Sunday, April 03, 2011

Harold W. Attridge on "The Law" in Paul and Hebrews

(Image from Wikipedia)

I'm still reading my way slowly through Harold Attridge's Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews as I prepare each week for Sunday's study of Hebrews in the small Bible study group at my church, and I find that Attridge has some interesting words on the difference between attitudes to Old Testament Law in the thinking of Paul and that of the author of Hebrews. I'll post the brief excursus on this in a moment, but we first need to look at the translation by Attridge of Hebrews 7:11-19:
[11] Now if there were perfection through the Levitical priesthood -– for based upon it the people has been given a law –- what further need would there be for a different priest to be raised up "according to the order of Melchizedek," and (why would he) not be said to be "according to the order of Aaron?" [12] -- For if the priesthood is changed, then of necessity there is also a change of law. [13] For the one about whom these things are said belongs to a different tribe, from which no one has attended the altar. [14] For it is clear that our Lord has sprung out of Judah, in regard to which tribe, Moses said nothing about priests. [15] And it is even more abundantly clear, if a different priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, [16] who came to be not according to a law of fleshy command, but according to a power of indestructible life. [17] For testimony is given that "You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek." [18] There was, then, an abrogation of the preceding command because of its weakness and uselessness -- [19] for the Law brought nothing to perfection -- and also an introduction of a better hope through which we draw near to God. (Attridge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989, pages 198a)
Attridge offers several pages of commentary on these verses, though I won't go into those but turn directly to his excursus on the distinction between Paul's thought and the thinking of the author of Hebrews on the issue of Old Testament Law:
Excursus: Hebrews, Paul, and the Law
Hebrews and Paul both argue against the continuing religious validity of the Torah, although from rather different perspectives. Paul's arguments, developed variously in Galations and Romans, do not focus, as does Hebrews, on the cultic dimensions of the Torah, but rather on the prescriptive and ethical. Paul's affirmations about the Law in Gal 3:19-29 resemble in a general way some of the remarks here. The similarities probably represent common attitudes among more radical members of the early church engaged in the Gentile mission. Basically the Law is ineffective. This is so for Paul because the Law cannot "give life" or provide righteousness, while for Hebrews it cannot bring perfection. While the remarks are formally similar, the difference of conceptual frameworks in which the two authors operate is clear.

In Romans, Paul's critique of the Law is more elaborate yet more nuanced, and he affirms, as he never does in Galatians, that his teaching of righteousness by faith in fact "upholds the Law" (3:31). In Romans the failure of the Law is seen to consist in its service to of the power of sin. To explain how the Law, which is itself good, can be an instrument of evil, Paul offers a psychological analysis, illustrating how Sin uses the Law to awaken desire. Thus the failure of the Law as command lies in human weakness, the “weakness of the flesh."

In Hebrews, the inefficiency of the Law, which is intimately bound up with the cultic system, is also based on the weakness of "flesh." Flesh does not here refer to psychological or existential factors of the human condition. The Law itself and the cult prescribed by it are fleshy because they are devoted to externals. This critique is more radical than Paul's remarks in Romans 7:14, where the Law itself is seen to be spiritual. At the same time, the force of the critique is different from that of Romans. As [Walter] Gutbrod aptly summarizes the difference, for Paul the Law is ineffective because human beings do not do it; for Hebrews it is ineffective because only human beings do it. (Attridge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989, pages 204a-205b)
Interesting. This ought to offer the Hebrews study group something to talk about. The author of Hebrews considers the Law "fleshy" because it is carried out by priests who are of the priesthood by genealogical descent from Levi (Attridge, Commentary, page 202b), unlike the priesthood to which Jesus belongs, the "order of Melchizedek," whom Hebrews describes in 7:3 as "being without father, mother, or lineage, having neither beginning of days nor end of life" (Attridge, Commentary, page 186a).

That's enough for now . . .

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At 2:54 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

for Paul the Law is ineffective because human beings do not do it; for Hebrews it is ineffective because only human beings do it

A very interesting key, in fact. New to me as well.

(Provided that I don't agree neither with P. nor with H., but this is a horse of a different color.)

At 3:44 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But do horses of any color keep the law?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:26 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

of horse!

At 6:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ah, horsespit!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:09 PM, Anonymous dhr said...


At 9:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Whiney creatures . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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