Essay / Theology

Most Helpful Books on Hebrews

Last semester I got to study and teach the book of Hebrews. As I clean off my desk in these days between semesters, I’m returning Hebrews commentaries to my shelves and to the library. I used and consulted about 30 books, but here are the six that proved themselves to be the most helpful week by week. I’m not saying these are the best commentaries, or the most important: I skimped on the church fathers and ignored John Owen. But here are the books I’m most grateful to have had at my desk.

Donald Hagner, Encountering the Book of Hebrews in the Encountering Biblical Studies series. I’m a sucker for the pictures, sidebars, and overviews in this series, and Hagner makes great decisions about when to provide a list (“the use of ‘better’ in Hebrews”) or some background. He also recommends OT readings to accompany each chapter of Hebrews, and they are usually exactly right. Hagner’s book would probably work well in a congregational setting; it’s readable and non-technical.

Peter O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews in the Pillar Commentary series. This is the “full-service” commentary I used most regularly. The Pillar volumes I’ve used have won my loyalty by striking the right balance between detailed commentary and maintaining the flow of the argument. O’Brien’s Hebrews is a masterpiece in this regard, and also in its ability to bring the warmth of preaching to its scholarly exposition.

F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews in the NICNT. Bruce apparently started this commentary in the 1950’s, published it in the 1960’s, and revised it in 1990. His grounding in classics and history allowed him to approach Hebrews from a long way off, so to speak. And though he’s urbane about it, his free-church sensibilities let him go for the jugular in a way that I confess I’m sympathetic to. In the 1990 edition, Bruce provides his own translation, and a 4-page “argument of the epistle” that is very illuminating.

Adolph Saphir, The Epistle to the Hebrews: Expository Lectures, two volumes. Sermons, really, but with an incisiveness that helps locate the main spiritual insight of each section. Several times as I prepared weekly lectures, I would turn to Saphir and find that he had delivered the goods in one paragraph; students agreed. It was on the basis of these volumes that W.A. Criswell called Saphir one of the greatest expositors of Scripture ever.

John Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews. I wasn’t able to use Calvin for every chapter, and I sometimes got lost in him (partly because I was using the online edition rather than a hard copy). But he came to the rescue several times, with the voice of authority and an uncanny ability to put Hebrews in the context of the entire New Testament witness.

B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews. Introductions are usually my least favorite parts of commentaries, but Westcott’s is gripping. His catalog of stylistic features opened my eyes to what was really going on in the Greek of this book, and when Westcott says “the vocabulary is singularly copious,” he gives just enough examples to allow the reader to see the rest for himself. Westcott also interacts helpfully with patristic interpretations throughout.

The collection of essays called The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology has some clunker chapters worth skipping, but most are solid work, and some of them are like a shot of hermeneutical adrenaline.

Honorable mention goes to the two truly jumbo commentaries on my desk: Lane’s two volumes in the Word Biblical Commentary series, and Ellingworth’s big NIGTC volume. I couldn’t go through them all, but when you need a close examination of one particular verse, you’re thankful to have a gigantic commentary at hand.

Better than all the commentaries is reading and re-reading Hebrews itself in translation, in the immersion method described a hundred years ago by James Gray and R. A. Torrey. And in terms of experiencing the words, Ryan Ferguson’s performance of chapters 9 and 10 is how all Scripture should be heard.

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