Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James and Jude

  • Ben Witherington
  • Jan 7, 2008
  • Series: Volume 11 - 2008

Ben Witherington III, Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James and Jude.  Downers Grove: IVP; Nottingham: Apollos, 2007.  $35.00.  656 pp.  ISBN 978-0-8308-2932-3

With this wonderful study of three Jewish-Christian epistles, Ben Witherington, prolific evangelical New Testament scholar and New Testament professor at Asbury Seminary, moves ever closer to his completion of commentaries, emphasizing social and rhetorical backgrounds, on every book of the New Testament.  Actually, Witherington views each epistle as better classified as a sermon or homily.  Hebrews reflects epideictic rhetoric, with Apollos as probable author praising Christ as superior to all people and institutions within Judaism which this document's Roman readers under Nero's persecution in the mid-60s might be tempted to think merited a retreat into non-Christian Judaism.  (Witherington doesn't think 12:4 means that no Christians in Rome have yet been martyred, just none of those this book directly addresses.)  But in saving their physical lives, they would forfeit their spiritual lives.  James represents wisdom literature from the 50s (presupposing the Jerusalem Council of 49) written by the half-brother of Jesus employing deliberative rhetoric and intended for Jewish believers throughout the empire. Jude, finally, penned by another half-brother of Christ, may have been written in Israel somewhere between the early 50s and early 60s to be used as a closing exhortation in a worship service, using deliberative rhetoric tinged with epideictic features, to warn the congregation against the antinomian false teachers infiltrating their assemblies.

As one has come to expect from Witherington, both his introductions to each book and the commentaries proper highlight his understanding of the letters' structures according to the categories of Greco-Roman rhetoric as well as identifying various rhetorical devices used within each passage and how they function.  In this work, he is able to go into even more detail than he sometimes does.  Whether or not one is convinced that oral forms entirely transferred over to written documents, these portions of the volume certainly reflect its most innovative and distinctive contributions.  Witherington regularly seeks key sources not well utilized elsewhere along side the standard tools.  Thus his thoughts on Hebrews frequently cite extensive portions of Craddock's (NIB rev.) and Long's (Int) commentaries, while ignoring Ellingworth (NIGTC) altogether.  On James, he regularly reproduces gems of insight from the century-old classic by Plummer but isn't even aware of Hartin (Sacra Pagina).  For Jude, he cites key comments by his colleague, Ruth Ann Reese, from her Two Horizons volume now published but only in manuscript form when Witherington was writing.  As is true consistently in his commentaries, Witherington relies much more on other commentaries than on monographs, journal articles or essays in multi-author works, though his bibliographies on these three biblical books are as detailed as any he has produced.  But it is apparent he hasn't actually done anything with many of the items on these bibliographies.

Strengths of Witherington's exegesis include sensitive and detailed explanations of the three writers' uses of the Old Testament, especially Hebrews' use of Psalms, his recognition of those claims about Jesus which implicitly challenged Caesar's comparable allegations, and the importance in the ancient Mediterranean world of focusing on the nature of a person's death as a key to his or her character.  The contrast between Jesus and angels in Hebrews 1-2 shows that our author "would flatly deny an angelomorphic Christology" (p. 160), despite many today who see key precedents here for various New Testament convictions about Jesus' deity.  Despite partial parallels to Plato and Philo, Hebrews' eschatology is more temporal than spatial and intensifies the closer one gets to the end of the sermon.  Jesus' ability to empathize with his people required his peccability just as his atonement required his sinlessness.  The apparent mistake in 9:4 of placing the incense altar inside the holy of holies is probably better explained with "have" here meaning only "belonging to in function" (p. 264).  Faith in 11:1 is best defined as the "assurance" and "conviction" of unseen things hoped for, not as "substance" and "evidence."  Overall Hebrews promotes not a "replacement" theology but a "completionist" one, with respect to the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

Witherington's treatment of James is the best of the three parts of this volume.  James sees trials as a necessary part of the Christian life and growth.  Single-mindedness may be the most important, unifying theme of the homily.  AnÄ“r and anthrōpos are equally generic or inclusive in this epistle.  The "perfect law of liberty" or "royal law" reflects the new covenant of Jeremiah now written on believers' hearts.  The puzzling grammar of 2:18-19 is best solved by envisioning two believers debating each other, with James then interjecting his response in verse 18b.  Belief in the unity of God should lead to an understanding of the unity of faith and works.  "James insists that both unity and puriy must be maintained among God's people and insisted on.  To stress one over the other is to either ignore sin or fracture the whole body of Christ" (p. 504).  "The issue of taming the tongue in the internet and soap opera age takes on a whole new life.  People would benefit from reading John Wesley's famous sermon on this subject, ‘The Cure of Evil Speaking,' in which he insists that a Christian should never speak ill of any absent person, of anyone not there to defend themselves.  Teachers and preachers especially need to hear James's warnings about loose tongues" (p. 555).

Jude contains nothing reflecting "early Catholicism," despite frequent claims to the contrary.  "Our common salvation" (v. 3) shows that "against our modern overemphasis on individuals being saved, we would do well to recognize that no one is saved in or for solitude" (p. 602).  Nothing in Jude's use of the pseudepigrapha requires us to believe he thought entire documents outside the Hebrew Scriptures were inspired or even historical.  Relevant rhetorical parallels show writers of that era using fiction as well as history for moral exempla.  The false teachers' slander of angels probably implies rejection of Torah, because angels were believed to have mediated the giving of the Law to Moses.

Contra Witherington, it is unlikely that the use of Psalm 8 in Hebrews 2:6-8 refers to Jesus; he appears, by contrast with previous humanity, first in verse 9.  Of course, by now we have come to expect Witherington's refrain that there is no eternal security until one is securely in eternity in each of his commentaries at junctures that seem more amenable to Arminian than to Calvinist interpretations.  But when he rejects the view of Hebrews 6:4-6 that sees the author worried that some in his audience might not have a genuine faith, because he addresses his warnings to the whole community rather than to "some," Witherington misses the explicit reference in verse 11 in which the author wants "each of you" to show the same eagerness for growth, which suggests precisely that he worries more about some than others.  Creation ex nihilo is not the only possible inference from 11:3, which literally reads, "created not from visible things," leaving open the possibility (even if not the probability) of creation from invisible things.

In James 2:1, one is surprised to see the option of an appositional genitive with "glory" not even mentioned and the majority interpretation of an objectively genitive for "Lord" dismissed so quickly.  Witherington thinks the rich man of verses 2-4 had to have been invited, since no one would come to a house-church uninvited.  But is the man in rags then similarly a pre-arranged guest?  If we translate krima as "condemnation" in 3:1, why would anyone ever become a teacher?  The treatment of 4:5 is puzzlingly brief and seems unaware of Craig Carpenter's 2001 article in New Testament Studies with a solution to the riddle of the lost quotation that may in fact make the most sense of all.  A reference to Christ as "the righteous one" in 5:6 appears highly unlikely.  And the weaknesses healed in 5:14-18 seem more probably to be physical than spiritual.  How there can be a difference in meaning between kan and kai ean (cf. v. 15), given that the latter is simply a contraction of the former, baffles me.

The book jacket touts the value of the "Bridging the Horizons" sections of applications, but Witherington includes only two-after the entire commentary on Hebrews (rather than after each main section of the letter as in his previous commentaries), and half of it is the transcript of a sermon he preached, and after all the comments on James as well (but for only two pages). For Jude he has no comparable section at all.

This commentary is much freer of typos than many of Witherington's previous works.  But he still consistently misspells "supersessionist" (as if it had a "c" in it).  Relecture is three times rendered relecteur.  On page 101, the labels "genitival" and "datival" should be reversed.  On pages 129 and 238, "descendants" trades its "a" for another "e."  The translation of Hebrews 3:3 on page 165 contains the redundant "just as inasmuch as."  The apostrophe is missing from "readers problems" on page 168.  Page 281 needs "are the issues" instead of "is the issue."  Page 309 offers "by take possession" instead of "by taking. . ."  Page 334 refers to a "root or bitterness" and to "is not only is familiar." "Audiences'" on page 357 needs to be "audience's." Conversely, "David's" on page 407 should be "Davids'."  Three rectangular boxes replace what should be Greek letters or accent marks on page 496.  "Thing" should be plural on page 501.  "Fruits of good words" was meant to read "works" on page 616.  "Serious" must become "seriously" on page 625.  And Reinhold is a first name; Merkelbach, a last name, rather than vice-versa on page 642.

It was fun to see Witherington use a point from Mariam Kamell's conference paper on faith in Hebrews and James, since she is a recent Denver Seminary graduate, research assistant, and adjunct faculty member now finishing up her doctorate in New Testament at St. Andrews.

Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
January 2008