The Book of Hebrews

Roger Hahn

The book of Hebrews may have been the most profound book written in the New Testament period. It is also one of the most difficult books for modern people to understand. A recent commentary described Hebrews as "a delight for the person who enjoys puzzles" (Lane, WB, xlvii). The literary form of the book is uncertain. The author and time of writing are unknown. The logic and flow of thought are unusual for most modern people.

Despite the many areas of uncertainty the book of Hebrews yields rich results to the person who will study it patiently and carefully. It is a rich resource for Christology and practical Christian guidance. It breathes the air of the Old Testament, but blows the fresh wind of the Spirit making all things new. Hebrews is a study in pastoral care for a church under pressure. It is the rich literary and theological testimony of an author who has found The Messiah to be the fulfillment of all the hopes of the Old Testament. Hebrews leads a pilgrim people down the path of faithfulness and confident trust.

The traditional method by which modern Biblical scholarship studies a book leads to frequent frustration for those studying Hebrews. Normally, a student seeks to learn all that can be determined about the author, the date, the place of writing, the audience, the literary form, and the purpose of the book. Most of these areas lead scholars to dead ends. Though clear answers to these questions are not always available, the process of asking them can lead to helpful information about the book.

The King James Version of the Bible usually places a heading over Hebrews with the words, "The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews." Unfortunately (perhaps) those clear words were not part of the original document of Hebrews, but were added several hundred years later by scribes copying the book who believed Paul to be the author. Unlike the thirteen letters of Paul there is no mention of the author by name in Hebrews. In fact, every book normally thought of as a letter in the New Testament begins with the author's name as the first word except Hebrews and 1 John.

Uncertainty about the author of Hebrews goes back to the earliest references to the book. By the early A.D. 200's church fathers in Alexandria, Egypt, were describing Paul as the author. However, they recognized that the Greek style of the book was very different from the style of Paul. Some thought that Paul had written the book in Hebrew and Luke had translated it into Greek. The great scholar Origen knew that Paul was not the author, but supposed that a student of Paul had written Paul's thoughts in his own style and words. He mentioned that others in the church believed the author of Hebrews to have been either Clement of Rome (who wrote a letter to Corinth about A.D. 95) or Luke, the author of Luke and Acts. Other ancient writers suggested Barnabas as a possible author of Hebrews.

It was not until about A.D. 400 that the idea of Pauline authorship of Hebrews became widespread in the church. However, that opinion was never completely accepted. Throughout the history of the church analytical Bible scholars who knew the uncertain tradition of Pauline authorship offered their opinions about the identity of the author. Calvin repeated the ancient view that Luke or Clement were the most likely authors. In the 1500's Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Reformation, suggested that Apollos was the most likely author among those persons mentioned in the New Testament. Apollos has remained a popular candidate through the last four centuries. Priscilla and Aquila, Silas, Jude, Aristion, Phillip, and even the Virgin Mary are other Biblical persons who have been mentioned as a possible author of Hebrews.

The case for Pauline authorship in the early church rested on the reference to Timothy - well known as an associate of Paul - in Hebrews 13:23 and the general similarity of the theology of Hebrews to orthodox Christianity (supposedly developed by Paul). However, there are a number of details that speak against the assumption that Paul wrote Hebrews. The author of Hebrews was much more trained and skilled in the use of the Greek language than was Paul. Some of the most sophisticated Greek to be found in the New Testament is in the book of Hebrews. The only book that matches the powerful Greek style in the New Testament is Luke and Acts - thus the idea by both early and modern Christians that Luke might have been the author.

The flow of thought and the logic of the argument of Hebrews is very different from anything we encounter in the known letters of Paul. The way in which the Old Testament is quoted and used by the author of Hebrews is very different from the way Paul appealed to the Jewish Scriptures. The author describes himself (or herself) in Hebrews 2:3 as a step removed from the original apostles. Galatians 1:12 and 1 Corinthians 9:1 show that Paul expressed his awareness of the historical life of Yahshua in very different terms. There are virtually no reputable scholars today who would argue that Paul wrote the book of Hebrews.

The bottom line of the discussion of the authorship of Hebrews is that we do not know the author's name. There is still no better conclusion than that drawn by Origen near A.D. 200 when he wrote, "As to who actually wrote the epistle, Yahweh only knows." Attempts to give the author a name are fruitless.

However, that does not mean that we know nothing about the author. We know a great deal about him (or her), we just don't know his (or her) name. The author was a Jew who was born and educated in the Greek-speaking world. He had a broad vocabulary and powerful training in logic and rhetoric. It is likely that he attended the finest schools available in the first century. He had an architectural mind that was capable of ordering numerous details to produce a well-structured argument. He was a deeply spiritual person whose commitment to the Messiah called forth all his "being's ransomed powers" in service to the assembly. He has also been described as a pastoral theologian. This author shaped the common Christian teaching by the genius of his own training to meet the needs of a group of people who desperately needed a message from Yahweh. (to be continued next issue) ~