A Critical Review: The Letter to the Hebrews in Social-Scientific Perspective

Review

The book of Hebrews has been a great source of theological and pastoral inspriationfor the Christian church since the first century. At the same time, it has been a contested book as the author is unknown, and the audience is still not fully understood. While many have attributed authorship to Paul, it is unlikely, and at best, the safest speculation is that the audience is a Hellenistic Judeo-Christian community.

The Letter to the Hebrews in Social-Scientific Perspective is deSilva’s attempt to gain further insight into this epistle by examining the authorship and audience based on the hints found in the text. He asserts the interpretation of this letter stands upon understanding the community to whom it was written and what precipitated such a response.[1] These desired details are sparse, so deSilva posits that the missing information may be found in external sources.[2]

Hebrews was written with an eloquence and certain grace with the Greek language that it becomes clear to the reader that the author was well educated. Likewise, deSilva observes similarly, but he adds the author must have been well versed in classical argumentation due to the structure of his writing.[3] He makes remarkable comparisons to such rhetoric of Progymnasmata and Rhetorica ad Herennium that does appear to prove as such.[4]

With this knowledge, one would begin to believe the author was Greek. Still, upon further examination, one will notice his use of Jewish interpretative techniques of linking common words within Scripture.[5] The evidence of both Greek and Jewish education leads deSilva to conclude that the author is “a Jewish Christian, most likely of Diaspora origin, and at least of Diaspora upbringing.”[6] In Hebrews, Jesus’ process of becoming the high priest appears to mimic the Greek teaching method of preparing students.[7] DeSilva recognizes the similarity to the formative disciple, or paideia, that would mature the student into a better person in Greek culture.[8]

With this information, the question arises as to who was the letter written? Many scribes added additional comments to manuscripts indicating they believed the authorship to be from Rome or Italy to a community outside. In contrast, modern scholarship indicates the community was in Rome or Italy and written by an outside author.[9] Unfortunately, this still leaves the reader without knowing from where the author or recipient community came.

DeSilva asserts that the social-scientific study of Hellenistic-Roman culture demonstrated a great dependence upon honoring and shaming persons within a community to promote desired values and practices.[10] Through such practices, Greek culture was defended from outside influence. The belief in Christianity rejected the polytheism within Greek culture, so it is likely they felt shamed by non-Christian communities. The author of Hebrews uses praise of the community to endure in their faith as means to fight against the negative pressures they may have felt.[11] As such, this perseverance of Christian belief and practice becomes something to be honored and thus emulated.[12] Similarly, if the author promotes against negative social pressures by appealing to the concept of reciprocity.[13] Since God gave such an amazing gift of salvation, it would be ungrateful and dishonorable of the community to act against Christian values. DeSilva states that this argumentation draws a line between choosing the “friendship of God” or the “friendship of society.”[14] Furthermore, to ensure the community thrives in their faith, it should reinforce each other to continue in Christian practices. If it fails to do so, then the community itself has failed those that go astray under social pressures.[15] Thus, the author encourages the community to remind each other to live accordingly.[16]

Emerson’s Critical Review

Emerson recognizes deSilva’s excellent ability in researching the rhetorical strategy contained within Hebrews.[17] There is significant evidence to support that the community is of Hellenistic Judeo-Christian origin. Beyond that, further speculation leads one to a shaky foundation. One must ask if further speculation is even necessary to understand the epistle to the Hebrews. Emerson believes placing too much emphasis upon a false dichotomy of “what it meant to the original community” versus “what it means” fails to examine the textual meaning properly.[18] Hebrews was not simply written as a historical account, but it is a document that applies to this day, so to hang its purpose upon a historical context is to miss the enduring Word of God. In the case of Hebrews, so little information is known, this becomes even more problematic, leading deSilva to make broad generalizations in his findings.[19]

Conclusion

Despite deSilva’s many observations, little has been added except speculation. At best, it is possible to make a reasonable assumption that the author would not have written a letter influenced so greatly by both Greek and Jewish culture if the recipient community were not Hellenistic Judeo-Christians. If they were not, the letter would not have the intended impact and be a grave disservice by the author. While deSilva does discover some interesting links between the authorship, the community, and Hellenistic Judeo-Christian culture, the reader is still left without certainties. The only certainty is that Scripture is the Word of God. Instead of focusing upon speculation, perhaps one would be better served to focus upon the words of the text and understanding them with that simple meaning. The historical context may sometimes aid in interpretation, but in this case, the mysterious nature may be the intended outcome for Christians of the present day.


[1] David A. deSilva, The Letter to the Hebrews in Social-Scientific Perspective, vol. 15, Cascade Companions (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), xiv.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 4-6.

[5] Ibid., 9-10.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Ibid., 11.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 30.

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] Ibid., 64-65.

[12] Ibid., 92.

[13] Ibid., 95-96.

[14] Ibid., 138.

[15] Ibid., 145.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Matthew Y. Emerson, “The Letter to the Hebrews: In Social-Scientific Perspective,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 24, no. 2 (2014), http://eres.regent.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001987411&site=ehost-live. 289.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 289-90.

Gordon Bland

I am a seminary student working toward my M.Div. While I grew up Pentecostal, within my first semester of seminary, I came to a different understanding of the Word and theology. I am now Reformed Baptist. #1689 I love teaching others about Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, for it was Christ that transformed me. For a number of years, I was a militant atheist and substance abuser. If God can change me, I know he can do the same for you! I am but a wretch, yet He still chose to give me grace. He truly is amazing and deserves all our praise!