When Hebrews Weren’t Funny

The post title takes inspiration from a recent documentary we saw about Greatest Generation Jewish comics and what made Jewish Americans funny. What’s not funny is the way that Joseph Pearce leaves the Israelites and the Old Testament out of his attempt to pull Christianity out of the pagan philosophical hat:

Classical paganism brought forth the golden age of philosophy in which giants, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, mused upon the meaning of the cosmos and the meaning of life within it. This pagan philosophy, once she had been impregnated with the truths revealed by the Bridegroom, brought forth a new generation of Christian philosophy, her children including such giants as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

It would be a sin of omission, however, to celebrate the golden age of pagan philosophy without also celebrating the golden age of pagan literature, which, preceding the philosophical golden age by several centuries, brought forth the genius of Homer, whose creative brilliance is unsurpassed in the whole history of human letters, with the possible and arguable exception of Dante and Shakespeare.

But if Jesus and Paul are more important to understanding Christianity than philosophers like Augustine and Aquinas, then isn’t the Jewish background to the Word incarnate (who was Jewish) and the apostles (who were also Jewish) way more important to the church and the gospel than anything Plato or Aristotle read. After all, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews seems not to have received the memo about the Greeks as forerunners of the gospel:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”?

Or again,

“I will be to him a father,
and he shall be to me a son”?

And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.”

Of the angels he says,

“He makes his angels winds,
and his ministers a flame of fire.”

But of the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”


“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.”

And to which of the angels has he ever said,

“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?

Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1 ESV)

By the way, all those quotes in Hebrews 1 are not from the Loeb Classical Library.

Of course, if you want a religion that is civilizational in scope, and one ready to underwrite Europe (read Christendom), then leaving out the Hebrews and writing in the Greeks and Romans makes sense. But if you take special revelation seriously, you may want to do a little more with the Hebrews than Pearce does.

Come to think of it, if the Mass, a ritual that points to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, a death that only makes sense after reading about all those sacrifices in Jerusalem’s Temple, then you may want to spend more time with the Hebrews than the Greeks. If you want a pagan inflected version of Christianity, that’s on you.

7 thoughts on “When Hebrews Weren’t Funny

  1. Preach it, Darryl.
    Only one minor quibble with things as written, though I imagine we’ll agree since you have a real love of the significance of the road to Emmaus on basic biblical hermeneutics:
    “Come to think of it, if the Mass, a ritual that points to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, a death that only makes sense after reading about all those sacrifices in Jerusalem’s Temple . . .”
    ***I’d rather flip it and say that Temple sacrifice really only makes sense in the light of the Cross. I would think that’s what the Epistle to the Hebrews is all about–rereading Scripture in light of Christ (again, the whole road to Emmaus hermeneutic).


  2. In the same way (though obviously not in an identical one), I’d tweak Pearce’s take:
    “We began by asserting that “paganism” is a perilous word. We shall end by saying that paganism is also a perilous world because it leads beyond the realm of gods and men to the One God who rules all men. Let’s give thanks to the Muses who paved the pagan path to Christ.”
    ***But they didn’t pave the path to Christ; Christ paved the way to Himself (a la the Spirit), through which those pagan authors can be reinterpreted and grafted onto a Christotelic narrative (if one desires to do such a thing, which many in the ancient and medieval churches did–from Gregory of Nyssa to Dante). To run with the light metaphor: this pagan poetry depicted shadows barely witnessing any light, wholly unrecognizable until the light shone itself. So a road to Emmaus that runs through Athens, Crete, and Rome. I think that’s what Pearce is trying to do; he just doesn’t admit the proper Christological hermeneutic. And he ignores the Israelites. I’m sure you knew that Saint John the Baptist and the Theotokos are considered the last of the Old Testament figures in many of the writings of the ancient churches. For what it’s worth.

    There, that should make everyone wince.


  3. love Hebrews a lot, and here in chapter 1- the ultimate history book summation explaining that it is Jesus Who divides history into two .


  4. More Aristotle, less Bible:

    When one recognizes that man is, in essence, a political animal, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Catholic Church must, sooner or later, by virtue of its mission, seek to convert the public square and the powers which govern it to Christ. And yet, for decades, the Church hierarchy in the United States has maintained a cautious, hands-off approach to engagement in politics. It’s not that the bishops have renounced the political duties of the Church, or that they have stopped speaking out about issues of natural right and justice. The disengagement is revealed more in the framing of their public appeals.

    When they enter the public square to defend some moral truth or principle of justice, Church leaders tend to leave Christ behind and become benevolent humanitarians. How many times have we heard bishops oppose the Contraceptive Mandate on the grounds of the secular principle of religious liberty? And how many times have we heard them oppose it on the grounds of its incompatibility with the Gospel? Though not totally relegated to the private sphere, the Church’s engagement in public affairs seems to take place mainly on secular terms, with the Church operating as just another defender of secular liberal values, albeit with a Christian slant.


  5. Another Hebrew who wasn’t funny:

    I see a 10-year old Heinz Kissinger told he can no longer see or root for his favorite sports team, and a 15-year old in 1938, on the verge of leaving Fürth and everything he has known for an American city he later claimed to “hate.” All this time I see him watching his proudly German father disgraced and humiliated before his own children, and seeing a whole community in quietly terrorized agony. And I see a 22-year old Kissinger at the end of World War II in Germany, experiencing the stench of a concentration camp and unable to locate any of his family left alive as he faces the challenge of de-Nazifying Germany.

    In short, I see a deeply shaken young man, sensitive and brilliant, faced with a choice: Go forward, never look back, or be damned. I see a personality constructed through force of will, one scarred with a yearning for order and a preternatural horror of irrational violence and human tragedy, a person driven by a palpable fear of emotion toward refuge in reason. I see a person set on attaining maximal control over his social environment, and hence perhaps Kissinger’s reputation for secrecy and manipulation, as endless compensation for his having lost control over everything he knew as a child and young man.

    Some say that for Kissinger God died at Auschwitz, but this is either too simple or simply wrong. The profound instability that pervaded Kissinger’s life from the time he was ten years old began much earlier to erode his faith in the Orthodox rabbinic God; Auschwitz more likely strengthened his commitment to a moral duty devoted to preventing totalitarian madness from ever again wreaking such havoc on humanity. His steely, unemotional determination on this course was not only an expression of what he took to be a moral duty equal in its power to a religious devotion, but also served as his irremovable armor for the duration.

    Let me close, if I may, with a personal anecdote. In the year 2000 Henry Kissinger was co-chairman of the editorial board of The National Interest, and I had been named editor, succeeding Owen Harries. It was our custom to convene an annual editorial board dinner at the Hay-Adams Hotel, and somehow the dinner ended up being scheduled for March 20, which happened to be erev Purim.

    This put me in a tough spot. I ended up early at Kesher Israel in Georgetown, where the (since fallen) rabbi of that congregation lent me a megillah to read and hence to “hear” in the interstice between sunset and the onset of the dinner. I read it, quickly but not disrespectfully, in the cloakroom of the hotel, and then walked into the room reserved for the dinner about 15 minutes late, megillah rolled securely into its tin canister in my right hand, and took my place at one of the smallish round tables. Seated to my right was Al Haig, and to his right almost directly across from me was Henry Kissinger. (I don’t remember the other two people at the table.) Kissinger saw the canister, made eye contact, and silently mouthed “happy Purim” to me. I thought I saw a very faint smile come crossing down his cheek to the right of his mouth. But, as with so much about the man’s inner life, I’ve never been sure about that.


  6. NT Wright thinks the narrative about the Jews is so important that we should not get hung up on Adam’s sin. But Paul Zahl thinks of Jesus as the first Christian.


    To say that Jesus is in more continuity with Christianity than with Second Temple Period Judaism can make many uncomfortable or even angry. Rather than wanting to raise the divide between Judaism and Christianity, Paul Zahl contends that heightened Christology recognizes that Jesus identified the universal human problem (sin) which trumps “gender, race and power”, but also is the honest thing to say about Christianity to the Jewish person. If Jesus were only a “good rabbi” then does this not denigrate the 2,000 years of Jewish resistance to him?


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