Book Review: Peter T. O’Brien, Hebrews (PNTC)

O’Brien, Peter T. Hebrews. Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010. 630 pp. Hb; $52.  This book is no longer available from the publisher.

Peter T. O’Brien is emeritus professor at Moore College in Sydney, Australia. He has already contributed major commentaries on Colossians and Philemon in the WBC (1982), Philippians in the NIGTC (1991) and Ephesians in the PNTC (1999).

Introductory Material. An introduction to Hebrews covers topics not necessary for other New Testament books. O’Brien’s 43 page introduction deals with authorship first, beginning with the traditional view Paul was the author, then examines the evidence for Barnabas or Apollos as authors before settling on an unknown author as the most satisfying solution.

O'Brien HebrewsMost commentaries on Hebrews devote a significant section to the situation of the readers, destination and date. After examining the possibility the readers were Gentile, he concludes that the preponderance of metaphors drawn from the Jewish religious system favor a Jewish Christian readership who are “apparently in danger of returning to a ‘reliance on the cultic structures of the old covenant’” (12). These readers were either in Rome or Jerusalem. O’Brien briefly surveys evidence for the view of the early church that the recipients were in Jerusalem and concludes the readers most likely lived in Rome, “even if it remains a hypothesis” (14). While not ruling out any date between about A. D. 60 and 90, “much of the evidence supports some time before 70.” This date is based on allusions to Claudius’s expulsion of Christians and the present activity of the Temple. In addition, he finds the lack of ecclesiastical structure in the book an indication of an earlier date.

O’Brien argues the genre of the book is “synagogue homily” akin to Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 and was intended to be read aloud in before a congregation. Like Paul’s sermon, Hebrews is can “exhortation” and both frequently use the pronoun “we.” Both make use of the “language of speaking and hearing” (20). The “skillful oscillation between exposition and exhortation” in the book creates a pattern “that allows the speaker to drive home his points immediately without losing the hearers” (21).

Despite general agreement that Hebrews is a literary masterpiece, there is little agreement on the major divisions of the book. The book is often divided into sections based on themes (F. F. Bruce, for example), but this method struggles to take into account the rhetorical feature of the book.  Koester’s Anchor Bible commentary identifies sections of the book as exordium (1:1–2:4), proposition (2:5–9), arguments (2:10–12:27), a peroration (12:28–13:21), an epistolary postscript (13:22–25). Rhetorical analyses of the book have been helpful, but the book does not consistently conform to Greco-Roman rhetorical forms. Perhaps a better method for identifying the structure of the book is a literary analysis. Albert Vanhoye has pioneered this influential approach to the book. He divided the book into five units based on the use of literary devices (hook words, the repetitions of words or phrases): The name superior to angels (1:5–2:18);  Christ’s faithfulness and compassion (3:1–5:10); the central exposition on sacrifice (5:11–10:39); faith and endurance (11:1–12:13); the peaceful fruit of justice (12:14–13:19). As influential as Vanhoye’s proposal has been, O’Brien finds Hebrews to be more linear than Vanhoye’s complicated chiasm permits.

A final method for identifying the structure of a book is discourse analysis. This method is gaining popularity in recent years. George Guthrie examined the book using the method of discourse analysis while being “sensitive to literary and oratorical conventions of the first century” (29). Discourse analysis observes shifts between “cohesion fields” such as genre, topic, temporal indicators, spatial indicators, actor, subject, verb tense, mood, person, and number, reference, and lexical items. This means a shift from exposition or exhortation, for example, is a marker for the reader in the author’s overall argument. O’Brien finds Guthrie’s structure a helpful visualization of the book of Hebrews, although he differs from it in some details. O’Brien compares Guthrie’s discourse analysis with Cynthia Long Westfall, who organizes the book “around the structures of mood and voice, as expressed by performatives, that is, hortatory subjunctives” (33).

O’Brien includes a section in his introduction placing Hebrews in the first century world. The influence of Graeco-Roman culture is found primarily in its “elegant language and elevated rhetoric” and the book’s use of the categories of honor and shame (36). Most commentaries on Hebrews discuss the influence of Philo of Alexandria on the writer of Hebrews. O’Brin states there is now “considerable doubt as to whether the author of Hebrews knew the writings of Philo” (37). This is also the case for the influence of Gnosticism on the book, since Gnostic literature postdates Hebrews and “there is virtually no first-century evidence for a Gnostic redeemer myth” (38). While O’Brien thinks Hebrews includes apocalyptic element comparable to the Dead Sea Scrolls,  he recognizes scholarship is not in agreement as to the function of apocalyptic in Second Temple Judaism in general or Hebrews in particular. While there are some similarities between Hebrews and the literature of the Qumran community, there are “striking linguistic and conceptual differences” (40).

Finally in the introduction, O’Brien comments on the origins of Christianity and the book of Hebrews. This is necessary because scholarship on Hebrews often suggest the author drew on either Pauline theology or a Jewish Christianity as represented by the apostles represented by 1 Peter or the preaching of Hellenists such as Stephen. After examining the usual evidence for a Pauline influence, O’Brien conclude “the author of Hebrews drew his ideas from Paul, this is unlikely” (41), but he also rejects any dependence on 1 Peter or the speech of Stephen in Acts 7.

Hebrews does have similarities to other New Testament books, but ultimately “these affinities show that Hebrews is located within the mainstream of early Christian tradition” (43).

The Commentary. The body of the commentary follows the same pattern the other Pillar commentaries. After a translation of the text, O’Brien set the context of the pericope and proceeds through the text in a phrase-by-phrase fashion. The main text deals with English text, all Greek appears in the footnotes. While he occasionally interacts with scholarship in the main text, much of this is relegated to the footnotes. This makes for a readable commentary. There is one excursus on Christ as Divine Wisdom (53-4). Although it is labeled “Note 1” there is no other note in the book.

Since Logos Bible Software provided me the review copy of this book, I will comment on the usability of the book in the Logos Library. I used a laptop and an iPad to read the book. All of tools Logos provides are available for this book. The in-line search feature can be used to find all occurrences of any give word in the main text and footnotes. For example, there are 127 references to Philo, three reference to Nero. These searches are “fuzzy,” meaning a search for “eschatology” hits eschatological as well. Logos can display a single line of context for an in-line search, but also a paragraph or article. All biblical texts are linked in the commentary, hovering over the text will float the scripture in a window, clicking will align linked Bibles to the text selected. This works for non-canonical texts as well. Since I have Philo in my library, I can click on a reference and go to the text. This works for Josephus and the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha as well.

Conclusion. O’Brien’s commentary is an excellent contribution to the study of the book of Hebrews. It does not present any radical views on the controversial introductory issues and in many ways it is quite traditional. O’Brien’s exegetical insights are important and the book ought to be one of the “first off the shelf” for pastors and Bible teachers for years to come.


NB: Thanks to Logos Bible Software / Faithlife for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


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