Grindheim, Sigurd. The Letter to the Hebrews. PNTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2023. xxvi+1140 pp. Hb; $45.00. Link to Eerdmans
Sigurd Grindheim is a professor in the Department of Pedagogy, Religion, and Social Studies at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences. His Ph.D. dissertation was published as The Crux of Election: Paul’s Critique of the Jewish Confidence in the Election of Israel (WUNT 202; Mohr Siebeck, 2005). He has published other monographs, including God’s Equal: What Can We Know About Jesus’ Self-Understanding? (LNTS 446; T&T Clark, 2011) and Christology in the Synoptic Gospels: God or God’s Servant? (T&T Clark, 2012), and Living in the Kingdom of God: A Biblical Theology for the Life of the Church (Baker Academic, 2018). This new volume of the Pillar New Testament Commentary series replaces P. T. O’Brien’s 2016 commentary after the publisher concluded allegations of plagiarism were credible.
Grindheim begins his seventy-one-page introduction to the commentary with the observation that Hebrews is the oldest unabridged Christian sermon that has survived. It is, therefore, a window into how the Old Testament was read and interpreted in the 1st century. The book is “an artistically crafted sermon” (32). The main theme is the high priesthood of Jesus.
As most commentaries on Hebrews must, he begins with the issue of authorship. All that can be said about the author is that he was a male, second-generation Christian strongly influenced by Paul. Otherwise, his identity is unknown. “But, as far as guessing goes, Apollos best” (17). Why Apollos? Grindheim suggests the author of Hebrews uses “a text type in evidence in Alexandria” (11). He draws several parallels between the author of Hebrews and the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in Alexandria. Although there are many points of comparison, there are no clear examples of borrowing. For example, the Christology of Hebrews compares to Philo’s Logos- Divine Wisdom which mediates divine transcendence and humanity. 13. However, these parallels show there is quite a distance between Philo’s allegorical method and the author of Hebrews.
With respect to the date of Hebrews, he observes that the latest date depends on the relationship of 1 Clement to Hebrews. Clement does not quote Hebrews, but it is clearly dependent on the letter (18). Clement is usually dated about 96 CE, but this date has been recently challenged in scholarship, so a range of dates from 70 CE to 140 CE is possible. Commentators often suggest that Hebrews must be written before the temple’s destruction in 70 CE because Hebrews assumes that the temple is still functioning. However, Grindheim points out that Hebrews does not actually mention the temple. Nor does the author argue against contemporary Judaism. Rather, the author argues for the superiority of Christ over the mosaic law (20). In fact, rather than the temple, Hebrews focuses on the Tabernacle. The mention of Timothy in 13:23 may hint at an earlier date since Timothy might possibly have lived only until the end of the first century. He also observes that the theology of Hebrews and the church structure assumed by the book is not helpful. He suggests that the audience is at a “more advanced stage of the early church history” (22).
Traditionally, Hebrews is a letter to Jews. But it is not clear that the book is even a letter. The audience seems to live in an urban setting. Grindheim suggests it may have been written to a specific congregation (25). Hebrews 13:24, “those from Italy greet you,” implies that the audience lives in Italy, most likely in Rome. This is supported by its affinities with 1 Clement (who wrote from Rome) and 1 Peter (who wrote to Rome). Although many alternative suggestions are possible, none have generated much support. He concludes that the original audience was clearly Christian and distinct from the Jewish community. For Grindheim, there is no hint of ethnicity: “We have to be content with ignorance.”
Grindheim discusses the letter’s occasion with Hebrews 10:36. The author wrote to encourage his audience to persevere in the faith. This implies they may abandon their faith. There are warnings against apostatizing throughout the book (for example, 3:12; 4:1; 4:11). The audience may face persecution manifesting itself by social marginalization, sometimes imprisonment, and confiscation of property. It is possible this refers to Claudius 49 CE or Nero 64 CE, Or even an anticipation of Domitian at the end of the 1st century. In a footnote, he declines to choose a specific context for these warnings (17, note 45).
The introduction also includes a discussion of canonicity and reception history. Grindheim surveys early doubts about the book, as well as suspicions in the Lutheran tradition. Because of questions of the authorship of the book, sometimes the book appears in different places within Pauline letters (sometimes after Romans, sometimes after Philemon). He traces the reception history of Hebrews from 1 Clement through a range of early church writers to the Reformation and modern commentators. The book was important to Novatianism, which appealed to Hebrews to prohibit the repentance of people who had denied their faith under persecution. Unfortunately, many early church writers cited Hebrews for abrogating the old covenant. Chrysostom, for example, went beyond the book of Hebrews and used the silence of the book to hold Jews responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
Grindheim summarizes the theology of Hebrews as “a theology of intimacy with God” (60). Jesus has brought God near, removing the barriers between God and humans and creating a community to which one belongs through faith. The bulk of this theological introduction to Hebrews concerns the Christology of the book.
The commentary is divided into several major units, further subdivided into exegetical sections. After a short introduction, the NIV English translation is provided, with footnotes giving reasons for some translation choices, syntactical lexical information, and occasionally textual notes. The commentary is phrase-by-phrase, with extremely detailed notes based on the Greek text, which always appear in transliteration and are used sparingly. This makes the text easy to read. Secondary literature is cited in footnotes, including historical commentaries and modern academic monographs. Occasionally, Grindheim will compare a series of interpretations found in the commentaries. For example, on the referent of the term “today” in 1:5, he gathers six different interpretations (with footnotes to the commentaries). He draws a conclusion based on the broader context of the whole book (110-13). In his discussion of the word prototokos in 1:6, he compares the views of Athanasius, Augustine, and Gregory of Nyssa.
Throughout the commentary, there is excellent interaction with primary sources, noting texts the author of Hebrews cites or alludes to, with a rich collection of Second Temple literature in the footnotes. Although there is no excursus or dedicated section summarizing how the author of Hebrews used Scripture, Grindheim is clear in his commentary to point out how this is how the writer used scripture where appropriate. For example, Hebrews 1:5-14 contains a string of quotations similar to a testimonia, but this list is too tailor-made to the author’s rhetorical purposes to be a pre-existing collection. The author of Hebrews assumes the divine inspiration and authority of scripture. The source of these quotations is usually quite clear, so Grindheim examines the original context of the quotation and other uses of the text in the New Testament. He then shows how the author employs the quotation “in an innovative way” in the overall context of Hebrews (109). He points out the use of Jewish exegetical practice, such as the principle of verbal analogy (gezerah shawah) in Hebrews 1:5b. This establishes the link between Psalm 2:7 and 1 Chronicles 17:13//2 Kings 7:14 (LXX). Grindheim often compares the use of Scripture with other Second Temple Literature (in this case, PsSol 17:4, 4Q174).
The commentary includes 11 excurses (conveniently indexed on page xi). For example, in an excursus titled “Heaven and the World to Come” (146-157), Grindheim traces the idea of the world to come through rabbinic sources, Second Temple Judaism, and the New Testament. He concludes that the heavenly realm in which Christ is enthroned differs from the “world to come.” The “world to come” is always the result of a future act of creation.
He includes two excurses on the most controversial passage in Hebrews, 6: 4-8, “God’s irrevocable judgment.” For many students using a commentary on Hebrews, this is the passage they turn to judge the theological approach of the author. The issue in these verses is the question, do people who have apostatized put themselves in a place where they cannot repent? Or does the text say that they cannot be restored by other believers? Or does this passage say that God will not accept their repentance? It is impossible because God does not grant repentance except through Jesus Christ. By rejecting the gift of repentance through Christ, these people have put themselves in a position where they cannot turn to him 310. All the qualifiers and descriptions of those who have apostatized are associated with initiation into the Christian faith. These people have fully experienced God’s intervention 313. They have understood salvation, and they have internalized it. Historically, this is how the Novatians understood this passage. If people have denied their faith, the Novatians refused to accept their repentance. But Grindheim suggests, “the author probably intended to make a different point” (315). This passage is a warning to people who are in danger of turning away from Christ after fully experiencing salvation. If they reject that foolishness, such a person has “put themselves outside the possibility of repentance” (315).
In the second excursus on these verses, he deals with the warning passages and the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. In the Calvinist tradition, Hebrews 6:4-6 does not describe the elect since the elect cannot fall away (317). For Calvin, the people described in this passage are like the seed that fell among the rocky place in the Parable of the Sower. Since they have no roots, they fail to produce fruit. The apostates were never genuine believers. Others (Tom Schreiner, for example) suggest that this warning concerns a possible future. The author does not claim that anyone has actually apostatized yet. In fact, the author is confident that they will not (Hebrews 6:9). Grindheim suggests this explanation is compatible with a careful interpretation of the text. “It is not an explanation that emerges from exegesis” (319). Specifically referring to Schreiner, he points out that these views are produced within a Calvinist framework. If you are a Calvinist, then these explanations will work. If you are not a Calvinist, they will not. “The only verdict the exegete is able to pass is this: incapable of being proven or disproven” (319). Grindheim intentionally rejects categorization as a Calvinist or Arminian interpreter. Instead, he claims that he interprets the text and allows systematic theology to interpret these controversial verses within their own systems.
Conclusion. Grindheim’s commentary on Hebrews is an excellent example of careful exegesis of the text, focusing on the goal of understanding how this carefully constructed sermon was understood in its original context. Although clearly informed by Greek exegesis, his comments are presented in a way that will be understandable for students, pastors, and teachers studying this important book.
Other volumes reviewed in this series:
Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews (No longer available from the publisher)
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.