Hesitating over Hebrews: the reception of the Epistle to the Hebrews as a case study in problematizing the concept of canon


Athanasius of Alexandria’s list of canonical scriptures has often been taken as a natural terminus in the long, inevitable process that led to the development of a fixed “New Testament.” Recently, however, a number of scholars have challenged this point of view, arguing instead that citations, canon lists, and manuscript copies must each be placed within their own distinctive social and historical contexts before any judgment about the relationship of a given passage or book to the shifting category “sacred writing” can be made. When this careful attention to social context is applied to the use and reproduction of the work known as the Epistle to the Hebrews, a complex story of the book’s reception emerges. The Epistle to the Hebrews was written about, quoted, and reproduced to a variety of ends throughout the early Christian period. As I show, its reception was influenced not by canonical concerns per se, but instead by the utility of its theological arguments, its shifting relationship to the Pauline corpus, the history of its translation into Latin, and, to a lesser extent, its appearance in lists of sacred scripture produced by fourth- and fifth-century theologians. By placing ancient discussions of Hebrews’ status within bibliographic methodologies, assessing citation patterns in light of broader compositional and citational practices, and situating Christian manuscript evidence within the editorial customs of the time, I argue that the “canonicity” of Hebrews was never seriously questioned. Instead, historical accident, late antique book cultures, changing attitudes toward the function of apostolic authorship, and the varying transmission of scriptures in Greek and Latin conspired to produce a complex textual and material record. As the reception of even this one book shows, the transmission of early Christian writings rarely conformed to the supposedly rational decisions of church leaders about the inclusion or exclusion of certain works

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