Authorship of Hebrews: Reviewing Cortez’s Case—Part 2

Authorship of Hebrews: Reviewing Cortez’s Case—Part 2

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Published:
March 9, 2022

Recently, Félix Cortez published an article on the Spectrum website arguing that Paul the apostle was the author of the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament. This essay, published weekly in four parts, is a review of that paper and its evidence and findings, a response to the elements of his case, and a summary of my own views on the issue.

Click here for Part 1

The Case for Paul

Cortez devotes much more attention to this than his description of the contra case.[1] He even starts this section with a depreciation of the strength of the contra position. This is easier to say if, as is the situation here, the case he presents against Paul is as weak as it is.

His first point—Hebrews does not start like a letter but ends like one—focuses on what Cortez considers continuities between the so-called postscripts of the Pauline letters and Hebrews. His examples include the expressions God of peace” and from the dead,” as well as the mention of Timothy.” This provides no serious or legitimate evidence for Paul as author. The document may well be something other than a conventional letter, possibly even a sermon (as he contends), but that offers no support to the notion of Paul as author. On God of peace,” Paul himself uses this exact phrase only four times—twice in Romans and once each in Philippians and 1 Thessalonians. In 2 Cor 13:11, the phrase is actually God of love and peace.” So, Paul did not even use the expression very much. Regarding from the dead,” this is a very common expression in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels and Acts. It also appears twice in 1 Peter and three places in the disputed Pauline letters.[2] It is found ten times in Romans, twice in 1 Cor 15 (understandably), and once each in Galatians and Philippians. This evidence” has no significance.

What is more notable is that Cortez did not mention usage evidence that is significant, i.e., the absence in Hebrews of the very common Pauline expression ἐν Χριστῷ (or the articular form ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ). The former is used seventy-six times in the New Testament (fifty-two in the undisputed letters of Paul, twenty-one in the disputed letters, and three times in 1 Peter); the articular form appears six times in the New Testament (twice in undisputed Paul and four times in disputed Paul). It is especially important to note that twenty-five of these uses occur in disputed writings of Paul. Thus, all seven undisputed Pauline letters and four of the six disputed documents contain this expression. While it is not entirely impossible that Hebrews could be a Pauline-related document, without including this expression, it is very highly unlikely.

As for Timothy,” we may note that someone by that name is mentioned nineteen times in 1 and 2 Macc. I dont think anyone is proposing that Paul was the author of those documents. We would certainly reach the same conclusion regarding the six references to Timothy” in Acts. The name also appears eleven times in the undisputed letters of Paul[3] and six times in the disputed letters.[4] While I dont disagree that the mention of the freeing of our brother Timothy” in Heb 13:23 refers to the person so named in Acts and the letters associated with Paul, I contend that this provides no evidence for or against the Pauline authorship of Hebrews.

His second point—evidence of the authority of and Pauline relationship to Hebrews is early—he considers to be very significant.” However, there is nothing significant, very” or otherwise, about this evidence.” It is, in my judgment, without foundation. The issue here is not when knowledge and use of or allusion to Hebrews began but the identity of its writer—in particular, whether or not Paul was the author. Cortez provides no early examples that address that issue and seems to recognize as much.[5] The comparative manuscript attestation of Hebrews provides no evidence about the issue of authorship nor does the early date for its quotation or the identity of those—especially in the West—who opposed or supported Paul as author. In fact, none of these external observations have any value for determining the authorship of Hebrews. At best, they may contribute to the history of the question and its various answers.[6]

His third point—style and vocabulary evidence for or against Pauls authorship is unreliable—noted that many of Pauls letters were co-authored, one used a secretary, and that writing in character” was a Hellenistic characteristic. However, none of this is definitive regarding the authorship of Hebrews. To consider multiple authors, ancient writing conventions, and potential scribal involvement is merely to entertain possibilities. At best, they can propose what may have occurred but offer nothing to support a particular case for or against Paul or anyone else as author. One cannot simply dismiss the broadly accepted evidence without even examining it. Such evidence may not rule out Paul as author, but it may certainly support the high unlikelihood of such a conclusion.

Among the phenomena not mentioned by Cortez are some common Pauline terms like gospel (εὐαγγέλιον) and mystery (μυστήριον) that are not used in Hebrews. The former is found in all Pauline letters, undisputed and disputed, except Titus; the latter in two undisputed Pauline letters and in four disputed letters.

Another unmentioned peculiarity of Hebrews is the unique way it introduces scriptural quotations. Whereas large portions of the New Testament, including Paul,[7] use the formula γέγραπται (it is written”) followed by the quote, Hebrews employs a wide variety of introductory quotation formulas. In just the first four chapters we find: διεμαρτύρατο δέ πού τις λέγων “but someone has testified somewhere” (2:6); λέγων “saying” (2:12), followed by καἰ πάλιν “and again” twice; καθὼς λέγει τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον “just as the Holy Spirit says” (3:7); ἐν τῷ λέγεσθαι “as it is said” (3:15); καθὼς εἴρηκεν “just as he has said” (4:3); εἴρηκεν γάρ που περὶ τῆς ἑβδόμης οὕτως “for somewhere it says concerning the seventh day as follows” (4:4).

His fourth point—Heb 2:3 does not disqualify Paul as author—claims that the author of Hebrews and his readers did not receive or were not taught by the apostles but were confirmed in their faith by them.[8] I find this argument to be overly simplistic and out of touch with the text.

In ch. 1, the writer asserts and seeks to prove from scripture that Christ (called Son and Lord) is superior to angels. Chapter 2 begins with a logically derived admonition to readers: “Therefore, we must pay even closer attention to the things (we) heard, lest we drift away” (διὰ τοῦτο δεῖ περισσοτέρως προσέχειν ἡμᾶς τοῖς ἀκουσθεῖσιν, μήποτε παραρυῶμεν). The writer follows this admonition with a long sentence (vv. 2-4[9]) that provides the reason or justification for the admonition. The crux interpretum is the last half of the middle of these three verses (v. 3b): ἥτις ἀρχὴν λαβοῦσα λαλεῖσθαι διὰ τοῦ κυρίου ὑπὸ τῶν ἀκουσάντων εἰς ἡμᾶς ἐβεβαιώθη. To understand it, we must read and interpret it in the context of the whole sentence.

The construction is a first-class conditional sentence in the form of a question that constitutes a qal wahomer (“lesser to greater” or “better” vs. “good”) argument. We may translate it as follows: “For since[10] the message declared by angels became valid and every transgression and disobedience received a just punishment, how shall we[11] escape if we neglect[12] so great salvation, which, having at first been declared by the Lord, was validated to us by those who heard (him) and by God, according to his will, with signs, wonders, diverse miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit?” In other words, the declaration of angels, that punishment for sin was just, was valid, i.e., good, but how can we escape if we neglect the so great, i.e., better, salvation declared by the Lord and validated through various means? Whatever 2:3b means, it must make sense in this context.

The writer chose words very carefully for this material, particularly in vv. 2a and 3b—the protasis (“if” or condition clause) and language in the apodosis (“then” or conclusion clause) of the conditional sentence. Notice the verbal connections between these verses:

Elements

Protasis (2a)

Apodosis (3b)

The Topic

ὁ . . . λόγος

ἥτις = σωτηρίας

The Action

λαληθεὶς

λαλεῖσθαι

The Means

δι’ ἀγγέλων

διὰ τοῦ κυρίου

The Result

βέβαιος

ἐβεβαιώθη

This verbally tight parallel contains (1) two elements that have essentially equivalent terms and (2) two that have contrasting expressions. The former includes (a) the “Action”—both expressed by aor. pass. forms of the verb λαλἐω “to speak” (here in the sense of “to declare”) and (b) the “Result,” containing adj. and verb forms of the same word group that conveys the notion of “validity” or “confirmation.” We can safely assume that these two elements express the same or, at least similar, ideas in their respective contexts.

We will first look at the second of the two contrasts—the “Means.” Those who make the “good” declaration in antiquity are identified in the phrase δι’ ἀγγέλων “through angels.” However, the “better” declaration is made διὰ τοῦ κυρίου “through the Lord.” After ch. 1, this assessment of “the Lord” in contrast to “angels” should be expected.

The first contrast involves the “Topic,” i.e., the content of what is declared. The ancient angels are said to have declared ὁ λόγος “the message,” lit. “the word,” without indicating its content or meaning. In contrast to this general reference, what the Lord declared is ἥτις (used here in the sense of “which”). Of course, the significance of the contrast depends on the antecedent to this pron. For that, we simply need to look to the preceding clause, which ends with the word σωτηρίας. So, what the Lord declared was σωτηρία “salvation” – however, not just any σωτηρία, but τηλικαύτης . . . σωτηρίας “so great salvation.” Therefore, the “better” is not only declared by “the (superior) Lord “in contrast to (inferior) “angels” but what he “declared” was “so great salvation” compared to their undefined “message”—no wonder the writer asks, How shall we escape if we neglect this?

Although it is not specifically part of the table above, there is another significant contrast in this sentence. In the protasis (condition clause), the “message” declared “through angels” “became valid.” However, the text does not indicate how, when, or by whom it “became valid.” In contrast, the apodosis (conclusion clause) has a complex answer to the validation of the “so great salvation.” In vv. 3b-4, the writer indicates that the “so great salvation” was validated to us by those who heard (him, i.e., the Lord) and by God, according to his will, with signs, wonders, diverse miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit?” This validation is so significant that it not only consists of a trajectory of tradition but also involves the whole Trinity.

It is the trajectory of tradition—at least one stage of it (ὑπὸ τῶν ἀκουσάντων “by those who heard (the Lord”)—and the use of the verb ἐβεβαιώθη, “it (so great salvation) was validated,” that relate to the authorship issue. However, this is not, as Cortez contents, a matter of differences between “the audience ‘received’ (parelabon) or were ‘taught’ (edidachthēn) the gospel by the apostles” compared to “the gospel was ‘confirmed (ebebaiōthē) to them by the apostles.”

There is no specific mention of “apostles” in this text, only τῶν ἀκουσάντων (“those who heard [the Lord]”). More importantly, as I have argued, this must be read within the context of the whole first-class conditional sentence, 2:2-4. In that setting, this language is simply part of a trajectory of tradition that consists of:

The declaration by the Lord of “so great salvation”

To persons who heard him

Who validated it to “us,” i.e., to the writer and the readers

Along with the validation by God himself, together with the Holy Spirit

The emphasis here is on the better message, its better source, and its better validation as reasons why the writer and readers should not “drift away.” Although this has no definitive impact on the issue of who wrote Hebrews, the deliberate identification of the writer with the readers and not with “those who heard (the Lord)” links the writer with second-generation Christians and effectively eliminates Paul.

I think this position is confirmed by examining two contrasting personal statements by Paul that differ radically from this material in Hebrews. The first is in Gal 1, where Paul emphasizes his independence from apostolic tradition. He declares that he is an apostle but not by human commission (v. 1). He is not seeking human approval (v. 10). His gospel is not of human origin (v. 11), nor did he receive it from a human source (v. 12). He was not taught it but received it through the revelation of Jesus (v. 12; cf. v. 16). However, after three years he went to Jerusalem to see Cephas and saw James also (vv. 18-19), presumably for some kind of affirmation.

In 1 Cor 15, Paul emphasizes his place in both (1) the trajectory of tradition and (2) the appearances of the risen Lord. Regarding the former, he reminds his readers that he had received the most important, traditional confession of Christ’s death and resurrection and had passed it on to them (v. 3). Concerning the latter, he lists himself among the recipients of appearances of the risen Lord, despite, in his mind, being “the least of the apostles” (vv. 8-9).[13]

Certainly, this is not the same person who wrote Heb 2:2-4, where, unlike Paul, he identified with his readers and associated with them in both their place in the trajectory of tradition and their responsibility to not drift away.[14]

Part 3 will appear next week.

 

Notes & References:

[1] See n. 5 (Part 1)  for the comparative word counts. However, this is not simply a matter of statistics, whereby the “for” case has more than four times the number of words compared to the “against” case. The focus gap is even wider in that much of the “against” case consists of attempts to neutralize or rebut the few “against” positions included.

[2] It is widely held by scholars that Paul was the author of only seven letters (Rom, 1 Cor, 2 Cor, Gal, Phil, 1 Thess, and Phile) and not likely the writer of the remaining six associated with his name (Eph, Col, 2 Thess, 1 Tim, 2 Tim, and Titus), which are typically deemed to be post-Pauline documents written to summarize or imitate him. Without taking a position on the accuracy of this assessment, I will simply refer to the former as “undisputed” and the latter as “disputed.”

[3] Once in Rom; twice each in 1 Cor, 2 Cor, Phil; three times in 1 Thess; and once in Phlm.

[4] Once each in Col, 2 Thess, and 2 Tim; and three times in 1 Tim.

[5] E.g., he acknowledges that Clement quotes from Heb but does not link Paul to it; He also refers to ten “Christian writers” in the West who cited or alluded to “Hebrews as authoritative without mentioning who the author was.”

[6] I will discuss the issues of Hebrews in the Pauline collection and its title below.

[7] This is especially true of the Gospels and Acts. For Paul, see Rom 1:17; 2:24; 3:4, 10; 4:17; 8:36; 9:13, 33; 10:15; 11:8, 26; 12:19; 14:11; 15:3, 9, 21; 1 Cor 1:19, 31; 2:9; 3:19; 4:6; 9:9; 10:7; 14:21; 15:45; 2 Cor 8:15; 9:9; Gal 3:10, 13; 4:22, 27.

[8] See above for the discussion of the Heb 2:3 and its relationship to the issue of authorship.

[9] 2εἰ γὰρ ὁ δι’ ἀγγέλων λαληθεὶς λόγος ἐγένετο βέβαιος καὶ πᾶσα παράβασις καὶ παρακοὴ ἔλαβεν ἔνδικον μισθαποδοσίαν, 3πῶς ἡμεῖς ἐκφευξόμεθα τηλικαύτης ἀμελήσαντες σωτηρίας, ἥτις ἀρχὴν λαβοῦσα λαλεῖσθαι διὰ τοῦ κυρίου ὑπὸ τῶν ἀκουσάντων εἰς ἡμᾶς ἐβεβαιώθη, 4συνεπιμαρτυροῦντος τοῦ θεοῦ σημείοις τε καὶ τέρασιν καὶ ποικίλαις δυνάμεσιν καὶ πνεύματος ἁγίου μερισμοῖς κατὰ τὴν αὐτοῦ θέλησιν;

[10] Lit. “if.” However, the protasis or condition clause of a first-class conditional sentence conveys the writer’s assumption, at least for the argument, that the described condition is true. See Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan: 1996), 690.

[11] The subj. here is emph., presumably to emphasize the focus on the readers.

[12] The combination ἐκφευξόμεθα (verb) . . . ἀμελήσαντες (ptc.) involves the conditional use of the ptc. that is best rendered “(how) shall we escape . . . if we neglect.” See Wallace, 633.

[13] Contra 2 Cor 11:5; 12:11.

[14] In Gal 1:1-19 and 1 Cor 15:1-9, Paul addresses his readers only with 2nd per. verbs and pronouns and never specifically identifies with them, except in Gal 1:4 regarding Christ giving himself “for our sins to set us free.”

 


Warren C. Trenchard received his PhD from the University of Chicago. Before retirement, he was professor of New Testament and early Christian literature and director of graduate programs in the HMS Richards Divinity School at La Sierra University. 

Title image: Saint Paul by Diego Velázquez, c. 1619 [public domain]

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