The book of Hebrews is a litmus test of sorts. In the vernacular, “you either dig it or you don’t.”
Some readers relish its types and anti-types as it compares the priestly and sacrificial systems of tabernacle worship in the Old Testament with the priestly and sacrificial work of Jesus Christ. Other readers skip over the complicated mid-section and go for the inspirational parade of heroes in Chapter 11.
Some mine its rich King James trove of memorable phrases — “faith is the substance of things hoped for,” “great cloud of witnesses,” “angels unawares.” Others love the thunder of its warnings — “How shall we escape,” “fiery indignation.”
Still others, seeing a confusing mixture of topics and arcane references, just give up and look elsewhere.
Two new commentaries, written from different approaches and aimed at different audiences, share a common theme: Don’t give up. The book of Hebrews is a mysterious and wonderful masterpiece, full of intellectual challenge and soul-stirring encouragement. Its rewards are worth the effort.
In “Hebrews,” the latest volume of the respected Paideia series of commentaries on the New Testament, James W. Thompson, professor of biblical studies at Abilene Christian University in Texas and editor of Restoration Quarterly, addresses the challenges of the anonymous work.
He examines its purposes, its historical context, its theological issues and its rhetorical strategies in a way that seeks to understand the canonical form of the text, the likely import for its original hearers and the message of the word of God for those “dull of hearing” in every generation.
The commentary’s simple framework is useful. With regard to each biblical section, the author presents introductory matters, traces the train of thought and considers key hermeneutical and theological questions.
One of the ways that this commentary, like others in the Paideia series, avoids the thicket and keeps readers on the path is the frequent use of breakout boxes — sidebars that supply brief explanations of terms, background information on key figures and ideas and short elaborations on concepts and issues mentioned in the text itself. Over and over, as questions and curiosities arose, I turned the page to find that the author was ahead of me, anticipating and satisfying my questions with a brief, enriching sidebar, so that we could proceed on without chasing down a rabbit trail.
However, Thompson’s tour of Hebrews is no cakewalk. To get the most from this commentary, the reader needs a basic knowledge of biblical Greek, a Bible in hand, sufficient time for theological reflection and a familiarity with — or a willingness to consider — the conventions of Greco-Roman rhetoric.
Do not misunderstand. This respect, even demand, for serious study is a strength not only of the commentary but also, as Thompson persuasively argues, of the book of Hebrews itself.
Discussing Hebrews 5 and 6 passages — which indict those who are dull of hearing, slow to understand, who ought by now to be teachers but who are immature and unpracticed — Thompson observes the close connection between spiritual and intellectual lethargy. The author of Hebrews, he says, urges a strong, consistent regimen of a healthy diet of God’s word and rigorous training of the mind in order for the community to be able to discern good and evil and to move on to maturity.
In an era when some segments of Christianity polarize and compartmentalize “heart” and “head” and believe Christian faith and godly living are matters only of the heart, Thompson understands the Hebrews author to warn Christians of the dangers of intellectual laziness and to urge them to come together in community to encourage one another and to mature in Christ.
Speaking from within a Christian heritage that has historically valued serious Bible study and theological reflection, Thompson reminds us unapologetically that thinking deeply is an important Christian discipline for all of God’s people.
Most of Thompson’s references are absolutely clear. However, there is perhaps one that bears more explanation, where possibly he has overestimated the theological understanding of the average reader. In Thompson’s view, the author of Hebrews repeatedly points to the exaltation of Christ as both the pivotal event in salvation history and the foundation for the book’s arguments and claims. A fuller discussion of the exaltation event might be helpful.
Notwithstanding this wish for a bit more, the serious student should find this Paideia commentary a trustworthy companion and welcome resource.
In what he calls a “bridge commentary” on the book of Hebrews, Edward Fudge attempts to bridge three gaps in “Hebrews: Ancient Encouragement for Believers Today.”
First is the gap between academic specialists and lay readers. The commentary relies on Greek text but contains no Greek. Second are the gaps among different versions of the English Bible. The commentary supplies its own unique translation based upon the commonalities of other standard translations. Third is the gap between various theological interpretations of Hebrews. The commentary presents various views and elucidates what they have in common.
Fudge’s methodology is not Greco-Roman rhetorical analysis. Rather, as a longtime teacher and preacher, he offers readers a different but equally valid and spiritually satisfying approach to what he calls the “book of unknowns.”
For Fudge, Hebrews is a book that illustrates “how the early church could always be talking and thinking and preaching and studying about Jesus — with no ‘Bible’ except the books we call the Old Testament.”
Following that view, he considers Hebrews as a message of encouragement built around the framework of Psalms 8, 95, 40 and 110. Most readers, therefore, will find this meditative, homiletic approach to be satisfying and personally edifying.
Although Fudge’s commentary targets Sunday school teachers and devotional readers as much as seminarians, it is not “Hebrews Light.” That is, while the author’s style is conversational and his comments are pastoral and practical, he does not ignore the complex theological issues raised or the serious warnings contained in the book.
Like Thompson, Fudge laments the neglect and disuse that have befallen the book of Hebrews in recent decades. Both authors counsel that Christians are missing a great source of intellectual nourishment and spiritual encouragement from this mysterious and magnificent treasure: the book of Hebrews.
As Christian communities who need encouragement and who desire to grow in our capacity for theological reflection, we now have in our hands some excellent new tools.
LINDA KING is an attorney in Edmond, Okla. She is a doctoral student in New Testament Interpretation at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, and a member of the Dayspring church in Edmond.