Friday, November 18, 2011

Hughes on Hebrews: Introduction

I've decided to try to start working my way through commentaries on the Bible in an effort to focus my studies. I probably should have started this a long time ago, but I'm lazy and prefer a set way of thinking, and my decision doesn't mean I won't continue to think and write topically.

But in any case, I wanted to begin with a more challenging book of the Bible, so I somewhat arbitrarily selected Hebrews. Leviticus and Revelation were alternative considerations, but I've checked Philip Hughes' A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews so many times now that I suspect the librarians are going to soon take it away so other people can use it. Out of all the commentaries on Hebrews I've flipped through, this one has stood out the most. Hughes writes like I want to be able to write - accessible and unpretentious but with obvious scholarly knowledge of the material and a willingness to engage relatively modern issues. Here are a few things I took from his introduction which I hope to solidify in my memory over time:

Synopsis: pg. 10

“It is evident, therefore, that the whole practical thrust of the epistle is to persuade those to whom it is addressed to resist the strong temptation to seek an easing of the hardships attendant on their Christian confession by accommodating it to the régime of the former covenant, which they had professed to leave behind when they were baptized in the name of him who is the Mediator of the new covenant, and which in any case has been rendered obsolete by the advent of Christ and the inauguration of the new and eternal order of priesthood. This practical purpose is pursued by demonstrating that the former system was inherently imperfect and therefore impermanent and that the period of forty years in the wilderness under Moses was no “golden age” to be recovered or emulated, and by insisting on the absolute supremacy of Christ and the sole and complete sufficiency of the redemption that is ours through him. To compromise this unique gospel is to lose it; and losing this is to lose everything.

Occasion: pgs. 10-11

“What was the occasion that called forth this document? Because of the silence of the epistle itself and the absence of any external information or tradition which might provide a solution to this question, the only alternative to an incurious agnosticism is to attempt to construct a conjectural answer that takes account both of the internal implications of the epistle and of contemporary circumstances of its composition. Leaving aside for the moment inquiries concerning the identity and locality of those who are being addressed, it is apparent that a situation has arisen in which a particular community of Christians is contemplating a compromise of disastrous consequences since it would mean in effect the abandonment of the gospel. On the one hand, faced with daily indignities and the prospect of persecution of a more severe nature, they are sorely tempted to withdraw from the good fight of faith; on the other, enticed by teachings which threaten the uniqueness of Christ, they are in danger of squandering their birthright in order to purchase temporary relief. More specifically, they are showing a disposition to assign to angels a dignity above that of Christ, and to treat the Mosaic system with its levitical priesthood as an institution of abiding value and efficacy.

The strong temptation to effect a compromise with idealistic Judaism points to the conclusion that the opposition being encountered by the recipients of the epistle was Jewish rather than Gentile. Accommodation to judaistic beliefs and practices wa the prices that would purchase ease and acceptance. It is clear from Luke’s account of the fortunes of the early church that the first fierce opposition to the gospel came from the Jews, and that this hostility was intense because the original Christians were their compatriots whom they regarded as traitors to their ancestral religion. Peter and John, for example, were summoned before the Sanhedrin to be reprimanded and threatened (Acts 3 and 4); the apostles were imprisoned by the high-priestly party (Acts 5:17ff.); Stephen, the first of the martyrs, was stoned to death by the Jews (Acts 7:54ff.); the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus led the savage and systematic persecution of the apostolic church in Jerusalem and beyond (Acts 8:3; 9:1f.); and subsequently he himself, as Paul the apostle, met with violence from Jewish opponents of the gospel as he traveled from city to city (Acts 13:45ff.; 14:2, 19ff.; 17:5ff.; 21:30ff.; 22:22ff.; 23:12ff.). Congeneric antipathy must have been largely responsible also for the chronic poverty of the mother-church in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 11:29f.; 24:17; 1 Cor. 16:1ff.; 2 Cor. 8:1ff.; Gal. 2:10).

This consideration, together with the frequent indications that the temple priesthood was still in operation (see below, pp. 30ff.), would tell in favor of locating the recipients of Hebrews in Jerusalem or, more generally, on Palestinian soil.”

Place of origin and destination: pgs. 15-16

Speculations concerning the places from which and to which the Epistle to the Hebrews was written have been no less varied and inventive. The only possible indication in the epistle itself is the salutation at the end: “Those who are from Italy send you greetings” (13:24). Unfortunately, however, the designation “those who are from Italy” is ambiguous. If it means Italian Christians who were away from Italy, that is, in some country other than Italy, this would exclude Italy as the place of the epistle’s origin. But if it means those who are from or of Italy, in the sense that Italy was their homeland and implying that these were Italian as distinct from non-Italian Christians in Italy – a distinction to be expected in a cosmopolitan city like Rome –, the letter would then have been written from some place in the Italian peninsula.

pgs. 18-19

“There is general agreement that those to whom the epistle was addressed, wherever they were located, did not constitute the worshipping community there in its entirety. This is suggested particularly by the request that they should convey the writer’s greetings to all the leaders and to all the saints (13:24), implying, it seems, that there were leaders other than their own and saints other than themselves in that neighborhood.[1] Zahn and others have supposed that the recipients belonged to a house-church, similar perhaps to the congregation which used to assemble in the home of Aquila and Priscilla when they lived in Rome (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19). Be that as it may, theirs was a group which was seriously considering the advisability of devising a concordat or reconciliation with the Mosaic covenant and its levitical priesthood. Spicq’s suggestion that the group was composed of former priests converted to the Christian faith, who would have been more susceptible than others to such a temptation, is not unattractive. The temptation to effect a compromise with an idealistic form of Judaism, however, would have been felt by the Hebrew Christians, whether formerly priests or not, living in a Jewish environment, who thought that by this means they would be able to obviate the hardship and hatred which awaited those who professed Jesus as Christ and Lord. We may be sure that it was their “Hebrewness,” possibly some specific background that as Hebrews they had in common, that bound them together into a distinct community and that made it necessary for the writer of the epistle to instruct them so carefully on the transient imperfection of the old order compared with the unique and abiding perfection of the redemption achieved by him who is our great High Priest. Where this group of Hebrew Christians was living we do not know, though the probabilities increasingly favor a location somewhere in Palestine. The obscurity surrounding the place from which the epistle was sent continues to be impenetrable.

Authorship: pgs. 24-25

“Barnabas, however, is in many respects an attractive candidate. Unfortunately, unlike Luke and Clement, we possess no authentic writings of his with which to compare the epistle. Originally called Joseph, the name Barnabas, which Luke explains as meaning “the son of encouragement,” was given to him by the apostles, and it may be understood accordingly as a reflecting their estimate of his character and qualities. (The suggestion that the description of the epistle as a “word of encouragement,” 13:22, is a pointer to Barnabas, “the son of encouragement,” as the author is specious and paltry.) A native of Cyprus, with Greek as his first language, Barnabas was a Jew. Of particular interest and perhaps significance is the information that he was a Levite (Acts 4:36). It was Barnabas who befriended Paul after his conversion and allayed the suspicions of the apostles regarding the genuineness of his Christian profession (Acts 9:26ff.). Sent by the apostles to Antioch, he showed himself an enthusiastic supporter of the evangelization of the Gentiles, and he subsequently spent a full year, together with Paul, in that city instructing the numerous convert in the faith. Thereafter the Antiochene church sent him and Paul to Jerusalem with contributions for the relief of their fellow Christians in Judea (Acts 11:20-30). On returning to Antioch Barnabas and Paul were commissioned by the church there for the work of evangelism and Barnabas accompanied Paul on his first missionary journey. John Mark, his cousin from Jerusalem, went with them as far as Perga in Pamphylia, where he turned back (Acts 12:25; 13:1ff., 13; Col. 4:10). Barnabas is described as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24), and was held in the highest regard as a leader in the apostolic church; indeed, in Acts 14:14 he is designated an apostle. Altogether, then, because of his acceptance among the leaders of the church in Jerusalem and farther afield, his close collaboration with the apostle Paul, his gifts as a teacher and evangelist, and his upbringing as a Levite, he possessed some excellent qualifications for writing the Epistle to the Hebrews.”

Date: pg. 30

“The rebuke in 5:11ff., that “by this time” they ought to be teachers instead of dull of hearing and immature, shows that the recipients had been Christians for some years, as also does the writer’s appeal to them in 10:32 to “recall the former days.” The assertion that the gospel “was attested to us by those who heard the Lord” (2:3) means that the author and the Hebrew Christians to whom he is writing had been evangelized by persons, possibly apostles, who had received instruction from Christ himself. To describe them as “second-generation Christians,” as F. F. Bruce, Spicq, and others do, is misleading, at least in the ordinary sense of the expression. They were simply believers at one remove from direct contact with the Lord. Their conversion could have taken place at any time after Pentecost – quite soon after that event, if Spicq’s hypothesis is correct which links them to the great number of priests who were obedient to the faith in the days preceding the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 6:7).

pgs. 31-32

“The present tenses which indicate that the levitical priesthood was still operative when the epistle was written are as follows.

5:1-4. “For every high priest who is chosen from among men is appointed … to offer … he can deal gently … he himself is beset with weakness … he is bound to offer … one does not take … but he is called.”

7:21 (7:20 Gk.). “They have become priests.…”

7:23. “They are many in number who have become priests, because they are prevented by death from continuing in office.”

7:27. “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily.”

7:28. “The law appoints men in their weakness as high priests.”

8:3. “For every high priest is appointed to offer….”

8:4f. “… since there are priests who offer gift according to the law, who serve a copy and shadow….”

8:13. “What is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”

9:6f. “… the priests go continually into the outer tent, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes … not without blood, which he offers….”

9:9. “… gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper.”

9:13. “For if the sprinkling … with blood … and ashes … sanctified….”

9:25. “… the high priest enters the sanctuary yearly….”

10:1. “… the law … can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near.”

10:3f. “… in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.”

10:8. “… these are offered according to the law.”

10:11. “… every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.”

13:10. “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.”

13:11. “… the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the priest … are burned outside the camp.”

[1] The significance of the term έπισυναγωγή (10:25), which some have interpreted to mean a distinct congregation within the larger church community, is discussed in the not on pp. 417f. below.

[Note: Rather than my laboring to copy all of Hughes' footnotes, some of which are to other sources or express the Greek of a particular passage, see here.]

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