Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul

Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul

Written by: 
Published:
February 9, 2022

Editor’s note: Félix H. Cortez is the author of the Adult Bible Study Guide for Q1 of 2022, which covers the book of Hebrews. Recent articles on Spectrum have addressed the common scholarly opinion that Paul likely did not write Hebrews. Here, Cortez responds about why he thinks Paul did.


The authorship of Hebrews is a sensitive issue for Adventist believers. Almost without fail, when Adventists learn that Hebrews is the focus of my research they ask, Who do you think wrote it? The issue has gained some prominence lately because adult Adventists around the globe are studying a Sabbath school quarterly on the book of Hebrews. The issue is complex. The New Testament includes Hebrews among the letters of Paul, but Hebrews itself does not identify who the author was. Most scholars think that the author of Hebrews was an associate worker of Paul or someone close to him, but it could not have been Paul. In fact, for many the case is closed. Ellen G. White, however, who Adventists believe wrote under the inspiration of God, refers to Paul as the author of Hebrews.[1]

There are basically three positions regarding Paul and the authorship of Hebrews. One position is that Paul could not have been the author. This is the predominant scholarly position. A second position remains agnostic: we don’t know who wrote Hebrews, but it could have been written by Paul. A third position is similar to the second position but goes a step further. This position would go something like this: the Bible does not say who the author of Hebrews was, but Paul is the more likely author. In this article, I will provide biblical and historical evidence for the second and third positions.

The Case Against Paul

Most scholars believe that Hebrews circulated independently for a long period of time before being accepted into the New Testament canon and that this came about “only through the fiction” that Paul had written Hebrews.[2] There are several reasons for this. First, if Paul wrote Hebrews, why did he not claim authorship of the document as he does in every letter he wrote?[3] The anonymity of the document does not seem to be an accident. The first sentence of Hebrews (Heb. 1:1–4), which is where Paul would normally identify himself as the author, is so beautiful and balanced from the perspective of its Greek construction that it seems clear the author spent considerable time and effort writing it. Thus, the lack of identification of the author at the beginning of the document is probably not an accident.

Second, there were early doubts about the authorship of Hebrews. Marcion rejected Hebrews in the first half of the second century AD.[4] Later in the same century, it is reported that Irenaeus[5] rejected the Pauline authorship of Hebrews. The Muratorian Fragment, a list of New Testament books likely created toward the end of the second century AD, did not include Hebrews.[6] Around the beginning of the third century AD, Tertullian attributed Hebrews to Barnabas. Also in the third century, Gaius of Rome, Hippolytus, and the Arians rejected the Pauline authorship of Hebrews. The perception in antiquity was that Hebrews was accepted in the churches of the East as having been written by Paul but rejected by western scholars.[7]

Third, church scholars recognized early on that there were differences in style between Hebrews and the letters of Paul. Clement of Alexandria, around the beginning of the third century, suggested that Paul had written Hebrews originally in the Hebrew language and that Luke had translated it into Greek. Similarly, Origen suggested that Paul probably was the author of the ideas but that another person had taken notes and published them. He concluded that only God knew who the author was.

Fourth, and very importantly, it is suggested that Paul could not be the author because the author of Hebrews includes himself among those to whom the gospel was confirmed by those who heard Jesus (Heb. 2:3). Paul, however, argued strongly in Galatians that he had not received the gospel from anybody but directly from God (Gal. 1:11–12).

Finally, there are important theological differences between the letters of Paul and Hebrews. One example is that no letter of Paul refers to Jesus as High Priest. This idea, however, is central to the argument of Hebrews. Most scholars today reject the idea that Paul wrote Hebrews and consider the case closed.[8]

The Case for Paul

The arguments against Paul are not as strong as they seem, however. First, Hebrews does not begin like a letter of Paul but ends like one. Harold Attridge, though he rejects the authorship of Paul for other reasons, has identified 33 parallels between the postscript of Hebrews (Heb. 13:20–25) and the letters of Paul, some of them very striking.[9] For example, just to mention two of them, the expression “God of peace” (Heb. 13:20) is found in Rom. 15:33, 16:20, 2 Cor 13:11, Phil 4:9, and 1 Thess 5:23 but in no other epistolary postscript in the New Testament. The expression “from the dead” (ek nekrōn, Heb. 13:20) appears 17 times in Paul but only two times elsewhere among the New Testament epistles. Note as well that Hebrews does not begin as a letter because it is most likely not a letter. Hebrews identifies itself as a “word of exhortation” (Heb. 13:22), an expression that referred to the sermon both in the synagogue and in the Christian church.[10] Therefore, Hebrews is probably a homily intended for a specific congregation to which a postscript was added and then sent as a letter. Furthermore, Hebrews is anonymous to us, but it was not to the original audience. The audience knew who the author was. He requests them to pray for him so that he may be restored to them sooner (Heb. 13:18–19).[11] The author refers to a Timothy, who must have been known both by the author and the audience (13:23).[12] Thus, unless it is a forgery, the original audience should not have had a problem with the lack of greeting and identification of the author at the beginning of the document, either because they understood it was not a letter or for other reasons known to them.

Secondly, it is true that doubts about the authorship of Hebrews began early, but the evidences of the authoritative reception of Hebrews and its identification with Paul are even earlier and very significant. Beginning with the most ancient manuscripts, Hebrews always appears as part of the Pauline collection. In fact, among all the Pauline epistles, only Romans is better attested than Hebrews among the most ancient manuscripts of Paul. Similarly, Hebrews carried from the earliest extant manuscripts a title (“to the Hebrews”) similar to the title of the letters of Paul and different to the titles of the Catholic Epistles. Furthermore, Hebrews was accepted very early as an authoritative writing. First Clement, the oldest extant work of early Christian literature composed around AD 96, alludes clearly to Hebrews (1 Clem. 36:1–5) and to other writings of Paul (e.g., 35:5–6) showing he held them in high esteem, though, with one exception, he does not identify the author in any of those references.[13] The Shepherd of Hermas, produced in Rome during the second century AD and the most popular noncanonical writing of the first centuries of Christianity, was written in part to explain that repentance was possible for sins committed after baptism. The best explanation is that it was trying to answer questions raised by Hebrews 6:4–8 and 10:26–31. The evidence suggests that views of a wholesale rejection of Hebrews in the West are overstated. By the end of the fourth century, Ambrose, Pelagius, and Rufinus in the west had attributed Hebrews to Paul, and 10 other Christian writers cite or allude to Hebrews as authoritative without mentioning who the author was.[14]

Closer scrutiny shows that rejection of the Pauline authorship of Hebrews is less significant than it seems at the beginning. Marcion, who rejected Hebrews, also rejected the God of the Old Testament and all the writings of the Old Testament. He probably rejected Hebrews because of its abundant use of the Old Testament. He also rejected most of the New Testament. The only writings he accepted as Scriptures were 10 epistles of Paul and an edited recension of the Gospel of Luke. The view that Irenaeus and Hippolytus rejected the Pauline authorship of Hebrews came from a comment made by Gobarus more than 300 years later (ca. AD 600), according to the report made by Photius in AD 800! How much weight can we place on this report?[15] The Muratorian Fragment did not include Hebrews among the letters of Paul, but it did not reject Hebrews as it did “The Epistle to the Laodiceans” and “The Epistle to the Alexandrians,” which were forged in the name of Paul.[16] Tertullian says that Barnabas wrote Hebrews but thinks Barnabas was communicating the ideas of Paul. Gaius of Rome rejected the Pauline authorship of Hebrews and also considered that the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation had actually been written by Cerinthus, the gnostic heretic. His eccentric views did not carry the day, since contemporary and later theologians did not echo his views. The Arians probably rejected the Pauline authorship of Hebrews because of its high Christology.

Third, matters of style and vocabulary are unreliable in determining whether Paul wrote Hebrews. We don’t have a clear style to which to compare Hebrews. Eight of Paul’s letters mention co-authors alongside Paul.[17] These co-authors must have had at least some influence on the contents and style of each letter. Paul also used secretaries (e.g., Rom. 16:22), who probably impacted the style of his letters. E. Randolph Richards has shown that secretaries often functioned as editors—in some rare cases even as co-authors.[18] Finally, the rhetorical ideal in the Hellenistic world was prosōpopoiia, meaning “to write in character.” In other words, writers were expected to write in different styles according to what the situation required.[19] Thus, it was expected that not all letters of Paul would have the same style, but that they would adapt to the topic and the needs or characteristics of their respective audiences.

Fourth, the fact that the author includes himself among those to whom the gospel was confirmed by those who heard Jesus (Heb. 2:3) does not disqualify Paul as the author. The argument of the passage is not that author and the audience “received” (parelabon) or were “taught” (edidachthēn) the gospel by the apostles but that the gospel was “confirmed” (ebebaiōthē) to them by the apostles, those who heard Jesus (Heb. 2:3). The point was that the double confirmation by the apostles and God made the audience liable to God’s judgment should they abandon the gospel (Heb. 2:1–4; cf. Heb. 10:28). In fact, Paul acknowledged that he received the gospel from God through revelation (Gal. 1:11–12) and 14 years later he sought confirmation from the apostles about the gospel he preached—“to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain” (Gal. 2:1–2).

Fifth, though there are differences in theological emphasis between Hebrews and Paul’s other letters, there is no contradiction. In fact, differences in theological emphasis should be expected. The letters of Paul were written to address specific concerns or issues of their respective audiences. There are, on the other hand, unique similarities between Hebrews and Paul’s other writings. For example, Hebrews 10:16 quotes Jeremiah 31:31–33 but abbreviates the formulation “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” to “with them.” Romans 11:27 has the same abbreviated formula. The quotation of Habbakuk 2:4 in Hebrews 10:37–38 differs from the wording of both the Hebrew and the Greek texts (LXX) but is similar to Paul’s quotation of Habbakuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17. Paul plays with the dual meanings of the Greek word diathēkē (“testament” and “covenant”) in Gal 3:15–18 in the same way Hebrews 9:15–18 does. In fact, based on correspondences in unique use of vocabulary and ideas, Ben Witherington has suggested the influence of Galatians on Hebrews.[20]

Finally, the view that Hebrews circulated independently for a long period of time before being accepted into the New Testament canon “through the fiction” that Paul had written it is unlikely for several reasons. First, there is no manuscript evidence that Hebrews ever circulated alone. Second, considering that Hebrews does not claim to be written by Paul and is different in style and theological emphasis to his other writings, on what basis would you include Hebrews in the collection of Paul’s writings? Paul himself warned his readers against receiving letters “seeming to be” from him but not actually written by him (2 Thess. 2:1–3). This is the reason he used to sign his letters. Hebrews and Paul’s other 13 letters had postscripts, which functioned as signatures (2 Thess. 3:17–18).[21] Another obstacle to including Hebrews among the Pauline epistles is that Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians but Paul was the apostle to the gentiles (Gal. 2:6; Eph. 3:1–10). If it was believed very early that the epistle was not written by Paul, why then was Hebrews not included among the Catholic or General Epistles, which were written by apostles sent to the Jews (Gal. 2:6–9)? Third, the collection of Paul’s letters was probably not made by making copies from the churches that received Paul’s letters. The practice among ancient writers was to keep copies of the letters they sent to other people.[22] Thus, it is more likely that Hebrews was part of the Pauline Collection because it was part of the copies Paul had kept for himself. This would explain why Hebrews is part of the collection of Paul’s letters despite its anonymity and other differences to the rest of Paul’s letters. The copies that Paul had kept for himself probably remained at first in Rome, where Paul died. This would explain why Peter, who ministered in Rome (1 Pet. 5:13), refers to a collection of Paul’s letters (2 Pet. 3:15–16) and Hebrews is quoted by Clement of Rome already in AD 96.

In summary, biblical and historical evidence supports the idea that Paul could have written Hebrews.

Does the evidence we have allow us to say that Paul is the likely author of Hebrews? The answer depends on the weight the interpreter attributes to the different elements of the biblical and historical evidence about Hebrews. What should carry more weight, the lack of an explicit claim of authorship at the beginning of the letter or the clear similarities between the postscript of Hebrews and the postscripts of Paul’s other letters? Are more significant the omission of Hebrews in the Muratorian Fragment, the doubts of Origen, and the rejections of Pauline authorship by the heretic Marcion, Irenaeus and Hippolytus (only reported several centuries later), Tertullian, Gaius of Rome, and the Arians[23]—or the assertions that Paul wrote Hebrews made by Pantaenus, Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose, Pelagius,[24] and Rufinus? Which is weightier, the perception in antiquity that the Pauline authorship of Hebrews was rejected by the western church or the perception that the Pauline authorship of Hebrews was accepted in the eastern churches? Is it more probable that Hebrews circulated alone for a long period of time—for which there is no single manuscript evidence—and was then included in the collection of the letters of Paul under the fiction that Paul was the author—despite Paul’s own warning against accepting letters “seeming to be” from him—or that Hebrews was from the beginning part of the Pauline collection as suggested by the fact that Hebrews is the second best-attested writing in the Pauline collection? How much credence should be given to matters of style when we see that Paul used co-authors and secretaries, both of which probably affected his style of writing? I believe it is likely that Paul wrote Hebrews. We should, however, recognize the complexity and difficulty of the issue and respect and welcome those who assess the evidence differently.

Does Authorship Matter?

Views on the Pauline authorship of Hebrews could affect our perception of its authority. This is what happened in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Cajetan, Erasmus, Karlstadt, Luther, and other reformers questioned the traditional authorship of several books of the New Testament—Hebrews among them. This had an important impact on their views regarding the authority of these books. Luther relegated Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation to the bottom of his translation of the New Testament and did not number them as he did the rest of the New Testament writings. Many of his disciples considered these books as deuterocanonical or apocryphal.[25] In 1594, Jacob Lucius and David Wolder published Bibles where these four books are given the title “Apocrypha.” The same happened in the Bibles published by J. Vogt in 1614 and by Gustavus Adolphus in 1618.[26]

The study of the authorship of Hebrews entails, then, the exploration of one of the main foundations of its authority. Since Jesus did not leave any writings himself, the Christian church recognized the canonical authority of those writings that came from the apostles, those to whom Jesus entrusted the gospel (Matt. 28:18–20).[27] The apostolic criterion did not require that the apostles themselves wrote the books, but only that the books were produced under the authority of the apostles or by their associates.[28] This means that Hebrews could be considered canonical even if it was written by one of the collaborators of Paul. The church, however, despite doubts in some sectors, accepted Hebrews into the canon not as having been written by an associate of Paul, but as a writing of Paul himself.[29] The burden of proof rests on those who deny the possibility that Paul could have written Hebrews. In my opinion, they have not yet successfully carried out that duty.

 

Notes & References:

[1] For example, Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, 347; 411–413; 420; 421; 512; Patriarchs and Prophets, 357; Sons and Daughters of God, 24; Testimonies for the Church, 1:679; 5:651; 8:79–80. I will not address, however, these statements of Ellen G. White regarding the authorship of Hebrews because I believe she would have preferred that our beliefs be founded on biblical and historical evidence alone. See H. E. Douglass, Messenger of the Lord (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1993), 416–425; George R. Knight, “Ellen G. White’s Relationship to the Bible,” The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2013), 647–649; A. L. White, “The Position of ‘The Bible and the Bible Only’ and the Relationship of This to the Writings of Ellen White”, Ellen G. White Estate Research Documents.

[2] Charles P. Anderson’s summary in “The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Pauline Letter Collection,” Harvard Theological Review 59 (1966), 429, is still the current view. Anderson argues against this position in his article.

[3] Among New Testament letters, 1 John also has no greeting, no thanksgiving, and no salutations at the end. But 1 John is a different kind of document. Some think it is a paper; others, a tract, or a commentary on the Gospel of John. More likely, it was a circular letter in which greetings and salutations were added for each place by the courier. See Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 28–29.            

[4] Marcion died around AD 160.

[5] Irenaeus lived from around 130 to around 200 AD.

[6] AD 180–200. A good number of canon critics date this document later.

[7] For example, Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.3 (NPNF2 1:134–135); 6.20 (268); Augustine, De pecc. merit. 1.50 (NPNF1 5:34); Jerome, Epist. 129.3.

[8] Clare K. Rothschild, Hebrews as Pseudepigraphon: The History and Significance of the Pauline Attribution of Hebrews, WUNT 235 (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), 6.

[9] Harold W. Attridge, Hebrews, Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 404–405. Also, Rothschild, 67–81.

[10] Acts 13:15; 1 Tim 4:13. See also 1 Macc. 10:24, 46; and 2 Macc. 15:8–11.

[11] The author also knows the story and the present circumstances of the audience, see Heb 2:3–4; 6:10; and 10:32–34; 13:24.

[12] The only Timothy known in early Christian sources was the companion of Paul, John Gillman, “Tymothy (Person),” Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 6:559– 60.

[13] Clement alludes to Romans, Galatians, Philippians, and Ephesians, but only when referring to Corinth, towards the end of the letter, he refers to Paul as the author (1 Clement 47). The reason is that 1 Clement was sent to the church of Corinth and the author wanted to made a point of reminding them of the Letter Paul had sent to them. For reference to the epistles of Paul in 1 Clement, see Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), 40–43.

[14] First Clement, probably Shepherd of Hermas, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Epiphanius, Hilary of Poitiers, Victorinus, Lucifer of Cagliari, Faustinus, and Gregory of Elvira. These are western writers. See Rothschild, Hebrews as a Pseudepigraphon, 31; Attridge, Hebrews, 2. For a comprehensive survey of witnesses to Pauline authorship of Hebrews in the church fathers, see Otto Michel, Der Brief and die Hebräer, KEK 13 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966), 38–39.

[15] See Eta Linneamann, “A Call for a Retrial in the Case of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Faith and Mission 19/2 [2002], 21–22.

[16] Eta Linnemann has pointed out correctly that the Muratorian Fragment’s assertion that “‘the blessed apostle himself, following the rule of his predecessor John, only writes to seven congregations with authorial attestation’ […] raises the possibility that Paul wrote to the Hebrews without authorial attestation” (“A Call for a Retrial,” 21, emphasis original).

[17] 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon. See Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, 141–155.

[18] Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 33–36.

[19] In the Hellenistic world, the rhetorical ideal was prosōpopoiia, meaning “to write in character.” Writers were expected to write in different styles according to what the situation required. See Luke Timothy Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 35A (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 60.

[20] Ben Witherington III, “The Influence of Galatians in Hebrews,” New Testament Studies 37 (1991), 146–152.

[21] See E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, 171–175, for an introduction to the different ways Greco-Roman letters were signed.

[22] Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, 156–65; Rothschild, Hebrews as Pseudepigraphon, 148–9. For example, Cicero’s collection of letters published after his death was produced from Cicero’s own copies kept by Tiro, Cicero’s secretary; see Cicero, Att. 13.6.3.

[23] Heretics.

[24] A heretic.

[25] Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, 244 n. 31.

[26] Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, 245.

[27] See F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988), 256–259; Lee M. McDonald, The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, rev. exp. ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 229–232. Other criteria were orthodoxy and acceptance and usage by the church at large, according to Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), 251–4.

[28] For example, the tradition of the association of Mark and Luke with Peter and Paul respectively served to validate their writings, according to Metzger, Canon of the New Testament, 253.

[29] The Council of Hippo in 393—whose view was repeated in the Third Council of Carthage in 397—included in its list of canonical books “the thirteen epistles of the Apostle Paul” and “of the same [author] one [epistle] to the Hebrews,” Daniel J. Theron, Evidence of Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), 126–7, quoted in Koester, Hebrews, 27. See also, Bruce, Canon of Scripture, 232–233. The Council of Carthage in 419 no longer made a difference. It simply referred to fourteen letters of Paul (NPNF2 14:453–454).

 


Félix H. Cortez, PhD, is associate professor of New Testament literature at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He was president of the Adventist Theological Society from 2014–16 and chaired the Catholic and Pastoral Epistles Section of the International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature from 2010–16. He is working on a commentary on Hebrews. 

Title image: The Apostle Paul by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1657 [public domain]

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