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.

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