Discomfort and a way forward: Writing a commentary on Hebrews

Debra Bucher’s commentary on Hebrews is available from Herald Press.

Seven years ago, Loren Johns, the editor of the New Testament section of the Believers Church Bible Commentary (BCBC), asked me if I would help finish the BCBC volume for the Letter to Hebrews. Although I have a Ph.D. in early Christianity, my focus was on a later period, and my only real knowledge of Hebrews was what I knew from sermons in church, which tended to highlight Chapter 11. In that stirring section, the author recounts the faithful activities of the ancient Israelites, reminds the audience that they are “surrounded by so great a cloud witnesses” and exhorts them to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (12:1, NRSV).

I quickly realized there’s a lot more to Hebrews. As soon as I started to study this text, I realized why the only section I knew from Hebrews was Chapter 11. A large majority of the text is an argument about the role of Jesus, who sits at the right hand of God, having made the once-for-all sacrifice. The (anonymous) author of Hebrews reformulates the Levitical sacrificial system set up in the Pentateuch and puts Jesus at its center, as both sacrifice and priest. And because he is God’s son and has been perfected, Jesus is also the better priest and sacrifice.

This replacement theology — one religious tradition replacing an earlier tradition, sometimes called supersessionism — seemed scarily close to Christian triumphalist thought. It certainly made me uncomfortable, especially considering the harms, such as genocide and enslavement, that Christians had perpetrated throughout history, in the name of Christ. How could I reconcile this theology with my own sense of how a Christian should try to move about in the world? My upbringing in the Church of the Brethren taught me values of non-violence, lovingkindness and using one’s life in service to others. I could understand why pastors might want to steer clear.

How could I possibly write about this text in a way that would be helpful to pastors and lay people in Anabaptist traditions?

But I love nothing more than a good writing and research challenge. As I worked through the text, I realized that, as with most things in life, there’s a lot of nuance. There’s almost always more than one way to look at, or read, something. I also discovered that it wasn’t always what I knew about the text that was most important — although I did learn a lot of new ideas about Hebrews! — but how I looked at the text. I discovered that I wanted to employ some guiding principles to my work and be up front about what assumptions I was bringing to my reading of the text.

I realized that I had four principles. The first two relate to the text as a historical document; the latter two concern how I choose to use Hebrews as a person of faith:

  1. Hebrews was not written for me or anyone else, except those folks in the first century to whom it was originally addressed, so I need to understand the historical context in which it was written to understand what might be going on in it.
  2. Despite gaining an understanding of the historical context, Hebrews and the culture it came out of, the text is still foreign to me. Twenty centuries of language and cultural and religious beliefs and understandings separate us. Therefore, I need to approach it with humility, so my mind can be open to what it might have meant to its earliest readers.
  3. My historical understanding of the text can inform my reading of Hebrews, but as a 21st century reader, I choose not to read Hebrews in ways that denigrate other religious traditions.
  4. Most importantly, my reading and use of Hebrews must be guided by the values of inclusiveness and love. Without love, any thoughts I have or words I write are meaningless.

To be honest, I had seldom read commentaries throughout my academic career. I read many biblical and other ancient sources, along with scholarly books and articles related to the growth of early Christianity. But commentaries just seemed so … boring! And they hardly ever answered the questions I had about the text. At best, they confirmed them; at worst, they re-inscribed old thinking and did little to challenge my own understanding of the text.

The jury is still out whether this particular commentary is any less boring than all the others. But what I can say for certain is that a large cloud of witnesses was standing by me as I edited and rewrote this commentary. To them, I say, “Thank you!”

This article originally appeared as part of Mennonite Church USA’s Menno Snapshots series on May 10.

Debra Bucher

Debra Bucher grew up in the Church of the Brethren, an Anabaptist denomination, and is co-author of the Believers Church Read More

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