The Literary Structure
of the Book of Hebrews
David J. MacLeod
Dean of the Graduate Program
The past 30 years have witnessed considerable discussion over
various aspects of the Epistle to the Hebrews.l This article and one
to be published in the following issue focus on two areas of the
discussion, namely, the literary structure of the epistle and the
doctrinal center of the epistle. The first of these topics, the epistle's
literary structure, is of importance in that it affects one's
understanding of how the book is to be dlivided and of the author's
development of his argument.2 This article summarizes the
traditional approach to the epistle's structure and then examines
contemporary contributions to the discussion.
1 A number of important bibliographical resources are available. Cf. Erich Grasser,
"Der Hebraerbrief 1938–1963," Theologische Rundschau 30 (1964): 138-236; M. R.
Hillmer, "Priesthood and Pilgrimage: Hebrews in Recent Research," Theological
Contributions to the Understanding of Hebrews," Expository Times 80 (1968–69): 260-
George W. Buchanan, "The
Christianity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults, ed. Jacob Neusner, Studies in Ju-
daism in Late Antiquity 12:1 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975), pp. 299-330; William G. Johns-
"Issues in the Interpretation of Hebrews,"
15 (1977): 169-87; idem, "The Cultus of Hebrews in Twentieth-Century Scholarship,"
Expository Times 89 (1978): 104-8; John C. McCullough, "Some Recent Developments in
Research on the Epistle to the Hebrews," Irish Biblical Studies 2 (1980): 28-45.
2 For an exposition of the argument of Hebrews, see this writer's "The Theology of
the Epistle to the Hebrews: Introduction, Prolegomena, and Doctrinal Center" (ThD
Traditionally most presentations3 of the argument of Hebrews
have divided the epistle in Pauline fashion into a section that is
mainly doctrinal (1:1-10:18) and one that is mainly paraenetic
(10:19-13:25).4 In some of the traditional presentations the doctrinal
section is subdivided into two or more parts. Also the proponents of
this traditional structure hold that there are paraenetic passages
within the doctrinal section5 and doctrinal contributions within the
The traditional presentations of the argument divide the epis-
tle "into sections and subsections so as to reveal the development of
the argument."6 They attempt to map out the conceptual structure of
the epistle, highlighting the author's themes such as the sonship of
Christ, the deity and humanity of Christ, the "rest" of God, the
high priesthood of Christ, the New Covenant, the sacrifice of
Christ, and the need for faithfulness and perseverance in the Chris-
tian life. While most commentators have noted these basic themes,
they have failed to agree on all the details "for the simple reason
that the author [of Hebrews] composes like a musician intertwining
one theme with another."7
Literary Patterns in the Book
ANNOUNCEMENTS OF SUBJECT
Dissatisfied with the ways most previous scholars have ana-
lyzed the epistle, Albert Vanhoye, a French Jesuit, has argued that
3 E.g., Henry
Alford, The Greek Testament, 4 vols.
4:76; Brooke Foss Westcott, The Epistle
to the Hebrews, 2d ed. (
& Co., 1892; reprint,
1965), pp. xlviii-l; Dictionary of the Bible (Hastings), s.v. "Hebrews, Epistle to," by
Balmain Bruce, 2:327; A. Nairne,
The Epistle to the Hebrews (
University Press, 1917), pp. xi-xii; Theodore H. Robinson, The Epistle to the Hebrews,
Moffatt New Testament Commentaries (New York: Harper, 1933), p. xi; Antony Snell,
New and Living Way (London: Faith Press, 1959), pp. 52-54; Jean Hering, The Epistle
to the Hebrews, trans. A. W. Heathcote and P. J. Allsock (
1970), p. xvi; Donald Guthrie, Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand
Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), pp. 58-59. Also see A. Robert and
Andre Feuillet, Introduction to the New Testament, trans. P. W. Skehan et al. (New
4 A paraenesis is an exhortation, a call for action.
5 "The writer is unwilling, even in the development of Truth, to allow the loftiest
conception of the Gospel to appear to be a theory only" (Westcott, The Epistle to the
Hebrews, p. li).
6 John Bligh, "The Structure of Hebrews," Heythrop Journal 5 (April 1964): 171.
The Literary Structure of the Book of Hebrews 187
the key to the structure is to be found in six literary devices used by
the author.9 Vanhoye's thesis has been widely discussed10 and has
influenced a number of modern commentators.11
The first of these devices he called annonces du sujet (announce-
ments of the subject) or "signpost passages."12 These are brief state-
ments before a section that indicate the main subject to be treated.
For example 1:4, "much better than the angels"; 2:17, "that He might
become a merciful and faithful high priest"; 5:9-10, "having been
made perfect . . . designated by God as a high priest according to the
order of Melchizedek"; 10:36-39, "you have need of endurance . . . we
are . . . those who have faith"; and 12:11, "discipline . . . yields the
peaceful fruit of righteousness."
An inclusio marks off a literary unit by using the same word or
phrase at the end of a discussion that was used at the beginning. The
passage 1:5-13, for example, begins and ends with the phrase "to
which of the angels?" Other examples13 are 2:5-16 ("for . . . not .. .
angels"); 3:1–4:14 (which begins and ends with "heaven[ly]," "Jesus,"
"high priest," and "confession"); 5:1-10 ("high priest"); 5:11–6:12
("dull" or "sluggish," nwqroi<); 7:1-10 ("Melchizedek" and "met");
12:14–13:20 ("peace"). Shorter examples are "look" (ble<pw) and
"unbelief" (3:12, 19); "enter" and "rest" (4:1, 5); "word" (o[ lo<goj)
(4:12-13); "priest" (7:1, 3); "Abraham" (7:4, 9); "perfection" and
"law" (7:11, 19); "oath" (7:20, 28); "first" (8:7, 13); "regulations" (9:1,
10); "Christ" (9:11, 14); "covenant" (9:15, 17); "without blood" (9:18,
8 Structure may be defined as the arrangement of the several parts of a written text
according to criteria discernible on literary grounds" (James Swetnam, "Form and Con-
tent in Hebrews 1-6," Biblica 53 : 368, n. 1).
9 Albert Vanhoye, La Structure
Litteraire de l'Epitre aux Hebreux (
De Brouwer, 1963). The main conclusions are presented in English in Albert Vanhoye,
Translation of the Epistle to the Hebrews, trans. James Swetnam (
Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1964), pp. 3-7.
10 Cf., e.g., Bligh, "The Structure of Hebrews," pp. 170-77; T. C. G. Thornton,
"Reviews," Journal of Theological Studies, New Series 15 (1964): 137-41.
11 Hugh W. Montefiore, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Black's New Testament Com-
mentaries (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1964), p. 31; George W. Buchanan, To the
Hebrews, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1972), p. ix; Neil R.
Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), pp. 46-50; Paul
Ellingworth and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator's Handbook of the Letter to the He-
brews (New York: United Bible Societies, 1983), pp. 341-42; David A. Black, "The
Problem of the Literary Structure of Hebrews: An Evaluation and a Proposal," Grace
Theological Journal 7 (Fall 1986): 163-77.
12 Cf. Bligh, "The Structure of Hebrews," p. 171.
13 Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today, p. 48.
188 Bibliotheca Sacra / April—June 1989
22); "Christ" (9:24, 28); "year by year" (10:1, 3); "offering" (10:11,
18); "terrifying" (10:27, 31); "not seen" (11:1, 7); "not . . . afraid" and
"king" (11:23, 27); "through faith" (11:33, 39); "sons" (12:5, 8); and
"leaders" (13:7, 17).
A hook word is a word at the beginning of a paragraph repeated
from the end of the preceding paragraph which links or hooks the
two units together in a smooth transition. The main hook words in
Hebrews are as follows:15
1:4, a@ggeloi ("angels")
2:13, paidi<a ("children")
2:17, pisto<j ("faithful")
3:19, e]ise<rxomai ("enter")
4:5, e]ise<rxomai ("enter")
4:14, e@xw ("have")
6:12, e]paggeli<ai ("promises")
8:13, h[ prw<th ("the first")
9:1, h[ prw<th
9:23, ta> e]poura<nia
("the heavenly things")
10:39, pisto<j ("faith")
11:7, klhrono<moj ("heir")
("gain approval," i.e., having
been witnessed to)
12:1, martu<roi ("witnesses")
11:40, h[ma?j ("us")
12:1, h[mei?j ("we")
12:24, lale<w ("speaking")
These are terms that are repeated for emphasis within a
particular section. Vanhoye16 cited as examples the word a@ggeloj
in 1:5-2:18 and the word pi<stij in 11:1-40.
ALTERNATION OF LITERARY GENRES
The text of the epistle, Vanhoye noted, alternates between doc-
trinal exposition and exhortation. For example the two paragraphs
of exposition in the first part of Vanhoye's outline (1:5-14; 2:5-18)
14 Vanhoye's concept of mots-crochets or "hook words" was first suggested by L. Va-
ganay ("Le Plan
de 1'Epitre aux Hebreux," in Memorial Lagrange [
77). Cf. Thornton, "Reviews," p. 138, n. 1.
15 Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today, p. 49.
16 Vanhoye, A Structured Translation of the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 4.
The Literary Structure of the Book of Hebrews 189
are separated by a paragraph of exhortation (2:1-4). In his overall
analysis of the epistle he saw the following pattern:
In a more recent study Fenton has made the same observation and
has divided the epistle as follows:18
Fenton made three significant observations about this pattern of
alternation: (1) Verbs in the imperative are more common in the ex-
hortations than in the expositions. (2) The author used third person
17 According to Vanhoye's scheme Hebrews 5:11-6:20 introduces a new section. This
suggests, however, that paraenesis is presented before exposition, "surely a reversal of
the normal procedure" (Swetnam, "Form and Content in Hebrews 1-6," p. 385).
18 J. C. Fenton, "The Argument in Hebrews," Studio Evangelica 7 (1982): 175-76. For an
outline similar to Fenton's see William G. Johnsson, Hebrews, Knox Preaching Guides
(Atlanta: John Knox, 1980), p. 2. Also see George E. Rice, "Apostasy as a Motif and Its
on the Structure of Hebrews,"
expressions in the expositions (e.g., 1:14; 2:11; 5:9; 9:15, 28; 10:1, 14),
but he used the first and second persons in verbs in the hortatory
passages. (3) Four of the five exhortations are introduced by "there-
fore" (dia> tou?to, 2:1; o!qen, 3:1; ou#n, 10:19; toigarou?n, 12:1).19
SYMMETRICAL ARRANGEMENTS (I.E., CHIASMUS)
Vanhoye argued that the structure of the epistle, both as a whole
and in its parts, shows numerous chiastic patterns (symetries concen-
triques).20 By way of example he pointed to the central section of his
outline (8:1-9:28) where, he argued, the six subdivisions "mutually
correspond, two by two, according to a concentric order (the first with
the sixth, the second with the fifth, the third with the fourth)."
c. The old worship, earthly and figurative (8:1-6)
b. The first covenant, imperfect and provisional: (8:7-13)
a . The old and powerless institutions of worship (9:1-10)
A. The new, efficacious institutions (9:11-14)
B . The new covenant (9:15-23)
C. The entrance to heaven (9:24-28).21
Other examples of chiastic structure are given by Lightfoot.22
First he cites 1:5-8:
angels -------- ----------Son
He also mentions 4:16:
that we may receive ---| |----mercy
and grace --------------------| | --- we may find
19 In 5:11-14 the author shifted from the third person (5:9) to the first and second, so
Fenton included this paragraph in the third hortatory section (i.e., 5:11-6:20). He
noted that 6:1 begins with "therefore" (dio<), but conceded that this probably refers
back to 5:11-14 and not 5:1-10 (Fenton, "The Argument in Hebrews," p. 176). It might be
added here that the author used a number of additional "therefores,' "wherefores" or
"thens" to introduce shorter exhortations (dio<, 3:7; ou#n, 4:1; ou#n, 4:11; ou#n, 4:14; ou#n, 4:16;
dio<, 12:12; dio<, 12:28; toi<nun, 13:13; ou#n, 13:15). Cf. C. J. Sanford, "The Addressees of
Hebrews" (ThD diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1962), pp. 68-69. Cf. also 'W. C.
Linss, "Logical Terminology in the Epistle to the Hebrews," Concordia Theological
Monthly 37 (June 1966): 365.
Structured Translation of the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 4; cf.
"Reviews," p. 138.
21 Ibid., pp. 4, 20-23.
22 Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today, p. 47. For other examples see Philip E.. Hughes, A
the Epistle to the Hebrews (
Publishing Co., 1977), pp. 49, 90.
The Literary Structure of the Book of Hebrews 191
Vanhoye's chiastic analysis of the entire epistle is as follows:23
a Introduction (1:1-4)
1 The name above that of angels (1:5-2:18)
2 a Jesus, the faithful one (3:1-4:14)
2b Jesus, the compassionate high priest (4:15-5:10)
—Preliminary exhortation (5:11-6:20)
3a Jesus and Melchizedek (7:1-28)
3b Jesus attained fulfillment (8:19:28)
3c Jesus, cause of salvation (10:1-18)
—Final exhortation (10:19-39)
4a The faith of men of old (11:1-40)
4b Endurance is necessary (12:1-13)
5 The fruit of righteousness (12:14-13:19)
z Conclusion (13:20-25).
Unquestionably Vanhoye rendered a valuable service to students
of the Epistle to the Hebrews. His emphasis on the alternation be-
tween exposition and paraenesis is a significant one, and his
observations concerning announcements and hook words demonstrate
the careful structure of the epistle. Much of his outline is correct. For
example, 1:1-2:14 and 7:1-28 are distinct units; 8:1 begins a new divi-
sion; 10:19 introduces an exhortation; and 11:1-40 is a distinct unit.24
Nevertheless particular aspects of his study have been criti-
cized.25 The following observations may be made. (1) "Literary
principles alone are not a sufficient basis for analyzing structure."26
Such principles cannot be considered in isolation from content.27 To
cite just one example, it is unlikely that the phrase "peaceful fruit of
righteousness" (12:11) announces a major division in the argument.28
(2) The titles assigned to the sections do not reflect the development
23 Vanhoye, A Structured Translation of the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 7. The typo-
graphical arrangement given here is adapted from Ellingworth and Nida (A Transla-
tor's Handbook on the Letter to the Hebrews, p. 342). It is designed to show Vanhoye's
concentric or chiastic view of the epistle.
24 James Swetnam, "Form and Content in Hebrews 7-13," Biblica 55 (1974): 346.
"The Structure of Hebrews," pp. 173-77;
Swetnam, "Form and Content in Hebrews 1-6," pp. 368-85; idem, "Form and Content in
Hebrews 7-13," pp. 333-48.
26 Swetnam, "Form and Content in Hebrews 1-6," p. 385; cf. p. 369.
27 Swetnam, "Form and Content in Hebrews 7-13," p. 347.
28 Bligh, "The Structure of Hebrews," p. 174.
192 Bibliotheca Sacra / April—June 1989
of the author's thought, that is, they do not indicate the direction
the argument is taking.29
(3) While a number of small chiastic patterns are to be found,
the existence of a large-scale pattern embracing all sections of the
epistle is to be questioned for several reasons. First, Vanhoye con-
cluded that 13:19 and 13:22-25 were not originally a part of Hebrews
in that they do not fit his chiastic structure.30 Any proposal, how-
ever, that eliminates part of the original document must be consid-
ered a failure.31 Second, Vanhoye's concentric structure led him to
see correspondences between sections I and V and between II and IV
according to the scheme Eschatology-Eschatology and Ecclesiology-
Ecclesiology with the central section (III) being devoted to sacri-
I. 1:5-2:18 Eschatology
II. 3:1-5:10 Ecclesiology
III. 5:11-10:39 Sacrifice
IV. 11:1-12:13 Ecclesiology
V . 12:14-13:18 Eschatology
These categories are somewhat forced, however. One might ask
for example, how 13:1-6 can be included under eschatology when
11:1-40 is omitted (cf. especially vv. 1, 9-10, 16, 40). Further there is
no clear parallel between section 1 (entitled "A name so different
from the name of the angels") and section 5 (entitled "The peaceful
fruit of righteousness").33 Third, Vanhoye's work seemed to assume
that the epistle was composed by using modern literary conventions
(chapter headings, clearly marked paragraphs, punctuation, and
modern typographical layout). The epistle, however, was written
without any breaks, subdivisions, punctuation, or other modern
writing aids. It was written to be read aloud, not silently. None of
the first listeners would be able to appreciate the elaborate sym-
metrical patterns Vanhoye envisioned.34
29 Ibid., p. 175.
30 Vanhoye, La Structure Litteraire, pp. 219-21, cited by Floyd V. Filson, Yesterday:
A Study of
Hebrews in the Light of Chapter 13 (
1966), pp. 15-16, n. 8.
31 Buchanan felt that Vanhoye's outline would be improved if Hebrews 13 were
eliminated. Buchanan believed that Hebrews originally had only 12 chapters ("The
32 Vanhoye, La Structure Litteraire, pp. 238-47, cited by Swetnam, "Form and Content
in Hebrews 7-13," p. 345.
33 Swetnam, "Form and Content in Hebrews 7-13," p. 345.
The Literary Structure of the Book of Hebrews 193
(4) Not all of Vanhoye's literary devices, therefore, are of equal
value. Swetnam, for example, singled out announcements, genres of
exposition and exhortation, and length as primary criteria and cited
inclusios, hook words, and characteristic terms as subsidiary.35 (5)
The complexity posed by the convergence of all the criteria
(inclusios, hook words, announcements, characteristic words, and
chiastic patterns) is a problem to even the most alert minds.36
In addition to the six literary devices noted by Vanhoye, six
others have a bearing on the author's argument. It has been ob-
served, for example, that the author used a large number of
comparatives to support his argument (which runs through the entire
epistle) that the new revelation in Christ is superior to the old. The
following comparatives are used:37 diaforw<terwj ("more excellent,"
1:4; 8:6); e@llatwn ("lesser," 7:7; cf. e]latto<w, 2:7, 9); krei?ttwn/
krei?sswn ("better," 1:4; 6:9; 7:7, 19, 22; 8:6 [twice]; 9:23; 10:34; 11:16,
35, 40; 12:24); ma?llon ("more," 9:14; 10:25; 12:9, 13, 25); mei<zwn
("greater," 6:13, 16; 9:11; 11:26); perisso<teron) ("even more," 6:17;
7:15); perissote<rwj ("all the more," 2:1; 13:19); plei<wn ("more," 3:3
[twice]; 7:23; 11:4); teleiote<roj ("more perfect," 9:11); tomw<teroj
("sharper," 4:12); u[yhlo<teroj ("exalted, above," 7:26); and xei<rwn
TERMS DENOTING FINALITY
It has also been observed39 that a number of terms (viz., "new,"
"once," "eternal/forever," "perfect") in Hebrews suggest that the
author is arguing the superiority or finality of the new revelation as
compared with the old. Christ has established a New (kainh<) Cov-
enant which has made the first obsolete (pepalai<wken, 8:13; cf.
9:15). He has inaugurated (e]gkaini<zw) a new (pro<sfatoj) way into
God's presence (10:20).
35 Swetnam, "Form and Content in Hebrews 7–13," p. 333. Swetnam's
"announcements" are 1:4; 2:3-4; 2:17-18; 4:13; 6:20; 7:29; 10:18, 39; 12:1-2; 12:28-29 (p.
36 Ibid., p. 346.
37 Fenton, "The Argument in Hebrews," pp. 176-77.
38 Other comparative terms occur: w[j (22 times), ou$twj (9 times), kaqw<j (8 times),
tosou?toj (5 times), w!sper (3 times), o[moio<w (3 times), w[sei<, kaqa<per, kaqw<sper, w!ste (once each). Cf. Linss, "Logical Terminology in the Epistle to the Hebrews," p. 368.
39 Donald Medford Stine, "The Finality of the Christian Faith: A Study of the Un-
Argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapters 1-7" (ThD
Theological Seminary, 1964), pp. 29-44.
194 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1989
Besides this revelation through Christ being "new" it is also
unique, as the author illustrates by his use of e]fa<pac and a!pac.
Christ has been once (a!pac) manifested to put away sin (9:26). In
sharp contrast to the daily sacrifices and unending service of the Old
Testament priests (9:6; 10:11), Jesus has offered Himself once for all
(e]fa<pac, 7:27) and has once for all (e]fa<pac, 9:12) entered the
The new order is also eternal. Under the Old Covenant the priests
died, but under the new there is a Priest who abides forever (ei]j to>n
ai]w?na, 7:23-24). The new order, in contrast with the old (cf. 7:19;
10:1), "perfects" (teleio<w) the worshipers of God (10:12-.14; cf. 7:11).
A FORTIORI ARGUMENTS
Building on the accepted assumptions of his readers (i.e., on the
authority of the Law, the efficacy of the Old Testament sacrifices,
and reverence for one's father) the author used a series of a fortiori
arguments to demonstrate the supremacy of the new revelation in
Christ:41 2:1-3; 9:13-14; 10:28-29; 12:9, 25. The more serious perils
and more effective promises of the new revelation were presented a
fortiori with the clear implication that the new revelation is better.
The author also used adversative particles to delineate the
contrast between the old and new revelations.42 He contrasted the an-
gels and the Son of God in 1:7-8 (me<n . . . de<), angels and man in 2:5-6
(ou] ga>r . . . de<), fallen man and messianic man in 2:8-9 (ou@pw . . .
de<), the Son and Moses in 3:5-6 (me<n . . . de<), Jesus and the Levitical
high priest in 4:15 (ou] . . . de<), the sons of Levi and Melchizedek in
7:5-6 (me<n . . . de<) and 7:8 (w$de me>n . . . e]kei? de>), the physical re-
quirement of the Law and Christ's indestructible life in 7:16 (ou] . . .
a]lla<), the weak commandment and the better hope in 7:18-19 (me<n . . .
de<), the authority in back of the Levitical priests and the Son in
7:20-21 (me<n . . . de<), the transitoriness of the Old Testament priest-
hood and the permanence of that of Christ in 7:23-24 (me<n . . . de<),
the earthly ministry of the Levitical priesthood and the heavenly
one of Christ in 8:4-6 (me<n . . . nuni> de>), the earthly tabernacle of
the Old Testament and the perfect tabernacle of Christ in 9:1-5, 11
(me>n . . . Xristo>j de<), and the Old Testament sacrifices and the sac-
rifice of Christ in 9:23-24 (de< . . . a]ll ] ), 9:25-26 (nuni> de a!pac) and
10:11-13 (ou]de<pote . . . de<).
40 Cf. Oscar Cullmann, Christ and
Time, trans. F. V. Filson (
41 Stine, "The Finality of the Christian Faith," pp. 44-47.
42 Ibid., pp. 61-82.
The Literary Structure of the Book of Hebrews 195
In discussing Vanhoye's work, Buchanan noted that certain
themes echo throughout the epistle: (1) the origin of the ages (1:2;
11:3), (2) exaltation (1:3; 4:14; 7:26; 8:1), (3) high priest (2:17; 3:1-2;
4:14-15; 6:20; 7:26; 8:1; 9:11), (4) holding fast (3:6; 3:14; 10:23), and (5)
the promises (4:1; 6:11-12, 15, 17; 8:6; 9:15; 10:36; 11:9, 13, 17, 39). The
author of Hebrews, Buchanan said, was a literary artist who did not
say all that he had to say on a subject in one place, even though his
units were well structured. Instead he "composed his document as in-
tricately and as carefully as a musical composer might, with many
themes woven throughout."43
Stine has argued that the epistle falls into three sections: 1:1-
7:28; 8:1-10:18; and 10:19-13:25. He noted that each is introduced by
a topic sentence: 1:1-4; 8:1-2; and 10:19-25.44
Scripture Citations in the Book
A number of North American scholars, approaching the Epistle
to the Hebrews from another angle, have contended that the au-
thor's argument is structured around several Old Testament citations.
These interpreters disagree, however, on which Old Testament pas-
sages are key: Caird suggested Psalms 8, 95, 110, and Jeremiah 31;
Kistemaker had Psalms 8, 95, 110, 40; Longenecker mentioned the
catena of citations in Hebrews 1, Psalms 8, 95, 110, and Jeremiah 31;
and Johnson offered Psalms 2 and 110, Jeremiah 31, and Psalm 40.45 In
44 Stine, “The Finality of the Christian Faith,” p. 106, nn. 2 and 3. Other scholars
have divided the epistle in the same way as Stine (e.g., Gleason L. Archer, The Epistle
to the Hebrews, Shield Bible
Study Series [
pp. 9-14; Carter, "Hebrews," in The Wesleyan Bible Commentary, 6 vol., ed. Charles
Michel also divided the epistle into three sections: 1:1-4:13; 4:14-10:39; and 11:1-
(Der Brief an die Hebraer,
12th ed. [
1966], pp. 92, 204, 368). Others have followed a similar threefold division, including
Paul Feine and Johannes Behm, Introduction to the New Testament, ed. W. G. Kummel,
trans. A. J. Mattill (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966), pp. 274-75; Snell, New and Liv-
ing Way, pp. 52-54. Swetnam based his threefold division on the occurrence of
o[mologi<a ("confession") in 3:1; 4:14; and 10:23 ("Form and Content in Hebrews 7-13," p.
347). Franz Delitzsch in an earlier time had also divided the epistle into three sec-
tions: 1:1–6:20; 7:1–10:18; and 10:19–13:25 (Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews,
vols., trans. T. L. Kingbury [
Klock & Klock, 1978], 1:v-vii; 2:v-vii).
45 George B. Caird, "The Exegetical Method of the Epistle to the Hebrews,"
Canadian Journal of Theology 5 (1959): 44-51; Simon Kistemaker, The Psalm Citations
196 Bibliotheca Sacra / April-June 1989
spite of this minor disagreement, however, these writers agree that
the major sections of the epistle all have at their core an Old Testa-
ment passage that controls the drift of the argument.46 Adopting a
composite list, including the suggestions of all four scholars, one
might outline the epistle as follows:
Section in Hebrews Old Testament Passage
1:1-2:4 Psalms 2 and 110 (cf. 2 Sam. 7)
2:5-18 Psalm 8:4-6
3:1-4:13 Psalm 95:7-11
4:14-7:28 Psalm 110:4
8:1-9:28 Jeremiah 31:31-34
10:1-18 Psalm 40:6-8
10:19-13:25 Psalm 95:7-11
Interpreters of Hebrews have differed widely in their analyses
of the overall structure of the epistle. Mackay's observation that
exegetes of Hebrews have "always been happier with the trees than
the wood"48 is well taken.49 Nevertheless each interpreter must
in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Amsterdam: Wed. G. Van Soest N. V., 1961), pp. 95-131;
N. Longenecker, Biblical
Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), pp. 174-85; S. Lewis Johnson, The Old Testa-
ment in the New (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980), pp. 53-54. Cf.
also H. J. B. Combrink, "Some Thoughts on the Old Testament Citations in the Epistle
to the Hebrews," Neotestamentica 5 (1971): 31. Combrink said the Old Testament
quotations "constitute the framework of this letter." Buchanan asserted that Psalm
110 "is the main text of the entire book" (Hebrews, pp. 8, 132).
46 Caird, "The Exegetical Method of the Epistle to the Hebrews," p. 47. Caird said
of other Old Testament passages in Hebrews: "All other scriptural references [in He-
brews] are ancillary to these" Old Testament passages.
47 Kistemaker classified 10:19-13:25 under faithfulness (The Psalm Citations in the
Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 131, n. 1). The present writer suggests Habakkuk 2:3-4 (cf.
Heb. 10:37-38) in that it strikes both an eschatological note (cf. Heb. 11:9, 10, 16, 40;
12:22-28; 13:14) and a note of exhortation to faithfulness and perseverance (cf. Heb. 11;
12:1-13; 13:7-17), themes that dominate the final section of the epistle.
48 Cameron Mackay, "The Argument of Hebrews," Church Quarterly Review 168
49 James Moffatt (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the He-
Critical Commentary [
xxiv) implied that it was artificial to divide the epistle into formal divisions and
subdivisions, yet he went ahead and gave a general plan:
A. The personality of the Son (1:1-4:13)
B. The Son as high priest (4:14-7:28)
C. The sacrifice of this high priest (8:1-10:18)
D. Appeals for constancy (10:1.9-13:25).
The Literary Structure of the Book of Hebrews 197
study the epistle for himself, carefully evaluate the observations of
others, and then set forth a structure that helps the reader make the
most sense out of Hebrews.50
The present writer suggests the following conclusions: (1) The lit-
erary devices suggested by Vanhoye provide the interpreter with a
measure of certainty in determining the "joints" of the epistle's struc-
ture. (2) Of the literary devices Vanhoye suggested, announcements,
hook words, and the alternation of literary genres are primary, yet
the others, though subsidiary, help the interpreter see how the au-
thor constructed his units of thought. (3) Any presentation of the au-
thor's argument must make clear that his expositions lead to exhor-
tations in five major sections (2:1-4; 3:1–4:16; 5:11–6:20; 10:19-39; 12:1-
29).51 (4) Content—that is, the basic themes or concepts of the author
as recognized in the history of the exegesis of the epistle—as well as
literary devices must be taken into account when presenting the ar-
gument. If literary principles and content are divorced, then the
content will be distorted.52 (5) The author's use of comparatives,
terms denoting finality, a fortiori arguments, and adversative par-
ticles make clear the overall thrust of his argument, namely, that
the priesthood, covenant, and sacrifice of Christ are superior to the
priesthood, covenant, and sacrifices of the Old Testament. (6) It is
evident that the entire argument is built around several key Old
Testament passages (viz., Pss. 2; 8; 95; 110; Jer. 31; Ps. 40; Hab. 2).
50 Swetnam, "Form and Content in Hebrews 7-13," p. 348.
51 On the basis of the threefold occurrence of o[mologi<a ("confession," 3:1; 4:14; 10:23)
Swetnam argued for three paraenetic sections (3:1-4:13; 4:14-6:20; and 10:19-39) ("Form
and Content in Hebrews 7-13," p. 347).
52 Swetnam, "Form and Content in Hebrews 1-6," p. 369. The two articles by Swetnam
are helpful in achieving a balance between form and content. He warned, however,
that though a measure of certainty is possible in structuring and tracing the argument,
absolute certainty is not. He wrote, "Scientific 'certitude' as this term is applied to
literary interpretation ... can be positively misleading; any attempt to achieve a
quasi-mathematical certitude by isolating 'objective' factors which can then be pre-
sumed reliable for determining meaning is to try to impose on words an alien
methodology" ("Form and Content in Hebrews 7-13," p. 348).
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