Hebrews

  • Craig R. Koester
  • Jan 1, 2002
  • Series: Volume 5 - 2002

Koester, Craig R. Hebrews. Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday. 2001. xxiii + 604 pp. $47.50. ISBN 0-385-46893-8.

Anchor Bible commentaries on books of both testaments continue to fly from Doubleday's press with amazing speed, especially given the detailed nature and high quality of almost all of their recent offerings. This replacement volume on Hebrews preserves those traits. Craig Koester is Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and has demonstrated good scholarship in previous writings. But this is his most ambitious and significant undertaking to date by far.

The introduction devotes considerable detail to the history of the interpretation and influence of this epistle. Fascinating insights emerge into its early use in the Eastern Church's focus on the pilgrimage of the soul and the Western Church's preoccupation with church order and discipline. Its warnings against apostasy and its Christology--especially with implications for the Trinitarian debates--also played a prominent role in the first Christian centuries. The debate over authorship (was it Paul or someone else and if so who?) was delicately intertwined in these larger theological discussions as well. In the middle ages, new theological debates over predestination and the eucharist employed Hebrews in their arguments, while chapter 11, with its detailed depiction of faith, played a prominent role in the Reformation.

On traditional introductory questions Koester is understandably agnostic. We cannot guess who wrote the letter. The audience probably cannot be limited to exclusively Jewish Christians. The date cannot be narrowed down beyond some time between A.D. 60 and 90. A destination of Rome, however, seems more probable than writing from Rome. More significant is the social setting of the audience. This is a community that has been Christian for some time, suffered severe persecution in the past (10:32-34), and is now being harassed more informally and less acutely (12:4). Nevertheless there is a general communal malaise that is taking Christian involvement less seriously, and the writer sees potentially dire consequences if lapse and neglect mature into full-fledged apostasy. On the other hand, the warning passages interspersed throughout the letter are not desired to create despair but to awaken a new confidence in God.

The genre of the letter is a homily (a "word of exhortation"--13:22) with both epideictic and deliberative rhetoric. The most creative part of Koester's entire commentary is his outline. 1:1-2:4 forms an exordium; 2:5-9 is the proposition or major thesis of the letter; 2:10-12:27 presents three series of arguments, each concluded with a transitional digression of warning and encouragement (2:10-6:20 on Jesus receiving glory through faithful suffering, which we are to imitate; 7:1-10:39 on Jesus suffering as a sacrifice enabling us to approach God; and 11:1-12:27 on God's people persevering through suffering to glory by faith); 12:28-13:21 provides the peroration; and 13:22-25 concludes with the epistolary postscript.

Select theological issues generating discussion include cosmology and eschatology--reflecting both spatial and temporal (or Platonic and Jewish) dualism; Christology, especially Christ's pre-existence and constancy, the earthly Jesus, and his priesthood; promises, covenant and law; Scripture; divine action and human response; and the Lord's Supper. This last section proves somewhat different from the treatments of all the other topics, in that Koester concludes that Hebrews does not really deal with the doctrine, despite many who have thought that it did. An enormously detailed bibliography rounds out the introduction, as in most recent AB volumes.

The commentary proper follows the standard translation, notes and comment format of the series. But one unique feature is that Koester frequently lays out in discrete paragraphs with bold-face headings the major exegetical options for disputed points, a very helpful visual addition to his text. Again as consistently in recent AB New Testament offerings, there is abundant reference to background literature, particularly from the Greco-Roman world, and particularly within that world in the area of rhetoric and philosophy.

It is impossible to summarize so detailed a commentary; all one can do is sample a few exegetical highlights here and there. The seven Old Testament quotations of 1:5-14 all tie back into one feature or another of the Christology of the prologue (1:1-4). The possibility of apostasy for Christians is real throughout the warning passages (beginning in 2:1-4), even though the author believes the majority of his audience have not crossed that threshold. To say that Christ suffered to become a merciful and faithful high priest (2:17) does not mean he was once callous and faithless. Rather "these qualities emerged through testing in ways that would not be evident otherwise" (p. 241). Likewise when Christ learns obedience (5:8), this does not mean he had ever disobeyed God. Instead, "he could not demonstrate obedience until he was placed in situations where the will of God was challenged and obedience required" (p. 299).

In 7:3, "without mother, father or genealogy" could mean without record of such. But the use of the first two terms in other Greek literature suggests also a level of disgrace at the human level (those said to be without parents were illegitimate children) but divinity at the spiritual level (God is also described as without parents). "Without genealogy" may have been coined by the author for this context and contains analogous, contrasting implications. Melchizedek is not said to be Jesus but compared with him.

The writing of the Law on human hearts in 8:10 does not refer so much to the Law's internalization as to the completion of obedience to it. The tabernacle and temple are somewhat conflated in the imagery of 9:1-5, but the Old Testament texts that describe the tabernacle's furniture have some inherent ambiguities in them on their own. The differences between the Hebrew and Greek Old Testament renderings of Psa. 40:6-8 in Heb. 10:5 may be based on synecdoche (e.g., ears standing for the entire body). 11:3 speaks of God creating the universe out of what is unseen, but once one recognizes the chiasm present here, what is unseen is the word of God. The theological movement of faith in chapters 9-10 from outside the camp to inside the tabernacle is reversed in the social movement of faith in chapter 13, mirroring Christ's crucifixion outside the city walls of Jerusalem.

One could quibble about this or that interpretive move at various points but overall this is one of the most consistently reliable and detailed guides to the meaning of the author of Hebrews. Koester's Lutheranism of course proves amenable to his position on the apostasy passages; one could wish he had interacted a little more with the robust Calvinist interpretations of these texts, especially since they were all duly noted in his footnotes. In my opinion, his structure is the weakest part of the commentary; at point after point it is not at all persuasive that his rhetorical divisions are as prominent as the standard topical divisions along an outline that focuses on the superiority of Christ over the angels, over Moses and Joshua, over the priesthood, over the covenant, and over the heroes of faith in the Old Testament. But numerous micro-level suggestions about the structure of individual subsections and even discrete paragraphs frequently illuminate in his application of Greco-Roman rhetorical insights.

Certainly this should be considered one of the top three or four commentaries any pastor or scholar purchases on Hebrews today, even if not necessarily the very first.

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary

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