The Epistle to the Hebrews
Denver Journal Book Review by Denver Seminary Professor David Mathewson
Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012). 742 pp. $60.00. ISBN: 978-0-8028-2492-9.
Gareth Cockerill embarks upon an incredible publishing feat: replacing the commentary by F. F. Bruce in the NICNT series on no less a book than Hebrews. While the work of Bruce still retains its own value, it must be said that Cockerill has succeeded admirably! Cockerill’s commentary evidences mature thought and reflection on Hebrews borne out by a lifetime of research and teaching on this difficult book. Its insights are always well-thought out, carefully researched and supported, largely charitable, often practical, and demonstrate extensive interaction with a wide range of scholarly literature. It is written in an engaging, interesting, and clear manner. One of the major strengths of this commentary is its detailed attention to the use of the OT by the author, a must for a book like Hebrews. Following the format of the NICNT series, most of the grammatical and text-critical comments are reserved for the footnotes.
Cockerill’s commentary begins by covering expected background issues of date, readership, authorship, genre, and structure, all of which cast up numerous problems and are disputed in the book of Hebrews. Cockerill arrives at judicious conclusions on these issues. Regarding the authorship of Hebrews, Cockerill cautiously entertains the possibility of Apollos as author, though in the end he admits that this cannot be confirmed. In the rest of the commentary Cockerill prefers to refer to the author as “the pastor.” This is not just a literary expedient, but is hermeneutically effective: it captures the main context for understanding the rest of the book – Hebrews is no dispassionate theological reflection, but the pastoral response of the author to real life issues. Regarding the genre, Cockerill classifies it as a “Christian synagogue homily” (p. 15). Concerning the readership, Cockerill does not interpret the traditional designation “Jewish Christians” ethnically, but in a religious sense. “‘Jewish Christian’ describes both Jews and Gentiles who give allegiance to Christ while insisting on or feeling the need of various Jewish associations or practices” (p. 20). One of the upshots of this understanding is that for Cockerill, Hebrews does not present Christianity or the church as superseding Judaism or Israel. According to Cockerill, the author of Hebrews “never compares Christianity with Judaism, the church with Israel” (p. 23). Rather, the people of God under the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are presented as one, as those who hear the word of God and must respond. And the author presents the Old Covenant as a God-intended type that finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Concerning the date, Cockerill finds the evidence insufficient to narrow the date beyond A.D. 50 to 90. Concerning the structure, Cockerill divides Hebrews into three main sections: 1:1-4:13; 4:14-10:18; and 10:19-12:29. The sermon ends with a section (Chap. 13) which applies the main themes of the preceding chapters to the readers. A final important overall observation is that Cockerill, correctly in my opinion, downplays the significance of the parallels between the author’s thought and Philo. He limits the influence to the level of semantics and imagery, while finding that the thought and worldview of the two authors is decidedly different.
Here are some exegetical samplings from the commentary. The author finds a high Christology as foundational to the book of Hebrews, especially as articulated in 1:1-4. Throughout the commentary the author rightly notes the significant influence of Psalm 110 on the entire book, primarily by means of allusion. Cockerill sees the promised “rest” in Chaps. 3-4, not as a present rest that can be enjoyed in Christ, but an eschatological rest or entrance into the future homeland or city (12:22-24). Cockerill’s approach to the well-known “warning passages” throughout Hebrews sides with a Wesleyan and Arminian perspective. So those with a Calvinistic bent might find their greatest disagreement here. However, Cockerill is evenhanded in his interaction with other perspectives, and his theological perspective does not inappropriately influence his exegesis of the warning sections. Both Arminians and Calvinists should at least agree with the urgent and genuine warnings against apostasy that Cockerill finds throughout Hebrews which all must agree are needed today, however one ultimately explains apostasy. Cockerill also helpfully contrasts Chaps. 3-4 and Chap. 11, between the example of faithless Israel to be avoided, and the example of faithful Israelites to be imitated. In addition to the rich exegetical and theological insights, interspersed throughout Cockerill’s commentary are practical insights for modern-day application. For example, “The deceptive power of sin is not an excuse for disobedience but an urgent call for vigilant resistance” (p. 187). Or, “Perseverance in faithful living is dependent on an adequate grasp of Christ and his sufficiency” (p. 476).
By way of a couple of criticisms, it is not clear to me why he rejects seeing the unfaithful wilderness generation of Israel as also lying behind the warning of Heb. 6:4-8. I am also not convinced that there is no typological relationship between the Old Covenant and New Covenant people of God, without denying the continuity that Cockerill wishes to maintain. Furthermore, many will want to take issue with his contention in 9:16-17 that the Greek word diatheke should be translated “covenant” and not be seen as a play on words to be translated “will.” Finally, Cockerill’s grammatical comments are often outdated, especially regarding Greek verb tenses, and do not take into consideration recent research on the Greek tense system. In a couple of places his mistreatment of tenses leads him astray.
But this should not detract from the invaluable service that Cockerill has performed in writing this immense commentary. We are indebted to Cockerill’s mature thinking and extensive interaction with the text of Hebrews in providing an exegetically insightful and theologically sensitive reading of Hebrews. This will easily take its place alongside of the other standard commentaries by Attridge, Lane, Ellingworth, Koester, deSilva, and O’Brien. Anyone planning to study, teach, or preach through Hebrews should have this commentary at their side.
David L. Mathewson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of New Testament