Reading In and Around the Bible: Hebrews, James

Next set of Biblical commentary. See Part 1 about sources used — NRSV, Asimov, Miller, KJV via Wells.

List of previous posts:
Intro and sources used (Oxford’s edition of the New Revised Standard Version, the King James Version via Wells’ Skeptical Annotated Bible, Stephen M. Miller’s Complete Guide to the Bible, Isaac Asimov’s Asimov’s Guide to the Bible); Matthew; Mark; Luke; John; Acts; Paul #1: 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Galatians; Paul #2: 1 and 2 Corinthians; Romans; Paul #3: Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy


This letter was not attributed to Paul until the end of the 2nd century, according to Oxford; modern scholars tend to regard it as anonymous. It does not begin with Paul introducing himself, as do his other epistles; and as both Oxford and Asimov discuss, stylistic differences between this and earlier epistles argue against it being written by Paul. Still, those who argued it *was* written by Paul succeeded in getting this book into the NT canon, in the 4th century. Thus it is taken, by believers, to have equivalent authority as every other book in the Bible.

  • Like Paul’s epistles, this is another sermon, and the opening chapters strike me as a lot of specious ‘reasoning’ based on the *absence* of detail in Genesis to deduce something about Jesus, an argument keying off the supposed resurrection as the justification for eternal life. I suppose this might some powerful sense to the illiterate listeners of this sermon who never had any occasion to read copies of the ancient scrolls to study for themselves.
  • 2:6, famous line, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” in KJV; “What are human beings that you are mind of them” in NRSV. Asimov used “That Thou Art Mindful of Him” as a title for one of his stories, in fact.
  • 8:7, the writer is obsessed with dismissing the “first covenant” in favor of the new; “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one.
  • 8:13, and this verse, “In speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ he has made the first one obsolete.” (Miller sees this as the central point of the book.)
  • Two points: first, 8:13 is the kind of verse one would quote to deny that OT proscriptions still apply. (Though as I recall Jesus said the opposite—but the gospel where he supposedly said that hadn’t been written down yet, and so wasn’t handy to constrain the writer of Hebrews.) If you want to excuse Biblical pronouncements against homosexuality, or about the stoning of disobedient children, just cite Hebrews 8:13, to dismiss everything in the OT. If you want to cite Biblical pronouncements against homosexuality, or…. (well nothing else comes to mind; homosexuality seems to be a preoccupation among fundamentalists)… then ignore Hebrews 8:13 and cite Leviticus.
  • Second, presumably the Muslims and the Mormons think they have good reasons for overturning, or at least amending, the testimony of the NT. If the witness of the apostles and the revelations of Paul and others are convincing to a modern person, why aren’t the justifications for the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon? (Answer: because people don’t actually think about these things. They follow the teachings of their tribe — their community, their family. And there is no reason to disrespect their reason for doing so. Unless you are some kind of scientist, obsessed with tracking down the actual truth of reality.)
  • Ch9, this writer, like many in the OT, is obsessed with blood sacrifice, e.g. 9:22.
  • 9:28, “Christ… will appear a second time”. Still waiting.
  • 10:4, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The writer here is stating that a basic principle of the OT is invalid. What is his authority to say so? Why would these rules have changed? One wonders to what extent, and when, did the various religions move away from blood rituals to more symbolic kinds of sacrifice; i.e., how did the ancient religions need to ameliorate their more barbaric practices to accommodate a gradually more civilized world? Because otherwise those religions would not have survived, in a more civlized world. (Natural selection!)
  • 11:1, famous line, KJV: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The explanation for this sentiment is the first phrase, and its evocation of what we now understand as self-serving human nature; its undermining is the second, which implies that *anything* not seen can be the basis for any kind of faith. See Jerry Coyne’s Faith Versus Fact to spell this out.
  • 12:7, “Endure trails for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?” The analogy of God to a stern father laid bare. (See Sagan’s book, lecture 7, summarized here.) This was the best these ancients could imagine about the nature and purpose of the universe, at that time, that it’s all about fathers and disobedient children.
  • 13:2, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Only be nice to people in case they are angels. Is that what Jesus counseled?
  • On this point as on many, many others – the Bible is an anthology of texts from various authors with various agendas directed to various audiences, that obviously do not agree with each other on many, many points. The more I read the Bible, and listen to preachers and politicians cite particular verses, the more I think anyone citing any Bible verse to support some position, is being disingenuous; it’s the well-known issue of cherry-picking verses to support whatever one wants to believe, or support.
  • 13:9, “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings…” Like Paul, this author warns his audience listening to any lessons or sermon from anyone else. Don’t think, just believe!


A short, controversial book, whose theme is that faith without deeds is useless. (2:20)

There are a couple famous James in the Bible, and no one really knows who wrote this book, if either of them did.

  • 1:19, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger…” Good advice.
  • 2:17, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Key point.
  • 4:13ff, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring.” That is, if you are so presumptuous to make any kind of plans, 4:16, “you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” Really?? (I’m trying again to think why this book is regarded by so many as a fount of wisdom. Because most of its followers have not actually read it, I suspect.)
  • 4:14, “…What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Wells in SAB alludes this to “All we are is dust in the wind”.
  • 5:15, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” There are people to this day who let their children die because they pray rather than seek medical attention. This would be a key reason why the Bible is an evil [edit] incoherent and obsolete book — to the extent that it counsels believers about how to live and survive.
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