Introductions to Bible Books: How Detailed Can We Get?

Introductions to Bible Books: How Detailed Can We Get?

hebrews_nacI’m reading David L. Allen’s volume on Hebrews in the New American Commentary. I’m really enjoying his treatment so far, and this note is not a criticism of Dr. Allen particularly, but rather a concern about claims we make regarding the background of Bible books. By “introductory matters” I’m referring here to all those pesky little details: authorship, audience, destination, where was it written, what’s the main point, what’s the structure, and so forth.

Dr. Allen concludes that the probability is that Hebrews was written from Rome by Luke to a group of converted Jewish priests who lived in Antioch. Now note that he doesn’t skimp on letting us know the alternatives or the potential weaknesses in each of these positions. This is absolutely not a complaint about him in particular. But considering how little evidence we have to work with, how probable is it that he’s right on all those points? For that matter, how probable is it that any of the other folks who have written introductions to the book of Hebrews are right on all of their points?

So everyone who writes an introduction has a series of conclusions on points for which we have extremely little evidence, and then they make specific points about how to read the book based on those conclusions. For example, one might (and I think Dr. Allen does) form conclusions about the meaning of Hebrews 6 based on the idea that the main recipients were priests who converted to Judaism and fled persecution in Jerusalem and Judea, so now reside in Antioch. At this point, based on building probability on probability, what’s the probability that the conclusion is correct?

I would address just one of these points. I have read Hebrews many, many times. I have written a study guide, which awaits completion of a revision and release of its second edition. I do not find any argument in the book that could not be made by someone who had done a reasonably thorough study of the Pentateuch in the LXX (and other passages, but the Pentateuch is most important for this argument), and could not be understood by an audience basically familiar with the material. I don’t see anything there that would suggest that either author or reader would need to be a priest. Yes, there are concerns about priesthood, but people are concerned about priests as well. Further, if one concludes that Luke is the author, as Dr. Allen does, then it seems that he doesn’t see the need for a priest as the writer of the book. What indication is there that this is particularly intended for priests? I just don’t see it. Yes, I can see a non-priestly writer using arguments particularly adapted to priests if writing to priests, though I think the thorough knowledge necessary to such a task might be better attributed to the apostle Paul than to Luke.

My point again is not to attack Dr. Allen, who has written an excellent commentary. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of structure. But I do think that we all need to hold some of these conclusions that are based on speculations very loosely, and try to look for interpretations of the text that are not dependent on such detailed conclusions. I simply don’t see that we have enough text to work with.

Of course, in the case of the book of Hebrews, Luke stands out in the “other than Paul” category for at least having a significant body of literature to which one can compare the style of the book. So many proposals for the authorship of the book are based on such thin evidence that if one doesn’t look carefully, one might mistake it for none at all.

For non-thinness (though I’m not fully convinced), I’d like to recommend David Alan Black’s discussion The Authorship of Hebrews, which I publish.

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