By Kyle Campbell
We have considered the internal and external evidence for the authorship of Hebrews. Now we will consider the most probable possibilities for the authorship of Hebrews.
The first suggestion worthy of consideration is the apostle Paul. Although external evidence for Pauline authorship is stronger than any other suggested author, modern scholars since the Reformation have almost unanimously denied that Paul wrote the Epistle on the basis of internal evidence.
There are several reasons why Paul could have been the author of the Epistle. First, the circumstances in the closing verses of Hebrews 13 are very similar to those in the acknowledged Pauline letters (Lightfoot 1976 20). Paul and Timothy were very close associates for many years, which could easily explain the remark in 13:23. Also, the author asks for his readers to “pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience …” (13:18), while Paul asks for his readers to pray for him and often refers to a clean conscience (Rom. 15:30; 2 Cor. 11:1; Acts 23:1; 24:16; 2 Cor. 11:2; 1 Tim. 3:9; 2 Tim. 1:3). The author also asked the Hebrews that he might be restored to them sooner (13:19), while Paul wrote to the Philippians and Philemon in the same manner (Phile. 22; Phil. 1:24-25). Finally, expressions like “the God of peace” (13:20) and “grace be with you all” (13:25) also appear in the writings of Paul (Rom. 15:33; 1 Thess. 5:28; 2 Thess. 3:18).
The second reason in favor of Pauline authorship is that the ideas in Hebrews are also very similar to those found in the Pauline letters (Lightfoot 1976 20). Paul places heavy stress on Christology and the two covenants in his various letters, and these topics are of paramount concern to the writer of Hebrews. Shackelford (1987 395) lists some of the examples of similar thought: Christ given a name above every name (14; Eph. 1:21; Phil. 2:9), the law given by angels (2:2; Gal. 3:19), the weakness of the law (7:18; 8:7; Rom. 8:3), public persecution of saints (10:33; 1 Cor. 4:9), and the heavenly Jerusalem (12:22; Gal. 4:26). Lightfoot (1976 21-22) also lists several terms and phrases in Hebrews which are similar to those found in the Pauline letters.’ Witherington (1991 146-152) has found a number of striking similarities between the book of Galatians and Hebrews, and even suggests that Galatians may have influenced Hebrews if Paul did not write the Epistle.
A third reason supporting Pauline authorship is that the construction of the Epistle also follows the same general pattern as Paul’s other letters, the doctrinal portion first, followed by an exhortation to duty. Filson (in Witherington 1991 150) points out that Hebrews 13 follows the pattern for letter closings found elsewhere in Paul and in particular in Galatians. In Galatians 6 and Hebrews 13 there is a remarkable fourfold pattern of similarities: (1) injunctions and teaching; (2) benediction; (3) greetings and messages; and (4) final benedictions.
The major reason most scholars reject Pauline author-ship is the difference of style, language, thoughts, and other aspects in the Epistle compared to other Pauline writings. Hebrews is nearer to the Classical Greek style of writing and it lacks many of the digressions which are so characteristic of Paul (Guthrie 2666). Westcott (1892 78) states that the writer of the Epistle shows the same broad conception of a number of similar topics between the two authors, but the writer of Hebrews approaches each topic from a different side. Borchert (1985 321) adds:
The style and perspective is hardly Paul’s; the Greek is hardly Paul’s; and the theology is not quite Paul’s. Certainly, Hebrews has verbal similarities to Paul, but there are striking theological differences such as different twists of meaning on faith, on law, on soteriology, on flesh and spirit, on covenant, and on priesthood. Moreover, the lack of emphasis on the resurrection seems telling. Paul is an apostle of the resurrection. Such is not the emphasis of Hebrews.
Although at first glance these objections seem formidable, Milligan (1875 13) stresses that the force of these arguments have been greatly overstated. He argues that the time, place, and circumstances have a tremendous influence over the thoughts, feelings, and expressions of an author. He also gives an example of how different the style is between Deuteronomy and Leviticus or the Gospel of John and the Revelation, even though their authorship is relatively undebated.
Another objection to Pauline authorship is that Paul makes no claim to be the author. Guthrie (1982 2666) says, “This is in striking contrast with his practice as we know it from his acknowledged Epistles.” It is very puzzling as to why he would have omitted his name if he were the writer. Pantaenus believed that Paul did not sign his name to the Epistle because of reverence to the Lord, who was the true apostle to the Hebrews (Shackelford 1987 394). This view is rather unconvincing though. Shackelford (1987 394) further suggests that Paul knew that the Jews were prejudiced against him because he was an apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13; cf. Acts 22:22), and he did not sign his name that they might more readily receive the letter.
Paul is also rejected as the author of Hebrews on the grounds of apostleship. The author of Hebrews nowhere shows any consciousness of apostolic authority, which was very important to Paul (Guthrie 1982 2666). Shackelford (1987 395) stresses that Paul received his doctrine directly from Christ (Gal. 1:11-12), which would tend to go against what the author states in 2:3-4. However, Milligan (1875 14-15) argues that Paul is simply associating himself with his readers, and that he is referring to Christ’s personal ministry on earth, of which Paul was not a witness.
The only other serious possibility which has been attested externally is Barnabas. As mentioned above, when Tertullian suggested Barnabas, he seemingly did so not out of personal opinion, but of a common belief which circulated in his time. Henshaw (1952 344) says, “Had Barnabas been the author no difficulty would have been felt anywhere in accepting the Epistle into the Canon, as it would have been the work of an Apostle.”
Barnabas has several items which are in favor of his authorship. First, Barnabas can be associated with Rome, having accompanied Peter on a visit to that city after they left Corinth, following Claudius’ death in A.D. 54 (Hill 1979 145).
A second reason which supports Barnabas as an author is that his name meant “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36), and 13:22 may have been designed as a play on words. This would certainly fit in well with Barnabas’ known exhoratory skills.
Third, Barnabas was a Levite who would have been acquainted with the temple ritual, but Guthrie (1982 2666) argues that this consideration carries little weight because the author of Hebrews is more interested in the biblical cults than in the current ritual, although a Levite would certainly have been deeply concerned about the issues raised in this book. In opposition to this view, Borchert (1985 322) says, “The question remains whether a Cypriot Jew would develop a writing style closely akin to the Alexandrian writers. It is, of course, not impossible because Philo and other Alexandrian writings were known on the island.”
Fourth, Hill (1979 145) argues, “The situation ad-dressed by the letter to the Hebrews requires that it be written by someone who had already proved himself a mediator in the church, and this Barnabas had certainly done (Acts 9:26-30; 11:22-30; 15:22-39).” However, Guthrie (1982 2666) makes a strong argument that Acts 15:23-24 could not apply to Barnabas for the same reason that it could not apply to Paul, but he does say, “The absence of data regarding the way in which Barnabas became a Christian makes it impossible to be certain.”
The most confusing aspect concerning Barnabas is the Epistle of Barnabas. Westcott (1892 78) says, “It (Hebrews) may have been written by Barnabas, if the `Epistle of Barnabas’ is apocryphal.” Borchert (1985 322) says, “Could it be, then, that as the arguments for canonicity developed, clerics attributed a work of Barnabas to Paul for the purpose of guaranteeing its acceptance in the canon and then in parallel fashion attributed to a lesser work the name of Barnabas so that his tradition would be pre-served?” It seems very weak to assume that the name of someone as prominent as Barnabas would have been left off of an Epistle he actually wrote while being falsely as-signed to another one. Lightfoot (1976 24) concludes, “It is probable that Barnabas as author was simply an ancient hypothesis advanced in the absence of any real knowledge on the question. Certainly there is nothing in the Epistle to indicate that Barnabas wrote it.”
Ever since Luther first suggested Apollos, he has gained tremendous popularity among New Testament scholars, although some consider Apollos nothing more than a “brilliant guess” (Lightfoot 1976 25). Borchert (1985 322) says, “Nevertheless, if one is to conjecture about who wrote Hebrews, it would be difficult to propose a finer candidate.” Henshaw (1952 344) says, “There is only one person, of those whom we know, satisfies all the conditions, namely, Apollos.”
Montefiore and Lo Blue (in Hurst 1985 505) hold the position that Hebrews was written from Ephesus by Apollos to the Corinthian church between the years 52 and 52. Because Apollos was aware that there was a growing tendency in Corinth to venerate him above Paul, he decided not to accede to Paul’s wish that he revisit the church at that time, stating instead that he would come sometime later (1 Cor. 16:12). In lieu of this proposed visit, Apollos sent a letter to the church addressed to the “He-brews” because, from 2 Corinthians 11:22, there is evidence of Jewish troublemakers at Corinth. Montefiore suggests that instead of following Apollos’ advice, the Hebrews took his letter and used it as an example of the wisdom and eloquence which they themselves boasted. They also launched an intense depreciation of Paul be-cause he, they claimed, lacked these qualities (506). Paul’s response to this matter is contained in 1 Corinthians 1-4.
There are several points which Guthrie (1982 2666) and Lightfoot (1976 26) give in support of Apollos. First, he was an Alexandrian Jew and therefore could have been well versed in the type of thought current there. This fact would also account for the extensive use of the Septuagint in the Old Testament quotations. Second, Acts mentions his great biblical knowledge and his oratorical gifts, both of which would support the claim of his authorship of Hebrews. Third, Apollos knew Timothy and had a close association with Paul. Fourth, Apollos was “fervent in spirit,” a man characterized by boldness of speech. Fifth, Apollos was a man of high reputation in the early church. Sixth, Apollos “spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.” This accords with the subject of the Epistle.
R.C.H. Lenski (1946 24) believes that the evidence is simply too strong to deny that Apollos wrote the Epistle. He states that the only evidence lacking that would re-move all doubt that Apollos was the author is a New Testament passage that actually places Apollos in Rome.
Borchert (1985 322) says, “The major problem with this view is that it seems to lack any sense of antiquity and .. . I have the feeling that it is a construct of the last five hundred years.” If Apollos had written the Epistle, the absence of any recorded history at Alexandria would be very surprising, because the city was known for its Christian writers of the past Pantaenus, Clement, and Origen. Another problem with the Apollos suggestion is that no argument concerning style and phraseology is possible because there are no extant writings of Apollos to compare with Hebrews. Hiebert (1977 81) concludes that no decisive evidence against Apollos exists.4 (78-79) argues that Apollos was probably not the only Alexandrian in the apostolic age who was mighty in the Scriptures or that he possessed all the characteristics in more abundance his contemporaries. He concludes, “The wide acceptance of the conjecture as a fact is only explicable by our natural unwillingness to frankly confess our ignorance on a matter which excites our interest” (1892 79). Lightfoot (1976 26) has similar reservations by saying, “The hypothesis of Apollos as author has received wide acceptance; but without doubt much of this can be accounted for on the ground that in the search for a positive solution, there seems to be no other place to go.”
There have not been many scholars to advocate that Timothy wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews.’ However, John D. Legg (1968 222) developed a very fresh consideration concerning Timothy as the author Hebrews. He suggested that Timothy wrote his “word of exhortation” from prison in Ephesus, sent it to Paul in Rome, who then sent it on its way with his own addition. Timothy is then released from prison and Paul writes a small note concerning this and sends it to the readers, who then add it to the end of the Epistle. Legg’s suggestion (221) is as follows
The present suggestion is that we should detach merely verses 22-25, and this not as a fragment, but as a covering letter to the main epistle. The epistle would thus end quite naturally with the first benediction; the covering letter would end with the Pauline benediction, no name being needed as it was written in Paul’s own handwriting.
The advantages of this suggestion are as follows: First, it accounts for the Pauline characteristics of the last four verses. Second, it suggests an author for whom there is some internal evidence. Timothy was well acquainted with Paul, would have fit the situation in 23, and he was a Hellenistic Jew. Third, it provides an explanation for the double benediction. Fourth, it provides as explanation as to why the early church believed the author was Paul (2:22). Legg also gives evidence (2:23) that the Epistle can be harmonized with Acts. If we date Hebrews, as many do, around A.D. 63-64, then the most likely destination must be Ephesus, where Timothy had spent a considerable time, according to the Pastoral epistles. Acts 19-20 make it clear that the Ephesians suffered persecution after their conversion, but gave no evidence of martyrdoms. This fits Hebrews 10:32ff. and 12:4.
This is certainly one of the more interesting suggestions ever put forth. The major problem with the above speculation is that it must assume both the date and the destination, a difficult matter at best. Legg recognizes this deficiency, but says, “All these however, are mere conjectures but they do show the sort of picture which can be deduced one at least as convincing as most that are fabricated around the anonymous author of Hebrews” (2:23).
Over the years, Luke has found many supporters which base their opinion upon the verbal similarities between Hebrews and Acts, particularly some affinities with Stephen’s speech (Guthrie 1982 2666). Westcott (1892 76) remarks, “When every allowance has been made for coincidences which consist in forms of expression which are found also in the Septuagint or in other writers of the New Testament, or in late Greek generally, the likeness is unquestionably remarkable.” However, Lightfoot (1976 24-25) adds, “It would be precarious to claim Lukan authorship solely on the grounds of stylistic similarities.”
Some scholars and early church writers have suggested that Paul wrote the epistle, and Luke translated it into Greek. Borchert (1985 321-322) suggests that this is improbable for two reasons. First, the Greek of Hebrews does not look like a transliterated Greek; and second, Luke-Acts has a very Gentile outlook, while Hebrews has a highly Jewish outlook.
Most scholars immediately deny independent Lukan authorship for several stylistic reasons. However, Franz Delitzsch (1978 409-417) has suggested that Luke acted as Paul’s secretary, writing down the ideas of Paul in his own style and vocabulary.’ This hypothesis would certainly alleviate the problems of both Pauline and Lukan authorship in a way which could be very feasible. Delitzsch (413) suggests that Paul could have perhaps instructed Luke to let the Hebrews feel the authority of his apostleship as little as possible, and place himself willingly in the back-ground as regarded the original apostles. Milligan (1875 14) feels that Epistle’s unique style from other Pauline letters is easy to reconcile, especially if one gives Luke some liberty in phraseology.
The list of possible candidates over the years has in-deed been endless. Some scholars have suggested Clement of Rome as a possible author. However, Guthrie (1982 2666) says, “A careful comparison of 1 Clement with Hebrews does not lead to the conviction that they were both written by the same author.” Borchert (1985 323) mentions William Ramsay’s view that the writer was Philip, the Caesarean deacon, although this view has found little support. Lightfoot (1976 26) briefly mentions Silas (or Silvanus) as a possible candidate because of his close association with the apostle Paul and his known writing activities (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; 1 Pet. 5:12).’ The suggestion mentioned by Shackelford (1987 395) and Guthrie (1982 2667) of Priscilla is rather interesting, especially in the era of growing feminism. Shackelford states, “The masculine participle, translated as `to tell’ or ‘telling’ (1132) excludes a female as a writer; hence, Priscilla cannot be seriously considered.” Likewise, Borchert (1985 323) says, “It is hard to make a clear case for a specific feminine touch in this book and the idea that the book lacks an author because the writer was a woman is clearly an argument from silence which can go both ways.” Hiebert (1977 80) points out that if there were signs of femininity one would expect to see Deborah instead of Barak mentioned in chapter eleven.
Perhaps the intrigue with the author of Hebrews stems from man’s frustration to solve a mystery. It would, of course, be a wonderful discovery if man were to somehow figure out the real identity of the writer of Hebrews. How-ever, for the time being, scholars can only speculate. Guthrie (1982 2667) concludes, “The only reasonable course is to maintain an open verdict.” When all of the evidence is weighed, the argument for Pauline authorship seems to this author as strong as any other candidate. The hypothesis of Luke acting as Paul’s amanuensis (or secretary) seems to give even more potential credibility to the candidate which had the earliest attestation in the first place. If Paul were to be completely discounted, the case for Barnabas as a second choice is also very credible.
A.B. Bruce (in Lightfoot 1976 27) has beautifully summarized the whole matter by saying, “We must be content to remain in ignorance as to the writer of this remarkable work. Nor should we find this difficult. Some of the greatest books of the Bible . . . are anonymous writings. It is meet that this one should belong to the number, for it bears witness in its opening sentence to one who speaks God’s final word to men. In presence of the Son, what does it matter who points the way to him? The witness-bearer does not desire to be know. He bids us listen to Jesus and then retires into the background.”
One must be careful not to unjustly dogmatize any one belief above another. The question of authorship does not affect the doctrinal message taught by the book of He-brews. Christians have one of the most wonderful pieces of literature before them, and one must not allow this uncertainty to affect his view of the Epistle.
1. Lightfoot (1976 21) seriously wonders if the parallels have been looked at by scholars of recent years, but he is quick to caution that conclusions concerning parallels should not be drawn without a careful study of the parallels in the Greek text. While the Greek phrases are often similar, they are not necessarily identical.
2. Delitzsch (1978 412) states, “It cannot, however, well be imagined, especially looking at Paul’s other epistles written in captivity, that an epistle from his hand to the Jewish Christians of Palestine would have received exactly this shape and stamp.”
3. Hill (1979 146) states, “If the case for the authorship of Hebrews by Barnabas may be regarded as cumulatively more convincing than that for any other of the suggested authors, then it is a strong pointer towards the Christian-prophetic origin of the book, for, as we have seen in the chapter on Acts, Barnabas was one of the prophets of the early Christian community” (Acts 131).
4. Although many scholars hold the opinion that Apollos or Barnabas wrote the Epistle, some discount Apollos because of the lack of external testimony. For example, Conybeare and Howson (1910 854) say, “We need not dwell on this opinion, since it is not based on external testimony, and since Barnabas fulfills the requisite conditions almost equally well.”
5. Legg (1968 222) says, `Timothy has usually been excluded from the lists of possibilities which scholars have drawn up, be-cause he is mentioned in the text and obviously would not have written about himself in this way. The present theory, however, removes this obstacle which has, for the most part, prevented scholars from even considering Timothy. The fact which usually rules him out is really the best reason for considering him.”
6. Legg (1968 223) also gives internal evidence that the author was in prison at the time of writing, and this would account for the request for prayers made by the author for his release.
7. It must also be mentioned that Peter, Stephen, Aristion, and even Jude have had their advocates over the years. How-ever, all of these writers, like many others, simply have no attestation in order to be seriously considered. They are merely guesses in the dark about a guess in the dark.
Bibliography Of Sources Consulted
Borchert, Gerald L. “A Superior Book: Hebrews.” Review and Expositor 82 (Summer 1985) 319-323.
Delitzsch, Franz. Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. 2 vols. Reprint ed. Minnesota: Klock and Klock, 1978.
Filson, Floyd V. “The Epistle to the Hebrews.” Journal of Bible and Religion 22 (1954):20-26.
Guthrie, D. “The Epistle to the Hebrews.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. (1982) 2665-667.
Henshaw, T. “The Epistle to the Hebrews.” New Testament Literature in the Light of Modern Scholarship. London, George Allen Ltd., 1952.
Hiebert, D. Edmond. “The Non-Pauline Epistle and Revelation.” An Introduction to the New Testament, 3. Chicago, Moody Press, 1977.
Hill, David. New Testament Prophecy. Atlanta, John Knox Press, 1979.
Hurst, L.D. “Apollos, Hebrews, and Corinth: Bishop Montefiore’s Theory Examined.” Scottish Journal of Theology 38 (1985): 505-513.
Legg, John D. “Our Brother Timothy: A Suggested Solution to the Problem of the Authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews.” Evangelical Quarterly 40 (October-December 1968): 220-223.
Lenski, R.C.H. An Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistle of James. Columbus, Wartburg Press, 1946.
Lightfoot, Neil R. Jesus Christ Today. Abilene, Bible Guides, 1976. Milligan, R. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New Testament Commentary, 9. St. Louis, Christian Board of Publication, 1875.
Shackelford, Don. “On to Maturity.” New Testament Survey: An Introduction and Survey of the New Testament. Searcy, AR. College of Bible and Religion at Harding University, 1987.
Westcott, B.F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. 2nd ed. London, MacMillan and Sons, 1892.
Witherington, Ben. “The Influence of Galatians on Hebrews.” New Testament Studies 37 (1991): 146-152.
Guardian of Truth XL: 12 p. 20-24
June 20, 1996