Who Wrote Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews?
Sitting in Panera with my Bible study group the other day, my senior pastor walked by and asked us how we were doing. After a few minutes of enjoying each other’s company, I explained that I was taking a seminary class on the book of Hebrews. Immediately he smiled, got a twinkle in his eye, and said, “Then let me ask you…who do YOU think wrote the book of Hebrews?”
I knew this question was coming. I’ve been planning for it since I started reading the commentaries on Hebrews. I must admit, this question both intrigues me and vexes me. Although that is not the most important thing about the book of Hebrews, it is occasionally fun to spend some time debating the small stuff such as who wrote the book of Hebrews.
Before I dive into my thoughts on who wrote the book, I want to give you some serious reasons to read it. First, this book declares just who Jesus is and it does it in a very powerful way (Hebrews 2:5-18). Second, it shows us how the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments, declare the same message. If you read this book, especially after reading the Old Testament, it will help you understand the Old Testament better. Third, this book teaches us just how important faith is in our lives (ch. 11). Fourth, we get reasons for Jesus’ death. Hebrews 9:15, for example, explains that God can only forgive us because of Jesus’ death. Fifth, we get a snapshot of what Jesus is doing right now…in heaven (Hebrews 7:25). Sixth, we get insight into why the people of God suffer and just what our attitudes should be as we suffer in this world. And finally, the book of Hebrews explains God’s plan for the life of the Christian (Hebrews 10:19-22, 11:40, and 6:1).
But let’s get back to the question at hand…just who wrote the book of Hebrews? There are a TON of theories out there. The majority believe that Paul wrote the book. But many others, including myself, believe someone else wrote it. Other theories include Barnabas, Philip, Apollos, Silas, Luke, Clement of Rome, and Priscilla (wife of Aquilla). My favorite theory comes from Origen around 227 AD. He played the politically correct route and decided not to make a decision and claimed that the book was anonymous.
Let’s look at the different theories and give pros and cons of each.
First, Paul. Those who are against Pauline authorship claim that the book is nothing like Paul’s other letters. The style, content and even the words used are very different from the other letters which are definitely attributed to Paul. Hebrews is well written, like a polished speech or sermon. Next in all of Paul’s other writings, he used the phrase “Christ Jesus” or “Our Lord Jesus Christ” over 600 times. That is missing from Hebrews. Third, Hebrews 2:3 claims that the writer was not an eyewitness of Jesus Christ but instead received information from others who had heard Him. Finally, the writer of Hebrews used LXX or Septuagint when speaking of the Old Testament. This would show that there is a lack of understanding of the Hebrew language.
But why would people believe that Paul wrote Hebrews? First, Peter possibly alludes to it. In 2 Peter 3:15-16 Peter, who was writing to the Hebrews, said that Paul had written an epistle to them. Next, in Hebrews 13:25 there is a salutation (“Grace be with you all. Amen.”) that is used in almost all of Pauls epistles. Paul used sports as a metaphor for our lives. He likened our lives to a “race.” There are also other similarities between Paul’s known epistles and Hebrews:
- 1 Corinthians 9:24 with Hebrews 12:1
- Philippians 4:16 with Hebrews 13:16
- Ephesians 1:20 with Hebrews 8:1
- Galatians 3:19 with Hebrews 2:2
- Romans 11:36 with Hebrews 2:10
So there is definitely a fairly decent argument that Paul could have been the writer of Hebrews. But I will go out on a limb and say I don’t think so (sorry Pastor Pat…no hard feelings). I believe that the writing style is too very different and too well-written to be of Paul’s hand.
Another theory claims that Barnabas was the writer. Tertullian, in his writing, “De Pundicitia” claimed Barnabas. Barnabas was a nickname given to one of the disciples named Joseph. The nickname means “son of encouragement.” He was given this name because of his loyal dedication in the early church. According to Acts 4:36, Barnabas was a Levite. This means that he would have been very familiar with the rituals and sacrifices that are brought up in Hebrews. He would have had a strong understanding of and authority in the Old Testament. I don’t believe Barnabas wrote Hebrews either. Yes, he would have had a good understanding of the Old Testament, but perhaps too good of one. The author of Hebrews uses LXX, so this would have been someone who would have had a better understanding of Greek rather than Hebrew.
Next, let’s look at Philip. This was not a widely held view. William Ramsay, New Testament scholar and archaeologist, claimed a view that has, I believe, a little more wishing than fact. He believes that this is a letter from the church in Caesarea to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and was written by Philip only after getting Paul’s approval of the theology. To go along with this, he also believes that Paul changed the final few verses. Although this theory helps solve some of the mystery, it creates more questions than answers and cannot be critically accepted.
How about Silas? C.F. Boehme suggested this view. Silas was a Roman citizen and a Jew. Being Jewish he would have an understanding of Jewish traditions and most likely would have used the most easily accessible writings, which could have been the LXX. Also, according to 1 Peter 5:12-13, Silas helped to write 1 Peter. If we look at both 1 Peter and Hebrews, the quality is very similar between them. I must say that I do find that I can believe this view, although I don’t believe Silas wrote it. I guess in looking at this, Silas may in fact, turn out to be my second choice.
Luke? Well, Luke was a Hellenistic Jew and possibly a priest. David Allen also takes the view that the word “machaira,” which is traditionally translated as “sword” can also be translated as “scalpel” which would fit with the belief that Luke was a physician. Continuing, he claims that there are several (53 to be exact) terms which are unique to Luke-Acts and Hebrews. Although interesting, I do believe that Luke is not the author simply because I view the writings of Luke as more historical than preachable. I never viewed Luke as the pastor of the group as much as I viewed him as more the scribe.
Follow me on this next one, Clement of Rome. Clement wrote a letter addressed to the Christians in the city of Corinth around the late 1st or early 2nd century. This letter, Clement 1, was placed in some of the older codex such as Codex Alexandrius in the 5th century and is listed as canonical in “Canon 85” of the Canons of the Apostles. There are quite a few direct similarities between Hebrews and 1 Clement. For example:
- Hebrews 11:7 put side by side with 1 Clement 9
- Hebrews 11:31 put side by side with 1 Clement 12
- Hebrews 1:3-13 put side by side with 1 Clement 36
The way that Hebrews raises its arguments, especially in chapters 11 & 12 line up very closely with that of 1 Clement 9-21. Do I believe Clement could have written Hebrews? Yes, I do, but I don’t think he did. 1 Clement is twice as long as Hebrews and calls for people to follow the epistle of Paul and alludes to many of Paul’s epistles.
Here’s one for the ladies out there. How about Priscilla as the author? This idea came from a German professor Adolph Von Harnack in 1900. He claims that the letter to the Hebrews was written to a Roman house church. Priscilla ran a house church out of her home with her husband Aquilla. She was very well known as a strong apostolic teacher. She was actually one of the teachers of Apollos, also listed here as a potential author of Hebrews. And since she and her husband did almost everything together, the use of the pronouns “I’ and “we” are used interchangeably by the author. So, is she the author? I don’t think so. I want to cite Hebrews 11:32. In it, there is a masculine participle used which would mean that she would be pretending to be male in order to gain credibility. I just don’t believe she’d go that far.
So that bring me to my final choice, Apollos. This is my personal choice. First, Acts 18:24 says that Apollos was and “eloquent and learned man.” He would have been easily capable of writing in such a polished, almost classical, style. Acts 18:24-25 also claims that he was a “mighty man of Scripture.” This means he could have used them well in arguments, which the writer of Hebrews does. Next, there is a whole argument that Hebrews was written from Alexandria, which Paul never visited. Apollos was born in Alexandria. Even though many people claim that there are elements similar to Paul’s, Apollos was a companion of Paul’s, so he would have been familiar with his views. The fact that the Septuagint was used in the writing of Hebrews is more evidence of Apollos. The Septuagint was written in Alexandria, which most likely would have been the version that Apollos would have used whereas Paul exclusively used the Hebrew Old Testament. Another argument for Apollos is that words from the philosopher Philo are used in Hebrews but nowhere else in the New Testament. As the author was well-versed in Philo, who was also Alexandrian, Apollos most likely would have been as well. Finally, Acts 18:28 explains that Apollos “powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.” This is the message of Hebrews.
So I believe that Hebrews is the written form of Apollos’ verbal refutations. I believe Apollos wrote the book of Hebrews. And Pastor Pat, I look forward to sitting down one day to discuss this with you.
But ultimately, I have to agree more with Origen. We won’t know until we are with Christ Jesus in heaven. And on that day, I am sure that I will be WAY to busy singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” rather than thinking about who wrote the book of Hebrews.