Review of Georg Walser’s OT Quotations in Hebrews

Wasler, Georg. Old Testament Quotations in Hebrews.Walser WUNT 2/356. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013.

According to Walser, recent scholarship on Hebrews has failed to take into account the complexity of biblical text-traditions that existed in the first century CE, especially as demonstrated in the burgeoning field of LXX studies (3–4). Walser attempts to resolve this problem by examining the reception history of some texts cited in Hebrews in order to create a more comprehensive picture of the texts available to the author of Hebrews as well as the contexts in which they were used (3).

The bulk of the book (chs. 2–4; pp. 29–183) deals with three texts: Jer 31:33//Heb 8:10 and 10:16; Ps 40:7b//Heb 10:5; Gen 47:31b//Heb 11:21. Each of these chapters has four parts:

1) a brief overview of the relationship between the MT and LXX versions of the OT text under consideration

2) the reception history of that text in early Judaism

3) the reception history of that text in early Christianity (with separate sections for Greek and Latin traditions, up to ca. 500 CE)

4) the form and function of that OT text in Hebrews

These three texts, Walser says, “were chosen because the Old Testament texts quoted existed in different versions at the time when the New Testament text was composed” (190; cf. 23–24). This is one of the strengths of the study: Walser has not necessarily chosen the most significant OT texts for Hebrews (e.g., Ps 110:1, 4), but he has chosen some of the most difficult, simply because our data suggests sufficient textual variation in the first century to make the question of Hebrews’ source material rather complicated.

Chapter Two: Jeremiah 31:33 (38:33 LXX) has one particular variation of interest to Walser: the singular תורה (found in all Hebrew mss) and the plural νόμους (found in all Greek mss except Sinaiticus [32–33]). Walser notes that all early Jewish references to this text have the singular form, and all early Christian references have the plural form, but he admits that “there is no indication whatsoever that the plural of the LXX version was used [i.e., made a point of interest] by any of the early Church Fathers in their interpretation of the text” (85). And yet, he argues, “it is not unlikely that the plural of laws in Jer 31:33 still promoted the interpretation of the law as something other than the Torah” (89). More specifically, the use of the plural form in Hebrews makes it likely that, as was sometimes the case in later Christian use of the text, “the teaching of Jesus was in fact included in what was put into the heart of the people” (88).

Chapter Three: The differences between MT and LXX versions of Ps 40:7b clearly go beyond those of Jer 31:33; here we have “you have dug ears for me” (MT) vs. “a body you have prepared for me” (LXX). The former likely refers to a posture of obedience (rather than the offering of sacrifices), while the latter identifies oneself as the sacrifice to be offered. In this chapter Walser makes three basic arguments: both options appear frequently in early Christian literature (136), the LXX version as it appears in Hebrews (“a body you have prepared for me”) is not, as is sometimes thought to be the case, the product of the author of Hebrews himself (139), and “the meaning of the LXX version is actually the same as the MT version” (140).

Chapter Four: The final text, Gen 47:31b (in Heb 11:21), contains less variation than even Jer 31:33. “The difference between the two versions is, from a technical point of view, very small and only affects the vocalization of the Hebrew consonantal text מטה [either “bed” or “staff”] and the addition of αὐτου in the Septuagint” (142). Thus in the MT, “Then Israel bowed himself on the head of the bed,” while in the LXX, “And Israel did obeisance upon the top of his staff.” Walser further argues that the LXX rendering of מטה probably indicates the object of worship, while the MT rendering identifies the place of worship (182). He concludes that “the meaning of Gen 47:31b in Heb 11:21 is still unknown” (182), but “the main conclusion, and what is most important for the present investigation, is the fact that there actually existed several versions of the Hebrew text at the time when Hebrews was composed, and that there also existed interpretations based on the different versions, which were used by the Jewish community as well as by the early Church” (183).

The strengths of this book are primarily in the data: the central chapters provide a ton of reception-historical information, drawing from every source imaginable: Mishnah, Talmud, Pseudepigrapha, Latin and Greek Fathers, important NT mss (B46 [ca. 200 CE] plays a key role in chapter four), and so on. In terms of primary texts and translations dealing with the three key OT texts, this book will be a go-to reference source. One concluding observation arising from all this data is worth repeating: “in at least some cases the Jewish and Christian communities did not interpret the same text differently, but they interpreted different texts differently, and, as could be expected when using different texts, they came to very different conclusions” (189; emphasis original).

Walser is also right, generally speaking, when he says that literature on the OT in the NT oversimplifies the state of the text in the first century, and in particular that NT scholars would benefit from closer attention to recent Septuagint scholarship (I place myself among the guilty!). I am more confident than Walser about our ability to grasp the meaning of the text by means of the data available to us (see below), but his word of caution against overconfidence and oversimplification of the issues at stake is certainly a valuable one.

On to the weaknesses. First, the title of the book (OT Quotations in Hebrews) is misleading: this book is not really about Hebrews at all, but rather about the reception history of some OT texts that happen to appear in Hebrews as well as scores of other places. The quote from p. 183 given above tells the story: we don’t know what Gen 47:31b means in Heb 11:21, but “what is most important for the present investigation” is that we can know some things about text traditions that existed contemporaneously with Hebrews (183). A similar point arises from his conclusion about Ps 40:7 in Heb 10:5: “later sources have little to add about the understanding of Hebrews in this case” (139)—if the book were actually about Hebrews, this final claim would render the whole chapter rather superfluous.

Second, at least one of the three variations in form under discussion (singular vs. plural “law” in Jeremiah 31; the same might be true of “bed” vs. “staff” in Genesis 47) are inconsequential for their received meaning. Walser repeatedly identifies early Christian citations of Jer 31:33 that use the plural form but make no use of that form in their discussion (57, 58, 60 [2x], 61, 64, 65 [2x], 66, 67, 69, 70, 75, 77, 79, 81, 82, 83), and concludes that, as I cited earlier, “there is no indication whatsoever that the plural of the LXX version was used by any of the early Church Fathers in their interpretation of the text” (85). My question: Why make the form of νόμος the interpretive hinge when there are more important differences between Jeremiah (MT) and Jeremiah (LXX) from which to choose?

Third, I found unsubstantiated one of Walser’s major claims—that “interpretations are not always based on the version of the text that is actually quoted in the context of the interpretation” (17). That is, Walser argues that an author may have quoted the LXX version of Ps 40:7b (for example), but was actually interpreting the MT version. This claim is repeated ad nauseum (107, 127, 138–39, 169, 172, 178, 182, 186, 187, 188, 189, 191), but Walser offers a plausible argument on its behalf only once, in discussing Chrysostom’s correlation of Ps 18:44–45 with Ps 40:7b (121). One possible example a hermeneutical principle does not make.

Fourth, Walser’s use of later material to shed light on Hebrews is not in itself objectionable—undoubtedly, as he assumes, later traditions can be indicative of earlier ones. What is objectionable, however, is his frequent suggestion that the existence of a later interpretive tradition necessarily indicates awareness of that tradition by the author of Hebrews (e.g., 109, 135, 138). This is pure speculation on Walser’s part—possible, but impossible to prove.

Fifth, the book contains other numerous interpretive leaps that seemed to me unwarranted by the available data. For example, he claims that we need not distinguish between quotation and allusion simply because what appears to be an allusion may simply be a quotation of a text-form unknown to us (25). This may be true in some sense, but Hebrews’ unique way of introducing some Scriptures (as direct divine discourse) also suggests that the author is using certain texts for more fundamental rhetorical and structural purposes than others—in this case, Ps 40:7 and Jer 31:33 play a far more significant role in the argument of the letter than Gen 47:31. The distinction between citation and allusion remains important, I think.

Walser also appears to assume that all interpretations are conscious decisions between text-types—that is, interpreters had the various options in front of them and thus a choice for one wasby definition a choice against another (e.g., 158, 168–69).  On a related point, Walser claims that unless an author gives an explicit interpretation of a text, “no clear interaction can be traced between the quoted text and the argumentation of the author” (186, referring to Jer 31:33 in Hebrews 8:10 and 10:16). That is, if I have understood him correctly, we cannot know why authors cite other texts unless they clearly spell out for us why they have done so. These two issues strike me as a rather wooden hermeneutic—the meaning of the text is derivative of purely explicit and external factors.

In light of these issues, I wonder if the only plausible outcome of Walser’s method is differánce—perpetual deferral of any conclusion regarding the meaning of the biblical text. If the version of the text being interpreted is not the one being cited, if the best a dissertation on the OT in Hebrews can say is “the meaning of [the OT text as appropriated by Hebrews] is still unknown,” and if textual meaning is a function of choices between text-types and we don’t know what the options were, when will we ever be able to say anything about the meaning of the text itself? Walser summarizes his project this way: “there is still a lot to be done before a correct evaluation can be made of how the texts could or should be interpreted” (191). But is he asking the impossible, requiring that we do no actual biblical interpretation until one has gathered all the textual variations that existed in the first century and were therefore known to the author of Hebrews?

*Thanks to Mohr Siebeck for providing a review copy.

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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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