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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 59, 2011

PETER T. O’BRIEN, The Letter to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2010). Pp. xxxiii + 596. Hardback. $US31.50.

To date, Peter T. O’Brien (of Moore College) has authored a number of commendable commentaries, including works on Philippians, Colossians and Ephesians. Appearing in the same series as his work on Ephesians (the Pillar New Testament Commentary), the present volume continues the standard of excellence established by the author’s earlier work. It is academically rigorous yet has been written in an easily accessible style. O’Brien interacts with both the text and the most recent research, presenting each with clarity. Thus, the present volume offers readers of Hebrews a helpful guide to both the letter and the attendant literature.

In the introduction, O’Brien deals with issues of authorship, audience, date, genre, structure and purpose. He is sensibly cautious about speculating on these topics. In line with much recent scholarship, he sees Hebrews as a sermon in the form of a letter (citing Heb 13:22), which was written probably pre-70 CE by an unknown author to exhort his readers/listeners “to endure in their pursuit of the promised reward, in obedience to the word of God, and especially on the basis of their new covenant relationship with the Son” (36). More contentiously, he suggests that Hebrews was addressed to Jewish-Christians who were “in danger of returning to a ‘reliance on the cultic structures of the old covenant’” (13). Most importantly, O’Brien spends time (22–34) considering the thorny issue of how the structure of the letter should be delineated. He outlines four representative proposals which suggest, respectively, that: (a) the text should be divided up thematically; (b) the sections of the text should be identified through rhetorical or (c) literary analysis; (d) the text is best interpreted by means of discourse analysis. O’Brien opts to follow the last of these, because the ‘somewhat eclectic’ approach of discourse analysis avoids “both the subjectivity demonstrated in thematic assessments of Hebrews’ structure and the difficulties which arise in purely formal analyses that do not take content into account” (30). In particular, O’Brien follows (but alters) the outline of George H. Guthrie, who sees Hebrews as a strand of two complementary cords, viz. exposition and exhortation. Readers will come to their own conclusions on these points. Yet, even readers who disagree with O’Brien’s conclusions here will find much of worth in the rest of the book.

In the commentary proper, O’Brien brings clear insight to bear on an often perplexing text. Heb 6:4–8 is one example. This warning passage asserts that if someone, having once ‘shared in the Holy Spirit,’ apostatises their “apostasy is irremediable” (219). Yet, in light of other Scriptural references to the Spirit as guaranteeing the ‘inheritance’ of believers (e.g. Eph 1:13–14), one might ask how those who have ‘shared’ in the Spirit could apostatise in the first place. O’Brien here notes the similarity of language between Heb 6:4 and Heb 3:14. Heb 3:14 is clear that to genuinely ‘share in’ the Spirit, one must persevere in it. The apostates at Heb 6:4 have, to some extent, ‘shared’ in the Spirit, but their lack of perseverance shows that they have not really done so. Allowing the earlier passage to thus inform the latter, he concludes that one, “may enjoy something of God’s grace at the beginning without the completing grace of perseverance” (220). O’Brien’s exegesis of this section is also notable (if, perhaps, not ultimately persuasive) in that it finds the author’s language here to have been influenced by Old Testament accounts of the wilderness generation (217–18, 229, etc.).

In addition to the introduction and commentary, a ‘select’ bibliography of sixteen pages is provided and a set of useful indices included. The indexes cover: “Subjects,” “Authors,” “Scriptural Reference” and references to “Extrabiblical Literature.”

In line with the series’ stated intentions, this volume (which sees scripture as God’s revelation) is designed primarily for Christian teachers and pastors. Yet, O’Brien does not import any preconceived theological scheme into his interpretation of the text. Instead, through careful and close exegesis of the semantic and syntactic features of the Greek, he facilitates a process by means of which the text is able to speak for itself, exhibiting its own theology. As such, this commentary may be recommended to any serious student of the New Testament as, first and foremost, an erudite exposition of the verbal meaning of the text in its original language and context. It represents a valuable addition to an already excellent series of commentaries.

Review by
La Trobe University
Bundoora VIC 3086