An excellent commentary on the epistle to the Hebrews

The New International Greek Testament Commentary is a series of high academic quality. Already a couple of years ago Paul Ellingworth wrote in this series an excellent commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. In 2015 a paperback edition was published. The commentary of Ellingworth starts with a broad introduction in in which the circumstances in which Hebrews was written, its canonization, structure, theology and purpose are analyzed.Although already in the Early Church the letter was ascribed to Paul, Ellingworth rightly follows Origin who stated that only God knows who has written this epistle. Following Luther Ellingworth thinks that Apollos is the most likely candidate, although his authorship cannot be proven.

I agree with Ellingworth that we must assume that most of the readers of Hebrews were converted Jews who formed a part of a greater Christian community. It is more likely to understand the phrase ἀπὸ τῆς Ἰταλίας as referring to people who left Italy. Supposing that the readers of Hebrews were a predominantly but not exclusively Jewish-Christian group but not including all member of the Christian community Rome must be preferred as the place where the readers lived.Ellingworth prefers to date Hebrews before the fall of Jerusalem in 70. Although the use of the present time when described the sacrificial system could be rhetorical and just be related to rituals described in the Old Testament, is seems almost impossible that the author would not have alluded to the destruction of the Temple when he wrote after 70.

The final admission of Hebrews into the canon was linked with that of its attribution to Paul. Initially the western church understood Hebrews to teach that those who had sinned after baptism could not be forgiven and readmitted in the church. That delayed its canonical status in the West. Finally both the Eastern and Western parts of the church accepted its canonicity being convinced of its apostolic con-tent. In the West the positive views of Jerome and even more Augustin played a decisive part, although Augustin became more and more reluctant about Pauline authorship.

The background of Hebrews is primarily the Old Testament in the form of the Septuagint. In several places his argument depend on the Septuagint. The author is convinced that the Old Testament speaks about Christ and sees it as his central task to discover with clues provided in the Old Testament itself to clarify the meaning of Christ’s person and work and that in order to encourage his readers to persevere in the faith they profess.

Regarding the relationship to the first century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria Ellingworth makes the cautionary remark that the author of Hebrews is first and foremost a Christian, secondarily a Christian steeped in the Old Testament, and no doubt in the third place a man affected by lin-guistic habits and intellectual traditions similar to those which contributed to Philo’s development.  A direct influence of Philo on the author of Hebrews is very unlikely, because the writings of Philo cannot have been so familiar and influential on the author of Hebrews just a decade or two after their publication.

More than Ellingworth I would unite the first points he observes. I think that Ellingworth is right when he says that the presentation of Melchizedek in Hebrews may have been stimulated by the ideas about him in Qumran and elsewhere.The structure of Hebrews can be made by analyzing its content or on formal grounds. Ellingworth prefers the latter approach, because it points to features which lie clearly present on the surfaced of the text. Writing about the theology of Hebrews Ellingworth states that in Hebrews the historical and theological continuity of the people of God before and after the ministry of Christ on earth is stressed very emphatically. The most distinctive feature of the christological language of Hebrews is its use of the name Jesus. 

There are thirteen occurrences and in most of them (Hebrews 4:14 and 10:10 are exceptions) it is used alone. Where Jesus is used alone, except in Hebrews 13:12, it occurs at the end of a clause. Ellingworth does not mention it, but I am sure that this use of the name Jesus does not only point to the centrality of Jesus for the message of Hebrews, but also of the great privilege of the New Testament believers. In distinction to believers under the Old Testament dispensation they know the personal name of the Messiah and Son of God and may address him by using this name.

The conclusion of Ellingworth is that Hebrews was written to a predominantly Jewish-Christian community living in Rome where Judaism (but not Christianity) was well established and officially tolerated. There was the constant temptation to deemphasize, conceal, neglect and abandon the distinctively Christian features of their faith. Nowhere does the author of Hebrews states that his readers apostatize but is a real danger. 

It is true that the readmission to the church of Christians who denied the faith in times of persecution or the question of the final perseverance of the saints is not the concern of the author of Hebrews when he wrote this letter of encouragement and warning with its sermonic elements. Nevertheless these questions must be answered on the level of systematic theology and then the question is whether in Hebrews seeds are to be found for the readmission of lapsed Christians to the church and for the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints. I would answer both questions positively. 

The give arguments for it would require at least an article of moderate length and it is not the place to do that here. I can point to the commentaries of man like John Calvin, John Owen, John Brown and Philip E. Hughes.With regard to the perseverance of the saints I can also point to the contri-butions of Buist. M. Fanning and Randall C. Gleason in Herbert W. Bateman IV (ed.), Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2007).


Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1993), paperback xcviii + 764 p., $62,– (ISBN 978-0-8028-7407-8 )

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