The structure behind the archetype 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 symmetrical structure of Hebrews : introduction

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 symmetrical structure shown below which fits a model of 19 pages.

The text of Hebrews

There are two verses in which the NA28 text of Hebrews is highly debatable, and where there are good reasons to believe that it does not reflect the text of the original archetype.


The clause: "οπως χαριτι θεου υπερ παντος γευσηται θανατου" (... so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone) is conjectured as not present in the original text (Semler, c.f. NA27). It does not follow logically after the previous clause (Moffatt). It detracts from the theme of suffering which connects 2:9ab to 2:10. The "for everyone" is inconsistent with the narrower focus of Hebrews, which elsewhere makes it clear that Christ's death only benefits those who have accepted Christ (e.g. Heb 2:16, c.f. Gal 3:29; Heb 9:15). Even then it is necessary to hold on to the faith because anyone who falls away will have lost their chance of salvation (6:4-6; 10:26-29).

So how did this clause come to be in the text of Hebrews? The most likely sequence involves two steps. The first was the deliberate addition of the clause:"οπως χωρις θεου υπερ παντος γευσηται θανατου" ("so that separated from God he might taste death for everyone"). The scribe who inserted this clause was trying to 'correct' the theology held by the writer of Hebrews. Firstly he agreed with Mark in seeing the crucified Jesus as separated from God (Mk 15:34, c.f. 15:27) rather than separated from sinners (Heb 7:26). Secondly he believed that the atonement led to universal salvation ("... he should experience death for everyone", Heb 2:9c), a view which Paul seems to have favoured towards the end of his life (Rom 11:32; Php 2:10-11). The second step in the change to the text involved a different scribe replacing "χωρις" ("separated from"), the reading in some early manuscripts, by "χαριτι" ("by the grace of"), probably because he didn't think that Jesus could ever have been 'separated from God'.


At the end of this verse are three words ending in "...μενοι"
At the beginning of the verse many manuscripts have three words ending in "...σθησαν"
This looks very much like a deliberate stylistic feature created by the writer of Hebrews. However, the NA28 text omits one of the latter set of three words. In spite of this, it seems to me that the most likely sequence is that originally the text contained the word "επυρασθησαν"("they were burned", as suggested by Junius and Piscator, c.f. NA27). This was accidentally corrupted to "επειρασθησαν"("they were tempted", as in several extant ancient manuscripts either before or after "they were sawn in two"). Finally it was accidentally omitted in p46 and a few other manuscripts, creating the text which appears in NA28.

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 [...] 2886 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 [...] 5539 4   The superior way of FAITH
12:3 - 13:25 4224 3   Exhortation TO YOU, the readers

Concerning the two-level structure

  1. The numbers of letters refer to the NA27 Greek text.
  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. [...] indicates that the section varies slightly from the NA28 text for the reasons given above.
  4. The breaks between the major sections are uniquely distinguished by being followed by εχοντες ουν  ("Therefore having ...", in 4:14 and 10:19).
  5. The subsection 8:1-10:18 is framed by quotations from the prophet Jeremiah in 8:8-12 and 10:16-17.
  6. 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 previous subsection in which Jesus is presented as the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
  7. Five of the six second-level sections are based on the theme of superiority.
  8. The two-level structure is completely symmetrical in the arrangement of its sections.
  9. 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 26383 letters occupied 19 pages with a mean of 1388.6 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. [3]   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
    Jesus is superior to the angels
1:1-14 1281 1     His higher status, confirmed by the scriptures
2:1-18 [...] 1605 1     His rise from flesh and blood to glory and honour
    Jesus is superior to OT heroes
3:1-19 1414 1     He is superior to Moses
4:1-13 1257 1     He is superior to Joshua
  Approach God: via the priest's sacrifice
    Jesus: a priest superior to Melchizedek
4:14 - 7:10 4069 3     A new high priest
7:11-28 1510 1     A new priesthood
    Jesus: mediator of a superior covenant
8:1 - 9:28 4066 3     A new covenant
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 1567 1     Let your faith be confident, for the Lord is coming soon
10:39 - 12:2 [...] 3972 3     Historical examples of faith
  Exhortation to you, the readers
12:3 - 13:7 2742 2     Do not be discouraged
13:8 - 13:25 1482 1     Be loyal to Jesus Christ, who remains the same for ever

Concerning the subsections

  1. The three levels of this hierarchy together form a completely symmetrical structure.
  2. The subsection 10:19-38 is framed by references to the coming of the Lord in vv. 25 & 37.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. P.W.Comfort & D.P.Barrett, "The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Documents" (Tyndale House, Illinois, 2001) p.663