Hebrews and the Problem of Writing Introductions

Hebrews and the Problem of Writing Introductions

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I’m reading through Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary in the New Testament Library and have just completed the introduction. I have a couple of thoughts today, not least of which is to note the problem with writing introductions.

For a reader to truly follow an introduction, it would best come after the commentary and some serious time reading the book, but (catch-22), the commentary is best understood in light of the introduction. For me this has often involved reading the introduction, then the commentary, and then reading the introduction again as a sort of conclusion.

But often the introductory material is still quite illusive, if not illusory, and the author is left to construct the sort of fantasy realm in which the study will take place. This isn’t a particular criticism of Johnson, who is an excellent writer and makes some quite profound points about Hebrews and Bible study in general in the course of his introduction. His arguments on the dating of the book (45-68 CE) are interesting but not conclusive and he admits as much.

On authorship he expresses the strong conviction that it is right that modern scholarship has abandoned the idea of Pauline authorship of the book. He gives us notice that this is coming a couple of times earlier in the introduction. And he provides a quite good set of reasons for why he believes this to be the case, though I cannot read references to Origen and “God only knows” with the same confidence after seeing Dave Black’s discussion of it in The Authorship of Hebrews (full disclosure: I’m the publisher).

Then he begins to make his case for his own candidate as author, Apollos. Here he provides affirmation of my rule of biblical introduction: Authors are much better at critiquing the proposals of others than they are at establishing their own. I can’t quite say that there is no evidence whatsoever to support Apollos as author, but someone proposing Apollos should restrain himself from critiquing too vigorously the proposal of Priscilla as author (Johnson lays into it, admittedly with quite good arguments).

The line I like regarding Priscilla is: “… the fact that everything supporting her candidacy would apply equally to her male partner, Aquila.” Just so. And further, pretty much every argument advanced in favor of Apollos would apply to any Greek speaking Jew who met Paul at some point. Some may object that Apollos was considered a good orator, and there is the elevated language of Hebrews, but if such an argument were advanced about a modern book (the book is well written, and so-and-so is a good writer), it would be laughable.

I can, of course, leave the laughing to others more qualified than I, and there are plenty who will take up the cause. The fact is, that if you abandon Paul, you pretty much need to abandon naming the author. There is so little known about the candidates. Other than Luke, we lack any written material from them which can be used to compare to the text of Hebrews, and their biographies are so short that one can make up whatever story one wants.

But such is the hardship of writing an introduction. How many paragraphs does it take to say “I don’t know”?

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