Entry #1 – Hebrews 13:1-21

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I consider the most significant contribution I have made to the understanding of Scripture to be the interpretation of Chapter 13 of the Epistle to the Hebrews (see entries §200 and §201: §200 is a brief version of §201, but is of particular value because the outline of Chapter 13 which it contains is much clearer than the outline in the second, longer presentation). The analysis of Chapter 13 is based on a preliminary outline arrived at by a study of surface criteria. In order to facilitate comments this outline is repeated here:

1) Vv. 1-5a: a series of admonitions concerning conduct.
2) Vv. 5b-6: two citations from Scripture.
3) Vv. 7-17: a series of statements framed by mention of the community’s
“leaders”; it stands at the heart of the chapter by reason
of its length and position.
4) Vv. 18-19: a personal appeal for prayer by the author of the epistle.
5) Vv. 20-21: a blessing
Since the section comprising vv. 7-17 seems to be central to what the
author of Hebrews has in mind, a detailed outline is appropriate:
v. 7: Remember your LEADERS, who spoke to you the word of God; in
reflecting on the outcome of their conduct imitate their faith. v. 8: Jesus Christ
yesterday and today the same, and forever.
v. 9: Do not be led astray by a variety of strange teachings; for it is good that the heart be sustained by grace, not by foods in which those who live by them are not helped.
v. 10: We have an altar from which those serving the tent have no right to eat.
v. 11: For while the blood of the animals is brought as a sin-offering into the Holy of Holies by the high priest, their bodies are burned OUTSIDE THE CAMP.
v. 12: For this reason Jesus also, so that he might sanctify the people through his own blood, suffered OUTSIDE THE GATE.
v. 13: For that very reason, then, let us go to him OUTSIDE THE CAMP, taking on his shame.
v. 14: For we have not here a city which remains but one which is to come.
v. 15: Through him, then, let us offer up a sacrifice of praise regularly to God, that is, fruit of lips which confess his name.
v. 16: The doing of good and fellowship do not forget. Now with such sacrifices as these is God pleased.
v. 17: Obey your LEADERS and be subject to them, for they are vigilant over your souls as ones having to give an account, that they may do this with joy and not sighing, for this would not be of any help to you.

In v. 15 the expression “sacrifice of praise” occurs, apparently with reference to the material being discussed in the chapter. On the strength of this occurrence the central section vv. 7-17 is interpreted according to the hdwt jbz] as understood by the German exegete Hartmuth Gese. According to this understanding there are three main aspects of this Jewish liturgical practice: 1) a bloody sacrifice in the temple; 2) the public ritual consumption of bread; 3) public prayers and hymns in accompaniment. The last two aspects are normally separated from the bloody sacrifice. My article understands vv. 7-17 as a presentation of a Christian adaptation of this Jewish liturgical practice. In this Christian adaptation, known as the Eucharist, the bloody sacrifice in the temple is replaced by the unique bloody sacrifice of Christ (v. 12). The ritual consumption of bread (vv. 9-10) and the accompanying prayers and hymn (vv. 15-16) are the ceremonies which are known as the visible Mass which, for those who believe, is always intrinsically inseparable from the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Thus the Christian qusiva aijnevsew”) or “tôdâ” (a shortened transcription of the Hebrew expression “zebach tôdâ” [hdwt jbz]) stands at the concluding position in the Epistle to the Hebrews, suggesting that the author of Hebrews may have alluded to the Eucharist in the previous chapters. In the outline above, vv. 9-10 refer to the consumption of bread, v. 13 refers to the bloody sacrifice of Christ, and vv. 15-16 refer to the prayers accompanying the ritual consumption of bread, with v. 15 containing the actual mention of the word “sacrifice of praise”.

A further step analyzes the entire passage vv. 1-21 according to the outline of the Mass of the Latin Rite, with the justification for this move coming from the occurrence of “sacrificium laudis” (one of the translations for qusiva aijnevsew” in the Old Latin versions of the Bible) in the Remembrance of the Living in the Mass):
1) Vv. 1-5a: a series of admonitions concerning conduct: Acknowledgement of sins at the beginning of each Latin Rite Mass.
2) Vv. 5b-6: two citations from Scripture: The Scripture readings found in each Mass.
3) Vv. 7-17: a series of statements framed by mention of the community’s “leaders” (hJgouvmenoi); it stands at the heart of the chapter by reason of its length and position: The sacramental part found in each Mass.
4) Vv. 18-19: a personal appeal for prayer by the author of the epistle: An explicit mention of an intention for which a Latin Rite Mass can be offered.
5) Vv. 20-21: a blessing: The solemn ending of each Mass.

Appeal to the Latin Rite Mass would be somewhat far-fetched as part of a document, the Epistle to the Hebrews, dating probably from before 70A.D. (as many commentators now think), were it not for the explicit mention of the “sacrifice of praise” in v. 15. What the precise relation could be between some antecedent of the current Latin Rite Mass and the Epistle to the Hebrews is left explicitly unexplained in the articles mentioned.
The interpretation given above is not meant to be a detailed exegesis of the text of Chapter 13, but is designed to serve as a possible basis for such an exegesis. If the Eucharistic relevance of the tôdâ can be sustained, it would obviously have a significant effect on the traditional discussions about a possible Eucharistic relevance of such passages as vv. 9-10 and 15. Further, the “speaking of the word” by the leaders of the group takes on a radically different meaning when viewed in a Eucharistic context, with “Jesus Christ yesterday” referring to what the leaders “spoke” in v. 7, “Jesus Christ today” referring to what the
leaders “speak” in v. 17, and “Jesus Christ the same, forever” referring to the lasting “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. But a considerable amount of work needs to be done on tracing the “sacrifice of praise” in the liturgy and texts of Israel and in early Christian times. I have made a preliminary study (Bibliography, §188), but very much remains to be done to build adequately on the pioneering work of Jukka Thuren, Das Lobopfer der Hebräer. Studien zum Aufbau und Anliegen von Hebräerbrief 13 (Åbo 1975). Given the state of exegesis of Chapter 13 of Hebrews at present, the above analysis could well seem too daring, for it is radically different  from current views. But the confusion in current views about Chapter 13 of Hebrews would seem to indicate that any solution, if such there be,
would have to be a radical solution. The above theory is certainly radical, for it introduces several entirely new considerations into the exegesis of the chapter (e.g., the hdwt jbz of the Hebrew Old Testament, the qusiva aijnevsew” of the Septuagint and of the New Testament, the sacrificium laudis of the Old Latin of Hebrews and of the canon of the Latin Rite Mass, the outline of the Latin Rite Mass). But it does yield a coherent meaning in a coherent structure, and, considering the puzzlement of contemporary exegesis in the face of Chapter 13, this is a warrant of self-justification worth considering.

(22 March 2009)

After viewing some reactions to the above suggestions, particularly reactions as regards the possible relevance of the Mass of the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps some clarifications are in order. In the presentation above I tried to be as brief as possible and not indulge in explanatory over-kill. But such explanatory over-kill is apparently in order. On the basis of a superficial reading of the text I divided Chapter 13, verses 1-21, into two brief preliminary sections (1- 5a and 5b-6), a longer central section (7-17), and two brief concluding sections (18-19 and 20-21). I thought that the symmetry of the resulting arrangement was a sort of self-commendation. Symmetry of itself is no guarantee of plausibility, but when symmetry is joined with something more substantive then it contributes a force of its own. In terms of the
Latin Rite Mass the central section is the most important because it is presents the bloody sacrifice of Christ, the central element of the Mass, together with the aspects of consumption of food and outward prayers which appropriately flank the presentation of Christ’s sacrifice. This importance is mirrored in the length of the central section. The other four sections, two introductory and two concluding, important as they are in their own right, are not of the same importance as the three elements of the central section, and this is reflected in their shorter length. For anyone familiar with the Latin Rite Mass, the initial call to penance and the readings from Scripture present easily identifiable elements which make plausible and obvious introductions to the Christian “sacrifice of praise” in the center. When it comes to the concluding elements, however, there are no two obvious choices. The final blessing is one obvious element, yes. But no other element is obviously on the same level as it and the other two. This was my problem when I tried to identify the four elements. I chose the element  of the intention of the ritual sacrifice because as anyone familiar with the way the Latin Rite Mass is actually celebrated the intention of the celebrant and of the participants is considered to be of considerable importance. I identified it with the prayer for the living inside the Roman canon because that embodies an intention. But of course the author of Hebrews may have indicated by vv. 18-19 that the practice of an “intention” for each Mass was in use even before 70 A.D., and used it to supply the missing fourth element to balance the two introductory elements. True, according to either of these interpretations (reference to the remembrance of the living within the canon, or reference to the practice of having an intention for each Mass) the intention is not strictly speaking a part of the Mass following the central “sacramental” (to use contemporary language) section. There was no obvious choice, so the author picked an element which for him was of considerable importance in its own right to balance symmetrically the two elements which are before the sacramental section and thus to end the central section with two parts so as to balance symmetrically the two introductory elements. (Clearer than this I cannot be.)

(September 24 2009)


Entry #3 – Mark 8:12

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Entry #2 – Romans 8:23

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Entry #5 – Hebrews 9:15-22

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Entry #4 – Matthew 12:39, 16:4 and Luke 11:29

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Entry #6 – Learning from Vatican II

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[On April 19, 1989, the Pontifical Biblical Institute observed the 80th anniversary of its foundation. A number of faculty members were asked to make some remarks on the occasion. The text of my remarks follows. On re-reading them recently I think they are not inappropriate for the 100th anniversary of the Institute. “Close readings” do not occur in a vacuum. The following reflections are meant to situate my own “close readings” in the larger life of the Biblical Institute which helped bring them to be. This entry has never been published and thus does not figure in my bibliography.]

Every so often at the Biblicum it behooves us to stop thinking of exams, of equivalences in academic requisites, of paradigms, of adversaries, of grades, of term papers and to reflect on more fundamental aspects of our endeavors. We should reflect every so often on our life of Biblical scholarship in relation to the underlying factors which will remain long after the minutiae of passing importance will have disappeared, minutiae that will be recalled only with difficulty.

In order to speak of the more fundamental aspects of our academic life in relation to the Bible we would do well to reflect on the experience of some of our former students and professors. Some of them played significant roles in the Second Council of the Vatican. I am thinking of such persons as Bernard Jan Alfrink, Augustin Bea, Franz König, Joseph Frings, Achilles Lienart and many archbishops and bishops and others who took part in its debates and helped write its documents. These alumni and professors ended their scholarly work of students and teachers here at the Biblical Institute without having been programmed, so to speak, for taking part in an ecumenical council. But they were persons who had been educated to approach Sacred Scripture in a critical way. This education did not lead them to take this or that restricted view of the Church. Rather, it served them as an instrument for looking at the Church in its totality; it helped them have a balanced view of the Church as a whole and of her place in he world. Having been educated at the Biblical Institute they were accustomed to look in the Bible in the context of the Tradition of the Church. They were immersed in history. The had the ability, so much desired the founder of the Biblical Institute, St. Pius X, to make use of means for deepening our knowledge of the sacred texts as Catholic scholars. And thus they were able to rise quickly to whatever challenge divine providence placed before them.

The Pontifical Biblical Institute was founded in 1909 by St. Pius X as a reply to “Modernism”. Modernism was a challenge to the Church arising from scholarly disciplines connected with history. The measures taken by Pius X in his condemnation of Modernism could not reply in a positive way to that challenge, as Pius well knew. What was needed was a group of persons educated and skilled in history, especially in those historical disciplines which touched on Sacred Scripture. Thus was the Biblicum born.

In the first decades of the Biblicum’s existence its main work was the education of persons competent to interpret Sacred Scripture with a critical eye. After approximately thirty-five years from its foundation the time was ripe for the application of criticism (above all as regards the use of the original languages of Scripture for purposes of translation) to the pastoral use of the Bible. Thus came to be the encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu of Pius XII in 1943. And thus came to be, in part, the circumstances which prepared the way for the Second Council of the Vatican, the council in which history entered the Church in a decisive way.

We are gradually emerging from the crisis created by the entrance of history and of historical thinking as regards the Church. But the crisis is not yet over. And what is even more important, the possibilities for positive good created by the council only now are beginning to play a decisive role in the life of the Church. I am thinking obviously about Sacred Scripture and about the pastoral use of the Bible in the everyday life of Catholics around the world. We are only at the beginning of a new chapter in the adventure of the story of God’s People. Only God knows how the chapter will end. But we can venture a guess about what will be needed by those whom God will use in the future because we know what was need by those whom God used in the past: 1) a practiced knowledge of the critical use of Sacred Scripture; 2) loyalty to the tradition of the Church; 3) docility to the movements of the Spirit.

These three factors—a critical sense, loyalty, docility—are essential for every Catholic scholar in every period of the People of God. We can already see how these three factors will enter into the life of Catholic scholars in the near future: 1) a practiced knowledge of the critical use of Sacred Scripture in order to help believers of various faith traditions (for example, fundamentalist Protestants and Muslims) to see that reason is not an enemy in the search for God’s will in holy writ; 2) loyalty to the tradition of the Church in order to help the People of God to maintain a firm belief in Jesus Christ as the unique source of salvation (for example, in the presence of the venerable religions of Asia); 3) docility to the movements of the Spirit to help the People of God become the persons God wants them to become.

But all this begins here and now, in the halls of the Biblicum itself. Here and now we are called on to prepare ourselves to live these three factors of critical sense, of loyalty, of docility. It is precisely in this context that we should think of the aspect which is the most profound of all that we do as Catholic Scripture scholars. In everything we do we should avoid the atmosphere of ideology. We are not technicians at the service of holy ideas. We are above all persons under the guidance of faith in a living God who is Three in One. All that we do as students and scholars of the Bible should be done with faith in God’s call to this marvelous adventure. And all our relations with others should be informed with that koinônia and that diakônia which are unequivocal signs of the Christian life. Only if we are consistent in our living of the Gospel can we be effective in our study and teaching of the Gospel.

(17 October 2008)