by Fred Butler
Who is the author of Hebrews? This has been a question asked by students of scripture since the close of the New Testament. The search has been conducted for over a millennium and is no closer to being ended. Answering the question and nailing down the identity of the elusive author is not necessarily an important controversy to resolve. The author’s anonymity does not affect the authenticity of the epistle’s inspiration, or the validity of its inclusion into the canon. Hebrews is still God’s authoritative Word. My endeavor with this essay is to engage in a fun exercise of Bible study and a look at Church history.
There have been a number of candidates suggested over the years for the authorship of Hebrews. Tertullian, the church father from Carthage (150-222 AD), believed Barnabas may have been the writer. Barnabas was the nickname given by the apostles to a disciple named Joseph. It meant “son of consolation/ encouragement” and he was given that name because of his selfless involvement in the early church. Barnabas was a Levite, according to Acts 4:36, so he would have been familiar with the OT sacrificial system and the Jewish rituals discussed in Hebrews. His insight to the OT would give him the authority to show how the types and shadows of the OT were fulfilled in Christ.
Apollos is another individual named as the possible author. He first comes on the scene in Acts 18:24, where he is described as a great orator, a man mighty in the scriptures. According to Acts 18:25, Apollos was a Jew who was instructed in the ways of the Lord. He was filled with a fervent spirit of evangelism for his Jewish brethren. His strong teaching abilities, coupled with a boldness to preach to the Jews, makes him a nominee for authorship.
There have been other names given as authors. Some of the candidates include: Silas, Luke, James, Clement of Rome, and strangely, Pricilla, the wife of Aquila, who both discipled Apollos, (Acts 18:26-27).
There is one final candidate, however, who stands out above the others. The Apostle Paul is, in my opinion, the only possible author of the book of Hebrews. The general consensus among Christians, until about the 1800’s, was that Paul wrote Hebrews. That agreement alone does not settle or prove that Paul wrote the book. All the facts have to be examined, because the acceptance of Pauline authorship is not with out its problems. Many students believe the style of Hebrews is nothing like Paul’s other letters. Plus, his usual greeting is missing from the opening of the book; another indicator Paul was not the author. Something else uncommon to Paul is the quotation of the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament.
These are just some compelling arguments against Pauline authorship, but I am still convinced Paul wrote Hebrews, as I will attempt to show in this essay. I believe Paul’s authorship can be established with three areas of discussion. First, historical church tradition, then, internal evidence from the book of Hebrews, and finally, apostolic authority.
Historical Church Tradition
Before beginning, I need to define what is meant by tradition, because the word conjures up thoughts of Roman Catholic doctrine. Sadly, Catholicism has horrendously skewed the word. The reason being is the elevation of tradition to the level of authority with the scriptures. In Roman Catholicism, tradition is to be obeyed as equally as the Bible, and sometimes rather than the Bible. A perfect example is the celibacy of the priesthood. The scriptures nowhere forbid church clergy from marrying, but Catholic tradition has always maintained a celibate priesthood as being obedient to God. This is not what I mean by tradition.
The tradition of which I speak is established by church history. Orthodox Christianity believes, for instance, that the apostle Matthew wrote the gospel carrying his name, even though the gospel does not mention the author. The same can be said about the other three gospels, and Acts. We believe Mark, Luke, John, and again, Luke, wrote the books attributed to them because historical church tradition has established these men as the authors.
In like manner falls the book of Hebrews. Historically, the church believed Paul wrote the book. It is one thing to say the church has believed this, but is it provable? There is tangible proof found in the first collections of the NT epistles, and the writings of the church fathers.
Early after the close of the canon, and the passing away of the apostles, the churches began to collect the epistles of the New Testament. Paul’s epistles were the first to be gathered into one body, or corpus. From the early second century onward, Paul’s letters were circulated, not individually, but as a collection. The earliest and complete Pauline corpus is the Chester Beatty manuscript, p46, dated about 200 AD. It includes all of Paul’s epistles except the three pastorals, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. The interesting note about this collection is that Hebrews is contained between Romans and 1 Corinthians. This is true for other similar collections of Paul’s letters, in which Hebrews is numbered among the other epistles that Paul authored.
Many important church fathers also wrote that Paul was the author. The church fathers were men, neither apostolic, nor inspired, who would comment in their writings upon biblical doctrine or particular heresies in the church. Clement of Rome, for instance, a contemporary of Paul (Phil. 4:3), wrote to the Corinthian church made famous in Paul’s two epistles. In his letter, dated about 96 AD, Clement quotes heavily from Paul’s letters, especially 1 Corinthians, the original letter to the church, and Hebrews. Though he does not name Paul specifically as the author, he references the book, in conjunction with the other epistles of Paul, as if he were the author without question.
Eusebius of Caesarea, an early church historian, wrote out a list of the canonical books of the NT at the request of the Christian-friendly emperor Constantine. In his list, he gave proofs of inspiration and canonicity for the NT, along with naming the authors of the various books. He claims, with authority, that Paul wrote 14 epistles including the book of Hebrews.
Athanasius was another father who defended Paul’s authorship of Hebrews. He was a contemporary of Eusebius and the theologian who defended the orthodox doctrine of Christ’s deity against 4th century Arianism. Like Eusebius, Athanasius was among other early church leaders to affirm the 27 books of the NT and name the individual authors. He too listed Paul as the author of Hebrews and placed the book between 2 Thessalonians and 1Timothy in his collection.
One final individual important to this discussion is the Alexandrian father Origen. Opponents of Pauline authorship often quote his remarks casting doubt upon Paul’s authorship of Hebews. Origen writes, “Who wrote the epistle [Hebrews], in truth, only God knows.” It is never pointed out, however, that the context of this quote argues for Pauline authorship. Within the same paragraph, Origen writes, “Therefore, if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let them be commended for this. For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul’s.” Lastly, Origen quotes Hebrews in his writings over two hundred times as Paul’s epistle.
This is not a complete list of early church fathers that held to Pauline authorship, but it is evident many believed the apostle wrote the letter.
Internal Evidence from Hebrews
A second major consideration in determining the authorship of Hebrews is internal evidence. It is argued that the Greek style and vocabulary in the letter are not at all similar to those of Paul’s known epistles. A significant example is the absence of Paul’s typical greeting. All of his other epistles bear his name, then a sentence or two of salutation. The absence of a salutation would be unique to Hebrews if Paul wrote it. Moreover, Hebrews 2:3-4 implies the author was a second generation Christian. The passage says the gospel of salvation was, “confirmed unto us by them that heard him.” This statement appears to go against Paul’s insistence that he personally received the gospel from the Lord, (Gal. 1:11-12). Regardless of these strong points against Paul, when a study is conducted, I believe there are sufficient indicators within the book, as well as a similarity in style to Paul’s other epistles to say with confidence that he wrote Hebrews.
The first indication of Paul’s hand upon this epistle is found at the close of chapter 13. The last sentence of verse 24 reads, “They of Italy salute you.” Then the subscript adds, “Grace be with you all. Amen,” (vs. 25), and “Written to the Hebrews from Italy by Timothy.” Three things are to be noticed: First, Italy is the place of origin for the letter. Scholarship has placed the date of writing at around 62-65 AD. This would be about the time of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Secondly, Timothy is mentioned twice. He was a close companion of Paul, and possibly served as his amanuensis, writing down Paul’s dictation into an epistle. This was a common practice for much of Paul’s correspondence. When the postscript for 1 Corinthians is examined, four men served as the writers for Paul: Stephanas, Fortunatus, Achaicus, and Timothy. Some scholars point out Hebrews 13:23 where Timothy is called, “our brother,” and they say Paul referred to Timothy only as, “my son,” (I Tim. 1:2, I Cor.4:17). Paul, however, did not exclusively call Timothy, “my son.” He did refer to Timothy as “our brother” on four other occasions, 2 Cor. 1:1, Col 1:1, I Thess. 3:2, and Philemon 1. Thirdly, the epistle closes with the words, “grace be with you all.” This is a farewell used by Paul alone. No other NT writer uses this closing phrase. It was Paul’s signature trademark, a stamp of Pauline authentication for his epistles.
Furthermore, in Hebrews there will be found some familiar verses that resemble closely portions contained in Paul’s other epistles. For example, Heb.2:7-9 reads close to Phil.2:8,9 and I Cor.15:25-28, especially with the words, “put all things under his feet.” Another passage is Heb.5:12-14 which reads almost like 1 Cor.3:1-3. The concept of milk, strong meat, and babes are definite Pauline phraseology. There are many readings like these in the book of Hebrews. Two other significant ones to compare are Heb.6:10 with 1 Thess.1:3-5, and Heb.12:1 with 1 Cor.9:24 and Phil.3:13-15.
The most telling indicators pointing to Paul’s authorship of Hebrews are the exclusive use of specific theological themes, phrases, and motifs found only within his epistles. The first strong example is Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. Paul was the champion of sola fide, faith alone in Christ. He outlines this doctrine in the two epistles, Romans and Galatians. In his discussion of Justification, Paul would use specific comparisons and allude to OT stories to make his argument. Two such comparisons are Abraham and Moses. Paul is the only NT writer (apart from James. See James 2:14ff.), who shows how Abraham is the picture of faith alone in God’s promise to save, and how Moses represented the law of bondage and works. Paul uses expressions like, “heirs of promise,” “obtaining an inheritance,” “seed of Abraham,” “law of death,” and the names of Abraham and Moses, in order to establish clearly the doctrine of justification by faith alone, as opposed to the law. The bulk of these phrases are found in Romans 4:13ff and Galatians 3 and 4. But look at Hebrews 2:16; 3; 6:13-17; 7:1-9 and 11:11,18, where the same theological concepts are discussed. No other author of the NT is so identified with the doctrine of justification by faith. The book of Hebrews is replete with the language Paul utilized to teach that doctrine. A further road sign pointing to Paul is the famous quotation from the prophet Habakkuk that says, “The just shall live by faith,”(Hab.2:4). That verse is quoted three times in the NT. First in Rom.1:17, then in Gal.3:11, both written by Paul, and finally, Heb.10:38.
A final problem that needs to be examined is Hebrews 2:3,4. As mentioned before, the verses seem to indicate a second generation Christian wrote the book. If Paul wrote Hebrews, this statement, it is argued, contradicts Gal.1:11,12, where Paul says he received his gospel from no man, but directly from Jesus Christ. Rather than being an argument against Paul’s authorship, professor and theologian, R. Laird Harris, believes Hebrews 2:3,4 affirm it. Dr. Harris writes, “The passage clearly does not rule out the apostle Paul as the real author. It only says that the author did not get his information directly from Jesus while He was on earth, but that he had his message confirmed by those who did.” In the opening chapters to Galatians, Paul defends his gospel against the Judiazers. They were spreading lies through out the churches that Paul was a rogue teacher, who preached a different gospel from the one the apostles taught. In Galatians 2:5-9, Paul testifies how when he met Peter, John and James, they affirmed that he preached the same gospel as the apostles in Jerusalem. This is exactly what Hebrews 2:3,4 is saying. Though Paul had a separate revelation of the Lord on the Damascus road, receiving his calling from the Lord Himself, his general information about Christ came from the disciples who saw and walked with the Lord personally.
This of course is not an exhaustive study of the internal evidence of Hebrews. It is sufficient, however, to show stylistic arguments against Paul are slightly exaggerated. The language usage, theological themes, and allusions to the other epistles of Paul provide a strong defense for Pauline authorship.
The Apostolic Test of Canonicity
The previous arguments from historical tradition and internal evidence adequately establish Paul’s pen in the writing of Hebrews. The best validation for Paul’s authorship, however, is with the test of apostolic authority. This test of canonicity is often overlooked in determining the author, or it is not given much thought.
What is meant by canonicity? The orthodox Christian faith teaches that the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament were written by godly men inspired by the Holy Ghost as they wrote. Thus, the letters and books they wrote were considered God’s inspired and revealed word. The question then is how do we determine which books are inspired and which ones are not? By the time of Christ’s ministry, the 39 books of the OT were firmly held to as authoritative and canonical. The test of canonicity was quite simple. The book had to be written by a prominent man of God, such as Moses, Joshua, or David, or by a man, who without question, held the office of a prophet. Deuteronomy 13:1-8 lists tests for determining whether or not a man was a prophet. The man was anointed to perform miracles, signs and wonders, but also he was to point the people to God. If he caused them to sin, and follow false gods, that prophet was to be rejected and stoned. A prophet, then, was a man of God, proclaiming truth and exercising supernatural gifts given by God. The people understood that when a qualified prophet wrote, his writings were considered inspired scripture.
The establishing of canonicity is done in a similar manner with the NT. The difference is that apostles have replaced the office of the prophet. There are at least two important tests given for apostles. First, Peter discusses apostolic qualifications in Acts 1:21, 22 when choosing a replacement for Judas. According to Peter, an apostle had to have witnessed the earthly ministry of Christ, and be a witness with the apostles of the risen Lord. Paul is the one unique example. Though he did not witness the earthly ministry of our Lord, he makes it absolutely clear he saw the risen Christ. Paul’s experience on the Damascus road was so important to him that he repeated it everywhere he ministered. Paul’s testimony is recorded in its entirety three times in Acts (Acts 9, 22, 26), and alluded to many times in his epistles (see for example, 1 Cor.9:1, 15:8; Gal.1:16).
The second test is again, the anointing to perform miracles. Paul himself appeals to apostolic authority in 2 Corinthians 12:12 when he reminds his readers that; “the signs of an apostle were wrought among you.” Anyone could claim to be apostolic, but if he had not visibly seen the risen Christ, or authenticated his office by working true miraculous signs, then their claim was invalid.
How is this related to determing the author of Hebrews? Just like the OT prophets, when an apostle wrote a letter to a church it was believed they wrote in what was called apostolic voice. The recipients of the letter received it as inspired scripture because an apostle wrote it. This meant only an apostle could have written Hebrews in order for it to find a place in the NT canon. The only reasonable candidate is Paul, because he was an affirmed apostle. The two other men often named as authors, Barnabas and Apollos, did not hold the qualification for an apostle. Barnabas was from Cyprus and would not have witnessed Christ’s ministry, nor is there testimony that he witnessed the risen Lord. The Acts record seems to indicate that he was added to the church after the Pentecost. Plus, as Acts is read, Barnabas slowly begins to take a second seat to Paul whose ministry began to flourish in an apostolic manner (see Acts 13-16). Eventually Barnabas fades from the narrative of Acts completely. Apollos was also a second or third generation Christian from Alexandria, Egypt. Though he was a brilliant scholar, he too would not have been present to see Christ’s ministry, or the risen Lord. Also, it must be pointed out the Hebrews is an authoritative book calling for its readers to abandon the temple and Judaism. No other candidate would have the respect of the people to make such a command; only Paul would have that authority.
There are other questions to ask in regards to defending Paul’s authorship of Hebrews. I have not attempted to give a solution for every problem. The absence of Paul’s customary greeting, for instance, is still an issue. I have no idea why Paul left his name off this letter. Who knows? Perhaps he was afraid of offending some of the potential readers, or maybe the enemies of his readers. Also, the language style of Hebrews is different. Though there are many similarities to Paul’s other epistles, as I pointed out above, any person familiar with Greek will note a slight difference in syntax and style. But, that may be due in part to the purpose of Hebrews. Whereas most of Paul’s epistles were personal letters to individuals (Timothy, Philemon, Titus), and congregations (the churches in Rome, Corinth, Thessalonica) giving advice and correcting doctrine, Hebrews was written to address a specific theological theme: the superiority of Jesus Christ and the New Covenant over Judaism and the Old Covenant. A personal letter to a friend, or the family, is going to read different than an official report for a history class; even though they are different in style, the same person did write them. Whatever the case is with Hebrews, the recipients knew who the author was, or they would not have received the epistle, nor would it have found a place in the New Testament. I believe this is because they, as well as the early church, understood that Paul wrote it.
F.F. Bruce, “The Canon of Scripture”
Donald Guthrie, “Introduction to the New Testament”
R. Laird Harris, “The Inspiration and Canonicity of the Scriptures”
Homer Kent, “The Epistle to the Hebrews”
Stanley Outlaw, “Hebrews”
A.W. Pink, “An Exposition of Hebrews”
Robert Thomas, “New Testament Introduction Syllabus”
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
by Fred Butler