Thursday, January 29, 2009

Guest Book Review by David M. Moffitt

My thanks to Brill for a review copy of Hebrews: Contemporary Methods—New Insights. BINS 75. Edited by Gabriella Gelardini. Leiden: Brill, 2005. Thanks also to David for another insightful review. Again, before I hand over I should note that the Greek font used is SPIonic.


The general trend to read the texts of the New Testament as works that belong within the pale of Second Temple Jewish literature, and thus more and more against the background of a Jewish milieu, has largely left the subset of Hebrews scholarship unaffected. I have no wish in this brief review to impose a reductionistic dichotomy between Judaism and Hellenism. Nevertheless, to paint with a broad brush, it seems to me that the world of Hebrews scholarship has remained happy to assume that, if any New Testament text can be considered pervasively influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy, rhetoric, and culture—surely this is it. Hebrews, many believe, represents a kind of Philo-like fusion between early Palestinian Jewish proclamation about Jesus and the bigger world of the Hellenized diaspora. As a result, a great number of assumptions about the cosmology, Christology, soteriology, and eschatology of the document have largely remained insulated from the sea change going on in the rest of the New Testament canon. Hebrews: Contemporary Methods—New Insights (now available in an affordable paperback edition) is one of a handful of recent publications containing hints suggesting that even the inlet of Hebrews studies is starting to be affected by the turning of the tide.

I cannot here detail all the essays in this volume. For a more thorough survey of the contents of the book see that of C. Patrick Gray in RBL:,2272,4895,2150,1059,6070,6966,5102,5445,5732. Instead, I will highlight two essays illustrative of what I consider to be some of the book's contributions vis-à-vis the kind of change alluded to above.

The volume's very first essay by Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann is entitled "Does the Cultic Language in Hebrews Represent Sacrificial Metaphors? Reflections on Some Basic Problems" (pp. 13–23). In this piece the brothers Stegemann helpfully remind us that, "[D]ue to our epistemological paradigm, the sacrifice of Christ can a priori be ruled out as a potential historical referent [for the language of Jesus' heavenly offering], since from the perspective of our worldview heaven is no place for historical events" (p. 15). In other words, our modern worldview makes it easy for us to assume that the use of cultic and heavenly language in Hebrews to describe Jesus' salvific work "must be theological and metaphorical" (p. 17). The Stegemanns carefully note that they are not offering a detailed discussion of theories of metaphor (p. 14). Rather, they wish to point out to us that Hebrews scholarship has often used the language of metaphor in opposition to that of real, historical, objective representation. There is what actually happened (Jesus was crucified), and there is the metaphorical language of sacrifice and heaven used by the author to create the spiritual/existential significance of the earthly event. All of this looks like the sort of thing we might expect from a good Platonist after all.

The Stegemanns' essay is more a word of caution than a constructive proposal for how we should then read Hebrews. Yet, their brief word of exhortation offers us an opportunity to demythologize some of our own assumptions. What if, for example, the author of Hebrews does not imagine himself as interpreting the real, earthly event of Jesus' death by way of appeal to a spiritualization of the cultic practices depicted in Jewish scripture? What if he is not speaking in terms of metaphors (where the language of "metaphor" is understood along the reductionistic lines that the Stegemanns, rightly in my view, think many scholars intend when they use it)? What if, as those at Qumran seem to have thought, the author believes that there really exists a heavenly tabernacle (that Moses really saw), that there really is a heavenly liturgy and throne, and that Jesus really went to that place? It is not clear that a relatively orthodox Platonist would think this way, though a Jew with apocalyptic leanings just might. The Stegemanns do not develop their point in this direction. It seems to me, however, that their critique of our implicit assumptions at least provides a little space for us to try to reimagine the message of the homily along the lines of Jews who read their scriptures more like the apocalyptic writers than like Philo.

The second essay I want to highlight is that of Christian Eberhart entitled "Characteristics of Sacrificial Metaphors in Hebrews" (pp. 37–64). As the title suggests, Eberhart approaches the depiction of Jesus' death in Hebrews in terms of a metaphorical appeal to the sacrificial system. Yet, relying largely on his own massive research into Hebrew sacrificial practices, he encourages us to take the biblical accounts of sacrifice more seriously in order to clarify what the content of a metaphorical appeal to those practices might be. The first half of his essay provides readers with a concise summary of his own work and the backdrop against which it stands. One of his claims is that the Jewish scriptures do not identify the climax of a sacrificial act with the slaughter of the victim (p. 49). Rather, the offering, i.e., the bringing of the sacrificial blood (or other materials) into the presence of God, is where the effectual benefits of the act are obtained. Referring to the purifying/atoning results of blood sacrifices, Eberhart points out, "[T]his purification would not happen if the animal of, e.g., a sin offering were to be slaughtered without the subsequent blood application rite being carried out" (p. 58). In such cases the death of the victim is a sine qua non for the blood rite, but "the moment of slaughter as such … has no particular significance" (ibid.). One of the interpretive payoffs for Eberhart is that the references in Hebrews to Jesus' blood can be more clearly understood as emphasizing Jesus' death as the prerequisite for salvation. The term "sacrifice" can then be seen as referring to more than just the crucifixion. That is, in keeping with Hebrews' own logic, the sacrifice of Jesus should be seen to be inclusive of his death and "transition from earth to heaven where he now serves as the heavenly high priest" (p. 64).

As an exercise in pushing us to think seriously about the ways sacrifice probably worked, or at least is depicted in the Jewish scriptures, Eberhart does us a great service and helps us begin to think through the Jewish milieu of Hebrews afresh. It is not uncommon for interpreters to conceive of Hebrews as an attempt to map the death and ascension of Jesus onto the two supposedly great moments of Yom Kippur—the slaughter/death of the victim and the offering of its blood. The work of Eberhart, however, challenges this conception of Yom Kippur. There was only one great moment—the presentation of the blood. In light of Eberhart's work, I find it interesting that the preferred verb for Jesus' priestly action in Hebrews is prosfe/rw (prospherō – meaning "to offer, present") and never qusia/zw (thusiazō – meaning "to sacrifice"). Eberhart, unfortunately in my view, translates the verb prosfe/rw with the gloss "sacrifice." Let me be clear that this is probably more an issue of English rendering than the Greek per se, but if the emphasis in Yom Kippur really does fall on the presentation of the sacrifice (where "sacrifice" is a noun) and not the act of slaughter, then it seems more accurate to bring prosfe/rw into English as "to offer/present," than as "to sacrifice." To sacrifice (especially oneself) in contemporary English parlance calls to mind an act that brings about death and connotes all kinds of things that may actually muddy the point being made by the author of Hebrews (and brings too much of Paul into Hebrews to boot). Some translations are more careful about this (e.g., the RSV), though some, like the NIV, prefer to gloss prosfe/rw as "to sacrifice" and thereby leave English readers with the impression that Jesus sacrifices himself in Hebrews. In fact, Jesus always offers himself to God (i.e., he is never the subject of the verb qusia/zw in Hebrews), and, interestingly, when the author speaks explicitly about where this occurred, he locates it in heaven.

I realize I may be accused of hair splitting (and that many will likely want to challenge some of my previous comments by pointing to passages like 10:5-10), but, while the semantic domains of these two Greek words overlap to a high degree in cultic contexts, the very evidence Eberhart deduces about the high point of blood sacrifices being the presentation of the blood before God may suggest that the author of Hebrews is more careful in thinking through the relationship between Jesus' death and Jesus' ascension/priestly activity in heaven and Yom Kippur than is generally assumed. In keeping with my comments above, perhaps we ought to take Hebrews' language of Jesus' offering himself, his body, and his blood, which incidentally is the agent of life in Leviticus, not death (a point that Eberhart notes; cf. another essay in the volume, that of Ina Willi-Plein, "Some Remarks on Hebrews form the Viewpoint of Old Testament Exegesis," [pp. 25-35, esp. 33]), in heaven more seriously. Perhaps, that is, what Jesus does in heaven is, very much in keeping with the biblical account of Yom Kippur, far more important for atonement in Hebrews than the crucifixion.

Space already fails me to say more. My own views on the points I raise above are being hashed out in my dissertation (a very brief abstract may be viewed here: Suffice it to say that Gelardini has compiled a volume of interesting and engaging essays, and I am grateful to Brill for publishing it. I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about some of the current issues being debated in Hebrews scholarship.

David M. Moffitt

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At 1/29/2009 12:40 AM, Anonymous iYRe said...

*phew* for a minute I thought he was reviewing your guest book.


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