Wednesday, September 30, 2009

David Scholer on Hebrews Part 1: Context

For the past year or so, I've been doing weekly lectionary reflections on the unofficial Presbyterian Bloggers site (we use the word "ruminations" over there, mostly because I've never bothered to change the title I inherited from the guy who did such reflections before I took the job).  The idea is that people can have a chance to look at the readings suggested by the Revised Common Lectionary to be used in the following Sunday's worship.  The actual day of posting has changed a few times over the past year, but we've settled into a Wednesday slot for the past few months that seems to work pretty well.

David M. ScholerThis coming Sunday will be the first of a total of seven weeks in a row that the lectionary suggests a reading from the book of Hebrews.  Having just listened recently to a lesson on Hebrews, done at First Baptist Church of Pasadena by the late Dr. David M. Scholer back in 2001, I thought that it might be appropriate to spend some time with those messages here, as well.  Dr. Scholer's series lasted for six weeks, not quite long enough to cover the same time span that the lectionary will cover the book, but pretty close.

Here's a link to the first lesson: "The Context of Hebrews" (File uploaded by Larry Harnisch)

Some quick observations:
  • Contrary to whatever you may have heard in church, this book was almost certainly not written by the apostle Paul.  I'm not talking about the same kind of controversy that surrounds the idea that Paul didn't write, say, the letters to Timothy and Titus.  Those letters at least claim to have been written by Paul within the letters themselves.  The letter of Hebrews contains no mention of who actually wrote it.
  • Hebrews was written with specifically pastoral intentions, attempting to deal with issues of faith and faithfulness.  It both encourages people to "hang in there" in terms of faith, but it also provides warnings of the consequences of failing to do so.
  • Especially since the announcement that the TNIV will no longer be published in a couple of years, there's been a lot of debate about how to translate Scripture properly.  Listening to Dr. Scholer talk about how the word translated in most versions of Hebrews as "perfection" might better be translated as "maturity" (despite having a literal meaning of "perfection" as well) reminds me of these modern debates.
  • The Romans of this period honored things that were ancient: "If it was old, it was good!"  This partly explains widespread Roman toleration of Judaism, despite distaste of the "strange" religion.  (A brief mention is made that the Romans destroyed the temple in AD 70 "for other reasons," but this isn't elaborated on in this lesson.)  This tolerance was not extended to the "new" religion of Christianity.
  • Hebrews is considered by some the most "Jewish" book of the New Testament.  It certainly uses the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) very frequently, but this is also seen in how the book handles certain topics (priesthood and sacrifice, for example).
  • There's a section where Dr. Scholer likens Jesus' clearing of the temple to a person coming into a sanctuary on Sunday during morning worship, running up front, knocking the pulpit over, and then proceeding to tear the organ out of the wall.  I appreciate such reminders of the sometimes angry Jesus.
  • Just like people today, even the early Jewish Christians apparently needed some prodding to move out of their "comfort zones."  Despite Jesus' instructions to bring the gospel to the entire world, it took some time for Jewish Christians to make real overtures to Gentiles.  (This prodding came in the form of the vision to Peter and subsequent events)
  • The question of whether or not Gentiles should have to keep the Jewish law became "the single biggest fight in the early church."  The very question of how "Jewish" Christianity (a word not used until the 2nd century, but you get the idea) was to be was a major point of contention.  Hebrews both tries to highlight Christ as kind of an "ideal" Jew while at the same time setting the up Christ's work as a "new" thing separate from Judaism.  Although Christianity would eventually separate completely from Judaism, even to the unfortunate point of full-blown antisemitism, that's not what Hebrews is doing, although perhaps the seeds of that later separation are planted here.
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