The Letter to the Hebrews, by P.T. O’Brien (Review)

Two of my favorite commentaries are written by veteran author P.T. O’Brien (Philippians, NIGTC, and Ephesians, Pillar). I was very excited to see another commentary contribution by O’Brien, this time on Hebrews (2010). The Pillar series in which it appears is an evangelical exegetical commentary series with seminary-educated pastors in mind. I recently found Walter Hansen’s Philippians volume to be rather excellent, and Douglas Moo’s volume on Colossians to be, while not sterling, certainly reliable.

What about Hebrews? Well, I was very pleased with the introduction and we will begin there. It has all of the standard introductory sections.

On authorship, of course, the jury is still out, perhaps forever. Clearly it was not Paul (Heb 2:3). O’Brien offers up Barnabas or Apollos as popular options. Ultimately he chooses the agnostic approach showing approval of Luke Timothy Johnson’s comment: “another remarkable mind and heart besides Paul’s was at work in interpreting the significance of the crucified and raised Messiah Jesus for the understanding of Scripture, of the world, and of human existence” (LTJ, 44).

In terms of the situation of Hebrews, O’Brien seems to be in agreement with deSilva that the matter of honor/shame is significant: “The listeners were tired of bearing the shame of living outside of their cultural heritage” (13:7-8).” (p. 13).

Date: between 50-90AD.

In terms of the structure of the text, O’Brien notes the startling variety of ways scholars have divided up Hebrews. He resonates strongly with the discourse analysis approach of George Guthrie.

The exegetical commentary notes are unremarkable in my opinion. That is not meant to be a harsh criticism, but just to note that you will not find provocative “new” readings of key cruxes in Hebrews (as far as I could tell, not being a Hebrews scholar). For example, Hebrews 6, for O’Brien, does present the issue of apostasy, but he rightly concludes that they have not crossed over into that territory yet, though it is a real possibility.

On the issue of “dead works,” (6:1; 9:14), O’Brien rightly resists the idea that this refers to works of Torah as if Torah is meaningless. Rather, he thinks it is best to take this is “works that produce death.” I am not sure this is very convincing, because he never really ties that in to major points in the letter. I prefer deSilva’s suggestion that it refers to “dead works” that relate to idolatry (though perhaps not literal idol worship). This is especially likely since, at least in 9:14, the focus is on the “living God” – a typical designation in contexts that criticize idolatry.

One criticism I have, overall, for the series is that it is too light on focused theological analysis and application. When it comes to sorting out literary and historical issues, it does fine. I think pastors are really in need of solid points of theological implications and how to deal with modern ethical and theological problems in the church. In that arena, I have always felt the NIV Application commentary series has excelled (as well as the Interpretation series). Even the new Zondervan Exegetical series is cutting a path along these lines without mimicking some of the other kinds of commentaries.

The bottom line is that if this is your opportunity to buy just one commentary on Hebrews, it is not a bad choice. If you are a commentary collector, I feel that you may be a bit unimpressed, though, again, O’Brien has really proven himself to be an outstanding interpreter of the New Testament. If I could recommend just one commentary, though, I would suggest William Lane or Craig Koester for an advanced one, and Luke Timothy Johnson or David deSilva for a lighter one.

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2 thoughts on “The Letter to the Hebrews, by P.T. O’Brien (Review)

  1. I had the same impression working through O’Brien’s commentary. After working through 50 plus commentaries for my dissertation, when I got to O’Brien, I found that he rarely added anything new. The commentary is useful only in the fact that it deals with the most current literature on Hebrews.

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