Review of Whitfield, Joshua Traditions and the Argument of Hebrews 3–4

Whitfield, Bryan J. Joshua Traditions and the Argument of Hebrews 3–4. BZNW 194. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013.

Whitfield Joshua Traditions

Bryan Whitfield, Assistant Professor of Christianity at Mercer University, argues in this revised edition of his dissertation (written at Emory University) that the name Ἰησοῦς (Joshua/Jesus) is the key to unlocking one of the more challenging features of the structure of Hebrews: the relationship between Hebrews 3:1–6 and 3:7–4:13. If 3:1–6 states that Jesus is more faithful than Moses, shouldn’t 3:7–4:13 say something to validate this claim? To argue that Heb 3:7–4:13 is about the faithfulness of Jesus, though, is to connect two themes that most interpreters of Hebrews have felt are better off separated: high priest (3:1–6) and pilgrimage (3:7–4:13). Whitfield argues that the solution to this dilemma is the name Ἰησοῦς (Jesus/Joshua), which in the Bible refers to three people: Ἰησοῦς the son of Nun (the successor of Moses), Ἰησοῦς the son of Jehozadak (the post-exilic high priest), and Ἰησοῦς the Son of God.

In short, Whitfield argues that Joshua (Ἰησοῦς) the high priest (ἀρχιερεύς) in Zechariah 3 and Joshua (Ἰησοῦς) the faithful champion (ἀρχηγός) of Israel in Numbers 13–14 are appropriated by the author of Hebrews in order to present Jesus (Ἰησοῦς) as “pioneer” (ἀρχηγός; Hebrews 2:10) and “high priest” (ἀρχιερεύς; Hebrews 3:1). Thus Hebrews 3:1–6 presents one who is appointed over God’s house as a faithful high priest (as was Ἰησοῦς in Zechariah 3:7), and Hebrews 3:7–4:13 presents a leader of Israel who models a faithful response to the good news, the promised rest (as did Ἰησοῦς in Numbers 13–14). The faithfulness required of the Ἰησοῦς placed over God’s house in Hebrews 3:1–6 is exhibited by the Ἰησοῦς who leads Israel into the land in 3:7–4:13.

This is a well-written book—not all scholarly tomes can say as much! I rarely had to re-read a sentence or a section. The literature surveys on the structure of Hebrews and intertextuality in Paul in the first two chapters are very useful introductions to those issues. In terms of the core content of the book, three points stood out as especially strong: 1) Whitfield’s observation that we need more scholarship on the use of Numbers in Hebrews (44, 266), 2) his lengthy discussion of the reception history of Numbers 13–14, particularly the chart containing Numbers 13–14, Deuteronomy 1, and the later accounts of Pseudo-Philo, Philo, and Josephus (121–26), and 3) his fundamental observation that Zechariah 3 offers some very interesting parallels to the heavenly high priesthood of Jesus in Hebrews.

Turning to the negative, I begin with two cautions for potential purchasers/reviewers. First, the substance of Whitfield’s argument appears in two other essays;[1] if you just want to know about Ἰησοῦς in Zechariah 3, Numbers 14, and Hebrews 3–4, read those and skip this book. The first two chapters, in particular, are surveys of secondary literature on the structure of Hebrews and intertextuality in Paul that were helpful introductions to those issues but did little, in my view, to further the thesis of the book. Second, though this book has just come out in 2013, Whitfield defended this project as a dissertation in 2007, and the published version contains no interaction with literature printed between 2008 and 2012.

On that note, one of the major weaknesses of the book is its lack of interaction with significant scholarship. Whitfield presents his project as an examination of Hebrews’ hermeneutics, “of how the author of Hebrews uses Scripture” (51), but he almost completely ignores previous scholarship on that exact topic. Neither the paradigmatic studies of hermeneutics in Hebrews by (for example) France, Hughes, Caird, Kistemaker, Johnson, and Motyer, nor studies of the use of OT narrative in Hebrews such as those by David Allen and Matthew Thiessen, appear anywhere in the book. Whitfield states that “apocalyptic Judaism and its understanding of priesthood have received too little attention from students of Hebrews” (269), yet he ignores major studies of precisely this phenomenon by Mason, Mackie, and Moffitt, and his lack of reference to “rewritten Bible” scholarship (e.g., Brooke, Najman, Zahn) in his discussion of Second Temple “reading practices” (47, 268) is puzzling.

A second issue concerns Whitfield’s intertextual method. Despite his insistence that we pay attention to the world outside the text, he operates with something of a non in Thora, non in mundo (if it isn’t in the Torah, it doesn’t exist) principle regarding the presence of a priest before the divine council in Zechariah 3: because this is the only place in the OT that depicts such a scene, all later presentations of a priest before the divine council (both non-canonical [e.g., Testament of Levi] and NT [Hebrews]) necessarily depend on Zechariah 3 (e.g., 258). This is certainly possible, or even probable in some cases, but the mere fact that the only canonical depiction of a priest with the divine council is that of Zechariah 3 does not make it so. Another problem concerns Hebrews’ dependence on the LXX (a well-established point which Whitfield does not dispute). Whitfield argues for parallels between Joshua’s ongoing access to the divine council in Zechariah 3 and Jesus’ perpetual presence among the angels in the heavenly sanctuary in Hebrews, after specifically noting that in the LXX of Zechariah 3:7, Joshua is not actually promised ongoing direct access to the divine council (165).

Third, and more fundamentally, the whole problem with which Whitfield is concerned (continuity of thought between Hebrews 3:1–6 and 3:7–4:13) is not, in my view, much of a problem at all. It seems to me a rather straightforward point that 3:1–6 contrasts Moses and Jesus, and 3:7–4:13 contrasts the responses of those called to follow Moses and Jesus. That is, the greater faithfulness of Jesus is in part because he, unlike Moses (and Joshua) will actually lead his people into God’s rest. Of course, this raises a final—and very important—point: that Joshua son of Nun is explicitly mentioned only once in Hebrews (4:8), and in that text functions as a negative rather than positive example: he failed to provide rest for Israel. Hebrews simply does not, in my opinion, present this Ἰησοῦς as a faithful ἀρχηγός in typological relationship to Ἰησοῦς the Messiah. [I should mention, though, that Whitfield’s is not the only recent monograph to argue for such a typology—Richard Ounsworth’s Joshua Typology in the New Testament (Mohr Siebeck; 2012) makes similar claims. So I may be in the minority on this!]

I am therefore not persuaded by Whitfield’s central claim: that Hebrews 3:1–6 and 3:7–4:13 are held together by allusions to Ἰησοῦς in Zechariah 3 and Numbers 13–14. That being said, I do hope the positive elements of the book mentioned above prompt further discussion of these issues. Thanks to Walter de Gruyter for graciously providing a review copy.


1. Bryan J. Whitfield, “Pioneeer and Perfecter: Joshua Traditions and the Christology of Hebrews,” in A Cloud of Witnesses: The Theology of Hebrews in Its Ancient Contexts (ed. Richard Bauckham et al.; Library of New Testament Studies 387; London: T&T Clark, 2008), 80–87; idem, “The Three Joshuas of Hebrews 3–4,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 37 (2010): 21–36.

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About Mike Kibbe

I am a recent graduate of the PhD (NT) program at Wheaton College, having completed my dissertation on the Sinai theophanies in relation to their use in Hebrews 12. I have been married to Annie (Kerns) for 7 years, and we have one son, Sean, who was born February 2012. I currently teach undergraduate New Testament courses at Wheaton.
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