Hebrews and the Temple: Attitudes to the Temple in Second Temple Judaism and in HebrewsPhilip Church. (Supplements to Novum Testamentum 171). Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2017. xviii + 615 PP. ISBN: 978-90-04-33950-7. $276.22. 

Book Review: Hebrews and the Temple: Attitudes to the Temple in Second Temple Judaism and in Hebrews

Philip Church

This is a magisterial and magnificent work of scholarship. Philip Church, a former Laidlaw College teacher and current Senior Scholar, spent a number of years meticulously working his way towards a successfully submitted doctoral thesis (University of Otago, 2012) and that work is now available for the reading public, 615 pages including (comprehensive) indices. This is now a “must have” work for every scholar working on the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Church’s Temple in Hebrews exploration begins with a solid, learned twenty-eight page Introduction which is a mine of clear, careful information about Hebrews. The remainder of the book is in two parts. Part 1, “Attitudes to the Temple in the Literature of Second Temple Judaism,” surveys the usual literature, but divided up into four categories (one per chapter), depending on “attitude”. Thus we find: “Temple Affirmed,” “Temple Rejected” (i.e. the Dead Sea Scrolls), “Temple Contested” and “Temple Destroyed” (i.e. responses to the fall of the Temple). This is a necessary background to the major concern of the thesis, what Hebrews has to say about the Temple, covered in Part 2, “Symbolism in Hebrews.” I have no quarrel with the literature survey which is set out in exemplary fashion with careful attention to detail which is a hallmark of Church’s work throughout the monograph.

Unpacking “Symbolism in Hebrews” in Part 2 works through the following chapter subjects: “The Eschatological Orientation of Hebrews”; “The Eschatological Goal of the People of God: Temple Symbolism in Hebrews 3:1-4:11; 11:1 – 13:16”; and “Jesus the High Priest of the Heavenly Temple: Temple Symbolism in Hebrews 4:14-10:25.” A Conclusion rounds off the book. (I spotted one error in this part, p. 286, second paragraph, lines 5-6 cite Psalm 97 (LXX 96):7 in the Greek but offer a mistranslation in the English, “you” should be “his”.)

Unlike some scholarly works of this kind where tracking down the thesis of the book is itself a work of research, Church states succinctly, clearly, and right at the beginning of his Introduction what his thesis is.

The goal of the study is to examine the role and the significance of the temple symbolism found in Hebrews. The main outcome of the study is that the heavenly temple in Hebrews is to be read not as an eternal archetype of the wilderness tabernacle as is often maintained. Rather, the language is figurative. The heavenly temple is a metaphor for the eschatological dwelling of God with is people in the world to come where Christ is now enthroned [p. 1].

Church helpfully takes the reader straight to the fulcrum of the thesis. It turns on his reading of Hebrews 8:5, hypodeigmati kai skia, “words that appear to describe the relationship of the wilderness temple to the heavenly temple”. Against the popular translation of the Greek phrase, “copy and shadow”, in Chapter 8, Church presses, for “symbolic foreshadowing”, and argues that the referent is “not the tabernacle but the temple, and the sense of the expression is that the temple anticipates God’s eschatological dwelling with his people” [p. 1].

The detail of the argument regarding Hebrews 8:5 begins at p. 404 – the foundation having been thoroughly prepared in the preceding 403 pages. The argument mounted for an eschatological interpretation is thoroughly expounded and potential opposition is always headed off, whether in the main text or the footnotes. But is the argument convincing?

The great challenge proponents of both “copy and shadow” and “symbolic foreshadowing” face is that the text is ambiguous through 8:1-5. Are these verses concerned with both (eschatological, heavenly) temple and tent (tabernacle)? Arguably “yes”, although a temple or the temple is never mentioned. Does reference to priests offering worship in a “sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one” (8:5a NRSV) look forwards to the ministry of Christ the high priest in “the sanctuary and the true tent” (8:2)? Arguably “yes” (with Church). But is the earthly tent of Moses’ day (8:5b), the place in which the Levitical priests offered worship (8:4-5), a type of the heavenly sanctuary? It would seem so because 8:5b tells us “for Moses, when he was about to erect the tent, was warned, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain’.” Thus the earthly sanctuary seems to be a “copy and shadow” of the heavenly sanctuary since it has been made according to a revealed “pattern” (typos).

In other words, the ambiguity in Hebrews 8:1-5 raises the question whether the earthly sanctuary is both a copy and a foreshadowing of the heavenly temple. When the “pattern” was revealed to Moses there was no revelation of Christ as High Priest. Now that Christ is revealed as High Priest there is a new anticipation of the glories of heavenly Temple worship. Church’s thesis does not take into account this both/and approach to Hebrews 8:5. Such an approach, incidentally, is well captured in the NRSV’s appropriately ambiguous phrase “sketch and shadow.”

But this critique of Church on Hebrews 8:5 does not alter the fact that he is right to emphasize Hebrews as a document with an eschatological vision, in which foreshadowing plays a role (e.g. 10:1), which is more dominant than those scholars exercised by the Platonic and Philonic background to the letter give credit for. Thus Church observes in his conclusion,

Hebrews is more about salvation history than cosmology. The influence of middle Platonic cosmology reflected in Philo has had an undue influence on modern day readers of Hebrews, leading to the continuing imposition of the ideas of Philo onto the text [p. 432].

This monograph is a credit to the author and an outstanding example of current Kiwi biblical scholarship.

Peter Carrell is Director of Theology House, Christchurch. 

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