Friday, January 16, 2015

Research Note: Hebrews as Judean

I'm getting this out as a research note because I have to clear the decks, and it keeps coming back around in my head. So I'm going to tell you a story, as best as I have it worked out right now. I can't write the paper at present, but I will keep writing the commentary, and this is where it's coming from. Testing and feedback will be appreciated!

The New Testament text that we call the epistle to the Hebrews, which circulates in the Pauline canon for its entire recorded existence—even though it is clearly not Pauline—is not a Christian writing. But we fall back on the assertions and speculations of Christian origin and audience because it also does not fit the next natural context: the Jerusalem Temple and its priestly cultus.

It is frequently asserted that the text must be Christian, because we fail to be able to imagine the sectarian environment in which its polemic could be situated entirely within Judean and Jewish concerns. But such a sectarian environment certainly existed, at numerous points, and even exists behind the texts of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings that Christians have arranged into the Old Testament. Polemic internal to Judaism and contest over the markers of Judean identity are far from new inventions in the New Testament.

The drastic and often binary reduction of that reality made possible by typically scriptural reflection on the "causes" of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 tends to obscure this plural and sectarian history. Our canonical gospels are examples of such literature. This reductive tendency is amplified by the loss of textual data that results from the destruction of a fortified city by the legions as an example to others in the region. When history is erased and memory changes through story, what existed beforehand is often unrecoverable. We are left with sources that exist only outside, or after the fact, of the event.

The question, then, is where we may find a set of historical realities, available to us and not merely imagined, that provide plausibility to a Judean and Jewish reading of Hebrews according to its text. In this note I wish to propose one such possibility for further exploration: Jericho during the years of the first Judean revolt.