The structure of Hebrews

At least one whole book has been dedicated to probing the structure of Hebrews. [1] The absence of a consensus among scholars in spite of all the effort put into the problem, demonstrates the need for a new approach.

The new approach started with the observation that in several cases the sections of a New Testament book, measured first in lines then in Greek letters, appeared to be close to whole multiples of some unit. This led to the hypothesis that each NT author devised a structure for his book, then decided on a convenient page size and number of pages for his archetype, allocating one or more pages to each section in order to make it easier to fit the intended writing neatly onto the chosen number of pages.

In each case mathematical tests were used to verify the link between the proposed page model and the whole set of logical sections.


The 19-page model for Hebrews first caught my attention around 1981 when it was highlighted by a simple computer program designed to find page models which matched a posited set of section boundaries. But the match only began to look significant when the completely different method of word stem analysis picked out the structure published in a non-academic book. [2] This structure consisted of major sections 1:1 - 10:18 (The Superiority of Christ) and 10:19 - 13:25 (The Superiority of Faith), with the former divided into the subsections: 1-2; 3:1-4:13; 4:14-7; 8:1-10:18. Only a few steps were required to turn this into the fully symmetrical structure shown below which fits a model of 19 pages.

The original text of Hebrews

If the full structure (most critically the boundary at 10:39/11:1) is to satisfy my strict section/page validity tests, the original text must have differed slightly from NA27. Hence the changes in following two verses. The change in the third verse below makes no significant difference to the results of the validity tests.

In 10:20

The original text did not contain the phrase:  τουτ εστιν της σαρκος αυτου  "that is, his flesh", which is taken as a later gloss by Holsten, Buchanan, and Schenke. It is too allegorical (Buchanan [3]). It is probably best seen as a clumsy ("ungeschickt") marginal gloss (Schenke [4]). There are two ways in which it seems to me to be clumsy. Firstly from a Christian point of view the curtain was seen as a barrier between mankind and God, so it is inappropriate to take it as a metaphor for the body of Jesus. Secondly the phrase interrupts the smooth literary flow at the start of the third major section in 10:19-22 (compared with the smooth flow at the start of the other major sections in 1:1-4 and 4:14-16).

In 11:37

The original text included another word:   επυρασθησαν "they were burned" (as suggested by Junius and Piscator [5]) , which became corrupted to   επειρασθησαν   "they were tempted", which is the reading in several MSS. The former seems the most likely original text because then the author produced three words ending   ...σθησαν   indicating types of death, matching the three ending in   ...μενοι   indicating types of suffering.

In 13:21

των αιωνων
These words were probably not in the original text. They are absent from the earliest textual witness, p46.

The first two levels of the structure of Hebrews

chapter:verse Greek pages suggested
range letters   section title
  HEAR God: the old order is superseded
1:1 - 2:18 2925 2   Jesus is superior to the ANGELS
3:1 - 4:13 2671 2   Jesus is superior to Moses
  Approach God: via the PRIEST's sacrifice
4:14 - 7:28 5579 4   Jesus: a priest superior to MELCHIZEDEK
8:1 - 10:18 5456 4   Jesus: mediator of a superior covenant
  PLEASE God: by holding fast to faith
10:19 - 12:2 [...] 5516 4   The superior way of FAITH
12:3 - 13:25 [...] 4215 3   Exhortation TO YOU, the readers

Concerning the two-level structure

  1. The numbers of letters refer to the NA27 Greek text, amended very slightly in the subsections marked [...] to allow for the above-mentioned changes in 10:20, 11:37 and 13:21.
  2. In the section titles, words in capitals (more accurately the stems of the equivalent Greek words) were picked out by my word stem analysis as the most distinctive words in their respective sections.
  3. The breaks between the major sections are uniquely distinguished by being followed by εχοντες ουν  ("Therefore having ...", in 4:14 and 10:19).
  4. The subsection 8:1-10:18 is framed by quotations from the prophet Jeremiah in 8:8-12 and 10:16-17.
  5. Some commentators have a new subsection starting at 12:4. But the new subsection clearly starts at 12:3 because 12:1-2 is the dramatic climax of the subsection on faith.
  6. Five of the six second-level sections are based on the theme of superiority.
  7. The two-level structure is completely symmetrical in the arrangement of its sections.
  8. The authenticity of the structure is confirmed by the distinctiveness of its sections as compared with other published two-level structures, measured by my word stem analysis program.

The format of the archetype

According to the model proposed here, the 26362 letters occupied 19 pages with a mean of 1387.5 letters per page. Thus the original document does not appear to have been in codex format (for which we would expect the text to occupy a whole multiple of 4 pages). On the other hand, Comfort & Barrett suggest that the codex to which the Hebrews papyrus fragment p114 originally belonged may have had a title page. [6]  This would make it more likely that the archetype was a 20-page codex in which the first page was used as a title page.

The full structure of Hebrews

chapter:verse Greek pages suggested
range letters   section title
  HEAR God: the old order is superseded
1:1 - 2:18 2925 2   Jesus is superior to the ANGELS
3:1 - 4:13 2671 2   Jesus is superior to Moses
  Approach God: via the priest's SACRIFICE
    Jesus: a priest superior to MELCHIZEDEK
4:14 - 5:14 1485 1     He understands our weaknesses
6:1-12 1044 1     Warning against backsliding
6:13 - 7:10 1540 1     ABRAHAM is blessed by God and Melchizedek
7:11-28 1510 1     The Levitical PRIESTHOOD is inadequate
    Jesus: mediator of a superior covenant
8:1-13 1385 1     A NEW covenant
9:1-14 1391 1     True WORSHIP
9:15-28 1290 1     A covenant sealed by his own blood
10:1-18 1390 1     An OFFERING for all time
  PLEASE God: by holding fast to faith
  The superior way of FAITH
10:19-38 [...] 1544 1       Let your faith be CONFIDENT, for the Lord is coming soon
10:39-11:12 1317 1       Faith from Abel to Abraham
11:13 - 12:2 [...] 2655 2       Faith from Abraham to Jesus
  Exhortation TO YOU, the readers
12:3 - 13:7 2742 2       Do not be discouraged
13:8 - 13:25 [...] 1473 1       Be loyal to Jesus Christ, who remains the same FOR EVER

Concerning the subsections

  1. The central subsections are symmetrical. Thus if we relegate the last five minor subsections to a fourth level aimed solely at ensuring that the material in the last major section fits into the remaining available space, then we have a structure symmetrical down to the third level.
  2. The subsection 10:19-38 is framed by references to the coming of the Lord in vv. 25 & 37.
  3. The subsection 10:39-11:12 is framed by the mention of ancestors in 11:2 and descendants in 11:12.
  4. The subsection 11:13 - 12:2 is framed by ουτοι παντες ("all these [people]") in 11:13 & 39.
  5. The subsection 12:3 - 13:7 is framed by references to the Lord's encouragement, in quotations of scripture in 12:5-6 and 13:6.
  6. The subsection 13:8-25 is framed by εις τους ειωνας ("for ever") in vv. 8 & 21.

Method of composition

Mathematical analysis of the Greek letter counts shows unambiguously that each section was not written on separate page(s), but instead the author/scribe tried to make the text boundary between each pair of adjacent sections as close as practicable to a page boundary. In this way he could ensure that each section would occupy the number of pages he had allocated to it, give or take a line or two at each boundary between sections.


1. G.H.Guthrie, "The Structure of Hebrews" (Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands, 1994)
2. B.B.Barton, "Life Application Bible" (Kingsway, Eastbourne, Sussex, 1988)
3. G.W.Buchanan, "To the Hebrews" (Doubleday, New York, 1972) p.168
4. H.M.Schenke, "Erwägungen zum Rätsal des Hebräerbrief", in H.D.Betz & L.Schottroff (Eds.) "Neues Testament und Christliche Existenz" (Mohr, Tübingen, 1973) p.427
5. B.M.Metzger, "A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament" (United Bible Societies, London & New York, 1971) p.674
6. P.W.Comfort & D.P.Barrett, "The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Documents" (Tyndale House, Illinois, 2001) p.663