Monday, November 10, 2014

Rediscovering the Book of Hebrews in its Pro-Judaic Context [CLASSIC REPOST OF MCKEE REVIEW]



Is the Book of Hebrews anti-Torah and anti-Judaism?  In "Hebrews for the Practical Messianic", J.K. McKee observes that this tends to be the standard approach to Hebrews:

"Hebrews is frequently read as...opposing the commandments of the Torah of Moses…[and] the argumentation style of the Epistle to the Hebrews has sometimes been taken as being anti-Judaism…" pg. 264

In particular:

"Christians have difficulty understanding Hebrews with its emphasis on the Law of Moses and animal sacrifices, because of their large disconnection to the Torah," pg. 261

But is the author of Hebrew really anti-Torah?

"[T]he author of Hebrews is quite insistent that the Law has not been abolished, twice quoting the critical New Covenant promise of Jeremiah 31:31-34 that Moses' Teaching is to be written on the hearts and minds of God's people (8:8-12; 10:16-17)," pg. 264

Does the style of the book of Hebrews really show disrespect for Judaism?

"[I]n actuality [the author of Hebrews] employs a common Rabbinic qal v'chomer or classical a fortiori approach, demonstrating great respect for the institutions and historical figures of Ancient Israel in order to precisely show how much greater and grander the Messiah actually is."  

Throughout the commentary, McKee tackles three forms of this anti-Judaic bias:

1.  biased mistranslations

2.  biased additions of words that do not appear in the Greek source text

3.  passages in which the English translation contains both types of translational problems simultaneously: extra words and mistranslated words:

Here are a few examples:

(1) "…biased translations into English…" pg. 263.

The example of 8:7:

pg. 267 "A translation challenge is present in 8:7, though, because as the NIV renders it, 'For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.'  The Greek [Ei gar he port en amemptos] actually reads 'for if that first were faultless' (YLT) with no associated noun.  …While 'first' [could refer to "covenant"]…[it] could also speak of the [tabernacle/priesthood/ministry].  It is far better, given the limitations of the human priests who occupied the Levitical service (7:28), for ["first"] in 8:7 to be associated with the Earthly Tabernacle, priesthood, or ministry of the Levitical service--not the covenant made by God."

(2) "…words added to an English translation that do not appear in the source text ((i.e., 8:7, 13; 9:1, 17, 24; 10:1)," pg. 263.

The example of 8:13:

pg. 267 "8:13 especially has some transmission issues into English.  Its opening clause [en to legion kainen] is simply 'in the saying 'new'' (YLT), with no noun provided.  [Kainen] should be understood as applying to the tabernacle/priesthood/ministry of the Levitical service, given what 8:13b says:  [to de palaioumenon kai geraskon engus aphanismou].  While often rendered with 'what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear,' the verbs [palaioo] and [gerasko] both mean 'to age.'  To regard the Levitical service as 'obsolete' is too strong, whereas the NEB offers the much better rendering, 'growing old and aging.'  The Levitical service would have been older in its time of service than Yeshua's priestly service in Heaven (although it has been based on Melchizedek's priesthood), and it would disappear at the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., a timestamp on when Hebrews was composed in the late 60s C.E."

(3)  passages in which the English translation contains both types of translational problems simultaneously: extra words and mistranslated words:

The example of 9:16-17:

Is "will" or "testament" a viable translation of [diatheke] ("covenant")?  While such an interpretation seems valid when the sentence passage includes the phrase "when people die", the reality is that the phrase "when people die" does not appear in the source text (pg. 154).  Furthermore, as Lane notes, "There is no evidence in classical or papyriological sources to substantiate that a will or testament was legally valid only when its testator died.  A will became operative as soon as it was properly drafted, witnessed, and notarized."  

McKee suggests smoother translations such as Lane's, "For a covenant is made legally secure on the basis of sacrificial victims' (WBC)" on the basis that it more accurately fits with the Ancient Near Eastern covenantal context:

"The translation of…'sacrificial victims' (WBC), may be regarded as something definitely rooted within Ancient Near Eastern covenanting procedures, where there would be animals slaughtered to give some kind of surety to the covenant.  This frequently involved those making the agreement saying that they would become as such dead animals if they did not live up to it.  A covenant, when violated, does often seek the death of the violator."  

On a side note, McKee persuasively argues on the basis of Isaiah 24:5 that all of mankind is guilty of violating G-d's covenant:  "The earth is also polluted by its inhabitants, for they transgressed laws, violated statutes, broke the everlasting covenant," (Isaiah 24:5).  This helps explain the scope behind Hebrews 9:28 "So Messiah also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many…"


The value of this commentary cannot be overstated.  McKee has brought out all of the nuances of the Greek source text, the fascinating rationales behind the author's use of Septuagint passages--many of which deviate substantially from the Masoretic Text, and most especially, the complex Hebraic context of the Ancient Near East in general and first-century Judaism(s) in particular. 

In short, it's a must read!

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