Beavis on Hebrews & Wisdom
Mary Ann Beavis has produced an intriguing study of the epistle to the Hebrews: “Hebrews and Wisdom,” published in the multi-author volume: Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism: Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado, eds. Chris Keith & Dieter T. Roth (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 201-18. She proposes that the author of Hebrews drew heavily upon “wisdom tradition” (esp. as reflected in Wisdom of Solomon) in expressing Jesus’ significance, but notes that the term “wisdom” (Greek: sophia) isn’t used . . . even once. So, her key question is why and what to make of this.
Beavis, now an established scholar, was an outstanding M.A. student I supervised in my time in the University of Manitoba. She wrote an excellent thesis, “A Study of the Relation of the Old and New Covenants in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in the Light of Scholarship 1938-1980,” and then went on to complete her PhD in Cambridge. Her PhD thesis was published: Mark’s Audience: The Literary and Social Setting of Mark 4:11-12 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989).
In this essay, Beavis draws a comparison to what other scholars have observed about the Gospel of John: That it, too, draws upon wisdom traditions in framing the portrait of Jesus, and yet GJohn as well does not once mention the word “wisdom.” But, she notes, “unlike John, the Wisdom influences on Hebrews have mostly gone unremarked, including by feminist biblical scholars and theologians” (218). Her own conclusion is that “Hebrews, like John, is indeed a suppressed tradition of Sophia, but its Christology, cosmology, ethics, and perspective on sacred history continue to echo her voice” (218).
The essay draws upon work that Beavis has done towards a commentary on Hebrews in a series designed to reflect a feminist perspective: Mary Ann Beavis & HyeRan Kim-Cragg, Hebrews (Wisdom Commentaries; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, forthcoming 2015).
Her essay is provocative and cuts a new furrow in scholarly work (as typical of her work from her student days onward). It deserves a thoughtful and patient consideration. At the risk of being premature, I offer a couple of initial thoughts. These aren’t rhetorical jibes, but honest questions/reflections offered as a contribution to further reflection on Hebrews and Beavis’ stimulating essay.
I wonder, first, if we are sometimes in danger of “sexualizing” the topic more than is helpful. After all, in languages that “gender” their nouns, grammatical “gender” doesn’t translate out consistently into sexual gender. Of course, in Hebrew and Greek, the nouns for “wisdom” are “feminine” gender. So, if you develop a literary (or visual) personification of the topic, you’d produce a female figure, such as “Dame Wisdom” in Proverbs and Wisdom of Solomon. But does the use of such a literary trope reflect the view that divine Wisdom really is female (or that either sex is relevant)? Or is it simply . . . a literary trope, suggested by the grammatical gender of the nouns in question. If it is basically a literary trope, then is it a case of a kind of “gender-bending” or gender-transfer (my terms, not Beavis’) if the authors of GJohn or Hebrews drew upon Wisdom texts/traditions in lauding Jesus’ significance? I’m not so confident (at least not yet) that we can draw this conclusion.
Moreover, do these Wisdom-figures as drawn in Proverbs and Wisdom of Solomon represent genuine expressions of ancient women, or reflect women’s views of things, or indicate any deference to, or particular regard for, women? Not likely, I’d think. So, it’s not (again, not yet) so clear to me that in these literary tropes we have some authentic “voice” of women, and so not so clear that or how the female “voice” has been “suppressed,” or continues as an echo, e.g., in Hebrews.
I’ll put the matter this way: Aren’t those texts that feature a personification of Wisdom in female form written also likely by males and for males (primarily)? I.e., aren’t they, too, just as indicative of a male-dominated (“patriarchalist”) culture as anything in GJohn or Hebrews (perhaps even more so?)? If so, then the deployment of a “female” Wisdom in one text and the failure to do so in another is hardly indicative of a genuine presence or absence of a feminine/female “voice”. Or do I miss something.
I hope that my demurral isn’t based on a misunderstanding or that I’m simply insufficiently au fait with feminist theory/work on this particular matter. But, in any case, a blog posting isn’t the venue for the serious and detailed discussion necessary and appropriate for scholarly judgement in the matter. So, I’ll simply underscore my view of Beavis’ essay as a stimulating study that deserves further thought, my pride in her accomplishments, and my gratitude and pleasure in having her contribution to this volume.