Who wrote Hebrews?

The beginning of what might become a long series of posts on the book of Hebrews.

The book of Hebrews is formally anonymous– that is, the text of the letter doesn’t identify an author. Because of that, there’s been a lot of debate throughout church history about who could have written it. In fact, there was debate in some circles on its even being inspired, largely because of its anonymity.

Possibly because of this, a couple of early Fathers credited the epistle to Paul, although they recognized that the Greek was different from Paul’s. Other Fathers disagreed, but eventually Jerome and Augustine attributed the book to Paul, and that became, more or less, the majority view until the Reformation. (Sometimes you’ll see Bibles that call it The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews).

But now, the idea that Paul wrote Hebrews is almost universally rejected by critical and conservative scholars alike. There are several strong arguments against Paul’s being the author.

  • The lack of self-identification. If Paul wrote Hebrews, it’s the only extant letter of his without his name as the first word in the text.
  • Significant differences in the style of the Greek. (This isn’t always a dealbreaker, but in a case where authorship is unclear it can be helpful.)
  • The central doctrine of the book of Hebrews is the high priesthood of Christ, a doctrine Paul doesn’t mention in the 13 letters that bear his name. It would be strange for Paul to write an entire book on this idea, yet never bring it up elsewhere.

But the strongest indication by far that we’re not dealing with a Pauline letter comes in Heb 2:3-4.

[H]ow shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (emphasis added).

The reason this is a big deal is that the author is setting himself apart from the apostlic circle (“those who heard [Jesus]”) and placing himself in the second generation of believers, who heard the gospel from the apostles and not the Lord himself. Paul, on the other hand, is always careful to identify himself as an apostle (see the first sentence of any of his letters), and assert that he learned the gospel from the risen Christ himself. In other words, he would go in the category of “those who heard,” the first group to proclaim the gospel they learned from Christ.

So if not Paul, who? There have been lots of suggestions, including Apollos (who was “eloquent and accomplished in the Scriptures,” Acts 18:24), Barnabas, Priscilla and Aquila, and the church father Clement (whose letter quotes extensively from Hebrews). But these are really just guesses; there’s really no hard evidence to back any of them up. At the end of the day, the best answer we can give to the question “Who wrote Hebrews?” is “We don’t know. But probably not Paul.”

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