Bible - General Questions

Who Wrote the Book of Hebrews?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Some insist that Paul wrote Hebrews, but others say with just as much conviction that he didn't.
From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

A reader asks, "I've heard some preachers insist that Paul wrote Hebrews, but I've heard others say with just as much conviction that he didn't. Can you shed any light on this subject?"

The authorship of Hebrews has long been debated, but it is a question that cannot be settled this side of Heaven. Many commentators have attributed the book to the pen of the Apostle Paul. In fact, some copies and translations from the earliest centuries of the church have Paul's name in the title. But this is by no means proof of Pauline authorship.

Arguments for Pauline Authorship

Highly respected twentieth-century teachers from such diverse backgrounds as J. Vernon McGee, Arthur W. Pink, and Warren Wiersbe (and many others) were all thoroughly convinced of Pauline authorship and put forward persuasive, but far from airtight, arguments. Commentators who assert Pauline authorship base their view mainly on the assumption that 2 Peter 3:14-16 refers to Paul's having written Hebrews:

Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation - as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.

Commentators who promote Pauline authorship also assert similarities in style and subject matter with Paul's epistles to the churches of the Gentile world, but other sound commentators assert exactly the opposite. On the other hand, some (but not all) hyper-Dispensationalists exclude the possibility of Pauline authorship because it conflicts with their theory that Hebrews, along with the epistles of James, Peter, and John, is a strictly "Jewish" book addressed exclusively to Israelites of the future Millennium - and therefore they assert that Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, could not have written it!

Others Suggested

Other commentators over the centuries have suggested Barnabas, Apollos, Luke, Aquilla, Silas, or Philip the deacon as the author of Hebrews. Some have suggested Timothy, but the mention of Timothy's release from imprisonment in Hebrews 13:23 almost certainly precludes this possibility. Others have suggested that the author might be one of the large number of the Jewish priests who believed and were numbered with the early church (Acts 6:7). Some liberal scholars, especially those with a feminist agenda, have more recently suggested Priscilla, but the author's use of the masculine deponent verb in the Greek of Hebrews 11:32 (the words translated "would fail me to tell") excludes the possibility of feminine authorship.

What We Know

While we cannot name the inspired author with certainty, we do know these things about him:

  • Even though the letter was unsigned, he was known to his readers (Hebrews 10:34, 13:18-19 and 22-23).
  • He was intimately familiar with the Levitical priesthood and the Mosaic ceremonial law. One of the reasons Barnabas is suggested is because he was a Levite (Acts 4:36).
  • The author was a "second-generation believer", i.e., not one of the original Apostles (Hebrews 2:3). This is another factor that seems to exclude Paul, because as he explains in Galatians 1:11-2:10, he did not receive instruction in the Gospel from any of the other Apostles, but directly from God.
  • Because of his continual use of the present tense in describing the duties of the Jewish priesthood, it is clear that the author wrote before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.
  • The author employed the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) in his many quotations of the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul did this frequently, but not exclusively.
  • The inspired author was a skilled expositor who was intimately familiar with the Old Testament. He employed key passages from nearly a dozen places in the Psalms, as well as from Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, 2 Samuel, Job, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Habbakuk, as well as frequent allusions to Leviticus. In Hebrews chapter eleven, he ranged over the wide expanse of Old Testament history from Abel all the way through the later prophets. He employed highly refined argumentation and logic throughout the book.

Arguments Against Paul

My own fallible opinion is that the author is not Paul, mainly for two reasons. First, the use of language and the approach to the subject matter are clearly different from the epistles that are known to be Paul's, and also from all of his preaching in Acts, even when he addresses his own kinsman the Jews.

Second, I believe it is highly significant that there is no direct mention, much less extensive discussion, of the Jewish priesthood in any of Paul's other epistles, even when he is addressing Jews or Jewish subjects (e.g., Romans chapters 2 and 9-11, 2 Corinthians 11, and the book of Galatians). Paul does not present the person and work of Christ from the perspective of the Jewish priesthood, but principally from the perspectives of God's plan of redemption from before the foundation of the world (e.g., Ephesians 1, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1), and God's covenant with Abraham (Romans chapters 4 and 9, Galatians 3-4).

I know that many other arguments and counter-arguments can be made, but these are the two I find most convincing.

Additionally, the argument that the 2 Peter 3:14-16 must refer to Hebrews is far from flawless. It rests on the underlying assumption that Paul's epistles to the "Gentile" churches did not address Jews or Jewish concerns, when in fact (as the passages cited above illustrate) they frequently did, and extensively so. Also, some of the Jews to whom Peter's epistles were addressed (1 Peter 1:1, 2 Peter 3:1) were living in the region of Galatia. Paul had already written to them on the same subject that is the theme of Hebrews - the dangers of abandoning the superiority and sufficiency of Christ and returning to Judaism - so it is quite possible that Peter was referring to the book of Galatians. Also, we know from other passages (Colossians 4:16 and 1 Thessalonians 5:27) and from church history that Paul's (and other) epistles were distributed among other believers, both Jew and Gentile, in surrounding regions. Places mentioned in 1 Peter 1:1 are regions in proximity to Galatia. So it is no stretch of logic to say that one or more of Paul's so-called "Gentile" epistles could very well be the writings referred to by Peter.

Who Then?

Based on the internal evidence of the book itself, I tend to believe that the author of Hebrews was a second-generation believer whose background, like Paul's, combined intimate knowledge - perhaps even a Levitical priest's knowledge - of Judaism, with a scholar's knowledge of Greek and logic. He may in fact have been taught by Paul or associated with Paul in ministry. Among named New Testament figures, that may best indicate one of two Jews - either Barnabas the Levite or Apollos of Alexandria, who was "mighty in the Scriptures" (Acts 18:24). But I don't think I would be astonished, when we get to glory, to find that the author is a surprise to all of us, someone no saint down through the centuries ever would have guessed.

We must say, with the early Bible scholar Eusebius of Caesarea, "Who it was that really wrote the epistle, only God knows." But in God's grand plan, the identity of the human author of Hebrews is not nearly as important as the absolutely certain identity of its ultimate Author. God the Holy Spirit moved holy men of God to write every word of Scripture so that it is, in its entirety, the very Word of God (2 Peter 1:19-21, 2 Timothy 3:16).


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