What is the best commentary on Hebrews? William Lane begins his introduction by describing the book of Hebrews as “a delight for the person who enjoys puzzles” (xlvii). I taught through the book of Hebrews in my evening Bible study in the fall of 2009, and I must agree with this assessment. One of the things which struck me about Hebrews commentaries when I was preparing for those sermons is that the sorts of questions and problems one encounters in Hebrews are unlike anything found in the Synoptic Gospels of Paul. In fact, I felt like teaching through Hebrews was like visiting a strange country where I did not quite know the language.
Authorship is main issue in the introduction to commentaries on Hebrews. The normal procedure is to “round up the usual suspects” and give some history of why these have all been rejected before settling on “anonymous” as the best solution. (I have a few posts on the authorship of Hebrews, if you are interested!)
The situation of the original readers is also an important matter which commentary introductions need to treat well. It is generally agreed that the audience is Jewish, living in Rome, and facing persecution. Is the “fiery trial” Nero’s persecution? Have they actually been persecuted, or is the writer anticipating a trial coming in the near future? That the readers are Jewish is assumed, but are they all Christian Jews? Is the letter something of missionary tract from a Jewish Christian to Jews in the Synagogue? Or is it aimed at Christian Jews to keep them from returning to the Synagogue in order to avoid persecution as a Christian?
Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993). I am impressed by all the commentaries in the New International Greek Text series in terms of exegetical nuance and depth. Ellingworth provides 85 pages of introduction in addition to some 77 pages of bibliography. With respect to authorship, this commentary provides a comprehensive list of suggestions current to 1993, and settles on Apollos as the “least unlikely of the conjectures” (21). The commentary is comfortable with letting the author remain anonymous. He argues that the first readers were “predominately but not exclusively Jewish-Christian” (27), although it is only aimed as a particular group in Rome known to the writer. Like all the commentaries in this series, Ellingworth proceeds through the Greek text in a phrase-by-phrase fashion with all references cited in-text. This makes for a tough read since the language is quite technical. Commentaries on Hebrews necessarily must deal with the Hebrew Bible and Septuagint, Ellingworth demonstrates mastery of both. He regularly places the text of Hebrews in the context of Second Temple Period Judaism.
Craig R. Koester, Hebrews (AB; New York: Doubleday, 2001). This book replaces the earlier Anchor volume written by George Buchanan (1972), nearly tripling the size of the commentary. Like many of the early AB commentaries, Buchanan offered a new translation with only a light commentary. One thing I appreciated about the older commentary is that it had a Conclusion, offering several suggestions for authorship, origin, and purpose only after the book has been read exegetically. Most writers wait to writer their introductions last, but publishers always place the introduction (naturally) at the beginning of the book. Koester’s commentary offers a historical perspective absent from other studies. He begins with 63 pages on the “History of Interpretation and Influence.” He divides this introduction into several sub-sections (early church to 600; 600-1500; 1500-1750; 1750-present). This is an excellent overview of how Hebrews has been treated and will aid the reader in understanding what issues are at stake in reading Hebrews. Koester includes a “selected” theology of the book, since there are some any topics which can be covered theologically in Hebrews. The body of the commentary moves through the pericopes by offering a fresh translation, notes on the translation, and a comment on the theology of the section. Greek is treated in transliteration, sources are cited in-text, but a great deal of comparative literature appears in the footnotes as well.
James W. Thompson, Hebrews (Paideia; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2008). This commentary is by far the most brief on the list, but Thompson’s work is very readable and will be useful for both scholar and layman. I think that this commentary might be the “first of the shelf” for the busy pastor. The commentary does an excellent job with the rhetoric of the letter, attempting to read the letter in the light of Greco-Roman homiletical tradition which was popular in the Hellenistic synagogue (13). He treats much of the writer’s use of the Hebrew Bible as midrash, a decidedly Jewish way of treating scripture. Hebrews 7 for example is a midrash on Gen 17:14-20 and Ps 110 (143). Thompson is also at home in the literature of the Second Temple Period, especially Philo. Commentaries on Hebrews must deal with parallels between the writer’s style and that of Philo of Alexandria, this commentary does so without losing sight of the biblical text. The commentary treats the English text with all Greek appearing in translation, sources cited in-text. There are numerous sidebars and occasional photographs in the commentary, something not usually including in scholarly works.
William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8; Hebrews 9-13 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1991). Lane’s commentary on Hebrews is one of the better in the Word series. He reads the letter as representing a Hellenistic synagogue, probably a loosely affiliated house church whose members are fairly typical of Diaspora Judaism. The church is located (most likely) in Rome and this letter is intended to encourage them to continue in their new faith in Jesus. Perhaps persecution is the main problem, but a kind of spiritual lethargy threatens the church as much as anything else. The introduction has a nice summary of discourse analysis as proposed by G. H. Guthrie. His summary of the theology of Hebrews is excellent, focusing primarily on the Christology of the book. The body of the commentary proceeds through each major section of the book by first providing a detailed bibliography (including many non-English works), followed by a fresh translation and notes on the text. The Word series always includes a Form/Structure/Setting section after the translation, Lane uses this section to comment on the rhetoric of the letter. The Commentary proper moves phrase-by-phrase, treating the Greek text without transliteration. Following the commentary proper is a short “explanation” drawing the exegesis back to the theology of Hebrews.
B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (London: MacMillan, First ed. 1889, Second ed. 1892; Third ed. 1903). This is a classic commentary on Hebrews, available as an e-Book through Google (a 1903 third ed.) recently reprinted by Wipf & Stock (the first ed.) Like many older commentaries, this book runs the Greek text across the top of the page, with detailed (and occasionally cryptic) notes in dual columns. There are numerous “additional notes” scattered through the commentary which give additional lexical or theological content. What is it about a one-hundred year old commentary that makes it worth reading? Commentaries of this age are notoriously brief, cutting to the heart of the matter as quickly as possible. Wescott especially has a sense for reading Hebrews in the light of the rest of scripture, which is all the more impressive since he live well before computers made finding potential parallels quite easy. The most intimidating thing about this commentary is that all parallel texts are given in Greek!
Conclusion. There are a few commentaries on Hebrews I left off the list because the original series was a “top five” series. What! No F. F. Bruce?! David Allen’s new commentary from Broadman & Holman is worth a look, but I do not have a copy yet (here is a great review from Brian Small). This is why I give only five – this give you (the reader) a chance to let me know what you have found useful in your preaching and teaching.
Good evangelical commentary on Hebrews?Since I originally wrote this post, Gareth Lee Cockerill replace F. F. Bruce’s NICNT commentary (Eerdmans 2012) and Lexham Press posthumously published Grant Osborne’s Verse-by-Verse commentary (with George Guthrie), reviewed here. David G. Peterson replaced George Guthrie’s Hebrews in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary (IVP Academic, 2020), read my review here. Herb Bateman and Steven Smith launched the Kerux commentary series for Kregel Academic with their Hebrews commentary (arguing Barnabas was the author); read my review here.
Index for the Top Five Commentary Series
Introduction to Series on Commentaries
Matthew Mark Luke John Acts
Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians Pastoral Epistles Philemon
Hebrews James 1 Peter 2 Peter & Jude
Letters of John Revelation
16 thoughts on “What is the Best Commentary on Hebrews?”
Phil: I’m sure that you have looked at Owen’s commentary somewhere along the way. What was your impression of that? Tom S.
Do you refer to John Owen, the classic Puritan writer? I see that his commentary was reprinted by Crossway in 1998, in a series edited by Alistair McGrath and J. I. Packer. To be honest, I did not know that existed until you mentioned it!
Yes, from the 1600’s, it’s a seven volume set that I used to check out (one book at a time) from University Library in Madison in the 1980’s. I spent many hours, as you say, visiting this “strange country” with Owen. The Crossway version cut the life out of it. The snippets there don’t work. I couldn’t read Owen after I converted (“reverted”) to Catholicism in 1992. I got too distracted by his anti-popery. But it’s still the best NT theology (explaining Old Testament images) that I have ever read.
Westcott’s commentary is dated. I would include Harold Attridge,’s Hermeneia commentary on the list. Also, David deSilva’s commentary is excellent as it has fresh insights into the text from a socio-rhetorical perspective. Although I have not looked at it yet, Gary Cockerill’s NICNT will be one of the top commentaries for years to come. Also, you might consider Peter O’Brien’s commentary in the Pillar series.
By the way, thanks for the endorsement.
I have used deSilva, and probably should have used him instead of Westcott. I have not used the Attridge commentary, but will browse that next time I am at the library.
I was a little disappointed with Allen. I think it was because he tends to go for an exotic interpretive choice a bit too often. One or two original interpretations are to be expected in any commentary, but when every pericope turns out to mean something unexpected, I tend to suspect the interpreter is a little over-eager. I found Attridge’s Hermeneia commentary more useful in the end. I also enjoyed deSilva’s Perseverance in Gratitude.
Bruce’s NIC has now been replaced, there’s L T Johnson in NTL, and I haven’t looked at several of the ones you mention, so I seem to need to catch up!
I just got Gareth Lee Cockerill, NICNT:HEBREWS. Althought I have only looked at parts of it, I have read most of the introduction (81 pages)…excellent. Has a very good section on the use of the O.T. I have look at parts of his commentary, good comments on Priesthood of Christ. All I can say at this point…it is impressive. Since techenical information is in the footnotes, makes it more readable than Ellington.
Cockerill is the most recently published in that series, I have not received a copy yet. (that is a huge mistake for a series like this). I think that a commentary by Duke Ellington would be worth reading. Or hearing, I suppose!
that would be good.
Opps, sorry, I meant to say Ellingworth, not Ellington. Ellingworth and Cockerill are top picks.
Ellingworth is good for detailed exegetical notes and for laying out interpretive options. What I don’t like about Ellingworth is that he tends to get so detailed that he loses the forest for the individual trees, so to speak. He provides a subheading for nearly every verse in Hebrews.
Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible) by Harold W. Attridge and Hebrews: A Commentary (New Testament Library) by Luke Timothy Johnson.
What an encouraging book Hebrews is. Here is a cupple of suggestions not flagged up so far.
P E Hughes is good for theology.
Guthrie in the nivac series comes from a Hebrews specialist.
R P Gordon a Cambridge evangelical has a useful small work.
Philips in the rec series will prove valuable for the preacher.
Gouge mid seventeenth century is a hefty classic.
AW Pink draws on men like Owen, Brown and Saphir in his large work.
best in Christ
Have always really like P. E. Hughes for theological comments.