Book Review: The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar New Testament Commentary) by Peter O’Brien

Peter O’Brien is now established as one of the premier commentary writers in Biblical Studies following a number of highly respected efforts: Colossians in the WBC series, Philippians in the NIGTC and Ephesians in the PNTC. It is in the latter series, ably edited by D. A. Carson, that this eagerly anticipated commentary is found.

The Pillar New Testament Commentary is aimed at “serious pastors and teachers of the Bible” and thereby aims to strike the middle ground between devotional/homiletical and serious technical/exegetical works. Accordingly, there is little in the way of practical application but much in terms of in-depth analysis of the text. Compared to Ellingworth’s NIGTC volume, the technical discussion is not nearly as exhaustive while Greek is found in the footnotes only and is always translated. It fits the pattern of Pillar commentaries that are perhaps best described as semi technical.

Nevertheless, it is interesting that like Douglas Moo’s recent PNTC Colossians commentary, this effort by O’Brien seems to be more technical than previous volumes in the PNTC series. As an aside, I offer here a law of commentary series: the older the commentary series, the more expansive and technical the volumes become. This pattern of gradually increasing depth is reflected in many series: Tyndale, NAC, NIVAC, NICNT, NICOT, to name just a few.

Peter O’Brien is Senior Research Fellow in New Testament at Moore Theological College in Sydney and those who are familiar with his work will be unsurprised to observe that this commentary is thoroughly evangelical and elegantly written. Regarding introductory matters, O’Brien’s view is that the author’s identity cannot be determined; the destination unknown (but possibly Rome) and that the recipients were probably Jewish Christians in danger of returning to Judaism. The date of composition is probably before A.D. 70 and most unlikely to be beyond A.D. 90. In light of the likely audience, O’Brien understands the writer issuing encouragement and stern warnings so that the members of the community might avoid committing apostasy.

Where this commentary shines is in the writer’s tackling of difficult theological problems. Here, O’Brien is at his best, picking his way through complex arguments offered by scholars with differing interpretations. For example, his handling of the usage of Gk diatheke in 9:16-17 is balanced and persuasive but most importantly clear and concise. Likewise the notorious section 6:4-8 is readable and respectful and although probably not convincing to everybody, it is handled with notable balance. For the record, O’Brien writes, “Apostasy is a real danger that threatens the community, even though the author of Hebrews does not save that members have already abandoned their faith. But there is no way back from such an abandonment to a renewal of the initial act of repentance. They must avoid the danger at all costs; the point of the warning, and of the encouraging words of vv. 9-12, is to urge the listeners to persevere in faith and obedience” (p. 227).

Like many recent interpreters, O’Brien recognises the value of George Guthrie’s discourse analytical approach to the structure of Hebrews. With just a few minor adjustments, the commentary is based upon Guthrie’s outline, and this is reflected in a more understandable movement between exposition and exhortation. Note that Guthrie has also published a commentary on Hebrews (in the NIVAC series) although it is somewhat less technical.

In his handling of the Old and New Covenants, O’Brien seems to be most closely aligned with New Covenant Theology, recognising the New Covenant as a replacement of the law of Moses as a system in its entirety (p. 265). In my view, the handling of this subject isn’t always dealt with in as much detail as one might expect. We may need to wait until Don Carson’s forthcoming commentary in the BECNT appears before we see a detailed exposition of Hebrews from something akin to a New Covenant Theology perspective.

In summary, this volume promises to set the standard for semi technical works on Hebrews for some time to come. Students will be pleased to know that Dr O’Brien is currently working on a Biblical Theology of Hebrews. Only the most serious technical exegetes will be disappointed by the overall depth and for them, they are probably still best served by Ellingworth.

The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar New Testament Commentary)
Format: Hardcover
Number of Pages: 600
Vendor: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Publication Date: 2009
ISBN-13: 9780802837295

BECNT = Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament
NAC = New American Commentary
NICNT = New International Commentary on the New Testament
NICOT = New International Commentary on the Old Testament
NIGTC = New International Greek Testament Commentary
NIVAC = New International Version Application Commentary
PNTC = Pillar New Testament Commentary
WBC = Word Biblical Commentary


Andy Cheung teaches at King’s Evangelical Divinity School, an accredited, distance education Bible College and Seminary in the UK.

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