Perseverance In Gratitude

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This commentary is the first to fully apply the resources of socio-rhetorical analysis to Hebrews. Insights into the cultural and social world of the audience are combined with analysis of the author's rhetorical strategy and ideology to create a rich, three-dimensional reading that helps unravel key issues in the interpretation of the epistle. David deSilva's reflections on application concluding each section also make his commentary valuable to seminarians and pastors seeking to make Hebrews relevant to today's...
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This commentary is the first to fully apply the resources of socio-rhetorical analysis to Hebrews. Insights into the cultural and social world of the audience are combined with analysis of the author's rhetorical strategy and ideology to create a rich, three-dimensional reading that helps unravel key issues in the interpretation of the epistle. David deSilva's reflections on application concluding each section also make his commentary valuable to seminarians and pastors seeking to make Hebrews relevant to today's world.
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Editorial Reviews

The Bible Today
This fine new commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews is intended as a resource for scholars, theology students, and pastors. Its rich theological and pastoral content justify such a broad scope.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802841889
  • Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
  • Publication date: 3/1/2000
  • Pages: 584
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Table of Contents


1. Responding to God's Word and Work in the Son: Hebrews 1:1–2:18....................83
2. The Inexpediency of Distrust: Hebrews 3:1–4:13....................131
3. Jesus, Our Guarantor of God's Favor: Hebrews 4:14–5:10....................179
4. Honoring God Necessitates Perseverance: Hebrews 5:11–6:20....................209
5. Jesus, the Better-Qualified Mediator of God's Favor: Hebrews 7:1–8:13....................261
6. The Decisive Removal of Sin's Defilement: Hebrews 9:1–10:18....................291
7. Draw Near to God and to Each Other: Hebrews 10:19–39....................333
8. Faith's Orientation in the World: Hebrews 11:1–12:3....................377
9. In Training for the Kingdom: Hebrews 12:4–29....................445
10. Living in Gratitude to God: Hebrews 13:1–25....................483
Index of Modern Authors....................543
Index of Texts Cited....................547
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First Chapter

Perseverance in Gratitude

A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle "to the Hebrews"
By David A. deSilva

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2000 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-4188-9


When we consider the situation to which the Letter "to the Hebrews" responds, we are without much of the supplemental data available for understanding, say, the Corinthian letters or Revelation. For those texts, extensive investigations of the city of Corinth or Ephesus (and the other six cities addressed in Revelation) provide a rich picture of the setting of the addressees and, in many cases, illuminate specific references in the text. With Hebrews, however, the identity of the author remains, after two millennia of speculation, unknown, and the locations of author and addressees remain unspecified. Many scholars advance arguments for a specific location, from Rome to the Lycus Valley to Jerusalem itself, in an attempt to avoid "exegetical generality." While some hypotheses certainly appear stronger than others, they remain precisely that — hypotheses. Even if we cannot, however, determine such particulars as the name of the author, the location of the addressees, and the like, we can elicit from the text a clear sense of the author's rhetorical agenda as well as a wealth of information concerning the audience, their history as a Christian community, and their current situation. "Exegetical generality" can thus still be avoided.

The Recipients of the Letter "To the Hebrews"

Ethnic Background

One central question concerning the addressees is their ethnic composition. The majority of extant manuscripts bear the superscription [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and ever since Tertullian (De pudic. 20) referred to the text by this title, the assumption of a Jewish Christian audience has been predominant. With this assumption in place, numerous aspects of the letter can then be used to "prove" the conjecture. Prominent among these proofs is the suggestion that the author's wideranging use of the OT, and the weight he places on arguments from the OT, would have been meaningful chiefly to an audience of Jewish origin. Moreover, the author's use of exegetical methods, which came to characterize rabbinic Judaism, suggests a Jewish environment for both author and recipients. The author's interest in the Jewish cult "would probably have left gentile readers cold." Proving the obsolescence of the Old Covenant is thought to be a matter of importance for Jewish, not Gentile, Christians. The result of this assumption is almost inevitably the suggestion that the problem addressed by Hebrews is a potential reversion to Judaism on the part of Jewish Christians who seek to avoid ongoing tension with their non-Christian Jewish families and neighbors.

There is, however, nothing compelling us to view the Christian addressees as exclusively, or predominantly, Jewish in origin. Unlike the author of the Pauline letters (as well as books like 1 Peter and Revelation), the author of Hebrews identifies neither himself nor his readers. The title "To the Hebrews" represents an early conjecture concerning the addressees based on an estimation of the contents. This ascription could well be ideologically motivated. As the movement developed and the gap between synagogue and church widened into an irreparable chasm, having a canonical "response" to the parent religion — a sort of indirect manifesto of supersessionism — would have been valuable as a witness to the legitimacy of the sect's existence and ideology. The literature of the early Church attests to the importance of the sect's self-definition over against Judaism, and this letter, with its prominent use of the rhetorical device of synkrisis (comparison, here between Jesus and the mediators of the "old covenant"), could reinforce that task admirably. Not much weight, therefore, should be placed on "external attestation" on this point.

Arguments based on what would be appropriate or relevant to Christians of one race over another are even more specious. The Gentile entering the Christian community became an "heir of the promise," a "child of Abraham," the "Israel of God," the "circumcision," and the "royal priesthood, God's holy nation." That is to say, the Gentile Christian was socialized to view himself or herself as the heir to the titles and promises that belonged to God's chosen people (historically, the Jewish people). The Gentile Christian was also enculturated to regard the Jewish Scriptures as the "oracles of God" (cf. Heb. 5:12, where these serve as the primary textbook of the Christian converts), and was taught to read those oracles, moreover, as the divine revelation that legitimated the Christian hope and shaped the Christian ethos. Christian worship and proclamation involved the reading of these oracles and their exposition in the distinctive Christian manner. The canonical texts provide only a few windows into the lives of the early Christian communities. What happened in Christian communities in the "everyday" rhythm of assembling for worship and teaching was likely to be oriented toward instruction from the OT as well as from the teachings of Jesus (which were, themselves, largely concerned with deriving an ethic from the Jewish Scriptures). We must not allow the plight of so many modern Gentile Christians, with their relative lack of knowledge of the OT, to color our understanding of the first-century convert, for whom the OT was the revelation of God's will, the source (together with the experience of the Spirit) for the legitimation of the sect and the hope to which those converts clung.

Both Galatians and 1 Peter address audiences that are in some major part Gentile. The argument of Galatians (the exhortation against receiving circumcision, which would be a moot issue for those born Jews) is particularly pointed toward Gentile converts to Christianity. That text employs an extended exposition from the story of Abraham in Genesis, as well as texts from Deuteronomy, Habakkuk, Leviticus, and Isaiah, and expounds these texts according to rules familiar from rabbinic exegesis. 1 Peter, addressing those who "no longer join" in with their Gentile neighbors, is even richer in oral-scribal intertexture with the OT, as well as allusions and references to OT figures and stories. 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 derives moral instruction from a string of events connected with the exodus generation but does so in an allusive manner that presumes a high degree of familiarity with these stories on the part of the largely Gentile Christian audience.

The use of the OT in Hebrews, then, does not necessitate or even suggest an audience made up primarily of Jewish Christians. Gentile Christians — especially those who have been attached to the Christian community for some time, as it seems likely that these have — would also be familiar with those texts and keenly interested in their interpretation. Since they were instructed to read them by Jewish Christians like Paul and his team, we should consider the likelihood that Gentile Christians would have been exposed, at least inductively, to rules of interpretation such as gezera shawa (which becomes a cardinal rule of Christian interpretation of Scripture as well, as "concordant Scriptures" in Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana) or qal wahomer (also part and parcel of Greco-Roman argumentation) in the course of this instruction. Moreover, the interest in the levitical cultus in Hebrews would probably not, contrary to Paul Ellingworth's suggestion, leave Gentile Christians cold. Both Jewish and Gentile Christians were socialized into a sect that required both an acceptance of the OT as a record of divine revelation and a rejection of the contemporary validity of the covenant and priesthood therein described (or, better, commanded). Hebrews strongly reinforces this dual orientation to the Jewish Scriptures. Gentile believers could "warm up" to the central exposition of Hebrews (7:1–10:18), as well as its other comparisons of the advantages of those belonging to the new covenant over those who labored under the old, as relevant for several purposes. First, the author gives them a salvation-historical perspective on their situation. As those who draw near to God through the new covenant, they are more privileged, more secure in their hope, and further along to the goal of God's deliverance and kingdom than the "people of God" had ever been. This enhances the significance of belonging to, and importance of remaining with, the Christian community, as well as stimulates gratitude and loyalty at being favored beyond their inherited predecessors.

Second, it serves the well-known need of sects to legitimate their existence by proposing the failings of the parent body (here, Judaism) and the ways in which the sect members have been given the advantage of "true" knowledge about how to approach to divine, what the divine plan entails, and the like. Hebrews supports group definition and identity through developing a contrast with an alternative group's ideology, stressing the superiority of Christian ideology as a means of sustaining commitment. As the Christian community grows, it continues to engage in this sort of ideological warfare against both Judaism and paganism as part of the ongoing process of justifying why "we" are not "them" and why "they" are the worse for it. Much of the literature of the first three centuries treats the topic of why Christianity is superior to the Mosaic covenant and the teachings of Plato, to Jewish sacrifices and pagan worship. Hebrews responds very well to this need, mainly with regard to non-Christian Judaism. There is no need to assume that, if Gentile Christians are in fact among the intended readers of Hebrews, they would necessarily be subject to the temptation to convert to Judaism in order for the author's message to have relevance. All members of sects need to be assured that their approach to God is the more effective, the more valid, the more secure, and it is precisely this point that Hebrews reinforces.

I find, therefore, no reason to limit our reading of Hebrews as a sermon addressing Jewish Christians or even prominently interested in the Jewish Christians in the audience. Neither would I push this in the opposite direction and suggest that Gentile Christians are either prominent or especially targeted. The letter, unfortunately named, would be equally meaningful to Christians of any ethnic origin, since both Jewish and Gentile converts are socialized into the same Christocentric reading of the same Scriptures. Just as Gentile readers have continued to find in Hebrews justification for their claim on God's promises and access to God's favor even while they worship apart from the synagogue and God's historic people, so the Gentile Christians in the first audience would not have been more prone to doze off during the reading of chapters 7 through 10 than their Jewish Christian sisters and brothers. Too much stock in the "Jewish Christian" audience hypothesis prevents us from seeing that the sustained synkrisis (comparison) with the levitical cult serves ideological needs of Gentile Christians as well and unduly limits our appreciation for the contribution of this letter to the world construction and group maintenance of the early Church. In this commentary, therefore, we will be looking at how the sermon would be meaningful for Diaspora Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, how the argument would impact and shape both elements of a typical Christian assembly.

History of the Community

Although we are without certain knowledge of the city within which the addressees resided, the author of Hebrews reveals several important aspects of the community's history, from which we may gather a solid picture of the formative influences on their identity and their situation. The author speaks of their conversion, the elements of their socialization into the new group, and a particular period of heightened tension between the converts and their neighbors. The rhetorical effects of reminding the hearers of these past events will be treated in the commentary below. For now, these passages will provide us with a window into the life and history of the addressees.

Hebrews 2:1-4 speaks of the conversion of the audience, or at least the core of that congregation, in response to the proclamation of the gospel by the witnesses of Jesus. The author recalls that "God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will" (Heb. 2:4). This brief account is strikingly similar to Paul's reminiscences about the founding of the churches in Galatia and Corinth (Gal. 3:2-5; 1 Cor. 2:1-5), where again ecstatic or miraculous phenomena are emphasized as God's confirmation of the validity of the message. These times of community formation were highly charged with awareness of divine presence and power, an awareness that reinforced commitment to the Christian message as "divine word," God speaking "in a Son" (Heb. 1:1). The congregation should still have a memory, at least, of this time of firsthand experience of the "truth of the gospel." The author's reminders of the initiatory experiences may themselves provide the strongest legitimation for his challenge, as it did for Paul in Galatians (3:1-5).

Hebrews provides further evidence to suggest that the old dictum that sects, in general, "are connected with the lower class" and that Christianity, in particular, recruited "mainly from the labouring and burdened, the members of the lowest strata of the people" and consisted of "slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights" is incorrect or at least overdrawn. Linguistically, Hebrews is composed in very stylish and difficult Greek. The author uses extensive vocabulary (including more hapax legomena than any other NT author) and writes in a somewhat Atticizing style, with a syntax more independent of word order than that of other NT authors. This alone suggests an audience capable of attending meaningfully to such language and syntax, unless the author was simply a bad preacher who spoke over the heads of his congregation. The letter tells us also that a number of the community members possessed property worth confiscating, and we know from Tacitus and other historians that local or imperial authorities tended to seek out the well-propertied with poor social networks for confiscation. The community members are capable of charitable activity and hospitality (13:2; 10:33b-34a; 13:16: this is one of Gerd Theissen's criteria for higher social status) and even appear to need warnings against overambition, with regard to both possessions (13:5) and status (13:14). The possibility of recovering wealth and prestige in the non-Christian society, which appears to be the principal motivation to hide or sever one's attachment to the Christian group, tells us that at least some of the recipients come from the "propertied" classes; not all came to Christianity as the "labouring and burdened." In all probability, the community was composed of people from a wide range of social strata, as in the congregations about which more is known (e.g., Rome, Corinth, or Thessalonica).

The author refers also to the process by which the converts were socialized into the new group, or forged into a new community, the basic elements of the curriculum being given in 5:11–6:3. They were taught "the basic elements of the oracles of God" (5:12), namely, the Jewish Scriptures, and "the basic teaching about Christ" (6:1), which would naturally involve an exposition of the Scriptures (particularly based on LXX versions) through the lens of the work of Christ. The author refers to a "foundation" of "repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment" (6:1b-2). The converts thus appear to have been exposed to a rather comprehensive process of socialization. They were inculcated thoroughly into the Christian movement's construction of reality, as seen especially in the temporal dimension of apocalyptic eschatology (resurrection of the dead, eternal judgment, the age to come). While he uses Platonic vocabulary, the author mainly relies on the temporal dualism of apocalypticism (the distinction between the present age and the age to come) in shaping the response he calls for from the addressees, counting heavily on their acceptance of this worldview.


Excerpted from Perseverance in Gratitude by David A. deSilva Copyright © 2000 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2001

    A Very Helpful Approach

    This recently developed exegetical method is very helpful in understanding cultural and sociological background as well as the use of ancient rhetoric by the writers of the New Testament. deSilva's contribution is especially helpful for understanding the fact that 'honor and shaming' were tools of social control in the ancient world, and this is directly related to the purpose and structure of the 'Letter to the Hebrews.' He shows how the art of rhetoric is also related to the structure of Hebrews. deSilva makes use of the giant works of William Lane and Harold Attridge, but he provides us with his own unique contribution as well. I would not use it in isolation, but I think it is an indespensible contribution to studies in this letter. The introduction is excellent and provides details of the Socio-Rhetorical method of exegesis in general and especially as applied to Hebrews. A fine work that is as interesting as it is helpful.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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