Who Wrote the Book of Hebrews?

ZA Blog on April 17th, 2017. Tagged under ,,,.

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When you consider the wide agreement among biblical scholars about who wrote every other book of the New Testament, it’s a little mysterious that we don’t know who wrote Hebrews.

There are a handful of contenders. Let’s take a look at the reasons each of them might be the author.

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Did Paul write Hebrews?

It is possible Paul wrote the book of Hebrews. There are a couple reasons why this might be the case.

First, in the earliest manuscript editions of the New Testament books, Hebrews is included after Romans among the books written by the apostle Paul. This was taken as evidence that Paul had written it, and some Eastern churches accepted Hebrews as canonical earlier than in the West.

Second, both Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150 – 215) and Origen (AD 185 – 253) claimed a Pauline association for the book but recognized that Paul himself probably did not put pen to paper for this book, even though they did not know the author’s name.

Clement of Alexandria suggests that Paul wrote the book originally in Hebrew and that Luke translated it into Greek, though the Greek of Hebrews bears no resemblance to translation Greek (e.g., that of the Septuagint).

The King James Version assumes Pauline authorship

The nuanced position on the authorship question by the Alexandrian fathers was obscured by later church tradition that mistook Pauline association for Pauline authorship.

The enormously influential King James Bible took its cue from this tradition. In fact, in the KJV, you’ll find the title translated as it was found in some manuscripts: “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.” The tradition of Pauline authorship continued.

Parallels between Hebrews and Paul’s writings

It’s certainly reasonable to conclude Paul wrote the book of Hebrews. Many of the thoughts of Hebrews are similar to those found in Paul’s writings:

Hebrews

Paul’s writings

Hebrews 1:3
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”

Colossians 1:15 – 17
“The Son is the image of the invisible God. . . . For in him all things were created . . . and in him all things hold together.”

Hebrews 2:4
“God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”

1 Corinthians 12:11
“All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.”

Hebrews 2:14( – 17)
“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death. . . .”

Philippians 2:7 – 8
“Being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being,

he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death —
even death on a cross!”

Hebrews 8:6
“But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.”

2 Corinthians 3:6
“He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Hebrews 10:14
“For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”

Romans 5:9; 12:1
“Since we have now been justified by his blood”; “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.”

The soteriology of Hebrews is quite consistent with Paul’s own teaching. For instance, the statement in Hebrews 10:14 that those who have been “made perfect” are in the process of being “made holy” sounds very much like Paul’s teaching on justification (e.g., Rom. 3:21 – 5:9) and sanctification (e.g., Rom. 8:1 – 17). Moreover, both Paul and the author of Hebrews thought of Abraham as the spiritual father of Christians in similar ways.

Reasons Paul did not write Hebrews

In spite of all this evidence for Pauline authorship, few New Testament scholars today believe Paul wrote it.

Both John Calvin and Martin Luther shared this judgment as far as the sixteenth century.

Even centuries earlier in the fourth century, the church of Rome did not believe Paul wrote Hebrews, possibly retaining a latent memory of the actual author (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.3.5; 6.20.3).

In other words, the rejection of Pauline authorship of Hebrews is a long-standing position in the church.

What can we infer from the book of Hebrews itself?

The internal evidence presented by the book of Hebrews itself indicates an author other than Paul.

  • The style of Hebrews, except in the closing verses (13:18 – 25), is quite unlike any other writing of Paul’s that has survived.
    • In keeping with the style of a person well educated in formal rhetoric, the Greek of Hebrews is highly literary and very ornate.
    • The vocabulary is sophisticated, and it includes 150 words that are not found elsewhere in the New Testament and 10 that do not occur in any other Greek writings that have survived for our study.
    • The structure of the epistle conforms to conventions found in Greek rhetoric used when a speech was designed to persuade its audience to action. Much of this rhetorical achievement is lost when the original Greek of Hebrews is translated into modern language, but in the original it is elegant and euphonious Greek prose. The high rhetorical quality of Hebrews indicates that its author most likely had the most advanced literary education of any of the New Testament writers.
  • The author does not introduce himself as Paul typically did (cf. 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Tim. 1:1; and 2 Tim. 1:1).
  • Its theology, though very compatible with that of the Pauline letters, is very distinctive. The apostle Paul, for instance, never alludes to Jesus as a priest, which is the major motif of Hebrews. In fact, Hebrews is the only New Testament writing to expound on Jesus as the Great High Priest and final sacrifice.

The most persuasive argument against Pauline authorship

An even more persuasive argument that the apostle Paul was not the author of Hebrews is the way the author alludes to himself in Hebrews 2:3, stating that the gospel was confirmed “to us” by those who heard the Lord announce salvation.

The apostle Paul always made the point that, even though he wasn’t one of the twelve original disciples who walked with Jesus during his earthly life, he was nonetheless an apostle of Jesus Christ, and usually identifies himself as such in his letters. It seems unlikely that Paul here in 2:3 would refer to himself as simply someone who received the gospel from those who had heard the Lord.

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If not Paul, then who are the other possible authors?

We’ve established that someone other than Paul wrote the epistle.

But it is possible—even likely—that because of some of the parallels with Paul’s epistles, we know the following things about the author:

  1. The author was likely a close associate of Paul
  2. The author was able to write in a rhetorically ornate Greek style
  3. The author had become a Christian out of Judaism
  4. The author’s understanding of the doctrine of salvation was highly compatible with what the apostle Paul taught, though creatively distinctive.

Connection to Alexandria

Christianity reached Alexandria at a very early date. The missionary impetus of the Christian gospel arose in Jerusalem following the stoning of Stephen when a great persecution broke out and Christians began to scatter (Acts 8).

When Acts 6:1 mentions both Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews, the phrase pros tous hebraious is used in that context, the exact phrase by which Hebrews is later known. One twentieth-century scholar named William Manson suggested that Christians who were of the same mind as Stephen brought the Christian message to Alexandria, noting several elements common to Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 that are also shared by the book of Hebrews.

  • its high rhetorical style,
  • its use of the Septuagint, and
  • its possible conceptual constructs

These connections make it very likely that the author was originally from the Alexandrian church, regardless of where he was when he penned the letter, and regardless of to whom it was originally sent.

Because of this, a possible author is Apollos, a native of Alexandria, according to Acts 18:24.

Why Apollos might have been the author of Hebrews

Here’s what we know about Apollos from the Bible:

  • He was from Alexandria and traveled in the Apostle Paul’s orbit (Acts 18:24).
  • He was taught by Paul’s companions, Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:24 – 28),
  • Paul knew Apollos personally, and encouraged him in his ministry (1 Cor. 16:12).
  • He was a highly educated Alexandrian who would have been schooled in the literary style exemplified by Hebrews.
  • Moreover, as a Jewish believer (Acts 18:24), he had the thorough knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures in their Greek version that the book of Hebrews exclusively uses.
  • Apollos was a great defender of the Christian faith, vigorously refuting the opposing Jews in public debate and proving from the Old Testament that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:28).
  • He eventually became as influential as the apostles Paul and Peter (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:4 – 6, 22; 4:6; 16:12).

We also know from the very early history of the church that Apollos would also fit the memory handed down to both Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150 – 215) and to Origen (AD 185 – 253), who claimed a Pauline association. Origin also recognized that Paul himself probably did not write Hebrews.[5]

For these reasons, Apollos of Alexandria has been a leading contender for the authorship of Hebrews at least as far back as the great Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, but he has not been the only contender.

Clement

Eusebius, the great historian of the church, recognizes that the letter Clement wrote from Rome to the Corinthian church in the late first century contained many allusions to and quotations from Hebrews and notes that on that basis some believed that Clement himself was the translator or author of Hebrews (Hist. eccl. 3.38.2).

However, scholarly examination shows that the Greek text of Hebrews could not be a translation of a Semitic text — at least as we understand “translation” today — because its rhetorical features would be possible only when composed in Greek.

And so if either Clement or Luke were involved in the production of the extant book of Hebrews, he would have had a very free hand in working with Paul’s material, to the point that he would be an author, not a translator by any modern definition.

Barnabas

The church father Tertullian (AD 160? – 220?) mentioned that Barnabas, Paul’s traveling companion on his first mission to the Gentiles, authored Hebrews (Pud. 20). The association of Barnabas with the book of Hebrews may be because he was described as a “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36), and Hebrews 13:22 describes the letter as a word of encouragement (or exhortation). Moreover, Barnabas is referred to as an “apostle” (Acts 14:14) and, being a Levite (Acts 4:36), would have had the interest in and knowledge about the priesthood that forms such a dominant theme in Hebrews.

Timothy

A recent theory suggests that Timothy wrote Hebrews, except for the closing verses that Paul appended himself where Timothy is mentioned by name.[6]

While Timothy was a close associate of Paul, he was from Lystra, a small town in Asia Minor where it is unlikely he could have received the formal rhetorical training reflected in Hebrews.

Furthermore, it is doubtful that Timothy had any connection to Alexandria, though that connection may not be necessary. What we know of Apollos matches more closely what we see in Hebrews than does what we know of Timothy.

Priscilla

The intriguing theory presented in more modern times by the German biblical scholar Adolf Harnack argued that Hebrews was written by Priscilla, the woman who, together with her husband, Aquila, was a close associate of Paul’s.

Although Harnack’s idea generated much discussion in its day, the author refers to himself in Hebrews 11:32, using a masculine participle in the Greek original, and there is no manuscript evidence for a feminine variant reading.

Harnack’s argument that Priscilla deliberately disguised her gender by using the masculine gender is sheer speculation, and his theory remains a curiosity of New Testament scholarship.

So who really wrote the book of Hebrews?

Clement? Paul? Luke? Timothy? Barnabas? Apollos? In spite of the weight of scholarly inference, the book of Hebrews does not in fact name its author. And so if you were ever asked about the authorship of Hebrews, the correct answer is well expressed by the church father Origen (AD 185? – 254?), who said, according to Eusebius, “Who wrote the epistle of Hebrews? In truth, only God knows!” (Hist. eccl. 6.25.14).

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  • Anthony Douglas 2 months ago

    This had all the makings of a fine article, bar the couple of times it shot itself firmly in the foot.

    Citing a small number of sources who say ‘I don’t believe Paul wrote Hebrews’, the author concludes that in fact they were saying ‘I believe Paul did not write Hebrews’. If that’s the case, state the evidence that way.

    As for ‘very likely the author was from the Alexandrian church’- wow, that’s an incredible overreach based on what leads up to it. Even if I found the evidence given to have some weight, surely you’d need to show that there wasn’t similar (or even greater) weight of evidence for the author coming from Timbuktu, for instance. Alexandria was plucked out of the air here.

    Please try harder!

  • Will Scott 2 months ago

    The author is almost certainly Jewish, and isn’t Apollos almost certainly a gentile name?

  • Art Colgain “signs 2 months ago

    In dealing with this issue I have personally concluded that Paul wrote Hebrews. Debatable? so be it. Here are my scriptures: Philippians 1:13-14 “my CHAINS are in Christ; add affliction to my “CHAINS”
    Colossians 4:18 remember my “CHAINS” (c.f.. Eph. 6:20, Phil. 1:7, Philemon 1:10) establishing Paul being in chains consistently, more so than the other writers; I plundered/robbed other churches, 2 Cor. 11:8 Now taking this to Hebrews 10:34 where Paul states” you had compassion on me in my CHAINS and joyfully accepted the PLUNDER of your goods” My opinion is through tradition, people state “the Hebrew writer” simply because it is what they have been taught. Again this is my opinion based on my personal study.

  • Akinsanya Johnson 2 months ago

    I support this

  • Richard Duoos 2 months ago

    The first word in Paul’s letters is the name of the author. This seems to be the style of writing for the day. Today, we place our name lastly. The author of Hebrews obviously wanted the reader to know that God was the author and stepped away from identifying himself. If it was Paul, it may have been to deliberately keep his identity a secret, as well, since he would have been thought of as a bit of a traitor to unsaved Hebrews, who were/are the recipients of the letter. The writer of the gospel of John kept his identity a secret as well. The authorship is attributed to John for no good reason, in my opinion. The transfiguration of Christ on the mount had to have been a momentous occasion for John, but the author did not mention it in his gospel? Instead, the author refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, which refers only to Lazarus in the gospel itself. But who cares? The Bible is the Word of God, not the words of the men who penned it by inspiration of the Holy Ghost. So much error is taught today as fact. God chose the books that comprise the canon of Scripture. God chose the order of the books. And God chose English as the language of the Bible of the last days. God chose the qualifications necessary to become a Pastor. Going to Bible college is not one of those qualifications. Bible college is of the world and Satan is the god of this world. If Bible college were of God, Pastors would be taught to declare; “Thus saith the Lord” instead of “Yea, hath God said?”

  • David Allen Thomas 2 months ago

    I believe Paul wrote Hebrews. Paul referred to Psalms 45:2 speaking of grace in Romans 1. The Hebrew writer continued to quote that Psalm 45:6 in Hebrew 1:8. Could it be the same writer? Would this explain why Hebrews followed Romans in the earliest manuscripts?
    This might seem too easy but Paul visited centers of influence, established churches, and sent them letters. The letters were titled by the folks he addressed. The other writers titled their works by their name if you exclude Revelation. Only Paul would title his letters by the subjects. He was persecuted by the high priest and Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Would he spend years in prison without writing a letter? Would he title it Hebrews to address Jerusalem and the synagogues in the diaspora?
    Internally, Hebrews does not mention the temple overthrow in seventy AD. Paul had the best motive to challenge the authority of the high priest by revealing that Jesus was the best High Priest. The answer has always been right in front of us and that is probably why the church “forgot” who wrote Hebrews.

    The new believers in Rome needed help growing in their faith. The old keepers of the promises of God needed to be reminded of whom they seek. Paul saw the need and certainly would have written a letter to respond to those entrusted with the words of prophesy. And it would have been his finest effort, with the choicest words and finest rhetoric so that he might lead some into the light.

    Don’t count Paul out! Count on him!

  • Abram Kielsmeier-Jones 3 weeks ago

    Professor Jobes,

    Thank you for so concisely laying out the different options for authorship of Hebrews!

    I’ve often wondered why Hebrews 11:32 categorically rules out female authorship. I appreciate that the participle is masculine, and that the grammatical vs. social gender distinction is less likely to apply with a human being in question. But are there no examples in ancient literature of a female speaker–for whatever reason–referring to herself with a masculine participle?

    With appreciation,
    Abram

  • FD Rutheaford 1 week ago

    In Hebrews 2:6 and 4:4 the author uses the word, “somewhere” suggesting they were unsure as to the location of what they were quoting. I know they didn’t have it broken down by chapter and verse but I think Paul would not have used such ambivalent terminology. As a Pharisee of Pharisees etc. he would have known the ‘where’. (Just a thought from a layman)