Review: Wisdom Commentary on Hebrews

Wisdom Commentary on Hebrews, Mary Ann Beavis and HyeRan Kim-Cragg, Editors.

Barbara E. Reid, OP, General Editor

By: Susan Willhauck, Atlantic School of Theology

The Liturgical Press’s Wisdom Commentary is long awaited and lives up to our eager anticipation. The goal of the series is twofold. It seeks to offer detailed feminist interpretation of every book in the Bible and to accomplish what Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza says feminist biblical interpretation must do—to prevent the harm done by the kyriocentric vision of the Bible, as well as continuing the function of the Sacred Scriptures to “inspire and authorize” our struggles against oppression.”[1] This multi-authored fifty-fourth volume on the book of Hebrews, edited by Mary Ann Beavis and HaeRan Kim-Cragg, valiantly lives up to that task. Hebrews might not seem like promising material for feminist interpretation (as the book jacket puts it) because of its androcentric composition, problematic language and obsession with sacrifice, yet it is among the submerged traditions of Sophia, the female God-figure that lives in Scripture. Sophia is not a male construct of femininity, but a full manifestation of the divine image[2] and is Shekinah, or a public voice, “rather than a feminized, private one” that stands for justice and well-being for all of creation.[3] So the work of these scholars involved excavating the buried sophialogy of Hebrews and recovering its implications for theology.[4] The authors of this volume, using the work of Silvia Schroer, note the connection to Jewish scripture, particularly the Wisdom of Solomon, perhaps reflecting the Hellenistic Judaism associated with Alexandria in the first centuries.[5]

Barbara E. Reid, the series General Editor, provides an insightful overview of the history and methodologies of feminist biblical interpretation, which is a very useful summary for students. She notes how feminists understand that interpreting the Bible is an act of power and the need for various kinds of criticism which allows us to “read against the grain” when a text is detrimental to women. In this approach the text can be a site of conflict in which the interpreter analyzes competing narratives to “expose the fault lines and overturn and reconfigure binaries.”[6] The authors’ introduction provides a succinct review of some of the scholarship on Hebrews, issues of date and authorship, audience, social location, structure of the book and recurring themes. Another valuable aspect is the collaboration of multiple feminist voices. For example, HyeRan Kim-Cragg contributes a pastoral approach in an Asian Canadian perspective that provides unique insight into imbalances of power, class and race and Justin Jaron Lewis is a Jewish Rabbi offering a crucial reading of Hebrews in light of Judaism. It is refreshing that the series welcomes multi-disciplinary contributions from religious education, liturgics, art and others, including the compelling First Nations poetry of Marie Annharte Baker. The work models how the wisdom of non-western cultures like that of Filipina sisters Maricel and Marilou Ibita, sheds light on the Bible. Yet there is no obligatory attempt to manufacture agreement.

Hebrews is treated as an “anonymous early Christian sermon”[7] with the author/s referred to in the traditional way as “the homilist.” The commentary itself follows the text with exposition on theological themes, paraenesis or the exhortation on ethical matters, discussion of translation matters, interpretive essays, stories poetry and the art of Lucy D’Souza-Krone. It includes fascinating sidebars, shaded in gray, many setting a tone of appreciation of women in the early Jesus movement, for example “Daughters and Inheritance in Judaism” (p. 3); “The Veil in Postcolonial Perspective” (p. 126); “Jewish Lists of Heroic Women” (p. 136-37); “Martyrs and Martyrdom” (p. 156); “Excerpt from the Prison Diary of Perpetua” (p. 176) among many others.

The scholarship is impeccable and fair-minded. Particularly interesting is the discussion of who the anonymous author or authors of Hebrews might have been. It examines the hypothesis that it was a woman, perhaps Priscilla (first suggested by Adolf von Harnack and later revived by Ruth Hoppin). It suggests that Hebrews is proto-feminist (feminist voices from the past gone unrecognized, or “before their time”) with its use of “we” and inclusion of women in the roll call of heroes of faith.[8] The authors entertain the possibility that the “Hebrews” themselves may have included a majority of women since women were and are attracted to new religious movements that seem to promise more gender egalitarianism. Yet, as is often the case, as the movement seeks for social acceptance it returns to more traditional gender roles as evidenced by the Hebrews being addressed in masculine terms (brothers).[9] In a culture where women were often shamed and segregated, it is important to call attention to their full participation and public voice.

“Reading against the grain” is indeed an apt phrase which this volume helps us do with a text so implicated in colonialization and oppression. While Hebrews must be critically examined for apparent justification of child abuse and punishment (11:7 and 12: 11), there are also more positive references to the education and moral development of children (5:13; 11:23; 12:10). HyeRan Kim-Cragg draws the connection to classical paideia, the learning of endurance, discipline and resilience through the lens of feminist pedagogy.[10]

A familiar theme that runs through Hebrews is that of faith (the pilgrimage of faith and need for persistence), and the diaspora (the faithful journey through a hostile land). The post-colonial reality in which cultural diaspora is a norm for many people today resonates with the centrality of this theme and gives it renewed meaning.[11] Yet, as the commentary points out, the theme of persistence and endurance in hardship should not be used to sanction unjust practices and to romanticize suffering. This recalls another prominent theme, that of sacrifice.[12] Feminist critique of atonement theology (that Jesus had to be sacrificed for our sins) abhors the notion of a harsh, violent and patriarchal God and decries the glorification of suffering and submissive obedience. The notion that human suffering is punishment from God is particularly repulsive and must be subjected to theological and pastoral interpretation. Feminists seek to dismantle the notion that God tests our faith through suffering. Instead Jesus’ suffering might be understood in terms of his “arduous labor of discernment that enables him to live out his prophetic mission to announce salvation/shalȏm.”[13] Another way of understanding sacrifice, one author suggests, is that it was not necessarily for divine appeasement, but sacrificial rituals were about “approaching the sanctuary with the goal of encountering and communicating with God,”[14] as well as purification and consecration. This is in keeping with the Latin sacrificio, which means “to make holy.” Rather than being salvific in itself, Jesus’ suffering enabled him to “sympathize in solidarity” with humanity.[15] The call for true worship and to abandon the hierarchical institutionalized priesthood can be viewed as an argument against the sacrificial system. Rather than attempting to rehabilitate atonement theology, feminists usually focus on Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God.[16] The commentary is very helpful in deconstructing sacrifice from feminist perspectives.[17]

A case is also made that the book of Hebrews may not be read as an argument for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, but as an interpretation of the community’s salvation history in light of the Jewish scriptures.[18] With a focus on the theme of covenant in Hebrews, one must avoid the dangerous idea that some claim to be the legitimate people of God while others must then be conquered or colonialized. The homilist’s contrast between old and new covenant and Moses and Christ could lead one to think of Hebrews as supersessionist. The authors contend that care must be taken to recognize that Christianity did not exist apart from Judaism at that time and the homilist worships the Jewish God and interprets Jewish scripture and shares its eschatological and messianic hopes. There was also a cultural sense of kinship and group orientation that should be taken into consideration. Any anti-Jewish interpretations of the book have been read back into it and must be repudiated.[19]

Also interesting is the discussion of Rahab being named as a hero of faith and the comparison with Pocahontas.[20] Don’t miss the interpretive essays, notably HyeRan Kim-Cragg on Women and Suffering in Korean Feminist Theology (pp. 131-134) and Marilou Ibita on Hospitality: A Two-Edged Sword? (pp. 189-201). In closing, this commentary will be beneficial to scholars, students of theology, preachers and church Bible study groups. It challenges harmful and imperialist interpretations of Hebrews that will open hearts and minds to new meaning and inclusivity.

[1] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Foreword” in Wisdom Commentary Hebrews (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2015), xiv.

[2] Authors’ Introduction, “Searching for Sophia,” in Wisdom Commentary Hebrews, xxxviii.

[3] Fiorenza, xv.

[4] Authors’ Introduction, xxxix. That submergence is evident in the fact that the female term Sophia is not used in Hebrews, but rather depicted as the grammatically neutered, “word,” xlii.

[5] Ibid., xli. See Silvia Schroer, “The Book of Wisdom” in Searching the Scriptures, Vol. 2: A Feminist Commentary, ed. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 28.

[6] Barbara E. Reid, OP, Editor’s Introduction to Wisdom Commentary, xxviii.

[7] See p. xlvii.

[8] See pages xliv, lix and lxxxviii.

[9] See pages lxv-lxvi.

[10] See page xlviii and 161-163.

[11] See page lxxiv.

[12] See pages lxxvii-lxxxi.

[13] See page 56.

[14] See page lxxix.

[15] Ibid.

[16] See p. lxxx.

[17] See pp. 108-113.

[18] See p. lxiv.

[19] See pp. lxxxii and lxxxiv.

[20] See pp. 151-153.