Who Wrote Hebrews? The Perplexing Question of Authorship
The letter to the Hebrews is anonymous in that the author doesn’t identify himself. Yet it is
only anonymous to us. The author addresses the readers personally, making it clear that they were acquainted with each other. The early church, however, was uncertain about authorship. Some in the Eastern part of the church considered the apostle Paul to be the author. Clement of Alexandria (ca. ad 150–215) cites his teacher Pantaenus as maintaining Pauline authorship. In one of our earliest manuscripts, the Chester Beatty papyri, Hebrews follows Romans, indicating the book was viewed as part of the Pauline collection. In the King James Version of the Bible (1611), the book was given the title, “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.”
Was Paul the author?
There are certainly some similarities between Paul’s theology and the theology of Hebrews. Both have a very high Christology, presenting Jesus as supreme over all, the creator and sustainer of all things (hebrews 1:2–3; colossians 1:16). There are close conceptual parallels between Hebrews 1:3, where the Son is described as “the exact representation of [God’s] being,” and Colossians 1:15, where he is identified as “the image of the invisible God.” Both Hebrews and Paul speak of the superiority of the new covenant to the old (hebrews 8:6; 2 corinthians 3:6) and describe Israel’s failure in the wilderness as a warning against believers (hebrews 3:7–9; 1 corinthians 10:1–5). Both speak of the need for spiritual maturity and use the analogy of eating solid spiritual food instead of baby food (hebrews 5:12–14; 1 corinthians 3:2). Both cite Habakkuk 2:4 to emphasize the need for faith (hebrews 10:38; romans 1:17). There are other bits of circumstantial evidence, such as the fact that the author of Hebrews, like Paul, was an associate of Timothy (hebrews 13:23).
Yet despite these similarities, there is evidence against Paul as the author. The Greek writing style of Hebrews is very different from Paul’s other letters. Hebrews has some of the finest and most polished Greek in the New Testament. Paul’s style in the letters definitely written by him is much rougher, less refined, and more informal. The early church father Origen wrote: “The diction in Hebrews does not have the rough quality [of Paul], and its syntax is better Greek.” Origen suggested that while the thoughts could be Paul’s, the actual author was someone else, “who recalled the apostle’s teaching and interpreted them” (cited in Eusebius, Church History 6.25.11). The vocabulary of Hebrews is also very different from Paul’s, including 169 words not found elsewhere in the New Testament (NT).
Perhaps most significantly, the author of Hebrews claims to be a second generation Christian who received his gospel from those who came before him (hebrews 2:3). By contrast, Paul insists that his gospel came directly from Jesus Christ, not from any human authority (galatians 1:11–12).
Although there are no contradictions of theology, there are major differences in emphasis. For example, the contrast in Hebrews between the OT sacrificial system and Christ’s high priestly office is not found elsewhere in the writings of Paul. Nor is the connection of Christ with the OT figure of Melchizedek. Because of these and many other differences, during the Reformation Martin Luther rejected Pauline authorship. The Roman Catholic Church responded by affirming Paul as the author at the Council of Trent. Very few scholars today, however, consider Paul to be the author.
Other suggested authors
If Paul did not write this work, who did? There have been many suggestions but few certainties. Three proposals come from the early church. Origen reports that in his day some claimed that Clement, the bishop of the Roman church (ca. ad 35–99), wrote the book. Yet while Clement appears to be the first to quote from Hebrews, his theological skills do not match those of our author. Origen also mentions Luke as a possibility, perhaps writing for Paul. This makes some sense since Luke, like the author of Hebrews, writes in a refined literary style. Yet Luke was a Gentile, while the author of Hebrews appears to be Jewish. The early church father Tertullian, writing near the end of the second century, suggested Barnabas. As Barnabas was a Levite (acts 4:36), he would have had a good knowledge of the OT sacrificial system.
During the Reformation period, Martin Luther suggested Apollos, the Hellenistic Jewish-Christian apologist from Alexandria (acts 18:24–19:1). This proposal has found favor with many modern scholars, since Apollos is described in Acts as “a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures” who effectively refutes his Jewish opponents. Perhaps the most interesting modern proposal is that of Adolf von Harnack, who suggested that Priscilla wrote Hebrews. The anonymity, he claimed, was meant to protect those who would not accept a book written by a woman. In the end, all of these are little more than guesses. As Origen pointed out: “But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows” (cited by Eusebius, Church History 6.25.14).
Does this unknown authorship affect the inspiration and authority of the letter? The answer is an emphatic “no.” The authority of the Bible lies in its inspiration by the Holy Spirit (2 timothy 3:16), not in the identity of its human authors. A number of OT books do not name their author (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Esther, Job, etc.). In the NT, the Gospels and Acts are, strictly speaking, anonymous, since the texts themselves do not name their authors. Nevertheless, they remain the inspired and authoritative Word of God.
About the Author
So what do we know about the author from the text itself? His fluency in Greek and his knowledge of both the OT and Jewish tradition suggests he is a Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jewish Christian. He is clearly intelligent and educated. In a letter comprised of only about five thousand words, he uses a rich and varied vocabulary of over one thousand different Greek words. As noted above, he excels in rhetoric, writing in a polished literary style. He is a creative theologian, adapting Christian tradition to the rapidly changing needs of the church. Finally, he has a pastor’s heart and is deeply concerned about the readers. He admonishes them in order to correct them, but expresses confidence that they will persevere (hebrews 6:9).
As noted in the previous chapter, there are strong indications that the readers are Jewish Christians. The traditional title “To the Hebrews” is very old. Clement of Rome seems to know the letter by this title late in the first century. The writer assumes his readers are familiar with OT stories, referring to them without elaboration with statements like, “as you know . . .” (12:17). The author presupposes knowledge of Jewish ritual, including the layout of the Jewish tabernacle and the functions of the sacrificial system. The recipients also seem to be aware of extra-biblical Jewish traditions, such as the role of angels in mediating the OT law (2:2; cf. acts 7:38; galatians 3:19; Josephus, Antiquities 15:136). Finally, throughout the book the author speaks of the superiority of the new covenant to the old and warns believers not to go back. The implication is that they are in danger of returning to their former faith, that is, to Judaism.
What else can we surmise about the readers? Here are a few things: (1) They are second generation Christians, who heard the good news from the first generation eyewitnesses (hebrews 2:3). (2) They are a specific church or group of churches. This is clear from the fact that the author hopes to come and visit them soon (13:19) and refers to Timothy as though they know him (13:23). (3) They have been persecuted in the past during a great test of their faith, but stood firm (10:32–34). (4) They had recently experienced defections from the faith (10:25).
Where do they live? Perhaps the strongest clue to a specific location is 13:24, where the author says, “Those from Italy send you their greetings.” This, however, could mean either: (1) the author is in Italy (or more specifically in Rome) and is sending greetings to this church from there, or (2) the recipients are in Italy or Rome and the author is with Christians who are sending their greetings back home. Like the question of authorship, the precise identification of the readers remains a mystery.
Despite these uncertainties, the message and purpose of Hebrews remains clear and unambiguous, as we shall see in the next chapter.