The Author of Hebrews


If the authorship of the unsigned, unaddressed epistle commonly known as "to the Hebrews" is a matter of "religion" for you -- that is, you know it to be true, regardless of any contrary evidence -- then stop reading here and now, this essay is not for you. Being Wrong about a matter that Scripture itself has given us no definitive answer will not destroy your eternal salvation, but getting angry about it cannot help. Being exposed to contrary arguments to issues of religion (that is, where the opposing opinions are by definition Wrong) generally produces more heat (anger) than illumination. We don't need that. You don't need that.

There is this sincere, thoughtful young man in the church I attend, whom the pastor seems to be grooming for ministry in the same manner (as I understand) his own training happened. I think that's great, we need more of that. But self-taught Christian leaders -- at least the more dedicated of them -- tend also to be followers of the King James Bible (KJV). I don't know why that is, perhaps there are more materials available to eager young Christians based on the KJV that are known not to depart from Scripture for their theology.

When I was about this young man's age, I stopped reading other people's opinions about the Bible, and concentrated on the Bible itself. I heard a speaker say "Saturate yourself in Scripture," and it seems to have been a good policy. I did go to seminary, expressly to learn Greek and Hebrew so I could read the Bible in the original languages, but I also sampled the other courses taught there. One famous scholar's pedagogical style consisted in calling on various students and having them recite from his book. I dropped that class but kept the book. Another professor flunked my first midterm in his class for not having read any commentaries. I am unrepentant to this day. Other than the Greek and Hebrew, nothing remains of any of those classes except a deep appreciation for the reasonableness of Scripture I got from an Apologetics class.

Anyway, this young fellow has been invited to preach the 11 o'clock sermon two or three times in the last couple years, most recently about a month ago. It wasn't a three-point sermon, but rather he worked his way through the text at hand -- probably where his own daily readings carried him -- doing a word-by-word analysis, and this time he worked through a few verses in Hebrews. At one point he started to say "Paul..." then corrected himself to say "The author..." Funny the things one remembers from a Sunday sermon. The guy is a KJV-only person. Me, I'd rather he read the KJV only + all the commentaries that help modern thinkers get over the serious problems in 400-year-old language, than little or no Bible at all (like most of his contemporaries, and most church members in general). So I resolved to put down my thinking on the topic, but I've been very busy preparing for a field test that happened yesterday.

I started to write this essay for people who are willing to weigh the evidence and go wherever it leads, but it seemed reasonable to go find all the arguments on both sides, which mostly are collected on the Zondervan website -- no link, it's encrypted, not open to the public, but if your computer/browser knows the secret password, it sorts to the top of a Google search on this topic. So I will instead cite a few of the most compelling arguments for and against a Pauline authorship, and add some rebuttal comments (both ways) I did not see elsewhere.
 

For Paul

For the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, the most compelling argument appears to be "The King James Bible said so." They won't tell you that's the reason, but almost everybody taking this position tends to be a die-hard King James adherent. The joke line is, "If the King James Bible was good enough for Paul and Silas, it's good enough for me." King James Only is a topic for another essay. Let's look instead at the arguments they offer in support of their precommitment.

First, Hebrews was bundled in with Paul's letters in the early collections that eventually became the whole New Testament. That doesn't really imply that Paul wrote it, but the early church obviously assumed that it bore Paul's Apostolic imprimatur, like Luke's gospel and its sequel. Later church tradition converted that association into authorship.

There are some theological parallels between verses in Hebrews and verses in Paul's epistles. I don't see these same people listing also theological parallels between Paul's epistles and the Gospels to argue that Paul also wrote the Gospels. There are whole books reminding us that Paul did not invent his theology out of whole cloth or Greek philosophy. An argument selectively applied usually points to a preconceived conclusion based on other actual reasons.
 

Against

Most of the arguments against Paul as author of Hebrews are stylistic in nature. My young friend at church responds, "Of course, he's writing to a different audience, so he chose a style appropriate to his audience. It's a fine rebuttal, which I use myself against the claim the Isaiah had two authors, but it has its limits. Genesis has a variety of styles of writing -- often a different style in successive chapters -- and all of them different from the style Moses used in the other four books of the Pentateuch, which differences cannot be attributed to a different audience; I take that as evidence for individual eyewitness accounts, possibly collected (copied, not rewritten) by Moses. I see the same kinds of differences in Judges and Kings. You would not get these differences if a single author around the time of Ezra wrote everything, because the differences in vocabulary are the kinds of things people don't think about when speaking or writing. I notice them because my Hebrew is not that good, and with wording changes, I need to look up more (or different) words than previously. Most of these linguistic styles get erased in translation, because a single translator or committee does the whole text, replacing the original hodge-podge of styles with a single uniform translation style, usually intentionally. Maybe it would be useful if somebody did a translation that preserved the feeling of different authorship styles where it's in the text.

Some of the stylistic issues in Hebrews are preserved in translation, like where the author quotes a Psalm or a verse in Genesis as "somewhere." The Apostle Paul was never vague about his Scripture quotations. If he does not want to tell who wrote it, he said (as Jesus often did) "it is written..." Often he gave us a specific author (Isaiah, five times in Romans, or David and Moses, each three times in Romans). Romans is the most carefully thought-out and tightly reasoned of all Paul's (signed) letters, and he took the time to find and identify specific references for his quotations. Hebrews is even more tightly reasoned, and the author sometimes gives specific references, but not as often as Paul. This cannot be a difference in audience, because if (as it is claimed) Hebrews is written to Jewish priests, they of all people would want to know where it says this or that. The author clearly has memorized a lot of Scripture, but his memory seems mostly to exclude the source book. I can't blame him, I use a concordance for that. Paul, with his training in Jewish synagogue debate, had a better handle on sources.

After I started reading the New Testament in Greek, something else jumped out at me: The Greek text of Hebrews is the most difficult of the whole New Testament. This cannot be merely a different amanuensis -- there are minor differences in style between the different (signed) Pauline epistles, but nothing like this -- the logical flow is far more complex than something a scribe might add. It cannot be simply a different audience, because the Jewish priests Hebrews is supposed to be written to are not Greek scholars, they would have as much trouble with the Greek text as I do. Paul writes specifically to Jews in parts of Romans, and he does not change the language for them -- certainly not like the difference between Romans and Hebrews. While I consider this the most compelling argument against a Pauline authorship, I do not expect anybody not fluent in Greek to be convinced by it.

The bottom line is this: God did not choose to disclose to us whom He used to write the book of Hebrews, so evidently it is not important for our spiritual growth here and now. He did tell us not to become entangled in endless disputes about things that don't matter. This is one of them. Enough said.

Tom Pittman
First draft: 2019 January 11