Friday, November 11, 2016

Review of Barnard, The Mysticism of Hebrews

Jody A. Barnard. The Mysticism of Hebrews: Exploring the Role of Jewish Apocalyptic Mysticism in the Epistle to the Hebrews. WUNT 2/331. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012.

This monograph represents a revision of the author’s doctoral dissertation submitted to Bangor University (in Wales) in 2011. The purpose of the study is to explore the role of Jewish apocalyptic mysticism in Hebrews. In the opening introductory chapter Barnard first deals with some of the basic critical issues concerning Hebrews. Hebrews is likely a sermon in epistolary form written by a well-educated Hellenistic Jewish Christian male with possible connections with the Pauline circle. The audience consists most likely of Hellenistic Jewish Christians. The book likely has some connection with Rome before 90 CE. Earlier scholarship (e.g., Ménégoz; Spicq; Moffatt) assumed a Middle Platonic background to Hebrews, but later scholarship (e.g., Williamson; Barrett; Hurst) began to question this contention and pointed to Jewish apocalyptic literature as the more likely conceptual background for Hebrews. Scholarship is now currently divided on the conceptual background for Hebrews. Some favor the Platonic/Philonic influences while others emphasize the Jewish apocalyptic influences. But while these two thought-worlds are not necessarily mutually exclusive, Barnard will attend to the role of Jewish apocalyptic mysticism in Hebrews. Barnard will focus his attention on apocalyptic and mystical texts in the late Second Temple period.

Barnard develops his argument in three parts. In part I (chapters 2–3), he examines the Jewish apocalyptic texts on their own terms. In part II (chapters 4–7), he applies the insights from part I to Hebrews. In part III (chapters 8–9), he applies the conclusions of part II to a specific passage in Hebrews (1:5–13). Chapter 10 rounds out the study with his conclusions.

In chapter 2, Barnard determines which texts should be included in the construction of the Jewish apocalyptic mystical worldview. He divides the texts into three “levels of priority.” First are the texts which are indisputably Jewish and can be used confidently in the construction of the apocalyptic mystical background for the NT. These include: the Book of the Watchers, the Astronomical Apocalypse, the Dream Visions, the Epistle of Enoch, Jubilees, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, the Aramaic Levi Document, and the mystical texts from Qumran. Second are Jewish texts that were written towards the end of the Second Temple period or a little beyond and must be used with greater caution for various reasons (such as Christian interpolations into the texts). Among these he includes the Similitudes of Enoch, 2 Enoch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, the Testament of Levi, and 3 Baruch. The third level is represented by Christian texts which emerged as “testimony to the overtly Christian manifestations of Jewish apocalyptic mysticism” (p. 54). These texts include Revelation, the Ascension of Isaiah, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Testament of Abraham.

Chapter 3 highlights some of the major themes that emerge in Jewish apocalyptic literature. The heavenly realm is full of splendor and glory and is often characterized by fire. It exists in another dimension or parallel universe. The heavenly realm is often depicted as God’s true temple and is multi-tiered (usually seven levels). A righteous famous figure or hero from Israel’s past ascends at God’s initiative into the heavenly realm, where he experiences both terror and transformation. Numerous angels appear everywhere and function as cosmic supervisors, guardians, priests, and/or guides. The journey of the ascender usually climaxes with an anthropomorphic appearance of the Most High God seated on His throne. The visions, dreams, and revelations narrated in these texts are claimed to be mystical experiences of their authors.

Chapter 4 explores the conception of the heavenly temple/tabernacle in Hebrews. Barnard does not see a significant distinction between the tabernacle and the temple. He offers a couple of reasons why the author may have focused upon the tabernacle instead of the temple. If the temple still existed, the author may have chosen to criticize it indirectly by attacking the tabernacle instead. On the other hand, if the temple no longer existed, his focus upon the tabernacle gives his argument a timeless character. Barnard counters those who claim that there are parallels between the cosmology of Hebrews and Platonism. Hebrews, for the most part, lacks the technical terminology and interpretive schema of Platonism. Instead, Hebrews’ temporal orientation of the heavenly sanctuary finds closer parallels in apocalyptic traditions. Barnard next explores the nature of the heavenly temple in Hebrews. Hebrews’ conception of the heavenly sanctuary is both literal and metaphorical. The heavenly sanctuary is envisioned as a multi-chambered structure through which Jesus progresses.

In chapter 5 Barnard argues that Jewish apocalyptic mysticism played a part in Hebrews’ formulation of a high priestly Christology. Despite some apparent similarities, Philo’s conception of the Logos bears little resemblance to the Christ of Hebrews. On the other hand, Barnard detects possible influences in Jewish apocalyptic mysticism with such ideas as an eschatological Yom Kippur, priestly messianism, and Melchizedek speculation. Another theme that is common in Jewish apocalyptic mysticism is the theme of heavenly ascents that result in transformations which often are portrayed as priestly investitures. This theme finds correspondences to Hebrews which depicts Jesus receiving his high priesthood when entering the heavenly realm. Barnard finds various allusions to Jesus’ investiture to the high priesthood in chapter 1, including Jesus’ inheritance of the divine name (1:4), the declaration that he is God’s Son (1:5), his wielding a scepter, and his anointing with oil (1:8–9).

Chapter 6 deals with the theme of the heavenly enthronement of the Son. In apocalyptic literature the heavenly throne is usually envisioned to be in the celestial Holy of Holies. This conception is taken for granted by Hebrews. The Ark of the Covenant is deemed to be the earthly counterpart to the heavenly throne of God. Only one throne in heaven is envisioned. Hence, the Son shares the throne with God seated at his right hand side, the position of honor. Christ’s position on the throne is one of everlasting privilege. In Hebrews Christ’s role on the throne is not to mediate judgment but mercy. Christ is seated on his throne indicating that his work of atonement is completed. His position on the throne also indicates his royal identity. The opening prologue of Hebrews depicts Jesus as “the divine Name-bearing enthroned Glory of God” (149). Hebrews 1:3 identifies Jesus as the visible manifestation of God upon the throne in the celestial Holy of Holies. Hebrews 1:3 seems to reflect Jewish wisdom traditions, but Hebrews never calls Jesus Wisdom. Barnard thinks that the influence of wisdom speculation on Hebrews is quite limited. Barnard argues that the name that Jesus receives in 1:4 is not the name of Son but the divine name YHWH. Jesus’ inheritance of the divine name is powerful proof for his superiority over the angels.

Chapter 7 shifts the focus from the themes and motifs of Jewish apocalyptic mysticism in Hebrews to the experiential dimensions contained in the book. Barnard argues that Hebrews’ appropriation of Jewish apocalyptic mystical themes is not merely conceptual or literary but that there is an experiential impulse involved. He identifies several passages in Hebrews which may suggest mystical experiences on the part of the author and his audience, or in which the author invites his audience to participate in mystical experiences: 2:1–4, 9; 3:1; 4:3, 14–16; 6:4–6, 19–20; 10:19–25; 12:22–24; 13:9–15. These mystical experiences may have included dreams and visions of the exalted Jesus.

In the conclusion to Part II, Barnard determines that “the evidence discussed throughout Chapters 4–6, which bear witness to the author’s conceptual indebtedness to Jewish apocalyptic mysticism, should not simply be regarded as evidence for common ideas, but also common practices and experiences” (214). He believes that passages that share affinities with Jewish apocalyptic mysticism probably reflect prior mystical experiences. He includes Hebrews 1:3–4 among these passages. The author of Hebrews may have been drawing upon his own experiences while writing the prologue.

In Part III, Barnard applies the results of his study to the analysis of a specific passage, Heb 1:5–13. In chapter 8, he examines the use of Scripture in this passage. The catena of quotations is likely the author’s own construction and not a prior compilation of authoritative proof-texts, but the author’s basis of selection and his method of exegesis remain a puzzle to interpreters. Scholars have concluded that Hebrews’ method of exegesis most closely aligns with other Second Temple Jewish midrashic techniques. Barnard contends, however, that while this helps us to understand how Hebrews employs Scripture in most of the book, it does not explain his use of Scripture in chapter 1. As Barnard puts it, “Heb 1:5–13 does not easily lend itself to the paradigm of text oriented, contextually sensitive exegesis” (229). He insists, rather, that Jewish apocalyptic mysticism offers a better explanation for the author’s use of Scripture in chapter 1. Hebrews 1:5–13 is distinctive from the rest of the book in terms of its use of Scripture. Elsewhere, the author comments on the texts he uses. In contrast, in chapter 1 the author builds his argument through the selection and arrangement of Scripture citations. Text-oriented exegesis cannot adequately explain the author’s selection and interpretation of his Scripture proof texts. In chapter 1, the Scripture proof texts are decontextualized from their original context and given new meaning by being placed in a new context. The Scripture texts are not given as quotations but as “heavenly declarations from the mouth of God” (235). It is important to understand Heb 1:5–13 within its immediate context following directly after the opening prologue which “is reminiscent of certain apocalyptic visions and presents the Son as the divine Name-bearing anthropomorphic Glory of God enthroned in the celestial sanctuary” (237). The author’s own mystical orientation was the primary impetus for his selection and use of texts in chapter 1.

In chapter 9, Barnard sets out to demonstrate how the author’s own mystical context influenced his use of scripture in Heb 1:5–13. Jewish apocalyptic mysticism was preoccupied with angels, and this provides the most plausible explanation for Hebrews’ attention to angels in the opening chapter. Barnard provides a detailed passage-by-passage analysis of each Scripture quotation in the catena. The themes of chapter 1 imply that the author was influenced by Jewish apocalyptic mysticism and that he has personally had mystical experiences of the heavenly realities expressed in chapter 1.

Chapter 10 includes a summary of conclusions and some final reflections. End matter includes a bibliography of primary and secondary sources; and indices on ancient sources, modern authors, and subjects.

Barnard has provided a solid contribution to the study of Hebrews. The book is well-written and he presents his argument well. I think that Barnard convincingly demonstrates that Jewish apocalypticism provides a more plausible background for Hebrews than Platonism/Philonism. He demonstrates that many of the themes of Jewish apocalypticism find expression in Hebrews.

I would push back a little on Barnard’s contention that the use of Scripture in the catena of Hebrews 1 is not contextually sensitive. In Heb 1:5, for example, the author quotes from Psa 2, which is a royal psalm, and from 2 Sam 7, in which is contained the promise of God to David that a descendant of his will sit on the throne forever. While the author does not explicitly comment on these passages, understanding the original context of these two quotations together helps us to recognize that “Son” is a royal designation. The two quotations together not only illustrate Jesus’ filial relationship to the Father, but also—along with some of the other quotations in the catena—indicate Jesus’ royal status. The original context of these passages probably played some part in their selection as proof-texts in the catena.

Barnard’s contention that the author’s own mystical experiences was a primary impetus for the themes he raises in his book is certainly possible, but ultimately cannot be proven decisively. While the author was likely influenced by Jewish apocalypticism, Hebrews is not an apocalypse. In other words, we do not get descriptions of visions of otherworldly journeys, nor are we given fantastical imagery of the supernatural world which needs to be explained by interpreting angels. The author makes no explicit claim of having mystical experiences of the supernatural world or visions of the exalted Jesus. It certainly makes sense that the author’s theology was not merely an intellectual assent to certain affirmations but would also be shaped by his subjective experiences of the divine. But whether his experiences included mystical visions remains an open question. I am certainly not ruling it out. Barnard has offered a provocative study that should be taken into consideration by future studies on Hebrews.

Thanks to Mohr Siebeck for a review copy of this book.

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