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Friday, May 05, 2006

The Letter to the Hebrews in African Perspective First, I'd like to welcome Todd back from Nebraska. I don't know very much about "moratoria societies," but I would suggest that we first try to concentrate on dying to self. As I’ve said, I will try to post more directly about Holy Scripture. I also want to try to write more about Africa, Asia, and Latin America, since more than two-thirds of the world’s Catholics now live in the developing world. When we hear about this, I suppose that our first response will be marked by gratitude, especially if these statistics are paired with disheartening accounts of secularization in the West. We might then react with either delight or chagrin as we consider the effects on our own theological and ethical debates. But we really should also try to listen with humility to our brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Pope John Paul II told us that the inculturation of Christianity in other cultures enriches the entire Church, for, through new forms of theology and worship, the Church “comes to know and to express better the mystery of Christ, all the while being motivated to continual renewal.” Regarding liturgy, during the last Synod, Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, reminded us, “We do well to acknowledge and extol the valuable heritage of the eucharistic traditions of the different ancient rites of both the East and the West. I believe these are themselves products of an inculturation that took place many centuries ago under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That same Spirit has not gone to sleep.” Well, what can we learn about Scripture from Africa? In a recent article in the Heythrop Journal, (“Why Bother With Hebrews? An African Perspective” XLVI [2005]), Peter Nyende of the Carlile College of Theology in Nairobi, Kenya, provides one very interesting answer, regarding the relatively neglected Letter to the Hebrews. He begins by referencing an earlier Heythrop Journal article that was based on a lecture delivered by the Hebrews scholar Marie Isaacs on the eve of her retirement from Heythrop College, London. Professor Isaacs lamented that, in many contemporary theology degree programs, “Hebrews – along with a number of our New Testament works – has effectively been made redundant, and we are left with a ‘canon within the canon.’” Professor Isaacs then went on to show why this is a very bad thing, pointing out that Hebrews teaches us much about the character of the language of the New Testament, and also the diversity of early Christian tradition, since it was written for a community that had not yet broken with Judaism. Dr Nyende argues that, from an African perspective, we can learn even more about the significance of the Letter to the Hebrews, particularly its importance outside an academic context. In fact, his thesis is that “the significance of Hebrews for New Testament scholarship in Africa is largely in its particular usefulness as a model for an African theological reflection” (my emphasis). Dr Nyende focuses on one of many rhetorical devices – synkrisis. Synkrisis is a Greek term for comparison that leads to praise or blame. Hebrews can be distinguished by its twenty-seven instances of the comparative and its series of antithetical statements. Hebrews, Nyende says, is even structured by its synkrisis of Jesus with angels, Moses, and Aaron and Melchizedek, respectively, to show the superiority of Jesus Christ. With regard to the intercession and mediation of the Aaronic priesthood, Jesus is superior because he serves in heaven, in the “true tabernacle that the Lord, not man, set up” (Heb 8:2), not merely “a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary” (Heb 8:5). The service of the high priests “cannot perfect the worshiper in conscience” (Heb 9:9), but the offering of Christ can “cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God” (Heb 9:14). While the sacrifices of the high priests have to be offered repeatedly, Christ’s sacrifice is once and for all: “But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice” (Heb 9:26). Jesus Christ is also superior to the Aaronic priesthood because he is in the order of Melchizedek. He is a high priest and sympathetic to us, whom he represents, like those in the Aaronic priesthood. Jesus was also called by God, just like Aaron. But Jesus’ priesthood corresponds with the eternity of Melchizedek’s priesthood. The author writes of Melchizedek, “Without father, mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life, thus made to resemble the Son of God, he remains a priest forever” (Heb 7:3). And Jesus’ priesthood has the indestructibility of Melchizedek’s priesthood, in contrast to the failings and contingency of the Aaronic priesthood. Jesus “after the likeness of Melchizedek,” has become our high priest “not by a law expressed in a commandment concerning physical descent but by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed” (Heb 7:16). This obviously refers to the Resurrection. Now, if our main exegetical interest is Christian-Jewish relations, we might want to pause to remember, as Philip A. Cunningham has said, “Exegetes debate whether the author of Hebrews is ascribing obsolescence to Judaism per se or simply to the Temple’s sacrificial system.” And when the author of Hebrews writes, quoting Jeremiah, “Behold the days are coming,” speaking of a new covenant that would leave the old covenant “obsolete” and soon to pass away, Dr Cunningham claims that he is obviously speaking eschatologically, as had Jeremiah six centuries before, so “Hebrew’s thought cannot be applied to the Church vis-à-vis the Jewish people in historical time.” Perhaps likewise, the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Church reminds us that the Letter to the Hebrews does not mentions “the Jews,” merely Old Testament institutions, and imagines an eschatological fulfillment for Jew and Christian alike. “The difference is that for us the One who is to come will have the traits of the Jesus who has already come and is already present and active among us.” The Letter to the Hebrews should not lead us to a supersessionism that contradicts the claims of the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II that “the Jews are beloved of God, who has called them with an irrevocable calling.” The continuing theological significance of Judaism may or may not play a role in our evaluation of Dr Nyende’s article. He points out that Hebrews, while suggesting that Christ surpasses the Aaronic priesthood, recognizes that the Aaronic priesthood served to point to the Gospel as a foreshadowing. As he writes, “the Aaronic priesthood has in this instance acted as a means of preparing the audience of Hebrews for this particular understanding of the Gospel, a praeparatio evangelica – an aspect of their religious heritage has aided towards an explication of the Gospel that they can grasp and fully relate to.” What Dr Nyende wants to suggest is that African traditional religions might serve as an analogous praeparatio evangelica for Africans. After all, African society also has a “deep tradition of sacrifice, priestly mediation and ancestor function.” And there are more similarities than just the importance of mediation. One can even find a 1930 work that, in reference to the Ashanti of Ghana, is entitled, Hebrewisms of West Africa: From Nile to Niger With the Jews (why, yes, I do plan to read it). The author, a Joseph J. Williams, found similarities between Africans and the Hebrews of Canaan in dances, linguistic similarities, the enthronement of kings, familial names, purification ceremonies, and monotheism, among other things. Johnson even claimed that there just had to be a common center of diffusion. Dr Nyende says that, to this day, Africans have a predilection for the Old Testament because of perceived correspondences between Hebrew and African culture. He writes, “Hebrews’ way of theologizing could afford African Theology the possibility to ponder on how aspects of Africa’s religious heritage point to, and are fulfilled in, Christ, and to understand them as such.” I wonder if this is also a way to help Western Christians develop an appreciation for African culture. And Hebrews can also help Africans, Dr Nyende adds, engage with their heritage critically and prophetically, especially if, as he does, we believe that Hebrews is dealing with the threat of a Christian relapse, so to speak, back to certain Old Testament practices. After all, African Christians still dwell in a world where divinities, spirits and ancestors, spells and charms, witchcraft and sorcery, are unavoidable. Hebrews might show how Christianity can engage with traditional African religions without compromising with them. Again, the special theological significance of Judaism might complicate Dr Nyende’s desire to use Hebrews as a model for the interaction of traditional African religion and Christianity. But it is at least possible to imagine that, if we stand alongside our African brothers and sisters as they try to use Hebrews as a model for evangelization and theology, we will ourselves rediscover the neglected letter in London or Kansas City. Perhaps even in cyberspace. That truly would be a blessing.

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