Friday, January 9, 2015

Hebrews: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include artwork by famous artists.

In modern times, the book of Hebrews has sparked controversy, as it seems to be the most anti-Jewish book in the New Testament.  While the author doesn’t stoop to name-calling or ethnic slurs, the whole crux of his/her argument is that a basic feature of Judaism (temple sacrifice) has been replaced by Jesus.  The author speaks of a “new covenant” that has replaced the old one (which involved sacrificing animals).  Throughout the ages, Christians have used Hebrews to argue for the “superiority” of Christianity over Judaism.  I would like to offer a different, and hopefully less divisive, reading.

The author’s main argument is that Jesus is a new kind of high priest who actually sacrificed himself to atone for the sins of humanity, thus abolishing the Jewish sacrificial system.  What I would like to stress is that all Jews abandoned the sacrificial system in 70 C.E. when the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.  After this tragic event, temple sacrifice was no longer possible, and so Jews had to evolve their practices to fit these new circumstances.  One option was Christianity, a decidedly Jewish movement that eventually included gentiles.  Another option was Rabbinic Judaism, in which Jewish leaders like Yohanan ben Zakkai established a religious school in Yavheh, in which temple sacrifice was replaced by prayer, giving to charity, and Torah study.  From this group emerged modern Judaism as we know it today.  The Jewish “new testament” was the Mishnah, and later the Talmud.

First page of the Talmud.

Seen in this light, the book of Hebrews may be read not so much as anti-Jewish, but rather as reflecting another strain of Judaism in the first century.  All Jews had to change after the destruction of the temple, and some (like the early Christians) saw Jesus as providing a new way forward.  Other Jews took different, and equally significant, paths.  When the author of Hebrews argues that the ministry of the priests has been replaced by Jesus, he is making a very similar move to the rabbis in Yavneh.  The main difference is who is replacing the priests.  For Christians, it was Jesus.  For Jews, it was the rabbis.  Different reactions to similar realities.

I would also like to stress that the author of Hebrews is steeped in Jewish faith and tradition.  In chapter 11 he/her gives a kind of all star list of “Heroes of the Faith.”  Guess what?  They are all Jews.  The writer commends the faith of such famous Jewish figures as Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, Samson, and finally Jesus.  For these Jews, faith was all about believing in the saving grace of God, and acting on that belief, even when things seemed uncertain and hopeless.  The writer of Hebrews says some really beautiful things about what it feels like to have faith in this world of uncertainty and suffering, and I would like to end with this passage, which speaks to the historic Jewish experience of exile, wandering, and the hope of finding a new home:

“All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.  They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”

The Mishnah can be seen as a Jewish New Testament, after the destruction of the Temple.

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