Monday, November 19, 2012

Vanhoye on Hebrews

In the book, Structure and Message of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Albert Vanhoye offers a detailed analysis of the structure of that very important, and often misunderstood, epistle. He posits the following chiastic structure for Hebrews1:

I     The Name of Christ  (1:5-2:18)

II         A. Jesus high priest worthy of faith   (3:1-4:14)
II         B. Jesus merciful high priest   (4:15-5:10)

-- Preliminary exhortation    (5:11-6:20)

III        A. High Priest after the manner of Melchizedek   (7:1-28)
III        B. Made perfect   (8:1-9:28)
III        C. Cause of an eternal salvation   (10:1-18)

-- Final exhortation   (10:19-39)

IV        A. The faith of the ones of old   (11:1-40)
IV        B. The necessary endurance   (12:1-13)

V     The straight paths   (12:14-13:21)

David L. Allen, Dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of two books relating to the exegesis of Hebrews (the Lukan Authorship of Hebrews and The New American Commentary: Hebrews), praises Vanhoye for his scholarly contribution, particularly because it “launched the modern quest for the structure of Hebrews”.2 In this post, I want to express my gratitude as well for Vanhoye’s highly detailed and extensive work on this subject, but I especially want to focus upon one critical observation of his work which is often overlooked in biblical commentaries, an observation which has also helped launch my own quest into understanding the primary message of Hebrews. The critical observation of Vanhoye’s which I want to focus upon is that he marks the very center of the entire epistle as chapter 8:1 through 9:28 (notice section III, subsection B, titled “Made perfect”).

Have you ever viewed chapters 8 and 9 as the very center of Hebrews, or as the main focal point of the entire epistle?

The general outline above is only the first step toward recognizing that there is a central focal point to the entire letter. Further into his book, Vanhoye breaks down the center of the entire epistle (8:1-9:28) into smaller literary units, showing that, not only is the entire letter structured chiasticaly, but more importantly, the central section is itself structured chiastically, which no other literary unit within the epistle shares in common.

Below is a sketch of my own observations concerning the central chiasm of the entire epistle to the Hebrews. The structure is similar to Vanhoye’s outlines, but I have tweaked them a bit, and for those who have Vanhoye’s books on Hebrews to compare,3 the outline below is clearly different in a couple verse breaks as well in all of the descriptions (for Vanhoye uses some scholastically nebulous jargon in a many of his descriptions):

A.   Hebrews 8:1-5
B.   Hebrews 8:6-13
            C.   Hebrews 9:1-10
            C’.  Hebrews 9:11-14
B’.  Hebrews 9:15-22
A’.  Hebrews 9:23-284

A.   The temporal, earthly level at which the Old Covenant priestly ministry of the Levites takes place  (8:1-5)

B.   God’s covenant with man and its association with the old and temporal ministry of mediation by the Levitical Priesthood (8:6-13)

C.   The organization of the old ministry and the unsatisfactory nature of priestly service in God’s “House” as illustrated in the earthly priest’s need to “continually” enter through "the first tent", but only through the "second" tent once every year  (9:1-10)

C’.   The organization of Christ’s ministry and the satisfactory nature of priestly service in God’s House because Jesus “entered through the greater and more perfect tent,” thereby obtaining "eternal redemption"  (9:11-14)

B’.   God’s covenant with man and its association with the new and eternal priestly ministry of mediation by Jesus (9:15-22)

A’.   The eternal, heavenly level at which the New Covenant priestly ministry of Jesus Christ takes place  (9:23-28)

There are a number of valuable insights to be noted within this central section of Hebrews, but I will have to save quite a few of them for another post. For now, I want to highlight two things: First, notice that the central section of Hebrews is focused entirely upon the transition of one priesthood to another. The author illustrates this transition with a variety of parallel themes: 
  1. Transition from a temporary ministry of redemption to Jesus having obtained eternal redemption
  2. Transition from an old covenant ministry to a new covenant ministry
  3. And most importantly (by way of the central illustration), the laws pertaining to Levitical priests to enter through the first tent continually, with the high priest only entering the second tent once a year, was symbolic (literally "a parable" in Greek) of the unsatisfactory nature of the first (or "old") covenant ministry and the eventual need for a transition into a second, truly satisfactory ministry.  Jesus entered through the greater tent to obtain, once for all time, eternal redemption, which the continual offering of Levitical priests could never accomplish. Therefore, Jesus accomplished a truly satisfactory ministry, and is truly the High Priest.

And secondarily, notice that all of the theological jargon surrounding the use of “covenant” is intrinsically related to the “ministry” of the priesthood as established in Mosaic law, which the author says in sections C and C’ is a “parable for the present age” (9:9). This means, at the time in which the author lived and wrote this epistle, there was an age or period of transition where the “old” and “first” ministry was “becoming obsolete and growing old, ready to vanish away” (8:13).

With this in mind, Vanhoye’s comments seem to make a good finishing touch to this discussion. He writes:
The most meaningful subdivisions are those of the center, for they treat the main subject matter: the sacrificial activity itself. The author recalls the old system of ritual separations… A sacred place has been established. It consists of a holy part, the “first” tent (9:2), and a “most holy” part (9:3), thought to be the dwelling place of God or “sanctuary”.  The people are not allowed to enter in either for they do not have the “holiness” needed. The priests may enter into the “first tent” (9:6) which is like the way of access to the “sanctuary”, but they may not enter in to the latter. Only the high priest is authorized to do that, by reason of his special consecration, but even he functions under severe restrictions: he must limit his entrance to once a year, and the condition for entering is a sacrificial offering (9:7). The ceremony to which the author alludes is that of the Day of Expiation (Yom Kippur, Lev. 16), the high point of the Jewish liturgy. 
The question which suggests itself is the mediation value of this solemn liturgy. From this depends the judgment to be given about the system as a whole. If an authentic relation is established with God, then the system is excellent. But if the contrary is true, then it can only constitute a provisional solution, one to be set aside as soon as a better one is found. 
The “first tent”, unfortunately, was unable to provide access [to the dwelling of God]… A conclusion follows: “the way of the sanctuary was still not manifest as long as the first tent existed” (9:8).5

1.  Albert Vanhoye, Structure and Message of the Epistle to the Hebrews [Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico; Roma Italia, 1989] p. 33
2.  David L. Allen, Lukan Authorship of Hebrews (NAC Studies in Bible & Theology)[B&H Academic; Nashville, TN; 2010] p. 163
3.  He has two great books on the subject of Hebrews: Albert Vanhoye, Structure and Message of the Epistle to the Hebrews [Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico; Roma Italia, 1989] pp. 36, 63-69, 92-95; and Albert Vanhoye, A Different Priest: The Epistle to the Hebrews [Convivium Press; Miami, Fl, 2011] pp. 225-258
4.  Ibid. p. 225
5.  Ibid. pp. 63-64

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