The Letter to the Hebrews: Critical Readings

Written by Scott D. Mackie, ed. Reviewed By Michael Kibbe

This volume is, first of all, a collection of twenty-three essays on Hebrews that fit the following qualifications: (1) recognized significance among Hebrews specialists, (2) written in English, (3) published since 1950, and (4) generally inaccessible to non-specialists. I might have subtracted one or two essays and added one or two others that also meet these qualifications, but on the whole I judge the choices to be sound. My only quibble in terms of these particular goals concerns the last—that these important publications would be made more readily available. For $200+, the non-specialist is hardly likely to take the plunge! And if you have access to the kind of library that will purchase this volume, the chances are good that you can already access all the essays it contains. Having them all in one place is obviously useful, but at what price?

The essays are divided into six sections: (1) Theology, Christology, and Pneumatology, (2) Eschatology, (3) The Author and the Addressed Community, (4) Structure, Greco-Roman Rhetoric, and Hortatory Strategy, (5) The Old Testament and the Relationship with Contemporaneous Judaism, and (6) Soteriology. Each section includes an introduction, the pertinent essays, and suggestions for further reading.

I can hardly do justice to all the essays in this short review; more profitable, perhaps, will be an overview of major points addressed at various points. First, debate continues concerning the implied cosmology of Hebrews—particularly whether it depends primarily on an apocalyptic or a Platonic framework; for significant voices in this discussion see the essays by C. K. Barrett (“The Christology of Hebrews,” pp. 31–46; “The Eschatology of the Epistle to the Hebrews,” pp. 146–70), Ken Schenck (“Philo and the Epistle to the Hebrews: Ronald Williamson’s Study after Thirty Years,” pp. 184–205), and Scott Mackie (“Ancient Jewish Mystical Motifs in Hebrews’ Theology of Access and Entry Exhortations,” pp. 460–76).

Second, the “structure” of Hebrews provides unceasing grist for the scholarly mill—Schenck’s comment that “it is very difficult to capture the sophisticated nature of Hebrews’ rhetorical structure in a straightforward outline” (“A Celebration of the Enthroned Son,” p. 49) has proved true, but it has not prevented us from trying to do precisely that! The classic studies of Hebrews’s structure are of those of Vanhoye and Guthrie (Guthrie’s monograph is noted as a suggestion for further reading on p. 335), but those interested in the next phase of the discussion will want to read the essay by Michael Martin and Jason Whitlark (“Choosing What Is Advantageous: The Relationship between Epideictic and Deliberative Syncrisis in Hebrews,” pp. 314–34). Martin and Whitlark have expanded their discussion in numerous other essays and now in a new monograph Inventing Hebrews: Design and Purpose in Ancient Rhetoric (SNTSMS 171 [Cambridge: CUP, 2018).

Third, it goes without saying that the use of the Old Testament is a major issue in Hebrews; for an overview of that discussion, see George Guthrie’s “Hebrews’ Use of the Old Testament: Recent Trends in Research” (pp. 355–75). For a provocative (both in terms of OT exegesis and in terms of Christology) reading of Hebrews 1–2 that has proved quite influential vis-à-vis recent debates on the atonement in Hebrews, see George Caird, “The Exegetical Method of the Epistle to the Hebrews” (pp. 347–54), as well as (tangentially related to Caird’s work but particularly interested in the resurrection vis-à-vis Christ’s high priesthood in Hebrews) David Moffitt’s “‘If Another Priest Arises’: Jesus’ Resurrection and the High Priestly Christology of Hebrews” (124–35).

Finally, the “traditional” view that Hebrews is written to a group of Christians who are considering abandoning their faith and returning to Judaism (I note the anachronistic nature of this description, but it is frequently put in precisely these terms) finds support in Barnabas Lindars’s “The Rhetorical Structure of Hebrews” (pp. 218–38) and opposition in Eric Mason’s “The Epistle (Not Necessarily) to the ‘Hebrews’: A Call to Renunciation of Judaism or Encouragement to Christian Commitment?” (pp. 389–403). In his introduction Mackie acknowledges the growing abandonment of the traditional view in current scholarship, so I applaud the inclusion of both of these essays in order to represent the variety of perspectives that have existed in the academy and in the church in the past several decades even if current trends are firmly in one direction over the other.

In all, this is a great collection of recent and important studies of Hebrews. As I said earlier, its price makes the value-added questionable in terms of who concretely benefits from its availability, but in terms of the content itself I highly recommend it.

Michael Kibbe

Michael Kibbe
Moody Bible Institute
Spokane, Washington, USA

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