A statue of Seneca assuming the task of a rhetorician.
The following is the text (but not the notes) of my Society of Biblical Literature lecture to be given next Sunday in Boston.
STRIVING FOR EPIDEICTIC EXCELLENCE:
THE RHETORIC OF HEBREWS
Dr. Ben Witherington, III
Amos Professor of NT for Doctoral Studies
Asbury Theological Seminary
Long ago Origen warned us that God only knows who the author of Hebrews is, but this has not prevented endless speculation in the last 2,000 years. Part of asking and answering that question is asking and answering the question–why is this document anonymous? Is it because the author is neither an eyewitness nor an apostle? This hardly seems likely to be the cause since we have other documents in the NT attributed to non-eyewitnesses and non-apostles such as Luke’s two volumes, or the Revelation of the seer John of Patmos. Is it because the author is a woman? This is possible but elsewhere women who played important ministry roles are named in Christian circles without any reservation. It is of course possible that the author is so well known to the audience that there was no need for such an identification here. I would suggest however, that while that may be true, there is another primary reason for the anonymity of this document.
This document, like 1 John is a homily , in fact D.J. Harrington has called it “arguably the greatest Christian sermon ever written down” It does not partake of the qualities of a letter except at the very end of the document (Heb. 13.22-25), and these epistolary features are added because this sermon had to be sent to the audience rather than delivered orally to them by the author. In fact, H. Thyen, after studying all the evidence for early Jewish homilies, has argued that Hebrews is the only completely preserved Jewish homily of the period, but this is overlooking 1 John, and James as well.
Sermon manuscripts, ancient or modern, do not conform to the characteristics of an ancient letter with addressor or addressee expected at the outset. Neither do other rhetorical forms of speaking, and make no mistake this document involves rhetoric of considerable skill. Hebrews then, to use an oxymoron, an oral document, and in fact a particular type of oral document—a homily in the form of a ‘word of exhortation’ as Heb. 13.22 puts it. It is not an accident that this is the very same phrase used to characterize Paul’s sermon in Acts 13.15. Hebrews is not a haphazard discourse but a piece of polished rhetoric which has been variously categorized as either epideictic or deliberative rhetoric or some combination of the two (see below). Here the point that needs to be made is that the document’s authority rests in its contents, not in its author’s claims to apostolic authority and its contents are grounded in the shared values the author and audience already embrace and affirm. To judge from the end of Heb. 13 it is assumed, but not argued for, that this author has some authority over this audience who knows very well who he is, and can anticipate a visit from him and Timothy before long. The oral and homiletical character of the document cannot be stressed enough. Here is how one professor of homiletics puts it:
Hebrews, like all good sermons, is a dialogical event in a monological format. The Preacher does not hurl information and arguments at the readers as if they were targets. Rather, Hebrews is written to create a conversation, to evoke participation, to prod the faithful memories of the readers. Beginning with the first sentence, ‘us’ and ‘we’ language abounds. Also, the Preacher employs rhetorical questions to awaken the voice of the listener (see 1.5 and 1.14 for example); raps on the pulpit a bit when the going gets sluggish (5.11); occasionally restates the main point to insure that even the inattentive and drowsy are on board (see 8.1); doesn’t bother to ‘footnote’ the sources the hearers already know quite well (see the familiar preacher’s phrase in 2.6: “Someone has said somewhere…”); and keeps making explicit verbal contact with the listeners (see 3.12 and 6.9, for example) to remind them that they are not only supposed to be listening to this sermon, they are also, by their active hearing, to be a part of creating it. As soon as we experience the rise and fall of the opening words of Hebrews, the reader becomes aware that they are not simply watching a roller coaster hurtle along the rhetorical tracks; they are in the lead car. In Hebrews, the gospel is not merely an idea submitted for intellectual consideration; it is a life-embracing demand that summons to action.
What we are able to say here is that since this homily is meant to be heard in the context of worship, we should evaluate it in that light. In worship one praises God for what he has done and is, and one draws near to Him as this letter exhorts us to do, but in worship we also hear and learn what we must go forth and do. Hebrews then is a vehicle for worship that leads to the right sort of service. The progression may be seen as follows – “since we have” (indicative)… “let us draw near” (imperative based on indicative)… “so we may hold fast “(possibility created by the first two steps). What the believer already has, provides the basis for and enables his response. The point is that now believers are better equipped to respond, since the final work of God through Christ has already come to pass. The work of God has affected what believers are, and therefore has enabled them to do what they must do. A.T. Lincoln suggests that our author believes the OT provides the following for the Christian: 1) it provides aspirations which only Christ can fulfill; 2) it offer a vision of our telos and perfection i.e. we are to have dominion over the cosmos, and already have it in Christ; 3) it offers a dream of the day when we cease from our labors and enter into God’s rest; 4) it offers a desire to be free of sin’s stain, and a recognition that sin against God and fellow humans is the essential human problem; 5) it offers a longing for free access into the divine presence; 6) it provides picture language–shadows and copies to prepare for the coming of Christ and God’s final word; 7) in Melchizedek it provides a partial anticipation of the eternal priest and new covenant. To this we may add that it offers paraenesis, which our author sees as often just as applicable to his own audience as to the OT ones.
One more crucial thing, and it provides a clear and crucial key to the sort of rhetoric we have here. The use of inartificial proofs to reinforce and aid in the maintenance of existing values, values already embraced by the audience, was characteristic of epideictic rhetoric. If we ask how the OT quotations are consistently used, and to what end, the answer is to the end of reinforcing pre-existing patterns of praise and/or blame, already embraced patterns of belief and behavior. Epideictic rhetoric was indeed the rhetoric of sermons, just as praise was the language of worship, and in this discourse called ‘to the Hebrews’ we find an eloquent and harmonious convergence of these various factors to serve epideictic ends, as we shall see.
THE ISSUES OF STYLE AND FORM
Detailed attention to the Greek style of Hebrews has been given by a variety of scholars, not only to demonstrate that the author has a rather different style than we find in the undisputed Paulines, but also because this author knows how to use prose rhythm effectively as well as a wh
ole host of rhetorical devices ranging from alliteration to anaphora to assonance to asyndeton to hyperbole to rhetorical comparisons to a greater degree than any other NT writer. These points deserve to be illustrated each in turn.
We may note at this juncture that there are some 4,942 words in Hebrews and 1,038 different words, and there are some very elegant Greek periods in this work, suggesting we are dealing with a rather well educated man with a considerable vocabulary and facility with Greek and a considerable knowledge and understanding of the OT. There are some 169 hapax legomenae, words not found elsewhere in the NT, including the use of various philosophical terms that speak to the educational background and sophistication of our writer. We may also note the some 90 words which are found in only one other NT document, as well as some ten words never found in Greek literature from before the time of Hebrews. There is a general consensus that we have the finest Greek in the NT if we are talking about Greek style which even goes beyond the Pauline standard both in vocabulary and sentence building.
We should add as well that our author is deeply indebted to the vivid visual imagery one finds in earlier Jewish sapiential and prophetic literature, so he speaks of a ship missing a harbor (2.1) or a double edged sword that penetrates to the innermost parts of a human being (4.12), or an anchor gripping the sea bottom (6.19), or fields watered by rain and producing either harvestable crops or weeds (6.7-8), or best of all, the vivid use of Sinai theophany imagery at the end of Heb. 12 to bring his peroration to a conclusion. It needs to be stressed at this point, since this is a document which was meant to be heard, that no one listening to this discourse would have thought this was a letter because the few epistolary elements we have do not come until the end of the document, much too late to signal what sort of document Hebrews’ audience was meant to think it was. Lincoln puts it this way: “Actually, once it is granted that the writer knows his addressees and is prevent by absence from delivering his homily in person, the epistolary conclusion makes good sense.” It was a necessary expedient since this discourse had to be written when the author was at a distance from the audience.
Here we may point out that the making visual and vivid use of the rhetoric was especially characteristic of epideictic rhetoric so well known for its mesmerizing and grandiloquent amplification techniques. What is especially interesting is that despite the imagery often used, it is clear our author is addressing city dwellers who have to be reminded they do not have a permanent earthly city to rely on (13.14), reminded as well to practice hospitality with those who come their way, visit and identify with those in prison, avoid inappropriate social interaction of a sexual nature, not give way to greed and crass materialistic patterns of living (all in Heb. 13).
As William Lane says, these sorts of reminders at the end of the discourse bear witness to the urban setting of the audience, and, we might add, at least in some cases the social status and affluence of at least some of the audience. The poor do not need to be warned against hoarding wealth and crass materialism. The educational sophistication of at least some of the audience is also presumed in light of the complexity of the rhetoric and its far from simple usage of the OT. “They have an easy familiarity with the stories of the Bible, to which the writer can refer without elaboration (cf. 12.17, “for you know…” with reference to the story of Esau, who was deprived of Isaac’s blessing). The writer is confident that he can win a hearing for what he wished to say by employing vocabulary sanctioned by the Greek Scriptures.”
In regard to the prose style and rhythm of the work, we are indebted to the careful study of James Moffatt and shall share some of his insights at this juncture , bearing in mind that this document was intended to be read aloud, indeed probably even performed as a sermon: 1) as I have previously noted was the case with that epideictic homily Ephesians, there are numerous long carefully constructed sentences in Hebrews (1.1-4; 2.2-4; 2.14-15; 3.12-15; 4.12-13; 5.1-3; 5.7-10; 6.4-6; 6.16-20; 7.1-3; 8.4-6; 9.2-5; 9.6-10; 9.24-26; 10.11-13; 10.19-25; 11.24-26; 12.1-2; 12.18-24), yet there are also a goodly number of pithy and very effective short sentences (cf. 2.18; 4.3; 10.18), and even one example of diatribe style (3.16-18) which was appropriate in popular preaching. 2) our author is a master at plays on words involving assonance (cf. parakaleite…kaleitai in 3.13; or emathen… epathen in 5.8; or kalou te kai kakou in 5.14; or menousan.. mellousan in 13.14). 3) “From first to last he is addicted to the gentle practice of alliteration” beginning from the very first words of the discourse polumeros kai polutropos palai…tois patrasin en tois prophetais” 3) care is taken with the cadences of prose rhythm which reflects a knowledge of the rhetorical rules about iambus, anapests and the like (see Aristotle, Rhetoric 3.8.6-7); 4) like Paul (and perhaps a sign of indebtedness to Paul) our author has a fondness for compound verbs with the syn prefix; 5) he is equally fond of rhetorical questions, and indeed other sorts of questions as well, even double and triple dramatic questions in a row (cf. 2.3-4; 7.11; 9.13-14; 10.29; 11.32; 12.9 for single questions; 1.5; 1.13-14; 12.5-7 for double questions, and for the triple question 3.16-18). 6) our author is given to using explanatory asides, sometimes weighty ones (cf. 2.16; 3.7-11; 5.13-14; 7.12,19; 8.5; 10.4; 11.13-16; 11.38; 13.14) and often these are used to explain an OT phrase according to our author’s hermeneutic (4.10; 6.13; 7.2,7; 10.8); On the other hand the author carefully avoids hiatus (i.e. the ending of one word with a vowel which begins the next word); and unlike Paul he also avoid anacoluthon–breaks in grammatical sequence. We find anaphora (a series of lines beginning with the same word) in Heb 11 in fact 18 sentences in a row begin with the word pistei by faith. 7) the author also seems to reflect not only a knowledge of koine but also of classical Greek, for only in this document do we find such classical phrases as Ei men in 6.14; or the use of pou in 2.6,4.4, or the use of pros ton Theon in 2.17. Notice that we also have oratorical imperatives like “take heed” 3.12; “consider” 3.1,7.4; “call to remembrance” 10.32 which reflect the oral character and rhetorical orientation of the author. 8) The author also reflects a knowledge of both Jewish Wisdom literature and philosophical Hellenistic writings (on the latter compare his use of the term “will” in a manner like the Stoics, or “the final goal” in fashion like Epictetus). Occasionally our author uses words and phrases in a way similar to Philo (such as moral faculty, Demiurge, moderate ones feelings towards, bring to perfection, nemesis, model). Thus, one can say our author not only has a considerable vocabulary, he also seems to have read rather widely (which is certainly possible if he lived for a time near the greatest library in the then known world in Alexandria). Moffatt concludes that he knew not only the LXX but Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, the various Maccabees books, and perhaps even Philo. Moffatt ends by noting that our author has the style of a trained orator, “he has an art of words, which is more than an unconscious sense of rhythm”, and he operates as a preacher whose first duty is to be faithful but his second duty is to be eloquent. D. Aune is even more emphatic: “The author obviously enjoyed the benefits of a Hellenistic rhetorical education through the tertiary level”. This provides a natural segue to our discussion of the rhetoric of Hebrews.
THE RHETORICAL DISCUSSION PROPER
We are now well served in regard to the rhetorical discussion of Hebrews and the consensus of op
inion is not only that this document reflects macro-rhetoric (the various divisions of a rhetorical speech) as well as micro-rhetoric but that its species is either deliberative or epideictic or some combination of the two. In other words, there is agreement that it is definitely not judicial or forensic rhetoric , and also that the recognition of individual rhetorical devices, which certainly are plentiful in Hebrews, does not take the full measure of the way our author uses rhetoric.
There are rather clear clues in the document itself as to what sort of rhetoric it is. Bearing in mind that paraenesis or exhortation could be found in both deliberative and epideictic rhetoric, we must consider what the author is trying to accomplish by this rhetorical masterpiece. Consider the following statements in the discourse: 1) 2.1—“we must pay more careful attention therefore to what we have [already] heard, so that we do not drift away”; 2) 3.1—“therefore holy brothers and sisters who share in the heavenly calling fix your thoughts on Jesus”; 3) 3.12— “see to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you…turns away from the living and true God”; 4) 4.1— “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it” ; 5) 4.14 ‘therefore… let us hold firmly to the faith we profess…” 6) 6.1, 11 “therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity… we want each of you to show this same diligence to the end…we do not want you to become lazy but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised ” 7) 10.22-23, 35 “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart…. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess…. Do not throw away your confidence…” 8) 10.39—“we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed” 9) 12.1—“let us throw off everything that hinders.. and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” 10) 12.14-15– “let us make every effort to live in peace…see to it that no one misses the grace of God”; 11) 13.1– “keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters”; 12) the discourse as a whole is called a word of exhortation in a brief (!) letter – 13.22. As G. H. Guthrie has rightly pointed out, the alternating back and forth between exposition and exhortation with the latter being the punch line, makes evidence that this discourse exists for the sake of the exhortation which directly addresses the issue of concern. Thus one must stress that “the expositional material serves the hortatory purpose of the whole work.”
If we look at all of this carefully it seems very clear that this discourse is not about urging a change in direction, or a new policy, nor is the author correcting obvious new problems in belief or behavior. Further, the author is not trying to produce concord or reconciliation in the audience, he is rather trying to shore up their faith in the face of pressure, suffering, and the temptation to defect. He is trying to confirm the audience in a faith and practice they already have, urging them to stand firm against the dangers of apostasy and wandering away, and stay the course with perseverance continuing to run in the direction they are already going, and have been going since they first believed, thus going on to perfection and exhibiting their faith and perseverance. This sort of act of persuasion is surely epideictic in character, appealing to the values and virtues the audience has already embraced in the past.
The focus of the rhetoric in this document is furthermore, clearly in the present. Our author focuses on what Christ is now doing as the heavenly high priest, what the audience is and ought to continue to be doing in the present, and there is the appeal to continue to imitate the forbears in the faith and Christ himself. The appeal to imitation can be found in either deliberative or epideictic rhetoric, in the latter case it is an appeal to continue to imitate the models they already know of and have looked to. When we couple all this with the doxological beginning of the discourse in Heb. 1, and the worship climax in 12.18-27, it seems clear that this discourse maintains an epideictic flavor throughout. Most rhetorically adept homilies in any case fell into the category of epideictic rhetoric.
Also comporting with this conclusion is that we do not have formal arguments in this discourse, but rather one long act of persuasion that involves comparisons, enthymemes, repetition, amplification, use of catchwords, and a toggling between exposition of texts (that provide the inartificial proofs or witnesses to the truths the audience is being reminded of) and application or paraenesis. Furthermore, after the exordium in 1.1-4 it was not necessary to have a ‘narratio’ or ‘propositio’ since in effect there is only one long argument or act of persuasion in various parts throughout the discourse. The encomium of faith in Heb. 11 does not stand out from its context as if it were some sort of digression or different type of rhetoric, or a rhetorical anomaly in the midst of a non-rhetorical document. Also comporting with the conclusion that this is epideictic rhetoric is the enormous amount of honor and shame language used in this discourse to make sure that the audience will continue to be faithful in their beliefs and behavior and life trajectory, not slipping back into pre-Christian forms of religion, in this case non-Christian Jewish ones.
Most ancient commentators who were rhetorically attuned saw Hebrews as epideictic in character, and of modern commentators, Lane, Attridge, and Olbricht have all opted for seeing Hebrews as basically epideictic in character, with Olbricht concluding it most resembles a funeral encomium. Koester and L. Thuren see the document as a mixture of deliberative and epideictic rhetoric as do Luke Timothy Johnson and A. T. Lincoln, while W.G. Ubelacker urges that we have deliberative rhetoric here, a conclusion Lindars also reached. Lindars provides no justification for this conclusion at all, and Ubelacker’s analysis suffers, as Thuren has pointed out, from the fact that he tries to find a ‘narratio’ and a ‘propositio’ where there is not one. Heb. 1.5-2.18 is no ‘narratio’ (a narration of relevant past facts) any more than it is an ‘exordium’—the latter is limited to 1.1-4. In the case of Johnson and Lincoln, they are certainly right that the expositions lead to the exhortations and serve the latter, but exhortations are as common a feature of epideictic as deliberative rhetoric. It is the nature or character of the exhortation that decides the issue here, and a careful analysis of all the paraenesis in this documents shows that it is aiming to help the audience maintain beliefs and behaviors they have already embraced. In other words, the exhortations are epideictic in character, as are the expositions.
We also have no ‘propositio’ in this discourse which should have been a dead giveaway that we are dealing with epideictic rhetoric, the effusive, emotive, and often hyperbolic rhetoric of praise and blame The author is not trying to prove a thesis but rather praise some important things—Christ and faith for instance. To the contrary, at Heb. 1.5 we dive right into the first part of the discourse itself which entails an exposition of Scripture involving a negation that God ever spoke of or to the angels in the way he spoke of Christ. This is followed by the exhortation in 2.1-4 that builds upon it. While Thuren is right that 1.5ff. amplifies the exordium, it certainly ought not to be seen as simply part of the exordium.
After seeing 1.1-2.4 as the exordium, Koester suggests that 2.5-9 is the ‘propositio’ of the whole discourse , but this simply does not work. Heb. 2.5-9 is not a thesis statement that is then demonstrated in all the subsequent arguments. Far too much of what follows is not about Christ’s superi
or position, condition, and nature, especially from Heb. 11.1 on to the close of the discourse, but we could also point to much of Heb. 4 and 6 as well. The issue is both Christology and paraenesis or the imitation of Christ and Christ-likeness as the author does not want the audience to commit either intellectual or moral apostasy. It comes down ultimately to whether they will continue to admire, emulate and worship Jesus
Koester is however right that the peroration begins in Heb. 12, though not at 12.28. It is best to see that in terms of macro-rhetoric we have a simple structure here:
1) exordium— 1.1-4. Notice how the beginning of the discourse is linked to this exordium through using hook words, preparing for the comparison with angels who are introduced in 1.4.
2) the epideictic discourse composed of one long unfolding act of persuasion or sermon in many parts— 1.5-12.17. This part can of course be profitably divided up into some subsections. For example. Morna Hooker suggests a chiastic structure as follows:
3.1-4.13 Imagery of Pilgrimage, Including first warning
4.14-5.10 Introduction of idea of Jesus as High Priest
5.11-6.12 First severe warning
6.13.-10.18 Jesus our High Priest
10.19-32 Second severe warning
10.32.-11.40 The Importance of Faith
12.1-29 Imagery of Pilgrimage, Including final warning. On this showing the theme of Christ as the heavenly high priest is central to the whole discourse. This makes excellent sense, and one could even talk about the imagery of placing visually Christ in the inner sanctum of the heavenly sanctuary just as he is placed at the center of the discourse verbally.
3) ‘peroration’ with concluding benediction—12.18-29— the emotional climax of the argument comes here with the pilgrims assembled at the holy mountain and exhorted finally to worship God acceptably. This is followed, as is typical of all the expository sections, with
4) a final paraenesis in 13.1-21 which sums up some of the major exhortations of the discourse– behave responsibly, persevere steadfastly, and pray fervently, be prepared to ‘go outside the camp’ as Jesus did. Thus interestingly the peroration is the emotional climax of the theological rhetoric whereas 13.1-21 is the emotive exhortation climaxing the ethical rhetoric. This is the same sort of thing we find in Ephesians, another example of epideictic rhetoric, where the discourse does not stop at the peroration but offers up some concluding exhortations that sum some things up.
5) Because this sermon is written down, there are some concluding epistolary elements—13.22-25 (such as the explanation of the reason for writing, personalia, concluding greetings and a concluding grace wish). We will unpack this structure much more fully in a moment.
The function of an exordium was to establish rapport with the audience and make them favorably disposed to hear what follows. One way to accomplish this is to use highly elevated and eloquent language at the outset which will immediately get the audience’s attention. We certainly have this in Heb. 1.1-4 where our author unloads a variety of rhetorical devices including a great deal of alliteration, impressive sounding phrases (‘radiance of his glory’). It was important for the style to suit the subject matter. Thus Koester is right to note that the “elevated style of Hebrews’ exordium suits the grandeur of its subject matter: the exalted Son of God.” We see the same sort of exalted style in Heb. 11.1-12.3 where the other main thing that is praised in this discourse, faith, is discoursed on at length. As Aristotle stressed, such elevated prose can impress and help gain the favor of the audience, appeal to their imaginations, and make clear that an important subject is going to be dealt with here (see Rhetoric, 3.6.1-7). It was a rhetorical must that weighty matters not be treated in an offhand matter, nor trifling things be invested with too much dignity (Rhetoric, 3.7.1-2). “When our audience finds [a speech] a pleasure to listen to, their attention and their readiness to believe what they hear are both increased” (Instit. Or. 8.3.5). In an oral culture, how something sounded had everything to do with whether it would be listened to, much less believed. It is hard to over-estimate the importance of the oral dimensions of the text in helping to persuade the audience of the content of the discourse.
As Olbricht has pointed out, in a rhetorical encomium there are standing aspects of a person’s life which will be praised—his noble birth, illustrious ancestors, education, fame, offices held and titles, wealth, his physical virtues (e.g. strength), his moral virtues, and his death. Without question many of these topics surface in the praise of Jesus in this sermon. We may also point out that the comparisons (synkrisis) we have in this discourse, for example between Jesus and the angels, or Jesus and Melchizedek, or Jesus and Moses, or the believer’s current life compared to what will be the case if they commit apostasy or go in a retrograde motion into a form of religion that will not save them follows the conventions of epideictic rhetoric in regard to such comparisons. The function of such comparisons in an epideictic discourse is to demonstrate the superiority of that one person or thing which is being praised (see Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1.9.38-39; Rhet. Alex. 1441a27-28). Andrew T. Lincoln ably sums up how ‘comparison’ functions in Hebrews:
Synkrisis, [is] a rhetorical form that compares representatives of a type in order to determine the superiority of one over another. It functions as a means of praise or blame by comparison and makes the comparison in terms of family, natural endowments, education, achievements and death. In Hebrews various earlier figures or types of Christ are seen as lesser by comparison with him and family relations (Christ as divine Son) education (learning perfection through suffering) and death (the achievement of Christ’s sacrificial death) all feature in the comparison. This sort of argument structures the discourse because, as in an encomium, a discourse in praise of someone, the synkrisis is used for the purpose of moral exhortation. So in Hebrews, the comparison of angels and the Son, of Moses and Christ, of Aaron and Christ, of the levitical priesthood and Christ, of the old covenant and the new covenant, is in each case followed by paraenesis.
In this discourse it is Christ’s superiority and the superiority of faith in Christ and following his example which is being praised, and this is contrasted with falling away, defecting, avoiding shame or suffering. Christ is the model of despising shame and maintaining one’s course in life faithfully to the end, and indeed of being ‘perfected’ through death—sent directly into the realm of the perfect. While the emphasis in this discourse is mainly on that which is praiseworthy, our author does not hesitate to illustrate blameworthy behavior, for example the unfaith and apostasy of the wilderness wandering generation is pointed out (Heb. 3.7-19). In fact rhetorical comparison can be said to be the major structuring device for the whole discourse right to its climax in the peroration at the end of Heb. 12 as our author exalts the better mediator, the better sacrifice, the better covenant, the better example of faith, and the better theophany, all by means of rhetorical synkrisis not with something that is bad, but rather only with something that is less glorious or adequate or able to save people.
One more thing can be stressed at this point. Epideictic rhetoric characteristically would use a lot of picture language, visual rhetoric so that “you seem to see what you describe and bring it vividly before the eyes of your audience” and thus “attention is drawn from the reasoning to the enthralling effect of the imagination” (Longinus, On the Sublime, 15.1,11). Epideictic rhetoric persuades as much by moving the audien
ce with such images, and so enthralling them, catching them up in love, wonder and praise. The appeal to the emotions is prominent in such rhetoric, stirred up by the visual images.
Consider for example the beginning of the peroration in Heb. 12.22 where we have the last harangue, the final appeal to the deeper emotions of these Diaspora Jewish Christians who have been pressured and persecuted and in many cases may have never had the joy of making the pilgrimage to Mt. Zion—“But you have come to Mt. Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the first born, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God… to Jesus the mediator.” These are Christians who, like the author have likely never seen or heard Jesus in person. But now before their eyes is portrayed the climax of their faith pilgrimage, the same sort of climax that Jesus reached when he died, rose and then ascended into heaven. And the discourse ends with worshipping God with reverence and awe, a clearly epideictic topic meant to create pathos. Our author knows very well what he is doing in this epideictic discourse, and he does it eloquently and brilliantly from start to finish. He has made Jesus and true faith so attractive that it would be shameful to turn back now, shameful to defect, and stirring to carry on with the beliefs and behaviors they have already embraced.
One of the consequences of recognizing and analyzing the rhetorical species of Hebrews is that it becomes impossible to see the exhortations or paraenetic portions of the discourse as mere interruptions, digressions, after thoughts, appendages while the Christological discussion is seen as of the essence of the discourse. To the contrary, the author chooses his OT texts carefully, gives his exposition, then offers his exhortations based on the exposition as all part of an attempt to deal with the rhetorical exigence, namely the need to stand firm and not to fall back or backslide, the need to continue on the pilgrimage already begun towards perfection, the need to continue to believe and behave in ways that comport with such commitments.
But is there some rhetorical logic to the alternations between exposition and exhortation in this homily? The answer is yes, and has been rightly discerned by T.W. Seid. What he points out is that the expositions are part of a larger effort to draw comparisons principally between Christ and others. Thus, he sees the structure here as follows: comparison of Son and angels (1.1-14) and parenesis (2.1-18), comparison of Moses and Christ (3.1-6) and parenesis (3.7-4.16), comparison of Aaron and Christ (5.1-10) and parenesis (5.11-6.20), comparison of Melchizedek/Christ and the Levitical priesthood (7.1-25) and parenesis (7.26-8.3), comparison of the first covenant and new covenant (8.4-10.18) and parenesis (10.19-12.29), and epistolary appendix (13.1-25). This synkrisis/paraenesis alternation encourages the audience to progress in moral conduct by remaining faithful to the greater revelation in Jesus Christ and emulating the models of its scripture, as well as warns the audience of the greater judgment to befall those unfaithful to the greater revelation.
What is praised and what is blamed in this discourse is not part of some abstruse exercise in exegesis for its own sake. It is part of a pastoral effort to deal with the struggles the Jewish Christians are having in Rome to remain true and faithful to the things they have already committed themselves to embrace. To this end, our author’s rhetorical strategy in picking the texts that he does is not because of his intellectual curiosity about messianism or a Christological reading of the OT. Rather Pss. 8, 95,110 (and perhaps 40), Jer. 31, Hab. 2 and Prov. 3 are texts which are picked and dealt with because they help make the case that the inadequacy or ineffectiveness or ‘partial and piecemeal’ character of previous revelation and covenants is self-attested in the OT. But that is only the negative side of the persuasion going on in this rhetorical masterpiece with carefully selected inartificial proofs from the OT. Other texts are brought in as well to support the positive side of the argument, which is that the good things said in the OT to be yet to come are now realized only in Christ, and faithfulness is required if these eschatological promises are to be also realized in the lives of those who follow Christ. Thus it can be said that in Hebrews, “theology is the handmaiden of paraenesis in this ‘word of exhortation’, as the author himself describes it”. With these comments in mind it will be helpful to give a more expanded outline of the argument of this discourse showing the relationship of the elements in the discourse.
EXORDIUM— 1.1-4 Partial revelation in the past, full revelation in the Son
SECTION THEME OT TEXT PARENESIS
PROBATIO- PART ONE (1.5-14) CHRIST’S SUPERIORITY catena (1.5-13) 2.1-4
PART TWO (2.5-18) ‘YOU CROWNED HIM’ Ps. 8 (2.6-8)
PART THREE (3.1-4.13) ‘TODAY’ Ps. 95 (3.7-11) 3.12-4.13
PART FOUR (4.14-7.28) ‘PRIEST FOREVER’ Ps. 110 (5.6) 4.14-
16; 5.11- 6.12
PART FIVE (8.1-10.31) ‘NEW COVENANT’ Jer. 31 (8.8-12) 10.19-29
PART SIX (10.32-12.3) ‘BY FAITH’ Hab. 2(10.37-38) 10.32-36;
PART SEVEN (12.3-17) ‘DON’T LOSE HEART’ Prov. 3 (12.5-6) 12.3-16
PERORATIO– 12.18-29 PILGRIM’S END Theophany at Sinai texts (Ex. 19; Deut. 4,9, 31; Hag. 2.6)
FINAL SUMMARY PARAENESIS— 13.1-21
EPISTOLARY CLOSING– 13.22-25
Several concluding remarks are in order. It is clear enough that all of these sections with the exception of Part Two have paraenesis, in some cases the OT citation has preceding and following paraenesis in order to turn the exposition into exhortation or application. The paraenesis is not relegated to the end of the discourse but is rather sprinkled liberally throughout the discourse. It takes up a good deal of the verbage of the discourse and could hardly be called a series of appendages. The problem all along has been that many scholars find the expositions more interesting and challenging than the exhortations, and therefore have tended to feature or privilege them in the ways they have thought about this discourse.
Secondly, the focus is clearly on the here and now, and what is already true hence the emphasis on ‘today’, on the new covenant which is already extant and in force, on not losing heart but rather continuing to have faith and be faithful, persevering in the present, and on what Christ has accomplished and is even now doing in heaven on behalf of the believer. The focus is on the here and now both theologically and ethically which is appropriate in epideictic discourse.
Thirdly, our author almost exclusively sticks to texts from the Pentateuch, the Psalms, and the latter prophets. There is nothing really from the historical books, which is all the more striking since he is making a salvation historical kind of argument, and since in Heb. 11 he recounts some of the adventures and misadventures of the period chronicled in 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles.
Fourthly, one part of this discourse leads naturally to the next as an unfolding message develops involving both theology and ethics. Particularly striking is how the final section of the argument leads so smoothly into the peroration with the imagery of running a race to a final destination introduced in 12.1-3
, and then the pilgrim arrives at the goal as described in the peroration beginning at 12.18. There is overlap, repetition, amplification, reinforcement in the argument but this is precisely what one would expect in an epideictic discourse, as I have shown in detail elsewhere with the case of 1 John. One of the interesting differences between these two sermons is that 1 John is topically driven, but not textually driven, and so is less of an expository sermon in that sense, whereas Hebrews is certainly textually oriented and is far more expository in character. We begin to see the remarkable range of the Christian rhetoric of praise and blame in 1 John and Hebrews, and in both cases the sermons are directed in the main, if not almost exclusively, to Jewish Christians in two different major cities in the Empire (Ephesos and Rome) which were seedbeds for the early Christian movement.
We need to keep steadily in view that the function of praise and blame of any topic was to motivate the audience to continue to remember and embrace their core values (involving both ideology and praxis) and avoid slipping into blameworthy beliefs and behaviors (see Aristotle,Rhetoric, 1.9.36; Quintilian, Inst. Or. 3.7.28; Rhet. Ad Herrn. 3. 8, para. 15). In other words, even when using complex concepts and ideas the ultimate aim of the rhetoric is practical and ethical in character. We should not be beguiled by the eloquence of the rhetoric of Hebrews into drawing false conclusions about its ends and aims and real focus, rather, we must be guided by that rhetoric if we are to make sense of this endlessly interesting ‘brief exhortation’ that has stirred up the juices of the best minds in Christendom for low these many years. Let us hear with two good rhetorically attuned ears what the Preacher says to his Jewish Christian audience.