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Authorship of Hebrews: Reviewing Cortez’s Case—Part 4


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.

Part 1Part 2Part 3

Cortez’s sixth point—that it’s unlikely Hebrews long circulated independently before canonization—contains three reasons.

First reason: there is no manuscript evidence that Hebrews ever circulated alone. Whether it ever circulated alone or only within the Pauline collection is irrelevant to the issue of the canonical challenges that it clearly encountered. It certainly was not a factor in the assessment of Eusebius in the early fourth century: Pauls fourteen epistles are well known and undisputed. It is not indeed right to overlook the fact that some have rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews, saying that it is disputed by the church of Rome, on the ground that it was not written by Paul.”[1]

Second reason: the postscripts in Pauls letters that have no signature function as his signature. Also, if it was felt that Hebrews was not written by Paul, it should have been included among the Catholic or General Epistles.

The warning in 2 Thess 2:1-3,[2] even if Pauline, is worthless to insert into this discussion, especially followed by the observation that the “postscripts” in some letters equaled Pauls “signatures.” A postscript is not a signature. More importantly, neither signature nor postscript settles the question of authorship.[3] In discussing Paul as an apostle to the Gentiles, Cortez is trying to nullify an argument against Pauline authorship of Hebrews but concludes that if the early church had found that to be persuasive, it would have included Hebrews “among the Catholic or General Epistles.” Although the earliest MS of the Pauline corpus, Papyrus 46 (c. 200 CE), includes Hebrews after Romans,[4] the traditional placement after Philemon is also found in some Bohairic Coptic MSS that also date in the third century.[5] This placement, now followed by most texts and translations of the NT, puts Hebrews after the Pauline collection and before the General Epistles, i.e., it may be considered part of either or a unique NT text. This argument offers no evidence that ancient collection practices, even if substantiated, have any predictive value for the Pauline letter collection[6] or, for that matter, any assurance of the Pauline authorship of any documents in the collection.[7]

Third reason: the collection of “Pauls letters was probably not made by making copies from the churches that received” them but from his own files in Rome. Aside from being based on complete speculation as far as NT writers are concerned, this argument suffers from the significant problem that later opposition to the canonical status of Hebrews was centered in Rome and based on the contention there that Paul was not the author.[8]

Cortez concludes his case for Paul with two things: a summary of his case and his conclusion. Of the former, he says, In summary, biblical and historical evidence supports the idea that Paul could have written Hebrews.” Despite the title of this whole section, “The Case for Paul,” he did not make a convincing case that Paul was the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. At best, as he stated in his summery, he showed “that Paul could have written Hebrews.” However, as I have argued regarding several aspects of his case, especially concerning the use of Hab 2:3b-4 in Hebrews, the evidence makes the Pauline authorship very unlikely at best and much more likely that neither Paul nor any of his followers wrote the letter.

His conclusion moves from his summary that Pauline authorship is possible to the question, is Paul the likely author?”[9] He prefaces his answer to this by essentially saying, it depends”—it depends on how one weighs and evaluates his evidence, which he briefly reviews.[10] Finally, he simply concludes, I believe it is likely that Paul wrote Hebrews.”

Of course, Cortez is free to express his belief on this issue. I will grant him the theoretical possibility that Paul or, for that matter, any number of men or women in first century Christianity could have written the Letter to the Hebrews. The strengths of the cases for or against their candidacy vary widely. However, the case against Paul, which he vastly underreported, so overwhelmingly represents scholarly consensus.[11] And the evidence of radical differences in biblical interpretation, especially regarding Hab 2:3b-4, make this not simply a theoretical matter of Pauline possibility but result in a virtual impossibility, i.e., it may be theoretically possible but very highly unlikely, nay, impossible.

The positions of The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (SDABC)[12] and the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary (SDABD)[13] are interesting, to say the least. In 1957 (revised 1980), vol. 7 of the SDABC included the anonymous section, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.” The customary Introduction” before the verse-by-verse commentary appropriately considered the issue of Authorship.” It noted that the evidence against Paul as author focused mostly on issues of literary style and content of the book.” Although suggesting that ones style will vary according to the subject, it observed that a writermore general vocabulary and particularly the words that he chooses almost unconsciously in expressing himself, such as prepositions, adverbs and especially connectives, are considered by most scholars to be much better indications of this style than is his technical terminology.” The Introduction continued, When compared with the generally accepted epistles of Paul, Hebrews differs markedly, especially in the small, common connective words with which its author binds together his clauses.” Regarding the handling of quotations from the OT,” it recognized that the accepted epistles” (of Paul) use one set of standard quotation formulas, while Hebrews uses another. Its other evidence acknowledged that in contrast to Paul, Hebrews usually quotes only the LXX and does so mostly verbatim and that unlike Paul, Hebrews exhibits a very structured argument and the highest rhetorical level of any NT book.”

About thirty years ago, I remember reading this introduction in the SDABC 7 and being absolutely amazed at the candid and comprehensive statement of evidence against the Pauline authorship of Hebrews.[14] However, not only was this short-lived but what followed was incomprehensible. After a short paragraph about the discovery of Papyrus 46 and its inclusion of Hebrews after Romans in a collection of Pauline letters, the commentary reached this startling, non sequitur conclusion: This commentary holds that though weighty arguments have been presented against the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, those arguments are not sufficient to offset the traditional belief that Paul is the author.”[15] Belief trumped evidence; tradition prevailed over weighty arguments”!

The approach of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary was similar, although not quite so blatant. After noting that Hebrews is anonymous and there is no direct, internal clue as to authorship, admitting to modern, critical rejection of Paul as the author and listing the main arguments of that scholarly position, it concluded: To sum up the matter of authorship, the point of view expressed in the epistle is characteristically and uniquely that of the apostle Paul, . . . but the style of writing is not his.” Thus, the content may have been from the divinely guided Paul but the writing was by a trusted assistant under his direct supervision.” Pauls authorship cannot be proved, but the presumptive evidence is strongly in his favor.”

Does Authorship Matter?

Curiously, Cortez concludes with an addendum on the importance of establishing authorship. He contends that views on authorship can impact the perception of authority. Although the Letter to the Hebrews, like other examples, could be canonical even if written by one of Pauls associates,[16] the church canonized the letter when it eventually accepted the contention that Paul himself was the author. Finally, in his words, the burden of proof rests on those who deny the possibility that Paul could have written Hebrews.”

For some readers of the biblical text, the identity of a documents author may be significant and may even affect their perception of its authority. However, this does not seem to have concerned the writers of the NT, who usually quoted the Hebrew Scriptures without reference to their specific authors[17]—even sometimes misidentifying the writer.[18] In these cases, the NT writers clearly accepted their OT sources as authoritative, even if they did not know the identity of the authors, chose not to identify them, or misidentified them. Furthermore, the first sub-apostolic authors regularly quoted from or alluded to NT documents without identifying the writers, implicitly attributing authority to them close to that of the OT Scriptures and the words of the Lord.[19]

Late in the fourth century, the church, East and West, finally agreed on a NT canon list,[20] not because these regions abandoned their concerns about the authorship of certain documents but because they seemed intent on closing the debate by simply accommodating a few notable, disputed texts, especially Revelation (in the East) and Hebrews (in the West). In 414, after referring to this situation, Jerome indicates his decision to receive both” Hebrews and Revelation, not by the contemporary standards but based on the authority of ancient writers, who for the most part quote each of them.” This led Metzger to say, From this we can see that, contrary to his sometimes quarrelsome and irascible temperament, when it comes to the books of the New Testament, he is content to acquiesce to the list of those that were then in general use.”[21]

Finally, on whom does the burden of proof” rest? Cortez does not specifically justify his declaration that the burden rests on those who deny” that Paul could have written Hebrews. If one starts with Ellen Whites practice of citing material from Hebrews as being from Paul, the inclusion of Hebrews in some early lists of manuscripts of Pauline letters, and/or the early assessment of the Church in the East, it is understandable why one might place the burden of proof on anyone who disagrees. However, if one starts with the even earlier quotations and allusions from Hebrews without reference to its author; the expressed concerns of patristic writers like Tertullian, Clement, and Origen; the well-known opposition of the church in the West; and/or the overwhelming consensus of scholarship throughout the last two centuries, then the burden rests on those who wish to support the direct or indirect authorship of Hebrews by Paul the Apostle.

My View

Although it will be obvious to the reader how I view this issue, let me succinctly state it here. The Letter to the Hebrews, a legitimate part of the canon of the New Testament, is anonymous, like many documents of the OT and NT. Although, along with other contemporary Christian writings (e.g., Luke, Acts, James, and 1 Peter), it understandably shares ideas and vocabulary in common with Paul the Apostle, it displays such differences in style, language, rhetoric, content, biblical interpretation, and citation practices that it is impossible to conclude that Paul had any direct or indirect involvement in the production of the Letter to the Hebrews. Paul did not write Hebrews, nor did any of the members of his school of thought. We do not know who wrote it, but thats okay. It is a genuine part of the NT and shares the same level of authority as any other part of it.


Notes & References:

[1] Hist. eccl. 3.3.5.

[2] The writer is addressing the issue of timing of the Parousia and, in v. 2, urges readers not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us.”

[3] The absence of Paul’s “signature” at the end of 1 Cor has not prevented scholars from unanimously attributing the letter to Paul, nor has the presence of one in Col 4:18 resulted in universal agreement that Paul wrote the letter.

[4] The Letter to the Hebrews starts on the last page of Rom with a heading like the others in the MS, simply ΠΡΟΣ ΕΒΡΑΙΟΥΣ “To Hebrews.”

[5] The witnesses that have Heb after Phlm include D, L, Ψ, 048, 056, 075, 0142, most minuscules, itd, vg, syrp,h, copbo(mss), ethpp. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Deutshe Bibelgesellschaft, 1998), 591.

[6] The 12th cent. minuscule 1241 has Heb, Jas, Rom, Eph, Col, Jude following Phlm. Metzger, Textual Commentary, 591-592.

[7] The modern, analytical approach to the “Pauline” corpus focuses on the contents and linguistic characteristics of the individual documents without definitive regard for the fact that they may appear in one or another ancient grouping.

[8] See above for the early 4th cent. statement by Eusebius.

[9] The italics are his.

[10] These include the questions of anonymity, postscript similarities, external evidence, East-West reception differences, the letter’s circulation, and style issues.

[11] E.g., dictionaries; ABD, s.v., “Hebrews, Epistle to the”; NIDB, s.v. “Hebrews, Letter to the” and commentaries: Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 1-6; William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, WBC 47A (Dallas: Word Books, 1991), xlviii-li; Craig Koester, Hebrews, AB 36 (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 42-46. All these are content to accept Heb as anonymous, with ABDNIDB, Attridge, Lane rejecting Pauline authorship. Attridge allows for “some loose association with the Pauline school” (6). Koester concludes that Heb is simply anonymous (46).

[12] The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, rev. ed., vol. 7, ed. Francis D. Nichol (Hagerstown: MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1980], 387-389.

[13] Siegfried H. Horn, Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, rev. ed. (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1979), s.v. “Hebrews, Epistle of.”

[14] I don’t remember noticing it then, but this material included another remarkable acknowledgement of contemporary “critical” scholarship, i.e., that not all the letters associated with the name of Paul were genuine. Notice the following, dropped without fanfare into the discussion: “when compared to the generally accepted epistles of Paul” (387) and “the accepted epistles” (388).

[15] I later discussed this with one of the members of the editorial team of the SDABC, and he admitted not only to having written this material on the authorship of Hebrews but also that the editor simply changed his original conclusion that had been consistent with the evidence he had marshalled.

[16] The criterion of “apostolicity,” which held that to be “canonized” a document must be deemed to have been written by an apostle or the associate of an apostle, developed during the 2nd cent., culminating in the explicit statements of Irenaeus around the end of the cent. Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 156, 254.

[17] Of the forty-eight OT quotations in Matt that I examined, only nine were identified with their supposed authors: Isaiah – six (3:3; 4:15; 8:17; 12:18; 13:14; 15:8); Jeremiah – two (2:18; 27:9); David – one (22:44).

[18] E.g., Matt 27:9-10 includes a quotation, attributed to Jeremiah, that is actually from Zech 11:12-23. So acknowledged by Norman Hillyer, “Matthew’s Use of the Old Testament,” EvQ 36:1 (January-March 1964), 22.

[19] E.g., Clement of Rome and Ignatius.

[20] The list by Athanasius of Alexander (367) represents the Eastern compromise; that associated with Pope Damascus I (c. 383), the Western response.

[21] Metzger, Canon, 236, after quoting from Jerome’s letter of 414 to Claudienus Postumus Dardanus.


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: a page from Papyrus 46 (c. 175–225) that contains Hebrews 1:1–7 (public domain).

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