Occasionally we will publish academic papers. In this article, our first paper attempts to answer the question, ‘Evaluate the extent to which the structure of hebrews facilitates the author’s purpose?’ We hope that you find it interesting.
Does the structure of Hebrews facilitate the author’s purpose, and if so, to what extent? On the face of it this sounds like a straightforward question. However, closer examination reveals a world of complexity, with many possibilities. There are numerous theories concerning the question of the structure of Hebrews, as well as the author’s purpose.
In order to arrive at a conclusion we will first assess the questions of structure and genre. This will then lead to a determination of the author’s purpose for writing. We will then evaluate the text of Hebrews, examining the extent to which the structure facilitates that purpose.
The Structure and Genre of Hebrews
Probably the most influential attempt at discerning the structure of Hebrews is that by Albert Vanhoye (1923-). In drawing out his structure he utilised literary analysis, highlighting techniques such as announcements, inclusions, variation of genre, hook words, and symmetric arrangements (Vanhoye, 1989). The result was a structure consisting of five concentric parts arranged in a chiasm, with the declaration of Christ as high priest in Hebrews 9:11 as the focal point of the discourse. However, numerous problems have been highlighted with Vanhoye’s analysis, particularly his assumption that the author constructed the sermon in a symmetrical rather than an asymmetrical manner (Westfall, 2005).
Traditionally Hebrews was viewed as two sections, one doctrinal (1:5-10:18), the other practical (10:19-13:17), framed by an introduction (1:1-4) and conclusion (13:18-21) (Black, 1986). Some scholars such as Ellingworth (1993) classify it as an epistle, although Decker (2000) does not view his reasons as convincing. Hebrews lacks the customary epistolary features of the time, such as identification of author and greetings (Lane, 1991a).
In Hebrews 13:22, the author refers to Hebrews as a, “word of exhortation” (NASB). This identification by the author appears to be key to both its nature and intended use. A “word of exhortation” was likely an early Christian expression for an orally delivered public sermon, expounding on Scripture, and delivering both serious warning and persuasive exhortation to its hearers. This appears to be what we have in Hebrews – a homily committed to written form, intended for oral delivery to the church (Lane, 1991b). Within this genre, Hebrews consists of two sub-genres – expository and hortatory. The majority of the text is expository in nature, with hortatory sections coming to the fore at five locations.
The Purpose of Hebrews
Both the expository and hortatory material have advocates among scholars as being the basis for the author’s purpose in writing Hebrews. Where one lands on this question largely determines how one ultimately understands Hebrews (Decker, 2000). Eisenbaum (2008) believes the purpose is to communicate correct Christological understanding to the hearers, rather than addressing their practice. He even suggests it was written to an imagined hypothetical audience. However, this does not sufficiently account for the often strongly worded hortatory sections dispersed throughout the document. Indeed, these sections almost appear redundant under this view.
The outstanding richness of theological content within the expository sections can inadvertently cause the reader to overlook the author’s actual purpose in writing (Walters, 1996). Moreover, in analysing the warning in Hebrews 6, Decker (2001) astutely observes that theological perspectives imported from outside Hebrews often dictate which interpretive options are allowed to even be applied to the text. This can potentially distort how one perceives the author’s purpose.
It seems that if we take a step back, resist importing theological positions into the text, and instead allow the text to speak for itself, we find that Hebrews was written to address a specific situation faced by the original audience. They had experienced suffering, loss of property, and been despised by society for their faith in Jesus (10:32-35). These difficult circumstances are combined with strong warnings to avoid falling away from their faith (6:4-8), and instead to hold on to their confession (10:23). In this light the hortatory sections come into their element. Our stepping back to allow the text to speak for itself enables the hortatory sections to themselves step forward into the spotlight of meaningful purpose. They reveal the author’s goal as practical and pastoral in nature. The expository sections are designed to provide the theological foundation for the hortatory sections, which urge his audience to a life of obedient faithfulness, and so avoid God’s judgment (Stanley, 1994). We therefore agree with Lindars (1989) that in writing Hebrews, the author’s purpose is persuasion. The structure is the author’s chosen tool to achieve that purpose.
Close examination of the expositional and hortatory sections reveals the extensive use of classical rhetoric. “Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and Hebrews is a work of persuasion from start to finish” (Lindars, 1991, p. 2). Löhr (2008) views Hebrews as an example of deliberative rhetoric. However, commentators such as Attridge (1989) see it as epideictic rhetoric. Treading a middle ground, Olbricht (1993) perceives an epideictic superstructure containing deliberative argumentation. The use of features like contrastive imagery, praise and blame, as well as honour and shame language (Mack, 1990) leads us to conclude that Hebrews primarily consists of epideictic rhetoric.
The author employs several rhetorical devices, which themselves can be regarded as mini-structures within the overall structural framework of Hebrews. These devices are instrumental in the exploitation of the expositional texts by the hortatory texts, and consequently key in assessing the extent to which the author facilitates his purpose of persuading his hearers to remain faithful. As a “word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22 NASB) – a sermon designed to be delivered orally – these highly effective rhetorical devices would have been fully exploited in support of the author’s purpose of persuasion. As such, Hebrews is very much structured to appeal to an audience receiving it aurally (Davis, 2008).
In attempting to ascertain the extent to which the structure facilitates the author’s purpose, we will proceed by conducting our own structured examination of the text. We will look at samples of Hebrews through the lens of the five main hortatory passages (Hebrews 2:1-4; 3:1-4:16; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:12-13:19), paying particular attention to the use of rhetorical techniques. How do these texts interact with their expositional co-texts, and why? It is hoped this mirroring of the structure of Hebrews will help to realistically evaluate how the hortatory and expositional sections interact with each other, and enable a conclusion to be drawn concerning the extent to which the structure of Hebrews facilitates the author’s purpose of persuasion.
The expository material of Hebrews 1 certainly hits the ground running. Scholars might be disappointed by the absence of the usual epistolary features, yet it more than compensates with the incomparable quality of the exordium (1:1-4). This serves to introduce the major concepts that will subsequently be elaborated on, e.g., God, inheritance, angels, son-ship, Jesus being “better”, the word of God, purification of sins, etc., (Guthrie, 1994). Foundational to all this is that God has spoken (1:1-2), and in a manner that is final, complete and superior to all previous revelation (Black, 1987). There is no person of higher authority who demands and deserves their attention.
These important concepts are not just thrown together and randomly introduced, but are structured in such a way as to appeal to the audience. Rhetorical devices at both the micro and macro-level are used to add value to the lexical and syntactical elements, enhancing the meaning of these concepts in the ears of the hearers (Black, 1987). An example is the use of compactness, whereby the maximum quantity of meaning is communicated via the fewest number of words possible. This effectively turns up the volume for those listening.
Importantly, none of the concepts introduced in the exordium are controversial in any way. The hearers will be in full agreement, so establishing rapport between the author and his audience, rather than alienating them before broaching potentially sensitive issues (Lindars, 1989). Our writer has their ear.The final verse of the exordium (1:4) introduces the subject of the remainder of chapter 1, the superiority of Jesus compared to the angels. Employing a catena of Old Testament texts, Jesus is presented as the divine Son (1:5; cf. Psalm 2:7; 2 Samuel 7:14), and all God’s angels worship him (1:6; cf. Psalm 97:7); God has created angels to go forth and do his will (1:7; cf. Psalm 104:4) (Johnson, 2012); as King the Son is both God and human Messiah (1:8-9; cf. Psalm 45:6-8; Isaiah 61:1, 3) (Johnson, 2012); the Son created the heavens and the earth, and is himself immortal (1:10-12; cf. Psalm 102:25-27); as King he is enthroned above all his enemies (1:13; cf. Psalm 110:1), meanwhile the angels are sent to serve those inheriting salvation (1:14).
This exposition of the person of the Son and his superiority above all others, prepares the way for the first hortatory passage (2:1-4). It does this by establishing the revelatory authority upon which the exhortation will then be founded (Stanley, 1994). The revelation delivered previously through angels brought undesirable penalties when transgressed (2:2). How much more serious are the consequences if they neglect the salvation brought through the revelation of the Son (2:3)? However, compared to later exhortations, the author is here comparatively gentle with them. They “must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1 NASB). The full gravity of their situation is yet to be revealed. If the author is to fully achieve his purpose of persuasion, he must maintain the attention of his audience and not risk alienating them so early in the sermon.
Our author has asserted that the Son who is speaking to them is vastly superior to the angels who mediated the earlier Mosaic covenant. Therefore, there is greater obligation upon them to diligently take heed to the Son’s final revelation.
Returning to exposition, he points out that during his earthly ministry Jesus was made “lower than the angels” (Hebrews 2:7 NASB). Hebrews 2:5-8 cites Psalm 8 illustrating both this temporary position of Jesus, and the subsequent subjection of everything to him. Because of his death on behalf of all mankind, he has been “crowned with glory and honour” (Hebrews 2:9 NASB). However, the final revealing of all things subjected to Jesus is eschatological. This ties in with the quotation of Psalm 110:1 in the previous expository section (1:13). A delay has been divinely ordained between inauguration of Christ’s dominion and its full manifestation; they live during this period of delay, complete with its inherent difficulties.
Despite this, they have not been abandoned. Through his humiliation, Jesus qualifies as the perfect high priest. He has identified with them through his own suffering (2:10); even to the extent he now regards them as God’s children and his fellow brothers (2:11-13). As such, Jesus “is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18 NASB). This provides the basis for the second hortatory section (3:1-4:16).
They are to “consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession” (Hebrews 3:1 NASB). Jesus must simultaneously be their example and the one to whom they look for assistance. The exhortation uses the rhetorical technique of amplification through a comparison of Jesus and Moses (3:2-6) (Koester, 2010). Moses is selected because of his appeal to the audience, and their high regard for him (Lindars, 1989). Both Jesus and Moses are faithful in God’s house (3:2). However, Jesus is superior to the highly esteemed Moses by virtue of his position as Son rather than servant (3:5-6). As the Son, Jesus naturally provides greater access to God than the servant. This should inspire a grateful response of faithfulness (Scott, 1998).
Living during the delay of the full manifestation of Christ’s dominion is then compared to Israel’s wilderness experience following the exodus from Egypt. Psalm 95:7-11 is the vehicle of illustration (3:7-11). The rhetorical device of repetition is skilfully employed in pressing upon the hearers the importance of entering God’s rest (3:18, 19; 4:1, 3a, 3b, 5, 6a, 6b, 10, 11). They can choose to listen and faithfully heed God’s voice and so enter God’s rest. Alternatively, they can refuse to listen and fail to enter due to unbelief. Choosing the latter course is to risk emulating the wilderness generation who failed to enter into their inheritance. The use of repetition during this exhortation serves to permeate their minds with the idea of entering God’s rest, so pushing out the contrary thoughts that had necessitated the writing of Hebrews in the first place (DeSilva, 2000a).
This warning is stronger than the one given in the first hortatory section, but for rhetorical reasons the author moderates the impact. They now know he is aware of their situation, but he again does not want to risk alienating his audience so he reminds them of the sympathetic high priestly ministry of Jesus (4:14-16) highlighted in the previous expository section (Lindars, 1989). He wants them to continue listening, and so afford him opportunity to ratchet up the effectiveness of his persuasion.
The next expository section (5:1-10) takes up where the previous one left off, in continuing to expound on Jesus as high priest. The holder of the high priestly office represents men before God, offering both sacrifices and gifts (5:1). God himself calls men to the honour of being high priest; they cannot appropriate it for themselves (5:4). This was true of Jesus (5:5-6). He was perfected by his sufferings and weakness during his earthly life in human flesh. This qualified him to be the eternal source of salvation for those obedient to him (5:7-9), by means of God’s designation of him “as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:10 NASB).
However, what this entails will have to wait, as the third hortatory section suddenly interrupts the expository build-up at this point. This interruption is done “for the sake of tilling the soil of the addressees’ hearts” (deSilva, 2000b, p. 180). The preparation of their hearts will lay the foundation for them to respond favourably to the argument of the major expository section that follows the hortatory interruption.
Unlike the first two hortatory sections, the third begins with a sharp rebuke. From the beginning of Hebrews they have been advised to attentively hear what God is speaking through the Son. However, where previously in their Christian walk they had been attentive, they are now scolded for becoming “dull of hearing” (Hebrews 5:11 NASB), a synonym for disobedience (Gleason, 1998). They are unwilling to obey the message and too lazy to put into practice what they had previously learned (5:12-14). Their inattentiveness needs to be tackled head-on. To do this he rhetorically seizes hold of their attention by suddenly switching from exposition to exhortation, so waking them up to the dangerous reality of their present situation (Guthrie, 1994). This is necessary if they are to be persuaded to change course.
A rhetorical device employed numerous times in Hebrews is chiasm. The chiastic structure of all the hortatory material reveals the third warning (6:4-8) to be the all-important focal point. In the previous warnings he had identified himself with his audience, yet here he separates himself, so rhetorically placing them in the spotlight. The aural audience would have noticed this (Davis, 2008). Now the seriousness of their situation is hammered home. As the recipients of God’s gift of salvation and all its benefits (6:4-5) they would be reminded of their obligations. As clients of God’s patronage, this relationship placed the reciprocal obligation of loyalty upon them. Failure to fulfil this expectation was considered disgraceful. They were in danger of falling away (6:6) by valuing friendship with society greater than God’s gift (deSilva, 2000b).
After this jolting rebuke, the author employs the rhetorical device of captatio benevolentiae (6:9-12) assuring them that in their case they have not yet reached the point of falling away (Lindars, 1989). This combination of warning along with promise is aimed at inclining them to be receptive to his next exposition concerning Christ’s work as their high priest (Koester, 2002). He is hopeful his persuasion will be effective, and they will yet imitate “those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:12 NASB).
The author has skilfully exploited the interaction between exposition and exhortation in order to continue addressing a delicate situation. Having gained their attention without alienating them, he has prepared them for the next step by persuading them to strive to be attentive hearers. He now invites them to maturity through means of the largest expository section, with its principle focus on the high priesthood of Jesus (6:13-10:18).
God’s promises are certain, therefore his people have reason to hold on to the hope the promises engender (6:13-18). This hope is represented by the nautical image of a reliably stable anchor. Despite the idea of immovability, it simultaneously enters through the veil into God’s presence where their forerunner, Jesus, has entered (6:19-20). The hearers have been steered back to where the previous exposition was interrupted (5:10), with the reminder that Jesus is now “a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:20 NASB).
The author wants to persuade his hearers concerning the absolute superiority of Jesus’ priesthood. He accomplishes this by again using the technique of comparison. Christ’s priesthood is in the character of Melchizedek (7:1-10). It is superior to the Levitical priesthood, whose priests were subject to sin and death. Because Jesus was perfected by his sufferings, and lives forever, his priesthood is permanent (7:11-28).
The chiastic structure of all the expository material reveals Hebrews 8:1-2 to be its all-important focal point, or “main point” (NASB) as the text says (Guthrie, 1994). This superior high priest in the character of Melchizedek is now seated in heaven beside the enthroned Majesty, ministering on their behalf in the superior tabernacle and sanctuary established by God, and not by men (8:1-2). His ministry is more excellent, as he is the mediator of the New Covenant, which is better than the first covenant (8:3-13). Unlike the sacrifices under the first covenant, Christ’s one perfect sacrifice for sin and cleansing was completely efficacious forever, perfecting those undergoing sanctification (9:1-10:18). They can therefore have full assurance of their salvation if they remain faithful.
These arguments for the superior high priesthood of Jesus would have been immensely important for the audience to hear. Prior to the writing of Hebrews, no scripture identified Jesus with any priesthood, let alone a superior one. In relating to God, and maintaining their relationship with God, it would have been natural for them to desire to seek out such a priest (Vanhoye, 1989).
The author’s teaching fills a gap in their knowledge concerning Jesus, bringing to their attention exactly what they need to hear to persuade them to remain faithful. The fourth hortatory section uses this mature teaching concerning Christ’s priesthood to inspire faithfulness to God and to each other (10:19-25).
However, there is a severe warning if this knowledge is rejected and they choose unfaithfulness (10:26-31). Such a path constitutes a wilful failure of loyalty to their divine Benefactor (deSilva, 2008). In 10:29, τιμωρία (“punishment”) indicates the offender has severely offended Christ’s honour. The despising of God’s gifts violates the patron client relationship, and so is worthy of greater divine τιμωρία to restore the Son’s honour. The author wants to make his hearers fearful of showing contempt for God’s Son, who is their only possible mediator with God (deSilva, 2008). This fear will hopefully persuade them to change course. The desirable course of faithfulness, which they have followed in the past, assures their ultimate salvation (10:32-38).
The exhortation is summed up with a quotation of Habakkuk 2:4, “But my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him” (Hebrews 10:38 NASB). The next expository section will demonstrate to them what it looks like to live by faith.
From Hebrews 11:1 onwards, the emphasis is no longer the high priesthood of Jesus. Instead, the prominent theme shifts to teaching about faith. This change would no doubt have registered in the minds of those listening. Faith is now the focus. The New Covenant offered by God requires an active living response from the human side, not simply a belief in doctrine (Lindars, 1989). Such faith is defined (11:1-2), further explained (11:3, 6), and illustrated rhetorically in the remainder of the chapter by a list of God’s people who are presented as examples of those who lived by faith.
Epideictic rhetoric uses the language of honour and shame, praise and blame to influence its audience. Here the example list of God’s faithful people are held up as honourable and praiseworthy, and therefore worthy of emulation. The effect is greatly enhanced using further rhetorical techniques. The most notable is anaphora, where Πίστει (“By faith”) is repeatedly used at the beginning of each example in 11:3-31. This forcefully hammers home the message that the great people of God throughout salvation history, all lived by this active faith. The rhythm of repetition creates the impression this long list actually represents even more examples who would have been included if the author but had more space, something openly suggested in v. 32. Anaphora not only reinforces the exposition on faith, but when delivered orally, has the highly significant effect of actually making the spoken sentences sound more persuasive to the hearers (Cosby, 1988).
Rhee (1998) presents chapter 11 as a chiasm, with vv. 13-16 focusing the hearer’s attention on the fact that the exemplars of faith all died without yet receiving God’s promises. This is designed to drive home the message that vital faith is not only centred on the present, but also the future. Indeed, the emphasis here is primarily eschatological.
The climax of the long list of exemplars is the ultimate example of faith, Jesus himself (12:1-3). He was faithful to God, considering of no value the opinion of society. The hearers of Hebrews must do the same. Dishonour in the eyes of society means great honour in God’s sight. True faith looks to God for vindication, the promise of being honoured by him rather than seeking the honour of society (deSilva, 2008).
Could the author have done anything more to persuade his audience to choose the honourable course of faithfulness? With one final hortatory nudge he lays the choice clearly before them. Perhaps aware that logical argument is not always sufficient, he now appeals to their emotions (McLaughlin, 1972). In his effort to persuade he has used all three modes of rhetorical persuasion – logos, ethos, and pathos (Mack, 1990). Because of Jesus and his work, the eschatological fulfilment of God’s great plan of salvation is available to them now (12:18-24). However, they must not refuse God and turn away from who is speaking to them (12:25-29).
The remainder of the exhortation provides practical examples of what this looks like (13:1-25). He deliberately adopts a calmer tone here, along with language addressing their personal situation, so re-establishing rapport following an emotionally charged warning (Lindars, 1991). It is now decision time for his hearers. Which path will they choose? Has his persuasion been successful?
Underlying the whole of Hebrews is the conviction that the living God is speaking personally to the audience (Smillie, 2004). God is appealing to them, through the author’s skill in rhetorical persuasion, to remain faithful. Salvation is founded on the work of Christ alone, but the appropriation and ultimate inheritance of that salvation is conditioned on their loyal faithfulness to God (Colijn, 1996). They must follow the example of Jesus, and keep their eyes fixed firmly on him (12:1-3) their great high priest.
By faith they come to God and receive his promises; by faith they live their lives before God and the world; by faith they will finally inherit the fullness of the promises in the eschaton. Faith is essential during the difficult interval between the first coming of Christ and the eschatological subjection of everything to him (Psalm 110:1). In summary, only by faith can they please God, the one who is speaking to them (11:6). The author seeks to persuade them to this course.
To what extent then does the structure of Hebrews facilitate the author’s purpose of persuasion? Consistently throughout Hebrews its structure plays a crucial role in supporting the rhetorical argument. The two sub-genres are like partners engaged in an elegant dance. Each has its own distinct role, yet both have the same purpose. The expositional sections build up their knowledge of Christ, their great high priest, emphasising how his ministry is better than any alternative, indeed better in every way. This is the object and foundation of their faith. The hortatory sections use examples, honour-shame language, warnings and promises to inspire them to put their faith into action – to bring their faith alive. A significant factor within this dance is the influence of various rhetorical devices. In an oral culture these devices, assisted by the repeated alternation between exposition and exhortation, would have dramatically increased the persuasiveness of the developing argument in the ears of the audience (Guthrie, 1994).
In light of all these arguments, it is our judgment that the structure of Hebrews does indeed facilitate the author’s purpose, and it does so to a great extent. Whether they responded in the appropriate manner by pursuing a faithful life to God, we can never know for certain. However, the fact that the author himself expected a positive outcome (6:9), coupled with the survival of Hebrews beyond its original audience, suggests they were indeed persuaded (Mackie, 2012). One thing is for certain, the author of Hebrews could not have done more to try and persuade his audience to remain faithful to Jesus.
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