Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Hebrews Highlights January 2017

Henry Neufeld reflects on the notion that God is perfected through suffering (Hebrews 2:10).

Neufeld also has a "review" of Luke Timothy Johnson's commentary on Hebrews.

Neufeld also discusses Perfection and Maturity in Hebrews 6:1.

Ian Paul summarizes a booklet by Colin Buchanan on Worship in the Letter to the Hebrews.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Moore Reviews Filtvedt

Nicholas Moore gives a review of Old Jakob Filtvedt's monograph, The Identity of God's People and the Paradox of Hebrews on the Review of Biblical Literature website. Unfortunately, you now have to be a member of SBL to access it.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review of Schreiner's Commentary on Hebrews

Thomas R. Schreiner. Commentary on Hebrews. Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation. Nashville: Holman Reference, 2015. Hardback. Pp. xviii + 539.

Thomas Schreiner’s Commentary on Hebrews is the inaugural volume of the new Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation commentary series. The series seeks to be distinct from other commentaries. It does not try to exhaustively examine the biblical texts, but instead it takes a biblical theological approach to the texts. It seeks to explore how each text contributes to an understanding of the theology of the Scriptures as a whole. Moreover, the series is geared toward the proclamation of the text. Hence, while not unscholarly, this series is targeted towards Christian ministers who will be preaching and teaching about the texts.

In the introduction, Schreiner briefly addresses some of the critical issues of Hebrews. He highlights some of the leading candidates for authorship (i.e., Paul, Barnabas, Luke, Apollos) but he does not decisively opt for any one of them. He prefers a pre-70s date for Hebrews because (1) it refers to the tabernacle in the present tense, implying that the Jewish cultus was still in operation; (2) it does not mention the destruction of the temple which would have contributed to the author’s argument that the old covenant was obsolete; and (3) it was used by 1 Clement and hence would need time to circulate. However, none of these reasons are decisive for a pre-70s date. As Schreiner himself notes, some texts that post-date the destruction of the temple still referred to the temple in the present tense. If the temple was still in existence, it is odd that Hebrews makes no mention of it. And Hebrews could have circulated much quicker than the 25+ year time gap between the destruction of the temple and the supposed writer of 1 Clement, especially if Hebrews was sent to the Roman church.

Schreiner believes that the addressees were Jewish Christians living in Rome (although he admires the strength of Carl Mosser’s argument that the audience was living in Jerusalem), who were tempted to revert to Judaism due to external pressure or persecution. He notes the oral character of Hebrews and concludes that it is a sermon or exhortation written in epistolary form. The purpose of the letter is to admonish the audience not to fall away from Jesus and the new covenant and to return to the Mosaic Law and old covenant. He discusses some of the proposals for the religious-cultural background of Hebrews but doesn’t seem to settle on any one of them. He presents a very straightforward outline of the book.

Some of the distinctive features of the commentary begin to emerge in the next two sections. First, Schreiner recounts the storyline of the Bible beginning from Genesis through to the New Testament. He wants to place Hebrews within its canonical context. He notes how Hebrews connects with the storyline of the Bible and echoes many of its major themes. Schreiner remarks that the Old Testament needs to be read in light of its fulfillment in the person of Jesus. In the next and final section of the introduction, Schreiner deals with four biblical and theological structures that lie behind the theology of Hebrews. First, Hebrews has a promise-fulfillment orientation. Old Testament promises find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Second, Hebrews has an already-but-not-yet eschatology. God’s promises have been inaugurated in Jesus Christ but they have not reached their ultimate consummation. Third, Hebrews utilizes typology. Schreiner defines typology as “a historical correspondence between events, institutions, and persons found in the OT and the NT” (pp. 36–37). He further qualifies his definition by stating that the typology is something intended by God. He notes also that there is an “escalation” in Hebrews’ typology; the fulfillment is always better than the type. Fourth, Hebrews has a spatial orientation. Hebrews contrasts the earthly and the heavenly realms. Schreiner adduces many examples from Hebrews for each of these theological structures.

The commentary proper analyzes Hebrews passage by passage and follows the following format: (1) An outline situates the passage within the larger flow of thought of Hebrews; (2) Scripture translation from the Holman Christian Standard Bible; (3) context; (4) verse-by-verse exegesis; and (5) a bridge which summarizes the exegesis and transitions to the next passage. The exegesis does not get into the intricacies of the Greek text. Greek, when used, is always translated. The exposition is primarily concerned with bringing out the theology of the text.

In what follows, I will highlight some of Schreiner’s exegetical decisions. At 1:6 he interprets “firstborn” to be a reference to Jesus’ exaltation and not his incarnation or parousia. Thus, Schreiner is in line with the current trend which prefers the exaltation view. In his discussion of 2:5–9 he seems to read Hebrews’ use of Ps 8 anthropologically, rather than christologically. Scholars are decidedly split over these two options.

In his discussion of the verb γεγόναμεν in verse 3:14, Schreiner says, “Some interpreters read too much into the perfect tense, interpreting the condition as evidence to inference. It is preferable to read the condition here in accord with the other conditional statements in Hebrews. It is certainly possible that the author makes the point that those who have truly become Christians in the past are those who will persevere in the future. Theologically, I have no objection to that reading. It is questionable, however, whether such nuanced reading fits the context of Hebrews. Elsewhere in the letter the author doesn’t make the point that only true Christians persevere. Instead, he admonishes believers to persevere until the end so they will receive the final reward. In other words we should beware of imposing a theological reading on the text that goes beyond the boundaries of what the author wants to do here. He is simply saying that the readers are sharers of Christ if they persevere to the end. He is not arguing here that true believers will definitely persevere, for it is a conditional statement. Nor is he saying that those who are truly believers will persevere. It is better to read the text as a simple condition” (128). I appreciate Schreiner’s integrity here. He is trying to understand Hebrews on its own terms rather than impose his theological presuppositions upon the text.

In his discussion of 4:12, which talks about the word of God “penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit,” Schreiner makes the following comments: “It is difficult to know . . . what the author could possibly mean by ‘the separation of soul and spirit.’ It is not apparent elsewhere from the OT or the NT that clear distinctions should be erected between the soul and spirit. In some popular and devotional literature, this verse is used to justify distinguishing between the soul and the spirit, and sometimes a whole spirituality springs up that separates the spirit, the soul, and the body. These tripartite understandings of human beings are speculative, testifying to the creativity of their authors more than they reflect the teaching of the NT” (147). I am glad to read such a measured statement by a leading scholar.

When dealing with the controversial passage, 6:4–6, Schreiner argues that the persons in view are real Christians and the danger in view is apostasy. He rejects the “loss of rewards” view as espoused by David Allen and others. He notes that the warning passages are the means by which God preserves believers.

In his discussion of Melchizedek at 7:1–10, Schreiner rejects the view that Melchizedek was a preincarnate appearance of Jesus as the Son of God. First, Hebrews uses typology; hence, Melchizedek’s priesthood simply adumbrates Jesus’ priesthood. Second, Melchizedek is only likened to Jesus, not equated with him. Schreiner argues that the author of Hebrews simply uses the silences in the Genesis account to make his case about Melchizedek. What Schreiner does not mention is that a large number of scholars believe that Hebrews views Melchizedek as a supra-human or heavenly being. Schreiner certainly does not adopt this interpretation.

Schreiner’s Calvinistic leanings seep through in his discussion of the new covenant at 8:11. He avers that those who are truly new covenant people will never fall away. If a new covenant member does fall away, it only demonstrates that that person was not truly regenerate.

Schreiner deals with a number of controversial issues in 9:11–14. First, he indicates that the author is not talking about a literal tabernacle in heaven. It is figurative language used “for depicting the presence of God” (267). Second, Jesus does not literally bring his blood into heaven. Moreover, the blood refers to Jesus’ self-sacrificial death and not to Jesus’ presentation of his life to God (268n432; see also his discussion on 279). Forgiveness comes from the death of the victim, not from the release of the victim’s life. Third, “through eternal spirit” at 9:14 most likely refers to the Holy Spirit and not to Jesus’ human spirit.

Regarding the reference to the cleansing of heavenly things at 9:22, Schreiner again does not take the language literally: “the imagery should not be pressed, as if somehow heaven itself is defiled by human sin. The writer uses spatial and typological language to communicate the effectiveness of Christ’s sacrifice, but it is unwarranted to conclude that he actually believes there are heavenly places that literally need cleansing. . . . the reference to the cleansing of the heavenly places should not be understood literally or univocally but analogically” (283).

The final chapter of the commentary deals with the biblical and theological themes of Hebrews. This chapter provides a nice encapsulation of the biblical theology of Hebrews. He divides his analysis under nine major headings: (1) God; (2) Jesus Christ; (3) the new covenant; (4) the Spirit; (5) warnings and exhortations; (6) sojourners and exiles; (7) faith, obedience, and the situation of the readers; (8) assurance; and (9) the future reward.

At the beginning of the section on Jesus Christ, Schreiner summarizes at length my 2010 Perspectives in Religious Studies article on “The Use of Rhetorical Topoi in the Characterization of Jesus in the Book of Hebrews.” To my knowledge, Schreiner is the first person to cite one of my works in publication. Regrettably, he cites my article rather than my monograph which was a fuller and more mature articulation of what I was doing in the article. At any rate, it was a bit startling to see my article referenced to such length. I want to clarify two statements Schreiner makes about my article. First, he states, “Small argues that by using narrative criticism the excellency of Jesus is presented” (441–42). While I certainly could have used a narrative critical approach to Hebrews, I actually used a rhetorical approach. As I demonstrate in my monograph, characterization is a method that is used in both narrative and rhetorical genres, but in slightly different ways. Second, Schreiner notes that I take the word ἀπαύγασμα (1:3) to mean “reflection,” rather than “radiance.” Actually, I am not dogmatic about it; the context gives us little to go on to determine the meaning. “Radiance” is certainly a stronger term, but if I had to fall off the log in one direction or the other, I would lean towards “reflection” as the meaning of the term in the context of Hebrews.

In the remainder of the section on Jesus Christ, Schreiner considers the Christology of Hebrews under the following headings: (1) divine Son; (2) the humanity of the Son; (3) the priesthood of Jesus; (4) Jesus’ better sacrifice and human anthropology; (5) perfection and assurance; (6) Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation.

In the section on the warnings and exhortations of Hebrews, Schreiner highlights four approaches to the warning passages: (1) Arminian: the warnings are addressed to true Christians who may renounce their faith and lose their salvation. The warnings encourage them to hold on to their faith. Schreiner notes that the “Arminian view is the most common one among commentators today and has the virtue of being a straightforward readings” (480). I agree! (2) Free Grace: the warnings are addressed to true Christians who cannot lose their salvation. The warnings caution against the lack of fruitfulness in their lives. (3) Tests of Genuineness: the warnings are addressed to a mixed audience of Christians and almost-Christians; those who fail to heed the warnings were not true Christians to begin with; true Christians cannot lose their salvation. (4) Means of Salvation: warnings are addressed to true Christians who cannot lose their salvation. The warnings are one of the means God uses to preserve believers in the faith. Schreiner defends the last view, noting that this view is similar to the Arminian view. The only difference is in regard to the function of the warnings. I think Schreiner is right that the warning passages are addressed to true Christians, that the issue at stake is apostasy, and that the consequences of falling away is final judgment. I remain unpersuaded by his contention that the warning passages are merely the means of keeping the elect in the faith. I believe that the warning passages have real urgency because apostasy remains a real possibility for believers.

Over all this is a solid little commentary. The commentary is not overly technical, so someone looking for a detailed analysis of the Greek text will need to look elsewhere. Seasoned Hebrews scholars will probably not find much that is new in this commentary. What the commentary does accomplish is provide the theological payoff to the exegesis of the text. Moreover, the final chapter provides a nice summation of the biblical theology of Hebrews. Schreiner usually makes sound exegetical decisions, and while I don’t agree with the Calvinist tinge that he applies to Hebrews, I do appreciate his irenic approach to the discussion of the issues and his openness to draw insights even from Arminian authors (such as Gary Cockerill or I. Howard Marshall). His approach is a refreshing contrast to the Calvinist commentary I reviewed in the previous post. Of the five new commentaries that I reviewed recently, I would recommend this one first.

Thanks to Chris Cowan and B&H Publishing Group for a review copy of the book.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Review of McWilliams' Commentary on Hebrews

David B. McWilliams. Hebrews. The Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament. Powder Springs, GA: Tolle Lege Press, 2015. Hardback. Pp. xxxvii + 408.

The Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament is a new expository commentary series that seeks to fulfill what series editor Jon Payne says is the greatest need of the church: “the recovery of sound biblical preaching that faithfully explains and applies the text, courageously confronts sin, and boldly trumpets forth the sovereign majesty, law, and promises of God” (xv). The contributors of this series are pastor-scholars in the Reformed tradition from both sides of the Atlantic. The format of the series is to provide a systematic verse-by-verse expository proclamation of the biblical text. Its purpose is to provide a contemporary model of expository preaching. The series is not intended to be academic or highly technical. References to other works are minimal. There is no bibliography; all references to other works are located in the footnotes.

In the brief introduction, McWilliams lays out some reasons why we should study Hebrews today. He notes that the author is unknown and that it was written to Jewish Christians who were tempted to return to Judaism. In giving an overview of the flow of the book, he highlights some of the main themes of Hebrews: (1) the priestly work of Christ is inseparable from his person; (2) the finished work of Christ is foundational to his heavenly ministry; (3) the sympathy of our high priest finds a specific point of contact with the tempted and tried people of God; and (4) the intercession of our high priest is the great theme of Hebrews (xxxiii–xxxv).

The commentary proper is divided into 24 expository sermons dealing with the text of Hebrews of varying length. Each chapter is headed by a translation from the ESV text. The commentary rarely deals with the Greek text, and when it does, the Greek is transliterated. The English translation being commented upon appears in italics throughout the exposition.

The exposition is overtly in the Reformed and Calvinist traditions. McWilliams frequently refers to the Westminster Confession and various Reformed and Calvinist theologians (e.g., John Calvin, Martin Luther, Geerhardus Vos, A. W. Pink, William Gouge, John Murray, John Brown, John Gill, John Bunyan, John Owens, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Louis Berkhof, Matthew Henry), as well as to Calvinist hymn writers (e.g., August Toplady, Isaac Watts). However, a few Arminian authors and hymn writers manage to slip through (e.g., William Lane, Charles Wesley).

In what follows we will look at some of the characteristic features and interpretive decisions in the exposition. At 1:5 McWilliams states that while the quotation of Ps 2:7 refers to the resurrection/exaltation of the Son, it could also equally be a reference to the eternal generation of the Son. At 1:6 he believes that “firstborn” refers to Jesus’ incarnation. Many commentators have taken it this way, but I have found that increasingly scholars believe that it is a reference to Jesus’ exaltation. In fact, the whole of the catena in chapter 1 is likely an allusion to the exaltation of the Son.

At the beginning of his discussion of 2:1–4, McWilliams asserts that Hebrews “is thoroughly committed to the final perseverance of the saints; a true believer cannot be lost” (40). This is a claim that he needs to demonstrate rather than assert. He claims that God “uses warnings to preserve his people” and that “false professors” must be warned (40). Yet, it makes no sense, if one claims that God predestines some to salvation and some to damnation, to also claim that God uses warnings to save the elect and to condemn the damned. Since, both the elect and the unelect cannot really change their destinies, the use of warnings is simply unnecessary. McWilliams later claims that the “Scriptures clearly teach that when a professing Christian walks away from his profession that [sic] he was never a true believer to begin with” (46). This is certainly an unfalsifiable claim. If a person shows all the signs of being a Christian, one would assume that the person is a Christian, but if that person then abandons the faith, is it a logical necessity to assume that person never really was a Christian? It is like the Calvinist wants his cake and to eat it too. However, if the Calvinist claim is correct, then ironically there can be no real assurance of salvation, since one can never really know whether one is elect or just one of the “false professors.”

Towards the end of this sermon, McWilliams engages in a bit of polemics by claiming that “Today, once again evangelical churches are drifting into Arminianism and the ‘openness of God’ heresy” (53). It is clear that he considers Arminianism to be an aberration and departure from true Christianity. He also sets his guns on emergent Christians and the New Perspective on Paul. I certainly believe that Calvinists are true Christians even if I don’t agree with their theology, so it is very sad to see that some Calvinists are so uncharitable towards other Christians with whom they disagree.

At 2:9, where Hebrews says that Christ “tasted death for everyone,” McWilliams denies that this refers to universal atonement (62). He takes the common Calvinist tactic of denying the plain meaning of the word everyone, and instead interpreting it in a limited sense.

In his discussion of the highly contested passage 6:4–6, McWilliams naturally rejects the Arminian interpretation that the truly regenerate can become lost. Rather, he takes the Calvinist position that the warnings of Hebrews 6 address only professing believers who really do not possess what they profess. He exclaims that the “writer speaks of those who have been in the sphere of the church, but who have never been regenerated, converted, or justified. In order to hold to this position, naturally he has to downplay the description of the one who falls away in verses 4–5 to be that of professing Christians and not genuine Christians, although there is nothing in the descriptions to suggest this interpretation. The author of Hebrews describes genuine Christians who have fallen away. The irony of McWilliams’ position is that Christians can have no real assurance of salvation since they may be professing something that they in fact they do not possess. Only time can tell if professors are true possessors.

In his discussion of “through eternal spirit” at 9:14, McWilliams presents some strong arguments in favor of the view that this phrase refers to Christ’s divine nature. Nevertheless, he believes that it refers to the enablement of the Holy Spirit in accomplishing redemption. First, it is the most natural reading of the phrase. Second, other NT passages refer to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in the life and ministry of Jesus. Third, the text seems to have the suffering servant passages in mind. At 9:16–17 McWilliams prefers to understand diatheke to refer to “covenant” rather than “testament.” He notes that even in ancient covenant making a death was normally required.

At 10:36 the author of Hebrews urges the need for endurance in his readers. McWilliams engages in a bit of polemics again here. He remarks, “Arminianism has never been able to understand, based as it is upon a faulty view of God and man, that these exhortation do not imply that true believers may fail to arrive at the promised destination. Calvinism understands that these exhortations are essential to Christian living. God’s promise does not make exhortation unnecessary” (297). In essence, McWilliams claims, again, that God uses exhortation to insure that the elect will arrive at their appointed end. Again, I respond, commanding the elect to persevere is superfluous if God has already predetermined their eternal salvation.

In his discussion of the definition of faith in 11:1, McWilliams adopts the view of Moulton and Milligan that hypostasis refers to the “title-deed” of things hoped for. The title-deed guarantees the obtaining of the object of faith. Hebrews 11:3 mentions that by faith we understand that God created the universe by his word. McWilliams takes some space at this point in the exposition to denounce evolution (308–309).

Let us be clear what this commentary is. It is presented as a series of expository sermons on Hebrews. However, these are meaty theological treatises. This might be a series that one preaches to a seminary-trained audience rather than to your typical Sunday morning congregation. You will not find here homely illustrations such as you would find, for example, in R. Kent Hughes’ two-volume collection of sermons on Hebrews. Instead, sermon “illustrations” largely consist of quotations—some quite lengthy—of Calvinist theologians or hymn-writers.

I am reluctant to recommend this commentary for two reasons. First, rather than interpreting Hebrews on its own terms, McWilliams takes pains to make the author of Hebrews sound like a Calvinist. I am afraid that his theology has controlled his exegesis. The Calvinist who wants to reinforce his bias will surely want to snatch up a copy of this book. Second, on occasion McWilliams is uncharitable towards those with whom he disagrees. I have noted some of his polemics above. He does not engage in polemics in most of his expositions, but the few places where he does employ them makes the commentary unpalatable to me.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Review of Vanhoye's Commentary on Hebrews

Albert Vanhoye. The Letter to the Hebrews: A New Commentary. New York: Paulist Press, 2015. Paperback. Pp. v + 266.

Albert Vanhoye is one of the most prolific writers on the Book of Hebrews. In my compiled bibliographies on Hebrews, I count 42 works by Vanhoye, including commentaries, monographs, and articles. His writings appear in several languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and even Latin. The work currently under review is the second commentary by Vanhoye that has appeared in recent years. I reviewed the other commentary, A Different Priest, over five years ago. Since I reviewed that commentary at length elsewhere, this review will be much shorter.

This is a mid-range commentary. While the commentary evinces scholarly research, it is written at a popular level. The commentary does not delve into the Greek text. Footnotes are not used and a very modest bibliography, along with a Scripture index, appears at the end of the book.

Vanhoye deals with some critical issues in the modest introduction (pages 1–20). He first considers genre. He believes that Hebrews is a sermon that was delivered to several different churches. This letter is then one instantiation of the sermon which became fixated in writing. This is an intriguing thesis which is certainly worthy of consideration. I find one problem with it: some of the passages in Hebrews seem to be dealing with the specific situation of a particular congregation (5:11; 6:10; 10:32–34), rather than to a broader audience.

In terms of doctrinal content, Vanhoye considers Hebrews to be a treatise on Christology. In particular, it depicts Jesus as a priest, a feature that is unique in the NT. He believes that the oracle in Psalm 110 prompted the author to consider Jesus’ status as a priest.

In his discussion of authorship, Vanhoye notes that Hebrews evinces some non-Pauline features, including a different literary style, different quotation practice, and a focus on Jesus’ priesthood. Nevertheless, Hebrews also shares some elements with Pauline theology. Vanhoye argues that the “dispatch note” at the end of the homily (13:19, 22–25) is by a different author than the rest of the work. He believes that the dispatch note evinces Pauline characteristics and hence concludes that Paul was giving his approval of a homily by a close colleague, who was most likely Barnabas.

Regarding other features of the composition of the homily, Vanhoye claims that the recipients were Christians, but he does not decide whether they were Jewish or Hellenistic. The “strength of the tradition” that the letter was readily accepted in the East persuades him that the homily was most likely written in Rome. He sets the date at around 66 or 67 CE, that is, before Paul’s martyrdom.

Vanhoye is most known for his work on the structure of Hebrews. In the introduction he gives a brief analysis, dividing the homily into five major parts:
     Exordium (1:1–4)
     Part 1 (1:5–2:18)
     Part 2 (3:1–5:10)
     Part 3 (5:11–10:39)
     Part 4 (11:1–12:13)
     Part 5 (12:14–13:19)
     Conclusion and doxology (13:20–25)
A briefer outline follows, which subdivides each of the five major parts. The introduction is followed by a long section (pages 21–50) entitled “Text of the Letter Annotated.” This section consists of a translation (which is not identified and appears to be the author’s own) with cross-references. The verses are arranged in order to highlight the literary structure of the homily. The commentary proper is divided into sections. Each section or subsection is headed by the structured translation followed by an exposition.

Aside from Vanhoye’s view of the composition of Hebrews, there is little that stands out for me from this commentary. Perhaps I have read too many commentaries on Hebrews. This commentary will give a good overview of the flow of thought of Hebrews, but persons seeking a more in-depth treatment of the Greek text will need to look elsewhere.

Review of Healy's Commentary on Hebrews

Mary Healy. Hebrews. Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016. Paperback. Pp. 316.

Mary Healy, professor of Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, has produced one of the most recent commentaries on Hebrews. This one belongs to the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. According to the series editors, the series “aims to serve the ministry of the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church” (9). The series intends to provide an accessible commentary on each book of the NT for the benefit of pastors and other interested persons. The series will “focus on the meaning of the text for faith and life rather than on the technical questions that occupy scholars” (10). The commentary uses ordinary language that does not require expertise on the part of the reader. The series is naturally from the Catholic perspective, but it will draw on the scholarship from other traditions.

In the modest introduction, Healy deals briefly with some of the critical issues of Hebrews. She says that Paul was likely not the author and sets out the usual reasons for rejecting Pauline authorship. She then briefly considers other candidates but concludes that the author is simply unknown. She believes that the recipients were likely Jewish Christians, not Gentiles, who were in danger of falling away from their faith. Jerusalem was a possible destination for the book, but it was more likely sent to Rome. She prefers the date of composition to be sometime in the early to mid-60s CE. She notes some of its literary form and features, including Hebrews oral character, its alternation between doctrine and moral exhortation, its rich vocabulary and use of various literary devices. She considers Hebrews to be an example of an early Christian homily. She notes that the structure of the book revolves around seven “primary reflections on biblical passages” (24).

Healy highlights six theological themes in Hebrews, which she designates as follows: (1) Jesus our high priest, (2) solidarity with sinners, (3) the power of Christ’s death, (4) old and new, (5) the pilgrim church, and (6) drawing near to God. She concludes the introduction with a reflection on “Hebrews for today.” The introduction is followed by a straightforward outline of Hebrews.

In the commentary proper, each chapter begins with an overview of the passage under consideration. Each chapter usually includes several subsections which deal with the text in smaller portions. Each subsection begins with a translation from the New American Bible followed by cross-references to the OT, NT, the Catholic catechism, and the lectionary. The exposition of the text proceeds with a verse-by-verse analysis. The English translation being commented upon appears in bold print within the exposition. References to the Greek text scarcely appear and the Greek is in transliteration when it does appear. Two types of “sidebars” are sprinkled throughout the commentary. First, are Biblical Background sidebars that deal with historical, literary, or theological issues. Second, are Living Tradition sidebars that “offer pertinent material from the postbiblical Christian tradition, including quotations from Church documents and from the writings of saints and Church Fathers” (10). Many of the chapters or subsections conclude with a “reflection and application.” A glossary is included at the end of the book for more specialized terms.

In what follows, I will highlight a few passages that stood out to me in the commentary. At 1:4, Healy believes that the name that Jesus inherits is the divine name. In this she is following some recent scholars such as Richard Bauckham and Amy Peeler. Generally speaking, most scholars have taken the name that Jesus inherits to be that of Son.

At 2:10, where it states that Jesus was “perfected” through suffering, Healy notes that the Greek word teleioo means to “ordain” a priest. However, the LXX almost always uses teleioo with tas cheiras, “the hands,” when referring to ordination. Ordination is probably not its primary meaning in Hebrews. Rather, it likely refers to Jesus’ vocational perfection. Jesus was perfected for his role as high priest.

At chapter 4, Healy opines that the “rest” that the author of Hebrews speaks about is both a future and present reality. On the one hand, “Hebrews is probably referring to the future heavenly kingdom, when we will finally be free from all the toils, trials, and troubles of this life” (89). On the other hand, “God’s rest is a present reality that we are invited to enter” today (90).

In her discussion of the warning passage of chapter 6, Healy rightly rejects eternal security: “Some Christians have embraced the misguided doctrine of ‘eternal security,’ which is sometimes expressed as ‘once saved, always saved.’ However, this view is inconsistent with many New Testament texts that warn Christians of the possibility of forfeiting our eternal salvation” (129).

At 7:3, Healy remarks that the author does not view Melchizedek as some sort of supernatural beings. Rather, the author makes his argument about Melchizedek based on the gaps in the Genesis account regarding his parentage and genealogy.

In her reflection on 9:1–10, Healy avers that, symbolically, the floor plan of the tabernacle signified three things. The outer and inner spaces signified respectively: (1) the former age and the new age; the new covenant versus the old; (2) the exterior and the interior of the person; outward ritual purity versus inward purity of the conscience; and (3) earth and heaven. She makes the interesting correlation that they correspond to the threefold spiritual sense of Scripture, according to Christian tradition: allegorical, moral, and anagogical. She also notes that the objects of the tabernacle mentioned by Hebrews typologically foreshadow Christ.

At 9:11 Healy claims that “the greater and more perfect tabernacle” refers to Christ’s own risen body. This explanation fails to explain how Christ can “pass through” his own exalted body. At 9:14 Healy argues, following Vanhoye, that the phrase “through eternal spirit” likely alludes to the fire on the altar of sacrifice, which the priests were never to let extinguish. The fire transformed the sacrifices into smoke and made them acceptable to God. She remarks, “Hebrew suggests, then, that the ‘perpetual fire’ foreshadowed the eternal divine fire that engulfs Jesus’ sacrifice: the Holy Spirit” (176).

At 9:23 Healy argues that the heavenly things that need cleansing are “the law written on the heart, the redeemed people of God, the true tent that is Christ’s glorified humanity, and the new covenant liturgy” (185–86).

At 10:20, which seems to equate the veil with the flesh of Christ, Healy suggests that “as God was present but hidden behind the veil of the tabernacle, so in Christ God is present but veiled by his human nature” (211). She also indicates that the reference to Jesus’ flesh and blood in 10:19–20 is an allusion to the Eucharist. She believes this passage is an invitation to the readers to join the Christian community in worship, “which takes place supremely in the Eucharistic liturgy” (211). Healy finds additional allusions to the Eucharist in 6:4 (“tasted of the heavenly gift”) and 13:10 (“We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat”).

In the reflection and application section on 11:30–40, Healy has a particularly compelling tribute to contemporary Christian heroes who exemplified living by faith.

This is a solid mid-range commentary. It evinces interaction with the scholarly literature while not being overly technical. The commentary does not give a detailed explication of the Greek text will, but rather provides a good overview of the flow of thought of Hebrews. The closest technical equivalent to this series would be the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, but it differs from this series with its inclusion of sidebars.

Clearly the commentary is geared towards Catholic readers. Occasionally Healy refers to the Catechism or she quotes one of the popes, or she makes mention of well-known Catholic figures of the past. Nevertheless, these references are occasional and Christians of other traditions can benefit from her commentary.

Healy usually makes sound exegetical decisions, but naturally one will not agree with everything. For example, I do not think there are any allusions to the Eucharist in Hebrews. As noted, I also believe that Jesus’ perfection does not refer to his ordination as high priest but to his vocational perfection in his role as high priest.

Review of the Wisdom Commentary on Hebrews

Mary Ann Beavis and HyeRan Kim-Cragg. Hebrews. Wisdom Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015. Hardback. Pp. xciv + 238.

This commentary on Hebrews by Beavis and Kim-Cragg is one of the inaugural volumes in the Wisdom Commentary series, which is entirely devoted to feminist interpretation of all of the canonical texts of the Bible (including those in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions). The volume opens up with a forward by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and a fairly extensive introduction by general editor Barbara Reid that explains the rationale and approach for this new commentary series.

The commentary is meant to be accessible and is geared towards pastors, teachers, ministers and students of the Bible. The authors in this series come from a wide diversity of backgrounds. A unique feature of this commentary series is that most of the volumes are written by two authors whose voices are intended to interweave throughout the commentary. Moreover, additional voices are included in grayed-out boxes scattered throughout the commentary which may critique or complement the authors of the main text, thus offering a lens into the diversity of feminist perspectives. While the commentaries will focus on the “world in front of the text”—in this case, feminist concerns—it will also engage the “world behind and within the text” as well. Reid offers a brief overview of the history of feminist biblical interpretation. Then she gives an explanation of the rationale, approaches, and methodologies of feminist biblical interpretation. She then indicates that each of the authors will explain their conventions for their language about God and their nomenclature for the two testaments. The series will use the NRSV as the base translation due to its inclusive language for human beings. Art and poetry will be included in the series as well. The bibliography includes only works cited, but a comprehensive bibliography will be posted to a dedicated website and updated regularly. The website is: wisdomcommentary.org.

At the beginning of their lengthy introduction, the authors discuss the role of Wisdom, or Sophia (as the authors seem to prefer) in the Scriptures. Sophia is personified in the wisdom literature of the OT thus providing “a rich vein of female God-language for feminist theological reflection, ground in both Scripture and tradition” (xxxviii). One of the major purposes of this commentary, then, is to “excavate the Sophialogy of Hebrews by uncovering its foundations in Jewish Wisdom literature and by recovering the implications of this submerged Wisdom discourse for the feminist theological appreciation—and critique—of Hebrews” (xxxix). They add that the commentary will also read Hebrews from liturgical, postcolonial, and theological perspectives.

Despite the fact that Hebrews never mentions wisdom, the authors contend that Hebrews shows the closest affinity to the apocryphal book known as the Wisdom of Solomon. The Alexandrian origin of the Wisdom of Solomon is the general consensus among scholars, and some scholars, noting the affinities between Hebrews and Philo, claim an Alexandrian influence upon the author of Hebrews as well. The authors note various resemblances between the Wisdom of Solomon and Hebrews. One of these is the “belief in the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul for the righteous” (xli). This is a very dubious connection. The passages they cite talk about an eternal salvation (5:9), redemption (9:12), and inheritance (9:15). This is hardly the language of the immortality of the soul. This type of language can equally apply to the concept of the resurrection of the dead—language that is used in Hebrews (6:2; 11:19, 35; 13:20). Other similarities (e.g., notion of the earthly temple as a reflection of the heavenly tabernacle, emphasis on the exodus narrative, notion of covenants with the ancestors) may be attributed to a common stock of images that are common to much of Jewish literature, and not just wisdom literature. While the influence of wisdom literature on Hebrews cannot be denied (as evidenced in the prologue), I suspect its influence has been overemphasized in this commentary due to the authors’ interest in depicting Jesus as the embodiment of the divine Sophia.

The authors then turn to discuss feminist interpretation of Hebrews. At the time of this writing, only a few chapter-length feminist commentaries on Hebrews have appeared. The authors believe that more work can be done in this area. They define feminist biblical interpretation as “a method of interpretation of biblical texts that presupposes women’s full humanity and equality . . ., recognizes and celebrates biblical traditions and interpretations that support these values, and critiques biblical traditions and interpretations that imply that women and other marginalized people are inferior socially, intellectually, morally, or spiritually” (xlv). They recognize that feminist biblical interpretation works with a “hermeneutic of suspicion” towards the biblical text, which is deemed androcentric and has been interpreted largely from an androcentric and patriarchal bias. In order to avoid a “Eurocentric” bias, this commentary attempts to include “feminist voices from different social, geographical, and religious locations” (xlvi). In addition to the two major coauthors, other contributors to this volume are identified as Marie Annharte Baker, Nancy Calvert-Koyzis, Ma. Maricel S. Ibita, Ma. Marilou s. Ibita, and Justin Jaron Lewis. Mary Ann Beavis provides the feminist exegetical voice, while HyeRan Kim-Cragg is Korean-Canadian who has interests in liturgy and pedagogy, and takes a postcolonial approach, and an Asian North American approach to doing theology. The other contributing voices may offer interpretations that are at variance with one another and with the authors of the main commentary.

After introducing all the contributors, the authors turn to the critical issues surrounding Hebrews. The author was possibly a companion of Paul. They give some credence to the hypothesis that Priscilla was the author, but ultimately a firm decision about authorship cannot be made. The authors favor a collective authorship (more than one author was involved in the production of Hebrews). In my opinion, the self-referential masculine participle at 11:32 rules out female authorship, but the authors do not deal with this passage.

Hebrews was probably composed before 96 CE and most likely composed after 70 CE, but this is not certain. The destination is likely Rome. They believe that the audience was a mixture of Jewish and Gentile Christians, who were undergoing social alienation and public shame due to their adherence to a new religious movement.

The authors reiterate their claim that Hebrews is best understood against the background of an Alexandrian Hellenstic Jewish milieu. They assert that Hebrews has a Platonic worldview and they note similarities in the worldview and exegetical methodology between Philo and Hebrews. However, the authors seem unaware of the devastating critiques that have been lodged against the view that Hebrews exhibits Philonic and Platonic influences. Scholars such as Ronald Williamson, Lincoln Hurst, and others have demonstrated that the similarities between Hebrews and Philo are more superficial than real. I recently read Jody Barnard’s monograph that makes a strong case that Jewish apocalyptic tradition is a more likely influence on Hebrews. The authors note that Gnosticism has generally been rule out as a possible influence on Hebrews.

The authors provide a brief outline of the book noting the alternation between exposition and paraenesis. The authors highlight a number of major themes in Hebrews. The first three revolve around the theme of faith: the pilgrimage of faith, the persistence of faith, and the perfecter of faith. Other motifs include the high priesthood of Christ, the earthly servant Christ, sacrifice and atonement, covenant, and true worship.

The introduction foreshadows some of the pushback that the commentators will give against more traditional interpretations of Hebrews. For example, some passages in Hebrews give “apparent justification of child abuse and physical punishment of children (11:7; 12:11)” (xlviii). The authors seem to view Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as “divinely sanctioned child abuse” and the story of Rahab as a justification of the conquest of Canaan (lxxv). The authors seem to question that Hebrews exhibits a high Christology, which they think emerged from “the over-literalization of the highly allusive and metaphorical language of the discourse” (lxxvii). And they are particularly troubled by atonement theology: “it suggests that God is a sadistic deity who requires blood and death in order to be satisfied; it requires slaughter and so is inherently violent; it pictures God as a harsh patriarch who demands the death of his son so that others might live; and the concept of vicarious atonement, in which an innocent victim suffers and dies for the salvation of others, is incomprehensible in the postmodern world” (lxxvii). And the concept of covenant “conjure[s] up dangerous images of colonialism” (lxxxii). This kind of edginess characterizes the commentary throughout.

The authors note that Hebrews is in some sense supersessionistic in that it views the new covenant as a replacement for the old covenant. But Hebrews is not an anti-Jewish book. The author was Jewish, he worshipped the same God, interpreted the same Scriptures, used the same methods of interpretation, and had the same messianic and eschatological hopes that other Jews had. Hebrews has wrongly been used for anti-Jewish purposes in the history of Christianity.

The introduction concludes with an interpretive essay by Nancy Calvert Koyzis on “proto-feminist interpretations of Hebrews.” In particular, she identifies two nineteenth century women, Gracilla Boddington and Elizabeth Rundle Charles, who wrote commentaries on Hebrews before the advent of the modern feminist movement.

In the commentary proper, the exposition proceeds on a passage-by-passage basis. A translation of the NRSV is provided, along with the occasional text-boxes from the various contributors that offer explanatory comments, or complement or challenge the exposition of the main text. Greek is occasionally used and sometimes translated. So, some ability to read Greek is beneficial for using the commentary.

In what follows, I will highlight some of the interpretive moves that the authors make on the text of Hebrews. I will be including a number of direct quotations so that the readers of this review can get a real sense of the kind of tone this commentary strikes.

At 1:3 Jesus is described as the “heir of all things.” This is problematic from a feminist perspective since “it functions within a patrilineal legal system in which sons inherit the paternal estate” (3). Moreover, it is problematic from a postcolonial perspective since the “Christian universal standard has been to convert ‘inferior’ and ‘uncivilized’ others to Christianity by Western imperial and ‘civilizing’ missions and even to conquer and colonize them” (4). One wonders whether the authors see any value in evangelism and missions.

At 1:5 Hebrews quotes Ps 2:7 which states that God has “begotten” the Son. The authors prefer the translation “gave birth to,” thus portraying God as a mother. The next quotation from 2 Samuel 7:14 clearly identifies God as a Father. Hence, God is both father and mother, “parent of all people in the world” (9). In fact, they argue that “God is beyond humanly constructed binary gender” (9).

Oddly, the authors see Heb 1:5–7 as evoking the baptism of Jesus. This is an extremely minority position. Most scholars today view all of chapter 1 as expressing the exaltation of the Son. Nevertheless, the mention of baptism prompts the authors to challenge the “gender exclusivity of the baptismal formula” (12). They advocate, instead, for creating new “nonsexist, inclusive, and emancipatory language so that the vision of baptism as the birthright of radical social equality can be lived out” (13).

At the beginning of their discussion of Heb 2:5–18, the authors note that Hebrews is suppersessionistic in that the new covenant has replaced the old. They argue, however, that Hebrews does not attack Judaism but it has been used by to justify “Western Christian imperialism against Jewish and non-Western Christian people” (19). These verses also prompt an extended discussion on the dangers of the exploitation and domination over nature (and women). The Wisdom tradition, in their mind, provides a corrective to the “Western colonial European and anthropocentric theology influenced by the biblical text and its patriarchal interpretation” (25) in that it encourages responsibility rather than domination over the created order.

The authors also find problematic Hebrews’ contention that Jesus learned obedience through suffering. They contend that this notion needs to be “dismantled” as it justifies oppression or abuse (55–56).

In their discussion of 5:11–6:8, the authors accuse Hebrews of using manipulative, coercive, and belittling rhetoric which “places the author in a dominant position over the audience” and is “used to quash dissent.” They add that the “alternation between insults, threats, and flattery is disturbingly reminiscent of the dynamics of abusive relationships” (59). Later the authors opine that “from a feminist standpoint . . . the homilist’s argumentation bears a disturbing resemblance to that of an abuser who insults and intimidates his or her victim and then uses flattery and reassurance of love and approval . . . to convince the victim to remain in the relationship and to assert the power of the abuser over the abused. Such coercive and manipulative techniques should have no place in contemporary homiletics” (64).

In 6:9–20 Hebrews depicts Abraham as a model of faith. The authors, on the other hand, find Abraham to be a “deeply flawed figure who seems unworthy of his prominence in Jewish and Christian tradition” (67) due to his depiction in the Genesis accounts.

On 7:3, the authors write: “Although there is no hint in the Genesis account that Melchizedek was anything but a human being, the author uses the lack of scriptural references to his lineage as indicative of near-divine qualities” (71). There is in fact a vigorous discussion among Hebrews’ scholars as to whether the author views Melchizedek as a heavenly being, or whether he simply uses a type of an argument from silence to make his argument. The authors seem unaware of this discussion.

In their discussion of 9:1–28, the authors opine that the use of the tabernacle, rather than the temple, by Hebrews more appropriately aligns with the notion of Jesus’ incarnation. The mention of the tabernacle prompts the authors to go on various tangents such as an enumeration of the role of women in building the tabernacle; that the pillar of cloud/fire in the wilderness was associated with “Sophia” in the Book of Wisdom; and that Shekinah was “the preeminent feminine aspect of God” (88–89).

In a grayed-out text box, Justin Jaron Lewis offers a Jewish perspective on 10:11–12, which discusses the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. Lewis finds beauty in the repetitive sacrifices of the old covenant, for the sinner can continually receive forgiveness from them. By contrast, Lewis is disturbed by what he believes is Hebrews’ notion that there is no forgiveness available for the sinner after accepting the one-time sacrifice of Christ. He cites 10:26–27 to support this contention. But, I believe Lewis misconstrues Hebrews at this point. The author is not talking about all sins, but apostasy in general as the later context demonstrates (10:29). There is no forgiveness available for the one who rejects Jesus and the sacrifice that he made for our sanctification.

In an interpretive essay on blood, sacrifice, atonement, and ritual, Kim-Cragg inserts a provocative poem by Gabrielle Dietrich which “makes a connection between women’s menstruation and Jesus’ shedding of blood on a cross, while criticizing the hypocrisy of eucharistic practice corrupted by the priest” (103).

In another lengthy interpretive essay, Ma. Maricel Ibita cites approvingly of feminist critiques of the claim that Jesus is the Son of God and that his sacrifice was made once for all. Feminist writers believe that Christ’s sacrifice and suffering “promotes necrophilia, trivializes violence, and idealizes suffering,” while also giving divine sanction to the abuse of women and abusive child rearing (110).

Hebrews’ mention of the veil in 10:19–20 oddly prompts a text-box discussion on the veiling of women in Muslim cultures. The veil of the tabernacle/temple was properly a curtain and served a different function than veils do for Muslim women, so it is hard to see what one has to do with the other.

On 10:19–39 the commentators disparage the “verbally abusive rhetorical pattern of alternating threats and compliments” that the author engages in (129). They opine that “from a feminist standpoint, the homilist’s rhetorical bullying of the audience seems to trivialize the community’s genuine suffering due to religious persecution” (130).

In their discussion of 12:4–11, the commentators also find equally disturbing Hebrews’ depiction of God as a father who disciplines his children for their own good. They claim that the language is “disturbingly redolent of the kind of ‘divine child abuse’ decried by feminist theologians” (162).

The commentators also find Hebrews’ command to obey and submit to their leaders (13:7) deeply problematic: “Here the audience is placed in the position of dependent wives, children, and slaves, expected to obey and submit to patriarchal leadership . . . and subjected to emotional blackmail: not to be duly submissive and obedient would cause the leaders pain and hurt the disobedient themselves in some unspecified way . . . It is easy to imagine that some members of the community—including leaders—were tired of being subjected to suffering and deprivation in the service of a judgmental God for an invisible future reward” (182).

The command to show hospitality (13:2) prompts a lengthy essay by Ma. Marilou Ibita on hospitality from a postcolonial and liberationist perspective as it relates to Filipina domestic workers. She surveys several biblical stories in which women display hospitality, but she also notes that they are stories in which women need hospitality. In the second part of the essay, Ibita turns to a discussion of Filipinas who both provide and are in need of hospitality.

Before embarking on an evaluation of the commentary, let me situate myself in my own social location. I am a white, North American, male, who tends to be on the conservative end of the theological spectrum. This commentary was presumably designed to undermine the views of someone like me. Now, I understand the importance of feminist criticism. It emerged as a corrective to the manifold ways in which the Bible has been misused and abused to mistreat women. (And let me be quick to add: I have never used the Bible to advocate oppression or discrimination against women and minorities). But sometimes the pendulum can swing too far in the other direction. Feminist interpretation can equally be guilty of misreading and misapplying the biblical texts to support feminist agendas. Moreover, I find the hermeneutic of suspicion to be a two-edged sword. It can recoil on those who employ the hermeneutic.

So, what shall we say about the book? First, it is a highly original work. Recently, it was reported that some commentaries—including a major commentary on Hebrews—was pulled from circulation due to issues of plagiarism. This is certainly not an accusation that can be levelled against this book. There is simply nothing else like it in Hebrews’ scholarship. I can imagine that some readers—particularly those on the progressive end of the theological spectrum—relishing the commentators’ bold critiques, interpretations, and applications of the text to contemporary issues.

However, I cannot recommend the book for several reasons. First, as I have noted in the review above, I think some of the commentators’ interpretations of Hebrews have missed the mark. First, the notion that Hebrews believes in the immortality of the soul is simply wrong. Rather, Hebrews, like the other books of the NT, believes in the resurrection of the body. Second, I think their contention that Hebrews reflects wisdom themes is overplayed. Hebrews never identifies Jesus as wisdom or Sophia. Yet, the commentators seem overly concerned to inject Sophia theology at every possible turn. Third, while there are scholars who contend that Hebrews was influenced by Platonism/Philonism, this notion has been highly contested in Hebrews scholarship. The authors show no awareness of this issue. This leads to my second point.

The authors show little awareness of the contested issues of interpretation regarding Hebrews. For example, they show no awareness of the varying interpretations regarding the figure of Melchizedek in Hebrews. A perusal of the fourteen-page bibliography reveals that only a small percentage of the works listed are directly related to Hebrews. Many important commentaries, monographs, and articles are lacking.

Third, the commentary is highly idiosyncratic. While the main commentary does try to explicate the text in its original context, it frequently veers off into tangential discussions of issues that are only peripherally related to the text. The main commentary is frequently punctuated with interpretive essays and grayed-out text boxes that address issues that are more or less related to the text of Hebrews. Moreover, the commentary inserts thirteen odd little poems by Marie Annharte Baker, which have no relevance to the text of Hebrews. For example, in chapter 7—the chapter about Melchizedek—the authors insert a poem about a giant skunk spraying a wolverine! It is hard to see what value these poems contribute to an understanding of Hebrews. In addition, the inclusion of a poem comparing the sacrifice of Jesus to a woman’s menstruation is simply disconcerting.

Fourth, it appears to me that the commentators have deep contempt for the biblical writers and the western Christian tradition in general. They denounce Abraham as a model of faith. They often attack the author’s theology and use of rhetoric. They accuse Hebrews of contributing to the abuse of women and children. They reject traditional understandings of the Trinity, Christology, the atonement, and the sacraments. They condemn the use of foreign missions and evangelism as contributing to imperialism. It is hard to see what value this commentary has for preachers and teachers when the commentary seeks to undermine the very text that should be the basis for theological reflection for preaching and teaching.

Thanks to Liturgical Press for a review copy of this book.