Book Review: The Characterization of Jesus in the Book of Hebrews

characterizationjesushebrewsTitle: The Characterization of Jesus in the Book of Hebrews

Series: Biblical Interpretation Series 128

Author: Brian Small

Bibliographic info: XVI + 323 + 76 (biblio + indices)

Publisher: Brill, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon or Brill.

With thanks to Brill for the review copy!

This book is the published revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation submitted at Baylor University in 2012. He has been running the blog Polumeros kai Polutropos for several years now which focuses exclusively on Hebrews, so naturally this means there is a lot of great information to glean from this volume, which is great because the Epistle to the Hebrews is without doubt one of the most fascinating pieces of early Christian literature.

The book is divided into the following sections:

  • Introduction
  • Characterization in Literary Theory
  • Characterization in Ancient Rhetorical Theory
  • The Character of Jesus in Hebrews
  • The Role and Significance of the Character of Jesus in the Argument of Hebrews
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography and Indices

Chapter One (pp. 1-33) is the obligatory introductory chapter which situates the study in the history of research on the topic. The author begins by discussing various methodological approaches to the study of the Christology in Hebrews (e.g. religionsgeschichtliche, traditionsgeschichtliche, comparative, systematic). He provides a thorough look at the scholarly literature that utilizes a rhetorical or narrative approach to this topic. Issues which are usually of importance when examining an ancient piece of literature (e.g. authorship) are not dealth with because as the author notes, his study “does not depend on any particular theory of authorship, recipients, provenance, or dating” (29).

Methodologically, the author’s study differs from previous studies in two key ways: (1) he is attempting to provide a comprehensive examination of the characterization of Jesus in Hebrews (that is to say, the personality of Jesus underlying all the Christological assertions in the epistle), and (2) as already mentioned, he utilizes literary and rhetorical criticism to reconstruct the character of Jesus in the epistle (whereas most other rhetorical studies on Hebrews focus on other areas such as structure, vocabulary, etc).

Chapters Two (35-100) and Three (101-58) provide the methodological foundation for the author’s examination of the characterization of Jesus in Hebrews. In these chapters he discusses characterization in modern narratological theory and practice (chapter two) and in ancient Greco-Roman rhetoric (chapter three). Here is the working definition of “character” which the author uses:

Character is a construct of the totality of traits and attributes belonging to a particular human or non-human figure in a given story. A second definition is derivative: a character refers to the literary figure which is the locus of the totality of these traits and attributes. (36)

In chapter two Small concludes that while characterization “was not particularly developed in ancient times”, it was nevertheless “well developed … in rhetorical theory” (100). In chapter three he notes that while Hebrews praises Jesus, it does not “follow a neat outline of encomiastic topics, but employs the topics as it sees fit throughout the discourse” (131). The author of Hebrews does not employ all the encomiastic topics from the rhetorical handbooks, but the main ones that Small says can be discerned in Hebrews are: “names, nature, origin/birth, training/education, offices, speeches, actions/achievements, and noble death” (132). These topics are delved into in more detail in the following chapter.

The most interesting thing in this section to me was Small’s discussion on how the author of Hebrews uses what is called prosopopoiea and ethopoeia (140-44 and 154-55). He says: “In the technique of prosopopoeia/ethopoeia it was quite common for orators to invent speeches that were appropriate to the characters they were discussing” (154). How do we find this is Hebrews? In how author puts quotations from the Old Testament into the mouths of God (about nineteen of them total), Jesus (2:12,13; 10:5-7), and the Holy Spirit (3:7-11; 10:16-17). The prosopopoeia/ethopoeia angle was quite interesting and I don’t ever remember coming across it before in my readings on Hebrews.

Chapter Four (159-256) is the heart of this study (along with chapter five). Parts of this chapter appeared in the author’s article, “The Use of Rhetorical Topoi in the Characterization of Jesus in the Book of Hebrews”, PRSt (2010): 53-69, though of course this chapter is a substantially revised and expanded version of that article. Here Small attempts to reconstruct the author’s portrayal of Jesus in the epistle, using the encomiastic topics mentioned earlier. In the discussion on the nature of Jesus in Hebrews, Small offers up a detailed six-page examination of the declaration that Jesus is the απαυγασμα of God’s δοξα and the χαρακτηρ of God’s υποστασις in 1:3. For the first phrase he takes it as indicating that “Jesus is the visual manifestation of God’s glory, with all that it entails” (164), though he doesn’t make a definite stand on whether απαυγασμα is meant in the passive or active sense. For the second phrase, Small says that is “underscores the similarity of God and Jesus in terms of their substance, essence, or being”, and that the two phrases “appear to be parallel to one another” (165).

Another query of Hebrews that I’ve never found a satisfying answer to is whether Jesus’ “indestructible life” of 7:16 refers to his pre-existent divine nature or to his post-resurrection nature. Personally, I swing towards the latter view. On this issue Small says:

On the one hand, it [i.e. “indestructible life” of 7:16] could refer to a quality inherent to Jesus’ divine nature. On the other hand, it could refer to either the quality of life he received at the event of his resurrection and exaltation. A decision between the two is difficult since either option would fit well within the author’s theology. On the one hand, Jesus did in fact die, so that it would make good sense to affirm that he did not receive an indestructible life until after his exaltation. On the other, other declarations about Jesus’ divinity and eternality seem to tip the scale in favor of seeing it as a reference to his eternal nature. Under this reading, then, the description of Jesus’ life as “indestructible” would not imply that he did not die physical death, but that it indicates that he continues to exist even after death.” (170-71)

On the curious phrase δια πνευματος αιωνιου found in 9:14, Small notes that the choice between the various interpretations is “very difficult”, though says that ultimately “it seems better to view the expression as referring to the Holy Spirit” (173-74).

The rest of this chapter looks at the rest of the encomiastic topics listed earlier (origin/birth, training/education, offices, speeches, actions/achievements, and noble death). The titles and offices that are looked at are: lord, son, firstborn, heir, high priest, king, archēgos (of salvation and of faith), perfecter (of faith), apostle (of our confession), forerunner (into heaven), guarantee (of a better covenant), mediator (of a better covenant), minister (in the sanctuary and the true tent), and great shepherd. For the actions and achievements of Jesus, Small discusses over thirty of them to be found in Hebrews (e.g. creating the world, sustaining all things, obeying God, experiencing temptation, suffering, learning obedience, being made perfect, experiencing death, atoning for sins, being raised from the dead, subduing all things, and coming again).

This chapter shows that Jesus “is a person of exemplary character”, and “not only exhibits the highest of human virtues but he displays divine attributes as well.” Furthermore, “Jesus’ exemplary character plays a prominent role in the author’s argument and it has profound implications for the audience of Hebrews” (256).

Chapter Five (257-316) is on the role and significance of the characterization of Jesus in the overall argument of Hebrews. Here the exemplary character and prominent role of Jesus in Hebrews is explored. This is done by going through the epistle section by section (e.g. 1:1-4, 1:5-14, 2:1-4, 2:5-18, etc) and showing how the author constructs his portrait of Jesus in light of the overall argument. The author of Hebrews does this by foreseeing later junctures in his argument and by calling to mind previous statements he had said about Jesus. For instance, Small says that the exordium (1:1-4) “is important because it gives the initial portrait of Jesus which is designed to impress the audience, but this initial portrait also hints at many of the themes that will be addressed in the remainder of the discourse.” (264)

After this, Small then provides an overview of the significance of Jesus’ character for the recipients of Hebrews. This significance is seen in two broad ways. First, believers in Christ enjoy (to some degree) Jesus’ own status and privileges (e.g. sonship, priesthood), as well as the soteriological benefits that come with believing in him. Second, this involves responsibilities on the part of the believer. The character of Jesus is upheld by the author of Hebrews as a model to follow in imitation, a caution to avert unbelief and disobedience, and encouragement to not only persevere in the faith but to also draw near to God boldly in worship.

Chapter Six (317-23) provides a brief summary of the book. This is then followed by a large bibliography and three indices (modern authors, ancient sources, names/subjects).

I thoroughly enjoyed the characterization approach that Small used to examine how the author of Hebrews portrays Jesus. He provided in-depth background information on the necessary literary and rhetorical theory, and then employed it judiciously in regards to the characterization of Jesus in the epistle, making this book easily one of the most useful and valuable pieces of literature I have read in regards to the Christology of Hebrews. And the icing on the cake? The footnotes! The author clearly demonstrates that he is intimately familiar with the abundance of scholarly literature on Hebrews, and not just what has been published in English, but also the German and French literature!

All in all, an impressive dissertation from Dr. Brian Small which definitely makes a significant contribution to research on Hebrews, particularly the Christology of the epistle.

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