Reviews of

Divine Discourse in the Epistle to the Hebrews

In Cambridge University Press, Hebrews, Jonathan Rowlands, Madison N. Pierce, New Testament on February 13, 2022 at 9:48 pm

2022.02.01 | Madison N. Pierce. Divine Discourse in the Epistle to the Hebrews: The Recontextualization of Spoken Quotations of Scripture. Society of New Testament Studies Monograph Series 178; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. ISBN: 9781108495417.

Review by Jonathan Rowlands, St. Mellitus College.

In this monograph, Pierce argues that “the author of Hebrews uses divine discourse—the speech of God—in Hebrews to develop his characterization of God and by extension his broader argument … [such that] these speeches are crucial to his argumentation.” (2). This argument is made primarily with reference to the author’s use of ‘prosopological exegesis’ of Jewish Scriptures. This technique “interprets texts by assigning ‘faces’ (πρόσωπα), or characters, to ambiguous or unspecified personal (or personified) entities represented in the text in question … for clarity of understanding” (4). Following a discussion about prosopological exegesis in antiquity (6-20) and techniques for identifying its use (20-22), Pierce introduces the particular use of this technique in Hebrews, culminating in an overview of previous treatments of divine speech in Hebrews (28-33).

In chapter 2, Pierce examines the speech of the Father to the Son, analysing Heb. 1.1-14; 5.1-10 and 7.1-28; and 8.1-13. 1.1-14 offers “a preliminary statement of the author’s understanding of the divinity of the Son” (62), culminating in the characterisation of God as “a characteristic Father who cares for his children” (90). This characterisation, portrayed through prosopological reinterpretation of Scripture, “give[s] his argument a particular level of authority” and “allows the author to present the Son as superior not only to the angels, but to all those not addressed by this speech” (90). In 5.1-10 and 7.1-28, the Father speaks to the Son qua High Priest, wherein the Father’s prosopological speech through Scripture outlines the Son’s “qualifications to be a high priest … [which] is largely defined in terms of the Son’s relationships and the spheres to which he belongs” (77). Finally, in 8.1-13, the author’s prosopological use of Scripture presents the Father promising “a day will come with a new covenant” (89). Specifically, the Father does not promise a covenant to replace the former covenant; the former covenant represents the latter and makes it intelligible (90).

Next, in chapter 3, Pierce attends to the Son’s prosopological response to the Father, focussing on Heb. 2.1-18 and 10.1-10. In 2.1-18, the Son responds directly to the Father as the unashamed and faithful brother of the community (2.12-13), standing “for all of humanity, all of those considered by God to be his children (υἱοί)” (113). In doing so, the Son is characterised as one who “even in the midst of great pain, remains loyal to God, believing that he will be rescued” (113). In 10.5-7, in response to the Father’s promised new covenant (8.1-13; 9.1-10), the Son speaks, with emphasis “not on the Son’s intent, but instead on his arrival, his entrance into the world to do the will of the Father,” assenting to God’s plan for a new covenant (123).

Chapter 4 addresses the Spirit’s speech to the community in Heb. 3.7-4.11 and 10.15-18. The Spirit addresses the community directly, explicating the achievements of the Son’s work. In 3.7-4.11, the Spirit is the speaker of Ps. 94.7-11 LXX, characterised by the author of Hebrews as “one who was present among the wilderness community and who responds to disobedience” (164). In so doing, the author utilizes this characterisation to say to his community: “continue striving to enter rest, or you will perish like your ancestors” (164, italics suppressed). In 10.15-18, the Spirit prosopologically ‘speaks’ Jer. 38.33-34 LXX although, crucially, the text is quoted differently to its appearance when spoken by the Father in 8.8-12. Thus, for Pierce, while “the base text [of Jer. 38.33-34 LXX] is the same” in Heb. 8.8-12 and 10.15-18, “the interpretations are not” (172). This characterises the Spirit as a speaker of Scripture distinct from the Father, and the divine speaker whose encouragement “leads most naturally into the author’s major hortatory transitions” (173). Thus, the speech of the Spirit plays a crucial role in Hebrews, relating the prosopological conversation between Father and Son to the community: “their intra-divine discourse is overheard and its most salient details are relayed by the Holy Spirit” (173).

In chapter 5, Pierce discusses how Hebrews’ divine discourse can illuminate the structure of the text itself. After briefly surveying previous proposals relating to the structure of Hebrews, Pierce offers her own structure corresponding to the episodes of divine speech, offering a primary structure in three sections (177): first, 1.1-4.16, second, 4.11-10.25, and third 10.19-13.25, with two ‘hinge sections’ between them (4.11-16 and 10.19-25). Crucially, when this structure is examined in relation to divine discourse, “within the first and second main sections of Hebrews, the divine participants all speak in the same order: Father, Son, Spirit” (178). This pattern catalyses the theology and exhortation found in each of these sections: the Father instigates proceedings, the Son responds, and the Spirit communicates developments to the community. Divine discourse, then, is central to the author’s aim: “without any one of the divine participants, the argument would fall flat” (182). Pierce demonstrates how this insight also reveals that many of the concerns of the first two sections continue into the third main section, even if presented in a different manner. Thus, the only instance of human speech in 13.6 (ὥστε θαρροῦντας ἡμᾶς λέγειν …) concludes the epistle with the communities response to the “potential summary of the divine discourse throughout the text” spoken in 13.5 (194).

In a brief conclusion, Pierce summarises her findings of the identities of the speakers in Hebrews (200-2), before summarising in detail the characterisations of Father (202-4), Son (204-6), and Spirit (206-9) that emerge through their prosopological speech(es). Finally, Pierce concludes with a summary of how divine discourse upholds and contributes the broader aims and argument of Hebrews (209-11).

Pierce deserves much praise for this monograph. It is incisively and gracefully written, and her argument is articulated with force, clarity, and care. While one could write much about the merits of Pierce’s work, three particular strengths are worth highlighting. First, her argument that divine discourse is central (even foundational) to Hebrews is, to my mind, completely convincing. Pierce successfully demonstrates that, rather than being a secondary quirk of Hebrews, prosopological divine discourse is the motivic logic that moves its exhortatory argument forward. Second, Pierce’s proposed structure to the text also convincingly explains the notoriously perplexing ‘third act’ of Hebrews, relating the entire text to itself as one unified whole via the motif of divine discourse. Third, Pierce is to be praised for avoiding supercessionist readings of Hebrews, most notably in her discussion of the Father’s promise of a new covenant that fundamentally depends on the former covenant, first in 8.1-13 and then again in 9.1-10 (89-90, 114-115).

I imagine those readers who do find fault with Pierce’s study will do so at the methodological level. Two potential objections might be raised here. The first is with the notion of prosopological exegesis of Scripture itself. Although this exegetical technique has been noted within Hebrews scholarship (see the works by Peeler and Bates, for example), Pierce writes: “most biblical scholars continue to overlook the usefulness of the technique for interpretation” (11). For those unfamiliar with the technique, or detractors of prosopological exegesis, ascribing speakers to quotations to explicate their meaning might be one step too far beyond the text of Hebrews itself. Second, some readers might take issue with the broadly ‘trinitarian’ shape of Pierce’s work. Is not structuring this study by focussing on Father, Son, and Spirit respectively to approach the text through an anachronistic trinitarian framework, ultimately confirming a pre-ordained theological position? To her credit, Pierce heads off this criticism early on, writing “my decision to focus on the Father, Son, and Spirit as divine participants might appear to be the product of a theological (and particularly Trinitarian bias, but these three are the ones portrayed as the primary speakers in Hebrews)” (22). This notwithstanding, I imagine that some will continue to take umbrage with the Trinitarian shape of her study in parts, not least regarding her chapter on the Spirit, about whose portrayal in Hebrews there remains much discussion. The Spirit’s conveyance of the Father-Son discourse might suggest the Spirit is a divine speaker alongside those figures, but I suspect this will strike some as putting the cart before the horse.

However, these are not concerns that I myself share and readers should not let any potential methodological nervousness they might have discourage them from engaging with Pierce’s work. Her study is meticulously argued and articulated with nuance and maturity throughout; it bristles with insight at every point. I find it hard to think of a reader who would not benefit from reading this book. Even for those not working on Hebrews, it opens so many avenues of further enquiry within NT studies (and even theology proper) that it ought to be read by as many possible.

Jonathan Rowlands
St. Mellitus College
jonny.rowlands [at] stmellitus.ac.uk

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