In the following interview, Scott Mackie speaks about his recent publication with T&T Clark, The Letter to the Hebrews: Critical Readings (T&T Clark Critical Readings in Biblical Studies; London: Bloomsbury, 2018). Scott is a passionate and lifelong student of Hebrews, having written numerous scholarly articles on the letter over his career. He is perhaps the best living guide for this NT letter known so well for its rich metaphors and use of the OT. Below, Scott describes the greatest influences in his own scholarship on Hebrews and the value of his Critical Readings to your own research.
You’ve been a student of Hebrews for a number of years now, as well as Philo of Alexandria and Jewish mysticism. What has prepared you for this role as editor of a significant contribution of critical readings on Hebrews, and what criteria led to you select the articles from the corpus of scholarly work available?
When I began studying Hebrews 20 years ago you could nearly master the literature in 2 to 3 years of study. The development of important themes, such as Christology and eschatology, was also much easier to chart back then. The explosion of publications in the past decade, though certainly a welcome development, has made it much more difficult for beginning scholars to get a handle on the seminal works and the advances of scholarship over the past 50-60 years. Without that foundational orientation unnecessary missteps ensue.
I recently read something by a younger scholar who confidently argued, on the basis of Heb 4:11 alone, that the eschatological rest discussed in 3:7–4:11 was an entirely future place/event. However, as Barrett noted some 60 years ago, a “now, but not yet” eschatological tension is evident when 4:3 is allowed to function in a dialectical relationship with 4:11. Thus, the rest is “both present and future; men enter it (4:3), and must strive to enter it (4:11). This is paradoxical, but it is a paradox which Hebrews shares with all primitive eschatology” (“The Eschatology of the Epistle to the Hebrews,” 153). Not all, but many of the essays are widely attested as ground-breaking works, works which beginning scholars should be conversant with in order to avoid past mistakes and genuinely advance the discussion.
Financial matters, unfortunately, also influenced the shape and scope of the volume. As the project progressed the selection process became quite complicated, as the copyright costs of some of the intended essays were impossibly prohibitive. Though many presses were reasonable (ca. $100–200), others wanted as much as $1000 for a 10–15 page article! The financial impact of Brexit then worsened this situation.
What draws you personally to the letter to the Hebrews, compared to any other book in the New Testament, for example?
What an extraordinary person the author of Hebrews must have been! Highly educated and undoubtedly wealthy, somehow this cosmopolitan Alexandrian, against all odds, fell passionately in love with Jesus! My “somehow” is of course facetious, as almost everything I have written attempts to demonstrate his familiarity with the most powerful, transformative spiritual experiences on offer in ancient Jewish texts and traditions. And of course it was these experiences and encounters with the exalted Jesus which decisively shaped his life, thought, and ministry.
From the time I converted to Christianity, at age 26, Jesus has spoken most clearly and powerfully to me through Hebrews. In fact, there have been long stretches of my Christian life where Hebrews was all that I read from the Bible! Just about everything I have ever needed is found in this “word of exhortation.”
You have gathered a truly impressive cast of characters in this volume, including the likes of C.K. Barrett and George B. Caird among others. Can you introduce us to a few of the others and mention briefly why they, and their work, were included?
Something that occurred to me as I was working on this volume, that I’d never really realized before, was that some of the most important work on Hebrews, pre-1990, was done by “dabblers,” scholars like Barrett, Caird, Lindars, and Meier, whose primary interests and efforts were directed elsewhere. Perhaps there was a feeling on their part that Hebrews couldn’t sustain a lifetime of interest. Or maybe the fact that really no one was solely invested in Hebrews at that time. It was probably Harold Attridge who changed all that.
Personally, the most influential essays are those of Barrett, Schenck, Koester, Hahn, and deSilva. Ken Schenck’s essay, “A Celebration of the Enthroned Son,” was an absolute game-changer for me. It opened my eyes to other poetic/dramatic elements in Hebrews (esp. 2:12–13), and an awareness of the “big-picture” narrative that structures and informs Hebrews. All too often scholars approach biblical texts as if they are mathematical equations, and Schenck’s essay shows the inadequacies of this approach. I was also deeply impressed by the intellectual dexterity of Craig Koester’s work, and the almost “revelatory” quality of Hahn’s piece. And though his emphasis on the patronage system has been called into question, deSilva was a huge influence in the early stages of my studies. His example of first-class scholarship that evinces personal devotion to Jesus was just what I needed at that point!
What is the value of this Critical Reader for the church, in particular, and why should pastors and students get a hold of this book?
In my opinion, anything that increases the visibility of Hebrews is a good thing. I attempted to make the six section introductions accessible for lay people while also providing a précis of critical issues for the benefit of beginning scholars. I am hopeful that the increasing popularity of Hebrews will extend from the world of scholarship into the church. I believe that Hebrews has never been more relevant. His portrayal of Jesus is so attractive! The Jesus of Hebrews is immanent and available, sympathetically disposed, and graciously providing the transformative forgiveness and psychological cleansing that this world so desperately needs! A great example of Hebrews’ present relevance is evident in how he transforms early church tradition concerning Jesus’ exaltation. Thus, the confession of Jesus’ lordship on bended knee (Phil 2:10–11) is replaced by a dramatic portrayal of Jesus’ open-armed, welcoming embrace of his little brothers and sisters, and his confession of their membership in the family of God (Heb 2:12–13). This is the Jesus of Hebrews.
What are you currently working on in Hebrews or otherwise that we should be aware of?
I am about halfway done with books on Hebrews and Philo’s visual mysticism. I am also plotting an edited volume that will investigate points of intersection between these two authors. All these important works will appear if only I can stop goofing around and get serious.