Authorship of the Book of Hebrews

By Spencer D Gear PhD

(image courtesy Eerdmans)

One of the most controversial books of the New Testament to determine authorship is the Book of Hebrews. Statements about who wrote it have included:[1]

coil-gold-sm ‘neither do we know by whom it was sent’;

coil-gold-sm The author was Clement of Rome;

coil-gold-sm ‘an Epistle to the Hebrews under the name of Barnabas’;

coil-gold-sm ‘who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows’;

coil-gold-sm ‘Luke, who was an excellent advocate, translated it from Hebrew into that elegant Greek’;

coil-gold-sm One made a brilliant guess that Apollos was the author.

Let’s examine some of the evidence from church history. This is not meant to be an extensive examination, but an overview of some of the most prominent people suggested since the time of the early church fathers.

Some of the evidence

To accept Clement as the author of Book of Hebrews,[2] supposed author of First Clement (ca 80-140 AD), would place the dating of Hebrews in the late first century (Clement was martyred in ca. 100 AD). No author’s name is officially attached to First Clement. F F Bruce in his commentary on the Book of Hebrews has a sound discussion of the authorship options (Bruce 1964:xxxv-xlii).

Clement of Rome (ca. 30-100)[3]

Pope Clement I.jpg(image courtesy Wikipedia)

 

Of the authorship of Hebrews, Bruce wrote,

‘If we do not know for certain to whom the epistle was sent, neither do we know by whom it was sent. If Clement of Rome had any inkling of the author’s identity, he gives us no indication of it. But we can be quite sure that he himself was not the author, although it has been suggested at various times that he was. In spite of Clement’s familiarity with the epistle, he “turns his back on its central argument in order to buttress his own arguments about the Church’s Ministry by an appeal to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament’ (Bruce 1964:xxxv-xxxvi).

Bruce cites T W Manson’s statement that describes Clement’s procedure in regard to the Church’s Ministry as ‘a retrogression of the worst kind’ (in Bruce 1964:xxxvi, n 57).

 

Barnabas

Barnabas.jpgTertullian (ca. 155/160-220)[4] appealed to the Epistle to the Hebrews as having greater authority than the Shepherd of Hermas, a second century writing, because of the eminence of the author of Hebrews. He wrote, ‘For there is extant withal an Epistle to the Hebrews under the name of Barnabas— a man sufficiently accredited by God, as being one whom Paul has stationed next to himself in the uninterrupted observance of abstinence’ (On Modesty ch 20).

(icon of St Barnabas, courtesy Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 Only God knows

The church father, Origen (ca. 185-254),[5] stated,

Origen3.jpg(image of Origen, courtesy Wikipedia)

 

‘If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle, but the diction and phraseology are those of some one who remembered the apostolic teachings, and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this. For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul’s.

But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows. The statement of some who have gone before us is that Clement, bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, and of others that Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts, wrote it. But let this suffice on these matters’ (cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6.25.13-14).

Paul or Luke

Bruce further notes that from the Festal Letter of AD 367 [by Athanasius, Letter XXXIX],

from then on the Pauline ascription became traditional in the west as in the east, although commentators of critical judgment continued to speak of Clement of Rome or Luke as translator or editor of the epistle. Thus Thomas Aquinas says that “Luke, who was an excellent advocate, translated it from Hebrew into that elegant Greek…. Calvin thought of Luke or Clement of Rome as the author, not merely translator or editor; while Luther was apparently the first to make the brilliant guess that the author was Apollos – a guess which has commended itself to many since his day (Bruce 1964:xxxix).

Conclusion

Therefore, after 2,000 years no definitive answer has been found to the question: Who wrote the Book of Hebrews? I am happy to conclude that Hebrews was firmly established in the NT canon when the NT was affirmed in the late fourth century. F F Bruce rightly stated the issue:

The first ecclesiastical councils to classify the canonical books were both held in North Africa — at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397 — but what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities (Bruce 1959:ch 3).

designRed-small See ‘The Canon of the New Testament’ by F F Bruce.

Works consulted

Bruce, F F 1959. ‘The canon of the New Testament’, Chapter 3 in The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (5th ed, Leicester: Intervarsity Press). Available at: http://www.bible-researcher.com/bruce1.html (Accessed 5 April 2016).

Bruce, F F 1964. The Epistle to the Hebrews (The New International Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Cairns, E E 1981. Christianity through the Centuries, rev ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Notes


[1] These citations are identified below.

[2] I posted this information at Christianity Board, ‘Common Ground’, 5 April 2016, OzSpen#117. Available at: http://www.christianityboard.com/topic/22418-common-ground/page-4?hl=%20common%20%20ground (Accessed 5 April 2016).

[3] Lifespan dates are from Cairns (1981:73).

[4] Lifespan dates from Encyclopaedia Britannica (2016. s v Tertullian).

[5] Lifespan dates from Encyclopaedia Britannica (2016. s v Origen).

 

Copyright © 2016 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 5 April 2016.