Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Hebrews and New Perspectives

Forty years ago now, New Testament studies reached a certain tipping point on the question of how the books of the New Testament might have related to the Judaism from which they emerged. Prior to this moment, numerous unexamined assumptions had prevailed about the earliest church in relation to Judaism. Suddenly, a paradigm shift took place. To those participating in this shift, this "new perspective on Paul" seemed obvious. Predictably, those invested in the traditional paradigm strongly resisted.

However, the blind spots of the traditional paradigm seemed obvious to many. The earliest Christians did not think they were part of a new religion. They saw their faith in Jesus as Messiah as nothing but the truest faith of Israel. They saw themselves participating in the fulfillment of Israel's story, not in the beginning of a new story or a new religion. The spread of the Jesus-movement to Gentiles was surely unanticipated by many of the earliest believers. The Christian story was a Jewish story in its very essence.

The bias against Judaism by many Christians was also laid bare. Judaism affirmed the grace of God. Jews by and large did not believe that they could merit God's favor apart from God's grace, of which the sacrificial system was a part. Protestants in particular were wont to read into the theology of the New Testament the theology of the Reformation, another anachronism exposed by the new perspective. The New Testament itself had far more room for works than would make Martin Luther comfortable.

The first chapter discusses these developments in greater detail. A significant amount of literature arose in the 1980s and 90s re-examining Paul's letters and Judaism from this new perspective, which claimed to be the original perspective itself, not truly a new perspective at all. Then it is no surprise that this re-examination of the relationship between Paul and Judaism soon led to another look at Jesus in relationship to Judaism, a movement sometimes called the "third quest for the historical Jesus."

Finally, again predictably, the question shifted to exactly when Christianity and Judaism actually parted ways. For years many had simply read back the situation today into the early church. Christianity and Judaism are different religions today. It was perhaps natural to assume that they had always been different religions. Now the question needed to be asked, "When did they actually become distinct religions?" When did they truly part ways? The question has proved far more complex and variegated than we might have imagined forty years ago.

Although the study of books like Hebrews has continued to swim in the altered waters of these debates, no one to date has actually done a holistic re-examination of Hebrews in the light of these revised perspectives. The interpretation of a verse might change here and there. Perhaps a scholar might soften his or her sense of the tone with which Hebrews viewed the Levitical system as no longer needed. However, it is my contention that the unexamined assumptions go much deeper.

Why is it that so much study of Hebrews thinks it obvious that the audience must have been Jewish? Could it be a serious underestimation of the degree to which Gentile converts saw themselves joining a Jewish movement and embracing the story, symbols, and institutions of Israel? Why does it seem obvious that an audience invested in the temple would have to be a Jewish group tempted to return to mainstream Judaism? Could it be still more unexamined assumptions? We know that the temple was destroyed and never returned. Today it is obvious to Christians that Christ made the temple obsolete. Why is this obvious to Christians today? It is obvious because of the book of Hebrews itself! Prior to the book of Hebrews, it is not at all clear that Christ's supercession of the temple would have been obvious to Jesus followers.

It seems far more likely that it took some time for the earliest Christians to reach this conclusion. I would argue that it did not likely become a prevailing understanding among Jesus-followers until after the temple was destroyed. The earliest Christians were not likely at all to conclude instantly that Christ's offering had replaced the temple. Over time it is likely that a spectrum of positions developed on this question within the movement, just as took place earlier on the question of the Jewish Law. Accordingly, the earliest Gentile converts to the Jesus movement would have owned the Jerusalem temple as part of their new faith just like other Christian Jews likely did.

Forty years after the tipping point, scholarship on the book of Hebrews is still largely operating within a pre-new perspective paradigm. The intuitions of American scholars in particular still find it difficult to move beyond the glasses of the Protestant Reformation and Nicaea to hear this sermon in its original Jewish and Gentile Christian context. We do not need to abandon our personal faith to read Hebrews in context. A mature hermeneutic will recognize the difference between fuller theological readings and appropriations of scriptural texts and historical-cultural interpretations which attempt to examine moments on the way to the later formulations. We can distinguish historical tasks from confessional ones without sacrificing either.

The pages that follow are one attempt to look at Hebrews in this light. As with any scholarly construct, it is a probing of the possibilities. It is an attempt to play out one possible scenario in the light of the evidence we have and the conversation of interpreters as it stands. Time will tell whether it manages to convince others or if it stands alone as just one possibility to check off the list. I offer it to the great, never-ending conversation that is biblical scholarship.

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