Book Review: The Jewish Heroes Of Christian History

The Jewish Heroes Of Christian History: Hebrews 11 in Literary Context, by Pamela Michelle Eisenbaum

This was a slightly disappointing book for me. Eisenbaum claims immense expertise in untangling the origins of Hebrews 11 as a subtle polemic that seeks to turn the marginal status of Christians into a cohesive bond through the subtle retelling of biblical history, but she oversells her point and shows some rather disappointing failures to understand biblical history enough to make this a properly nuanced account. In short, the book oversells is goals and slightly misses the mark.

Nonetheless, the book is not without value, assuming that one is a fairly well educated reader who has some basic knowledge of apocryphal and Hellenistic works and is able to read this fairly short but technical textual analysis with some background knowledge. The author does make some important insights, including an examination of a subtle rhetorical technique that plays off of the different status given between quoting and narrating scripture. Nonetheless, even with these insights the author overstates her case. She assumes the statements of the biblical patriarchs not receiving the promises or being outsiders is itself novel to Hebrews 11, or in seeing the transnational goals of Hebrews 11 as including a retelling of Israel apart from the narrow interests of Jewish nationalism as somewhat unusual (has she never read Psalm 87, or Psalm 117, or Isaiah 56)?

The authoress appears to have a subtle agenda herself in using her own biased perspective of documentary history as well as her (probably) mistaken understanding of the date of the writing of Hebrews as well as key texts like Psalm 106 (which she cites as post-exilic despite the numerous quotations of the Psalm in pre-exilic materials throughout 2 Samuel and 2 Kings, as well as the post-exilic 2 Chronicles). By trumping up the rhetorical agenda of the anonymous author of Hebrews and downplaying the biblical warrant for his perspective, the author seems to be subtly blaming Hebrews for the hostile revisionist anti-Semitism that resulted as Jews were written by Hellenistic Christians from their own history, to the point where people do not tend to understand that Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew. The author of Hebrews does not deserve this blame.

Moreover, she shares with other critics of Hebrews (like Monte Judah) a misguided belief that Hebrews signifies an antinomian tendency among early Christianity that rejected the validity of God’s covenantal order. These serious flaws sharply reduce the worth of this book with regards to understanding what Hebrews 11 really says. Nonetheless, the book’s accurate understanding that the heroes of Hebrews 11 are marginalized does account for the appeal that the book has for relative outcasts like myself and others who feel cut off between a Hellenistic Christianity and a Judaism that has cut itself off from its Messianic understandings. The author would have been better served to have treated Hebrews 11 with a bit more nuance and humility, rather than making fairly basic errors (including her mistaken assumption on the importance of Genesis 9 rather than Genesis 15 in justifying the conquest of Canaan by the Jews, showing Josephus to have been correct in his analysis that the Canaanites deserved to be conquered because of their sin).

The wise and discerning reader will be able to glean bits of wisdom from this book, particularly in those sections that seek to place Hebrews 11 among its fellow hero lists among the Jewish sectarian and Hellenistic world. Nonetheless, the book is a bit disappointing because its oversold nature and lack of biblical understanding cuts against the claims of the authoress to be a particularly profound expert in biblical exegesis. She is certainly well read in the sectarian literature and Hellenistic literature of the time, but she is sadly lacking in an understanding of the biblical context, and it is her weakness in assuming Christian attitudes toward Judaism as well as the law and covenant to be monolithic as well as failing to understand the proper depth of the biblical material that she is working with that makes her work somewhat disappointing. Still, those who are able to sift the wheat from the chaff will find much food for thought nonetheless.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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23 Responses to Book Review: The Jewish Heroes Of Christian History

  1. Brian says:

    I agree with you- it was the marginalization of the heroes that meant the most to me as well, though there is a lot to read through to get to that point. I think that there is merit to the book’s claim that the book of Hebrews endeavors to tie the Christian experience to that of Israel’s heroes in explicit ways, though I think Eisnebaum makes a bit too much of it (or perhpas rather takes it too far).

    • Indeed, that is quite right. I agree there is merit in the thought that the author of Hebrews had a certain historiographical bias (who doesn’t?) and certain rhetorical aims in viewing biblical history according to a particularly Christian post-Jewish worldview, but I was a bit disappointed at how Eisenbaum managed to take it too far. Still, it’s a worthwhile book overall as long as you dial down her rhetoric to a less exaggerated level.

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