4 Apr 2016

Hebrews: Common Assumptions, Uncommon Surprises

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hebrews, Hermeneutics, Jesus
Hebrews Title Page

Hebrews Title Page

Insight from a Premier Old Testament Scholar on Hebrews

The Homily usually called “the Epistle to the Hebrews,” is the work of a profound Old Testament scholar. The only Bible this preacher knows is what the Christian world (after Melito of Sardis’s Easter sermon in 180ish) called the Old Testament, in the Greek Septuagint.  He lives and breathes that Bible.

Because the Hebrews’ Preacher was such an Old Testament scholar it should not surprise us that an Old Testament scholar has written powerfully on that sermon. At the conclusion of his incredibly rich, but massive, three volume Old Testament Theology, John Goldingay reflects on the ongoing value and authority of the First Testament as he calls it. In the process he vigorously critiques popular misreadings of New Testament texts that are used to disconnect seventy-six percent of the Bible from Christian doctrine (the OT makes up 76 point something percent of the content of the Protestant Bible).  Hebrews is one such text. Goldingay cites Hebrews 1.1 and declares Christians have a “number of misapprehensions concerning the First Testament” based on this text and the rest of Hebrews.  I will quote a portion,

[I]t’s opening lines have been misunderstood as an assertion that God’s revelation in the First Testament was partial and incomplete, when they actually make a different point and one that is close to being the opposite. The contrast they draw is between a revelation that took scattergun form and a revelation that was EMBODIED in one person. That is the difference between what God said through the prophets and through Christ.  But (Hebrews implies) that the content of what God said through the prophets and through Christ IS THE SAME. There is consistency between God’s speaking in the Scriptures, there there is also sequence and story” (Old Testament Theology, Volume 3: Israel’s Life, pp. 833-834)

Goldingay expands his concluding reflections by writing an entire essay on “How People Have Mis(?)read Hebrews” in his stimulating volume Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself.  He writes,

Now Hebrews indeed affirms that God’s speaking through Jesus was superior to that through the prophets, but it does not say that it was fuller, nor that the prophets’ teaching was relative or imperfect, nor that it was less direct. Hebrews uses the same preposition en of God’s speaking through the prophets as through Jesus. The distinction it makes between the two revelations is that one is piecemeal and the other is embodied in one person, but it’s the same revelation.” (p. 100)

Goldingay’s comments are, upon examination, correct. Hebrews bases every doctrinal assertion it makes on what Christians (because of Melito of Sardis not the Hebrews’ Preacher) call the “Old Testament.” When I first read Goldingay’s OT Theology back in 2014 (I was bored and read the entire thing!) it was these statements about Hebrews that arrested me. So I went and read it! Hebrews never once quotes Jesus from any preserved statement in the Gospels or anywhere else.  The Preacher of Hebrews authority is the Old Testament! He clearly had no intention of undermining the authority of the very scriptures he claims is preaching the doctrine he expounds! When the Hebrews’ Preacher asserts that Jesus may be speaking, he quotes the “Old Testament.”

I have written on the blinding danger of assumptions (see the link) the past … Let the Hebrews’ Preacher speak and hear him (or her) as was intended. Richard Hays has suggested this experiment,

Forget that there ever was such a thing as Christianity, let alone Christianity as a predominantly Gentile movement. Now reread Hebrews with this renewed absence of knowledge. Is there anything that would lead one to conclude the author of this homily is anything other than a Jew (albeit a messianic one) weighing in on a controversy within his own religion?” (Hays, “Here We Have No Lasting City,” in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, edited by Richard Bauckham, p. 153)

In the rest of this blog I want to highlight a few …

What 76% of the pie chart of Scripture looks like. Its a chunk of God's word.

What 76% of the pie chart of Scripture looks like. Its a chunk of God’s word.

Surprises and Assumptions in the Homily to the Hebrews

The Sermon to the Hebrews, if we actually read it, is loaded with surprises given the common assumptions that are imposed upon this sacred homily.  Have you ever taken stock in what is absent, that is completely missing, from Hebrews.

For example, there is not even one iota about the issue of Jews and Gentiles as in so many of Paul’s Letters. Its not even on the radar screen.

There is not a syllable about circumcision.

There is not a word about food laws.

There is not a syllable about the Sabbath day or holy days.

There is no polemic against the Law (all of this is in stark contrast with, say Galatians).

There are no negative comments regarding Moses.

There is not one word in the Sermon about the people of God being replaced with a new people of God.  In fact the listeners of the homily seem to be part of the exact same “house” in which Moses was faithful in, that is “the house of Israel” (3.1-6; 8.10).  In fact Jesus and Moses are faithful in the same house! “We” are in the same house (3.1, 5, 6) Each of these are easily verifiable by any that choose to read the text.

Here is a short review of some more surprises …

Jews Only? Mostly Jews?

It may come as a surprise (maybe not) but the words “Hebrew” or “Jew” nor any form of either word ever occurs in “to the Hebrews.” This is stunning actually. And in fact the very name “to the Hebrews” is utterly undocumented prior to A.D. 200 (the sermon did not come with a Spirit given title as some assume).

desilvaOur modern, historic, stereotypes about “Jew” are often read back onto the work. What if the readers were not predominately Jewish or Jewish at all? What happens to so many assumptions. Some modern folks, because of the work is so heavily interwoven with the Hebrew Bible, think only Jews could be the audience. But this ignores the stunning reality that 1 Peter – written to Gentiles not Jews – is every bit as saturated with the “Old Testament” as is this sermon. The same can be said for most of Paul’s letters (Galatians for example). But as David DeSilva wrote in Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on ‘to the Hebrews’, “We must not allow the plight of so many modern Gentile Christians, with their relative lack of knowledge of the OT color our understanding of the first century convert, for whom the OT was the revelation of God’s will the source (together with the experience of the Spirit) for the legitimization … and hope to which those converts clung.”

If one reads Acts with any care, it becomes abundantly clear that even in the Gentile mission of Paul, the vast majority of Paul’s converts were proselytes and God-fearers and they knew the Scriptures (this does not seem to be the case for Corinth). Indeed there are passages in Hebrews that do not sound as if Jewish folks are the intended audience therefore most scholarship has long rejected the notion that “to the Hebrews” was written primarily to JEWS but to a mixed audience at best just as with Romans.

Goldingay's magisterial OT Theology concludes with a thought provoking reflection on various NT passages relating to the Hebrew Bible. One of which is Hebrews 1.1.

Goldingay’s magisterial OT Theology concludes with a thought provoking reflection on various NT passages relating to the Hebrew Bible. One of which is Hebrews 1.1.

The very assumption, that seems to date to Chrysostom btw, “to the Hebrews” is a warning against apostasy back to Judaism warrants critical examination. Gabriella Gelardini has attempted to return to the first century and ask what kind of social context the text fits.  The answer is the Jewish liturgical calendar that frames so much of the NT writings.  She has argued that Hebrews is an example of an ancient synagogue homily composed specifically for Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting that “commemorates and mourns over the sins of Israel and the covenant curse that followed them.”

It is at least a worthwhile exercise to read Hebrews as if you have never heard the phrase “Old Testament” (did not exist for nearly a century after the Sermon) and in light of actual first century realities (see Gabriella Gelardini, “Hebrews, An Ancient Synagogue Homily for Tisha be-Av: Its Function, Its Basis, Its Theological Interpretation,” in G. Gelardini, ed., Hebrews: Contemporary Methods – New Insights, pp. 107-27).

What is the Contrast?

Hebrews is traditionally used to deprecate, or at minimum undermine, the authority of the Hebrew Bible. The first verse reads in the NRSV: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son …” The assumed argument is that God spoke in inferior ways in the past but now he speaks thru Jesus therefore we do not really need to pay attention, or at least fret, over what those inferior things say.

The problem with this is that this assumption falls flat on its face in the very quoted text but also the rest of the entire letter does not support such an interpretation. Sometimes an Old Testament scholar has to teach us to read the NT as Goldingay has helped us above.  The contrast of many vs one.  What is new is that revelation is embodied in the Messiah himself.  This does not deprecate the former speaking. Hebrews does not intend to state, in these opening verses, that the Hebrew Bible is qualitatively inferior, as if its truths are not up to “Christian” standards … God’s Spirit spoke through those prophets … indeed the very same Spirit still speaks through those same texts (3.7, 13, 15, etc).

This does not deny that Jesus is superior – he is the focal point – but it does not imply that the Hebrew Bible was jettisoned or sub-par. Rather Jesus is the the goal of history of Israel.  But there is not a shred – yes shred – of evidence that the Preacher considered the Scriptures he/she quotes were anything but bottom line ultimate authority for his congregation. They are nothing short of the very “oracles of God” (5.12).

In fact the Preacher is not shy of claiming that those words spoken in former days were none other than the words of Jesus himself, as in 2.13 where Psalm 22 is quoted as the voice of Jesus not David. Further the Preacher believes that those words spoken in former days, far from being ignored, spoke directly to TODAY. Here the Preacher claims it is the Holy Spirit addressing his church of “today” directly, authoritatively, to believers who were clearly in the new covenant. Just look at what the author does with Psalm 95 in 3.7, 13 and 4.7. In fact if we read this carefully the narrative of the wilderness generation is AUTHORITY for the preacher in proclaiming that the Sabbath Rest belongs to us!!

The Priesthood

“to the Hebrews” does not repudiate any teaching that was said in previous times. Every argument for the Priesthood of Jesus TODAY is drawn from, and based on the Law of Moses.  The writer says there is a change “in” the law for the High Priest but this change “in” the law is itself based upon the Law … that is Melchizedek in Genesis and Psalm 110. Not one word is claimed for Jesus’s ministry that is not grounded in the authority of the oracles of God spoken in previous times. Thus “to the Hebrews” not only did not but could not teach about Jesus “separate and apart” from what we call the Old Testament.

One of the most stimulating collections of essays ever on Hebrews. Richard Hays essay is alone is worth its price in exegetical gold.

One of the most stimulating collections of essays ever on Hebrews. Richard Hays essay is alone is worth its price in exegetical gold. Edward Adams essay on “The Cosmology of Hebrews” rights the wrongs of James Thompson’s views on Platonic dualism in the letter as well (I have always rejected Thompson’s views).

Old Covenant

This leads to the following question: is the phrase “Old Covenant” equivalent to what is commonly labeled “Old Testament” today in “to the Hebrews.” It is clear that the preacher does NOT believe the voice of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit is obsolete and passing away in his sermon. When the writer speaks of the Old Covenant he does so on the basis of the authority of the prophet Jeremiah.

In this context the writers interpretation of Jeremiah does not stray far from the original. He quotes Jeremiah 31 in 8.8-12 and 10.16-18. The preacher does not even find “fault” with the law but with the “people” (10.8) and clearly notes that the law in the new covenant is the same as the old (8.8-10). The word “covenant” and “law” are not equivalent. The covenant is the relationship that Israel had broken. But the “new” covenant is made with the same people (8.8-10) as the first. It is a REnewED covenant. That is it is a REnewED relationship in which the people of God could not mess up any more. The law is not changed but its LOCATION is changed. It will be written on hearts rather than stone.  See my further explorations on the “new” and “renew” in my blog: Jeremiah 31.31-34: Explorations on New and REnewed in the Bible.

Final Thought

Well I could say a few more things but my point is that we need to be aware of our assumptions and examine them in light of the actual text in its historical setting. There is no evidence that the audience is by definition only Jewish believers; there is abundant evidence that Gentile believers saw themselves as the heirs of Israel being incorporated into it and knew the “Old Testament” inside and out (Tatian BECAME a Christian by reading the “Old Testament!!). There is no evidence that the Preacher ever imagined that the ONLY Bible he ever knew was some how obsolete and passing away. I think he would have cardiac arrest by such Marcionite attitudes in our churches. And there is no evidence that the writer uses the phrase “old covenant” as an equivalent for our term “Old Testament.”

I realize that these observations, every one based on the text itself, are not (ironically) kosher with many folks who are wedded to what they have been taught rather than actual study.

Those who use Hebrews to minimize either the authority or use of 76% of our present Bible greatly abuse his Sermon. The “Hebrews” Preacher believed just the opposite – Jesus himself addresses the church in the Old Testament and the Holy Spirit speaks to the Way TODAY in the Hebrew Bible.

That this makes us have to think, reflect, and pray as we deal with Scripture is healthy rather than dismissing over two-thirds of God’s word because we do not know what to do with food laws. The surprises that come when we examine our assumptions is called growing in the knowledge of the oracles of God that the Preacher chastised his listeners for their LACK of study of the OLD TESTAMENT … Hebrews 5.11-14.

It is possible that I may be wrong with some of my observations. I do not think I am.  But we have to ask the questions and we have to deal with the text.

6 Responses to “Hebrews: Common Assumptions, Uncommon Surprises”

  1. Richard Constant Says:

    Now then what about The Silence of the scriptures Bobby.
    How does that go what are the big deals in the Campbell movement.
    Never made sense to me.
    Seems like God is said quite a bit about Good and Evil don’t you think exercising your mind in the word of righteousness.
    Oh well another topic for another day.
    I liked it a bunch great job.

  2. Pat Andrews Says:

    Good stuff! Love me some Hebrews…
    I recently completed lessons on Leviticus and Numbers for biblestudyworkshop.org Very revealing! Jesus is alive and well in the Old Covenant! The pictures are many and vivid!
    Keep up the good work brother, there may be hope for us yet!

  3. Andrew Swango Says:

    Very good post. What are your thoughts, opinions, what-not about who the Preacher of Hebrews is? Paul? Barnabas? Apollos? Clement of Rome? Priscilla?

  4. Rex Says:

    What you are saying is correct, but I think you are also rebounding to some things in your tradition. I’m not familiar with the Stone-Campbell movement. I’m an ex-Mennonite member of the Vineyard church Columbus. What I worry about reading your blog are those people who are looking for a way to go back to poligamy, an eye for an eye and the excusion of women. the old testament it total and completely authoritative would support this. There are some bad exsamples in the old testament and Moses was Moses was quite different from Jesus.

    • Profile photo of Bobby Valentine Bobby Valentine Says:

      Rex delighted to have you read and reply to my blog. I find your reply to be quite fascinating and unexpected 🙂 I suppose my reply to various of these would be:

      Exegesis determines doctrine. Doctrine does not determine exegesis.

      Not that interested in polygamy – Not Mormons ok 🙂

      The “eye for an eye” may be a bit of a caricature (and a historic one) about the inferior value of the Hebrew Bible.

      There are bad examples in the New Testament as well 🙂

      Blessings.

  5. Dwight Says:

    The problem with the concept of an “eye for an eye” being inferior is that it came from God. I’m not sure it was meant to be literal, but rather an understanding that if you did something harmful to another, which was the context, then you would need to show recompense. It wasn’t as much about vengeance as it was responsibility within the context of judgment. The Jews made it about revenge, which is why Jesus spoke on it in Matt.5. where Jesus argued to not repay harm with harm, but with compassion and mercy, which was always the higher law even in the OT.

    It is interesting that most of the OT survives in the NT in some form, the moral laws do and the external ceremonial laws do in a purely personal aspect within Jesus and the saints. We are even called to go to war…against Satan. Jesus said Salvation is of the Jews, possibly referring to Himself, but also referring to the fact that God showed his deliverance through the Jews.

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