Review of McKelvey, Pioneer and Priest: Jesus Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews

Indisputably, “pioneer” (Heb 2:10; 12:2) and “priest”/“high priest” (2:17; 3:1; 4:14–15; 5:5–6, 10; 7:11, 15, 17, 21, 26; 8:1, 4; 9:11; 10:21) are key descriptions of Jesus in the letter to the Hebrews. In this brief volume (205 pp., including appendices) McKelvey sets out to trace their importance throughout the letter, examining them not as discrete concepts but as irrevocably intertwined. The result is a book that is somewhat difficult to classify genre-wise; sometimes it reads like a collection of short essays or lectures, other times like a commentary, and other times like a monograph. In the end, it serves rather like the photographs or drawings one finds at a “point of interest” along a path—telling you what you ought to be noticing at that particular moment in your journey, but saying little about how you are supposed to get from that point to the next one.Image

In terms of the main thesis of the book (the interconnectedness of “pioneer” and “priest” as central Christological motifs in Hebrews), McKelvey’s case is solid, if hardly revolutionary. He suggests that Roman Catholic interpreters have emphasized priesthood to the exclusion of Jesus’ pioneering work, and that Protestant scholars have done the reverse (xxiv), but time would fail me were I to list all of the exceptions to this supposed rule! McKelvey’s contribution is not primarily in the newness of his argument but in its synthesis of the material.[1]

Below I deal with two overarching issues: the content and argument of the book, and its usability as a textbook. The need for the second follows on my conclusion to the first; I do not think this book moves the scholarly conversation forward in any significant way, but I do think it could serve to bring up to speed those less familiar with that conversation.

I. Evaluating the Content of the Book

As noted above, the book does not really follow a consistent and coherent line of argument; it is thus a difficult book to summarize with any precision.[2] But some of McKelvey’s main premises are clear, and worth discussing individually.

First: McKelvey’s bringing together of priestly and pioneering motifs in Hebrews depends in part on his claim that, like some other writers in the first century, the author of Hebrews conceives of all reality as a cosmic temple—the material cosmos is the outer sanctuary, and the heavenly realm is the inner sanctuary (esp. pp. 80–87). But McKelvey never actually makes an argument for this; rather, he simply assumes it and then states that such a framework helps make sense of Hebrews’ cultic cosmology. Nowhere in Hebrews is the material cosmos depicted as the outer sanctuary; in fact, such an in inference renders Hebrews’ cultic discussion incomprehensible. How can Golgotha be “outside the camp” (13:13) if the whole cosmos is already within the sanctuary? How can Jesus’ priesthood function only in heaven and, explicitly, not on earth (8:4), if earth is already that place into which only priests may go? And more directly to the point, the “greater and more perfect tent” through which Christ appears as high priest is specifically described as “not of this creation” (9:11)! McKelvey ignores this latter part of the verse when he describes the greater and more perfect tent as “encompassing heaven and earth” (93).

Second: McKelvey deals extensively with the question of why Hebrews never refers to the “temple,” but always to the “tabernacle” (72–77). Unfortunately, both his survey of possible answers and his own conclusion fall short. McKelvey argues that, in fact, when the author says “tabernacle” he is really referring to the temple in Jerusalem, and uses the alternate term simply because it “suited his pilgrimage theme” (77). But the difference between tabernacle and temple is not simply one of word-choice, as one might describe the heavy piece of cloth standing between inner and outer sanctum as a “veil” or a “curtain” depending on the context. I find the answer proposed by Matthew Thiessen[3] (not discussed by McKelvey) far more suitable: that the author of Hebrews is locating his audience in the Deuteronomic moment of decision, as though they were on the plains of Moab just prior to their entrance into the promised rest. Both rhetorically (because they are still in pilgrimage toward Zion rather than already inhabiting it) and historically (no “temple” existed at that time in Israel’s history; what they possessed was the “tabernacle” constructed at Sinai—cf. Hebrews 8:5), it is entirely appropriate that the earthly sanctuary is deemed a tabernacle rather than a temple. One could argue, in fact, that this view does more to contribute to McKelvey’s “Jesus as pioneer” theme than his own view. 

Third: McKelvey deals in great detail with Hebrews’ appropriation of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, described in Leviticus 16) (this point appears throughout the book, though see especially pp. 190–93). But he ignores (like so many others) the fact that Yom Kippur is not the only cultic ritual upon which Hebrews constructs its depiction of Christ’s priestly work. No analysis of Christ’s priesthood in Hebrews is complete without attention to these other sacrifices (see, e.g., Heb 9:12–13, where several rituals are conflated).

Fourth: McKelvey takes a firm stance on what I think is, and always has been, one of the most important issues in Hebrews studies: the nature of the sequence of atonement in Hebrews. “What Jesus did on earth and what he did on entering the heavenly sanctuary are . . . a single indivisible priestly action. His offering in heaven is not thought of as separate from his offering on the cross” (36; see also 108). When pressed on the details, McKelvey takes the metaphorical way out—that is, this whole discussion about Christ’s priestly offering is metaphorical, so don’t get too hung up on the details (83, 88, 108, 124). In other words: Jesus died, was raised, and ascended into heaven where he took his seat at God’s right hand. That sequence as a whole, without trying to sub-divide it, is analogous to the high priest’s two actions on the Day of Atonement: slaughter of the animal and presentation of the blood inside the holy of holies. This, taking into account some minor variations, is probably the majority view among Hebrews scholars today.

            Without getting lost in the details, I have four issues with McKelvey’s analysis on this point. First, McKelvey does not, uncharacteristically, give a taxonomy of views on this issue. Given how murky the waters are in this hotly contested issue, the reader would have been well-served by some description of the options.[4] Second, he (like so many others!) fails to explain what he means by “metaphorical”; in some cases it functions simply as an excuse for a lack of precision. Third, this argument depends in part on his “cosmic temple” view that I critique above: both death and offering take place in that cosmic temple, thus both are part of the high priest’s work in the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement. Fourth, he takes Jesus’ “indestructible life” (7:16) as referring to the resurrection—but Heb 7:16 explicitly makes this life the basis for his priesthood. No indestructible life, no priesthood. And if that life is given to Jesus at his resurrection, he cannot be a priest prior to that point (i.e., on the cross). This is the main premise of David Moffitt’s work, for example[5]—if we take the resurrection as a discrete moment in the process, we cannot conflate death on earth and offering in heaven. I do not claim that Moffitt and his predecessors are right, but they have made a substantial argument (based on more than just Heb 7:16, of course) that potentially undermines McKelvey’s entire cultic substructure, and McKelvey’s book is poorer for not having dealt with them.


II. An Undergraduate Textbook for a Course on Hebrews?

First: McKelvey covers almost all the big issues in Hebrews: background of thought, situation of the audience, metaphorical vs. literal cultic language, cosmology, Melchizedekian Christology (the potential impetus behind Hebrews’ summoning of Melchizedek on pp. 62–63 was one of the more helpful sections), etc. Generally, he does a fair and reasonably thorough job of laying out the options on each.[6] Perhaps the largest issue not addressed is Hebrews’ use of the OT (excepting Leviticus 16 and Psalm 110). For example, one finds only two references to Jeremiah 31 (and no discussion of that text in either place), and no mention at all of Psalms 2 and 95 or Deuteronomy 32—all of which play major roles in Hebrews’ Christological exhortation. Psalm 8 is introduced as crucial to Hebrews’ presentation of Jesus as pioneer (p. 24), but is never referenced again. McKelvey also says very little about Hebrews 1, both in terms of its use of the OT and its role in the argument of the epistle. Hebrews 1 is indisputably vital as a set-up to that argument; skimming over it is a major shortcoming of this book.

Second: as hinted earlier, McKelvey has given us neither a coherent monograph nor a disparate collection of essays—the reader needs to know what has been said in chapter 3 before reading chapter 4, for example, and yet there is no clear development of the broader argument from one to the other. Care would need to be exercised in terms of assigning portions of the book as required reading from week to week.

Third: it is only a small thing, and perhaps I should forewarn my reader of an impending soapbox, but I continue to be mystified at the use of transliterated Greek text in scholarly literature today. If the reader does not know Greek, transliterations do not change that (eiserchomenēn is no more meaningful than εἰσερχομενήν). If the reader does know Greek, transliterations simply get in the way. This feature makes the book less useful for both courses that require proficiency with Greek and those that do not. And in this age of unicode fonts, I do not see what advantage transliteration offers the publisher, either. [It’s a different story in OT contexts, of course, whether in terms of comparative linguistics or simply dealing with right-to-left fonts.]

Ultimately, I would consider using this book as a textbook as an alternative to making students read extensively in a single commentary. But it does have some holes both in terms of covering all the issues and covering all the options for those issues, thus requiring some additional reading material.

*Thanks to Pickwick for providing a review copy.

[1] One substantive point regarding the main thesis of the book that was new (to me, at least) was his observation that nowhere prior to Hebrews do we find a high priest who leads others in his wake—priests typically go where others may not, rather than going so as to open the door for others. It is therefore, McKelvey notes, in his role as pioneering high priest that Jesus’ uniqueness is revealed (see his comments on Heb 10:19–22 on pp. 122–23).

[2] Note to Pickwick: the lack of a table of contents is also not helpful.

[3] “Hebrews and the End of the Exodus.” Novum Testamentum 49 (2007): 353–69.

[4] See here for my recent attempt to provide this taxonomy.

[5] Moffitt, David M. Atonement and the Logic of the Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews. NovTSup 141. Leiden: Brill, 2011.

[6] It thus has the advantage over the other obvious choice for a textbook, Reading the Epistle to the Hebrews: A Resource for Students (Leiden: Brill, 2011), in which several of the essays are rather idiosyncratic and do not give students the necessary general overview of the issues and the varying viewpoints on each.


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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