deSilva’s The Letter to the Hebrews in Social-Scientific Perspective

This is a big year for David deSilva, as he has two books that have recently been published. The first is called The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (OUP). On a later date, I will do a series of blog posts on that fantastic work.

His other 2012 book is called The Letter to the Hebrews in Social-Scientific Perspective (Cascade Books; Wipf & Stock). It is a short book of about 160 pages and aimed at examining closely Hebrews from a sociological perspective that will open up windows into the context and content of this New Testament text. You may recall that deSilva is the author of a socio-rhetorical commentary on Hebrews called Perseverance in Gratitude (Eerdmans, 2000). The Cascade volume is not a commentary, but a series of five essays on (1) the author of Hebrews, (2) the audience of Hebrews, (3) matters regarding social shame, (4) grace and reciprocity, and (5) group identity.

DeSilva’s introduction offers the rationale for encouraging a social-scientific perspective.

The author talks so much about the sacred past and invisible activity in the heavenly realm that we are tempted to forget that he is addressing flesh-and-blood people living somewhere around the Mediterranean basin wrestling with real-life concerns and seeking to come to terms with some very mundane realities in their changing social circumstances, and that he probably concerned very much with their responses to and within those circumstances. (xi)

Much of what deSilva is interested in is the socio-rhetorical purpose of a text: “The question of primary importance for interpreting any occasional text like a letter or a written sermon concerns what was going on in the community’s situation to occasion such a response” (p. xiv).

Authorship: clearly there is no way we can assign a person’s name to the authorship of Hebrews. That is lost to history. However, what we can do is establish a social profile: apparently the author is well-educated, and so acquainted with Jewish Scripture that he very well may be a “Jewish Christian.” However, there are numerous hints that the author was well-acquainted with Greco-Roman education, values, and culture.

Audience: while the letter is called “to the Hebrews,” you probably won’t be surprised that deSilva finds it likely that the intended audience being addressed was “a mixed congregation of Jewish and Gentile Christians” (36). In terms of the life-setting of this text, deSilva finds it reasonable that, in view of persecution, the church community that Hebrews was written to was struggling with an identity crisis.

The host society has exerted, over time, significant social pressure upon a sectarian group in its midst with a view to curtailing its growth and “rehabilitating” its members. The sect, in turn, has experienced the challenges of maintaining commitment to that group and to the beliefs and practices that have rise to the “mutual antagonism” between sect and society (p. 54).

The author’s agenda and strategy is similarly sociological (or, at least, readily amenable to a sociological analysis). His goal is to motivate the hearers to persevere in their commitment to one another, to the sacred ratio at the core of the sect’s formation, and to the ethos that the sect’s ratio nurtures. In other words, he wants to see the community maintain the identity, practices, and boundaries that led to its experience of high tension with the society, and thus to persist in maintaining that very tension (Rather than defect or compromise) (p. 55)

This is all brilliant stuff and I think deSilva is a fantistic writer and he is so respected in the guild of NT scholarship because he has such a sharp mind and level-headed methods and lines of argumentation. I am not going to survey the rest of the chapters because he basically applies to Hebrews the kinds of social reading strategies he outlines in his excellent book Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity. If you are going to teach a course on Hebrews, I would either use deSilva’s commentary or this shorter handbook on sociological method.

If I have one quibble with the book (a small one), it is in terminology. I am not sure why deSilva privileges the language of “social-scientific” in this work since earlier he promoted “socio-rhetorical.” They do overlap and both are obviously interested in communities and culture, but I think that what he is doing in the book is more focused on the true blending of sociological study and rhetorical criticism than it is pure or exclusive “social-scientific” study. Perhaps a little more clarity on how he differentiated these various terms (including “sociological”) would have been nice, but it barely detracts one from wanting to read an otherwise spectacular book.

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One thought on “deSilva’s The Letter to the Hebrews in Social-Scientific Perspective

  1. Fair point on the terminology. I probably ought to have used “socio-rhetorical” on the cover. Thanks for the kind words!

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