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Neues Testament


Barnard, Jody A.


The Mysticism of Hebrews. Exploring the Role of Jewish Apocalyptic Mysticism in the Epistle to the Hebrews.


Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2012. XI, 341 S. = Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament. 2. Reihe, 331. Kart. EUR 79,00. ISBN 978-3-16-151881-2.


Clare K. Rothschild

This monograph represents a revised version of Barnard’s doctor-al dissertation under Dr. Catrin Williams at Bangor University (North Wales) (Ph. D., April 2011). The aim of the book is to highlight the presence of »vastly underappreciated« (1) apocalyptic and mystical themes in Hebrews – ideas born, according to B., out of mystical experience and demonstrating that Hebrews should be valued and analyzed with the conventions of this theological ca-teg­ory in mind. The book has ten chapters including an introduction and conclusion. The chapters are divided into three major sections: Part I: »Jewish Apocalyptic Mysticism« (Chapters 2–3); Part II: »Hebrews and Its Accessible Heavenly Realities« (Chapters 4–7); and Part III: »The Intersection of Experience, Reflection and Rhetoric in Hebrews 1:5–13« (Chapters 8–9). Essentially, Part 1 names sources and identifies themes and Part 2 identifies these themes in Hebrews – Part 3 focusing on their presence in 1:5–13.
After a brief introduction addressing questions of Pauline authorship (concluding that the letter is almost certainly not written by Paul, 4), audience (the community behind the letter is certainly connected to Rome, 6) and date (the letter was composed »prob­ably before 90«, 6), B. divides the history of research on Hebrews into two camps: Platonic-Philonic and Jewish apocalyptic. This second category is then divided further into a eschatological and a mystical part. Eschewing simplistic either-or solutions, B. nevertheless argues that, in scholarship on Hebrews, the Platonic-Philonic side, middle Platonism especially, is overemphasized, whereas the Jewish apocalyptic-mystical side is too often ignored.
In Part I, Chapter 2 ascertains the sources and their critical is­-sues, whereas Chapter 3 identifies themes in these sources. B. prioritizes Jewish apocalyptic literature of the late Second Temple Period for comparison with the proposed apocalyptic mysticism of Hebrews. The following sources are identified as particularly relevant: Book of the Watchers (1 Enoch 1–36), the Astronomical Apocalypse (1 Enoch 72–82), the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37–71), 2 Enoch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the Testament of Abraham, Apocalypse of Zephaniah, Testament of Levi, and 3 Baruch. Given the late manuscript witnesses, translation, and transmission issues (e. g., Christians copying and oftentimes modifying Jewish works, 31), B. relies on James Davila’s ›polythetic‹ classification (The Provenance of the Pseudepigrapha [JSJSupp 105; Leiden 2005]) to estab­lish certain sources as positive evidence of Jewish apocalyptic mys-ticism. Those important for comparison with Hebrews and listed by Adela Yarbro Collins but not by Davila, B. examines himself for the extent to which they constitute valid comparative sources (33). Although B. sagaciously exposes the insufficiencies of such a method in the chapter’s opening (e. g., 31), this section retreats to the arbitrary indicator of the presence or absence of Christian content in a Jewish text as the basis on which to establish validity for comparison. On the establishment of suitable passages for comparison with Hebrews, however, Christian intrusions into these apocalyptic texts would not nullify or mitigate their comparative utility, unless they reflect direct influence from Hebrews itself. If B. had mined these texts for evidence of apocalyptic mystical practice among Christians apart from Hebrews, it might have aided his project.
Major themes linking the works B. validates for comparison with Hebrews include the following four: 1. heavenly realm—with its celestial temple and multiple tiers; 2. an »ascender« or particularly righteous historical figure permitted to enter the heavenly sphere and attend its numerous benefits; 3. angels acting in vari-ous roles including cosmic supervisors, guardians, priests, and guides; and 4. the most high God enthroned and possessing various anthropomorphic qualities, »glory,« and a voice. The last and most important theme of apocalyptic literature to be compared with Hebrews is its derivation in mystical experience (82).
Part II, Chapters 4–7 examine Hebrews for the above-mentioned major themes of Jewish apocalyptic mysticism. Four such themes are prominent in Hebrews: 1. accessible heavenly realities (Chapter 4); 2. Christ’s heavenly priesthood (Chapter 5); 3. Christ’s enthronement (Chapter 6); and, 4. the religious experiences of the author and his audience (Chapter 7). In each case, B. observes in Hebrews clear indicators of a mystical apocalyptic worldview and experience. For example, the heavenly realm as temple (not tabernacle) is less Pla tonic than apocalyptic (esp. 95–104) and is as literal as it is metaphorical (109). Similarly, a strong argument is put forward for Christ’s other-worldly journey, although the evidence is limited to Heb 4:14. According to B., the journey’s narrative is implied by the phrase about Jesus: διεληλυθότα τοὺς οὐρανούς. Hebrews’ characterization of Christ as high priest reflects apocalyptic mysticism insofar as Rev 1:13 (»the only other place in the NT where a priestly understanding of Jesus is beyond reasonable doubt«, 142) suggests it too and insofar as Jesus undergoes a heavenly transformation to attain this rank and title, according to Heb 1:4.
In terms of the heavenly enthronement of the Son, B. engages in an interesting discussion of the number and nature of thrones in heaven. With Darrell Hannah, B. agrees on only one throne in the heavenly Holy of Holies, thus the Son shares the one throne with God (146), and not as a temporary but »everlasting privilege« (147). As the embodiment of God’s glory, the son’s relationship is analogous to Wisdom’s relationship to the Father although, according to B., the Son is not overtly identified with Wisdom as in 1 Cor 1:24 (154) and is not Wisdom’s eschatological embodiment (153). In a fourteen-page discussion about angels in Hebrews (157–170), B. argues syllogistically that: 1. since angels are prominent in apocalyptic mysticism and »virtually omnipresent« in apocalyptic literature (158; cf. 243); 2. they »go with the territory«; and therefore, 3. further demonstrate that Hebrews reflects this theological category. Although I am not sure that I disagree, the logic of the argument is unsound.
In Chapter 7, B. pinpoints references to religious experiences in Hebrews (22) as evidence of the author’s and audience’s mystical orientation and experience of the heavenly realm. Despite his ac-knowledgment that »another person’s religious experience is inaccessible and unknowable, even less so when that person is no longer alive« (173, emphasis original), B. nevertheless apprehends certain ancient accounts as evidence of a mystical inclination and even encounters with »the divine world« (175). Heb 2:1–4 (»apocalyptic gifts of the spirit«), 3:1 (»a heavenly calling«), 4:3 (»experiencing the divine rest«), 4:14–16 (an exhortation to approach the Merkavah«), 6:4–6 (»experiencing the world to come«), 19–20 (»entering the ce-les­tial veil«), 10:19–25 (»an exhortation to communal mysticism«), and 12:22–24 (»mystical entry into the heavenly Jerusalem«) — all, in different ways, attest to the author’s and audience’s mysticism. Even the verb βλέπομεν (2:9) may allude to visionary experiences. Exhortations in Heb 5–6 and 10 suggest that the mystical vitality of certain members of the audience was waning—warranting a »powerful and relentless exhortation to approach the heavenly throne and diligently engage in a communal mysticism« (211).
In Chapters 8–9, B. focuses on Heb 1:5–13. He construes the biblical warrants in this pericope as a kind of script: God’s words to angels and the ascended Son on the occasion of the Son’s entry into the heavenly realm. God’s words to the Son establish the Son’s position within the realm’s hierarchy (217). Although B. sees »heavenly realities« in the background of this passage, he does not claim that the text is an apocalypse or the account of a mystical experience. On the contrary, its purpose is rhetorical: to cause »a discouraged audience« to renew both »devotion« and »experiences« of Jesus (220). In the conclusion to Part III, B. refers to Heb 1:5–13 as »the intersec­tion of experience, reflection and rhetoric« (276). One wonders, however, whether such an insipid combination of descriptors can bolster the argument for any single context or theological category or sub-category.
In terms of style, the monograph is well written, argued, and edited. Treatment of sources is exemplary – B. addresses them on their own terms, and yet also offers interesting and often very illuminating comparisons. He writes carefully and patiently, rarely if ever overstating a case. That said, the loose proposition of an an­cient apocalyptic mystical sub-category is not convincingly estab­lished and most of B.’s arguments supporting it tend to be positive, that is, with insufficient attention paid to objections. Correspondences between Hebrews and a select group of Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic texts prove Hebrews’ relationship to the apocalyptic texts but neglect a long history of tradition that, to this re-viewer’s knowledge, never raises the point. If, alternatively, B. had asked how Hebrews differs from this same group of texts, might he have written an even more persuasive monograph – and, in this case, with two thousand years of interpretive history to support his conclusions? This is not to suggest that B.’s thesis is mislaid. In fact, although he hardly treats Pauline authorship apart from inclining away from it in the introduction, attribution to Paul might have supported his thesis since, with the exception of Clement of Alexandria, those accepting the Pauline authorship of Hebrews over the centuries might inadvertently or deliberately have overlooked its mystical theological qualities explaining the long tradition of silence on it.
In a generous and sophisticated manner, B. repeatedly steers clear of either or solutions. Yet on occasion it is difficult not to wonder whether the hybridity he repeatedly welcomes would have been quite as at home in antiquity. Would a first-century Platonist Jew have described Christ in terms of Yom Kippur? What kind of first-century Jewish mystagogue would allow Christ to share God’s throne in the heavens? Would, or for that matter could, any mystic care whether an entire congregation of fellow mystics fell away from transcendent experiences? Would such a crisis of inspiration be solved in a letter (note: B.’s subtitle) featuring rhetoric, biblical proof-texts, and exhortation? How does Jesus as apostle (3:1) makes sense in mystical apocalyptic terms? What is the relationship of mystical apocalypticism to prophecy? Is there a significant dif-ference between the individual ascent of apocalypses and the cosmic ascent Jesus makes in Hebrews? Why does Hebrews as a specimen of apocalyptic mysticism make only three explicit references to eternal judgment (9:27; 10:27), one (6:2) claiming that the addres-sees reject the notion? Why does Hebrews never utter the apocalyptic expressions, »day of the Lord« (cf. ἡμέρα, 10:25) or παρουσία?
Of course, the elephant in the room is intentional fallacy. Apoc­alyptic texts are fiction. If one is going to claim that they reflect real experiences of mystics, one has to overcome this basic hurdle, connecting what the seer »sees« (or writes) and what the mystic »sees« (or experiences). Borrowing themes and figures of speech from apocalypses may reflect a shared belief or a shared experience on the part the borrower. It may, however, amount to nothing more than a shared literary source. The Papyri Magici Graeci cites Homer. Does this make its incantations remotely epic?