Reviews of

Reading the Epistle to the Hebrews

In Eric F. MASON, Hebrews, Kevin B. McCRUDEN, New Testament, Nicholas J. Moore, Society of Biblical Literature on July 16, 2013 at 11:02 am


2013.07.15 Eric F. Mason and Kevin B. McCruden, eds. Reading the Epistle to the Hebrews: A Resource for Students. SBL Resources for Biblical Study 66. Atlanta: SBL, 2011. xvi + 354 pp. ISBN: 9781589836082.

Review by Nicholas J. Moore, Keble College, University of Oxford.

Many thanks to SBL for kindly providing us with a review copy.

This volume unites 13 chapters from current specialists on the Letter to the Hebrews, or other fields bearing on particular questions in Hebrews, with the intention of making the current state of research and discourse on the letter in scholarly circles accessible for advanced undergraduates (and a wider audience, including ‘any educated reader studying Hebrews for the first time’ [2]). The work therefore avoids jargon, provides glosses for technical terms, transliterates Greek and Hebrew, and keeps footnotes to a minimum.

As part of the Society of Biblical Literature’s ‘Resources for Biblical Study’ series – which includes volumes on biblical language learning, thematic studies, and history of interpretation – this volume continues in the same vein as Reading the Book of Revelation: A Resource for Students (ed. David Barr, 2003), offering a reading guide to a particular biblical text.

The contributions to Reading the Epistle to the Hebrews are grouped into five broad categories (made explicit in Eric Mason’s introduction though not in the contents page), something which helps provide a degree of coherence and structure. The first four essays deal with conceptual background. That Hebrews was written in the Greco-Roman world (Patrick Gray, ch.1) and makes extensive use of the Old Testament (David Moffitt, ch.4) is uncontroversial, but the questions of how and why it draws on these (and in the case of the Old Testament, what base text it works with and to what extent it modifies the passages it cites) are less straightforward and these two chapters are useful introductions to these topics. Whether to read Hebrews against a background of Middle Platonism (James Thompson, ch.2) or Jewish apocalypticism (Eric Mason, ch.3) is a somewhat more controverted and dichotomised question in Hebrews scholarship. Both essays, and the volume as a whole, strike something of a conciliatory note on this front; this is helpful for students to grasp, although the contrast between Thompson and Mason’s contributions should also alert to the different results that will be obtained. The need to be attentive to where Hebrews differs from either or both of these conceptual backgrounds should also be stressed.

Questions of Hebrews’ cultural location also underlie the second grouping of essays, which approach the text’s structure from Greco-Roman rhetorical (Craig Koester) and Jewish homiletical (Gabriella Gelardini) points of view. Both pieces summarize much more extensive work elsewhere, to which the interested reader is referred. Koester’s proposal is well informed by an understanding of contemporary rhetoric; nevertheless, the resulting structure fails to take into account either the widely-recognised inclusio between 4.14-16 and 10.19-25, or the central summary of the author’s argument around 8.1 (‘the main point of what we are saying’), and as a result leaves this reviewer unconvinced. Similarly, Gelardini’s contention that Heb 4.4 cites Exod 31.17b rather than Gen 2.2 is simply confusing without fuller explanation than the brief defence it receives (134). That this is far from obvious highlights a weak point in her argument, which – along with the difficulties in assuming the existence of a three-year lectionary cycle in the first century (let alone the precise readings in that cycle) – makes the detail of her proposal hard to sustain. The overall thesis of a homiletical form within a synagogue setting has however received much wider affirmation. This section on structure would have been strengthened by a contribution exploring George Guthrie’s text-linguistic approach and/or Cynthia Westfall’s discourse analysis; such a piece could also have formed a suitable bridge to the next section, ‘emerging methodological approaches’.

Jerome Neyrey’s application of social-scientific work on ‘brokers’ to Jesus in Hebrews brings a helpful perspective to the question of mediation, clearly a fundamental issue in the letter, although it is not clear what is gained by using the modern terminology of ‘broker’ in addition to that of first-century patron-client reciprocity conventions. Kenneth Schenck offers a narrative approach, in line with his two books on Hebrews, giving a brief introduction to narrative criticism and acknowledging that while Hebrews does not have a narrative form, this approach can nevertheless serve as a helpful heuristic device (174).

The penultimate section deals with the theology of the letter. Frank Matera gives an introduction to ‘the theology of the Epistle to the Hebrews’, which contains a helpful categorization of the letter as exposition serving exhortation. Although he does not claim to be offering a detailed structure of the letter, this distinction (diagrammatized on page 191) is a useful starting point structurally, and learning to distinguish between these two kinds of material in the document serves as a guide for students reading Hebrews. Kevin McCruden’s contribution examines the theme of perfection, which has great importance for Hebrews’ Christology and soteriology; he emphasizes the earthly, suffering process through which Jesus attained perfection, something which correlates with the present and future reality of perfection as a process for the believer.

The final section, on reception history, contains three rather different contributions. Rowan Greer speaks out of his expertise on patristic interpretation, offering a window onto the use of Hebrews in the Chalcedonian controversy. He ends with an interesting suggestion that the hermeneutical circle between theology and exegesis in the early church corresponds to that between historical reconstruction and exegesis in our own day. It is hard to imagine an undergraduate context in which this essay might be set reading, but it is a worthwhile read and the final provocative suggestion could form the basis for some interesting discussions. Alan Mitchell addresses the current ‘hot topic’ of supersessionism, that is, does Hebrews promote a ‘replacement theology’ in which the church supersedes Israel? His answer is an emphatic ‘no’. In the course of his essay he shows that supersessionism can be defined in at least three ways (based on R. Kendall Soulen’s categorization). This is important, as it can feel like supersessionism is a kind of bogey-word that everyone wants to avoid but is rarely defined. This in part stems from the political/religious sensibilities surrounding the issue, which Mitchell addresses directly in his essay. While Mitchell’s reading is broadly convincing, and while it can be legitimate and worthwhile to approach the biblical text with modern questions, the end-point nevertheless comes across as a rather foregone conclusion: Mitchell’s presupposition that supersessionism is a bad thing is clear, and the essay seems to be driven from start to finish by 20th and 21st century concerns. Finally, Mark Torgerson has amassed a fascinating collection of material from patristic texts through Luther to modern hymnals and lectionaries to illustrate the reception and use of Hebrews in the church. He cites an important passage from Chrysostom’s Homilies on Hebrews which offers a sacrificial understanding of the eucharist, but unfortunately does not cite the wider context of this passage, in which Chrysostom wrestles with the potential problem that Hebrews’ treatment of Levitical sacrifices could also be applied to critique the eucharist understood sacrificially (271-72). His oscillation between the eucharist being ‘a remembrance of’ but also ‘the same’ as Christ’s sacrifice anticipates in kernel the Reformation debates over the Mass, and it is a pity that Calvin’s Commentary on Hebrews (explicitly directed against Johann Eck’s De sacrificio misae libri tres) is not mentioned. But Torgerson has done a remarkable job of selecting and making accessible a wide variety of material. He concludes that, given Hebrews’ important and unique contribution to Christian faith, it is encouraging to see it being read and used more widely in the church, something with which one can only agree.

The epilogue by Harold Attridge is no mere formality; it is highly worthwhile reading and almost makes any review obsolete (although in this case one hopes that what is obsolete and growing old is not soon to disappear…). Attridge is deservedly a respected figure in Hebrews scholarship, and his epilogue reveals that he has closely read all of the contributions. He offers a brief but penetrating analysis of each essay in turn, and those planning to use this volume in teaching would do well to have students read Attridge’s comments on any chapters they set. In addition, Eric Mason’s introduction provides summaries of each chapter.

One broader though essentially minor critique: the volume represents almost exclusively North American scholarship, with the single exception of Gabriella Gelardini. This seems a shame when there are a number of Hebrews scholars elsewhere in the world who have made a significant contribution (e.g. Knut Backhaus, Hermut Löhr, William Loader, Peter O’Brien), and also an up-and-coming generation, certainly in Europe and doubtless elsewhere, of younger biblical scholars working on Hebrews.

In sum, Mason and McCruden are to be congratulated for bringing together a fine collection offering excellent breadth in introducing the Letter to the Hebrews to a non-specialist audience. The book is produced to a high standard and is well-presented, a pleasure to handle and read. It is to be hoped that SBL will continue to offer similarly well-informed and up-to-date introductory volumes on other biblical books.

Nicholas J. Moore
Keble College, University of Oxford
nicholas.moore [ at ]


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