Tag Archives: Hebrews

Meditating on the Opening Verses of Hebrews

Sunday, June 17, 2018

8:55 AM Good morning, guys, and Happy Father’s Day to all of you dads out there. This morning I thought I’d continue blogging about the book of Hebrews, which is my favorite New Testament writing outside of the Gospels. This morning I’m meditating on the opening verses of the book. I used to spend a lot of time in the prologue of Hebrews when I was writing my journal article on the subject. What moved me greatly was to see the absolute beauty of the passage. At the time, I profited eminently from the work of Johannes Louw on discourse analysis, and so I called my essay “Hebrews 1:1-4: A Study in Discourse Analysis,” which appeared in the Westminster Theological Journal and can be accessed, free of charge, here. My study of this text was invaluable. It set a trajectory for me in my subsequent studies in Greek discourse analysis. In this opening paragraph of Hebrews, the exalted Christ is found, front and center. And the Greek of this text? It’s perhaps the most exalted Greek in the entire New Testament, which is what you’d expect when the theme of the book is “Christianity Is Christ.” I often tell my students to look for issues of style in a New Testament book every bit as much as matters of theology. The way something is said can enhance its effectiveness. Today I simply want to note the opening two adverbs of the letter. Here the author uses a figure of speech called alliteration in introducing how God spoke in the Old Testament — “in many parts and in many ways” (Greek: polumeros kai polutropos). Note the initial “p” sound. This was designed to make the audience attentive and receptive to the speaker’s message. God, he says, spoke in many parts and in many ways through His spokesmen the prophets. Here the words polumeros and polutropos have to do with the varied and manifold nature of Old Testament revelation. It helps, then, when studying the Old Testament, that we at least try and understand how all of these parts fit together. Likewise — and here’s the main point I’m trying to make this morning (cf. Heb. 8:1!), I believe we can apply these same two adverbs to the letter to the Hebrews. Has not our author (1) used a great variety of parts in order to communicate a single message, and (2) used any number of rhetorical devices (alliteration, assonance, anaphora, asyndeton, metonymy, hyperbole, etc.) in order to increase the impact and appeal of his message, the “hitting” and the “drawing” of his letter on his audience? What this means, at least to me, is that if we are to understand the book of Hebrews aright, we have to begin by understanding at least two things:

Its discourse structure (that is, how all the parts fit the whole), and

Its literary devices (that is, how the message is enhanced by the style of the writing).

What an achievement if we could even begin to understand these two components of meaning! For this reason, I’d like to call your attention to two essays of mine that might help us do just that. They are both accessible online, free of charge:

“The Problem of the Literary Structure of Hebrews” available here, and

“Literary Artistry in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” found here.

At one time, as you can see, Hebrews occupied a good deal of my study time. I do hope you will not find these essays to be “scholarship for the sake of scholarship.” I well recall in the 1980s having to come to grips with a serious academic issue. Would I write for the academy, or would I try to ensure that what I wrote (both my essays and books) would be of some use to the church at large? I have suffered from that schizophrenia ever since. But ultimately I decided that my writings would, hopefully, be useful to more than scholars. Hence my essays and books have tended to be, not less scholarly necessarily (at least I hope not!), but more geared for a broader reading audience. I’ve never had occasion to regret that decision.

Please read these essays if you can. I’m a little embarrassed to call attention to my own essays. Writing is, in fact, at best a supplement to what I do in the classroom. But since most of you can’t attend class with me, I suppose the next best thing is to put my thoughts into words. God has called me to write, and I have tried to obey that calling, but others will have to decide how effective I’ve been.

Below: Heb. 1:1-7 in p46.

(From Dave Black Online, used by permission. Dave Black is the author of The Jesus Paradigm and many other books.)

Key Hebrews Passages

Sunday, May 27, 2018

8:45 AM Hey guys, and welcome back to my little blog. I was up early this morning working on the syllabus for this fall’s exegesis of Hebrews class. It’s crazy to think that anyone can cover the entire 13-chapter epistle in one week, so I’ve forced myself (ugh) to select portions of the letter to focus on. What do you think of my choices?

1:1–4

2:1–4

3:1–6

4:1–11

5:11–6:12

7:1–28

8:1–13

9:11–15

10:19–25

11:1–7

12:1–3

13:1–6

I know that some of you who read my blog are runners and, like me, read the Bible for echoes of the sport. Some passages, such as 12:1-3, are obviously running-related, but others are less obviously so. Here I’m thinking of 2:1-4 or 3:1-6, for example. There are two principles at work in these passages. I’d call 2:1-4 “The Danger of Doing Nothing.” In other words, when you do nothing, something always happens. That’s a principle of life you can bank on. Just don’t mow the grass or change the oil in your car. As for the readers of Hebrews, they were in danger of slowly, imperceptibly drifting away from their moorings in Christ, much like a sailing vessel can drift away from a dock. During our lives as runners, we face a moment of truth every time we wake up in the morning. Running for life is a choice we have to make over and over again. Piece by piece, day after day, we are adding to the mosaic of ourselves as runners. Together, inspiration and perspiration carry us through. Every run we do can become a spontaneous celebration.

As for 3:1-6, my takeaway is another often-forgotten principle of life: You don’t have to make someone else look bad in order to make someone look good. You’ll recall that in this passage the author is comparing Moses and Christ. His goal is to show how vastly superior Christ is to Moses. Had I been given that assignment, I probably would have said, “That’s easy. No problem. All I have to do is show how Moses sinned and how Moses failed and then compare him to the sinless Christ.” But the author of Hebrews was much wiser than that. Rather than denigrate Moses in any way or attempt to “unhitch” himself from the Old Testament, he shows how Moses “was faithful in all of his household.” Moses, he says, was a super great leader, perhaps the greatest leader Israel ever knew. Then he goes on to say, almost in a stage whisper, “Pssst, and guess what? Jesus is even greater than Moses, and if He can be greater than Moses He must really be Something.” You see, the author isn’t contrasting Moses’ faithfulness with Christ’s faithfulness. Both were equally faithful. But there’s a catch: Moses was faithful as a son in the house. But Christ is faithful as the Son over the house. Thus the point of comparison has nothing to do with faithfulness but has everything to do with status. One of the reasons I love the running community so much is because it’s so affirming of every runner who makes an attempt to get out there and run — even those of us out of shape slobs who started out running at a caterpillar-like pace. The possible suddenly seems possible, and no one offers you more encouragement than people who have been running all their lives. “Trust me,” they tell you. “If I can do it, so can you. All you have to do is keep training, keep improving, and keep ignoring the naysayers.” You are living a life, my running friend, that only a short time ago would have been a complete fantasy.

Of course, in our Hebrews class, we’ll be covering these passages not in English but in Greek, and believe you me, the Greek of Hebrews can be a bit on the challenging side. But if I get the syllabus up in the next 3 weeks, that should give my students plenty of time to work ahead if they so desire. The course is by default (more than design) merely an entrée into this wonderful epistle. And in addition to exegeting specific texts, we’ll also be covering such macro-issues as authorship. Here’s what they’ll be reading on this subject.

  • Allen, David L. Lukan Authorship of Hebrews. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2010.
  • Black, David Alan. The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul. Energion, 2013.
  • Guthrie, George. “The Case for Apollos as the Author of Hebrews,” Faith and Mission 18.2. (2001): 41-56.

Of course, when they read my little book, I don’t expect them to agree with me, though I hope they’ll get a glimpse of the remarkable joy of discovery I experienced as I began to study the church fathers for themselves.

 

Paul, Tenses, and Exegesis in Hebrews 6:4-6 and 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16

8:58 AM This week in Greek 4 we’re going through 1 Thess. 2:13-16. What a fascinating passage!

What I find incredibly interesting about this paragraph is the way Paul switches from aorist tense participles to present tense participles.

I’ve seen this pattern elsewhere, except in reverse order. Here the switch is extremely important exegetically.

One of the continuing hotbeds of discussion in Pauline studies is whether or not this passage can be used to suggest that Paul was in some way anti-Semitic. I’ve striven hard to consider the evidence with evenhanded fairness, but I really don’t think there’s any way this text shows that Paul had an animus against his Jewish brethren. This debate is one of the most volatile in the church today and will merit in-depth discussion on Tuesday. I love the emphasis in 1 Thessalonians on apologetics and evangelism. I like the way students are being exposed to Paul’s philosophy of ministry. I especially love exploring with them the implications of the text for teaching and praxis. Any course in exegesis that fails to do this is doomed to irrelevance.

Reading Hebrews in the Good News Bible

8:06 AM I was reading Hebrews 1 this morning in the Good News Bible (TEV).

book jriririroiroParts of it are truly outstanding. The translators render “Thou are my Son; today have I begotten thee” as “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” Great so far. And then there’s this footnote on v. 8: “or, God is your kingdom.” The text of the Good News Bible, of course, reads “Your kingdom, O God, will last forever and forever!” The confusion here stems from the Greek: Is theos nominative or vocative? The translators have taken it as a vocative (correctly, in my view), but at least they note the alternative. Good for them. But here’s what puzzles me. Notice that they begin a new paragraph in verse 4.

book hbeyeueieieThis is impossible. It contradicts the Greek text. Verses 1-4 are all one long sentence in the original. Making a new paragraph in verse 4 is just not empirically possible. It’s completely illogical — like asserting “married bachelor.” This sort of inconsistency drives me nuts. (People sometimes tell me I’m too OCD about these kinds of things but it’s part of my temperament.) I really, truly, sincerely believe we can do better. And yet, these kinds of oversights are hardly exceptional. Am I hereby trying to make a case for the study of Greek? In one sense yes. But at least you can compare other English translations before arriving at your conclusion as to the paragraph structure of a New Testament book. Again, I deeply appreciate the translators who produced the Good News Bible. When I was a teenager I literally could not put this book down. The text was readable, and the line drawings were fantastic. But our focus should always be on faithfulness to the text as the Holy Spirit inspired it — and this includes matters of syntax and structure, not just words.

Finally, as an aside, I had to smile when I realized (again) how Hebrews is placed after Philemon in our English Bibles. This wasn’t always the case. In our earliest manuscripts, Hebrews comes after Romans or between 2 Thessalonians and 1 Timothy. (Both codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus place Hebrews after 2 Thessalonians.) In other words, Hebrews assumed a prominent position in the Pauline letters at an early date. It was only in the fourth century that Hebrews began to consistently appear after Philemon. My point is that, according to the earliest manuscript evidence, Hebrews was an integral part of the Pauline collection. David Trobisch, who is an acknowledged expert in all things canonical, has argued that the placing of Hebrews after Philemon was a distortion of the original canonical edition of the New Testament. (See The First Edition of the New Testament, p. 25.)  Needless to say, these facts are not sufficiently heeded by today’s New Testament students, in my opinion.

All of this is relevant to our LXX class, because one of the earliest questions we will face is: “Which books should be included in the Septuagint?” It’s necessary to raise this question because there is no one indisputable “Septuagint” but “Septuagints” (plural). Ralhf’s edition of the LXX even contains the Song of Mary from Luke 2!

9781938434730mThink about this: If Hebrews is genuinely Pauline, this would change everything about the way we interpret Paul. Hebrews would be included in our New Testament theology books, and when we wanted to study, say, Paul’s view of church leadership, we’d have to include such passages as Heb. 13:7 and Heb. 13:17. The undeniable reality is that questions of canon and authorship matter. Of course, both sides demonize the other. Proponents of Pauline authorship are dismissed as obscurantists, while proponents of Hebrews’ non-Paulinity are accused of succumbing to the spirit of the age. But why should we tolerate this kind of judgmental divisiveness? Maybe we need another conference on campus to discuss the issue!

Anyhow, that’s my take on Hebrews for today. The fact is, all of us have biases and presuppositions. Many issues we have never personally studied. We tend to rely too heavily on the work of others. I know I do. So whether or not you espouse the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, prayerfully consider looking at the evidence yourself before making up your mind.

And do be patient with me when I chase rabbit trails.

Peace out,

Dave

(From Dave Black Online. Used by permission.)

Discontinuity Old Testament to New

10:28 AM Henry Neufeld has just posted two essays about the book of Hebrews and its instruction about the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures). Someday I would love to have a public dialogue with Henry on this subject. Any way, I have for many years been a big fan of Henry’s and I deeply respect him as a churchman, language scholar, and publisher. I think by reading his essays I better understand where he stands. He cares deeply about the Old Covenant (as I do) and is absolutely correct in saying that we Christians must never denigrate the Hebrew Scriptures in any way, shape, or form. So where do we disagree?

Well, I tend to see more discontinuity between the Testaments than Henry does. My theology, if you will, is more along Anabaptist lines than Reformed on this subject. The Reformers were unwilling to make a radical break with the past. Their churches remained established and the parish system was maintained. By contrast, the Anabaptists understood the example of early Christianity and the teachings of the New Testament to be the binding norm for Christians of all ages. For example, the Anabaptists argued that since infant baptism could not be found in the New Testament, it could not be used in a movement trying to emulate the life of the early church. To them the rite was non-apostolic and therefore an insidious shame to genuine Christianity. However – and this is a vital point – the real issue in baptism was not simply a return to the New Testament pattern. Rather, it involved a promise to walk in newness of life, that is, to live according to the Word of God by refusing to let sin reign in the mortal body. In other words, the local church, entry into which was through baptism, was to be a community of saints. The Anabaptists argued that without such concern for morality and genuine repentance, a slipshod practice of spiritual laxity would inevitably result. For the Anabaptists, only the New Testament contained the explicit teaching of Christ and His apostles. The Old Testament was not rejected, of course. It was simply subjected to the doctrines found in the Gospels and the Epistles. According to Pilgram Marpeck, the Old Testament must be distinguished from the New Testament as the foundation must be distinguished from the house. John Kiwiet summarizes Marpeck’s hermeneutics as follows (I give both the original German along with my own English translation):

Der alte Bund war eine Zeit des Suchens und des Dürstens und erst der Neue Bund eine Zeit des Findens und Stillens. Die Verheissung an die Alten geht im Neuen Bund in Erfülling [sic]. Die Finsternis wird zu Licht und der Tod zu Leben. Es ist wie der Unterschied zwischen gestern und heute; das Alte ist vorbeigegangen, und das Neue ist gekommon.

The Old Covenant was a time of seeking and thirsting and only the New Covenant a time of finding and stillness. The promise to the ancients finds its fulfillment in the New Covenant. Darkness turns to light and death to life. It is like the difference between yesterday and today; the old has gone away, and the new has arrived.

Marpeck’s point is that revelation was progressive and partial before Christ. He felt that the Reformers had mistaken the foundation of the house for the house itself. Marpeck’s two-covenant theology was based on Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the Epistle to the Hebrews, which taught that the highest court of appeal for all teaching concerning the church was the New Covenant. In short, he argued that the Scriptures must be interpreted Christologically.

Of course, I am not arguing that Henry fails to interpret the Bible Christologically. But I know some who do. This is one reason the Anabaptists looked with disfavor on professional pastors whose support came through tithes in the parish system. (Note: Henry has published a book by David Croteau that challenges the notion of tithing called Tithing After the Cross.) Unlike Old Testament Israel, their leaders were laymen, since Christ’s offering as High Priest was deemed to be exclusive. Their pastors, moreover, were chosen by the entire congregation according to the pattern established in the New Testament (Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28). They were supported by voluntary offerings (though many indeed supported themselves). As for the place of meeting, lavish sanctuaries were no longer necessary since Christ had abolished the Old Testament priesthood. John Darby, one of the founders of the Brethren church, encouraged the construction of simple chapels or assemblies with architecture that emphasized the priesthood of all believers. Pulpits and platforms were avoided. A typical chapel was a square room with a table and chairs for the speakers. Darby insisted on sitting among the members during the service and standing among them when he spoke rather than from behind the table. (Henry will recall that I requested to do the same when I spoke at his Methodist church in Pensacola several years ago.) The Anabaptists denied the significance of church buildings since physical structures were irrelevant to God. The buildings themselves were emblems of mere formalism. Large stone structures could never replace the true church of Christ that is comprised of two or three living stones gathered in His Spirit. They felt that with the addition of large numbers of extravagant temples the church had compromised with worldly standards of success. The Anabaptists energetically condemned this “externalization” of the Body of Christ.

Finally – and here is where I’m quite positive Henry and I would agree (based on the books he has published, many of whom are authored by “nobodies” in the world’s eyes, like my wife) – in Anabaptism appeal was made to the plain man’s judgment, unspoiled by the university. Those who toiled with their hands (craftsmen) or who worked in the soil (peasants) were presumed to be more receptive and teachable than those who had been corrupted by the folly of worldly wisdom. Here a certain irony arises, of course, for among the radical thinkers of Anabaptism there were not a few university trained men whose knowledge of the Scriptures and of the original languages of the Bible were unsurpassed. I think of my fellow Basler Conrad Grebel, who studied at the Grossmünster in Zürich for six years before becoming one of the 81 students to register at the University of Basel in the winter semester of 1514. At Basel he lived in the bursa (college) that was under the direction of the city’s leading humanist scholar, Heinrich Loriti (Glarean). From Basel he traveled to Vienna to continue his studies, and from there to Paris. Perhaps the Anabaptists’ attitude toward scholarship was based to a degree upon their work ethic. Hard work was considered a virtue. The peasant who worked with his own hands in cooperation with God’s nature was thought to have keener insight than the scribe with his multitude of books. So the Anabaptists might argue: “How can those who know the Master miss His simple and straightforward words in Matthew 23 condemning the use of honorific titles?” To the Anabaptists, use of such titles seemed the very culmination of worldliness and power. Their message was simple: Let the Reformers cling to the old ideas of Christendom. We will seek a thoroughgoing restitution of the church as it had been before the rise of Constantine.

Again, I’m not sure that Henry and I are very far apart on this subject. Indeed, we share very similar visions of the kingdom of God. Where we might differ is in our ecclesiology. The sixteenth century Anabaptists challenged the Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed establishments of their day. (Sorry, Henry, but the Methodists weren’t around quite yet.) Centuries later Barth and Brunner would question the church-state system from within. Why, then, should it surprise us today when Christians engage in responsible criticism of their own denominations? The goal of the Anabaptists, as has often been said, was to cut the tree back to the root and thus free the church of the suffocating growth of ecclesiastical tradition. That this goal is being revived in our day should be the cause of great rejoicing.

 

On the Authorship of Hebrews

Richard Ousworth has published a fine piece called What Are They Saying about the Letter to the Hebrews? (.pdf). Much of it is a review of Alan Mitchell’s recent commentary in the Sacra Pagina series. As someone who has published a number of essays on Hebrews, I was interested in this quote about authorship:

Let us begin, then, with authorship. It continues to be obligatory,
apparently, to quote Origen’s remark, cited by Eusebius (Church History
6.25.14) that ‘only God knows’ who wrote the Epistle, though in fact – as
Mitchell correctly points out – Origen did in several places defend the
Pauline authorship of Hebrews (see e.g. Letter to Africanus 8, Contra
Celsum 3.35 and 7.29). It is surprising, though, that Mitchell spends as
long as he does dealing with the only recent serious defence of Pauline
authorship, by D.A. Black in Faith and Mission 18 (2001). Some of
Black’s arguments are seriously flawed, and every modern commentary
offers a long and convincing list of reasons for thinking that, while there
are intriguing parallels between Hebrews and some Pauline theology –
and of course the reference to Timothy at the end of the last chapter – this Epistle simply cannot be of Pauline authorship in any meaningful sense.

I dare say I am honored to have been mentioned as someone who has given a “serious” defense of Pauline authorship. I strongly disagree, however, with the notion that Hebrews “cannot be of Pauline authorship in any meaningful sense.” If you’d like to know why, see my essay. Suffice it to say here that the external evidence continues to be overlooked in certain circles, and it is the external evidence that, in my view, is probative.

(From Dave Black Online. David Alan Black is the author of Energion titles Christian Archy, The Jesus Paradigm, and Why Four Gospels?. Used by permission.)