Reviews of

Hebrews: A Different Priest and a New Commentary

In Albert VANHOYE, commentary, Convivium, Hebrews, New Testament, Nicholas J. Moore, Paulist Press, review article on February 10, 2016 at 12:00 am


2016.02.03  Albert Vanhoye. A Different Priest: The Epistle to the Hebrews. Translated by Leo Arnold. Rhetorica Semitica. Miami, FL: Convivium, 2011. Paperback. 450 pp. ISBN 9781934996201.

Albert Vanhoye. The Letter to the Hebrews: A New Commentary. Translated by Leo Arnold. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 2015. Paperback. V + 266 pp. ISBN 9780809149285.

Review article by Nicholas Moore.

Many thanks to Convivium Press and Paulist Press for providing review copies.

1. Introduction

“He who walks with the wise grows wise.” These two books, freshly written and translated, offer to a new audience a distillation of over six decades of reflection, research, and teaching on the Letter to the Hebrews. Albert Vanhoye SJ, a former Rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and former President of SNTS who was made cardinal in 2006, is without any doubt one of the most significant French biblical scholars of the twentieth century. Throughout his long career Hebrews has remained his home turf, with significant contributions in the areas of structure, priesthood, and Christology, alongside constructive use of the letter in reflections on, for example, the nature and practice of ministry in the church and modern Christian-Jewish relations. Several of his works have been translated into English, but in these volumes Leo Arnold makes available to the Anglophone world for the first time Vanhoye’s commentary on Hebrews as a whole.

In this review article I shall first of all present a summary of Vanhoye’s reading of Hebrews at a general and more specific level, then outline the features and characteristics of the two books, A Different Priest and A New Commentary (henceforth DP and NC), before offering some assessment of Vanhoye’s work.

2. Hebrews à la Vanhoye

The Letter to the Hebrews is not a letter but a homily, extending all the way to 13.21 with a short dispatch note appended (13.19, 22–25). The author is unknown, though of all the usual suspects Barnabas is the most likely. Paul himself penned the dispatch note (a view advocated by Estius in the sixteenth century), in keeping with his practice of adding a line to the end of a letter in his own handwriting, and in accordance with the intuition of the early church that Hebrews was Pauline but not by Paul. This, in addition to the present-tense description of sacrifices, means Hebrews was written before AD 70, probably around 66–67. The destination is unclear, but the letter was likely sent from Italy to the East. The recipients’ background does not concern the author beyond the basic and foundational fact that they are Christians, and Vanhoye refrains from speculating as to the letter’s purpose. In terms of genre, exposition is more extensive and fundamental than exhortation, although the latter gives the former its sharp edge and the tone of the whole is “pastoral not professorial” (DP, 58). As a homily, Hebrews must be viewed as an oral and rhetorical composition with careful attention to style and intended effect, and not simply the apparent surface meaning of the text.

Structure is fundamental to interpretation, and Vanhoye bases his exposition on the division into five major parts which will be familiar to those who know his work in this area (La Structure littéraire 1963, 2nd ed. 1976; Traduction structurée 1963; ET [re-edited and combined with another work] Structure and Message 1989). Each major part has a number of subsections, yielding a concentric arrangement as follows:

Exordium (1.1–4)

I: Situation of Christ (NC) / Name of Christ (DP) (1.5–2.18)


II: Trustworthy and Merciful High Priest (3.1–5.10)


III: Priesthood and Sacrifice of Christ (5.11–10.39)


IV: Faith and Endurance (11.1–12.13)


V: Holiness and Peace (12.14–13.18)


Conclusion (13.20–21)
Dispatch Note (13.19, 22–25)

Two devices in particular are pivotal to Vanhoye’s discernment of this structure. First there is inclusio, which demarcates each section and subsection, as for example the occurrence of “leaders” and “conduct” in 13.7 and 17–18. Then there is l’annonce du sujet, the “announcement of subject”: Vanhoye claims that the major subsections are announced at the end of the preceding part, but in reverse order. So, for example, 2.17 describes Jesus as “a merciful and faithful high priest”, giving the outline of the following part, which will show Jesus to be first faithful (3.1–4.14) and then merciful (4.15–5.10). Or again, 10.36 speaks of “endurance” and 10.38–39 of “faith”, introducing the following sections on faith (11.1–40) and endurance (12.1–13).

This structural division means that the text’s “chief point”, mentioned at 8.1, points forward to a central pair of paragraphs, in opposition to one another, that describe the sanctuary and worship of the old covenant (9.1–10) and of the new (9.11–14; cf. Εἶχε μὲν οὖν ἡ πρώτη [v. 1] with Χριστὸς δέ [v. 11]). The central message of Hebrews is thus the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice—its means, its nature, its location, its effect—over the provisions of the former dispensation. Vanhoye is in fact careful to elucidate a threefold relation between Jesus and the old covenant, a relation of similarity/continuity, of difference, and of superiority. These relations emerge in the fine detail—for example, the parallel between offering “by eternal spirit” (Heb 9.14) and “by perpetual fire” (1 Esd 6.23)—and in the broad vistas—Part II focuses more on the similarities between Jesus’ and Aaron’s priesthood, Part III more on the differences.

Hebrews adopts the Old Testament’s prophetic critique of sacrifice, with Christ bringing a solution to the problem by replacing sacrifice with perfect obedience. His sacrifice is not “a ceremony of ritual separation performed in a holy place, but […] an act of complete solidarity with his brothers” (DP, 404). The prioritization of what is inward and existential, of obedience and total self-giving, is fully instantiated in Jesus and brings salvation, and the call to the Christian life is to do likewise—to be devoted to God and fellow believers, in line with this renewed concept of sacrifice (13.15–16). This relativizes and even supersedes any ritual observances, but not in a completely antithetical or purely “spiritual” manner: when the author states that Christ’s blood cleanses the conscience (9.14), for example, he alludes to the incarnation and indicates that he is “opposed to complete spiritualization” (NC, 148); despite a trenchant critique, the old covenant sacrifices were willed by God, even if only temporarily. Although Vanhoye does not treat questions of background explicitly, he here as at other points resists a Platonist reading of Hebrews.

This overview indicates that Vanhoye can be placed close to conservative Protestant Anglophone commentators in his reading of Hebrews as pre-AD 70 and largely antithetical in its argument regarding the old covenant. This is noteworthy given his own Roman Catholic and continental location; he is strikingly different from the strong German current interpreting Hebrews as late and Platonist. It might also give pause for thought to those who view this kind of reading of Hebrews as antagonistic towards Catholic theologies of ministry and eucharist, given Vanhoye’s active role in discussing and articulating the biblical basis for them (in post-Vatican II mode).

3. Interpretative cruces

At this point I will give a somewhat perfunctory, although hopefully indicative and useful, overview of Vanhoye’s position on some of the more controverted questions in the interpretation of Hebrews (those who do not specialize in Hebrews may wish to skip to the next section!). First, the “name” the Son inherits in 1.4 cannot be pinned down to a single title; rather, it introduces the whole of the following section (to 2.18) and encompasses the divine and human aspects of his position.

In tackling the warning passages, Vanhoye highlights again the oral and rhetorical nature of the text and points out that the apostasy described (esp. in Heb 6 and 10) is not attributed to the audience and is mitigated by positive comments about them immediately following. He seems to regard the stated impossibility of repentance as continuing only as long as these apostates persist in their attitude (“while they are crucifying again”, NC, 108, 112). Similarly, he regards Esau as unable to change Isaac’s mind, rather than unable to repent (μετανοίας τόπος, 12.17)—the influence of Ceslas Spicq, whose weighty two-volume Hebrews commentary espouses this view, probably lies behind this. Vanhoye thus views these difficult passages as less rigorous than many interpreters understand them to be.

Perfection, an important theme in the letter, has a priestly background; the evidence is difficult to weigh inasmuch as τελειόω (as Vanhoye correctly points out) occurs in the LXX Pentateuch only with the meaning “to consecrate”, but at the same time these occurrences, with one exception, form part of a technical phrase (with χεῖρ) that is nowhere found in Hebrews. The ever-elusive Melchizedek has no ancestry in the Genesis text rather than in reality—Hebrews understands and uses this figure in a literary and not a metaphysical manner. Melchizedek demonstrates the threefold pattern in Hebrews of (i) God’s design leading to (ii) an earthly, old covenant prefigurement, which (iii) is taken up and fulfilled in Jesus (DP, 215).

The problem over the high priests allegedly sacrificing daily and for their own sins (7.27) is briefly dealt with by the suggestion that the daily burnt offering could have expiatory value. There is no heavenly rite or offering of Jesus’ blood, and sacrifice refers to the event of his death (NC, 143); but there is ongoing intercession (7.25) and (application of) atonement in heaven (present tense of ἱλάσκεσθαι, Heb 2.17; NC, 80). There is perhaps a slight tension here with Vanhoye’s belief that Jesus’ appointment as high priest takes place at his resurrection—this means that the founding half of his priestly work takes place before he becomes a priest. The plural “sacrifices” required to cleanse the heavenly sanctuary (9.23) is the statement of a general principle, not a requirement for Jesus to offer sacrifice many times, although with its pleas, supplications, and sufferings, Christ’s sacrifice does have “an air of multiplicity” about it (DP, 293).

As to the question of whether Jesus’ faith or believers’ faith is meant in 12.2, Vanhoye treads cautiously (in the face of Aquinas’ flat contradiction of the possibility of Jesus having faith): Jesus does not have faith in the general and replicable sense because he is unique, and importantly so, in Hebrews’ presentation, and in the New Testament, he is never said to believe (using the verb πιστεύω); yet he does exhibit attitudes similar to those which characterize the faithful believer (DP, 366–67).

The altar in 13.10 is the cross, not the eucharist, but the implied right to eat that Christians have should be understood as an allusion to the eucharist. Going “out of the camp” refers to leaving behind the “camp” or insider status created by markers such as food restrictions, but it also encompasses the call to leave behind the demands of pagan society. In all these points Vanhoye’s judicious approach and his resistance to overly certain or neat solutions is evident, although just occasionally (as with the warning passages) pastoral or theological concern seems to prevail over exegesis.

4. New vis-à-vis Different

These two commentaries both draw essentially on Vanhoye’s voluminous and erudite work on Hebrews, and to a lesser extent on his knowledge of scholarship from the second half of the twentieth century. However, this background, like the proverbial remainder of the iceberg, is largely submerged and not explicitly signalled; footnotes and references, to Vanhoye’s unabridged work as much as to other scholarship, are sparse (and appear rather unusual and isolated when they do occur). It is a pity that Vanhoye does not give references to his own more scholarly books and articles on particular passages and questions; this would be a great help to the interested reader who wants a more thorough treatment. Greek and Hebrew terms are also referred to sparingly, transliterated when they do occur. These books are not the place to turn if you are looking for bibliography, engagement with recent scholarship, history of scholarship, or extensive treatment of introductory issues. Produced within a few years by the same author and translator, the two works nevertheless display some significant differences, and I will outline each in turn.

A Different Priest is the English translation of L’Épître aux Hébreux: un Prêtre différent (Paris: Gabalda, 2010). The title is drawn from Heb 7.15 (which has ἕτερος not ἄλλος, stressing difference and not simply “another”, as most English translations). This work has no formal introductory material, but begins with a 35-page structural overview before proceeding through Hebrews in sequence. Each chapter of the book relates to a pericope of Hebrews, and a translation is given with commentary broken down into sections on composition, biblical context, and interpretation; in some sections the last two are treated together. The book is nicely produced, with elegant layout on Bible-thin paper, a format that belies its 450 pages. The formatting of headings could distinguish more clearly between different levels, and the translation appears in two different formats at various points throughout the work. The review copy has an unfortunate printing error whereby one side of a gathering has not printed, leaving 16 pages blank (DP, 322–23, 326–27, 330–31, 334–34, 338–39, 342–43, 346–47, 350–51); it is to be hoped that this is an isolated case.

The series in which A Different Priest appears, Rhetorica Semitica, seeks to give space to Semitic texts over against the heavy attention that Greco-Roman rhetoric receives. Vanhoye addresses this concern in a brief Foreword and Conclusion: he draws attention to Hebrews’ use of prothesis/propositio—announcing the subject but in reverse order, unlike the Greco-Roman preference for linearity—and of inclusio, which embraces the verbal repetition that Greco-Roman rhetoric avoids; he concludes that Hebrews does not fit any of the three categories of classical rhetoric, and that exegetes should learn their rhetoric from the biblical texts rather than trying to impose alien categories on them. Vanhoye is clearly familiar with classical rhetoric, but this treatment feels a little too quick and superficial. Nevertheless, the length and structure of the commentary give room for extensive engagement with biblical context and close exegetical readings of each passage in turn, a particular strength. The comments on many passages, for example 2.17–18 or 13.1–6, distil the findings of whole articles in concentrated yet readily digestible form.


A New Commentary is a lighter tome, approximately half the length of A Different Priest. It is unclear whether the book translates an extant or forthcoming French work, or simply a manuscript—a note declares that “some few parts” have been taken from the 2010 French commentary of which A Different Priest is a translation. The division and interpretation of Hebrews is unsurprisingly very similar to that found in DP, but the book’s organization and presentation are quite different. Following a concise 20-page introduction there is an annotated or structured translation of the whole letter, and then sequential exploration of the whole. Each passage is also reproduced at the relevant point in the body of the book. This is useful, although rather confusingly the two translations differ in numerous small ways from each other (as well as from the translation in DP); it is not clear whether this is attributable to the author or the translator.

A New Commentary would be a useful companion volume for a preacher or lay person who wants to study or teach Hebrews—there are clear, concise explanations, and nice turns of phrase (e.g., in Heb 2, Christ “is not a solitary conqueror, but […] a solidary conqueror”, NC, 78). Without wishing to be contrary, or to delve into the murky question of what actually defines the commentary genre, I would describe A New Commentary as a reading of Hebrews; “commentary” might be understood to promise something rather different from what is given, which is one narrative voice guiding the reader continuously through the text, without lengthy detours for structural or contextual considerations or pauses to engage in debate with other interpreters.

If I had to choose only one, on balance I would go for A Different Priest over A New Commentary, on the grounds that you get more for less. But both volumes have something to contribute; for example, a fuller sense of Vanhoye’s take on Hebrews’ setting is gained from NC than from DP.

5. Translation

As we turn finally to an assessment, I first offer a few words about the translation. On the whole this is fluid and competent. (I write as one who knows the complexities of translating French into English and—for transparency’s sake—one who is currently engaged in translating some of Vanhoye’s essays for a forthcoming collected volume.) There are some slight idiosyncrasies, often in the choice of word. For “limbs” falling in the desert (3.17; DP, 133), read “bodies”. “Nonchalant” (DP and NC) fails to capture the pejorative nuance of νωθρός (5.11; 6.12), usually translated “lazy, sluggish, dull”. While French, like Greek, has only one word group for the “justice/righteousness” field, it remains necessary to distinguish these in English, and in 11.7 “righteousness” is more apt than “justice” as a translation of the δικαιοσυνή that Noah inherited (NC, 179, 181). “Flogs”, although a possible translation for παιδεύω (12.6), seems a little brutal and narrow for the context (NC, 198).

I particularly enjoyed “inspectors” as a translation of ἐπίσκοποι (DP, 410, in a discussion of leaders; in my church that tends to be the role of archdeacons rather than bishops!). The expository or doctrinal sections of Hebrews are described as “explication” (NC) or “exposé” (DP). The former term is rather unusual, and the second has the very different sense in English of “bringing a scandal to light”, which simply does not fit, even if one holds that Hebrews’ gospel, like Paul’s, is scandalous! No one of these is a major problem in itself, but together with several other instances they do affect the overall intelligibility and usefulness of both volumes.

6. Assessment

When it comes to Vanhoye’s own scholarship, there is, as has been noted, a lack of engagement with other scholarship, and certainly with anything from the last few decades. (Craig Koester’s 2001 Anchor Bible commentary is the most recent work in both bibliographies.) I will not criticize a nonagenarian for failing to keep up to date with the latest work on Hebrews—indeed, it is remarkable and laudable that he is still writing at this stage in his life, and engagement with “the latest thing” can at times seem a bit of an unhealthy obsession in New Testament studies. Nevertheless, there are one or two areas where one cannot help but feel the discussion falters when there is good work that has been available for some time.

A first example is Vanhoye’s emphasis on the radical novelty of Jesus’ high priestly attribute of mercy (NC, 97, 99; DP, 111, 156–57, 170). Yet William Horbury’s 1983 JSNT article, “The Aaronic Priesthood in the Epistle to the Hebrews”, presented multiple examples showing that high priestly mercy is amply attested in Jewish sources in and before the first century. A second example concerns structure, which has continued to be widely debated, with excellent work done by George Guthrie (NovTSup, 1994) among many others; despite this, Vanhoye reiterates his own structural division without any amendment.

To take up the two key structural devices Vanhoye makes so much of: purported inclusions are sometimes rather weak (e.g., “high priest” and “Jesus” in 3.1 and 4.14, yet both appear in 6.20 as well; “peace”, 12.14 and 13.20). At other times they represent not so much inclusions as theme words that run throughout a passage (“enter” and “rest” in 4.1–5; “Abraham” and “tithe” in 7.1–10). One might also wonder why certain features do not constitute an inclusio, such as the reprise of the Jeremiah quotation (cf. 8.8–12 with 10.16–17). As for the “announcement of subject”, Vanhoye discerns notable fore-echoes of themes that later recur, but these do not seem to have formal characteristics that would identify them as a kind of propositio; and again, some of them seem rather weak: Heb 8.2 does not announce two tents, earthly and heavenly, to be explored in 8.3–9.10 and 9.11–28, rather it describes one “true tent”, established by God and not by mankind; Heb 12.13 in Vanhoye’s own words “lacks precision” in its definition of the subject of 12.14–13.21 (peace and holiness).

On the whole, Vanhoye’s structure tends to distinguish between exhortation and exposition, at least as subsections within larger parts. Yet at one notable point he divides an exhortation that almost all commentators see as a single block, separating 4.14 (as the conclusion of a section beginning at 3.1) from 4.15–16 (introducing a section extending to 5.10). Not only do these verses together form a coherent exhortation, they also carefully mirror the exhortation at 10.19–25. Indeed, Vanhoye admits that one could view 4.14–16 as a “passage of transition” (DP, 145–46, a phrase that sounds similar to Guthrie’s “overlapping constituent”), yet does not adjust his structure accordingly. As for the letter’s “chief point”, 8.1 and the surrounding verses act not so much as the introduction to the central section with the main point to come in 9.1–14, but as themselves a kind of apex, summarizing what has come before and introducing what is to come, with strong links to the parallel exhortations of 4.14–16 and 10.19–25, as suggested by the lexical analysis of Michael Clark (PhD thesis, Sydney, 2011) which reinforces Guthrie’s work on this point.

7. Conclusion

In sum, the critical nature of some of the foregoing comments notwithstanding, I find Vanhoye to be a careful, readable, and thought-provoking commentator. The value of these works lies not in new ideas, proposals, or methods, but in their knowledgeable, diligent, and observant handling of a difficult text; and in each book this wealth is combined into a single volume and, in translation, becomes accessible not only for native Anglophones but also for the many who read English as an additional language. Vanhoye is a close reader of both Hebrews and its wider biblical and Second Temple Jewish context. He has been engaged in this close reading for more than half a century, weathering the various trends that have come and gone. He is challenging and enlightening precisely because, whether or not you agree with him, he compels you to engage with the details of the text and to establish your own reading in the face of the lexical evidence he presents. He remains a wise giant of Hebrews scholarship, one not to be ignored.

Nicholas Moore
Stranton, Hartlepool
nicholas.moore [ at ]

  1. […] Nicholas Moore looks at Albert Vanhoye’s A Different Priest: The Epistle to the Hebrews. […]

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