Monday, October 12, 2009

more on Hebrews

I have continued reading Gabriella Gelardini's edited volume, Hebrews: Contemporary Methods—New Insights, and I've been surprised how much I'm enjoying it. Here I only have time to name a couple of interesting observations, whether about Gelardini's book, about Hebrews itself, or about other New Testament scholarship.
  • First, a structuralist observation. Gelardini's essay, "Hebrews, an Ancient Synagogue Homily for Tisha be-Av: Its Function, its Basis, its Theological Interpretation" (107–127), is the final essay of Part One (Cultic Language, Concepts, and Practice in Hebrews) and reads the text in thoroughly Judaic terms. Her discussion of ancient synagogue homilies and the Palestinian Triennial Cycle was fascinating (at least to me; I have absolutely no experience in this field), and her mapping of Hebrews onto this cycle was compelling. But it was especially interesting, I thought, that the next essay, Ellen Bradshaw Aitken's "Portraying the Temple in Stone and Text: The Arch of Titus and the Epistle to the Hebrews" (131–148), takes a radically different turn and reads Hebrews in a thoroughly Roman context.

    The disjunction between Gelardini's and Bradshaw Aitken's essays is not mitigated by the beginning of Part Two (Sociology, Ethics, and Rhetoric in Hebrews); they read the same text in completely different universes of discourse. For Gelardini, Hebrews means by way of its relation to tisha be-Av and its gravitational effects on the liturgical reading of Torah and the Prophets. For Bradshaw Aitken, Hebrews means primarily by way of its relation to Roman political discourse, "but doing so indirectly by means of typological reflection on the Yom Kippur rituals and inadequacy of the high priests in the earthly sanctuary" (142–143). The phrase "indirectly by means of" caught my attention. Perhaps I'm being too cynical, but it appears to me she's suggesting that Hebrews only appears to be concerned with Judaic universes of meaning; it's real semantic field is Roman (viz., Flavian) imperial rhetoric.

  • Knut Backhaus's essay, "How to Entertain Angels: Ethics in the Epistle to the Hebrews" (149–175) was a very interesting exploration of Hebrews' paraenetic significance. In view of our text's theological, philosophical, and exegetical gravity—anyone who's ever read Hebrews knows immediately that the text is a "heavy" text!—its ethical dimension is surprisingly anemic.

    Nevertheless, readers today are far from being impressed by the specific instructions eventually offered in the last major section, especially in Heb 13: Let us do good works (Heb 10:24)! Attend Sunday service (Heb 10:25)! Let the marital bed be undefiled (Heb 13:4)! Respect the church authorities (Heb 13:7, 17)! Keep to orthodox doctrine (Heb 13:9)! (150)

    Backhaus's conclusion deserves mention: "To arrive at exhortations of this kind, it may seem, the intellectual level of the Epistle of Jude would suffice" (150), to which I add my own exclamation point: ! But Backhaus provides a helpful re-examination of the ethical significance of Hebrews, a re-examination that is evident when pairing his essay's first words with its last:

    The theological mountain is in labor—but what is born is a moral mouse! It is this impression one may get reading the Epistle to the Hebrews in order to piece together its instructions into an ethical whole. . . . On the contrary, each human gesture in the everyday dramas of life, however meaningless it may seem, becomes infinitely meaningful and gains an immeasurable ethical relevance. In the midst of human affairs we “entertain angels,” keepers of transcendence in a disenchanted world. The theological mountain is in labor—and what is born is an ethical universe. (149, 175)

  • Then I read Benjamin Dunning's essay, "The Intersection of Alien Status and Cultic Discourse in the Epistle to the Hebrews" (177–198). Dunning's essay was interesting (despite an uncertain beginning; the first sentence asked, "What made Mormons different?", which made me ask, "Who switched my book?!"), but my interest was piqued obliquely by a reference to F. F. Bruce. Regarding Hebrews's reference to ἔξω τῆς παρεμβολῆς [exō tēs parembolēs; "outside the camp"] in 13.11, 13, Dunning says,

    The other major alternative is to interpret the appeal to join Jesus ἔξω τῆς παρεμβολῆς as a call to leave Judaism. According to this argument, as F. F. Bruce maintains, "the 'camp' stands for the established fellowship and ordinances of Judaism. To abandon them, with all their sacred associations inherited from remote antiquity, was a hard thing, but it was a necessary thing." (192–193)

    I could scarcely believe that F. F. Bruce would so blatantly pitch Hebrews against a Jewish background (rather than reading it within a Judaic symbolic universe), so I had to chase down the reference. Sure enough, Dunning was right. I cannot myself understand how we could read a text like Hebrews (!!), which is so thoroughly steeped in a world perceived and evaluated in terms of Hebrew biblical traditions, as being anything other than a Jewish text. How Hebrews advocates a move outside "Judaism" is utterly incomprehensible . . . or at least, it should be. The fact that it isn't ought to suggest to us that the habits we marshal when we turn to read the New Testament—the quintessentially Christian (= not-Jewish) canon of texts—have failed us even from step one.
According to the table of contents, I have five more essays in Gelardini's book. As a neophyte within Hebrews scholarship, I recommend this book with some enthusiasm. Those of you with more experience in Hebrews scholarship, please feel free to sound a warning if, in fact, these essays represent marginal rather than compelling arguments about perhaps the most enigmatic NT document.


Brian Small said...

I share your skepticism of Aitken's reading of Hebrews. I have been skeptical of her reading the first time I heard paper from her at SBL a few years ago. I just don't see Hebrews as using some sort of code language disguising a polemic against the Roman imperial cult.

Rafael said...

Thanks, Brian. As a neophyte to Hebrews scholarship, I'd be interested in your thoughts on how to properly conceptualize and account for Hebrews' relation to "Judaism," including what that latter term means.

I should say that I did really enjoy Aitken's article, and I found it rather illuminating. But her decision to read Hebrews primarily in relation to a Roman context seemed a stretch to me. Had she been content to simply argue for Hebrews' significance within the context of a Roman (Jewish?) audience steeped in Flavian ideology and propaganda, I'm not sure I would object too strongly. Your thoughts?

Brian Small said...

Well, this is a complex question. I think the current trend in scholarship is to see early Christianity as a form of Judaism that emerged as after 70 A.D. as one of the successors to the Judaisms that existed in the second temple period. Gabriele Boccachini, in his book, Middle Judaism, argues that there were many Judaisms in the second temple era, including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes etc. But after 70 A.D. two Jewish movements emerged successfully from the ashes of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple: Christianity and Rabbinism. Alan Segal similarly in his book, Rebekkah's Children, argues that these two movements had a twin birth that emerged out of the older Judaisms, and both claimed to be the true heir to the older Jewish movements. Christianity and Rabbinism grew increasingly apart as they continually defined themselves against one another. So, it is proper to think of Christianity in its earliest stages as form of Judaism. I would recommend these two books for a fuller explanation of what I have tried to summarize here.

Brian Small said...

As for Hebrews relation to Judaism, that has been under some debate. Is Hebrews addressed to a Jewish Christian audience, a Gentile Christian audience, or a mixed audience? There have been advocates for all three positions and the debate doesn't seem to be dying down anytime soon. C. Adrian Thomas, for example, has a recent monograph arguing for a mixed audience for Hebrews. I would think that at least there was a substantial number of Jewish Christians among the audience of Hebrews since the author quotes extensively from the OT, as well as numerous allusions. It appears that Hebrews is addressed to an audience that is quite familiar with much of the OT including the sacrificial cultus. So my current take on the book is that the author is trying to prevent the audience from lapsing back into the old sacrificial cultus by demonstrating the superiority of the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus.

Brian Small said...

I think my problem with Aitken's reading of Hebrews is that Hebrews is perfectly understandable from a knowledge of the OT alone, without having to bring in any knowledge about the current context of the Roman empire. If Hebrews is a veiled polemic against the Roman imperial cult, then the allusions to this cult are so oblique as to be virtually unrecognizable.

I think what is telling for me is what happened at the last SBL meeting in which three presenters gave papers advocating that Hebrews is addressing the Roman imperial context (if you want to read these papers, you can access them through my site under Resources - click on the link to the Hebrews group and then look for the link to the older sessions of the Hebrews group). When it came for question and answer time, I asked the presenters if they knew of any pre-Nicene Christian writers who interpreted the book of Hebrews in the way they wanted to interpret it. My reasoning was that if Christians continued to live in a Roman imperial context that was often hostile to Christianity for the next two or three centuries, then surely someone would have interpreted Hebrews as a polemic against the Roman empire. Aitken herself admitted that she has looked for such a reading and did not find any. Jorg Rupke cited 1 Clement 36 as an indication of reading Hebrews in this way, but I find this sparse example hardly convincing. So, as of now, I do not find her reading to be convincing.

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