Wednesday, October 21, 2009

David Scholer on Hebrews Part 4: Christology (Part 2)

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

This week's lesson: "The Christology of Hebrews: Part 2" (MP3 file uploaded by Larry Harnisch)

My observations:
  • The priesthood of Christ is the major discussion in Hebrews, taking up more space than any other single topic in the book.  Scholer calls this method of describing Christ to the audience of Hebrews "clever."  The author of Hebrews argues that Jesus is a priest of a different order than the order of the priests of Israel (that is, the Levitical order).  Since Christ is a priest of a different order, the author of Hebrews is able to argue that Christ's priesthood is different than, and superior to, the traditional Levitical priesthood.  More on this "clever" usage later.
  • The author of Hebrews is arguing less with the literal practices of Judaism of the time, and more with the theological heritage of that perspective.  Scholer notes how Hebrews tends to discuss the "tabernacle," and not the "temple."
  • After some introductions, the first real area where Hebrews discusses Jesus as high priest occurs in 4:14-5:10.  The identity of Jesus with humanity is emphasized--"in every way," with one exception: Jesus was without sin.  Jesus can represent the people because he himself was subject to the weaknesses that people are subject to.  Likewise, Hebrews paints Jesus as a priest by noting that Jesus was called by God, and that Jesus made sacrifice for the sins of the people.  It is at the end of this section that the author identifies Jesus' priestly order as being the order of Melchizedek. 
  • As Scholer notes, "Hebrews is replete with Old Testament passages."  In particular, Hebrews uses two Psalms: Psalms 2 and 110.  These are sometimes called "Royal Psalms," and were originally addressed to the leader of Israel (perhaps King David).  So when the Psalm says "you are My Son. Today I have begotten you," or (paraphrasing) "you're in the priesthood of Melchizedek," this was originally understood as being God's word to the ruler of Israel.  When the early church read these Psalms, they saw them as applying to Christ in a special way, and this is how Hebrews uses them.
  • If the author of Hebrews wants to describe Jesus as being a priest, there's one major hurdle to overcome.  Jesus is not a Levite, and all Jewish priests were Levites.  This is where the author's argument is "clever" (in Scholer's terms).  The only other priesthood alluded to in the Old Testament is that of Melchizedek in Genesis 14 (the only other time Melchizedek is even mentioned outside of Psalm 110:4).  Not only is Melchizedek described in Genesis as a priest, but he is also a King.  The King of Salem (believed to be the same as Jerusalem).  And not only all this, but Abraham himself pays the tithe to Melchizedek (Abraham is basically paying for safe passage through Melchizedek's land).  The author of Hebrews can then use this fact to suggest that, since Abraham is the father of the Jewish people, all Jews have paid the tithe to Melchizedek through Abraham, including Levi (and thus all Levitical priests).  Thus, if Jesus is a priest of Melchizedek's order, his priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood.
  • After Genesis 14 and Psalm 110, the next time we hear about Melchizedek is in the Qumran community (the folks who created the Dead Sea Scrolls).  The Qumran community percieved of Melchizedek as an almighty, divine person--in essence, as one who sat at God's right hand (as in Psalm 110).  The people at Qumran even suggested that Melchizedek, as God's divine agent, had the authority to forgive sins.  Scholer reads from a passage about Melchizedek, written before Jesus' birth (perhaps 100-50 BC), which uses language we today would associate with Jesus.  Perhaps the author of Hebrews was aware of this tradition?  (This can't be proven)
  • Some of the argument from Hebrews regarding the Melchizedekian priesthood's superiority over the Levitical priesthood sounds a lot like Plato's Forms.  This development of thought seems to be one of the reasons that Scholer supposes that the author of Hebrews might have been from Alexandria (see also the second lecture in this series), as other thinkers from Alexandria (the academic center of the era)--notably the Jewish scholar, Philo--have demonstrated similar concepts.
  • The concept of a "new covenant" wasn't unique or original to Christianity.  The Qumran community used a term like this to refer to themselves, as well.  They wanted to express that the "old" covenant was corrupt and that they had the "truth."  Indeed, this sounds to me quite a lot like what a lot of religious sects and cults claim....
  • The emphasis of Hebrews on Jesus' humanity has historically made the Church (which tends to stress Jesus' divinity) uncomfortable.  Scholer especially notes how Hebrews says that Jesus "learned obedience."  Jesus is "not a fake human being."  For an example of how difficult it was for the Church to grasp this concept, Clement of Alexandria (a 2nd century theologian who actually spent a lot of time defending Jesus' humanity) suggested at one point that Jesus only ate and drank "for appearances sake" and never defecated.
Next week: The pilgrimage journey of the believers

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