By Kyle Campbell
The book of Hebrews is one of the most intriguing books the Epistle to the apostle Paul. in the New Testament. Its argumentation and flow of thought is unrivaled among all of the other epistles and letters which have been handed down in our New Testament canon. William G. Johnsson says, “Hebrews is a work of art. It may well attract us with its magnificent language, its vivid images, and the sweep and subtlety of its argument; but its world of ideas and its methods of reasoning are so different from those of today that we shall probably feel that we are missing a great deal of its meaning” (1984131). To the author of Hebrews, Christianity is the best of all possible systems of religion.
Man has always been more naturally inquisitive towards matters of which he knows very little. Perhaps the dispute over authorship is the one of the keys to understanding the popularity of Hebrews. Borchert remarks, “It would be an understatement to say that the book of Hebrews has been involved in disputes with respect to some of its aspects. Few matters of Hebrews have been untouched by debate” (1985 319). Conybeare and Howson have rightly said, “There is no portion of the New Testament whose authorship is so disputed, nor any of which the inspiration is more indisputable” (1910 848). The controversy over authorship has lasted from the earliest possible time until the present day.
Although the list of potential authors of Hebrews is endless, it will be the purpose of this article to examine the ancient and modern external evidence, and the assumptions which must be made about the author from the book itself.
The Ancient External Evidence For Authorship
When one examines the earliest external evidence for the Epistle, it becomes clear that no firm tradition existed regarding its authorship. The first attestation concerning the author of Hebrews is from Pantaenus, an eminent Oriental scholar, who was for several years President of the Catechetical School of Sacred Learning in Egypt (Milligan 1875 6). The next oldest extant evidence on the authorship of Hebrews comes from Clement of Alexandria, near the close of the second century (Lightfoot 1976 20). He was a pupil of Pantaenus and believed that the Epistle was writ-ten by Paul for the Hebrews in the Hebrew language, and that it was translated into Greek by Luke for the Greeks. Moffatt (1924 18) explains the popularity of attributing the Epistle to the apostle Paul.
Since Paul was the most considerable letter-writer of the primitive church, it was natural that in some quarters this anonymous writing should be assigned to him, as was done apparently in the Alexandrian church, although even there scholarly readers felt qualms at an early period, and endeavored to explain the idiosyncrasies of style by supposing that some disciple of Paul, like Luke, translated it from Hebrew into Greek.
The next witness for the authorship of Hebrews is Origen. Origen noted the differences in style between Hebrews and Paul’s Epistles but was impressed by the Pauline character of the thoughts (Guthrie 1982 2664). He suggested that the book was written by a Pauline disciple, although his famous dictum has sounded down through the corridors of history: “who wrote the epistle, God knows for sure” (Borchert 1985 320). After the age of Origen, the Council of Antioch and Eusebius also both attributed the Epistle to Paul. After this period, the Epistle was commonly held as Pauline in the East. Guthrie states, “Since the work so clearly possessed apostolic authority, it is not difficult to see why the assumption arose that Paul was the author” (1982 2665).
While it seems that early tradition unanimously attributes the Epistle to Paul, there were other dissenting voices. Tertullian, around A.D. 190 or 200, attributed the Epistle to Barnabas. Filson was so impressed by this witness that he says, “The only ancient tradition worth considering is that of Tertullian, who said that Barnabas wrote Hebrews” (1954 21). Many scholars are quick to point out that Tertullian was a lone voice which suggested Barnabas, but Hill states, “Tertullian names Barnabas as the author of the epistle, and in such a way as to suggest that this was not a private opinion of his own, but a commonly agreed ascription in his circles” (1979 144). However, Hiebert (1977 77) states that Tertullian may only be acknowledging the view of the Montanists rather than giving his own opinion on the matter.
In the West, Pauline authorship did not appear to be taken seriously. The Epistle was not received by Marcion (Wescott 1892 63), although the omission may have been for dogmatic reasons, since he would have found the theme of Hebrews unpalatable (Guthrie 1982 2665). The omission from the Muratorian canon is more significant, which could reflect the enormous influence of scholars such as Irenaeus and Hippolytus. Milligan names several other Latin writers of the third century who are considered witnesses against Pauline authorship: Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage; Navatian, a Presbyter of Rome; and Victorinus, Bishop of Pettau in Pannonia (1875 11).
Around the end of the fourth century, the situation between the East and the West changed because of the influence of Jerome and Augustine. Within a short amount of time, the West began to accept Pauline authorship of Hebrews (Borchert 1985 321). Borchert goes on to say, “After Augustine the canonicity of Hebrews and its Pauline authorship remained pretty much undisputed during the next thousand years” (1985 321).
The Modern External Evidence For Authorship
With the dawn of critical thinking in the Renaissance, biblical scholars once again grappled with the issue of authorship. The Reformation spurred a re-evaluation of traditional views. Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin all questioned Pauline authorship as they tried to deal with the concerns of Jerome (Borchert 1985 321). Luther did not like the theology of Hebrews 64ff. and the impossibility of repentance. He therefore placed Hebrews with James, Jude, and the Revelation at a later and less authoritative place in the canon (Borchert 1985 321). Luther appears to have been the first person to suggest Apollos (Guthrie 1982 2665), and later, Calvin, Melanchthon, and the Geneva school joined Luther in opposing Pauline authorship (Borchert 1985 321). Beza also held that it was not written by Paul, but rather by one of his disciples (Westcott 1892 75); and Grotius returned to the theory of Lukan authorship (Guthrie 2665). It is very apparent that the theory of Pauline author-ship suffered its worst blow during the Reformation. In response to the Reformation, the Catholic Church, in the Council of Trent, declared that Pauline authorship of He-brews was fixed (Borchert 1985 321).
The Internal Evidence of the Book of Hebrews
An examination of the internal evidence of Hebrews can be very helpful in determining authorship. One can draw many conclusions about the author from the book itself. The first piece of evidence which must be mentioned is that the writer did not appear to conceal his identity and personality. Westcott (1892 75) argues that the writer was intimately acquainted with those to whom he writes (69ff.; 87; 1034; 1319). Even though Christians cannot know for certain who wrote the Epistle, the first century Christians knew his identity without a doubt.
The second piece of evidence is that the writer is clearly a “Jew who is influenced by the Alexandrian tendency to interpret the Old Testament allegorically, a tendency which we associate with the name of Philo” (Henshaw 1952 343). Many writers of the New Testament were probably influenced by Philo’s writings and interpretations. For example, the word “Logos” is a term used by Philo which is heavily stressed in the Gospel of John (Henshaw 1952 343). No other Christian writer interprets the Old Testament allegorically quite like the writer of Hebrews. Guthrie (1982 2665) says:
He was probably a Hellenist, a Greek-speaking Jew. He was familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures and with the religious ideas of the Jews. He claims the inheritance of their sacred history, traditions, and institutions (11) and dwells on these with an intimate knowledge and enthusiasm that would have been improbably, though not impossible, in a proselyte, and even more so in a Christian convert from heathenism.
The third piece of evidence concerns the style of the Epistle. Metzger says, “Curiously enough this author, al-though he addresses an epistle to `Hebrews,’ is the least Hebraic writer in the New Testament . . . There is scarcely a trace of Semitic influence in his work. The author has a rich vocabulary at his command and uses it with great skill” (1951 46).3 Unlike Paul, the author of Hebrews knows at each moment what his next sentence will be, and he follows a meticulously elaborate outline (Metzger 1951 46). Paul has a great tendency to digress without any concern for Greek diction (Henshaw 1952 344), while this author demonstrated himself as being very skilled and careful.
The fourth piece of evidence suggests that the author was not an original apostle or disciple, since he speaks of the message as being handed down (Henshaw 1952 344; cf. 23). It is quite possible that the author nor the readers were personal disciples of Jesus (Guthrie 2666). In countering the notion that the Hebrews were far-removed from New Testament times, Moffatt (1924 21) says, “The words in 23-4 do not mean that they belonged to the second generation, of course, in a chronological sense, for such words would have applied to the converts of any mission during the first thirty years or so after the crucifixion . . .” Hill adds, “The author can address his readers with a pastoral authority superior to that of their own leaders and with a conscience clear of local involvement (1317ff.), and yet with no personal claim to apostolic aegis” (1979 145).
The fifth piece of evidence suggests that although the author was clearly a Jew who thinks in terms of the Old Testament, he definitely belongs to Gentile Christianity (Henshaw 1952 344). Paul and this writer treated the Jewish law as a preparation for the Christian era. Also, there is a strong emphasis on faith in the Epistle. This emphasis on faith is not found in any New Testament writer except Paul and the author of this Epistle (Henshaw 1952 344). Furthermore, the writer also vividly portrays the central position and high estimation of Christ, the saving significance of his death, the general trend of ethical teaching, and his esteem for the rulers of the Church. All these facets bear out the inference that the author belonged to a Christian circle dominated by a world view of Christianity which included the Gentiles (Guthrie 2666). A final fact which is indicative of a Gentile dominance is the use of the Septuagint through-out the Epistle. Hiebert (1977 77) points out that the author uses the Septuagint throughout the book of Hebrews, even when it is not in harmony with the Hebrew text. This is somewhat unusual because the both the Hebrew text and the Septuagint are used in other New Testament letters.
As one examines the above criteria of the author, it be-comes clear that there simply could not have been many individuals around at that time who could have conformed to the criteria and written the Epistle. Although the suggestions which will discussed later cover most of the popular theories, it is not impossible that the Epistle may be the work of some person totally unknown to us (Henshaw 1952 344).
The next article will look at all the possible authors for the book of Hebrews taking into consideration the external and internal evidence.
1. Henshaw (1952343) argues that the early church obviously would want to include a magnificent piece of writing like Hebrews into the canon. However, to do so would require apostolic authorship, hence, it was necessary to lean heavily toward Pauline authorship.
2. Moffatt (192420) states that “Once in the canon, however, it gradually acquired a Pauline prestige, and, as Greek scholarship faded, any scruples to the contrary became less and less intelligible.”
3. Lightfoot (197623), in reporting the findings made by Wikenhauser, points out that “168 words in Hebrews do not occur elsewhere in the New Testament, and an additional 124 do not appear in Paul.” Although this type of argument is not entirely conclusive, it does show the difference in vocabulary between Hebrews and known Pauline writings.
4. An interesting point that must be added here is that the Vatican edition of the Septuagint is used in Hebrews, and Paul always used the Alexandrian edition of the Septuagint when he quoted from it (Farrar 1884435).
Guardian of Truth XL: 9 p. 22-24
May 2, 1996