Grace Theological Journal 7.2 (1986) 163-77
Copyright © 1986 by Grace Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
THE PROBLEM OF THE
LITERARY STRUCTURE OF
HEBREWS: AN EVALUATION
AND A PROPOSAL
DAVID ALAN BLACK
The literary structure of the Epistle to the Hebrews is uniquely
complex. In a writing so multifaceted, where topics are foreshadowed
and repeated, differences of opinion must inevitably arise regarding the
precise divisions of the argument. This essay examines three specific
approaches to the structure of Hebrews: the traditional view, which
divides the epistle into doctrinal and practical parts; the detailed
literary analysis of A. Vanhoye; and the "patchwork" approach, which
follows the changing themes of the letter from chapter to chapter
without submitting every detail to one overriding theory of structure.
Though each approach has its strengths, Vanhoye's offers the clearest
analysis of the epistle. Detecting an intricate theme woven in an
intricate style, he sets his analysis on a firmer base as part of a broad
literary approach to the epistle.
* * *
LITERARY structures, to use a scientific analogy, are like those
mysterious species of fish which live on the ocean floor. As soon as
they are brought to the surface to be examined, the change in pressure
is too great for them, and they explode, leaving their investigators in a
state of frustration and bewilderment.
This analogy unquestionably applies more to the structure of
Hebrews than to any other major NT writing.1 The common reader
1C. Spicq has voiced a similar opinion: "One's first contact with the Epistle to the
Hebrews is forbidding. In fact, in all the collection of the NT writings, this letter is, with the Apocalypse, the most distant from the literary point of view of our western and modern mentality" (my translation) (L 'Epitre aux Hebreux [EB; Paris: Lecoffre, 1950]
164 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
may know the picture-gallery of faithful men and women in chap. 11,
the mysterious name Melchizedek, something of the priestly and
sacrificial imagery, and possibly certain vivid passages, such as "looking .
unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, " but he may be
unaware of the total nature of the author's thought. Indeed for many
Christians the epistle has been reduced to a collection of proof-texts
and memory-verses-a sort of biblical telephone directory, with chap-
ter and verse instead of area code and number.
But if the common man has found it difficult to follow the author's
movement of thought in Hebrews, the NT specialist has not fared any
better. The study of the structure of Hebrews has followed a course like
that of the Meander itself. With the passing of time, a sufficient
amount of silt has accumulated to discourage even the most ambitious
expositor. If the author had a carefully planned structure before him in
writing, his arrangement is not easily perceived by his more distant
successors, a fact which no doubt is behind the multitude of proposed
outlines for the epistle.
This situation is especially unfortunate in the modern era, which is
marked by a common recognition that literary insight and perception
of structure and patterns are absolutely necessary if the NT documents
are to be adequately understood. Phrases by themselves, or phrases
strung together randomly, are of relatively little use, a fact known by
anyone who has visited a foreign country armed only with a dictionary
and no knowledge of the language. In biblical exegesis, as in general
linguistics, language is not an accidental junk-pile consisting of a
haphazard collection of different items. Instead it is more like a jigsaw
puzzle, where each piece fits into those which surround it, and where
an isolated piece simply cannot make any sense if it is removed from its
proper place in the overall pattern. Concisely put, analysis must
include synthesis if a text is to be fully appreciated. A thorough-going
structural treatment is therefore essential if for no other reason than it
enables the expositor to understand how a NT author has composed
his work and how each part fits the whole.
The literary structure of Hebrews is uniquely complex. In a
writing so multifaceted, where topics are naturally foreshadowed and
repeated, differences of opinion must inevitably arise as to the precise
divisions of the argument. Some very specific-and novel-suggestions
have been put forward to explain the progress of thought in Hebrews,
and we shall examine some of the more interesting of these in this essay
(without any risk of the pages exploding before us).
THE TRADITIONAL DIVISION
On the most basic level, Hebrews is understood to consist of two
main parts of unequal length, 1:5-10:18 and 10:19-13:17. They are
held together by a brief but polished introduction (1:1-4) and a
BLACK: THE LITERARY STRUCTURE OF HEBREWS 165
conclusion containing final prayers and benedictions (13:18-21), to
which is appended a postscript containing further personalia and a
final brief benediction (13:22-25). The contents of 1:1-10:18 are called
dogmatic or kerygmatic; the contents of 10:19-13:17 are labeled
ethical, parenetic, or didactic.
This idea was well stated by John Brown over a century ago: "The
Epistle divides itself into two parts-the first Doctrinal, and the second
Practical-though the division is not so accurately observed that there
are no duties enjoined or urged in the first part, and no doctrines stated
in the second.”2 Brown goes on to speak of "the great doctrine" and
"the great duty" of the epistle, referring to the superiority of Chris-
tianity to Judaism, and the believer's constancy of faith, respectively.
Shown first is the superiority of Christianity to the angels, through
whom the law of Moses was given (1:5-2:18); secondly, to Moses
himself (3:1-4: 13); and thirdly, to the Jewish high priest Aaron and his
ministry (4:14-10:18). Jesus as Son, Apostle, and Great High Priest
infinitely transcends them all. Thereafter follows the practical applica-
tion of this truth, which consists first in a general exhortation to faith
and endurance (10:19-12:25), and secondly in a variety of practical
exhortations related to the Christian life (13:1-17).3
Granted that such a picture of Hebrews needs to be complemented
other details, on the whole it is representative of much of conser-
vative Protestant scholarship today. Homer Kent (1972), Edmond
Hiebert (1977), and Donald Guthrie (1983) understand the epistle in
much the same way. Kent, distinguishing the abstract truths of the first
part of the letter from the admonitions which begin in 10:19, writes:
"This section of Hebrews consists of a series of exhortations based
upon the great doctrinal truths set forth previously.4 Hiebert, despite
his acknowledgment that the doctrinal interest of Hebrews goes hand
in hand with the practical, divides the epistle into "doctrinal" and
"practical" parts.5 Guthrie, a recent commentator on Hebrews, gives
the following titles to the two parts. “I. The Superiority of the
Christian Faith. II. Exhortations.”6 The latter's opinion on the subject
is most apparent when he writes on 10:19 that "the application of the
preceding doctrinal discussion begins here.”7 For these writers the
2John Brown, An Exposition of the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews
(New York: Carter and Brothers, 1862) 1.8.
4HomerA. Kent, Jr., The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972) 197.
5 D. Edmond Hiebert, An Introduction to the New Testament (3 vols., Chicago:
Moody, 1977) 3. 92-100.
6Donald Guthrie, The Letter to the Hebrews (TNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
7Ibid., 210; so also Charles R. Erdman, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1934) 20-24.
166 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
proclamation of Christ's supremacy, made during the main doctrinal
section, prepares the reader for the concluding chapters which focus
upon the practical consequences of the theological arguments supplied
earlier. Since the same sequence is also found in many of Paul's letters
(e.g., Galatians, Romans, Ephesians), even when doctrinal and parene-
tic elements are intermingled (e.g., 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians,
Philippians, Colossians), the bipartition of Hebrews appears to be a
balanced and logical conclusion.
But some modification of this traditional view seems to be under-
way. What was formerly assumed to be the epistle's kerygmatic first
part (1:5-10:18) has been shown to be a highly systematic "inter-
weaving [of] massive argument and earnest exhortation."8 Such basi-
cally hortatory passages as 2:1-4; 3:7-4:11; 4:14-16; and 5:11-6:12
incline the careful student of Hebrews to regard these passages as
integral to the main purpose of the author. To label them "digressions"
or "inserted warnings" is to beg the question of the author's purpose in
including them in this part of his writing with such frequency. However
dogmatic and doctrinal the teaching of 1:5- 10:18, it stands closely
related to the exhortations which are interspersed throughout. What,
then, happened to the kerygma of Hebrews? According to Nauck9 and
Kummel,lO kerygmatic and parenetic elements are so intermingled that
it is no longer possible to differentiate them. Kummel even concluded
that the hortatory passages which supposedly "interrupt" the epistle
"are actually the real goal of the entire exposition."11 He suggests that
the underlying structure of Hebrews is indicated by the parenetic
passages alone, which stand in parallel form at the beginning and end
of each of the three main sections of the epistle. This would result in
the following outline:
I. Hear the word of God in the Son, Jesus Christ, who is higher than the
angels and Moses (1:1-4:13).
II. Let us approach the high priest of the heavenly sanctuary and hold fast
our confession (4:14-10:31).
III. Hold fast to Jesus Christ, who is the initiator and perfecter of faith
8 Alexander Purdy, "Hebrews," IB (Nashville: Abingdon, 1955) 11. 580.
9W. Nauck, "Zum Aufbau des Hebraerbriefes," Judentum, Urchristentum, Kirche (1960) 199-206.
10Werner Georg Kiimmel, Introduction to the New Testament (trans. H. C. Kee; Nashville: Abingdon, 1975) 390.
11Ibid. Cf. the comment by Otto Michel: "The high point of the theological thought lies in the parenetic parts, which exhort the listeners to obedience and seek to prepare the church for suffering" (my translation) (Der Brief an die Hebraer [KKNT 13; Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975] 27).
12Kiimmel, Introduction, 390-92. Michel's outline is very similar (Hebraer, 6):
I. The Speaking of God in the Son and the Superiority of the Son to the Old Covenant
BLACK: THE LITERARY STRUCTURE OF HEBREWS 167
Thus for Kummel, the whole of Hebrews is nothing other than an
extended epistolary parenesis, consisting of exhortations regarding the
privileges and responsibilities of the Christian life.
Kummel's judgment on the subject is not widely held, but it may
be the most prudent. As Markus Barth astutely observed with refer-
ence to the structure of Ephesians, the juxtaposition of indicative and
.imperative (i.e., kerygma and parenesis) may have exhausted its use-
fulness.13 Their imposition upon a complicated document like Hebrews
is as inappropriate as the attempt to measure the length of the Grand
Canyon with a barometer. Such a method cannot fail to overlook the
essential nature of the epistle from beginning to end. Floyd Filson in
particular has declared Heb 13:22 to be the key to the whole epistle and
its literary structure.14 In the phrase, "my word of exhortation," the
author of Hebrews gives us the most apt description possible to state
the nature and purpose of his writing. Hebrews is a written message,
which sets forth doctrine, not for its own sake, but only to show the
recipients how great a privilege they have to be related to Christ and
what an immense loss they would suffer if they should allow anything
to rob them of their faith in him. With every pronouncement con-
taining important theological content, the author urges his readers to
realize how much is at stake in their response to the gospel. The
doctrinal content of the first ten chapters is therefore not an end in
itself but merely a means to an end: to exhort these Christians to hold
fast their faith, confession, and obedience. Hence "we understand
Hebrews rightly only if we keep the urgent note of exhortation clearly
before us in all our discussion of the form and meaning of the
If the traditional view of Hebrews sees in this epistle no more than
a correspondence of preaching and teaching, of God's activity for man
and man's good works for God in response, it may miss what the
(1:1-4:13). II. Jesus the True High Priest (4:14-10:39). III. The Way of Faith of the People of God in the Past and the Present (11:1-13:25) (my translation). Th. Haering's division of the letter is also much the same, though he holds to the partition of Hebrews into two (not three) Hauptteile: 1:1-4:13 and 4:14-13:25 ("Gedankengang und Grundgedanken des Hebr," ZNTW 18  145-64, esp. 156).
13Markus Barth, Ephesians (AB; Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1974), 1.54-55. The criticism of this juxtaposition with regard to Hebrews is found as the early as the commentary of Hans Windisch (Der Hebraerbrief [HNT 14; Tubingen: Mohr, 1931] 8): "First of all it must be emphasized that Hebrews cannot be divided into a so-called theoretical and a practical part, but rather that the parenesis time and again interrupts the flow of the witness to faith and Scripture" (my translation).
14Floyd V. Filson, "Yesterday.” A Study of Hebrews in the Light of Chapter 13
(SBT 4; Naperville, IL: Allenson, 1967) 16-26.
15Ibid., 21. On the extensive sections of Hebrews given over to exhortation he writes: "The biblical exposition gives the background and basis for such repeated exhortations, but such exposition is not the author's basic interest and purpose" (p. 19).
168 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
epistle intends to say in particular. Scholars who push this juxtaposi-
tion so far have been unable to avoid questionable methods or to
answer the objection that this procedure is arbitrary and forced.
Moreover, the method fails to take into consideration the letter's
obvious stylistic and rhetorical devices, specifically the recurring use of
chiasm, hook-words, announcements, etc.16 But at least one conces-
sion to this approach is necessary. If the distinction between dogmatic
and parenetic parts of the letter does not determine its external
structure, it nevertheless contributes a great deal to the elucidation of
its contents. For even if the author's main purpose all the way through
is a supremely practical one, his method of dealing with the difficulties
facing his readers is essentially doctrinal: to lay before them the
permanent significance of Christianity and especially the absolute
superiority of the person and office of Christ to Judaism. This is the
heart of the author's subject and can be epitomized in the resounding
"we have" (indicative mood) of the epistle's key verse: "We have such a
high priest" (8: 1).
THE STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS OF A. VANHOYE
But the most recent research of Albert Vanhoye, the noted Jesuit
scholar and editor of Biblica, leads us still further. Building upon an
earlier suggestion of Vaganay, Vanhoye claims to have found in
Hebrews a carefully constructed chiastic structure, repeatedly inter-
woven by key words which appear at the beginning of a section and
then reappear at or very near to the close of the section.17 For example,
the mention of "angels" in 1:4 leads into the section on the Son and the
angels beginning in 1:5. "Angels" appears again in 2: 16, where it serves
to mark off a literary unit by restating at the end what was said at the
beginning. The structure of Hebrews also includes announcements and
anticipations on the author's part of subjects that are to be treated. In
1:4 he announces that Christ has a better name than the angels and
then explores this theme in 1:5-2:18. In 2:17-18 he states that Christ is
a merciful and faithful high priest and then treats this topic in 3:1-5:10.
The subject of 5:11-10:39--the sacerdotal work of Christ, a priest like
Melchizedek-is announced in 5:9-10 in the pronouncement that
Christ was "designated by God as a high priest according to the order
of Melchizedek." Then, in 10:36-39 he speaks of men of endurance and
faith, and well illustrates the character of such men in 11:1-12:13.
Finally, in 12:13 the author exhorts his readers, "make straight paths
16 See my discussion of style below.
17 Albert Vanhoye, La structure litteraire de l'Epitre aux Hebreux (Paris: Desclee,
BLACK: THE LITERARY STRUCTURE OF HEBREWS 169
for your feet," and follows in 12:14-13:18 by urging specific ways by
which this can be done.
Vanhoye's analysis has much in its favor and is due more attention
than it has received. Perhaps the character and weight of his treatment
would make a more decisive contribution to the identity of the literary
structure of Hebrews if it were briefly summarized in English. What
follows are excerpts from Vanhoye's findings occasionally augmented
by further observations.18
The opening division of Hebrews (1:5-2:18) comprises two dog-
matic sections (1:5-15 and 2:5-18) with a short parenetic section
between (2: 1-4). The first dogmatic section deals with the Son's
position as God, the second shows his connection with mankind, the
author's purpose being to show that Christ is both the Son of God and
the brother of men. Each dogmatic section forms a unity, as indicated
by the repetition of key expressions at both ends of each passage (cf.
1:5 and 1:13: "to which of the angels did he ever say?"; 2:5 and 2:16: "it
is not to angels"). With these statements the author has expressed his
main thoughts. On the one hand, Jesus Christ is one with God (1:5-
14); on the other hand, he is one with men (2:5-18). In either case he is
superior to angels. It is necessary, therefore, to heed what he says
In 2:17-18 the second main division of the letter is announced.
For the first time, the author speaks of the priesthood of Christ. Here
he gives Jesus the title of "high priest" and adds to it two important
characteristics, "merciful" and "faithful."
In this new division, 3:1-5:10, the author focuses on both of these
adjectives, though in reverse order. Jesus is presented first as a faithful
high priest in matters concerning God, his Father (3:1-4:14), then as a
high priest who is full of compassion toward men, his brothers (4:15-
15:10). One can easily see the connection between these two aspects of
the discussion and what was said in the first division of the letter, where
the topic was Christ the Son of God (1:5-14) and the brother of men
In this first subsection, 3: 1-4: 14, the vocabulary is that of faith:
"faithful" (3:2, 5); "assurance" (3:14); "believed" (4:3); "faith" (4:2);
and "unbelief" (3:12, 19). The theme of faith is thus central in this
l8The literature which has been produced by Vanhoye on this subject is enormous. it In addition to his seminal monograph cited in the preceding note, see esp. the following: Situation du Christ (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1969); "Discussions sur la structure de Epitre aux Hebreux," Bib 55 (1974) 349-80; "La question litteraire de Hebreux 13, 1-6," NTS 23 (1977) 121-39; and "Situation et signification de Hebreux 5,1-10," NTS 23 (1977) 445-56. Our synopsis of Vanhoye's analysis of the structure of Hebrews is based on the author's own summary: "Literarische Struktur und theologische Botschaft des Hebraerbriefes (1. Teil)," SNTU 4 (1979) 119-47.
170 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
section. A short explanation (3:2-6) is followed by a long exhortation
(3:7-4:14). In the explanation Christ is said to be faithful. The exhor-
tation brings out the response: we must answer with our faith. In
4:15-5:10, however, the discussion shifts to Christ as a merciful high
priest, a theme which emphasizes how far this high priest went to share
our condition (cf. 5:7-8). Heb 5:9-10 then functions as a transition to
the third main division of the letter. Here three statements are made
concerning Christ: (1) he achieved perfection; (2) he is the source of
eternal salvation to all who obey him; and (3) he has been designated
by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Such
are the main themes of the longest division of Hebrews, 5:11-10:39.
This third division is more complex than the others. The author
declares openly that the explanation of his subject will not be easy
(5:11), and in a lengthy admonition he warns his readers to pay careful
attention (5: 11-6:20). After this "introduction" the author discusses
three unique yet interrelated themes, those which he had already
mentioned in 5:9-10. Section A (7:1-18) considers the person and
status of the priest. Christ is not a priest according to the order of
Aaron but according to the new order which was fore viewed in the OT
in the mysterious Melchizedek (Ps 110:4; Gen 14:18-20). Section B
(8: 1-9:28) considers the process by which this priest can stand before
God. Christ came to God on the basis of a new offering which brought
him "perfection." Section C (10: 1-18) considers the use to which
people can put Christ's perfect sacrifice. This offering is perfect in its
effect: it results in the full forgiveness of sins and the sanctification of
the believer. Thus in these three sections the author has discussed the
three essential elements of priestly mediation: the status of the priest,
his offering, and the application of his sacrifice to the people. This last
point leads into yet another solemn warning passage (10:19-39).
The fourth main division of Hebrews is, announced in 10:36-39,
where the word "faith" functions as a hook-word connecting 10:39
("those who have faith") to 11: 1 ("now faith is ..."). What follows in
11 :2-40 is a very graphic picture of the great deeds of those under the
Old Covenant, as well as a description of those times when their faith
was tested. At the beginning of chap. 12, however, the emphasis
changes. The readers are now invited to run with endurance the race
set before them, following the example of Christ, "who endured the
cross" (12:1-2). This exhortation to endurance continues to the final
injunction in 12:13 to "make straight paths for your feet." In the Greek
text the close connection between this verse and 12:1 is made obvious
by the author's use of two words which share the same root ("paths"
The fifth and final division is introduced to the reader in 12: 13.
The preceding passage concluded with the words, "therefore, strengthen
BLACK: THE LITERARY STRUCTURE OF HEBREWS 171
1: 1-4 Introduction
I 1:5-2:18 The Name of Jesus
II A 3:1-4:14 Jesus, Trustworthy High Priest
B 4:15-5:10 Jesus, Compassionate High Priest
5: 11-6:20 (Preliminary Exhortation)
A 7:1-28 According to the Order of Melchizedek
III B 8: 1-9:28 Perfection Achieved
C 10:1-18 Source of Eternal Salvation
10:19-39 (Closing Exhortation)
IV A 11: 1-40 The Faith of the Men of Old
B 12:1-13 The Necessity of Endurance
V 12:14-13:18 Make Straight Paths
the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble. ..." These
words are taken from Isa 35:3 and fit well with the theme of endurance.
Then there follows a statement taken not from Isaiah but from
Proverbs (4:26): "and make straight paths for your feet." The theme
thus introduced is not that of endurance but rather one of behavior;
hence what follows is a series of directives for the Christian life. The
first sentence of this new division gives the direction in which "the
paths" should go: "pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification
without which no one will see the Lord" (12:14). It is instructive that
just as the first division of Hebrews (I :5-2: 18) included a short
interlude (2: 1-4), so also does this division. This short subsection
(13:1-6) is located between two longer ones, the first emphasizing
"sanctification" (12:14-29), the second the communal life of the church
It is difficult to give a coherent picture of the structural com-
ponents in Vanhoye's analysis because of the enormous amount of
details which characterizes it. Vanhoye envisages a reconstruction
totally unlike anything we have seen before, yet one which results in a
relatively coherent and self-authenticating structure. His general out-
line of Hebrews, with slight modification, is reproduced in Chart 1.19
19Vanhoye, "Literarische Struktur," 133.
172 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
According to this plan, Hebrews is comprised of five concen-
trically arranged parts with several subsections20 (see Chart 2). The first
and fifth parts of Vanhoye's arrangement have only one section apiece,
while the second and fourth parts have two subsections each. The third
part, which has three subsections, clearly receives the emphasis. The
midpoint of this concentric structure is 8:1-9:28, what the author
himself terms "the point of what we are saying" (8:1).
Despite its complicated appearance, the fundamental principle of
Vanhoye's reading of the text is simply that nothing in the discourse
results from chance. The text is the product of unconscious stylistic
features as well as those conscious factors of which the author is quite
cognizant. In sum, Vanhoye's analysis of Hebrews presupposes that
everything in the text is motivated.
One recognizes in this epistle the work of a true man of letters whose
extraordinary talent is enhanced by excellent powers of organization. In
these pages nothing seems left to chance; on the contrary, the choice of
words, the rhythm and construction of phrases, the arrangement of
different themes, all appear to be controlled by the pursuit of a har-
monious balance in which subtle variations contribute to a wisely
The analyst should therefore be attentive to significant elements within
the text that will enable him to bring to light some of its underlying
structure and symmetry. He should be particularly attentive to the
stylistic devices in the author's language and composition. These
factors, when accurately defined, supply important clues for an under-
standing of the biblical author's purpose in writing.
Vanhoye's contribution to the study of the structure of Hebrews,
as important and ground-breaking as it is, has unfortunately suffered
from those twin enemies of new research-neglect and temerarious
opinion. Philip Hughes criticizes Vanhoye's research but fails to
interact with it, stating simply in a footnote: "Vanhoye in his detailed
study seems to me to err on the side of overstatement and to tend to
find more stylistic symmetries and literary subtleties than are really
present.”22 Kummel pronounces his view to be "contrived,”23 but
offers no evidence to support his verdict. The tendency represented by
Hughes and Kummel to ignore this new treatment is unfortunately
represented in the majority of the latest commentators on the epistle.
Bristol (1967), Schierse (1969), Turner (1975), G. Hughes (1979),
21Yanhoye, La structure, 11.
22 Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977) n. 2.
23 Kummel, Introduction, 390.
BLACK: THE LITERARY STRUCTURE OF HEBREWS 173
I II III IV V
A B e A B C e A B
Jewett (1981), Brown (1982), Morris (1983), and Hagner (1983) all
register no sign of Vanhoye's influence, though his work appeared in
1963.24 Occasionally it is alluded to, only to be passed over. This
more esoteric than it need be, or that it procedes from the fertile
imagination of the expositor rather than the text itself, both of which
are highly subjective objections themselves.25
Neil Lightfoot in his commentary is a notable exception to the
prevailing attitude, however.26 His reticence to accept in toto Vanhoye's
conclusions cannot be equated with an attempt to ignore or dodge the
issue. Like Vanhoye, Lightfoot pays the unknown author of Hebrews
high tribute because of the originality of his thought and his art of
systematic arrangement. The divisions suggested by Vanhoye offer
plausible solutions to many questions that were often considered
unanswerable. But to Lightfoot the comprehensiveness of the theory is
not sufficient to demonstrate its validity: "[Just] because the author
24Lyle O. Bristol, Hebrews: A Commentary (Valley Forge: Judson, 1967); F. J. Schierse, The Epistle to the Hebrews (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969); George Allen Turner, The New and Living Way (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975); Graham Hughes, Hebrews and Hermeneutics (SNTSMS 36; Cambridge: University Press, 1979); Robert Jewett, Letter to Pilgrims (New York: Pilgrim, 1981); Raymond Brown, Christ Above All (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity, 1982); Leon Morris, Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983); and Donald A. Hagner, Hebrews (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983).
25Cf. the objection of Otto Kuss that "the current evidence of a systematic
arrangement speaks more of the determination and hypothetical sagacity of the exegete in question than of a genuinely intelligible methodicalness of an artificial composition of the unknown author" (my translation) (Der Brief an die Hebraer [Regensburg: Pustet, 1966] 14). Vanhoye's analysis is also open to the minor criticisms voiced by J. Bligh, "The Structure of Hebrews," HeyJ 5 (1964) 170-77; Michel, Hebraer, 31-34; and J. Swetnam, "Form and Content in Hebrews 1-6," Bib 53 (1972) 368-85.
26Neil R. Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today: A Commentary on the Book of Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976).
174 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
makes anticipations and announcements, it does not follow that his
outline must strictly coincide with his announcements.”27 Although he
shares Vanhoye's interest in the style of Hebrews, Lightfoot is never-
theless disposed to follow a more conventional outline.
I would venture to suggest that expositors of Hebrews would
profit immensely from the thoughtful contribution of Vanhoye. If it
does not enjoy the status of absolute certainty (and what theory does?),
it should nonetheless be studied as a viable alternative to the more
traditional interpretation. Elements of careful structure are obvious in
the epistle, but to recognize them the interpreter must be able to
identify the formal criteria of literary analysis. The great merit of
Vanhoye's treatment is that it shows concretely how an understanding
of structural linguistics can serve the expositor. Lightfoot has pre-
sented an exhaustive description of the special stylistic devices exhib-
ited in Hebrews, including chiasm, inclusion, hook-words, and
announcements. He has shown that precisely the same style is char-
acteristic of much of the teaching of Jesus, in which traces of inverted
word order and repetition of thought can be detected. What Vanhoye
and Lightfoot have done is to set this type of structural analysis on a
firmer base as part of a broader approach to the NT documents and
especially to Hebrews. Vanhoye in particular has innovatively drawn
our attention to the fact that whoever wrote the epistle had been very
well schooled in the art of composition. In Hebrews, unlike perhaps
any other NT letter, the special topic treated, the peculiar issues
involved, and the unique purpose in writing all find their reflection in
the literary style chosen for addressing the readers. Thus, to ascribe to
the author the skillful selection and ordering of material along the lines
of Vanhoye's reconstruction does not seem unwarranted.
Vanhoye's chief contribution is his demonstration that the epistle
sets forth an intricate theme by means of an intricate style. Hugh
Montefiore, practically alone among modern commentators, has
accepted Vanhoye's study on that basis: "His study carries conviction
because the structure he proposes appears to have been worked out by
our author as rigorously as the logic of his Epistle.”28 There is,
27Ibid., 50. Bligh ("Structure," 175) also questions "whether a division based on purely
literary criteria will reveal the conceptual structure of the Epistle."
28Hugh Montefiore., A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (HNTC; New York: Harper & Row, 1964) 31. The only other commentator who can be cited in support of Vanhoye is George Wesley Buchanan in the Anchor Bible series (To the Hebrews [AB 36; Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1972] x): "The outline of this commentary has been modified in several places to concur with the insights on structure published by Albert V anhoye." In his monograph on the structure of Hebrews Louis Dussaut has offered a structural synopsis of Hebrews based essentially on the results of Vanhoye's analysis, whose conclusions he has wholeheartedly endorsed with the exception that the five divisions offered by Vanhoye (1 + 2 + 3 + 2 + 1) are modified to three
BLACK: THE LITERARY STRUCTURE OF HEBREWS 175
however, one outstanding difficulty in the scheme of Vanhoye. His
schematization of the letter exposes many stylistic traits, but his
method at the same time makes several unwarranted deletions to
secure perfect symmetry.29 In the light of the studies presented by
Tasker,30 Spicq,31 and Filson32 in defense of the authenticity of chap.
13, Vanhoye's conjecture that 13:19 and 13:22-25 were later added to
the original work can scarcely be accepted. This minor disagreement
should not, however, detract from Vanhoye's overall contribution to
the study of Hebrews. His suggestion can only be considered as
tentative, but the possibility that the epistle follows his reconstruction
has a great deal to be said for it.
THE "PATCHWORK" APPROACH
Unwilling to accept the traditional model and in apparent opposi-
tion to those engaged in refined literary analyses of Hebrews stand
authors like F. F. Bruce and Leon Morris. The former treats the usual
problems of introduction but surprisingly fails to consider the question
of literary form and structure.33 The latter understands Hebrews to be
epistolary rather than sermonic in form but fails to discuss the rami-
fications of this for his outline of the letter .34 Both are content to follow
the chapters and changing themes of the epistle from one aspect to
another without submitting every detail to one overriding theory of
structure. For example, Morris subdivides Hebrews into eleven units,
without marking any main divisions (pp. 13-15).
In light of the variety of views on the subject of Hebrews's
structure, an open verdict is perhaps a safe course to follow, and here
the opinion of Origen on the question of authorship may well be
applicable. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine that an author
of such skill should have failed to illuminate the structure in which his
epistle was cast. It is, .of course, conceivable that he designed his letter
without any clearly defined thread of thought running through it. But a
thing is not true because it is conceivable, but because the facts require
it, and this does not appear to be the case here. There are many
features of language and style which cannot be passed over so lightly
(2 + 3 + 2). See Louis Dussaut, Synopse structurelle de l'Epitre aux Hebreux: Approche d.analyse structurelle (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1981).
29Yanhoye, La structure, 219-21.
30R. Y. G. Tasker, "The Integrity of the Epistle to the Hebrews," ExpT 47 (1935-6)
31C. Spicq, "L 'authenticite du chapitre XIII de l'Epitre aux Hebreux," ConNT 11 (1947) 226-36.
32Filson, "Yesterday," 15-16.
33F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (NICNT; Grand Rapids, 1964).
34Morris, Hebrews, 12-13.
176 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
and which imply a much closer liaison between the thought of the
author and the structure of his writing. It can hardly be maintained,
therefore, that the author had no design before him while writing
currente calamo. A writer who has an important message to proclaim
may be expected to put it in a form more readily understood than this
approach supposes. Consequently, whatever the merits of a "patch-
work" outline, its considerable demerit is that it is achieved at the
expense of a procedure which cannot commend itself as being in
accordance with the principles of scientific criticism.
None of this is meant disparagingly. It simply underscores the
truism that NT scholarship has been somewhat hesitant to take the
plunge when it comes to epistolary literary criticism. Some commenta-
tors give a brief treatment; others give the question of structure no
separate consideration at all. Some writers would like to think (or give
the impression) that the outlining of Hebrews is a rapid, simple
process. The real problem is, of course, far more complex, bewildering,
and time-consuming. Scholarship stands still in no field, least of all in
biblical studies, and a facile approach to the structural complexities of
a document like Hebrews can easily lead to a situation in which one
sees an amazing number of trees or even tiny plants, but fails to see the
forest at all. A letter should be viewed in the great sections that
constitute its whole and not simply in detached portions.
Summing up this meager review of the structural criticism of
Hebrews, attention may be drawn to three points. First, the point of
departure for the discussion of this question today-at least in my
opinion-must be the thesis of Albert Vanhoye. At least at one point
his analysis should achieve universal acceptance, namely the insight
into the obvious stylistic devices employed by the author. Despite a
weak attack against it, this aspect of his theory has proved its essential
correctness as attested by Lightfoot, Montefiore, and Dussaut. There
remains, it is true, a je ne sais quoi of authorship which excludes
dogmatism or pedantry of any kind. But the detailed literary and
stylistic investigation attempted by Vanhoye has resulted in the
amassing of a phalanx of objective literary facts which simply cannot
be ignored. Even if his study should prove to be factually untenable in
the present case, the modern exegete should not shrink from a dis-
creetly handled structural analysis of the text.35
35Vanhoye's analysis has already led to several helpful studies on the structure of
specific pericopes in Hebrews. See e.g. P. Auffret, "Note sur la structure litteraire d'Hb ii. 1-4," NTS 25 (1979) 166-79; W. Schrenk, "Hebraerbrief 4,14-16. Textlinguistik als Kommentierungsprinzip," NTS 26 (1980) 242-52; and P. Auffret, "Essai sur la structure litteraire et I'interpretation d'Hebreux 3,1-6," NTS 26 (1980) 380-96.
BLACK: THE LITERARY STRUCTURE OF HEBREWS 177
Second, in view of the questionable usefulness of the juxtaposition
of kerygma and parenesis as a hermeneutical tool, and of the great
force of the warnings and exhortations found in chaps. 1-10, it may be
inappropriate to divide the letter based on doctrinal and practical
distinctions. The epistle presents its dogmatic themes in the function
not of intellectual instruction but of the encouragement which the
author seeks to inspire in the face of a crisis. Addressed as it is to a
specific situation which called for both compassion and correction,
Hebrews is no mere doctrinal treatise or theoretical essay. To under-
stand it, or sections of it, in this manner is to miss the spirit of urgency
which pervades the letter from beginning to end and which motivated
the author to take up his pen in the first place.
Finally, even though expositors may continue to disagree among
themselves as to the exact structure of Hebrews, there is still virtually
unanimous agreement that illuminating exegesis involves an openness
and receptivity to the text which are characteristic of the grammatico-
historical study of the Scripture. In allowing the text to speak for itself
and the author to be his own interpreter, one observes in Hebrews the
literary mastery of an author who composed his magnum opus with
the care of a Michelangelo working on the Sistine Chapel. This is
obvious from the very first words (1:1-4), whose design is consistent
with the language set forth throughout the epistle. Does not one get the
impression that the magnificent prose in what Lightfoot has called "the
most beautifully constructed and expressive sentence in the New
Testament”36 is intended to express not only the general theme of the
writing but its compositional genre as well? Is it not possible that the
writer is attempting to declare, at the very opening of his work, that the
momentous theme which he is setting forth requires a literary style.
unparalleled in its beauty and form?37 Perhaps the opening words are
not an exposition but an invitation, not the apex of the composition
but the narthex of a great cathedral, whose grandeur and symmetry
become apparent only to those of us who will enter and attentively
linger within. Not in the forcing of the structure to the surface, but in
the submersion of ourselves, is there hope for the future of investiga-
tion in this fascinating area.
36Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today, 53.
37For a thorough syntactical, semantical, and rhetorical analysis of Heb 1:1-4, see D. A. Black, "Hebrews 1:1-4: A Study in Discourse Analysis," forthcoming in WTJ.
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