Hebrews and the Shame of Suffering

One of the problems with reading Hebrews is identifying the date and recipient of the letter. I am convinced the recipients were in Rome, living just before the Neroian persecutions.  I think the standard arguments for this position are solid, although I realize there are other possibilities.   Karen Jobes (Letters to the Church) argues the book does not capitalize on the destruction of the Temple as a “proof” that the Old Covenant has been replaced by the New, implying a pre-A.D. 70 date. In addition, the church has “not yet suffered to the point of shedding blood” (12:4).  If the recipients are in Rome, then the letter must refer to a time prior to Nero’s persecution of Christians (A.D.64), but after Caligula expelled Jews (A.D. 49).

Given this context, the recipients struggle with the promises of Christian faith.  If Jesus is the true sacrifice and the fulfillment of the promises of the Hebrew Bible, why have they suffered so much?   As J. W. Thompson says in his Hebrews commentary, the book is written to “reorient a community that has been disoriented by the chasm between Christian confession of triumph and the reality of suffering it has experienced.”

Coptic Christians protest against the killings of people during clashes in Cairo between Christian protesters and military police, and what the demonstrators say is persecution of Christians, in Los Angeles, California October 16, 2011. Egyptians detained in connection with clashes between Christian protesters and military police that left 25 people dead should be tried in civilian not military courts, presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei said on Sunday. The former U.N. diplomat's comments reflect public frustration at the army's handling of clashes on Oct. 9, when protesters said they were attacked by unidentified "thugs" and then said military police used excessive force against them. The authorities have detained 28 people on suspicion of attacking soldiers during the protest. Trials will be held before a military court. Rights groups have criticised the use of such courts by Egypt's ruling army council. The demonstrators are rallying for Barack Obama's administration to intervene. REUTERS/David McNew (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST RELIGION)

This is not apologetics in the modern sense, it does not argue against Judaism, nor does it state that Judaism was bad or wrong in any way.  Rather, the writer constructs a positive argument for Jesus’ superiority to various elements of Judaism; he is superior because he is the fulfillment of these things. (He is the substance to which the shadow pointed).

If I am right about the context of the book and the recipients have suffered for their faith already (and are about to suffer even more so under Nero), then the readers may very well have struggled with the shame of suffering in a culture which did not see suffering as a virtue. Within a Jewish context, suffering is sometimes seen as a result of sin, or at the very least, a lack of blessing from God.  We only need to look at the discussion in the book of Job to see that there was a lively discussion of why humans suffer.  If Christians are right and Jesus has triumphed, then why are his followers not blessed?  Why are they suffering?

Within a Greco-Roman context, Christians were not seen as successful because they suffered.  Roman thinking was very much based on honor and shame, of one suffered shame and humiliation in public, one cannot be described as successful!

The book therefore addresses a very real problem.  If Jesus is already seated at the right hand of the Father, why is it that Christians suffer shame and persecution?  Christians are not “of this world,” they are part of the real, unshakeable reality which is not of this world at all.

The theological dissonance which the book of Hebrews addresses is certainly applicable to Christians living in the persecuted world. They may ask, like the recipients of Hebrews, “what good is being faithful”? There are many examples of faithful Christians who suffer frequent shame and humiliation. I am not sure it has come to this in American, where we considered a Red Cup oppressive. But it is true Christianity is becoming a minority voice in American and evangelical Christianity may soon have little or no impact on culture.

How does Hebrews help the Christian who suffers in an anti-Christian world?

Book Review: Herbert W. Bateman, IV, Charts on the Book of Hebrews

Herbert W. Bateman, IV. Charts on the Book of Hebrews. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2012. 266 pages, pb. $26.99. Link.

When I first started teaching, I made a great deal of use of several “chart” books published by Zondervan. These books summarized large topics (Christological controversies, Old Testament Kings, etc.) in a simple, visually appealing format. Since the topics covered by these chart books were broad, the charts tended to be very general, although occasionally there was a page or two on a very specific topic, such as the date of the Exodus, etc.

Hebrews ChartsKregel has revived the idea of a “chart book with their“Charts of the Bible and Theology” Series. This new series is much more focused than the older Zondervan series.  The series already includes Mark Wilson on Revelation and Lars Kierspel on Paul’s Life, Letters and Theology. Herb Bateman’s contribution to the series is focused solely on the book of Hebrews. This book is 8 ½ by 11 inch and seems designed for copying and use in a classroom. The copyright page specifically states that no part of the book may be reproduced “except for classroom use.”

The book is divided into four sections, each with several subsections. About 50 pages are devoted to introductory questions.  Here Bateman collects data from both historic and modern commentaries on authorship, destination, recipients and date of Hebrews. For Hebrews, these are all topics which have generated considerable discussion. The data for authorship, for example, is presented several ways. Several charts list the suggested authors of the book by era, then several additional charts list arguments for (or against) the major candidates for authorship. What makes these charts valuable is the wealth of bibliographic information, citing not only the scholar’s name but the work in which the suggestion was made whether a monograph, commentary or journal article. I particularly liked the chart on the canonical placement of Hebrews (chart 26). I knew that Hebrews appeared after Romans in some manuscripts. Batemen lists them along with date and text-type, but also the other seven places Hebrews appears on other manuscripts.

I think that some of the charts could have been more efficiently designed. Chart 9, for example, lists the destination of the book in major, modern commentators in alphabetical order by the scholars last name. Since the vast majority of these commentaries support the consensus view that Rome was the destination of the letter, those might have been listed under one heading, with the dissenting views under a separate heading. The data is still very valuable for quickly surveying 20+ major commentaries from 1987 to 2010. Several charts struck me as “filler,” such as chart 15, a comparison chart of the date of all New Testament books in eight different New Testament Introductions. There are several charts on formation of the canon which are not particularly focused on Hebrews at all (chart 29, for example). While all of this is valuable information, it goes beyond the scope of a “chart on Hebrews.”

The second section of the chart book deal with Old Testament and Second Temple Period influences on Hebrews. There are several charts on Old Testament citations and allusions, with the data sorted in different ways. Batemen includes several charts showing the design of the Tabernacle and some summaries of Old Testament feasts as well as the elements of the Day of Atonement alluded to by Hebrews. This section contains valuable charts with relevant pseudepigraphical literature and the Dead Sea Scrolls with relevant parallels to Hebrews. Again, these are detailed and useful charts which summarize a great deal of information in a page or two. The charts on messianic figures in the Second Temple Period literature (charts 48-50) are very well done and contains a great deal of data on the topic in the literature of the Second Temple Period. There are a few “filler” charts in this section as well – the high priests of the early Hasmonean period (chart 45), Herod’s family tree (chart 46) and the high priests of the Herodian period (chart 47) are excellent collections of data (names, dates, and reference in Josephus), but their connection to the book of Hebrews is tangential at best.

Hebrews Charts 2The third section concerns the theology of Hebrews. These are perhaps the best charts for use in teaching the book of Hebrews in a classroom or Sunday School setting. Most take a theme in Hebrews and list the texts in the book which develop this theme. For example, Jesus and Wisdom (chart 63) and the “better than” statements in Hebrews (chart 67) work these themes through the book, giving many examples from Hebrews. . Some of these charts contain massive amounts of texts. “Titles Ascribed to Jesus in the New Testament” (chart 66), for example, includes all of the titles in Hebrews, but gives parallel texts in the Gospels/Acts, the Pauline Letters, and the General Epistles.

The fourth section of the book contains charts for exegesis. Many of these are parallel columns comparing the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, and Greek New Testament for specific citations. The value of these charts is for the exegete who wants to study how the writer of Hebrews cites Scripture, or perhaps adapts Scripture for his own use. This section also includes several charts comparing the manuscript evidence for the text of Hebrews. The major text variants in the book are included with some commentary drawn from Metzgar’s Textual commentary. Chart 103 has a list of words which are unique to Hebrews, in Greek alphabetical order, along with various translations of these unique words (KJV, NIV, ESV, etc.) This data is then repeated in chart 104, but it is arranged by chapter. These sections are about seventeen pages each, so they would be better described as an appendix than a chart.

The book concludes with sixteen pages of commentary on the charts. This section gives more information on the charts and perhaps should be seen as “suggestions for using this material.” Occasionally bibliographical material is included here so the reader can study the material on the charts in more depth. Bateman also provides eleven pages of bibliography broken into the sections found in the book.

Conclusion. There is a staggering amount of information in Charts on the Book of Hebrews. I think that Bateman has drawn together valuable information from a wide range of sources. The student of Hebrews will find sections of this book valuable for covering issues at a glance. Although there are some sections which I described as “interesting filler,” there is little in this book that is without value for the study of Hebrews. I think that some of the charts would be valuable as handouts for a Sunday School class or serious Bible Study. The theology section especially will help a teacher treat sections of the book of Hebrews which are quite difficult. I will be teaching Hebrews in the fall of 2013 as part of an undergraduate course on Jewish Christian literature and plan on making use of this book.

Note: Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work

Faithful to the End on Hebrews

You can download a free PDF sample of Faithful to the End:  An Introduction to Hebrews Through Revelation by Terry L. Wilder, J. Daryl Charles, and Kendell Easley courtesy of Broadman and Holman.  It is the entire chapter on Hebrews and gives you a good idea of what the whole book is like.

I am using Faithful to the End as the textbook for my Jewish Christian Literature class this spring and have enjoyed it so far.  While there are not very many books covering this section in survey fashion, this is certainly one of the best.  It forms the last part of a NT survey set, with Craig Blomberg covering the Gospels and Acts and Epistles in two separate volumes.

The Purpose of the Book of Hebrews

One of the problems with reading Hebrews is identifying the date and recipient of the letter. I am fairly well convinced that the recipients were in Rome, living just before the Neroian persecutions.  I think the standard arguments for this position are solid (see Faithful to the End, for example).

Given this context, the recipients struggle with the promises of Christian faith.  If Jesus is the true sacrifice and the fulfillment of the promises of the Hebrew Bible, why have they suffered so much?   As J. W. Thompson says in his Hebrews commentary, the book is written to “reorient a community that has been disoriented by the chasm between Christian confession of triumph and the reality of suffering it has experienced.”

This is not apologetics in the modern sense, it does not argue against Judaism, nor does it state that Judaism was bad or wrong in any way.  Rather, the writer constructs a positive argument for Jesus’ superiority to various elements of Judaism; he is superior because he is the fulfillment of these things. (He is the substance to which the shadow pointed).  If I am right about the context of the book and the recipients have suffered for their faith already (and are about to suffer even more so under Nero), then the readers may very well have struggled with the shame of suffering in a culture which did not see suffering as a virtue.

  • Within a Jewish context, suffering is sometimes seen as a result of sin, or at the very least, a lack of blessing from God.  We only need to look at the discussion in the book of Job to see that there was a lively discussion of why humans suffer.  If Christians are right and Jesus has triumphed, then why are his followers not blessed?  Why are they suffering?
  • Within a Greco-Roman context, Christians were not seen as successful because they suffered.  Roman thinking was very much based on honor and shame, of one suffered shame and humiliation in public, one cannot be described as successful!

The book therefore addresses a very real problem.  If Jesus is already seated at the right hand of the Father, why is it that Christians suffer shame and persecution?  Christians are not “of this world,” they are part of the real, unshakeable reality which is not of this world at all.

The theological dissonance which the book of Hebrews addresses is certainly applicable to the church today, especially in America.   Evangelical American Christian can be described as “triumphant,” especially in the last half of the 20th century.  Evangelical churches expanded greatly and had a greater impact on culture than at any time in history.

We very well may be past that now.  Studies indicate that the church is still growing, but at a pace which is slower than the general population.  We are beginning to lose ground and we have in many ways lost our voice in the public square.   Perhaps this is due to Christians who have humiliated themselves and brought shame to the cause of Christ, or because some very bad people chose to use evangelical Christianity as a way to advance political careers.

Whatever the reason, the tide is turning in America and we may face a time when we can ask, like the recipients of Hebrews, “what good is being faithful”? We think we have been faithful and we continue to suffer shame and humiliation.  We are in fact losing ground to the secular world.   Certainly this has already happened in Europe, Christian is a minority voice, evangelical Christianity has virtually no impact on culture in Europe.