Apr 2009

new season of Talks With Scholars has begun with an interview with Dr George Guthrie of Union University in Jackson Tennessee. Many KEDS students will be aware of the important work that Dr Guthrie has produced in Biblical Exegesis. In this interview, Andy Cheung asked Dr. Guthrie about some of his current work in New Testament studies.

Dr. George Guthrie serves as the Benjamin W. Perry Professor of  Bible at Union University in Jackson, TN in the United States. He is the author of numerous articles and seven books, including, The Structure of Hebrews: A Textlinguistic Analysis, Biblical Greek Exegesis (Co-authored with J. Scott Duvall), the NIV Application Commentary on Hebrews, and the Illustrated Bible  Backgrounds Commentary on Hebrews. Dr. Guthrie holds both the Ph.D. and the M.Div. degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Th.M. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Dr Guthrie, can you tell us a little bit about your current teaching and research work at Union University?

Union is a great school and I have been privileged to teach here for almost twenty years.  At present I hold the Benjamin W. Perry Chair of Bible, which means I teach half time and write half time.  Writing consistently, day in and day out, is very hard work, and I am thankful to have time-space to give to it.

Of course I teach biblical studies/languages classes like Life of Christ, Intro. to Bible Study, New Testament Survey, and Advanced Greek, but I also teach a course called Contemporary Christian Life and Practice, in which we explore how we might live as Christians in the modern world.  My favorite course to teach is one on the book of Hebrews.

I believe your Ph.D. thesis was on the structure of Hebrews. This seems to be a subject that a number of scholars have disagreed over. How necessary is it to grasp the structure of the book of Hebrews in exegesis?

Our communication as human beings is so often dependent on contextual issues.  I believe that many of the missteps people make when dealing with the exegesis of Hebrews relate to a misunderstanding of what is going on with the book’s structure.  For example, if you read 1:5-14 as dealing with some sort of angelology problem among the hearers (as some commentators have done), you have missed the point.  The author presents a comparison between Christ and the angels to set up the “argument from lesser to greater” in 2:1-4 and uses a proper theology of angels vis-à-vis Christ as the basis for his exhortation.  As another example, if one misses the vitally important role of 4:14-16 and 10:19-25 as forming the most prominent inclusio in the book, it greatly throws off an understanding of how the Christology of the book progresses.  Also, Hebrews structure is very complex, in part, because of the author’s shift back and forth between exposition and exhortation, and I tried to show in my monograph that these “subgenres” in the book function and progress in different ways.  If you misread their purpose and how various units fit and function with the units around them, the book’s message is skewed.

In my previous question, I referred to Hebrews as a “book”, but should it be seen as a sermon, a letter/epistle, an essay?

There is still great debate on this issue but most scholars today see Hebrews as a sermon, in part due to its introduction (which obviously is not epistolary) and the general form, which shifts back and forth between exposition and exhortation.  There is an epistolary ending, but this could be explained by the author attaching such an ending to send it on to the house churches in a destination city.

Hebrews deals with a number of subjects that are not found in detail in the Pauline corpus or the Catholic epistles. How widely do you think Hebrews was used in the first century Church? Or to put it differently, was the theology of Hebrews not particularly influential?

Studies of the past few decades (e.g., see Lincoln Hurst’s Cambridge monograph on Hebrew’s background of thought) have shown that Hebrews actually intersects with other strands of New Testament thought in interesting ways.  For example, there seem to be extensive overlaps with Pauline thought.  There are some thirty-eight verbal parallels with 1 Peter and other parallels with James.  Some of the parallels can be chalked up to a common milieu and others to common source material (esp. the OT), but others seem to show some literary relationship (especially 1 Peter, I think).  If, as I think probable, Hebrews was written in the early-to-mid sixties to the Christian community at Rome, think of the intersection of the Roman church with other NT works, such as 1 Peter or Romans.  It could be that the author of Hebrews had access to these works (depending on when you date the various books, of course).

As to the material unique to Hebrews, that can be chalked up to the unique gifts and insights of the author.  Why would we expect exact uniformity between the various authors of the NT.  Consistency theologically, yes.  Uniformity of imagery and exegetical emphases, no.  It is impossible to say how influential almost any of the NT books were in the first century, but the fact that they were copied and spread widely seems certain, which speaks to their influence.  Hebrews is first quoted in 1 Clement at the end of the first century, which is quite early, so it must have been seen as authoritative then, at least in some circles.

You’ve produced a very helpful book on exegesis and I would like to get your opinion on the quotation of Old Testament passages in Hebrews. There are times when the author of Hebrews appears to cite texts that in their original context would not appear to support the argument in Hebrews. Can you comment generally on how best to understand Old Testament quotations in Hebrews?

In the past few years I wrote the section on Hebrews in The Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (CNTUOT), edited by Don Carson and Greg Beale.  This is a very complex area of study not very conducive to a brief comment!  However, I could say that the more I studied the details of the OT Greek text, especially the broader context, the author’s use of his quotations came into clearer view.  What often looks like he is ripping a text out of context, on closer inspection, reveals our shallow reading of the passage.  For instance, at Heb. 1:7 the author quotes Ps. 104:4 (Ps. 103:4 LXX).  On the surface the psalm seems fairly straightforward—God is praised as Lord over his creation.  How do angels fit in with this?  An important question since Hebrews capitalizes on the LXX’s reference to the angelic beings!

However, as I note in the CNTUOT, an aspect of the broader context sheds light on the situation.  In addition to the strata of tradition in the OT associating angels with the elemental forces of wind and lightening, aspects of the psalm’s immediate context point in the direction of a focus on angelic beings as well.  The close association of Pss. 103 and 104 may be seen in part by the concatenation joining the end of 103 with the beginning of 104 (“Bless the Lord, O my soul”).  At Ps. 103:20-21(102:20-21 LXX) we read, “Bless the LORD, you His angels, Mighty in strength, who perform His word, Obeying the voice of His word! Bless the LORD, all you His hosts, You who serve Him, doing His will” (NASB).

In this passage, which clearly speaks of the angelic beings, we find the Hebrew terms malak (rendered “angels” in the NASB) and srt (“you who serve him”) in the exact same forms in which they occur in Ps. 104:4 MT.  It may be, therefore, that the translators of the LXX provided a translation of Ps. 104:4 (103:4 LXX) in keeping with the broader context of that verse, interpreting the “messengers” and “servants” of Ps. 104:4 as angelic beings.  Hebrews appropriation of the passage, then, emphasizing the role of the angels in God’s order of things, is very much in keeping with the context of the OT passage.

Have you any plans to write a technical commentary on Hebrews?

I have now written several types of commentary on Hebrews: the NIV Application (which places a good deal of emphasis on exegesis and hermeneutics in spite of the series title!), the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, the Commentary on the NT Use of the OT.  It may be that I one day will write a technical commentary on the book, but that is not in the works at this point.  We have been graced with a number of excellent technical commentaries on Hebrews in recent years, and I don’t feel an urgency to write another at this point. However, I am under contract with Zondervan to do Hebrews in their new NT Theology series, and I am excited about that project.  The manuscript is not due, however, until 2016.

I believe you’ve been working on a couple of commentaries on 1 & 2 Corinthians. Can you tell us when the 1 Corinthians volume (in the New American Commentary series) and the 2 Corinthians volume (in the Baker Exegetical Commentary series) will be out?

Actually, I am just doing 2 Corinthians.  Mark Taylor is doing 1 Corinthians for the NAC.  I am working toward finishing 2 Corinthians for the BECNT by the end of summer 2010.

At this stage, can you give us a glimpse on how you’re going to approach the Spirit/Law contrast in 2 Corinthians 3?

What is striking in my study of 2 Corinthians is the depth of Paul’s passion about life and especially authentic Christian ministry.  He seems quite emotionally bruised for lack of a better image, and the depth of his pain issues in a very deep book on Christian ministry. 

I won’t spill all the beans yet on the Spirit/Law contrast, but I will make two comments.  First, I tend to agree with people like Doug Moo and Don Hagner on Paul and the Law; we have to sort the positive and negative statements Paul makes to make sense of his theology of the law, and that theology often is set in the framework of the contrast between the old and new covenants, as is the case in 2 Cor. 3.  I also think the sifting of the New Perspective in recent years by people like Simon Gathercole and others is entirely appropriate.  Second, I disagree at particular points with Scott Hafemann and Francis Watson, but I agree with them that 2 Cor. 3 is profoundly oriented to the OT text.  In fact, I think many commentators over-interpret what Paul is reading from Exod. 34 as he writes 2 Cor. 3:7-18.  For instance, I translate the last part of 3:7 as “because the glory of his face was suppressed.”  It wasn’t a “faded” glory or an annulled glory.  When Moses put the veil over his face, it “quashed” the glory.  I think there is a play on words with 3:14, where katargeo is again used but this time with Christ ripping away the veil.  In Moses’ moment of ministry, the glory was quashed by the veil, but in the new covenant ministry of the Spirit, it is the veil itself that is nullified, allowing the glory in the face of all new covenant people to shine.  It think people often miss the more straightforward meaning, which is right there in the OT text. Moses kept putting the veil over his face and snuffed out the glory.

Do you have an opinion on the place of 2 Corinthians 10-13? How do you see these chapters fitting into the epistle as a whole?

I actually see 2 Corinthians as a unity.  Trace, for instance, the very important theme of “commendation” through the whole book.  I believe that the different tone can be accounted for on the basis of a different target being in view (the minority group of false teachers), a rhetorical strategy (save the sting of your message for last), and possibly even a lapse of time (Paul’s continued reflections as he traveled towards Corinth).

Moving onto a slightly different subject, I see you’ve written a number of articles that discuss “discourse analysis”. Can you tell us what is meant by this time and how it might be important to Biblical Studies students?

Discourse analysis is a branch of linguistics that seeks to analyze texts or discourses as coherent and cohesive acts of communication.  One thing I like about DA is that it can incorporate various approaches to the text.  So, for instance, it can use insights on what makes a discourse cohesive from modern linguistic theory but also grapple with ancient literary conventions.  For biblical studies students, it primarily can help them ask questions above the sentence-level of the text (the focus of traditional Greek grammar and syntax) and ask how larger blocks of discourse function in relation to the whole.

Finally, besides your academic interests, I understand you are also a church pastor. Can you tell us a little bit about this aspect of your life.

I stepped out of the role of co-pastor (our church has an elder-led approach in which pastoral ministry is shared) a number of years ago, but I still preach at the church regularly and lead a small group.  In short, I think biblical studies can be done best in the context of Christian community, since it is only there that you find an extension of the first-century interpretive community called the church.  I think it benefits me and my students (and hopefully the broader Body of Christ) as I move back and forth between the classroom and the church context.  It is the church context in which these writings of the NT were birthed; it is the Spirit who inspired them and who works in Christian interpreters today.  I remember Gordon Fee speaking of the “hermeneutic of the Spirit” at a conference, and I believe that hermeneutic should be in play as we do exegesis.  I love the church and I love the study of Scripture.  These loves should be thoroughly integrated in those who do scholarship in service of the church.

Dr Guthrie, many thanks to your time.

Thanks very much for inviting me to this interview!


Dr. George Guthrie serves as the Benjamin W. Perry Professor of  Bible at Union University in Jackson, TN in the United States. His personal website can be found at http://web.me.com/georgehguthrie/home

The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty members of the King's Evangelical Divinity School. The Talks with Scholars series is a regular feature at KEDS. Visit the interview page for more engaging dicussion and conversation with world class academics.