“Bruce or Cockerill? Which Hebrews Commentary Should You Buy?” by Milton Essenburg

In his more than forty years with Eerdmans, Milton Essenburg has been privileged to edit the Hebrews commentaries of Philip Hughes, F. F. Bruce, Paul Ellingworth, Peter O’Brien, and Gareth Cockerill, and to proofread the volume by David deSilva.

Milton Essenburg
Milton Essenburg

His connection with F. F. Bruce goes far beyond Hebrews, however, as he also edited Bruce’s two commentaries on the English and Greek texts of Acts and his Gold Medallion-winning commentary on Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon.

While editing their commentaries, he corresponded frequently both with Bruce — his “friend across the big pond” — and with Cockerill, and he holds both men in the highest regard.

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As you may know, F. F. Bruce’s classic commentary on Hebrews in the New International Commentary on the New Testament has now been replaced by Gareth Cockerill’s masterful work. At the same time Bruce’s volume, which was considered the best until about 1990, has become a stand-alone commentary. Now a number of readers are asking, Which should we buy?

To some, the answer is clear. D. A. Carson, in his New Testament Commentary Survey, for example, writes that until two decades ago the two best English works were those of F. F. Bruce and Philip Hughes.

Cockerill’s new NICNT volume

But since then several magnificent works, such as those by Harold Attridge, William Lane, Paul Ellingworth, David deSilva, George Guthrie, Peter O’Brien, [and, of course, Gareth Cockerill], have appeared. These authors adopt fresh approaches that enable them to compete with, or even surpass, Bruce and Hughes.

In addition, more than one survey indicates that, while Bruce provides a great deal of useful exegetical information, his revised edition of 1990 is changed so little from the 1964 original that one might as well keep the older volume of 1964. I worked on the revision and can attest that, while the bibliography was updated and the weaker parts were strengthened, beyond this the changes were mostly cosmetic.

Furthermore, the statement of purpose of the New International Commentary on the New Testament explicitly says that the series is “… undertaken to provide earnest students of the New Testament with an exposition that is thorough and abreast of modern scholarship and at the same time loyal to the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God.”

With the italicized words above in mind, Gordon Fee asked Cockerill to justify replacing Bruce. In reply, Cockerill says,

I told him [Fee] that scholarship had made significant advances in understanding ancient rhetoric, in analyzing the structure of Hebrews, particularly through discourse analysis, and in studying the intertextuality of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. This new volume shows how the author of Hebrews has structured Hebrews and arranged his argument to have maximum rhetorical effect on his hearers. I have attempted to interpret each passage in relation to this larger picture and to show the importance of each part for the whole.

Indeed, in setting out the structure of his book, Cockerill has gone further than any other author (even George Guthrie and Peter O’Brien in other series) in showing the pattern of Hebrews. On p. 614 he even shows quite convincingly that the entire book of Hebrews can be read as a single chiasm. In this literary device the first and last items are paired at the left, the second and second to the last matching items are indented a space or two, and so on until we come to the central item, which is the most important element.

Bruce’s classic commentary, now available in paperback.

Thus the first item, A. God Has Spoken in His Son (1:14), is matched by the nineteenth element, A´. God Will Speak at the Final Judgment (12:25-29). The second item, B. The Incomparable Majesty of the Eternal, Exalted Son (1:5-14), parallels the eighteenth, B´. God’s Firstborn Enter His Presence through the Exalted Son (12:18-24). This goes on and on through I and I´. Now, can you guess what the center of this chiasm — the most important point of the book — is? Yes, it is element 9, or J. Christ’s All-Sufficient High Priesthood (5:1-10:18)! Only as the great High Priest can Jesus provide God’s people with present access to God and bring them to their intended destiny.

Cockerill’s new commentary also exploits the theological and practical implications of these chiastic parallels. In so doing it demonstrates the much-discussed implications of both the statements of Christ’s supremacy and the many warnings in Hebrews. Hebrews is self-described as “a word of exhortation” (13:22), a sermon in letter form. And I know of no one who hits the warning passages of Hebrews as hard as Cockerill does.

So what does I. Howard Marshall, the dean of commentary writers, say about Cockerill’s book? On the jacket of the book he asserts emphatically,

Cockerill amply justifies the confidence placed in him by the editor of this series [at that time still Fee]. In particular, the attention Cockerill pays to the author’s use of the Old Testament and to the book’s structure takes readers beyond Bruce’s work. The exposition of the letter is profound and practical and yet so clearly presented that preachers will be particularly grateful for this volume.

At the same time Bruce’s work remains too valuable to go out of print. In addition to his exactitude and the carefulness of his exegetical work, mentioned earlier, he is noted for his eloquence. Consider, for example, this passage on p. 392:

Christians are Christians by virtue of certain acts of God that took place at a definite time in the past. But these acts of God have released a dynamic force that in this life is always a goal to be aimed at and never a stage that has been reached. It never allows Christians to stick fast at any point short of that divine rest. The faith once delivered to the saints is not something that can be caught and tamed; it continually leads the saints forth to new ventures in the cause of Christ.

Many of the great works in literature, music, and even commentaries continue to be held in high esteem throughout the years, and Bruce’s work on Hebrews is rightfully numbered with these.

So what is my advice to those who want to know which of these two fine commentaries to buy? If I had to choose one, I would lean heavily toward Cockerill, though if I had the wherewithal, I would buy both commentaries. To speak in biblical language, a good householder has in his treasure box both new things and old things (Matthew 13:52). Cockerill offers a wealth of fresh insights; Bruce offers teachings that have stood the test of time. Serious students of the Epistle to the Hebrews need both.

Click here to order either Gareth Lee Cockerill’s or F. F. Bruce’s commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. (Or why not both?) 

Click here to read part one or part two of our EerdWord interview with Gareth Lee Cockerill.