Reviews of

Hebrews in Contexts

In Brill, Bryan Dyer, Gabriella GELARDINI, Graeco-Roman Backgrounds, Harold W. ATTRIDGE, Hebrews, Jewish Backgrounds, New Testament, Spatial Theory on September 9, 2017 at 6:45 pm

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2017.09.19 | Gabriella Gelardini and Harold W. Attridge, eds. Hebrews in Contexts. Leiden: Brill, 2016. ISBN: 9789004311688.

Reviewed by Bryan Dyer, Baker Academic.

This collection of essays, edited by Gabriella Gelardini and Harold Attridge, brings together many of the fine papers that have been presented in the Hebrews section at the SBL annual meetings from 2005 to 2013. In their introduction, the editors place the volume within the increased attention that the epistle has received during those years. More specifically, this volume (and the Hebrews section over the years) attempts to place Hebrews within a variety of “contexts”—a term referring to historical context (Jewish, Greco-Roman) as well as hermeneutical approaches (spatial theory, canonical reading, history of interpretation). One key feature is that the editors (also the SBL co-chairs) sought out non-Hebrews scholars who are experts in fields with baring on Hebrews to bring their specialty to the text. As a result, the volume presents some fresh readings and approaches to the text that will be new to even seasoned Hebrews scholars.

Jewish Contexts

The first section, “Jewish Contexts,” brings together essays on the epistle within the history and literature of early Judaism. In the first essay Daniel Boyarin, an expert on talmudic and midrashic studies, encourages readers to approach Hebrews a Jewish text that is closely related to other Jewish texts and homilies of the time. For Boyarin, Hebrews is clearly to be understood as midrash—an insight that provides an interpretative framework for how its author incorporates Scripture into his text. Specific focus is given to the activity of stringing verses together (“catena”) as a “treasured way of approaching scripture, to make its words live on” (17). Boyarin devotes the most attention to the author of Hebrews’ use of Psalm 95 in chapters 3-4. Drawing from midrashic techniques, he argues that the word “today” is used as an abbreviation for the entire verse and a “coded reference for obeying the word of God” (23). Boyarin argues strongly that Hebrews is an early example of midrastic interpretation without assuming any type of anachronistic rabbinic influence upon the epistle.

In the next essay, Daniel E. Kim argues that studying the Targumim can help provide insights into traditions that may have influenced the author of Hebrews. Looking specifically at Hebrews 3–4 and its use of Psalm 95, Kim shows how the conflation of “house” in 3:1–6 and “rest” in 3:7–4:16 best represent, not a difficulty in the text, but a complex idea that is also present in the Targumim. Kim shows how this idea has its origin in ancient Near Eastern thought, appears in the Old Testament, and shows up more fully developed in the Targumim. The author of Hebrews, then, seems to be following a commonly accepted theology that explains the interpretative moves he makes in chapters 3 and 4.

John Lierman also examines Heb 3:1–6, but with an eye to the titles “high priest” and “apostle” given to Jesus and their probable application to Moses as well. As Lierman points out, these titles do not seem to be derived from any contemporary Christology by the author of Hebrews. Instead, Lierman argues, one can trace a history of understanding Moses as a priest and apostle (“sent one” of God) throughout Jewish interpretation. It is these Jewish ideas about Moses (traced through the Old Testament, Second Temple literature, Samaritan literature, and rabbinic sources) that form the backdrop for Hebrews’ presentation of Jesus as “the apostle and high priest of our confession.” However, one must grapple with how prominent this line of interpretation would have been by the time of the composition of Hebrews. Lierman does show some instances of Moses presented as performing priestly duties and described as being “sent” by God, but would the two concepts have been so obviously tied together by the first century that the audience of Hebrews would have easily made the association? Lierman’s case might have been stronger had he demonstrated how the context of Heb 3:1–6 is dependent upon this connection between both Jesus and Moses as priests and apostles.

In the final essay engaging with Hebrews in its Jewish context, Eric Mason offers an examination of Heb 1:7 and its understanding of angels as either created or non-created beings. The main interpretive issue that Mason engages with is how the author of Hebrews can compare Jesus to Melchizedek (understood as an eternal, angelic being) in Heb 7:3 if he had already contrasted Jesus with angels as temporal, created beings (in Heb 1:5-14). To approach this issue, Mason surveys texts from the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple literature that discuss angels as created beings. He finds no conclusive creation texts in the Hebrew Bible that explains the origins of angels, but he does trace a trajectory of interpretation in the Second Temple that interpreted texts (especially Psalm 104) to understand angels as created beings. However, this was not the only position found during that period as 4 Ezra makes clear. Thus, Mason argues that while many have interpreted the author of Hebrews’ citation of Psalm 104:4 in Heb 1:7 to imply that angels are created beings, there is nothing within the history of interpretation of that text or within the context of the epistle that makes such an interpretation necessary.

Greco-Roman and Empire Critical Contexts

The next four essays make up the “Greco-Roman and Empire Critical Contexts” section. In the first of these, classics scholar Fritz Graf looks at Heb 5:11 in light of two parallel texts from Greek literature. Graf first connects the concept of “feebleness” (νωθρός), within a context of slow learners to its only other appearance in Greco-Roman literature, Plato’s Theatetus—a text the author “must have read […] at some point in his philosophical or rhetorical training” (99). In this passage, then, the author of Hebrews, much like Plato, identifies himself as the philosopher who must explain to his “feeble” students things which are difficult to understand (δθσερμυνεθτά). The second text that Graf connects to Hebrews comes from the so-called Derveni Papyrus in which the author inserts an explanation in the midst of a lengthy allegorical interpretation signaling the significance of what is to follow. The content and tone of this “authorial intrusion” contain interesting parallels with Hebrews’ own intrusion in 5:11.

In his essay, classicist Jörg Rüpke looks at Hebrews’ presentation of Jesus as high priest in light of the religion and traditions of contemporary Rome. A key for Rüpke is the designation ἀρχιερεύς μέγας, a translation of pontifex maximus referring to the priestly role of the Roman emperor. When the author of Hebrews uses this phrase in reference to Jesus at Heb 4:14, he is signaling a comparison to the current Roman emperor in religious language. The next essay, by Harry O. Maier, similarly places Hebrews within the larger context of the Roman imperial cult. Maier uniquely examines Hebrews’ visual imagery within the backdrop of the imperial visual culture of Rome. Specifically, he offers an interpretation of Hebrews’ visual imagery as transporting its hearers into the heavenly realm while being situated within the Flavian rebuilding of Rome. The final essay in this section, by Jason A. Whitlark, also places Hebrews within a Roman imperial context. Looking at the closing benediction of Heb 13:20-21, Whitlark argues that the original audience would have connected the references to peace, victory, a legitimation as challenges to Rome, and its emperor.

The essays by Graf, Rüpke, Maier, and Whitlark provide a convincing case for understanding the Roman imperial context of the first-century world for interpreting Hebrews. However, the authors may too readily assume an audience situated in Rome since the best evidence for this interpretation—the reference to “those from Italy” in Heb 13:24—is not conclusive. Similarly, it may be too much to conclude that the author of Hebrews clearly read Plato’s Theatetus in his rhetorical training—or that the author had any such training at all. Given the nature of the theory that Hebrews was written to challenge the emperor and Roman imperial cult, great weight is often given to individual terms or phrases. The author could not be explicit in his condemnation, it is argued, so he must have used loaded language that would have triggered such associations. The authors of these essays make compelling cases that just such an agenda is behind the text of the epistle, but some associations may appear forced to less sympathetic readers.

Spatial Contexts

The next section, “Spatial Contexts,” looks at Hebrews through the lens of spatial categories and theory. Jon L. Berquist’s essay provides a brief, but helpful, overview of critical spatial theory and applies it to Hebrews. Berquist uses the categories made famous by Edward Soja of Firstspace, Secondspace, and Thirdspace to address what he identifies as the epistle’s main concern—an absence of a physical temple and body of Jesus. To address this, according to Berquist, the author provides a spatial and temporal argument that the true temple and body exist in a heavenly, eternal place. The audience, then, is encouraged to go to this place through the path of suffering modeled by Christ. Berquist helpfully introduces spatial theory, but struggles once he gets to the text of Hebrews. For instance, he discusses how the author of Hebrews presents a true temple despite the fact that nowhere in the epistle is the temple—heavenly or physical—mentioned.  In her essay, Ellen Bradshaw Aiken also uses Soja’s categories as an entryway into understanding Hebrews’ use of spatiality. Aiken offers a much more fulsome presentation of Hebrews’ spatial mapping, including a very useful examination of the various “itineraries” presented in the epistle. The author, Aiken concludes, uses various locales and itineraries in order to conceptually reimagine “the ritual, sacrificial, and monumental space of the city of Rome” (208). The next essay, by Gabriella Gelardini, also looks at Hebrews—particularly its thirteenth chapter—using Soja’s categories of spatial trialectics. Concerned with the reference to “outside the city gate/camp,” she shows how the author offers a “thirdspatial” reinterpretation of Jesus’ (and the listeners’) firstspace. Building upon spatial theory, Gelardini combines the method with biblical intertextuality by allowing the text’s “primary intertext”—Exodus 32-33—to help interpret the author’s argument (228).

Kenneth Schenck tackles the issue of the heavenly sanctuary in Hebrews by arguing that it is a component within the larger metaphor of Jesus’ high priesthood. Rather than attempting to identify a literal referent, Schenck argues that the heavenly tabernacle represents the sacred space where Jesus makes atonement in contrast to the earthly tabernacle. More than simply the heavenly correspondent to the physical, earthly tabernacle, Schenck argues, the heavenly tabernacle contrasts the entire Levitcal cultus. In the final essay of this section, David M. Moffitt offers an interesting contrast to the essay immediately preceding it. He takes issue with interpretations of Hebrews as presenting Jesus’ high priesthood and the heavenly tabernacle as metaphors for the earthly cultus. Seeing Hebrews’ cosmological perspective as more in line with Jewish apocalyptic than Platonic or Philonic thought, Moffitt argues that the author of Hebrews understands the earthly cultus as reflecting realities located in heaven. As such, Hebrews is not working metaphorically—that is, speaking of one thing in terms of another fundamentally different thing—but analogically—making comparisons while recognizing the fitting correspondence between the things being compared. Thus, Hebrews’ presentation of Jesus’ high priesthood is not driven by a metaphorical interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion. Rather, according to Moffitt, the earthly tabernacle and priestly service are presented analogically to better understand Jesus’ priestly service in the heavenly space.

The five essays of this section offer helpful introductions and explorations into a growing field in New Testament scholarship. Hebrews lends itself well to spatial examinations with its illustrative descriptions of earthly and heavenly spaces and emphasis on movement and action. The first three essays all pull from Soja’s concept of Thirdspace—although more work could still be done in developing and applying these categories to Hebrews. The final two essays present differing understandings of the epistle’s presentation of the heavenly tabernacle. Moffitt’s essay attempts to overturn a predominate view of Hebrews scholarship and, in my opinion, offers a more coherent and warranted interpretation. It is too bad that Moffitt and Schneck’s papers were given years apart as one cannot help but wonder what one makes of the other’s essay.

Reception-Historical and Hermeneutical Contexts

The final section, titled “Reception-Historical and Hermeneutical Contexts,” brings together several excellent, although loosely connected essays. Harold W. Attridge offers what he calls an “intracanonical” reading of Hebrews and the Gospel of John through two early Christian theologians. He first looks at how Origen, in his Commentary on John, frequently drew from Hebrews (especially the epistle’s High Priestly Christology) when interpreting John’s Gospel. The movement also went the other way, as Attridge demonstrates by showing how Chrysostom incorporated Johannine concepts into his Homilies on Hebrews. Through this exercise, Attridge helpfully shows how early Christian writers read canonically—often reading books in light of each other which led to interpretations that both shed helpful light and sometimes distorted a text’s intent. The essay by Craig R. Koester examines the reception of Hebrews in the early to mid-twentieth century. Looking at three groups (Anglo-Americans in the early twentieth century, Germans during the rise of the Nazi party, and a French Roman Catholic after Divino Afflante Spiritu), Koester lays out how each interpreters historical and theological context allowed them to place emphasis on key aspects of the epistle.

Jesper Svartvik’s essay traces the reception history of Heb 8:13 and places this history within the context of Roman Catholic thinking on the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Svartvik first details the formulation and publication of the Nostra Aetate in 1965 which addresses the topics of Jews and Judaism. As he shows, it was Romans 9-11 and not Hebrews 8 that stood behind this declaration. Hebrews 8, Svartvik reasons, was too much of a stumbling block to be engaged with. In the second half of his essay, Svartvik outlines two lines of interpretation of Hebrews, 8:13 in particular, as seen throughout the history of Christianity. It is the second, which emphasizes the paranetic nature of the epistle, that allows for an interpretation of 8:13 that offers a healthy view of Judaism.

The next essay, by Pamela Eisenbaum, is similarly concerned with moving away from interpretations of Hebrews that are supercessionistic. Too often, she argues, Hebrews’ critique of the cultic system of Judaism is understood within an evolutionary perspective of the history of religions—movement away from sacrifice and ritual represents a more evolved religion. Eisenbaum attempts to take the discussion beyond that of Christian theology by understanding the religious orientation of the epistle. Using the work of Jonathan Z. Smith, she argues that Hebrews presents a utopian orientation (characterized by a lack of order or central place) rather than a locative one (characterized by emplacement). These are alternatives but not to be understood evolutionarily or as if one were better than the other. Reading Hebrews in this way, according to Eisenbaum, allows us to understand its critique of Jewish cultic practices without associating negative judgments of those practices. The final essay by Ekkehard W. Stegemann and Wolfgang Stegemann also tackles the issue of supercessionist readings of Hebrews. After surveying some anti-Jewish interpretations of the epistle, the authors make clear that it has historically lent itself to such readings. They offer an alternative reading that places Hebrews closer to prophets like Jeremiah—the epistle argues for a new version of God’s covenant that culminates rather that replaces the one that came before.

Hebrews in Contexts is a testament to the faithful work that Gelardini and Attridge have brought to Hebrews scholarship by co-chairing the SBL section for numerous years. The essays that make up this volume both push new boundaries and shed new light on old debates. That is not to say that the volume is flawless—as with any collection of essays, one finds varying quality among the chapters. One might also wonder why certain “contexts” (linguistic, theological, socio-scientific, etc.) are not given much attention. However, the volume makes no claim to be such a comprehensive overview but rather a selection of high-quality papers from nearly a decade of the SBL program unit. A unique contribution of the collection is the outside perspectives on Hebrews from non-Hebrews specialists. This is especially noticeable in the Jewish and Greco-Roman sections where Jewish scholars and classicists engage the text through their distinctive viewpoints. The section on spatial theory—while approaching the epistle through a relatively new field—would have been strengthened by bringing in an outside expert in that field. Overall, this is an excellent volume that sheds new light on Hebrews and will surely contribute to the recent attention that the epistle has rightly attracted.

Bryan R. Dyer
Baker Academic
Bdyer [at] bakeracademic.com

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  1. […] in Context (ed. Gabriella Gelardini and Harold W. Attridge; Leiden: Brill, 2016) at the website Review of Biblical and Early Christian Studies. The content explores the various contexts of the text […]

  2. […] Dyer reviewed Hebrews in Contexts (edited by Gabriella Gelardini and Harold W. Attridge, eds. Hebrews in Contexts. Leiden: Brill, […]

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