What we learn about Godly Scholarship from Hebrews

reading the bible photoFrequent contributor Mark Hansard shares reflections from his campus ministry experience and literary, philosophical, and theological training. See his recent pieces on faith and doubt in an Emily Dickinson poem and what academics can learn from the life of Joseph, or browse his previous work for ESN here


The book of Hebrews, one of the more finely written books of the New Testament, contains several hints for us about what Godly scholarship can look like under the influence of the Spirit. While it is unknown who wrote Hebrews,[1] it is clear the author was highly educated in Greek rhetoric and argumentation, as well as Rabbinic thought. The book contains high Greek rhetoric which has been compared to the work of Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish Philosopher, as it has many Greek words in common with Philo’s writing.[2] But it is definitely Jewish and apocalyptic, as it, like the writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls, contains statements that we are living in the last days, and that the end is imminent.[3] Clearly, the writer of Hebrews had one foot in Greek culture and one foot in Jewish culture, and Hebrews is a combination of the two, beautifully fused.

The high Greek rhetoric in Hebrews means that the author was highly educated in Greek thought (which all but rules out any of the 12 disciples as authors). Hebrews contains numerous Hellenistic literary devices, such as rhetorical questions, parallelism, inclusio, repetition, and oratorical imperative, among others.[4] What this demonstrates, importantly for our spiritual lives, is that God uses secular education to further his purposes under the power and influence of the Spirit. The arguments Hebrews makes are beautifully written because of the author’s Greek education.

And yet, the book is entirely Jewish. For example, the arguments that Jesus is a high priest in the order of Melchizedek, and that the new covenant contains a better sacrifice than the old covenant, are Jewish topics that demonstrate, in the author’s able hands, the superiority of Jesus’s death on the cross over the Old Testament sacrifices. The book, then, is a fluid combination of Greek and Hebrew thought.

The argumentation in Hebrews is highly sophisticated, and problematic if one attempts only a cursory skimming of the book. For example, it is impossible to start reading in Hebrews 8 and understand the argument, without having started the argument back at Hebrews 6:13, which is where the discussion of Melchizedek begins. The argument goes on for two and a half chapters, and the segues into the argument that Jesus is the ultimate high priest, therefore the New Covenant is superior to the old. The points build logically upon one another. The argument and its tributaries simply continues until chapter 11, when there is a clear break.

What this means is that, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, the writer of Hebrews used secular training in Greek rhetoric, and Jewish thought and argumentation, and fused them together into a beautiful argument for the superiority of Christ. And we can, as well, under God’s guidance, use argumentation, rhetoric, and logic. The next time you write a paper with rhetoric and argumentation in it, remember the author of Hebrews, and write it to the glory of God.

Endnotes

[1] It is nearly universally acknowledged today that the Greek of Hebrews is too different from Paul for it to have been written by Paul. A number of authors have been proposed, including Barnabus, Apollos, and others.

[2] Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 37.

[3] Ibid., 39.

[4] Ibid., 24.

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Mark Hansard

Mark is on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Manhattan, Kansas, where he ministers to Faculty at Kansas State University and surrounding campuses. He has been in campus ministry 23 years, 12 of those years in faculty ministry. He has a Master's degree in philosophy and theology from Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, CA, and is passionate about Jesus Christ and the life of the mind. Mark, his wife and three daughters make their home in Manhattan.

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