Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hebrews: It is finished

I have finished reading Gabriella Gelardini's book, Hebrews: Contemporary Methods—New Insights. For the most part, this was a fascinating book that brought together in a single volume a number of interesting perspectives and insights. As with many edited volumes, there were moments when a bit of interaction between the essays would have been helpful. There were myriad references to Harold Attridge's Hermeneia commentary on Hebrews, as well as Craig Koester's Anchor Bible commentary. Likewise, there were numerous references (mostly positive) to David deSilva's Despising Shame: Honor Discourse and Community Maintenance in the Epistle to the Hebrews. But it would have been helpful if Ellen Bradshaw Aitken and Gelardini had acknowledged each other's essays, given that both were proposing a generative context for this enigmatic text (as I've noted elsewhere). Likewise, when Pamela Eisenbaum (see below) denies flatly that Hebrews "was a speech or sermon intended for a specific occasion or occasioned by a single event" (222), it would have been appropriate to at least acknowledge Gelardini's very careful argument that it was!

Even so, I've enjoyed this volume (and most of its essays) very much, and I look forward to exploring both Hebrews and scholarship on Hebrews more fully in the future. Here are some specific moments from the book that I found especially thought-provoking (even if my thoughts are sometimes disagreeable):

  • Pamela Eisenbaum's essay, "Locating Hebrews within the Literary Landscape of Christian Origins" (213–37) pursues the very program I'm interested in. That is, she sets out to recontextualize Hebrews within recent scholarship "that reframe[s] not only how we think about Christian origins and post-biblical Judaism, but how we think about Jewish-Christian relations and the construction of Jewish and/or Christian identity in the frist four centuries within the wider context of the Greco-Roman world" (214). Unfortunately, she then engages in a series of assertions without providing the argumentation that might have brought me along with her. For instance, she attributes the widespread dating of Hebrews to the first century to Hebrews's location within the NT canon: "the very presence of Hebrews in the canon unconsciously biases scholars toward a first-century date, in spite of the fact that scholars are well aware that Hebrews' canonical authority was questioned up to the fifth century" (216). Of course, the traditional terminus ad quem for Hebrews is its influence on 1 Clement, which is traditionally dated to 96 CE. Eisenbaum mentions in a footnote (215, n. 4) that she prefers to date 1 Clement in the second century ("as late as 140, though the current tendency is to date it within the first quarter of the second century"), but she doesn't provide any discussion in support of that argument. Given the limited scope of this essay (only 25 pages), that's understandable. But scholars have certainly relied upon more than their bias in favor of texts included in the Christian canon to date Hebrews before the end of the first century, her dismissive comments notwithstanding.

    Similarly, when proposing a rather late date for Hebrews, Eisenbaum says,
    Just as "the message declared through angels became valid (βέβαιος)," which is the author's way of saying that the word of God formerly spoken by the prophets—or the "old covenant," as he now thinks of it—was officially instituted, presumably in the form of Torah, so now what was spoken by the Lord has been "confirmed"; it has become a newly effectuated covenant. Such a view seems more plausibly located later, rather than earlier, in the first century. (228; my emphasis)

    But why should this view be indicative of a "later, rather than earlier" date? It may very well be, but Eisenbaum doesn't explain why. I'm especially curious, since Paul seems to have rather developed ideas of "new covenant" (2 Cor 3.6, 14; Gal 4.24; see also Galatians 3!), some of which he inherited (1 Cor 11.25). More than an assertion seems to be necessary here (and throughout this essay).

  • James C. Miller's essay, "Paul and Hebrews: A Comparison of Narrative Worlds" (245–64) was a very stimulating essay comparing the narrative worlds assumed by Hebrews and Paul. Miller is heavily influenced by N. T. Wright's discussion of story and worldview, which opens up the texts to some interesting insights. Wright's emphatically theological approach to worldview is also, I would suggest, a limitation that overlooks other interesting insights. Here the sociology of knowledge (invoked primarily in Knut Backhaus's essay on ethics in Hebrews) would have helped flesh out Wright's model. But this seems to me precisely the way to address Hebrews's relation to Paul's letters. That is, the question is less one of influence or (even less likely) of authorship, but rather of how their reflection and projection of reality compare and contrast.

If you're looking for an introduction to the scholarly discussion of Hebrews, Gelardini's book is as good a place as any to get started, I would imagine. It's an advanced text, but it's well worth the effort it takes to read the book.

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