Godly Fear: The Epistle to the Hebrews and Greco-Roman Critiques of Superstition

By Bertone, John A. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Godly Fear: The Epistle to the Hebrews and Greco-Roman Critiques of Superstition


Bertone, John A., Journal of Biblical Literature


Godly Fear: The Epistle to the Hebrews and Greco-Roman Critiques of Superstition, by Patrick Gray. SBL Academia Biblica 16. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature; Leiden: Brill, 2003. Pp. x + 278. $133.00 (hardcover)/$39.95 (paper). ISBN 1589831004/ 9004130756.

Patrick Gray addresses the extent to which the Christianity found in Hebrews qualifies as superstition. He proposes that the author of Hebrews articulates a Christian faith that may be understood in the context of debates about appropriate and inappropriate fear comparable to Plutarch's thoughts on superstition (deisidaimonia). The author of Hebrews communicates a Christian self-understanding that neutralizes the potential charge of being superstitious (pp. 6-9).

Gray states three specific reasons why Plutarch can be used to understand Hebrews and the symbolic world in which it participates. First, Hebrews and Plutarch are contemporaries; Plutarch's date ranges from 70 C.E. into the second century, and Hebrews was most likely written between 52 and 95 C.E. This means that Hebrews overlaps with Plutarch's most prolific period. xecond, Plutarch was from the Greek mainland but spent considerable time in Rome and Italy, and Hebrews was written either to or from Italy ("those from Italy" [Heb 13:24]); thus Plutarch and the author of Hebrews shared the same geographical milieu. Third, Plutarch and Hebrews were both influenced by Platonic tradition.

The introduction addresses the question under investigation ("superstition" or "godly fear"?), gives a self-definition of how the early church perceived itself (Christianity as superstition), describes the common milieu between Plutarch and the Epistle to the Hebrews, situates the Epistle to the Hebrews within its Hellenistic context, and puts forward Gray's methodology. In ch. 2, Gray examines the Greek vocabulary employed by Plutarch to describe superstition, particularly the cognates of deisidaimonia that reveal how fear is the most pervasive characteristic. Plutarch regards the gods as benevolent, reiterating that there is never any cause for fear in one's relations with them. Thus, "fear of the gods is a negative thing." The concept of fear is similar to various other philosophers (Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans). Fear is considered an unpleasant feeling that signals some deficiency in the virtue of courage. This is the major symptom of superstition.

Chapter 3 examines passages in Hebrews that address the subject of fear. In Hebrews, fear is itself an undesirable state and usually serves as an indicator of peril or disordered priorities. However, against the thinking of the philosophers and Plutarch examined in the previous chapter, fearlessness is achievable only because of what has transpired with Christ, not because of the belief that it is associated with superstition. Chapter 4 concentrates on Heb 5:7 and 12:18-29, where Hebrews portrays fear in a positive light and consequently makes the author and his readers susceptible to a charge of superstition. Hebrews 5:7, where the author speaks of the "godly fear" (eulabeia) of the human Jesus, emphasizes Jesus' reverent subordination of his will to God's. This prompts Jesus to acquiesce to his own death. Hebrews 12:18-29 teaches how "reverent awe" is a fitting response of thanksgiving and worship offered to God under the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus' sacrifice. In the last chapter Gray draws together the key insights of the preceding chapters. The fear of God for both Hebrews and the critics of superstition such as Plutarch is not anxiety directed at an unpredictable deity; fear is associated with wrongdoing and the threat of punishment by the deity. Hebrews is similar to the understanding of superstition of the Greek philosophers in that the fear of God is associated with death and divine judgment. However, Hebrews makes the claim that there is parresia because of the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus, which provides an effective solution to human sin, the root of the gravest fears. …

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