Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ethnicity of Hebrews' Audience

a small excerpt from my writing on Hebrews today...
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For many interpreters, especially in the English speaking world, the Jewish identity of Hebrews’ audience is almost taken for granted. The subtle and extensive argumentation from the Jewish Scriptures, so the argument sometimes goes, would have required too much of a Gentile audience. Many believe the sermon aimed to prevent the audience from “falling back” into Judaism. So it has seemed all the more clear that the audience must have been Jewish in composition. What Gentile audience, it is often assumed unthinkingly, would be tempted to rely on the Levitical cultus, if a major purpose of Hebrews were to dissuade some audience from such reliance?

The unexamined assumptions of this line of thinking, particularly in the light of the previous chapter, are nothing short of astounding. If believing in Jesus as Messiah did not involve a change of religion for Jews, then Gentiles who believed in Jesus saw themselves as converting to a form of Judaism, Christian Judaism. Jews who believed in Jesus at most were changing from one Jewish sect to another, but most early believers probably did not even picture the change in this strong of terms. For one, most Jews did not actually belong to the groups of which we think—Pharisees, Essenes, Sadducees. Most Jews were simply Jews, the “people of the land.” Their faith in Jesus did involve joining a new group, a new movement, but other than Israel itself, they had not been part of a distinct group before. In fact, Acts does not even speak of the Pharisees who believed as leaving the Pharisaic sect. They are simply Pharisees who believed (cf. Acts 15:5).

The Gentiles who became Christians thus saw themselves as converting to Judaism...

5 comments:

Jared Calaway said...

Are you writing a new book on Hebrews? I used your Cosmology and Eschatology extensively in mine (coming out pretty much as we speak!).

Ken Schenck said...

Yes... due in September. "New Perspective on Hebrews: Hebrews and Ways that Never Parted" with Fortress. What's yours?

Jared Calaway said...

I recall you bringing that up a couple of years ago.

Mine is "The Sabbath and the Sanctuary: Access to God in Hebrews and Its Priestly" (Mohr Siebeck).

Jared Calaway said...

Add "Context" to the end of that title.

No One Significant said...

I just came across this interesting post. Nice & thought-provoking. I tend to hold to the traditional assumption that the audience was Jewish in background, not Gentile.

My thinking is that Jewish-Christians (or Christian-Jews) weren't just another Jewish group on two grounds. (1) The exalted status of Jesus (esp. seen in GJn, Rev, and even Hebrews) would cause serious Jewish conflict with the Shema (e.g., noticeably GMt omits GMk's full reference to the Shema); (2) the persecution of Christians by other Jewish groups would seem to indicate that Jewish groups considered early Christians to have overstepped the boundaries of traditional Judaism. I know some Jewish groups were at odds with each other, but to the same extent as against early Christians (e.g., the Twelfth Benediction)?

Thoughts?

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