The Letter to the Hebrews

  • Peter T. O'Brien
  • Jul 6, 2010
  • Series: Volume 13 - 2010
Book: Letter to the Hebrews

Peter T. O’Brien. The Letter to the Hebrews. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Nottingham, UK: Apollos, 2010. xxxiii + 596 pp. $50.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-3729-5.

Upon its appearance in March 2010, The Letter to the Hebrews marked the fourteenth volume in the Pillar series, the second contributed by Dr. O’Brien (the other was the volume on Ephesians), senior research fellow in New Testament at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. Also the author of a major commentary on Philippians (NIGTC), in this work O’Brien upholds the excellent reputation he has deservedly attained as a commentary-writer and a New Testament scholar. This is a wonderful commentary on an admittedly enigmatic book. I taught a course on Hebrews last autumn; I wish I could have assigned this commentary to my students.

While not as exhaustive as the works of Ellingworth or Lane, nor as technical as Attridge’s, O’Brien’s volume is among the best treatments of Hebrews in the next tier (Bruce, DeSilva, Koester, and Johnson). The commentary is always clear (such a crucial asset to pastors, teachers, and students), and it never fails to raise the important questions of the text. While not exhaustive, O’Brien’s exegesis is thorough and meticulously fair to the alternatives. It strikes the right balance, in my view, between too little and too much information and discussion. Of course (and doesn’t every book reviewer need to say this?), readers will not agree with all of his conclusions, but they will always see how O’Brien defends his among any competing alternatives. He is fair in his estimation of the evidence and is not averse to disagreeing with consensus conclusions when his assessment of the facts drives him elsewhere.

As one would expect, O’Brien includes all the crucial pieces for setting this “word of exhortation” in its historical context. 1) Authorship—it is unknowable, though written by one comparable to Paul in heart and mind. 2) The situation of the recipients—though disputed, O’Brien sides with the more traditional view that they were Jewish Christians in danger of reverting to Judaism (see, e.g., Johnson or Koester for an alternative). Curiously, I found virtually no discussion within the introduction or later in the commentary to support the contention that the author of Hebrews sought to prevent the readers from returning to former Jewish commitments. The dominant issue in the book is apostatizing from Christ, not reversion to Judaism. 3) Destination—unknown, though possibly Rome. 4) Date—between ad 60 and 90, but probably prior to 70. 5) Genre—a “homily” delivered as a “letter.” 6) Structure—after considering options based on themes, rhetorical categories, literary analysis, and discourse analysis, he finds the latter most useful, preferring the proposal of G. Guthrie (see his commentary and The Structure of Hebrews). 7) Hebrews in its first-century world—he details evidence of the letter’s extensive influence of Greco-Roman culture (much of which evidence may challenge his view that the readers have primarily a Jewish background).

Let me pick out some few highlights of O’Brien’s worthy commentary on the letter’s contents. Primary, of course, in any analysis of Hebrews are the warning passages (2:1-4; 3:12-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:26-39; 12:25-29). I found O’Brien’s discussion in every case to be fair and insightful. While O’Brien was careful at each point to note that the author of Hebrews did not necessarily believe that any of the readers had actually abandoned their faith in Christ, the warnings were genuine. Apostasy was a real danger, not merely hypothetical (pp. 86, 146-7, 219, 374, and 494). So, e.g., O’Brien observes that the author “warned the whole community to be on its guard lest the danger of apostasy should affect any individual within it (‘any one of you’)” (p. 173). What is impossible, then, if these readers apostatize (6:6)? O’Brien says, “… it is impossible for God to restore the apostate to repentance” (p. 225; his emphasis).

O’Brien’s treatment of “worship” as service is admirably explicated, based on 12:28-29 (cf. 9:14). Listen to this gem: “To worship or serve God acceptably means that believers regard every aspect of their lives as an expression of their devotion to him” (p. 500; his emphasis). So much for limiting “worship” to a Sunday service, or worse, the “music segment” of that ceremony. His understanding of Christ’s “perfection” (2:10; 5:9; et al.) in vocational terms is convincing. O’Brien explains the role of the enigmatic Melchizedek in Hebrews with a comment reminiscent of F.F. Bruce. He “takes the author’s statement as an example of an argument from silence in a typological setting” (p. 248). He points out, helpfully, that the “shadow / copy” language the author uses, though similar on the surface to Philo (or Platonic idealism), is employed quite differently from those writers. In Hebrews the difference is between a present shadow and a future reality (not between an earthly copy and a heavenly archetype).

How about picking a nit or two? I think he too readily dismisses the option that “cleansing rites” in 6:2 (p. 214) might be an oblique reference to Christian baptism (albeit ineffectual if followed by apostasy), preferring a more speculative and obscure origin in the red heifer practice (Numbers 19) or other OT terminology (e.g., Ezek 26:25). Later he rightly identifies all the references in 6:4-5 as aspects of Christian initiation (p. 220). These readers have been initiated into the community. O’Brien takes the same position in interpreting the phrase “… washed with pure water” (10:22), going against the majority of commentators (pp. 367-68). Would the Hellenistic readers have caught this reference? Also, at 9:16-17 O’Brien goes against the grain in viewing diathēkē not as “will,” “testament,” or simply “covenant,” as in other places in the letter, but more specifically as the broken “Sinai covenant” (pp. 328-32). I did not find him convincing at this point.

I would like to hear what O’Brien thinks about the volatile issue that ever lurks behind the text of Hebrews: does the sustained argument of the book imply that Christianity has superseded Judaism? Do there remain two covenants today or only one? Should Christians seek to “convert” Jews? At the same time, I’m glad that O’Brien didn’t “explain away” the rough edges of the author’s exhortations as some commentators feel obligated to do to assuage, for example, readers who may worry whether anyone can “lose their salvation.” For the writer of Hebrews, the question is not whether salvation can be “lost.” The question is whether one will persevere in or abandon the way of Christ. For the author of Hebrews, everything is at stake in how one answers the second question. The first is merely academic. O’Brien’s masterful commentary has made those issues poignantly clear.

William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
July 2010