Reviews of

Deciphering the Worlds of Hebrews

In Gabriella GELARDINI, Hebrews, Jewish Backgrounds, Jewish liturgy, Jonathon Lookadoo on December 29, 2021 at 3:49 pm
Cover of book

2021.12.19 | Gabriella Gelardini. Deciphering the Worlds of Hebrews: Collected Essays. Supplements to Novum Testamentum 184. Leiden: Brill, 2021. pp. xii + 375. ISBN: 9789004460164.

Review by Jonathon Lookadoo, Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary, Seoul, Republic of Korea.

The volume under review gathers fifteen essays from Gabriella Gelardini that were published from 2005–2019. Gelardini is Professor of Christianity, Religion, Worldview, and Ethics at Nord University and has previously published both a monograph and two edited volumes on Hebrews. The book is divided into three parts with each part comprised of five chapters. Fourteen of the essays in this volume were published previously, but many of them were published in disparate edited volumes. Twelve chapters are written in English, while three of the essays appear in German. The collection of these papers in one volume is thus warmly to be welcomed both for the ease with which the essays can now be read and for the way in which Gelardini’s research on Hebrews over a fifteen-year period can be explored.

After an introduction that briefly traces issues in Hebrews scholarship since the nineteenth century, the first part contains papers that deal with critical introductory questions in Hebrews. The opening chapter takes up the authorship of Hebrews and argues that the anonymity of the text is the product of a literary strategy. Gelardini next discusses the structure of the text at both the macro and micro levels. After situating her discussion in the context of broader intellectual currents and recent scholarship on Hebrews, Gelardini argues for a symmetrical structure that progresses in the following way: 1:1–2:18 (A), 3:1–6:20 (B), 7:1–10:18 (C), 10:19–12:3 (B’), and 12:4–13:25 (A’). Various chiastic structures can also be found within the overarching structure. Chapters 3–5 are related in that they explore scriptural quotations within Hebrews along with the homiletic context from which Hebrews originated. Psalm 95:7–11 and Jeremiah 31:31–34 are identified as the most important quotations. While Gelardini argues that Hebrews started as a homily for Tisha be-Av given to a synagogue audience, she insists that any description of the genre of Hebrews in the present research climate can only be descriptive.

An important benefit of the opening five chapters is the opportunity to consider Gelardini’s thesis that Hebrews is a synagogue homily for Tisha be-Av. These arguments are laid out in their fullest form in her monograph, “Verhärtet eure Herzen nicht:” Der Hebräer, eine Synagogenhomilie zu Tischa be-Aw (Biblical Interpretation Series 83 [Leiden: Brill, 2007]). Deciphering the Worlds of Hebrews makes Gelardini’s intriguing arguments available to a wider English-speaking audience. When set alongside her earlier monograph, the chapters in part 1 highlight the value of bringing scholarship on the synagogue, ancient homiletics, and early Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation together. The study of the structure of Hebrews also connects with various essays in parts 2 and 3 that delve into other topics related to Hebrews but utilize symmetrical outlines of the text in order to do so.

Part 2 of the book contains five essays that reflect on the occasion, historical settings, and various themes that come from Hebrews. Chapters 6 and 10 are of particular note. The former deals with anthropology in the book of Hebrews as it reflects on the consciousness of sin in the text. The awareness of sin is central to the cultic themes that occupy much of Hebrews. Yet Gelardini argues that the anthropology of Hebrews is grounded in Jesus Christ. The heavenly designs set out in Hebrews open “the potential to construe earthly and painful existence anew through faithful eyes from above” (das Potential, irdische und leidvolle Existenz aus der gläubigen Sicht von oben neu zu deuten; p. 166). Chapter 10 provides a close comparison of Yom Kippur as it is described in the old Greek of the Pentateuch and in Hebrews. Gelardini argues that an attentive and nuanced comparison does not result in a supersessionist understanding of Yom Kippur but rather that Yom Kippur is perpetuated in the sacrifice of the high priestly Jesus. The intervening chapters take up concepts of space, food, and covenant breaking. The reflections on space and food center around Heb 13:9–16, while the discussion of covenant breaking reads Hebrews intertextually alongside Exod 32–33. A consistent strength of the chapters in this section is the exegetical attention to detail. Gelardini rightly notes that Hebrews is a book that is immersed in Israel’s scriptures. Her work highlights the thoroughgoing nature of scriptural interpretation throughout Hebrews, particularly in the attention given to Exod 32–34.

Chapters 11–15 comprise the final part of the book and examine the world in front of Hebrews. They deal with issues that are also likely to be of interest to contemporary readers and not only to specialists in Hebrews or early Christianity. For example, Gelardini explores the topic of faith. Faith is a theological topic that is of broad interest, and the discussion of faith in Heb 11 may arguably be the most widely recognized passage in the book. Gelardini finds both a noetic and a relational understanding of faith in Hebrews, but her chief contribution to the discussion is to place Hebrews alongside broader understandings of fides at work in the Roman Empire. She suggests that the atonement achieved by Jesus’s sacrifice may signal the limitations of Roman imperial power and thus call for a faithful commitment from readers of Hebrews that exceeds what is owed to Rome. Chapters 12 and 13 return to the issue of space in Heb 13 and propose that readers are invited to resist illegitimate claims of power within the space created by Hebrews. The following chapter reflects on the eschatology at work in Hebrews and suggests that the eternal homeland is both glimpsed as well as to be faithfully sought. The book concludes with an examination of ethics in Hebrews. The study of ethics is twofold. It includes, first, an examination of the kind of ethic that the author of Hebrews sets out before moving, second, to some reflections on an ethical reading of Hebrews in the twenty-first century in which Gelardini again resists supersessionism.

The essays gathered in this volume may have been published in various places over a period of fifteen years. Despite the disparate initial publications, however, the collection coheres due to its emphasis on close exegesis of Hebrews, its attention to the way in which the author of Hebrews understands scripture, and its focus on reading Hebrews within the world of the Jewish synagogue. Although some repetition is inevitable in such a collection, Gelardini’s reading of Hebrews is insightful, particularly in the attention devoted to Heb 13 and critical theories of space. The attention given to the structure of Hebrews highlights multiple points of connection throughout the text, while the location of the origins of Hebrews as a synagogue sermon for Tisha be-Av is lucidly put forward for English readers. Through it all, Gelardini’s attention to exegesis—both her exegesis of Hebrews and the exegesis of scripture within Hebrews—makes the volume a particularly lively read for those who keep their New Testaments nearby when reading. Specialists in Hebrews, experts in early Jewish-Christian relations, and scholars who explore the use of Israel’s scriptures in early Christianity will want to make regular reference to the essays in this volume.

Jonathon Lookadoo
Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary


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