Witherington on Hebrews, James, and Jude

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

Ben Witherington III     Nottingham: Apollos, 2007     656pp     £21.99  hb          ISBN: 978-1-84474-198-4


This is the second of three commentaries by Ben Witherington on the Pastoral and General Epistles, using his innovative socio-rhetorical analysis in an attempt to shed new light on the texts from the rhetorical milieu in which they were written.  It is a weighty tome, not without many useful insights and an attempt to help the reader towards contemporary application, but somewhat light in terms of theology and lacking in interaction with traditions of interpretation outside the very ancient or the very modern.

According to Witherington, the purpose of Hebrews (which was not written by Paul, but maybe Apollos) is to prevent the Jewish Christian community in Rome defecting from the high Christology they have embraced. In the course of the exegesis, he makes use of several ‘Closer look’ boxes for some tangential explorations of theological or historical issues.  These can be easily skipped if one is looking for a main thread, but are often stimulating.   Using his trademark analysis, the author makes a very useful point about a rhetorical technique Hebrews often uses, that of trying to persuade someone by showing how much better one thing is than another without actually denying the goodness of the other thing.  He shows the parallels this has in Aristotle and Cicero, but it is most useful when looking at Hebrews because it very helpfully reminds us that when Hebrews contrasts Christ with Moses this does not mean that Moses (or the Law) was ‘bad.’  He also nicely shows how Jesus “is the reality of which emperors are parodies and Old Testament figures are mere foreshadowings,” though without claiming the text makes a direct comparison with the emperor, which would have been seen as seditious.

It may well be contentious to claim that what Hebrews does with the OT is sometimes “creative homiletical use of a text, not exegesis,” but even more controversial is the theological bias evident throughout.  Witherington’s theological presuppositions are evident in key passages.  On Hebrews 2:9, for example, he tells us there is “little doubt” that the writer of Hebrews, along with whoever wrote the Pastoral Epistles, wanted to stress that Jesus did not die just for the elect.  Such a seemingly anachronistic claim ought not to go without comment, and surely requires substantial and careful proof.  But there is no interaction here with interpreters who might be able to argue otherwise, and no convincing argumentation from the exegesis either (just an assertion that this is so, and a quote from Chrysostom). He makes no effort to harmonise this exegesis with the particularising language of the rest of Hebrews 2, let alone Hebrews 5:9 and other passages.  Later on when trying to refute the Reformed interpretation of chapter 6, he claims John Owen (incorrectly listed as H. P. Owen in the index) thought Hebrews 2:9 referred to a mere “light taste” of death, whereas in actual fact Owen says that Christ had indeed a “thorough taste” of it (or a “through taste” depending on which edition of his commentary one consults).  An actual taste of actual Reformed exegesis of Hebrews might have strengthened Witherington’s fragile assertions against it (or, one might hope, have caused him to reconsider).

On James, I found no really convincing answer here as to why James 5:12 comes like a bolt out of the blue in its context, which one might have expected in a rhetorical commentary.  It was however stimulating to ponder his view that the warning to teachers in James 3:1 is actually more about those who are ethically rather than doctrinally subversive, and refers to a divine and eschatological not a human and temporal review of their deeds.  On Jude, Professor Witherington shows that these false teachers are “in for the most severe sort of judgment on judgment day” as are those who follow them.  More could have been said here about the modern, or even ancient, application of such teaching.

The distinctive rhetorical focus of the comments throughout the work bring occasional flashes of insight, and is most enlightening (if sometimes a little too speculative) when analysing Hebrews (which is basically a sermon).  This will not be my first port of call for help in understanding or preaching these texts, but it is not without some redeeming and distinctive features.

This review first appeared in Churchman 126.2 (2012).

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