Sunday, November 23, 2014

Hebrews and New Perspectives...

... As we look at the dialog these past decades since Sanders, some features of the discussion seem more directly relevant to the interpretation of Hebrews than others. In the next chapter, for example, we will look especially at Hebrews 6:1-2. There we will argue that the way in which Hebrews treats beliefs like repentance and resurrection--namely, as entry level beliefs--suggests that the bulk of the audience is not Jewish at all, but Gentile. [1] Before the new perspective, when it was easy to think of joining the Jesus movement as conversion to a new religion, it was easy to miss the fact that Jews would have already believed or practiced most if not all of the elementary principles mentioned in these verses.

While the extent to which Hebrews reflects a parting or partitioning of the ways from Judaism is a major feature of this book's inquiry, the new perspective puts the burden of proof on the one who argues for parting, rather than on continuity. That is to say, we should presume that the author of Hebrews located his sermon within the limits of Judaism unless the evidence clearly shows us otherwise. A Jew had faith in God and believed in repenting from "dead works." Jews practiced various forms of baptism and laid hands on people. Jews believed in resurrection and judgment. [2]

The expression, "dead works," is perhaps the most obvious place in Hebrews where the new perspective on Paul immediately called prior interpretations into question. Prior to Sanders, most commentaries on Hebrews assumed that the dead works here were something along the lines of works of Law in Romans and Galatians. So a person repented of trying to earn one's salvation. After the new perspective, however, it is obvious that one does not repent of works of Law. Indeed, Stendahl  pointed out that Paul rejected boasting about his works of the Jewish Law--he does not consider them to be sinful or to his discredit. The vast majority of commentaries now rightly suggest that Paul is talking about sins, here, acts that lead to death.

In the next chapter, we will also explore the phrase, "seed of Abraham." At first glance, we might easily miss the potential significance of this expression. The tendency of Christians to understand the church as the new Israel has made it easy to miss how striking it is that Hebrews never refers to the Gentiles. Are we to understand the phrase, "seed of Abraham" in the way that is Paul's default and certainly the default of the earliest believers: as a reference to ethnic Israel? Paul may raise the possibility that Gentiles can become the seed of Abraham (e.g., Rom. 2), but Hebrews seems to assume it. Hebrews gives no argument or explanation for the phrase but matter-of-factly can combine Jew and Gentile into this phrase, a fact that may suggest a time beyond that of Paul himself.

Nor is Hebrews in discontinuity with Judaism when it assumes that it is only by God's grace that believers can receive the forgiveness of sins. This was always the presumption of the Jewish sacrificial system as well. Further, it has proved just as problematic to Christian interpreters of a certain theological stripe to find that Hebrews does not treat God's grace as inexhaustible without an appropriate response. The new prospective renders that entire issue moot. Both the early Jesus movement and the Judaism from which it sprang both held that God's favor was a matter of grace and that it demanded a faithful response in order to be maintained.

Clearly discussions concerning the early partitionings between Judaism and incipient Christianity bear more directly on the interpretation of Hebrews than the new perspective on Paul or the third quest for the historical Jesus. Was the earliest Christology of Christian Judaism such a significant mutation that it almost immediately placed it outside the normal boundaries of Jewish monotheism? ...

[1] cf. DeSilva.

[2] Not all Jews believed all these things, of course, and not all Jews believed them in the same ways. We will return to this diversity in the chapter that follows.

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