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Choosing What Is Advantageous: The Relationship between Epideictic and Deliberative Syncrisis in Hebrews

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 June 2012

Michael W. Martin
Lubbock Christian University, 5601 19th Street, Lubbock, Texas 79407, USA. email:
Jason A. Whitlark
Baylor University, One Bear Place 97350, Waco, TX 76798, USA. email:


This study examines deliberative syncrisis and its relationship to epideictic syncrisis in Hebrews, with a view to addressing the question of whether the rhetoric of Hebrews is ultimately epideictic or deliberative in its overall tenor and aim. Building on a previous study of epideictic syncrisis in Hebrews, the study argues that epideictic syncrisis is consistently in service in Hebrews to deliberative syncrisis, providing it with both the logical premise and the topical theme by which it advances the argument. This relationship is key, the study argues, both to Hebrews' structure and to its aim, which are decidedly deliberative in nature.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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1 The present debate is also due to the presence of exhortations throughout Hebrews that appear to have epideictic force and of those that appear to have deliberative force. For a discussion of this point see deSilva, D., Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 47–8Google Scholar. Soden, H. von (Hebräerbrief, Briefe des Petrus, Jakobus, Judas [HKNT 3; Freiburg: Mohr, 1899] 811)Google Scholar was an early proponent of studying Hebrews in light of Greek rhetorical structures and genre.

2 Olbricht, T., ‘Hebrews as Amplification’, Rhetoric and the New Testament: Essays from the 1992 Heidelberg Conference (ed. Porter, S. E. and Olbricht, T. H.; JSNTSupp 90; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1993)Google Scholar 378.

3 Seid, T., ‘Synkrisis in Hebrews 7: Rhetorical Structure and Analysis’, The Rhetorical Interpretation of Scripture: Essays from the 1996 Malibu Conference (ed. Porter, S. E. and Stamps, D. L.; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1999) 346–7Google Scholar. For other proponents of epideictic rhetoric for Hebrews see Eisenbaum, P., Jewish Heroes of Christian History: Hebrews 11 in Literary Context (SBLDS 156; Atlanta: Scholars, 1997)Google Scholar 12; Attridge, H., The Epistle to the Hebrews (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989)Google Scholar 14.

4 Witherington, B., Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James and Jude (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007) 43–4Google Scholar.

5 Witherington, Letters and Homilies, 44, 52. Both of the statements are problematic. While Hebrews is concerned with present action, that concern is shaped by a future orientation that pervades Hebrews throughout (e.g., Heb 2.3; 3.14; 4.1, 11; 6.9–12; 10.25, 36; 11.13–16, 25–26, 35; 12.1–3, 28; 13.14). Also with regard to the epideictic nature of ancient homilies, this statement is not supported with any primary evidence or secondary source discussion by Witherington and so one is not able to make any evaluation of his claim.

6 Witherington, Letters and Homilies, 46–8.

7 Witherington, Letters and Homilies, 48, who approvingly cites A. Lincoln. See also Olbricht, ‘Hebrews as Amplification’, 381.

8 Witherington, Letters and Homilies, 55–6.

9 Backhaus, K., Der Hebräerbrief (RNT; Regensburg: Friedrich Pustet, 2009) 3940Google Scholar; Überlacker, W., Der Hebräerbrief als Appell: Untersuchungen zu Exordium, Narratio und Postscriptum (Hebr 1–2 und 13,22–25) (ConBNT 21; Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1989) 214–29Google Scholar; Lindars, B., ‘The Rhetorical Structure of Hebrews’, NTS 35 (1989) 382406CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 For the discussion that follows see deSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude, 47–56.

11 DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude, 56. Cf. Überlacker, Die Hebräerbrief als Appell, 219–20.

12 Martin, M. W. and Whitlark, J. A., ‘The Encomiastic Topics of Syncrisis as the Key to the Structure and Argument of Hebrews’, NTS 57 (2011) 415–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 See Cicero De or. 2.40.172; Inv.1.28.41; 2.17.55; Ps. Hermogenes 19; Aphthonius 42; Nicolaus 60; cf. Martin, M. W., Judas and the Rhetoric of Syncrisis in the Fourth Gospel (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2010) 3941Google Scholar.There is an interesting correspondence between this comparative rationale demonstrated in the rhetorical handbooks and Hillel's seven rules of Scripture interpretation. The first rule, that concerning qal wa-homer (‘light and heavy’), corresponds to syncrisis to the greater and the lesser, granting as it does ‘[a]n inference drawn from a minor premise to a major and vice versa’, while the second rule, that concerning gezerah shawah (‘an equivalent regulation’), corresponds to syncrisis to the equal, granting as it does ‘an inference drawn from analogy of expressions’. On this correspondence see Daube, D., ‘Rabbinic Methods of Interpretation and Hellenistic Rhetoric’, HUCA 22 (1949) 239–64Google Scholar; for the characterizations quoted above, see Ellis, E. E., The Old Testament in Early Christianity: Canon and Interpretation in the Light of Modern Research (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1991) 8791Google Scholar. See also Visotzky, B., ‘Midrash, Christian Exegesis, and Hellenistic Hermeneutic’, Current Trends in the Study of Midrash (ed. Bakhos, C.; Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 106; Leiden: Brill, 2006) 120–6Google Scholar and Alexander, P., ‘Quid Athenis et Hierosolymis? Rabbinic Midrash and Hermeneutics in the Graeco-Roman World’, A Tribute to GézaVermès: Essays on Jewish and Christian Literature and History (ed. Davies, P. and White, R.; JSOTSup 100; Sheffield: JSOT, 1990) 97115Google Scholar.

14 All translations of the progymnasmata are from Kennedy, G. A., Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric (Atlanta: SBL, 2003)Google Scholar; citations for Theon and Aphthonius refer to the page numbers of the critical editions in Spengel, L., ed., Rhetores Graeci (3 vols.; Leipzig: Teubner, 1854–56)Google Scholar.

15 It should be noted, though, that several of the syncrises we will identify work in concert with accompanying deliberative exempla, making their implicitly comparative logic explicit. For instance, the wilderness generation is held up as a negative exemplum for the present generation in 3.7–4.1. This is followed by a deliberative syncrisis to the lesser (that juxtaposes the two generations in 4.2–3; see the analysis below). Whereas most theorists would designate only 4.2–3 as comparison, Quintilian would call the entire text comparison.

16 The four that warn against apostasy are most explicitly built upon preceding verdicts of superiority in the comparison of covenants (see below). This emphasis upon warning may point to the fact that community defection was a real and present danger for several in the community.

17 Martin and Whitlark, ‘The Encomiastic Topics of Syncrisis’, 415–39.

18 Martin and Whitlark, ‘The Encomiastic Topics of Syncrisis’, 419–23, 425 n. 20.

19 According to Heb 8.5, Moses proleptically sees the heavenly priestly ministry of Jesus that the old covenant institutions, which he established, prefigured (e.g., 9.1–10). In this way Moses can be said to preach the gospel, namely, through the revelatory and anticipatory old covenant institutions. Cf. M. D'Angelo, Moses in the Letter to the Hebrews (SBLDS 42; Missoula: Scholars) 248.

20 Explicit comparison is seen in 4.2: ‘for we have the gospel preached just as (καθάπερ) they’ and in 4.3: ‘for we who believe enter into the rest’.

21 On the preferability of the NIV translation, see Koester, Hebrews, 326 and O'Brien, P., The Letter to the Hebrews (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) 236–7Google Scholar.

22 We take ‘heirs of the promise’ (6.17) to be a reference to the members of the present community. Cf. Ellingworth, P., The Epistle to the Hebrews (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 341Google Scholar; and Attridge, Hebrews, 181.

23 On the identification of the promise and oath in 6.17 as that of Ps 110.4, see deSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude, 250; for the alternative view, that Christians are given the same promise and oath as Abraham (Gen 22.16–17), see Koester, Hebrews, 328; Lane, W., Hebrews 1–8 (WBC 47A; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991) 152Google Scholar; Bruce, Hebrews, 154; and Ellingworth, Hebrews, 334. In our view, the former option is preferable primarily for three reasons. First, the writer's claim that Christians are ‘more clearly’ shown the ‘unchangeable character of [God's] purpose’ argues for the granting of a different and better oath rather than the same oath. Second, ‘the unchangeable character of [God's] purpose’ (Heb 6.18) is an allusion to Ps 110.4's claim that ‘the Lord…will not change his mind’ concerning what he has sworn. Third, Ps 110.4 is explicitly quoted as part of the hortatory argument only two verses later (6.20; cf. 7.21), and in echo of the earlier quotation (5.6) from the accompanying syncritical section.

24 Cf. O'Brien, Hebrews, 237.

25 Cf. Swetnam, J., Jesus and Isaac: A Study of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the Light of the Aqedah (AnBib 94; Rome: Biblical Institute, 1981)Google Scholar 92, 185. Like Swetnam, we take the author's interpretation of the binding of Isaac in Heb 11.17–19 to be the controlling context for how we interpret the allusive reference to it in Heb 6.13–16.

26 In the Septuagint, προσφέρω is commonly associated with making an offering or sacrifice to the Lord as prescribed by Leviticus (e.g., Lev 2.1, 4, 11, 14; 7.8, 29, 33; 21.6; cf. 1 Macc 4.56; 7.33; 12.11).

27 Philo represents Abraham as a priest performing a sacrifice when he offers up Isaac (cf. Abr. 168). The binding of Isaac has a rich interpretive tradition in early Judaism and Christianity of which Hebrews is a part; cf. Levenson, J., The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven: Yale University, 1993) 173232Google Scholar; Huizenga, L., The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (NovTSup 131; Leiden: Brill, 2009) 75128CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Swetnam, Jesus and Isaac, 23–85. One of Swetnam's summary conclusions is that ‘the Aqedah was regarded from the time of the composition of Gn 22 and all through early Judaism as involving a sacrifice’ (77).

28 Cf. O'Brien, Hebrews, 373.

29 The quotation from Deut 17.2–6 (‘died on the testimony of two or three witnesses’) refers to the covenant offense of idolatry, which was the ultimate act of apostasy under the old covenant.

30 Martin and Whitlark, ‘The Encomiastic Topics of Syncrisis’, 415–39.

31 See Martin and Whitlark, ‘The Encomiastic Topics of Syncrisis’, 415–39, esp. 423–39.

32 The emphasis on the covenants' derivation from messengers and one ‘superior to the angels’ respectively is seen in the syncrisis' introduction (1.1–4), an emphasis resumed in the deliberative syncrisis that follows (2.1–2; see the discussion below).

33 In Heb 9.18–21, Moses is said to have inaugurated [ἐγκαινίζειν] the first covenant; on Jesus' similarly foundational role with respect to the new covenant, cf. 7.22; 8.6.

34 In Gen 4.9, Abel's blood is a witness against Cain, who did not heed God's warning. In 1 En. 22.5–7, the spirit of Abel himself appeals to God for vindication against Cain and all his seed. Jas 5.6 appears to assume this tradition, with its note of appeal to God against the oppressors of the righteous; cf. Byron, J., ‘Living in the Shadow of Cain: Echoes of a Developing Tradition in James 5:1–6’, NovT 48 (2006) 271–3Google Scholar. By the time of Hebrews, Abel and his blood function symbolically as witnesses that testify against the oppression of God's righteous ones and to their future vindication and salvation by God.

35 Every section of 3.7–4.11 reflects this hortatory concern. Heb 3.7–19 functions to demonstrate that the wilderness generation did not enter God's rest because of unbelief/hardheartedness. The deliberative counsel and syncrisis that follow in 4.1–2 explicitly contrast that generation's unbelieving response with the potentially similar response of the present generation. Heb 4.3–11 then demonstrates that the rest spoken of in Ps 94 (LXX) is God's eschatological Sabbath rest and not entrance into Canaan (Heb 4.8–10). Thus it concludes with an exhortation (4.11) based upon the deliberative comparison in 4.1–2 not to follow the wilderness generation's example. Finally, Heb 4.12–13 continues to impress upon the readers that God's word of judgment in the Psalm against the wilderness generation is directed to them.

36 On Heb 5.11–6.20 as a digression, see Backhaus, K., Der Neue Bund und das Werden der Kirche:die Diatheke-Deutung des Hebräerbrief im Rahmen der frühchristlichen Theologiegeschichte (NTAbh 29; Münster: Aschendorff, 1996)Google Scholar 54; Thompson, J., Hebrews (Paideia; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008) 119Google Scholar; deSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude, 209; Koester, Hebrews, 306; Isaacs, M., Reading Hebrews and James: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2002)Google Scholar 80; Guthrie, The Structure of Hebrews, 110, 141; Michel, O., Der Brief an die Hebräer (KEK 13; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966)Google Scholar 231; Bruce, F. F., The Epistle to the Hebrews (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, rev. ed. 1990)Google Scholar 133. Johnson, L. T., Hebrews: A Commentary (NTL; Louisville: WJK, 2006)Google Scholar 152, simply calls 5.11–6.12 an ‘interruption’, while Attridge, Hebrews, 186, identifies the section as a ‘paraenetic prelude’ to the central expository section; see also Vanhoye, A., The Structure and Message of the Epistle to the Hebrews (trans. Swetnam, James; Subsidia Biblica 12; Rome: Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1989)Google Scholar 33; and Lane, Hebrews 1–8, 133–4. Ellingworth, Hebrews, 297, suggests 5.11–14 looks back to 5.7–10, but he takes 5.11–6.20 as preparatory for the central exposition in 7.1–10.18. Some commentators cite Quintilian Inst. 4.3.10 and Ps.-Cicero Her. 3.14.9 for the rhetorical use of ‘digression’ in ancient speeches.

37 On the pedagogical nature of these terms and metaphors, see Thompson, J. W., The Beginnings of Christian Philosophy: The Epistle to the Hebrews (CBQMS 13; Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1982) 2930Google Scholar; Attridge, Hebrews, 158–61; and deSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude, 211–12.

38 On ‘perfection’ as the end goal of one's ‘progressing’ in paideia or philosophical studies, see Epictetus Diatr. 1.4.1, 4, 18–21; Philo Post. 132; Leg. 3.159; Somn. 2.234–35; and Vita Pachomii 2, 28, 43; for these citations and further discussion, see Talbert, C. H., ‘The Way of the Lukan Jesus: Dimensions of Lukan Spirituality’, PRSt 9 (1982) 237–49Google Scholar, who notes that the Gospel of Luke (2.52; 13.31–35) depicts Jesus ‘progressing’ toward a ‘perfection’ achieved, as in Heb 2.10 and 5.8–9, through suffering and death.

39 On mimesis as a practice of the ancient classroom—and one with moral dimensions—see Theon 70–71. The mimesis in view in Hebrews takes Christ as its ultimate model.

40 Cf. Jub. 17.16–17, which records seven tests of Abraham with the seventh and final test being the sacrifice of Isaac. Jub. 19.8, however, indicates that Abraham underwent ten tests, the final one being the death and burial of Sarah.

41 On enablement of the readers by Jesus' priestly actions, see Whitlark, J., Enabling Fidelity to God: Perseverance in Hebrews in Light of the Reciprocity Systems of the Ancient Mediterranean World (PBMS; Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008)Google Scholar.

42 See n. 34 above.

43 Τὸν ἀπ' οὐρανῶν refers grammatically to Jesus, who in the previous verse is pictured by the figure of synecdoche (his ‘sprinkled blood’ actually gives the address) speaking from heaven.

44 Operating in the background here might also be the nature of covenant sacrifices. They seal the covenant, bringing the benefits of the relationship to the covenanters, but also threaten, through ritual slaughter, curses, namely death, for those who violate the terms of the covenant (cf. Hahn, S., ‘A Broken Covenant and the Curse of Death: A Study of Hebrews 9:15–22’, CBQ 66 [2004] 427–9)Google Scholar.

45 Koester, Hebrews, 112. See also Whitlark, Enabling Fidelity, 127–71.

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