James W. Thompson. Hebrews (Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament), Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008. vii + 328 pp. $27.99.
James Thompson, Robert and Kay Onstead Distinguished Professor of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University, brings the insight and expertise of a veteran teacher to bear on the text of Hebrews. His is the second of eighteen volumes in the Paideia commentary series and is aimed at university and seminary students, though it aims to be useful and accessible for pastors and professors alike. The goal of the commentary is to approach each text in its canonical form, commenting on larger “sense units” rather than commenting verse-by-verse, with a sensitivity to the cultural, literary, and theological settings in which the text took form (p. xi). Each of the commentary’s “sense units” is then explored in three sections. The first deals with introductory matters; the second traces the train of logic and thought; the third addresses hermeneutical and theological questions.
In a twenty-six page introduction, Thompson addresses the topics of author/audience, genre/structure, the book’s purpose, the story world of Hebrews, and encountering Hebrews today. Concerning authorship, Thompson notes the speculative nature of such discussions and concludes that such are not worthwhile (p. 5). Thompson also dismisses attempts to identify the book’s audience, unconvinced that the audience was largely Jewish Christian, though he shows a preference for the conclusions of DeSilva’s sociological perspective regarding loss of honor and the presence of shame concerning the original readers (pp. 8–10). He is equally disinterested in the date of composition, other than to question both pre and post a.d. 70 assertions. In reference to genre, Thompson frames Hebrews in terms of ancient rhetoric, averring that it contains “elements of both deliberative and epideictic rhetoric” (p. 12). The most space is devoted to the question of structure. He rejects the thematic approach of P. E. Hughes and others (Christ Superior to Prophets, etc.) as well as the literary analysis of Vanhoye. Instead, he prefers a rhetorically based structure that builds on the tripartite structure of Nauck, concluding that Hebrews falls into the pattern of classical rhetorical argumentation (pp. 16–20). Hebrews’ purpose is to “reorient a community that has been disoriented by the chasm between the Christian confession of triumph and the reality of suffering that it has experienced” (p. 20). Finally, the thought-world of Hebrews is influenced by the Platonic tradition (p. 23). Yet all is not Platonic, since the presentation of a crucified savior is “irreconcilable with Platonism” (p. 25). Hebrews affirms Christian convictions that cannot be reconciled with Platonism while at the same time making use of Platonic categories to explain Christian existence.
Each section of Hebrews is discussed in three parts. First, Thompson places the text in its ancient context. For example, in 1:5–2:4, Thompson first introduces the reader to the LXX and compares the OT Greek with the Hebrew texts. He notes that such a catena of quotations has similarities with some of the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as the hermeneutics of several ancient Jewish authors. Second, Thompson comments on the text by tracing the train of thought according to “sense units,” which are typically a few verses in length. A third section discusses theological issues of particular interest. Given that Hebrews is so steeped in theology, this reviewer would like to have seen this section lengthened throughout the commentary. Theological students and pastors will perhaps be left wanting if their interest in Hebrews is its theology (for example, almost nothing is said concerning typology, and there is little concerning the use of the OT). Thompson’s discussions, though brief, are still helpful.
Of particular interest to any reader of Hebrews are the warning passages, which Thompson addresses in a unique way. Instead of interacting with current discussions concerning the warnings, he asserts that the “path to progress in understanding this passage [6:4–8] entails not fitting it into a prearranged doctrinal system but placing it within the conventions of the author’s world” (p. 123). He sees little worth in entering into post-Reformation discussions concerning the security of the believer (p. 135). Those described in the warnings are Christians, yet Thompson insists that they have not yet fallen away. The biblical author does not describe something that has happened in the past. Rather, he desires to prevent an action in the future (pp. 133–35; cf. 210–11). This view is similar to Schreiner and Caneday’s The Race Set Before Us, namely, the warnings are prospective and not descriptive. Further, such warnings are likely the author’s usage of a rhetorical device known as deinōsis—the “attempt to shock the audience” (p. 124). In short, Thompson attempts to explain Hebrews’ warnings not by interaction with the text and scholarship, but by interaction with the text and ancient rhetoric.
This raises a particular concern surrounding the book’s format. There are no footnotes or endnotes, and as such there is no interaction with other scholars. This is an interesting omission given the audience to which the commentary is aimed. It is somewhat balanced by the many helpful charts and figures found throughout, but it seems that any commentary seeking to address “key hermeneutical and theological questions” (as stated on the series website at www.bakerbooks.com) should demonstrate an awareness of and interaction with the various hermeneutical and theological discussions that orbit this NT epistle.
Thompson’s work excels in three primary areas. First, his writing is accessible, lucid, and marked by brevity; students and pastors will find it very readable. Second, the many sidebars and charts strengthen the work, and complement the clear style of writing. Third, Thompson’s expertise in the ancient culture is seen on almost every page. Few commentaries so carefully and ably place Hebrews in its ancient context, and in this regard Thompson’s work is comparable to the work of Attridge. This is its greatest strength and as such deserves its place on the student’s and pastor’s shelf.
As noted, verse-by-verse exegesis is not the stated purpose of the Paideia series, and there are ample works available to the student of Hebrews such as that of Lane, Bruce, Attridge, Ellingworth, and O’Brien that work through matters of grammar and syntax. Pastors and lay leaders will be helped by Thompson’s work, though the commentaries of O’Brien, Lane, G. Guthrie, and Phillips might better serve the busy pastor. In terms of Hebrews’ theology, one should complement this work with that of O’Brien, Lane, or P. E. Hughes. Thompson should be commended for making a helpful contribution to NT studies, and specifically in an area that is becoming increasingly crowded with capable works.
Barry C. JoslinBoyce College of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Louisville, Kentucky, USA