The Concept of Canon in the Reception of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Book Review

Title: The Concept of Canon in the Reception of the Epistle to the Hebrews
Author: David Young
Publisher: T&T Clark, 2021
Price: $115.00 (amz)  
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 176

In this detailed study, David Young seeks to answer the following questions: How was the letter to the Hebrews received in early Christianity? And further, What does this reception history say about the concept of canon in this era? 

In order to answer these questions, Young first sets the parameters of his study and signals his approach to the reception of biblical literature in the history of early Christianity. Mindful of the methodological mistake of importing anachronistic categories developed in later centuries onto the examination of earlier evidence, Young prioritizes social and material explanations for the distinctive reception of Hebrews in early Christianity.

Drawing on recent historical reconstructions, Young argues that the typical model of the letter’s early acceptance in the East and a gradual subsequent acceptance in the West is an argument from silence that does not account for the ambiguity of the evidence (pp. 3–14). Hebrews is utilized in various ways in both the East and the West, and the eventual assessment of figures like Jerome and Augustine draws upon a well-established reception of the letter: “an acceptance of Hebrews with questions about its authorship” (p. 13).

In the second and third centuries, Young insists, the discussion of Hebrews did not include the notions of canonical status or Scriptural authority (i.e., they did not focus on whether Hebrews was “in or out” of the accepted canonical lists). Rather, “the utility of the text of Hebrews to an author’s rhetorical aims appears to be the critical factor in Hebrews’ reception among patristic authors prior to the fourth century” (p. 49). Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen utilize Hebrews in relatively divergent ways (pp. 55–72). These theologians do not “concern themselves with the question of acceptance or rejection,” but rather exhibit nuance and complexity in their selection of passages from Hebrews, their interpretation of those passages, their opinions about Hebrews’ authorship,” as well as the interrelationship of these inquiries (p. 55).

In perhaps the strongest part of his monograph, Young shifts from the direct discussion of Hebrews by individuals to an examination of the manuscripts of the letter and what they can tell us about their reception (chapters four and five). Noting that “the vast majority of manuscripts that include Hebrews attest to a close relationship between the epistle and the corpus Paulinum,” Young argues that the key factor in the reception and reproduction of Hebrews was not “canonical status” but rather the letter’s relationship to a given edition of Paul’s letters (p. 77). Because editions of ancient texts indicated at least some deliberation and intentional arrangement by a given compiler (pp. 77–81), the position of Hebrews at the end of Paul’s letter collection (i.e., after Philemon) in the manuscript tradition was most likely due to the prevailing “hesitancy” about Pauline authorship.

For Young, the reason for this hesitancy is that early Latin translations of the Pauline corpus likely omitted Hebrews. Consequently, it is likely that “Latin-speaking Christians who encountered these early Latin editions of Paul that did not include Hebrews had no reason to associate the treatise with Paul” (p. 106). During the “wider push toward Latinity in the imperial administration of the fourth century,” then, there was a move “to systematize Latin editions of Paul in consultation with Greek editions” (p. 106).

There were several social factors that prompted the rise of “Latinity” in the Greco-Roman world such as increased patronage for translation projects (pp. 114–28), and these cultural forces created the impetus for the production of editions of Paul’s letters that reflected both the Greek and Latin manuscript traditions. In light of these factors, Young concludes that “the editorial reconciliation of these different traditions provides a plausible explanation for the placement of Hebrews at the end of the Pauline corpus, an editorial decision consistent with Hebrews’ questionable Pauline status and one that would determine its place in the vast majority of the subsequent manuscript tradition as well as modern print editions of the Bible” (p. 128).

This volume demonstrates that the reception of Hebrews is a kind of open window into the complex use and non-linear circulation of Scriptural texts in early Christianity. Young’s detailed interaction with figures in the second through fourth centuries also helpfully shows the difficulty of extrapolating a given historical writer’s comprehensive position on the concept of canon.

Young’s broader argument about the status and role of authoritative writings in the earliest churches will be most compelling to those who share his understanding of the development of the concept of canon in the first through third centuries (his central claim here is that there is not a coherent concept of canon prior to the fourth century intellectual debates among ecclesial theologians). However, I’m not sure he has demonstrated that a stable or authoritative collection of texts was actually absent or irrelevant for these theologians in earlier eras. For instance, the early circulation of a “core collection” of apostolic writings, the phenomenon of widespread liturgical usage, and the impact of Irenaeus’s categories for the shape and status of biblical texts collectively represent a chapter in the story of early Christianity that Young acknowledges but does not integrate into his study. 

These alternate lines of inquiry, however, admittedly tap into a much more complex debate in biblical studies that involves a host of critical historiographical decisions. On balance, Young’s treatment of the reception of Hebrews along with his careful methodological parameters make this volume an interesting and substantive contribution to the field.

Book Review
August 4, 2022


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