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Beavis on Hebrews & Wisdom

February 26, 2015

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.

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  1. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Interesting discussion! So Dr. H., I take it then that you do not see any signifigance in the use of male nouns/pronouns in relation to God. I wonder if you also assume that Jesus only was born a male because of the times? Surely, the idea that God is also a divine feminine is a religion other than the historic Christian faith! Even reading on the Wesleyan site you link to there is not any indication that hints at God being both masculine and feminine!

    As egalitarian as the Wesleyan Church is, I attended one for several years, nowhere have I seen any support for Sophia Re-imaging or the Divine Feminist!

    Theologically speaking, it is idolatrous to speak of God other than He has revealed Himself! This is not taking male imagery too faaaar but instead letting God determine how to reveal Himself!


    • Tim: Ever guardian of what you perceive to be orthodoxy! As to male-gender nouns/pronouns with reference to God, I do not regard them as having any “ontological” significance: The biblical deity is not male-sexed or female-sexed, and I point you again to Deut 4:15-20. To make God either male or female is to commit idolatry. (And I don’t think I gave a link to some “Wesleyan church site”, so I have no idea what you’re referring to.
      The usage of gendered nouns/pronouns for God is indicative of the limitations of human language to describe the ineffable. As theologians have noted for a couple of thousand years, the biblical deity “stoops” to human language and understanding in self-revelation. But what is revealed is what we are capable of grasping. But enough theology for one day!

  2. Thanks for your kind review, Larry. I think that the omission of the term sophia from Hebrews (and John), both of which reflect a “Wisdom” christology, is deliberate, but not malicious–I don’t think that the intent was to suppress the feminine, but to accent the masculine Jesus/Christos/Logos. I don’t think it can be denied that the biblical texts are biased through and through in favour of the patriarchal male norm. Nonetheless, the impact of the suppression of the female divine image in Hebrews on (some) female readers is to relegate Hebrews to just another thoroughly patriarchal text (although to be fair, the author does include some women in the list of heroes in ch. 11. I’ll make sure you get a copy of the commentary!

  3. I wonder as well if she deals with the materials I laid out in Jesus the Sage, and in various commentaries. I also would demur from the notion that we are necessarily hearing female voices or thoughts in these materials, but I wouldn’t rule it out. Ben W..

  4. Robert permalink

    All good points. Yet, it is still refreshing to complement the traditional male images of God with a greater awareness of feminine literary tropes, as I’m sure you’ll agree. I once translated a professor’s course notes for him to deliver to foreign students. Without giving it too much thought, I decided to alternate paragraphs using either masculine or feminine pronouns and nouns for God, and forgot about it. A few weeks later, some of the students and the professor wanted to have a sit-down and discuss the effects, which were much more profound than I had imagined. Some students were moved to tears during the class to hear of God spoken of as feminine. The professor, a rather stodgy guy, was not angry, and appreciated all the enthusiasm and interest, and was genuinely interested in discussing peoples reactions, but ultimately thought that speaking of God as a ‘she’ was no longer Christianity, but a different religion. I didn’t agree, of course, but respected his view (and his scholarship). It taught me something about how entrenched our views of God and how much important sexuality is in our images for and language about God.

    • Thanks, Robert. Interesting story. I certainly agree that there is a diversity of imagery in biblical texts for God, for example, but that “male” imagery dominates, and also that this imagery has been taken faaaaar too literally. All such imagery has to be taken in the context of emphases such as Deuteronomy 4:15-20, where any image of YHWH is prohibited, including any “male or female” image. It is our languages (reflecting our gendered nature) that require us to refer to this deity as “he” (or “she”), but, theologically speaking, it is idolatrous to make the limitations of human language directly indicative of what the “God” of the biblical tradition is.

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