The Problem of the Literary Structure of Hebrews: An Evaluation and a Proposal -- By: David Alan Black

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 07:2 (Fall 1986)
Article: The Problem of the Literary Structure of Hebrews: An Evaluation and a Proposal
Author: David Alan Black

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 thepatchwork 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, Vanhoyes 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

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 chapter 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 unfo...

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