Friday, January 13, 2017

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:

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.

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