donderdag 21 februari 2013

Review of: Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary (NTL), Westminster John Knox, 2006; in: Interpretation

Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary (NTL), Westminster John Knox, 2006.

Review in: Interpretation 2008 62: 198
Review door: David A. deSilva
Gevonden op:
Hebrews: A Commentary
by Luke Timothy Johnson
New Testament Library. Westminster John Knox, Louisville, 2006.
430 pp. $49.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-664-22118-1.

IN THIS NEW VOLUME, the celebrated author of many commentaries on NT writings (Luke, Acts, James, 1 Timothy, and Titus) brings his considerable skills and winsome writing style to bear on one of the more elusive NT books. The form is that of a standard commentary. An introduction treats matters of historical setting, literary issues, prominent influences, and the like. The commentary itself divides the text into sections and proceeds in a linear fashion through the text (though, notably, in a more flowing fashion that the atomistic verse-by-verse format of many commentaries). Within each section, the reader finds the author's original translation with an able treatment of text-critical issues, discussion of key terms and phrases on the basis of parallels in Jewish and Greco-Roman literature, explorations of how older traditions (both biblical and extrabiblical) have informed the argument, and a close analysis of the argument itself.

Johnson approaches Hebrews first through the history of its reception and the ways in which it was valued and used within the Christian tradition of the first five centuries in both the East and West. This is one of the gifts that Johnson brings as a Roman Catholic biblical scholar, who values the witness of the tradition of the "fathers." This provides, in turn, a foundation and, indeed, justification for the historical-critical investigations and conclusions (e.g., concerning authorship) that follow, as well as for what Johnson will himself hold up as the primary contributions of Hebrews to Christian thought and practice.

This approach is well informed not only by historical- and literary-critical methods, but also by rhetorical criticism and cultural anthropological studies of Hebrews and the first-century environment. Notably, honor and reciprocity are highlighted as key values available to be harnessed rhetorically in the argument. Johnson presents Hebrews as a specimen of deliberative rhetoric that seeks to dissuade the audience from one course of action (giving up their Christian associations) in favor of another (persevering in the process of spiritual maturation that Christ pioneered and that they have begun). The introduction provides an orientation to what becomes a prominent feature of the entire commentary, namely Hebrews' location in regard to currents of thought in Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian culture, with appropriate balance in terms of analyzing both similarities and differences (e.g., in terms of Platonism or the form of Judaism associated with Qumran). What Hebrews shares with other early Christian teaching and practice is all too often overlooked in terms of "backgrounds," but proves especially fruitful for locating Hebrews, often viewed as "so distinctive" (p. 28), within the larger Christian landscape. Johnson is especially attentive, as one would expect, to issues surrounding the interpretation of the OT (the LXX, in particular) in Hebrews.

The discussion of setting is appropriately (and necessarily) honest about the limits of historical investigation of the situation of Hebrews and the identity of its author. Johnson develops a fairly full portrait of the rhetorical situation of the hearers. They are seasoned Christians, perhaps more likely of Jewish heritage than Gentile, who, in the face of society's shaming and marginalization, are faced constantly with the decision about whether or not to persist in their Christian confession, associations, and practice. He argues from a number of sensible angles that the composition predates the destruction of the second Temple, and may even stand among the earliest NT texts. Closing the gap between plausible and probable authorship, Johnson makes a spirited and suggestive case for Apollos as the author, although he frankly admits the difficulties of this claim.

Perhaps the most valuable feature of Johnson's commentary, however, is his commitment not to choose between a focus on historical study and contemporary application, but to pursue both with excellence and without apology. He does not pursue the latter in a facile manner, for he is astutely alert to the fundamental change in consciousness that separates many modern readers from the discourse of Hebrews with regard to cosmology (especially viewing the "invisible" world as more real, more true, and more valuable than the "visible" world and the dynamics of living within a materialist world view), view of Scripture (that is, as artifact to be excavated rather than as living voice of the living God), and the "slow erosion of Christian belief and practice itself" (p. 7) in the world of modern readers.

Perhaps precisely because it speaks from outside our world, Hebrews is able to challenge modern readers who have been shaped too much by that world. Johnson argues that the Christology of Hebrews gives sustained attention to both Christ's divinity and humanity, and makes the case that Christ's process of learning and being shaped through suffering was the means by which "the human Jesus grew progressively into the full stature of being God's Son" (p. 54). This Christology challenges contemporary models of discipleship that suggest freedom from pain and the enjoyment of temporal goods as the gifts God seeks to give Christ-followers, as well as the alternative vision of discipleship that focuses on socio-political transformation for the purpose of removing suffering without grasping the personal transformation that only suffering enables. Finally, Hebrews' rigorous demands upon the recipient of God's gifts challenge the contemporary Zeitgeist that makes "moral ambiguity and tolerance for wrongdoing the mark of maturity" (p. 2). The essence of Hebrews is captured in the image of discipleship as a pilgrimage, a journey through the process of maturation specifically by means of the challenges that produce emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical suffering.

The commentary is not as "critical" as several other recent volumes in terms of engaging secondary literature and weighing every major alternative interpretation. However, this also becomes a strength of this work, as the focus remains far more squarely on the interpretation of the text rather than the history of scholarship. The researcher who wishes to enter into the latter always has Attridge, Lane, and Koester to consult; the reader seeking to engage a coherent and focused interpretation of Hebrews now has Johnson. This commentary will also not provide much guidance for those seeking additional reading on particular questions, backgrounds, or passages, but ample resources in this vein already exist.

One could, of course, quibble here and there about exegetical details in the commentary and their pastoral application. For example, Johnson suggests that "entering God's rest" (when God has, in fact, kept working throughout all time), signals that human beings who become more and more open to the divine existence no longer work in order to fill some personal need, but out of "an outpouring of abundant love" (p. 130). This reading seems to violate the overall eschatological orientation of the passage (indeed, the book) that regards "the Sabbath rest" as an image of entering God's realm alongside other images such as arriving at the "abiding" city "that has foundations." The author's use of all such images impels the hearers forward in their pilgrimage, that isy to maintain their association with the Christian group. At the same time, however, one cannot deny that Johnson's pastoral sensitivity and spiritual acuity here capture a larger truth of the Scriptures—even if it is suspect on the basis of this passage—and that is also a gift of his location in the tradition of Catholic scholarship going back to Augustine. One might also wish for a more consistently precise analysis of the rhetorical argument. For example, it is not only the case that both the expository and hortatory sections of Hebrews manifest the same strategy of "lesser to greater" (p. 32). Rather, the expository sections establish the relationship of the "lesser" and the "greater" that becomes a premise supporting the primary hortatory enthymemes (e.g., 2:1-4; 10:26-31; 12:25-26).

But these minor reservations should not obscure Johnson's achievement: the creation of an insightful and reliable vade mecum to lead the pastor or teacher through the intricate arguments of Hebrews to contemporary application, from a teacher who is himself capable both as a scholar and a spiritual director.

David A. deSilva
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