identity; 5) Transcendence: members surrender to the higher meaning contained in the group and submit to something beyond themselves.

Some of deSilva’s presentation will of course be familiar to those who are acquainted with his earlier works.  However, some of the material appears to be fresh.  I recall that deSilva presented some of this material in paper presentations at SBL meetings.  Chapter 5 appeared to be new material to me.  DeSilva writes in a very readable manner.  His judgments are usually quite sound.  His use of socio-scientific categories to reconstruct the situation of the author and audience of Hebrews is quite plausible.  He often adduces evidence from biblical and comparative material in a quite convincing manner.  This companion serves as a good model for how to do socio-scientific interpretation of a NT text.

It struck me as I was reading through this work how relevant deSilva’s discussion is for our own contemporary situation.  Certainly, the Christian community exists within a larger culture which is quite opposed to the values which they hold.  The larger culture frequently tries to pressure the Christian community to conform to the values of the larger society.  Hence, just as in the days of the book of Hebrews, so Christians today seek ways to counteract the social pressures of the larger culture in order to maintain the values they hold dear and to remain faithful to the God, whom they believe has formed the community through Christ.