Monday, 30 May 2016

Introduction to the Epistle to the Hebrews/1

Today, an introduction to a series of posts aimed at supporting lectio divina on the epistle to the Hebrews, drawing mainly on the Commentary of St Thomas Aquinas.

Why read Hebrews?

Fr Hunwicke recently posted a rather sad piece on the failure of Catholics to appreciate the reality and importance of the sacrifice of the Mass.

Personally I think the problem is not just the Mass (central though that is) but a broader issue around our understanding of suffering and sacrifice (viz Arianism is alive and well in our day), not to mention Christology (viz Arianism is alive and well!).  Certainly in my own theological degree the topics of sacrifice and atonement, and their relevance to everyday Christian practice were topics jumped over pretty lightly indeed, and several years later I'm still trying to fill in gaps in my understanding.

In large part I suspect the problem stems from our reluctance to read and engage with the Old Testament thoroughly, and understand the way it foreshadows and teaches us the foundations for the New.  That continuity is of course a key theme in Acts, which I've just finished working through here with the help of St John Chrysostom, but it is most developed in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and so I thought it might make a suitable next subject for lectio.

Authorship and date

The Epistle to the Hebrews is traditionally attributed to St Paul, supported by the testimony of Clement of Rome.  Doubt about his authorship started in the third century, mainly because the style of the Greek is much more polished than his other epistles.

St Thomas Aquinas comments for example that:
... it should be noted that before the Council of Nicaea, some doubted that this was one of Paul’s epistles for two reasons: first, because it does not follow the patters of the other epistles. For there is no salutation and no name of the author. Secondly, it does not have the style of the others; indeed, it is more elegant. Furthermore, no other work of Scripture proceeds in such an orderly manner in the sequence of words and sentences as this one. Hence, they said that it was the work of Luke, the evangelist, or of Barnabas or Pope Clement. For he wrote to the Athenians according to this style.
Nevertheless, the old doctors, especially Dionysius and certain others, accept the words of this epistle as being Paul’s testimony. Jerome, too, acknowledges it as Paul’s epistle.
St Thomas provides some arguments to counter the virtual consensus of modern scholars against Pauline authorship:
To the first argument, therefore, one may respond that there are three reasons why Paul did not write his name: first, because he was not the apostle of the Jews but of the Gentiles: ‘He who wrought in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, wrought in me also among the Gentiles’ (Gal. 2:8); consequently, he made no mention of his apostleship at the beginning of this epistle, because he was unwilling to speak of it except to the Gentiles. Secondly, because his name was odious to the Jews, since he taught that the observance of the Law were no longer to be kept, as is clear from Acts (15:2). Consequently, he concealed his name, lest the salutary doctrine of this epistle go for naught. Thirdly, because he was a Jew: ‘They are Hebrews: so am I’ (2 Cor. 11:22). And fellow countrymen find it hard to endure greatness in their own: ‘A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country and in his own house’ (Mt. 13:57).
To the second argument the answer might be given that the style is more elegant, because even though he knew many languages: ‘I speak with all your tongues’ (1 Cor. 14:18), he knew the Hebrew language better than the others, for it was his native tongue, the one in which he wrote this epistle. As a result, he could write more ornately in his own idiom than in some other language; hence, he says: ‘For though I be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge’ (2 Cor. 11:6). But Luke, who was a skillful writer, translated this ornate Hebrew into Greek.
Regardless of authorship, most accept that it was written early, possibly around 63-64 AD.

Length and structure

Hebrews has thirteen chapters, and there are various ways of dividing them.

Modern scholars tend to divide it into five parts: Christ's pre-existence; his superiority over the angels; his superiority over Moses; Christ's priesthood; his sacrifice compared to the sacrifices of the Old Law.


While Hebrews is a text that really does benefit from the insights of modern scholarship, particularly from the Dead Sea Scrolls and related literature (and I'll try and provide a few comments and links on this here and there), there are two key commentaries from the Fathers and Doctors that are available online and well worth reading.

The first is by St John Chrysostom.  His commentary on Hebrews focuses above all on the idea of redemptive suffering.  He sees the Epistle as a document of encouragement for Jewish converts:
...that they might not think themselves forsaken..that they should bear nobly whatever befalls them; the other, that they should look assuredly for their recompense. For truly He will not overlook those with Abel and the line of unrewarded righteous following him.
Chrysostom also focuses on St Paul's use of the Old Testament as proof of the Resurrection:
But he speaks much of both the New and the Old Covenant; for this was useful to him for the proof of the Resurrection. Lest they should disbelieve that [Christ] rose on account of the things which He suffered, he confirms it from the Prophets, and shows that not the Jewish, but ours are the sacred [institutions]
St Thomas Aquinas argues that the focus of the Epistle is "Christ’s grandeur to show the superiority of the New Testament over the Old", "what unites the members to the head, namely, faith".  His Prologue to his commentary on Hebrews provides an exposition of Christ's transcendence by way of introduction to the text, and I'll post some of that tomorrow.

My approach

I plan to use extracts from St Thomas' commentary by way of a change of pace (though we won't entirely abandon Chrysostom, since St Thomas frequently quotes him) in terms of material to support close reading, study and meditation on the text.

I will be using the translation of the text by Fabian R. Larcher, O.P (provided over at the Dominican Priory website linked to above).

Both St Thomas' and St John's commentaries are quite long: Chrysostom's for example, averages about three homilies per chapter (compared to around two for each chapter of Acts); and  the Dominican Priory website divides St Thomas' text into 52 separate sections.

For this reason, I'm going to be moving fairly slowly through the text.  I'll also plan on inserting in any key Old Testament texts (particularly those likely to be less familiar).

All the same, I do plan on editing rather heavily, and cutting out a lot of the Commentary, so I would encourage you to go and read the full commentary (and that of St John) if you have time.

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