Tuesday, September 22, 2009

reading Hebrews

This morning I finished reading through the Greek text of Hebrews (whew!), and I resumed reading Hebrews: Contemporary Methods—New Insights (Gabriella Gelardini, ed.; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005). I say "resumed," but the truth is I had only read Gelardini's introduction and the Foreword (by Harold Attridge).

So this morning I read Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann's essay, "Does the Cultic Language in Hebrews Represent Sacrificial Metaphors? Reflections on Some Basic Problems" (13–23). The Stegemanns begin with the postmodern critique of Western epistemology (or rather of invisibility of that epistemology [17]); they then pursue the motivations for and significance of describing Hebrews's cultic presentation of Jesus' death as "metaphor." We apply the label metaphor because "the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, which is taken as the historical referent outside the relevant passages in Hebrews, neither shows any feature of the performance of a cultic sacrifice nor regards Jesus as a substitute for an animal victim" and functions rather "as a means toward a theological understanding of the death of Christ" (15).

The Stegemanns, then, demonstrate the culturally contextualized nature of this way of thinking about history and about the text. I found their conclusion particularly stimulating, and I hope to follow up their argument in the future:

The decision between a metaphorical and non-metaphorical interpretation of the death of Jesus depends on our assessment of the historical referent to which a textual passage is related. Therefore it depends on the respective model of reality that, as far as our model is concerned, we take as universally valid. We easily admit that the metaphorical use of sacrificial language is very helpful and deepens our interpretation of the crucifixion—but just as interpretation of the crucifixion, not its representation. On the contrary, the discourses of the social and legal aspects of the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem are in our view not interpretations of the historical events but their representation. (18; original emphases)

If I've read the Stegemanns rightly, they suggest reading the cultic language of Jesus' death in Hebrews as representation rather than interpretation (18). Their reading provides interesting material to ponder, but I think scholarship in general has reacted to postmodern critiques in a different direction. Rather than reading Hebrews's sacrificial language as representation, I think we would tend to highlight the interpretive functions of other, presumably non-metaphorical representations of history. I am not sure, however, whether these are actually two different reactions.

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