Wednesday, October 07, 2009

David Scholer on Hebrews Part 2: Purpose and Structure

David M. ScholerWhile the Revised Common Lectionary continues its triennial journey through the book of Hebrews, I'm working through a series of lessons from 2001 taught by the late David M. Scholer.

This week's lesson: "The Purpose and Structure of Hebrews" (File uploaded by Larry Harnisch)

Some highlights:
  • Although Hebrews is collected with the epistles (letters), Hebrews doesn't have the salutation/blessing pattern that opens all (Scholer's emphasis) letters of this era.  Hebrews does have an ending that is similar to letters, however.  Scholer explains this by suggesting that Hebrews is, in fact, an early sermon (the book refers to itself as an "exhortation").
  • Dr. Scholer's lecture last week gave brief mention about the encouragements and warnings contained within Hebrews.  He elaborates on that considerably here.  Apparently the warnings become more and more intense as the letter progresses.  It seems clear that the writer of Hebrews was deeply concerned about the people being written to.  The encouragements serve to help soften the blow of those warnings.  The letter follows a pattern of Christology, warning, encouragement throughout.
  • I was especially impressed by a story Dr. Scholer told about an experiment his wife Jeannette conducted as part of a Bible study she was leading.  Having gotten a letter from a long-time friend, she read the letter to the rest of the group without telling them anything about the friend (who none of them already knew) to provide context.  The group was then able to reconstruct a considerable portion of the friend's background just from what was contained within the letter.  This is very much the same kind of thing that modern scholars have to do with ancient texts (such as those of the Bible) to try to determine their context and purpose.  Naturally, some of this depends on speculation and cannot be proven, and some texts provide more information than others, but this nonetheless provides a considerable amount of insight into the letter once this exercise is completed.
  • Best clue to the context of Hebrews comes in Chapter 10 (starting in verse 32).  The author hints at persecution, but indicates (in a later passage) that this persecution has not yet resulted in loss of life.  We can't tell what particular persecution is being referred to here, but there's plenty of evidence of local persecutions in the first century.  The author of Hebrews seems concerned that the people being written to are in danger of falling away from the faith out of fear of persecution.
  • Pliny the Younger describes male and female deacons in Christian worship.  I need to look this bit up....
  • One clue as to the location of congregation is at the very end, where it is written that some Italian friends of the author send greetings.  Perhaps the author was in Italy, but it seems more likely it was the congregation that was in Italy.  
  • Scholer argues that the author was most likely a Jew living in Alexandria, Egypt, based on the pattern of the author's argumentation.  Alexandria was the 2nd-largest city in the entire Roman Empire, and it contained the largest Jewish community in the entire Empire (even more than in Jerusalem).  We know a lot about this era and community through the writings of Philo, a Jewish scholar who lived in Alexandria.
  • Guesses as to the identity of the author:

    1. Luke - because Luke/Acts has very sophisticated Greek, as does Hebrews
    2. Paul - suggested more strongly around the 3rd century, based mostly on the fact he wrote so many of the OTHER books.  Origen said "only God knows who wrote Hebrews" at about the same time, but suggested that "if by saying Paul wrote it, people will read it, let's say Paul wrote it."  Indeed, Hebrews almost didn't make it into the New Testament, and seems only to have included in the canon on the belief that Paul wrote it, even though this is now known to be almost certainly incorrect.
    3. Apollos - originally posited by Martin Luther, noting that Apollos came from Alexandria.  A lot of scholars think this may be right.
    4. Priscilla - originally suggested by Adolf von Harnack, who thought there were some "feminine touches" in Hebrews.
  • We don't know when Hebrews was written, as the internal clues don't help much.  Some scholars argue that it has to be before AD 70 because it fails to mention the destruction of the temple, although Scholer dismisses this reasoning because the relevant arguments in the text discuss the tabernacle (i.e., referencing a far earlier period of Jewish history) and thus the temple wouldn't be a reference point either way.  It was almost certainly written within the later half of the first century, but greater specificity is difficult, if not impossible.
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