Authorship of Hebrews

By James M. Rochford

Who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews? This question has plagued students of Scripture for centuries. We do not feel adequate to answer the question once and for all. However, we hope to make a defense for Paul’s authorship (or at least, someone very close to Paul), as well as review the evidence for other possible authors. We hesitate in affirming Pauline, because this has been such a dogma in fundamentalist churches (We have often heard: “It must be Paul… My King James Bible says so!”). While we are not dogmatic on this, we feel that the evidence for Pauline authorship (or at least Pauline supervision) is strong:

STYLISTICALLY, there are many similarities between Hebrews and Paul’s writings. For instance:

(1) Only Paul (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-14) and the author of Hebrews (Heb. 13:3) use the term “the Body” to describe the Church.

(2) Both are very familiar with Timothy (Heb. 13:23).

(3) Both refer to the milk and meat of the Scripture (1 Cor. 3:1-3; Heb. 5:11-14).

(4) Both quote Deuteronomy 32:35 in the same form (Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30). Leon Morris writes, “It agrees exactly neither with the MT nor the LXX, though it is quoted in the same form in Romans 12:19.”[1]

(5) Both quote Habakkuk 2:4 (Rom. 1:17; Heb. 10:38).

(6) Both emphasize the rhetorical “we know,” rather than “I know.” Paul uses this many times (Rom. 2:2; 3:19; 7:14; 8:22; 1 Cor. 8:1; 2 Cor. 5:1; 1 Tim. 1:8), as does the author of Hebrews (Heb. 10:30).

(7) Both emphasize the old and new covenant. Paul writes about the old and new covenants (2 Cor. 3:4-11), and so does the author of Hebrews (Heb. 8:6-13; 10:15-18).

(8) Both refer to the old covenant being a “shadow” of Christ (Col. 2:17; Heb. 8:5; 10:1).

CANONICALLY, Hebrews appears with Paul’s letters. It appears in the P46 document dated to AD 200.[2] It wasn’t moved to the “general epistles” until sixth century (Codex Claromontanus).[3]

HISTORICALLY, several church fathers affirmed Pauline authorship. Clement of Alexandria (AD 200)[4] and Origen (AD 250)[5] both believed in Pauline authorship.[6] Pantaenus (AD 180) was the founder of a catechetical school in Alexandria, and he believed the letter was both Pauline and canonical.[7]

These arguments notwithstanding, there are also strong counterarguments and objections to Paul writing the letter which should be considered:

OBJECTION #1: The Greek is too polished to be Paul

The author of Hebrews uses 169 unique words—not used in the rest of the NT.[8] Moreover, Carson and Moo write, “The Greek of Hebrews is more polished than that of Paul, and the consistent quality of the rhetoric is quite remarkable.”[9]

However, we would ask: Why should we be surprised to see such excellent Greek and rhetoric from Paul of all people? He was a brilliant theologian, well trained, and a disciple of the great Gamaliel. If any person is likely to use brilliant language, argument, and rhetoric, it would be Paul.

Paul was known to use an amanuensis to write his letters (Rom. 16:22). Depending on how much freedom Paul gave to the scribe, this could change the Greek style and language significantly. It is also possible that Paul wrote some of the letters with his own hand, which could account for the differences. Or he could have hired a particularly scholarly amanuensis to write such an important, circular letter.

OBJECTION #2: Origen said that nobody knew who wrote the epistle

Origen is usually quoted as saying, “But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows” (Hist. Eccl. 6.25.11-14). But when we read the context, we find that Origen is referring to the person who recorded the letter under Paul’s authorial voice. To Origen, it could be either someone under Paul’s authority or even the amanuensis (or scribe) who recorded Hebrews. Origen writes,

That the character of the diction of the epistle entitled to the Hebrews has not the apostle’s rudeness in speech, who confessed himself rude in speech, that is, in style, but that the epistle is better Greek in the framing of its diction, will be admitted by everyone who is able to discern differences of style. But again, on the other hand, that the thoughts of the epistle are admirable, and not inferior to the acknowledged writings of the apostle, to this also everyone will consent as true who has given attention to reading the apostle…. But as for myself, if I were to state my own opinion, I should say that the thoughts are the apostle’s, but that the style and composition belonged to one who called to mind the apostle’s teachings and, as it were, made short notes of what his master said. If any church, therefore, holds this epistle as Paul’s, let it be commended for this also. For not without reason have the men of old handed it down as Paul’s. But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows. Yet the account which has reached us [is twofold], some saying that Clement, who was bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, others, that it was Luke, he who wrote the Gospel and the Acts.

Thus when we read this section in context, we find that Origen himself believed that Paul wrote the letter. He was questioning who penned the letter for Paul, which is unknown. Guthrie notes, “It should be noted that Origen included Hebrews among the Pauline letters, sometimes even citing it as ‘Paul says’; it is not altogether surprising, therefore, that his pupils followed this pattern.”[10]

OBJECTION #3: If Paul wrote the letter, then he would have put his name on the letter

If Paul wrote this letter, then why didn’t he put his name at the top of it, as was his usual practice?

Since Paul was an apostle to the Gentiles, he might have been rejected by many of the Jews in Jerusalem. This shouldn’t surprise us. Paul had been regularly kicked out of synagogues for preaching the gospel. In order to avoid giving offense to these Jewish believers, perhaps Paul intentionally left his name off of the letter. In this way, the people would hear the content of Paul’s letter—without being distracted by his personal influence on it. This also fits with the historical account in Acts, where Paul had made many enemies in Jerusalem:

“After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. 18 And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; 21 and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs’” (Acts 21:17-21).

This was the view of Clement of Alexandria. Carson and Moo write, “Clement explains the lack of a Pauline superscription by saying that Paul was writing for Hebrews who had formed strong biases against him, and therefore he prudently left his name off.”[11]

OBJECTION #4: Hebrews 2:3-4 precludes Pauline authorship

The author of Hebrews writes, “After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will” (Heb. 2:3-4). Here the author explains that he is a second generation believer—not an eyewitness of Jesus. However, in Galatians 1:12, Paul writes, “For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12). How could Paul have been a second generation believer (Heb. 2:3-4), if he received his gospel directly from Christ (Gal. 1:12)?

It is possible that Paul was referring to the Twelve who lived with Jesus in this section of Hebrews (Heb. 2:3-4). Of course, Paul never lived with Jesus. So in this sense, the message of Christ wasn’t given to Paul initially, because he was one “untimely born” (1 Cor. 15:8).

Other possible authors

Again, we are not dogmatic in regards to Pauline authorship. But we feel that Paul is a better possibility than anyone else that is suggested. We briefly consider other possible authors here:

 

Possible Authors of Hebrews

Possible Author

Pros

Cons

Barnabas

(1) He was a Levite (Acts 4:36).

 

(2) He is the son of encouragement (Acts 4:36), and this would fit with the letter to the Hebrews being a word of encouragement (Heb. 13:22).

 

(3) He was a close affiliate of Paul’s (Acts 9:27; 11:30; 13:1-14:28).

(1) There are no writings of Barnabas to use for comparison. It is complete conjecture.

 

(2) The use of the word “encouragement” (Greek paraklesis) is incredibly common in the NT. It shouldn’t surprise us to be used of Barnabas and by the author of Hebrews.

Luke

(1) Thomas Aquinas speculated on this.

 

(2) The thesis was that Luke translated Paul’s letter into Greek from Hebrew. Carson and Moo write, “Doubtless because of similarities between the Greek of Hebrews and the Greek of Luke-Acts, Clement supposes that Paul wrote to the Hebrews in Hebrew and suggests that our Greek text is Luke’s translation (H.E. 6.14.2).”[12]

(1) Luke and Hebrews share 49 unique words, but Paul and Hebrews share 56.[13] Thus if we believe that similarities between writings should count as evidence, then this would actually bring us back to Pauline authorship.

Clement of Rome

(1) John Calvin made this suggestion.

 

 

(1) Clement wrote too late to have written Hebrews, which must antedate AD 70. Although, some do date Clement of Rome before AD 70 (see “1 Clement”).

 

(2) The style differences are immense between the two letters. Cockerill notes, “1 Clement and Hebrews differ so vastly in style and content that one need give no further attention to the suggestion that Hebrews was written by Clement of Rome.”[14]

 

(3) Clement of Rome quotes Hebrews. Carson and Moo write, “Clement of Rome… [quotes] Hebrews in several places (though doubtless one could argue that he is quoting his own work!).”[15]

Apollos

(1) Martin Luther made this suggestion.

 

(2) Acts 18:24 states that Apollos was “an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, [who] came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures.”

 

(3) Apollos was closely connected with Paul’s work (1 Cor. 1-4).

(1) This view didn’t arise among the Church Fathers until Martin Luther. Cockerill writes, “The Church Fathers never identify Apollos as the author of Hebrews.”[16]

(2) We have no known writings of Apollos to compare with Hebrews.

Priscilla and Aquila

(1) Harnack made this suggestion.

 

(2) This would account for the switching of “we” to “I” in the book (because it could be coauthored with her husband, Aquila).

 

(3) They knew the Scriptures well—even instructing a learned man like Apollos (Acts 18:26).

 

(4) They were familiar with Timothy and Paul’s work (Acts 18:5; 19:22; 1 Cor. 16:10, 19).

 

5. The author(s) may have not put a name on the letter, because of anti-female tendencies in the early church.

(1) The “we” and “I” switching is a rhetorical device—nothing more.

(2) Many people were familiar with Paul and Timothy’s work, so this isn’t strong evidence.

(3) The author uses the masculine singular in Hebrews 11:32, which precludes a female author (diegoumenon).

(4) While the first century culture was anti-female, the early church was not (see “Christianity and Women”).

 

Conclusion

There is a big difference between pseudonymous authorship and anonymous authorship. While we are not sure who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, this is different than reading a letter like the gospel of Thomas, which is a fraudulent author, trying to pass as an apostle. Since there is good evidence that Hebrews was written before AD 70, this means that this letter was known and read by some of the apostles themselves. It is not likely that a false letter could have been circulating in the first century without the apostolic band censuring it. Moreover, anyone who has read Hebrews will quickly acknowledge how much it coheres with apostolic teaching! It has brilliant theological connections, a thorough understanding of the OT, and powerful insights into the new covenant. This is additional evidence for its inspired authority.

[1] Morris, Leon. Hebrews. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1981. 108.

[2] Carson and Moo write, “In the earliest text of Hebrews that has come down to us—P46 (early third century)—this epistle is placed in the Pauline corpus, right after Romans.” Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Second ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. 600.

[3] Cockerill, Gareth Lee. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2012. 3.

[4] Eusebius, Church History, 6.14.3.

[5] Eusebius, Church History, 6.25.11-14.

[6] Carson and Moo write, “In particular, both Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 150–215) and Origen (185–253) preserve the tradition that Paul is the author of Hebrews, even though they recognize the difficulties attached to the view.” Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Second ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. 600-601.

[7] Cockerill, Gareth Lee. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2012. 4.

[8] Cockerill notes, “Hebrews uses 169 words that appear nowhere else in the NT.” Cockerill, Gareth Lee. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2012. 7.

[9] Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Second ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. 601.

[10] Guthrie, Donald. Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 15). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1983. 20.

[11] Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Second ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. 601.

[12] Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Second ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. 601.

[13] Cockerill, Gareth Lee. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2012. 9.

[14] Cockerill, Gareth Lee. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2012. 8.

[15] Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. Second ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. 602.

[16] Cockerill, Gareth Lee. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2012. 9.