Gareth Lee Cockerill. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012. Pp. xlix + 742.
Gary Cockerill, long-time professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, MS, is one of the most prolific writers on the book of Hebrews. In addition to his doctoral dissertation, he has written a couple of popular commentaries and numerous articles and essays on Hebrews. His commentary for the NICNT, the “replacement” volume for F. F. Bruce’s commentary, represents the culmination of a career dedicated to the study of this important book.
The introduction is divided into two main sections: 1) Hebrews in its environment—that is, background issues regarding its composition; and 2) The Message of Hebrews. In the first part of the introduction Cockerill begins by briefly surveying the question of authorship and canonicity in the early church (pp. 3–6). He then reviews some of the major candidates for authorship: Paul, Clement of Rome, Luke, Apollos (pp. 6–10). He seems to favor Apollos as the best candidate for authorship but acknowledges that ultimately authorship cannot be determined.
Cockerill next turns to the literary features of Hebrews, highlighting its oral and rhetorical features (p. 11). He contends that the debate to place Hebrews in the epideictic or deliberative category is misplaced (p. 12). Instead, Hebrews is best classified as a homily or sermon that was typified in the synagogue and early Christian worship (p. 13–15). Its sermonic character is evident by its interweaving of exposition and exhortation.
Cockerill next considers the recipients of the book. Hebrews was written to a specific congregation, most likely a house church that was part of a larger community (p. 16). The recipients had suffered from lassitude, neglect, and spiritual immaturity that could lead to the danger of apostasy (p. 16). But they also experienced external pressures of marginalization and persecution (pp. 16–17). He briefly discusses the role of honor/shame and patron/client relationships in the first century world (pp. 17–18). Regarding the ethnicity of the recipients, he points out that Hebrews makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. According to Cockerill, 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). He further notes that Hebrews has no direct polemic against Judaism. Christ is not contrasted with the old covenant but he stands in continuity with it by fulfilling it (p. 21). Moreover, Hebrews envisions one people of God; those under the new covenant stand in continuity with those under the old covenant in the salvation history of God, but now that the new covenant has come through Christ, the author of Hebrews urges his audience to break with those who still insist on living according to the old covenant order (p. 21). Cockerill thus rejects the notion that Hebrews is supersessionistic (pp. 22–23).
Turning to the author’s worldview, Cockerill notes that Hebrews is highly dependent on the Christian tradition and evinces many commonalities with other NT writings. Its development of Christ’s high priesthood, however, is one of the unique contributions that Hebrews makes (p. 24). Hebrews also shares a similar heavenly and futuristic eschatology that is characteristic of apocalyptic writings (pp. 25–26), but it also contains some differences “due to the pastor’s purpose and to his conviction that Christ fulfilled the OT” (p. 27). Despite the affinities between Hebrews and Neo-Platonism, Cockerill highlights significant differences between the two (pp. 28–34).
When considering the date of composition, Cockerill groups scholarly proposals into three major groupings: “First, there are those who argue that Hebrews was written to a Gentile audience late in the first century with little or no concern for the destruction of Jerusalem. Second, some recognized Hebrews’ affinity with Judaism but date its composition shortly after Jerusalem’s fall in A.D. 70. A third group contends for the traditional position that Hebrews was written to a largely Jewish-Christian audience before the fall of Jerusalem” (p. 35). After weighing the evidence, Cockerill favors the third option of a pre-70 date (p. 40).
In the second half of the introduction, Cockerill begins by tracing Hebrews’ use of the OT. He examines in turn Hebrews’ use of the Psalms, the Pentateuch, and the historical books and then gives special attention to three passages that use the OT: 3:7–4:11; 7:1–10; 12:18–24 (pp. 41–52). For Cockerill, Hebrews’ use of the OT reveals a typological relationship between the old order and Christ. The old covenant is not invalidated, but it anticipates its final fulfillment in Christ. Hebrews’ drawing upon OT examples of faithfulness/unfaithfulness in order to encourage obedience in his audience also demonstrates the continuity of the people of God. He remarks, for example, that the faithful of Hebrews 11 are not types but examples to be followed (pp. 52–54). I found Cockerill’s discussion of the relationship of the old covenant to the new to be particularly helpful. He concludes his discussion of Hebrews’ use of the OT by noting parallels between Hebrews and contemporary practice, but he also highlights how the author’s methods distinguish him from rabbinic literature (pp. 54–57).
In the remainder of the introduction Cockerill delineates the “sermon’s rhetorically effective structure.” He advocates a tri-partite structure (1:1–4:13; 4:14–10:18; 10:19–12:29) which is chiastically arranged (pp. 60–77). Section 1:1–2:18 correlates with 12:4–29 around the theme of God speaking in his Son. Section 3:1–4:13, which urges the avoidance of the example of the unfaithful wilderness generation, correlates with 10:19–12:3, which urges following the example of the faithful people of God from Israel’s history. The central section, 4:14–10:18, focuses on the Son’s all-sufficient high priesthood. Unfortunately, the outline provided on page 69 in the commentary seems convoluted and will probably have to be corrected in later editions. Page 614 provides an expanded outline of the chiastic structure that Cockerill proposes.
The basic message of Hebrews is this: God has spoken in his Son. The people of God are called to heed the message of God and avoid the example of the unfaithful wilderness generation, but instead follow the example of the faithful people of God from Israel’s history in light of the work that Christ has accomplished in inaugurating the new covenant.
The commentary proper follows the usual format of the New International Commentaries. Each text is divided into sections. For each section there is the author’s original translation, a general introduction to the section, and a verse-by-verse commentary. In places Cockerill’s translation is a little wooden, but I think he is attempting to convey the Greek as literally as possible. He does not analyze the Greek text in the same depth that one might find in William Lane’s or Paul Ellingworth’s commentaries, but he does frequently deal with the more technical linguistic matters in the footnotes (as per NICNT format). Nor does Cockerill always lay out the interpretive options for crucial texts as clearly as, for example, Craig Koester does in his commentary. The brilliance of Cockerill’s commentary is showing the flow of Hebrews’ argument and how all of the pieces relate to each other. A couple of examples from the commentary will suffice:
In section 5:11–6:20, Cockerill demonstrates how the author of Hebrews uses different appeals to emotion:
5:11–6:3 – shame
6:4–8 – fear
6:9–12 – comfort
6:13–20 – assurance
The two negative emotions of shame and fear prepare for the two positive emotions of comfort and assurance. Moreover, this section correlates with the later hortatory section of 10:19–12:3:
5:11–6:3 ≈ 10:19–25 – description of hearer’s spiritual condition
6:4–8 ≈ 10:26–31 – warning against apostasy
6:9–12 ≈ 10:32–39 – expression of confidence
6:13–20 ≈ 11:1–12:3 – examples to emulate (pp. 252–253, 462)
For section 8:1–10:18, a section I have found difficult to outline, Cockerill describes it as “a symphony in three movements (8:1–13; 9:1–22; 9:23–10:18) developing these three themes—sanctuary, sacrifice, and covenant” (p. 346). He outlines the section as follows:
Sanctuary (8:1–2; 9:1–10; 9:23–24)
Sacrifice (8:3–6; 9:11–15; 9:25–10:14)
Covenant (8:7–13; 9:16–22; 10:15–18)
While this structural proposal is not perfect (for example, Hebrews mentions sanctuary also in 8:5 and 9:11), it works quite well.
Cockerill is also usually quite sound in the exegetical judgments that he makes throughout his commentary. It might be instructive to give examples of his exegetical decisions regarding a number of interpretive cruxes in Hebrews:
•1:6 refers to the exaltation of Christ rather than his incarnation or second coming (p. 104).
•In 2:6–8a he adopts the Christological interpretation of Ps 8 rather than the anthropological one (pp. 127–29).
•In 2:9 he opts for the textual variant “by the grace of God” rather than “without God” (p. 135).
•In 2:11 “from one” most naturally refers to God, and not to Abraham or Adam or some other option (pp. 140–41).
•The wilderness wandering is not the theme of chapters 3–4, but rather the rebellion of the wilderness generation at Kadesh-Barnea in Num 14 (pp. 155–56).
•In 3:14 μετοχοι του Χριστου means “participants in Christ” rather than “partners with Christ” (p. 188).
•In chapters 3 & 4, the “rest” is both local and future: “It is the place where God’s people will join him in his ‘rest’ penultimately at death and finally at the Judgment” (p. 199). Its reality is a “place” and not merely a “state” (p. 200).
•In 5:7, the phrase εκ θανατου means “out of death” and not merely “from death” (p. 243). The expression απο της ευλαβειας means “because of his godly fear” and not “from fear” (p. 246).
•In 6:1 the expression τον λογον της αρχης του Χριστου means “the elementary Christian message.” The phrase “of Christ” is a genitive of description and not an objective or subjective genitive (p. 261).
•6:4–6 expresses the real possibility of genuine Christians falling into apostasy (pp. 268–277).
•In chapter 7, the author does not consider Melchizedek to be an angelic or heavenly being (pp. 303–6).
•In 7:16 the “indestructible life” is inherent to Christ’s eternality and does not refer to something he obtains after his resurrection or exaltation (pp. 323–24).
•In 7:26, the expression “separated from sinners” refers to a local separation via the exaltation, and not to a moral separation (p. 341).
•In 8:2, the “sanctuary and the true tent” refer to the same reality; the expression does not refer to the two-part sanctuary in heaven (pp. 354-357).
•In 9:14, the expression δια πνευματος αιωνιου refers to the Holy Spirit and not to Christ’s divine nature (pp. 397–98).
•In 9:16–17 διαθηκη should be translated “covenant” and not “testament.” He adopts Hahn’s contention that Hebrews refers to what must be done when a covenant is broken (pp. 404–7).
•In 10:20, for δια του καταπετασματος, τουτ’ εστιν της σαρκος αυτου, “through the veil” should be taken locatively. A second δια should be supplied for “flesh” and taken instrumentally (pp. 470–71).
•In 12:2, the expression αντι της προκειμενης should be translated “for sake of the joy that was set before him” rather than “instead of the joy that was at hand” (p. 609).
•In 12:23, “assembly of the firstborn” refers to all the faithful people of God, and does not refer to angels, nor does it refer just to those who lived before Christ, nor is it limited only to those who are living now on earth (pp. 654–655).
•In 13:10, “altar” refers to the sacrifice of Christ, in contrast with the foods & false teachings of verse 9 that are spiritually unprofitable. The altar is not located in the heavenly sanctuary, nor does it refer to the Eucharist (pp. 696–97).
Gary Cockerill wrote his commentary for the benefit of the church. He was a missionary to Sierra Leone for 9 years and has been a seminary professor for 28 years. He writes not just as an academic but someone with genuine pastoral concern. For him, the writing of this commentary was not just an academic exercise, but one that has enriched him spiritually. I can personally attest that his Christian faith is genuine. I heartily recommend Cockerill’s commentary and believe it ranks among the top commentaries written on the book of Hebrews.