ABSTRACT: For the first 1,500 years of church history, most Christians believed Paul wrote the letter of Hebrews. The resurgence in Greek scholarship at the time of the Reformation, however, revealed serious concerns with Pauline authorship, not least of which is the large stylistic discrepancy between Hebrews and Paul’s other letters. In the time since, though many have tried to tie authorship of Hebrews to others in the apostolic band — from Barnabas and Silas to Apollos and Luke — doubts still render the matter uncertain. Nevertheless, even in the absence of a known author, the authority of Hebrews rests secure. Christians for two thousand years have heard the voice of Christ in the letter of Hebrews, and possessing this God-breathed epistle is far more valuable than knowing its author.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, David Mathis explores what we can and cannot say about the authorship of the letter of Hebrews.
“It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
Famously, that was Winston Churchill’s description of Russia in 1939 when asked about the nation’s intentions and interests. “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia,” he conceded. Then he added his zinger.
Over the years, many have sought to apply Churchill’s memorable line to other puzzles, such as husbands admitting (whether comedically or with genuine humility) to their inability to grasp the endearing mysteries of their wife.
In New Testament studies, the line may apply most aptly to the epistle to the Hebrews, one of the most enigmatic of the field’s enduring riddles. Romans and Hebrews, of similar length, may be the two great pillar epistles of Christian theology, and yet far more is known, and certain, about Romans. With Romans, we get the systematically reasoned heart of Paul. With Hebrews, we get another learned, powerful, complementary voice — but whose? Turning to Hebrews, one thinks about the strange Melchizedek figure and the complex argument of chapter 7, the arresting warning passages in chapters 6 and 10, and the opening catena of Old Testament quotations in chapter 1 that many readers struggle to understand in context.
William Lane begins his impressive two-volume commentary with this tribute:
Hebrews is a delight for the person who enjoys puzzles. Its form is unusual, its setting in life is uncertain, and its argument is unfamiliar. It invites engagement in the task of defining the undefined.1
And the biggest riddle of them all is information that church history, and the faithful today, do not consider to be lacking for any other New Testament document: who wrote it.
Could This Be Paul?
Unlike Paul’s epistles — and all other New Testament letters, except the epistles of John — Hebrews does not begin with the name of its author. Nor does it in any place divulge his name, or give any telltale clues as to his identity. The closest information we have is the mention of Timothy, as an associate, at the close: “Our brother Timothy has been released” (Hebrews 13:23). Assuming this to be the Timothy we know from Acts 16–20 and the epistles of Paul (and especially the two letters addressed to him), the author of Hebrews seems to be from the Pauline circle. So the question has long been, Might it be Paul himself?
“The canonicity of Hebrews stood essentially unchallenged by the end of the fourth century. Paul was presumed the author.”
When we consider the history of the recognition of Hebrews in the Christian canon, we cannot ignore the early assumption that it was from Paul. The extant records are not extensive, but the Eastern church plainly accepted Hebrews as Pauline. However, acceptance was slower in the West, though it solidified by the time of Augustine (354–430) and Jerome (347–420). The epistle’s strikingly high Christology proved valuable in combatting the Arian heresy, which confessed Christ as mere creature, not eternally God. The canonicity of Hebrews stood unchallenged by the end of the fourth century. Paul was presumed the author.
For the next millennium and more, that position remained essentially unquestioned as many read the Scriptures in Latin. However, new queries began to arise at the Reformation as scholars went ad fontes (back to the sources), read the Greek for themselves, and became comfortable enough in the New Testament to spot the stark differences in Paul’s typical style and that of Hebrews.
Some scholars, clinging to Pauline authorship, have attempted various explanations for the manifest differences in style. Perhaps Paul wrote in Hebrew, and Luke, say, translated the letter into Greek. Or maybe Paul cowrote with another member of the apostolic band. Perhaps Paul’s amanuensis (secretary) had a longer-than-normal leash, giving this epistle a distinctive style compared with his other thirteen letters. (Such a rationale suffices for the more moderate differences of the Pastoral Epistles, but not for Hebrews.)
However, the best argument against Paul as author comes in the letter itself.
Even though the author of Hebrews does not leave us his name, he does refer to himself in a revealing statement at the beginning of chapter 2 — and in doing so he speaks in a way that we can acknowledge, on good authority, that the apostle Paul emphatically would not speak.
Speaking of the Christian gospel (and the new covenant in contrast with the old) as “such a great salvation,” the author writes, “It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard” (Hebrews 2:3). Note carefully three parties in view here. First is “the Lord” Jesus himself. He not only came as the great salvation, and to accomplish the great salvation, but he told of it. He himself preached, taught, and declared it. Then Hebrews mentions a second group: “those who heard” — that first generation of apostles and Christians, who followed Jesus’s life, witnessed his death, saw him resurrected, and believed. They saw and knew and heard Jesus for themselves. Then the author of Hebrews puts himself in a third group: “it was attested to us by those who heard.”
Based on what Paul writes elsewhere, and how he reasons and understands his call as an apostle of Christ, Paul would not put himself in this third group, which received the message through another group, and did not receive it directly from the mouth of the Lord. For instance, Paul writes to the Galatian church about the gospel he preaches, “I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12). Critical for Paul, as an apostle “untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8), was that he met the risen Christ face to face on the road to Damascus and received the truth, and his commission, from Christ himself.
Hebrews 2:3 thus leads many post-Reformation scholars to say, with Lane, about the author, “It is certain that he is not Paul.”2
Who Could It Be Now?
J.A.T. Robinson (1919–1983) comments in his 1976 book Redating the Testament about the writer to the Hebrews,
The mantle of the Apostle [Paul] has in part fallen upon the writer himself. He can address his readers with a pastoral authority superior to that of their own leaders and with a conscience clear of local involvement (Heb. 13:17f.), and yet with no personal claim to apostolic aegis. There cannot have been too many of such men around.3
Many have agreed that we’re dealing with a very limited pool of candidates, even if we can’t claim to know that pool exhaustively.
Tertullian (c. 160–220) suggested Barnabas, who partnered with Paul in gospel triumphs on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1–15:35). Some have wondered whether the author’s closing reference to the epistle as a “word of encouragement” (13:22) might allude to the name Barnabas, “which means son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36). However, Paul and Barnabas didn’t remain in the same circle indefinitely. The two had “a sharp disagreement” about Mark and “separated from each other” (Acts 15:37–41), doing so before Paul met Timothy (Acts 16:1).
Others have suggested Silas (Silvanus), who was together with Paul and Timothy for the writing of 1 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, and 2 Thessalonians (and also helped with 1 Peter). Memorably, Martin Luther suggested Apollos, who appears to be “the kind of person who wrote Hebrews.”4 Acts 18:24 describes Apollos as a Jewish native of Alexandria, “an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures.” However, the train of early church fathers from the city of Alexandria does not mention Apollos as a possibility. Would the Alexandrian church have forgotten that one of its own authored such a masterpiece?5
In the end, the suggestions of Barnabas, Apollos, and Silas meet the same fate: we do not have writing samples from them to compare. However, we do have an additional candidate to mention from whom we do have extensive writing — and even then, it’s not conclusive.
Someone Like Luke
One of the first names to be suggested in church history was Luke. Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–253) found the epistle’s theology to be complementary to Paul’s but its style plainly foreign to his (“the verbal style of the epistle . . . is not rude like the language of the apostle . . . but . . . its diction is purer Greek”), and Origen wondered aloud about Luke or Clement of Rome (c. 35–99, not to be confused with Clement of Alexandria, c. 150–215). John Calvin (1509–1564) and the German Hebraist Franz Delitzsch (1813–1890) both went on record favoring Luke.
B.F. Westcott (1825–1901) claims in his Hebrews commentary that “no impartial student can fail to be struck by the frequent use of words characteristic of St. Luke.”6 Henry Alford (1810–1871) was also struck: “Readers of this commentary will frequently be struck by the verbal and idiomatic coincidences with the style of Luke-Acts.”7 Many have joined them in observing “resemblance of style” or “stylistic similarities.”
More recently, Southwestern Seminary professor David Allen published a full monograph in 2010 titled Lukan Authorship of Hebrews.8 There is indeed a case to be made for Luke. Students who have advanced enough in Koine Greek to know Hebrews well, and then read through Luke-Acts, will notice similarities of expression, with Alford and Westcott. Clearly, both Luke-Acts and Hebrews belong to a finer level of Greek than the rest of the New Testament documents. If we start with known authors of New Testament books, as Allen suggests, then Luke seems to be the clear choice. And if we could count Luke reliably as the author of Hebrews, we would have him as author of nearly a third of the whole New Testament (and perhaps also as Paul’s amanuensis for 1–2 Timothy and Titus).
However, we are not limited to known authors, and as Allen himself concedes in his commentary, the most we can say is that “someone like Luke must have been the author.”9 Lane captures the humbling truth: “The limits of historical knowledge preclude positive identification of the writer.”10
The question, then, that has attended the riddle about the epistle’s author is canonicity: If we cannot convincingly establish the identity of the author, can we reasonably receive Hebrews as part of the New Testament canon — the rule, or measuring stick, of our faith, Holy Scripture?
The church, as a whole and throughout time, has long held to relative certainty about the author of all other New Testament books. Of the 27 books, 21 were written by Paul (13) and members of Jesus’s original twelve — Matthew (1), John (5), Peter (2). In addition, we know the identity of four other New Testament writers, clearly associated with Christ and his apostles: Mark wrote his Gospel in association with Peter; Luke wrote his and Acts as a companion of Paul; James and Jude were (half) brothers of Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19; Jude 1), with James in particular serving prominently in early-church leadership (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; 1 Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 2:9). Apostleship, we might say, is at the center of canonicity, but not the entirety of it. For this reason, many have spoken of “apostolicity” and applied the adjective apostolic broadly.
Hebrews, then, pushes us one degree further. If it was written by Luke, we have no further concern, as his Gospel and Acts are recognized without question. But since we remain uncertain about Luke — or suspect another author who was not an apostle or close associate — then further rationale is needed.
In fact, we may have enough evidence to consider the author of Hebrews an associate of Paul’s and a member of the Pauline circle, since Hebrews 13:23 refers to “our brother Timothy,” who seems to have been well-known to both the writer and his readers. But we need not pretend to be more sure than we are. This uncertainty can serve us well. It presses us to answer the question of canonicity by another means: not by the identity of the author, but by the glory of God shining through Scripture.
John Piper makes the case — which applies so well to Hebrews. Leaning on 1 Corinthians 2:11–13 (“we [apostles] impart [the thoughts of God] in words . . . taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual”), Piper writes,
Apostolicity is the supernatural transmission of naturally incomprehensible reality to spiritually discerning people (“those who are spiritual,” 1 Corinthians 2:13), through writing that is “taught by the Spirit.” This means that the recognition by the church of the apostolicity of the 27 books of the New Testament was neither a mere historical judgment about who wrote the books nor a mere preference for some over others. Rather, the historical judgments and the corporate preferences were the outworkings of the supernatural encounter between the unique work of God in the writings (“words not taught by human wisdom”) and providentially discerning Christians endowed with the Holy Spirit (“interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual”).11
“The epistle, even without identification of its author, manifests the peculiar glory of God in Christ to his people.”
That “supernatural encounter” between Christ and his church, confirmed over generations, is key. The upshot, as this dynamic relates to Hebrews, is that the epistle, even without identification of its author, manifests the peculiar glory of God in Christ to his people, and as Michael Kruger writes, has been “understood to bear the essential apostolic deposit.”12 A.T. Lincoln summarizes, “In the providence of God, the church catholic rightly heard in Hebrews the apostolic gospel that witnessed powerfully to God’s decisive action in Christ and to its implications for faith and life.”13 To this, I would add, with Piper, that in the hearing the church has seen, for centuries, and continues to see, not only truth but beauty: the self-authenticating glory of Christ.
God Only Knows
Origen’s third-century statement on Hebrews has endured: “Who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows.” We are not sure of his name, but we can surmise some important details about “the kind of person who wrote Hebrews,” whoever this “someone like Luke” was. Though not Paul himself, the author was part of the apostolic circle, and known to readers as proximate to Paul and Timothy. He likely had a Jewish background, with Hellenistic upbringing and training.
Scholars uniformly admire his Greek: “a master of elegant Greek”;14 “the most elegant stylist among the New Testament writers”;15 “the finest Greek in the New Testament, far superior to the Pauline standard both in vocabulary and sentence-building.”16 Andrew Trotter claims, “The writing of Hebrews is easily the finest in the NT, both in its use of grammar and vocabulary, and in its style and knowledge of the conventions of Greek rhetoric.”17
In the end, far more important than our having his name is our having the letter that the risen Christ breathed out for his church through this man.
Look to the Reward
From beginning to end, Hebrews sounds the consistent refrain, as many have captured it, Jesus is better. Not only as God, but now as man, he is superior to the angels (1:4; 2:9–10), “worthy of more glory than Moses — as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself” (3:3). Better than Joshua (4:8–10), better than David and Aaron and Melchizedek, he provides a better hope (7:19) through mediating a better covenant (7:22; 8:6). He has prepared for us a better country (11:16) and will raise us, after death, to a better life (11:35). Foreign as some parts of the letter may feel, we are called again and again, without riddle, to look forward, in the pursuit of real and lasting joy.
“From beginning to end, Hebrews sounds the consistent refrain, as many have captured it, Jesus is better.”
Whatever the standard of comparison, Jesus is better. He himself is our better and abiding possession, and our great reward (10:34–35). Hebrews summons us to seek such holy satisfaction, to know our God as one who “rewards those who seek him” (11:6), to release our grasp on the treasures of this age by “looking to the reward” (11:26), to “consider Jesus” (3:1), and run with endurance, “looking to Jesus . . . who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (12:1–2).
Riddle, mystery, and enigma though Hebrews may be, its vision and value have never been in serious doubt.