Friday, May 09, 2008

Guest Book Review by David M. Moffitt

My thanks both to the kind folk at Westminster John Knox for a review copy of Luke Timothy Johnson's Hebrews: A Commentary, and to Dave for the following stimulating review.


Luke Timothy Johnson's recent commentary on Hebrews (Westminster John Knox, 2006) accomplishes a feat rarely achieved by scholarly commentaries. It is easily accessible and readable. Johnson's volume is no substitute for more thorough studies like those of Attridge, Grässer or Spicq. Yet, what this commentary lacks at the level of detailed discussion and engagement with secondary literature is atoned for at the level of lucid prose and exposition. There is little to distract from Johnson's own sustained interpretation of this oft neglected text. As such, this volume is a welcome contribution for those of all levels of expertise who share an interest in this ancient homily.

This review will neither detail the contents of the commentary, nor expend a great deal of verbiage explicating the main emphases of the book (for those seeking more information, see the helpful reviews of Craig R. Koester and Wolfgang Kraus already published in RBL: Suffice it to say that this is a thoughtful and at times provocative study (e.g., Johnson's argument for a pre-70 dating) that is well worth reading. Instead, I will briefly discuss Johnson's welcome emphasis on Jesus' resurrection in Hebrews in view of one of the major themes that orients the whole of his interpretation of the "epistle"—his claim that the argument of Hebrews is best understood in terms of a Platonic worldview.

In his introduction, Johnson claims that, "Hebrews appreciates rather than deprecates the physical. Only because Jesus had a human body could he be a priest … His body, moreover, is not cast off at death but is exalted: Jesus opens the new and living way to God through the veil that is his flesh …" (p. 20). He later adds, "By his resurrection and exaltation, Jesus has entered into the true holy place, which is the presence of the eternal God, with his own blood …, which he offers for the sins of many …" (p. 52). Johnson is not the first to argue for a real emphasis on the bodily exaltation of Jesus in Hebrews (e.g., Spicq, Vanhoye and especially Hofius—whose intriguing interpretation of 10:20 has been largely neglected). As someone actively pursuing dissertation work on this topic (, my interest was especially piqued by Johnson's bold and somewhat surprising comments. In any case, it should be noted that the suggestion that Jesus' bodily presence in heaven forms an important element of Hebrews' soteriological and Christological claims is a minority view.

Such a notion, however, seems at odds with the assumption of a Platonic worldview for the author of Hebrews. Johnson notes the problem stating, "The Platonism of Hebrews is real—and critical to understanding the argument—but it is a Platonism that is stretched and reshaped by engagement with Scripture, and above all, by the experience of a historical human savior whose death and resurrection affected all human bodies and earthly existence as a whole" (p. 21, Johnson dubs this "biblical Platonsim" on p. 173). Granting that "Middle Platonism" is typified by the diversity of opinion and comment on Plato's texts, one still wonders if the fundamental dualism between the material and spiritual realms could really be "stretched and reshaped" to the degree that the confession of Jesus' bodily resurrection and ascension entails. Are we really dealing with an author whose Platonic dualism is being reshaped by Jesus' exaltation, or are the author's claims simply better explained by an appeal to some other set of cosmological presuppositions like those of some form of Jewish apocalyptic?

I do not mean to imply that one can view "Platonism" and "Apocalyptic" as hermetically sealed ideas that never influenced one another. I only want to suggest that if the confession of Jesus' bodily resurrection is actually important for Hebrews—not to mention notions like those of the ongoing personal identity of Jesus after his entry into God's heavenly presence, or that of belief in Jesus' personal return (cf. 9:28), it would seem that there are better cosmological analogies to be drawn in the ancient world than to presume that the author forges a new kind of paradigm breaking Platonism.

These decisions are important because they inevitably color the way one interprets other issues in Hebrews. For example, Johnson often conflates the categories of Jesus' resurrection and exaltation. In his index of subjects one even finds "resurrection/exaltation" listed together as one topic (p. 402). While this conflation fits well within the consensus position on Jesus' resurrection in Hebrews, such an approach more easily coheres with a notion of spiritual ascension in which Jesus' immediately enters God's presence at the moment of his death, than it does with a confession of his bodily resurrection.

More to the point, the supposed fusion of resurrection and exaltation in Hebrews more readily aligns with some form of Platonism than does the claim that Jesus' rose and ascended bodily into God's presence. One therefore wonders if the confusion between the categories of exaltation and resurrection in Johnson might result in the encroachment of his assumption of a Platonist cosmology upon his claim that Jesus' bodily exaltation actually matters in Hebrews. Such a suspicion is born out when later in the volume Johnson comments that, "[T]he notion of 'eternal' does not mean simply 'everlasting,' but more, a participation in the life that is God's own. Salvation, therefore, is more than possession of the land and success, it is 'heavenly' …, transtemporal because also transmaterial" (p. 148, emphasis mine). Somewhere—when speaking of Jesus' offering through the eternal spirit— he also says that by this comment, "[T]he author [likely] intends to describe the mode of Christ's offering. … If spirit is the realm of God's existence, then Christ's entry into that presence is appropriately described as 'through the eternal spirit" (p. 236). And again he says, "The use of 'spirits' [with reference to righteous in 12:10] simply reminds that the way they now live is as God lives, not in their former mortal bodies but in the dimension of spirit." Those who say such things seem to show that they look for a resurrection in which the body no longer plays a role. Thus at sundry times and in various ways it appears that Johnson has actually allowed a Platonic worldview to stretch and reshape his claim that Jesus' human body is not cast off at death (p. 20).

As should be clear, the immediate goal of this review is not to offer a solution to the conundrum I have sought to identify, but only to problematize Johnson's appeal to Platonism on the one hand while claiming that Jesus' body was exalted to heaven on the other. The two assertions stand in sharp tension and it would appear that even for Johnson himself one of these claims really does become obsolete, even to the point of fading away, as his exposition proceeds.

My larger goal, however, is to highlight the less than clear way that commentators on Hebrews tend to employ the language of "resurrection" when explicating the homily. What do we mean when we use this terminology with reference to Hebrews? Does writer affirm Jesus' bodily resurrection? Is resurrection simply another way of speaking of exaltation? Can these two positions be held together or does one exclude the other? Or, does the paucity of resurrection language (some would say total lack—e.g., Attridge) suggest that this author intentionally avoids or denies the resurrection? This latter view seems to offer the most consistent explanation of Hebrews when viewed through the lens of Platonism. Regardless, some clarity in terminology, especially for those who want to use "resurrection" language remains a desideratum.

In conclusion, let me say again how much I appreciate Johnson's commentary. His generally balanced approach and clear exposition not only provide those of all levels who would learn more about this homily with an excellent resource, they also provide a fine example of how a fine commentary can be written.

David M. Moffitt

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At 5/09/2008 10:01 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thanks, Dave, this is simply a superb review. And your point about the problems inherent in "Johnson's appeal to Platonism on the one hand while claiming that Jesus' body was exalted to heaven on the other" is well taken.

I wonder if the Platonic worldview approach is as much a hermeneutic brought to the text as it is one developed in light of the text? Your emphasis on the resurrection seems to put a spanner in the mechanism of LTJ hermeneutical spiral on this matter.

I also wonder if the "in-carnational" language (e.g. Hebrews 4:15; 5:7) also contributes to the problematic you mention, as indeed you imply? Or, to stretch that thought, perhaps the entire Christ-story in Hebrews (cf. Frank J. Matera, New Testament Christology [Westminster: Louisville, 1999]) should function as the major critique of the supposed Platonist lenses, with the resurrection as the climax of that critique?

At 5/09/2008 11:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm not sure what it means to "put a spanner in" anything, but if you think that's the effect of what I'm doing--and if that's a good thing, well then, bung it on (have I got that British expression correct?).

I think you're right that we need to read Hebrews in light of the larger narrative about Jesus. That there is a real Christological narrative in Hebrews (with a plot, distinct moments and real development), though, is one of the elements of the book commentators often fail to recognize or take seriously. This failure is, IMHO, largely due to the fact that the tendency is to conflate Jesus' death, resurrection and exaltation into one basic moment of redemption. An appeal to Platonism makes this conflation more intelligible (to the extent that Jesus can better pass immediately from the cross into God's presence).

But what if the Son's incarnation continues to be an important element in the Christology of Hebrews even after Jesus ascended into heaven? This kind of cosmology would certainly seem to stretch a Platonist one beyond recognition.


At 5/10/2008 2:07 AM, Anonymous Ken Schenck said...

It is sometimes discouraging to me how differently the same biblical texts can be read. Johnson's positions are quite different from mine at many points.

For example, as you perhaps hint, David, it seems as if the author in 9:14 cannot quite bring himself to have Christ bringing his own blood into heaven, but immediately shifts to a sacrifice offered "through eternal spirit."

I also find the language of Hebrews 13:20 very interesting, and don't think that 6:2 must have a 1 Cor. 15 meaning.

I'll be interested to read your dissertation, David. I know you're presenting at SBL this year too. Thanks for this review!

At 5/11/2008 2:14 AM, Anonymous Brian said...

So would you recommend Johnson's Hebrew work or is there a different one that should be considered?

At 5/11/2008 4:03 AM, Anonymous David said...


I think Koester's commentary is one of the best all around commentaries in English. David deSilva's is also good. As I said, Johnson's is really readable. My issue with his emphasis on Platonism doesn't mean I wouldn't recommend the commentary. Richard Hays and I taught Hebrews together this past spring and we used it. If you want more detailed discussion see Attridge, Lane and Ellingworth.


At 5/12/2008 2:49 PM, Anonymous Geoff Hudson said...

Does anyone believe that Hebrews had a shorter and simpler source document that was really pre 70?

At 5/12/2008 10:30 PM, Anonymous Geoff Hudson said...

How has God "spoken to us by his Son"? (1.2)

How is the resurrected Son the "radiance of God's glory"? (1.3)

What was first announced and by whom? (2.2, Ex.16.9,10?)

Whose voice were the readers supposed to hear? (3.7)

Was it the same voice that the Iraelites disobeyed in the desert during the Exodus? (3.8)

At 5/12/2008 11:47 PM, Anonymous Geoff Hudson said...

"Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it RECEIVES the blessing of God." (6.7) The blessing was 'the rain'. Ever heard of the latter rains?

"and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed" is a later interpolation.

At 5/13/2008 10:54 AM, Anonymous Geoff Hudson said...

Would anyone agree that the promise of "entering rest" as in Hebrews has no real basis in the OT? The idea in Hebrews is thus an editor's substitute for something else.


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