[ Hebrews Group ]


SBL22-218a Hebrews
1:00 PM to 4:00 PM; 11/22/2009
Grand Ballroom E - SH

Reading the Book of Hebrews in its Jewish Context
Gabriella Gelardini, University of Basel, Presiding

Hananel Mack, Bar-Ilan University
Echoes of the Judeo-Christian Polemic in the Biblical Commentaries of the Sages (35 min)

The sages did not interpret the Bible in a sequential fashion, in the manner of the medieval rabbinic scholars. Instead, in their halakhic and aggadic literature they primarily left us a non-sequential array of commentaries on the verses of the Bible. Many of these commentaries reflected the reality of their lives, including the religious polemic with the Christian world, particularly in the third and fourth centuries C.E. in Palestine. Sermons against the Jews appear already in the New Testament, and later, in the writings of the Church Fathers, such as Justin Martyr, Origen, Jerome. We will discuss several examples of anti-Christian components in the commentaries of the sages as well as a number of practices relating to prayer and the synagogue service which should be understood against the background of the religious conflict between Jews and Christians in the early centuries. Based on the verse “Write thou these words” (Exod. 34:27), the sages learned that the words of the Bible should be written out, but the words of the Oral Law should not. They thus underscored the distinction between the Bible, which is in written format and familiar to one and all, and the Oral Law, which belongs solely to the Jews. The sages understood the words of Balaam, “God is not a man, that he should lie” (Num. 23:19) as pointing to the clear distinction between God and man: should a man come and say, I am God, that man is lying! They interpreted the verse in the Song of Songs “Look not upon me, that I am swarthy” (1:6) as the words of the Jewish nation to the world, which explain the hatred towards the Jewish people. The verse “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:3) was interpreted by the sages as referring to the holiness of God who is in the heavens, on earth and in the future, thus rejecting the Christian interpretation that the verse is referring to the Trinity. The important place of the verse “Hear, O Israel… the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4) in Jewish liturgy was apparently intended to emphasize the oneness of God and thus negate the Christian Trinity. In addition, the reading of chapters of the Prophets in the synagogue, Haftara's (Heb.: Haftarot), reflects a distancing from chapters which the Christians regarded as the foundation stones of their faith.

Joshua Garroway, Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
A New Sort of a Priest for a New Sort of People: Reconfiguring Descent in Hebrews and Romans (35 min)

This study proposes that Hebrews in its primary socio-historical context was an interpretation of Paul's epistle to the Romans, designed to clarify aspects of that epistle for a readership devoted to its content. As others already have suggested, internal and external evidence bespeak a relationship between the two texts. According to this study, the grist for Hebrews‚ mill is Paul's claim, in Rom 3:21ff., that Christ's death as a hilasterion not only offers atonement apart from the Law for those who believe, but also enables such believers, most of whom are gentiles, to become the genuine descendants of Abraham and consequently to inherit the promises stored up for those of such status. The latter is a theme to which Paul will famously return in Romans 9-11. The link between faith in Christ's sacrifice and reconfigured Abrahamic descent and inheritance is hardly transparent, however. Hebrews, I will argue, clarifies and enhances this link through its identification of Christ as a self-sacrificing High Priest after the order of Melchizedek. On the one hand, this identification underscores the novelty of Christ's sacrifice and its ability to mediate a new covenant and a new (and superior) mode of atonement; on the other hand, it provides the prototype for the reconfiguration of descent experienced by believers, for just as Christ reckons his priestly status through an alternative to the old covenant and the fleshly descent of the Levites, so the people he serves in the new covenant reckons its descent from Abraham, and its pursuant claim to the promises, in non-fleshly terms. Hebrews, then, advances Paul's assertion that the genuine „descendants of Abraham" (Heb 2:16) and the „heirs of the promise" (Heb 6.17) are those who have hope in Christ's unique and unprecedented sacrifice, not those whose descent is reckoned through flesh and the Law.

Break (10 min)

Carl Mosser, Eastern University
Halakhic Controversy and Hebrews 13 (35 min)

New Testament scholars have found the study of first-century Jewish halakha beneficial for understanding the canonical gospels and the letters of Paul. Hebrews has not received similar treatment. However, the author of Hebrews warns his readers against diverse teachings related to meats or foods that "have not benefited those who walk" (hoi peripatountes) (Heb. 13:9). This phrase suggests that the teachings in view are halakhic in nature (halak = walk). Furthermore, 13:11-13 employs the terminology of “camp” and “outside the camp.” In the Qumran scrolls and early rabbinic literature these same terms are technical halakhic designations utilized in discussions about purity and sacrifice. References in the surrounding context to the Levitical “altar” (13:10), the "sacrifice of praise" (13:15), and "sacrifices pleasing to God" (13:16) strongly suggest that Hebrews 13 is likewise concerned with halakha. This paper shows how first-century halakhic disputes shed light on two important aspects of Hebrews 13:9-16. First, the sacrificial language in the passage appears to reference the activity of the Jerusalem cult and halakhic innovations regarding the shared sacrifices eaten by worshipers. The author addresses his readers’ concerns by redefining the most prominent of the shared sacrifices, the thank offering, commonly identified as the “sacrifice of praise” in Greek Jewish texts. Second, first-century halakhic controversy about the precise scope of “camp” and “outside the camp” helps us to firmly identify the referents of these terms in Hebrews and rules out many of the explanations commentators have offered. The “camp” is Jerusalem; “outside the camp” is outside Jerusalem. These two insights testify to the value of paying closer attention to the Jewish context of Hebrews than has been common in recent decades. If sound, they also have significant implications for the social setting and location of the recipients.

Marius Heemstra, University of Groningen
Epistle to the Hebrews: Jewish Christians and the Fiscus Judaicus (35 min)

The Epistle to the Hebrews has often been called enigmatic and has caused a lot of debate among scholars. In this paper I will try and answer some of the most important questions that have not been fully answered until now: (1) when was this document written, (2) to whom was it addressed (who were the ‘Hebrews’), (3) how could the information about past and possible future persecutions in Hebrews be interpreted and (4) why had some people recently given up the habit of attending the community meetings? The combination of these answers should also present a consistent explanation for this document in the context of early Christianity. It will be argued that this document was written to Jewish Christians (indeed ‘Hebrews’), some of whom had been persecuted under Domitian as tax-evaders of the Jewish tax. For this purpose accused persons had been exposed in public for the inspection of their genitals to find out whether they were circumcised. Conviction would lead to the confiscation of their property. Both elements, the confiscations and the public examination of genitals (theatrizomenoi!), can be found in Hebrews 10.32-34 and in Suetonius, Domit. 12.1-2, as will be made clear. Furthermore a date will be suggested as well: the year 96, after Nerva’s reform of the Fiscus Judaicus. Nerva probably introduced the notion that the Jewish tax only needed to be paid by Jews who followed their ancestral customs. Jewish Christians (who under Domitian had been prosecuted as Jews for 'dissimulata origine imposita genti tributa non pependissent') were thus formally exempted from the tax and this exemption had one huge consequence: it formally led to the loss of their legal status as Jews under Roman law. This could have led to Jewish Christians returning to the synagogue, which the author of Hebrews wants to prevent.

Discussion (30 min)

Dr. theol. Gabriella Gelardini

Wissenschaftliche Oberassistentin Neues Testament

Theologische Fakultät der Universität Basel
Nadelberg 10, CH-4051 Basel, Switzerland
Tel. ++41 (0)61 267 27 95
Fax. ++41 (0)61 267 29 02

Theologische Fakultät der Universität Basel