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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 56, 2008

ALAN C. MITCHELL, Hebrews (Sacra Pagina; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007).
Pp. xx + 357. Hardback. $US39.95.

The body of this commentary provides a straight-forward literary critical analysis of Hebrews. More contentious issues are treated in the Introduction. Mitchell accepts the contemporary consensus, “that Hebrews is non-Pauline and anonymous” (6). He also adopts the common view that Rome is the destination of Hebrews (7), primarily on his understanding that it is quoted in 1 Clement. And he cites the view that Heb 10:32–34 reflects the earlier situation of the Roman church, when Claudius “expelled Jews and Jewish Christians from Rome in 49 C.E.” (7). But Suetonius (Claudius 25.4) gives no date. And Dio Cassius (Hist. 60.6.6.) says that “he did not expel them,” when he mentions the matter in connexion with 41 C.E. (though he may be summarising). Neither point, regarding Clement or Claudius, gives strong support to Rome as destination.

For the later limit of the date of Hebrews, Mitchell relies on a date of c. 96 C.E. for 1 Clement. But there is no explicit mention of Hebrews in 1 Clement. There is some common phrasing and mutual quotation of Old Testament texts. Clement’s knowledge of Hebrews is possible but not certain. The date of c. 96 C.E. for 1 Clement depends on the identification of the “sudden and successive (mis)fortunes and circumstances” of 1 Clem. 1:1 as a reference to persecution under Domitian. But the persons named by Dio Cassius (Epit. 67.14) and by Suetonius (Domitian 10.2; 15.1) were not necessarily Christians. And Clement uses harsher language about the schismatics at Corinth than about the circumstances of the Roman Christians (1 Clem. 3:2; 46:5). So 96 C.E. may not provide a terminus ante quem either for Clement or for Hebrews.

Mitchell prefers a date after 70 C.E. as the earlier limit for Hebrews: “Jews and Jewish Christians in Rome were subject to harassment and social dislocation due to the Roman victory in the Jewish War” (8). But the only primary source cited (Josephus, B.J. 7.145–55) describes the triumphal procession of Vespasian and Titus in 71 C.E., not the social circumstances of Jewish or Christian residents of Rome. Other indications of a post-70 date for Hebrews, according to Mitchell, are: the lack of reference to the temple cult, the high-priestly Christology, the development of the Christology of Mark, certain linguistic correspondences between Hebrews and Mark, and the fact that the audience of Hebrews appears to be a later generation (9–11). Most of these points depend on the assumption that Rome was the destination of both Hebrews and Mark.

The audience of Hebrews is inferred from internal evidence and is determined by the assumptions which Mitchell has already made about the destination and date of Hebrews. In genre, the writing is a “sermon” for a predominantly Gentile Christian house church in Rome (17). Mitchell prefers the “non-thematic” structural analysis of Vanhoye, modified in the light of Swetnam’s suggestion that “paraenetic sections come more naturally after ex-pository sections” (21). In this analysis, an Exordium (1:1–4) and a Postscript (13:20–25) frame five main sections (1:5–2:18; 3:1–6:20; 7:1–10:39; 11:1–12:13; 12:14–13:19).

Hebrews is seen as having “a combination of realized and future eschatology” (21). The Greek term syneidesis covers both “conscience” and “consciousness” and has a complex relation to sin, guilt and atonement (23–24). Mitchell is cautious about seeing any model for modern ministerial priesthood in the portrayal of Jesus as high priest (24–25). Hebrews provides no ground for anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic attitudes in the ancient or the modern world (25–28). A General Bibliography completes the Introduction.

Despite the General Editor’s Preface (xi), Mitchell does not give a fresh translation, but uses the New Revised Standard Version “with modifications” (1). The modifications are sometimes incorrect. In the Notes there are a number of incorrect or poorly expressed grammatical comments. There are just a few misprints or similar errors, most of which readers will solve for themselves. AJBA stands for Australian Journal of Biblical Archaeology (not Theology; xvi, cf. 44).

In connexion with the extensive quotation and interpretation of Greek Old Testament texts in Hebrews, Mitchell uses the term "re-scripturing" (always in quotation marks). He regards this process as “a perfectly legitimate move” (52). The modern reader may acknowledge Mitchell’s explanation of what Hebrews is doing. It is a further question how “legitimate” this process is. For consistency, Mitchell might have omitted the few passages in which he explicitly applies the message of Hebrews to modern readers. Conversely, he might have offered more help, not just for understanding Hebrews on its own terms, but for applying its strange and mixed imagery (Heb 6:19–20, for example) to modern circumstances.

Review by
Darryl W. Palmer
Centre for Classics and Archaeology
The University of Melbourne VIC 3010