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Book Notes – Hebrews: A Commentary (NTL)

Book Notes – Hebrews: A Commentary (NTL)

I recently worked my way through Luke Timothy Johnson’s Hebrews: A Commentary (New Testament Library) along  with the Greek text, and I’m going to write a few notes on the book, which may, or may not, constitute a real review. Time will tell!

The problem with many blogger book reviews is that they often amount to no more than various length notifications as to whether the author liked the book or not. There are some really wonderful exceptions to this, and you really can find a great deal of information about a title in the blogosphere, but you can also read many words (such as these) which don’t tell you a thing! As an alternative, you get an argument against everything the author wrote in the book, usually without sufficient quotations or references to let you get a feel for what the reviewer is arguing against.

In my view the ideal review identifies the goal(s) of the book, comments on how successful the book was in accomplishing these goals, has some interaction with the ideas, and finally has a summary evaluation which is based on the stated goals. I recall reading a book about Christian apologetics. I thought it was well written, carefully argued, and thorough. There was one problem, however. The author claimed in the introduction that he would close all the holes in arguments from Christianity and the Bible. He compared the work of others to putting one leaky bucket in another: You slow the leak but you don’t stop it. He was going to stop it. In the end, if I was asked whether I liked the book, I would have to say “yes,” despite (or even because of) the fact that I disagreed in many places. Yet in a review I would have to say that the stated objective was not achieved, and making a claim that one would accomplish such an objective was, shall we say, suboptimal.

In the case of a commentary, the difficulty is greater than with an ordinary book. There are two key problems: 1) Many people have very fixed ideas of what a commentary ought to do, and little forgiveness for a commentary that doesn’t accomplish their list of goals, and 2) People (particularly scholars) have quite a variety of very fixed ideas. No matter how you choose to write a commentary, no matter how large or small you make it, and no matter how carefully you draw compromises between never completing the task and short-changing the reader, someone will complain.

I would like you to note here my own inconsistency. I’m writing in prescriptive language about what ought to be in a review, while arguing against prescriptive ideas about writing a book. I will live with this inconsistency.

Besides, this isn’t a review. Here are my general thoughts.

I found Hebrews: A Commentary by Luke Timothy Johnson to be the most helpful commentary I have read thus far in terms of stimulating theological reflection. By that I mean that the author doesn’t merely provide a view, but he argues it in such a way that it stimulates new thinking. My personal response to some of his views is that they are perhaps a little too tied to orthodox theology and a little less daring than the book of Hebrews deserves, but that is at the nit-picking level. Johnson knows how to present quite orthodox theology in a way that is challenging and helpful.

As I studied using this commentary, reading the Greek text and taking second looks at the textual notes, I often found myself reflecting for some time after I’d read my chosen portion for the day. I rarely find that level of stimulation for thought in a commentary.

This is not David Allen’s volume in the NAC series. Dr. Allen covers everything and references everything. The only negative thing I would say about his commentary is that I have to have some energy built up before I go to consult it. If you want a detailed and complete survey of the topic along with arguments in favor of a particular solution, but all means use David Allen’s work. On the other hand, if you want to get more quickly to the topic for teaching and preaching, use Luke Timothy Johnson.

I know we don’t like to think that we might shirk some portion of the possible study of a passage we’re going to teach or preach. We’d like to think that we covered everything before we tried to present an exposition to others. But we all face the clock. Brevity is not a sin.

So when I want to get right to meditating on the text, but with some solid meat to set it up, I turn to Johnson’s commentary.

Now I haven’t called this a review, yet I’d like to present some interaction. I’d suggest, however, that I’ve already done this in blog posts on Hebrews written after reading material from Johnson’s commentary. You can start with Hebrews and the Problem of Writing Introductions. I could provide a number of links, but the simplest thing to do is to type “Hebrews” in the search box after you get to that article. Nearly everything I wrote on Hebrews after that point references Johnson.

Note: I read

Modern Barriers to Understanding Hebrews

Modern Barriers to Understanding Hebrews

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Despite my somewhat snippy comments in my last post, I found reading Luke Timothy Johnson’s introduction to Hebrews in his volume in the New Testament Library (pictured at left) quite helpful. In particular, he looks at reasons why modern people may have a hard time reading and understanding this book. Along the way, it becomes clear that some of the same points may have made it difficult for people in past centuries as well! One of his points is one I frequently emphasize: our lack of understanding of sacrifice in the ancient world and particularly in Israel.

But to take his points in order:

  1. It challenges the value of the historical-critical method. I would note both that this is true also of many other books, especially in the Hebrews scriptures. Historical methodologies need to be practiced with a certain humility and willingness to admit ignorance. On the other hand, if we are going to view a piece of literature as having an historical setting, we must look for the setting to whatever extent we can determine it. Which, in fact, Johnson proceeds to do. I prefer “historical-critical methodologies” (emphasizing the plural), because while I think that the critical approaches have opened up some avenues, they do not stand alone, the do not stand or fall as a body, and one can derive value from them even while doubting the basis on which some were created.
  2. We have no understanding of sacrifice (as noted above). I have two notes, even though I agree. First, this is not just a problem for understanding Hebrews, but also for understanding the entire New Testament. A failure to understand the sacrificial system will result in a superficial understanding of New Testament allusions to it, at best. Hebrews is just a concentrated example of the problem. Second, however, I think many who would claim to understand sacrifice narrow it by looking back from the New Testament to the Old. They see sacrifice as being purely about atonement and thus fail to see the broad spectrum of theology that underlies the various sacrifices. Just last night I was reading Numbers 28 & 29 and was struck again by the variety of sacrifices. The original readers of Hebrews, I suspect, had a view of sacrifice that couldn’t be covered in a paragraph or so.
  3. It “… challenges our construction of the world, our image of Jesus, and our understanding of discipleship …” I’m afraid I had to do some chopping to get a short quote, but I also believe I’m faithful to Dr. Johnson’s intent in that paragraph. This is also a good point. Hebrews is very theological, but at the same time as it challenges our view of Jesus and salvation, it also calls to action and does so in a very severe way. My own impression is that we have misread this a bit, but nothing I see diminishes the level of the call. Along with the call is also a message of grace, that the means of answering the call is now available.

My own theological has been formed as I started with Ezekiel, moved back from there into Leviticus and the Torah in general, and forward to Ezekiel. I frequently see the author of Hebrews bringing in big ideas by alluding to passages with which his audience would be familiar. Unfortunately, we are not.

So I would add a fourth point: Our serious lack of knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures, and particularly Torah, means that we have a hard time understanding Hebrews. We don’t have the right questions, so we don’t recognize when the answers appear before us!

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”?