Divine Discourse in the Epistle to the Hebrews: The Recontextualization of Spoken Quotations of Scripture

Written by Madison N. Pierce Reviewed By Jared Compton

It’s a commonplace in Hebrews scholarship to note that Scripture is presented not as written text but as speech, even divine speech, spoken by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Pierce, however, takes this observation one step further. In this revised version of her 2017 PhD thesis (Durham University), she insists that Hebrews’s speech assignments aren’t random; rather, each (or, almost each) is assigned to a specific divine character and for a specific reason. Each allows the author to consistently and, therefore, distinctively characterize its divine speaker. Thus, according to Pierce, Hebrews’s citations not only tell us how this early Christian author understood Scripture but, even more, how he understood God.

Pierce previews all this in her opening chapter (ch. 1, pp. 1–34), showing that Hebrews’s exegetical method—i.e., assigning speeches to speakers—is similar to a method used by patristic authors called prosopological exegesis, where “faces” (prosōpa) are assigned to unidentified (un-faced) or under-identified persons in the Bible. Here too she also lays out criteria an interpretation must meet in Hebrews to be called prosopological. The interpretation must be of an authoritative text (e.g., the Bible), contain speech, and admit to some uncertainty about its speaker or recipient (or, in some cases, its subject matter). Plus, the interpretation must add a “new element” to the text. It must disambiguate its source text, as Pierce puts it, by adding in something “not obviously indicated by a plain reading” (p. 21).

In the heart of her book (chs. 2–4, pp. 35–174) she then explores each citation in Hebrews 1–10:18, organizing her chapters by divine speaker: God first (ch. 2), then the Son (ch. 3), then the Holy Spirit (ch. 4). She argues that texts assigned to the Father consistently characterize him as speaking to (or about) the Son (1:1–14; 5:1–10; 7:1–28; 8:1–13). Texts assigned to the Son characterize him as responding to the Father (2:1–18, excluding 2:5–9; 10:1–10). And texts assigned to the Spirit consistently characterize him as one who addresses the audience (3:7–4:11; 10:15–18). Here and there Pierce’s text assignments are somewhat surprising. For example, she characterizes Hebrews 8:8–12, which cites Jeremiah 31:31–34, as God’s speech about the Son, even though Hebrews leaves both the citation’s speaker and recipient unidentified. To establish her claim, Pierce, in fact, performs her own prosopological reading of Hebrews (p. 85)! (Along the way, she rightly prefers αὐτούς to αὐτοῖς in v. 8, which removes at least one obstacle in the way of her reading by leaving the indirect object of λέγει and, thus, the speech’s recipient unidentified.). Here too Pierce claims that the audience—the referent of “them” (αὐτούς) in 8:8—with whom God finds fault is not God’s old-covenant people, critiqued in Hebrews’s three previous exhortations and in the citation itself (see v. 9), but God’s old-covenant priests (p. 89).

In a penultimate chapter (ch. 5, pp. 175–99), Pierce explores the uncharacteristic speech assignments in Hebrews 10:18–13:25. Elsewhere, speeches follow a particular order: God speaks, then the Son, then the Spirit. In fact, when this order repeats itself in Hebrews 5:1–10:18, Pierce insists that it gives readers one more reason to follow Nauck’s (et al.) three-part outline of the letter (i.e., Heb 1–4; 5–10a; 10b–13). Here, however, in Hebrews’s final third, that order is abandoned, as is Hebrews’s consistent characterization of its divine speakers. The Holy Spirit speaks first, though still to the audience (10:30). The Father speaks second, still about the Son (10:37–38). Then an unattributed exhortation “speaks” to the audience (12:5–6), as do the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, first singly (12:25–28) and then in chorus (13:5). Finally, the audience speaks, responding to God’s speech with a declaration of faith (13:6). The departure from Hebrews’s earlier patterns, Pierce notes, suggests that the author’s argument at this point in the letter simply “need[s] to accomplish something different” (p. 198; cf. 210). After all, “What would we say,” she asks in another place, “if ‘God’ never spoke to us” (p. 200)?

Pierce concludes (ch. 6, pp. 200–11), summarizing her argument and, here and there, extending its reach. She suggests, for example, that Hebrews may not be explicitly Trinitarian, but its exegetical method surely provides a “grammar” or “logic”—a way of reading the Bible and understanding God—that aligns with later orthodox developments. What’s more, after rehearsing the characteristics of each divine speaker, Pierce summarizes each in a fresh way, noting that Hebrews presents the Father, fundamentally, as one who loves, the Son as one who serves and the Spirit as one who exhorts and admonishes, not least in his own voice.

Pierce’s fresh and far-reaching proposal does, however, leave me with a handful of lingering questions. Here let me simply register three.

First, I can wonder, must the “new element” introduced by prosopological exegesis be as new as Pierce insists? For example, she seems to say that unless Psalm 2:7 implies eternal generation (“an eternal event,” p. 43) in Hebrews 1:5, then even though the author of Hebrews applies this messianic psalm to Jesus, he hasn’t read the psalm prosopologically (p. 45). It’s not enough, in other words, to identify the psalm’s previously-unknown (and, therefore, ambiguous) referent. Prosopological exegesis must introduce something even newer. I’m not sure, however, based on Pierce’s earlier definition and criteria, why this must be the case. To put it another way: couldn’t someone read the opening catena like, for example, Lincoln Hurst or Kenneth Schenck (see p. 41, n. 18), and still use the label prosopological? If not, why not?

Second, and along the same lines, how does prosopological exegesis relate to other, more traditional descriptions of Hebrews’s exegetical method? Promise-fulfillment and typology would, I suspect, both lay some claim to resolving ambiguities. And, surely, it can’t be that prosopological exegesis has exclusive rights to interpreting citations containing speech. Here it would have been helpful for Pierce to put her proposal in more explicit dialogue with these traditional categories, showing us why prosopological is the best label for what the author is doing with, say, Psalms 2, 22, 40 and 110, much less with Jeremiah 31 or Psalm 95. Or, to use another example, why it’s the best label for what Jesus does in Luke 4 when he claims to “fulfill” Isaiah 61:1–2 (p. 12). It’s speech and there’s ambiguity about Isaiah’s referent, but there’s also fulfillment-language. Again, what makes prosopology a better label in this case than any others? I can wish Pierce had disambiguated this.

Third, how significant is the author’s characterization of God to his citation-selection and, therefore, to his overall argument? Pierce is surely right: there do seem to be patterns of text-assignments in Hebrews, though not always as consistent as we would like. In fact, to the extent that certain citations “bend the rules”—e.g., Heb 2:5–9 (Ps 8:4–6); 8:5 (Exod 25:40); 8:8–12 (Jer 31:31–34 [38:31–34 LXX])—then one may wonder whether the assignments were quite as intentional as Pierce insists and begin to look for even more important considerations behind the author’s text-selection and, even, more apt descriptions of his exegetical method. Are there other features that each—or, at the least, even more—of Hebrews’s citations share in common? I’m inclined with George Caird (and his kin) to think there are. And I’m now curious to explore how Pierce’s thesis maps onto these other approaches.

These questions and minor quibbles notwithstanding, Pierce has indeed given us a probing study of Hebrews, at once well-researched and, here and there, freshly-illuminating. And, beyond this, she’s drawn our attention to matters of central importance in this letter, both to Scripture and to God. Hebrews insists that we must pay close attention to “the one who is speaking” (12:25; cf. p. 211) and Pierce’s study helps us do just that.


Jared Compton

Jared Compton is assistant professor of New Testament and Greek at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis.

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