Monday, June 16, 2014

Review of Kevin Anderson's Commentary on Hebrews

Kevin L. Anderson. Hebrews: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition. New Beacon Bible Commentary. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2013.

First, I want to thank Barry Russell of Beacon Hill Press for a review copy of this book.
As the subtitle indicates, this is a commentary written in the Wesleyan theological tradition (Beacon Hill Press is a Church of the Nazarene publisher). The author, Kevin L. Anderson, is associate professor of Bible and theology at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky [full disclosure: Asbury University is my alma mater; however, I do not personally know Kevin Anderson]. This commentary is geared towards pastors and students, so it is written in a more popular style than the standard critical commentaries.

The introduction deals with the customary critical issues surrounding Hebrews. Anderson first develops a profile of six characteristics of the author before turning to consider in detail three of the most popular suggestions for authorship: Paul, Barnabas, and Apollos (31–38). He considers both external and internal evidence and presents the pros and cons for each candidate, but ultimately does not decide for any one of them. A chart on pages 35–36 briefly presents the rationale for some of the other candidates who have been proposed for authorship.

Anderson next turns to consider the destination (38–41). While he notes that various destinations have been proposed, he gives particular attention to three destinations: Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Rome. Given the external and internal evidence Anderson seems to favor the view that Hebrews was written to one of several house churches located in Rome.

Anderson next discusses the date and situation of Hebrews (42–44). He makes a plausible case that Hebrews was written before the destruction of the temple before AD 70. First, the author makes a number of statements that “could hardly have been expressed in the same way if the temple were already in ruins” (e.g., 8:13; 9:9; 10:1, 2, 11). Second, if the temple had been destroyed, it is hard to imagine the author not mentioning this since it would have contributed to his argument. Anderson tries to narrow the situation down further. He believes that the earlier troubles that the community experienced could be attributed to the persecution of the Jews in AD 49 when Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. The community was now experiencing a new round of persecutions under Nero after the great fire of Rome in AD 64.

When considering the genre (44–46), Anderson argues that the letter was a sermon based on its oral character, its personal tone, its interpretive approach to Scripture, and its rhetorical display. Hebrews is also a letter as evidenced by its epistolary ending, but its sermonic character is the dominant genre.

Anderson next considers the purpose of Hebrews (46–48). Hebrews was written as an encouragement to Christians who were suffering for their faith and were considering abandoning their Christian commitment. Anderson adheres to the more traditional view that the audience was considering reverting back to Judaism. For Anderson this makes the best sense of all the contrasts between the Old Testament dispensation and the new covenant ushered in by Christ.

Anderson next turns to a consideration of the theology of Hebrews (48–55). He notes that eschatology undergirds all of the scriptural interpretation and argumentation of the book. The author’s eschatological perspective can be seen in the comparison between the old covenant and the new covenant and in the perfection language that pervades the book. Christ’s coming has inaugurated the time of fulfillment but Hebrews also looks forward to the consummation of God’s purposes when Christ will come again to bring full salvation and all enemies are subdued.

In terms of Christology, Anderson points out that Hebrews depicts Jesus’ full career: preexistence, incarnation, death, resurrection, exaltation, heavenly intercession, and second coming. The two most important titles in Hebrews are Son and High Priest. Hebrews, more than any other NT book, explains why Jesus had to become human. He had to be perfected through sufferings and learn obedience to be equipped to become high priest. Hebrews is also the only book that gives a sustained justification for Jesus’ high priesthood.

When discussing soteriology, Anderson highlights the vast range of soteriological imagery found in Hebrews. Cultic language is particularly prominent throughout the letter. He also notes that Hebrews calls believers to a journey or pilgrimage to the heavenly kingdom. This concept manifests itself in four images: approaching/drawing near to God, entering into God’s rest, sojourning, and running the race.

The commentary proper is broken down into a large tripartite structure: 1:1–4:13; 4:14–10:18; and 10:19–13:25. This schema is followed by many Hebrews scholars. Each section is further divided down into smaller and smaller sections for the purpose of commentary. For instance 1:1–4:13 is broken down into two subsections, 1:1–2:18 and 3:1–4:13. Each of these subsections is further subdivided into smaller units.

For each unit, the commentary proceeds in a threefold manner. The first section “Behind the Text” deals with the relevant background material needed to understand the text, such as historical information, literary context and features, and sociological and cultural features. The second section “In the Text” deals with the text proper; it deals with grammatical details, word studies, and flow of thought. Hebrew and Greek words are transliterated. The third section “From the Text” deals with how the text is/has been received by readers: theological significance, intertextuality, history of interpretation, use of the Old Testament in the New Testament, history of effects, and application. The commentary is generously sprinkled with sidebars, charts and excurses that provide additional information for the reader.

It will of course be impossible to give an overview of the commentary proper. I will note some of his important exegetical decisions and then end with an assessment. Anderson argues that 1:1–2:4 constitutes the exordium of the book, rather than just the first four verses. He reasons that 1:1–4 is too short to be an exordium for a work of this length, that the whole unit is framed with carefully balanced sentences (1:1–4 and 2:2–4), and that the whole unit follows a careful structure (58–59). The purpose of the exordium is to introduce key themes and to make the readers favorably disposed towards the remainder of the speech (60).

The section that follows (1:5–14) strings together a series of seven quotations in the form of a catena. Anderson views them as enthymemes (I do not recall seeing this suggestion before). He tries to identify the major and minor premises and the conclusions, some of which are unstated or assumed by the author (70–76).

Anderson takes 2:5–16 to be the narratio and 2:17–18 to be the propositio of Hebrews. Anderson believes that the narratio in Hebrews addresses the “central challenge to the listeners’ commitment to the lordship of Christ: the off-putting notion that the Son of God came to suffer and die” (82). As far as I can determine, then, Anderson has proposed a rhetorical structure for Hebrews that has not been offered before. His proposal differs from Keijo Nissilä, Walter Übelacker, Ceslas Spicq, Hans-Friedrich Weiss, Knut Backhaus, Lauri Thurén, Craig Koester, Andrew Lincoln, and James Thompson.

Anderson adopts the christological reading of Psalm 8 in Hebrews 2:6–8 (89). He acknowledges that an anthropological or dual reading is also possible, but he highlights a few good reasons for adopting the christological reading (87–88).

At 2:10 Anderson adopts the minority position (e.g., Ernst Käsemann) in taking agagonta as referring to Jesus and not God because it agrees with archegon which immediately follows it (93). However, Anderson is surely mistaken at this point since agagonta almost certainly goes with the subject of the infinitive teleiosai which is God.

Anderson views 3:1–4:13 as a type of second exordium. Yet he also identifies it as a digression, which is not really a digression (104–105). He finds parallels in this section with the opening exordium. Both have a comparison of Jesus (with Moses in 3:1–6 and the angels in 1:1–14) and both contain a warning to the audience (2:1–4 and 3:7–4:13). He views 4:14–16 as a restatement and expansion of the propositio in 2:17–18 (106).

At 3:14 Anderson discerns business terminology (124): “To hold (katechein) was used in commercial contexts of holding or retaining possession of property. Firmly (bebaios) often applied to the validity or guarantee of a legal agreement or contract . . ., and till the end (mechri telous) to its date of termination.” Moreover, he interprets metochoi in the sense of business partner (124) and ten archen tes hypostaseos as “initial commitment” in terms of commitment to a business venture (125), rather than as “confidence” or “assurance.” I do not recall encountering this interpretation before and so this may be one of Anderson’s distinctive contributions.

On pages 148–149 Anderson gives a brief history of interpretation of Heb 3:7–4:13. He gives particular attention to Wesleyan and holiness interpretations of the passage and then follows with a critique of these interpretations (149–152). He notes that the rest is not simply a step in the process of salvation but is the eschatological endpoint (150).

Anderson views the central part of Hebrews (4:14–10:18) as the probatio, which is framed by the parallel passages 4:14–16 and 10:19–23 (154). Anderson follows many scholars regarding this particular structural pattern in Hebrews. This section contains a lengthy digression which is “strategically placed to prepare the audience for the most crucial and difficult portion of the homily” (175).

In his discussion of 5:7 one only gets an inkling of the controversy that has swirled around this passage (166–170). Anderson rejects the notion that the phrase “from death” should be restricted to a reference to the realm of death as proposed by Attridge and others (169), but, in my mind, this explanation leaves unresolved the problem of explaining how Jesus’ prayer was heard since he had indeed experienced death.

In his interpretation of 6:4–6, Anderson does not soften the harsh tone of this passage. The word impossible “is emphatic and unequivocal. . . . There is no escaping the terrifying conclusion that, for Hebrews, final apostasy is irreversible” (187). Anderson rightly concludes that the person described in verse 4–5 is one who has truly experienced the benefits of salvation (189). The author is not describing a hypothetical situation, but a real possibility. The impossibility of restoring apostates to repentance is due to God’s judgment not his inability (190). Anderson will later add that apostasy is a “deliberate, active, and public repudiation” of the benefits that God bestows upon the believer (207). Furthermore, since salvation in Hebrews is future-oriented, it is improper to say that one can lose one’s salvation “because one cannot lose that which one has not yet fully possessed or inherited” (209). I find Anderson’s comments to be right on target.

In his discussion of 7:1–3 Anderson does not believe that the author of Hebrews viewed Melchizedek as some sort of angelic or heavenly figure. Rather, the author has employed a type of argument from silence to claim that Melchizedek was “without father, without mother, without genealogy” (211, 218). There are many scholars who differ with Anderson on this matter, but I tend to side with Anderson and others (e.g., Fred Horton, Bruce Demarest, Gary Cockerill) who view Melchizedek as merely a historical figure in Hebrews.

Chapter 9 contains a few contested passages. At 9:14 Anderson interprets “through eternal spirit” as a reference to the Holy Spirit rather than to Jesus’ own eternal spirit. At 9:16–17 Anderson believes that diatheke means “will or testament” here. Some scholars believe that “covenant” should be the translation throughout the whole passage. Anderson suggests that the author is simply using a wordplay on the term. For the difficult passage of 9:23 Anderson surveys four options for explaining why the heavenly things needed to be cleansed with a better sacrifice. He concludes that “the heavenly sanctuary itself was defiled by human sin and required purification” (254) much in the same way that the earthly tabernacle needed cleansing because of the sins of the Israelites.
Anderson considers the entirety of the final chapters to be the peroratio or conclusion of the discourse. He notes that the peroratio has two purposes: (1) to summarize the argument, and (2) to move the audience emotionally to make a decision or action. The author of Hebrews, however, does not do much by the way of summarizing his argument in this section (269).

At 11:1 Anderson engages in some discussion regarding the meaning of hypostasis. He rejects the translation “assurance, confidence” on the grounds that the word was not used in the subjective or psychological sense. He also rejects the translation “substance, reality” because it inserts a philosophical meaning into the passage and it goes against the whole tenor of the passage in which faith is expecting things that have not yet come to realization. He instead opts for “guarantee” which interjects a legal meaning into the text. He remarks that “faith is the certificate of ownership, the title deed that lays claim to the future realities we hope for” (295). The legal meaning also goes along with elenchos in the same verse which means “evidence, proof.”

At 12:2 Anderson gives no inkling that the meaning of the phrase anti tes prokeimenes auto charas has been highly contested by scholars. The controversy centers on the meaning of anti. Some scholars take the preposition to mean “instead of, in place of.” The idea is that Jesus gave up his heavenly or earthly privileges in order to die on the cross. Anderson apparently takes the second option, which construes anti as “because of”; Jesus endured the cross in order to obtain the heavenly joy that awaited him. Anderson notes the athletic metaphor here: “He was looking beyond the contest itself to the prize awaiting the victor” (317). I agree with Anderson at this point (In my mind, Clayton Croy’s dissertation has decisively demonstrated that this is the correct interpretation).

Chapter 13 contains a number of difficult and contested passages. Anderson construes the “foods” of 13:9 to be a reference to the Jewish dietary laws (352). At 13:10 Anderson interprets the “altar” to be a reference to Christ’s atoning sacrifice, rather than to an altar in the heavenly sanctuary or to the Eucharist. At 13:12, when the author urges his audience to go “outside the camp” to bear Christ’s disgrace, Anderson embraces the traditional view: “the ‘altar’ believers have (13:10) symbolizes the sacrificial death of Jesus (v 12) and is superior to all of the cultic trappings of the old covenant: sacrifices (v 11), priesthood and tabernacle (vv 10-11), food laws (v 9). So the readers are being called to separate themselves from the security and ostensible holiness afforded to them under the old covenant, since it has been superseded. Their commitment to Christ outside the camp entails abandoning any attachment to the temporal and earthly order centered in Jerusalem, even though it means embracing suffering, shame, and ostracism” (355).

Evaluation: This is a solid mid-range commentary. It is comparable to the Paideia series or Smyth & Helwys commentary series in terms of engagement with scholarship. Anderson does comment on the Greek text, he brings in comparative literature to help illuminate the text and he occasionally interacts with other scholarly literature. However, he does not give an in-depth analysis of the Greek syntax nor does he always weigh the interpretive options to the degree that one finds in the more technical commentaries. His style is very readable throughout. Hence, the commentary gives a good sense of Hebrews’ argument without overwhelming the reader with excessive exegetical detail. Anderson is usually sound in his exegetical decisions even if one might disagree with an interpretative decision here or there.

Seasoned Hebrews scholars will probably not find much that is new in the commentary. I think that his proposed rhetorical structure will be one of his contributions. However, with all of the proposed rhetorical structures of Hebrews that have been given, it is hard to be confident that any one of them is correct. Anderson does show familiarity with Greco-Roman rhetoric and he often comments on the author’s rhetorical devices and strategies. Anderson’s Wesleyan leanings certainly come through in his interpretation of the warning passages, but he also occasionally interacts with Wesleyan and holiness writers who may be less familiar to mainstream biblical scholars.

I would certainly consider using this commentary for an undergraduate course on the Book of Hebrews. I would probably use a more technical commentary for graduate level students. The book would also be useful for pastors and interested laypersons.

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