December 11, 2013

Credit where credit is due: Paul wrote Hebrews

by Jesse Johnson

With several new books out on the subject of the authorship of Hebrews, we thought it would be helpful to blog on the topic. Yesterday Josiah argued that the authorship of Hebrews is unknown, and that Christians err when they ascribe it to others (like Paul or Luke). Today, Jesse argues that Paul wrote Hebrews, and we should give credit where credit is due. Please note that no counter-arguments are given since the articles were written independently of each other.

When I was in seminary, I tried to buy into the standard text-book arguments about the unknown authorship of Hebrews—I really did. I enumerated them, I memorized them, and then on my New Testament Introduction final I reproduced them for my professor. But I couldn’t resist—even then I understood that the arguments against Pauline authorship were so vague, and that the characteristics of the supposed anonymous author so broad, that it could be anyone. So I turned my NTI blue book into a treatise about how the author must certainly either be Paul, or Barnabas’ wife. My professor, the venerable and much feared Dr. Thomas, simply scrawled in the margin “NOT AMUSED.”

Amusement notwithstanding, the arguments for Pauline authorship of Hebrews are impressive. Here are four reasons I hold that the Apostle Paul was the author of Hebrews:  

  1. The evidence of church history:

As most commentators will tell you, the early church held that Hebrews was Pauline. Some (such Origin) allowed for the possibility that the content was Pauline, but that the actual writing was left to someone else. Yet from early on the consensus was that Hebrews was likely a sermon that Paul preached, and that Luke (or Barnabas, or someone else) recorded. Clement even granted that it was possible that the message itself would have been preached in Aramaic and then translated into Greek.


In fact, when the church fathers endeavored to explain why some books were canonical and others were not (Apostolic authorship, claiming revelation from the Lord, early church acceptance, etc.), they frequently would use Hebrews as an example of why the criteria were important. To them, it was obvious that Hebrews was Pauline. Origen, Clement, Pantaenus, Ambrose, Rufinus and Eusebius all ascribe the Epistle to Paul. In fact, the first person to attach another name was Tertullian. He ascribed it to Barnabas, not on the basis of any evidence as much as a means to explain why he did not think it was canonical. Both the councils of Hippo  and Carthage all rejected Tertullian’s claim, declared the Epistle Pauline, and thus canonical.

2. The absence of any reason to reject church history

With such clear evidence that the early church was all but uniform in their ascription of Hebrews to Paul, why do people reject Pauline authorship today? Eta Linnemann claims it is a symptom of enlightenment thinking that is harmful to the church (subscription needed at link). Scholars treat the views of the early church with an attitude of guilty until proven innocent. The result is that they question anything that the early church declared but that isn’t expressly described in Scripture. Who wrote the first gospel—Matthew, Mark or Q? Who wrote Hebrews? It seems like today’s attitude is “The early church says one thing, now lets see them prove it.”

I come with a different starting point. I am prepared to accept the testimony of the early church barring any substantial reason (beyond skepticism) to reject it. I believe that Matthew is the first gospel, because that is what the early church said, and I find the arguments to the contrary unconvincing. I believe Paul wrote Hebrews because the early church said he did, and I find arguments to the contrary unconvincing.

3. Pauline style

I believe Hebrews is Pauline because it sounds like Paul. I understand that there are differences between Hebrews and Paul’s other letters, and I’ll deal with those below. But for now, the book just sounds Pauline.

Paul often uses introductions that focus on the greatness of the person of Jesus (eg. Eph 1, Phil 2, Col 1), and so begins Hebrews. Paul occasionally argues from the lesser to the greater (Romans 5, 6, Gal 4). So does Hebrews—a lot. Paul loves to quote Psalms 2 and 110 (Rom 1, 8, 1 Cor 15, Eph 1, Col 3), and so does Hebrews. When Paul quotes two different verses, he often links them with the adverb palin, and so does Hebrews. Paul introduces Scripture quotes with a generic “he says” or “it is written” (1 Cor. 6:16; 15:27; 2Cor. 6:2;  3:16; Eph.  5:14). So does Hebrews.  Paul often uses logical “sandwiches” (‘A ‘B ‘A), and so does Hebrews.

Beyond that, there are dozens and dozens of expressions that are unique in the NT to Paul’s writing—and to Hebrews. David Allen Black lists them here, and I strongly encourage you just to read through a sample of them starting on page 34 of that article). Some of them are grammatical (eg. the expression dia touto as therefore, or the phrase bearing testimony), and some are theological (eg. The Messiah as our brother, or the distribution of gifts by the Spirit, or the neglecting of gifts). Some parallels are stylistic (Paul—and the author of Hebrews—both write with a Rabbinical flair), and some are conceptual (flesh and blood standing in for human nature, or Abraham’s seed as Christians, the Christian life as a race, the word of God as a sword, etc.). Paul and Hebrews both say Christ’s death defeated evil powers, and both refer to it as an atoning sacrifice for sins using identical language. In fact, whole motifs are paralleled from Paul’s epistles and Hebrews. Standing firm, holding fast our confidence, comparing Moses to the Messiah, contrasting serving with sonship.

And that whole paragraph is only from the first three chapters of Hebrews. The rest of the letter continues in like fashion (and Black gives a section-by –section summary of those comparisons). But beyond even the individual words and content, there is tone. Paul often uses alliteration, so does Hebrews. Paul often uses expressions of euphoric praise, and so does Hebrews. There are also dozens of individual words that are used only in Hebrews and Paul’s other letters—in some cases theological words that seem invented by Paul for his purposes, and that appear only in his writings.

My Greek Professor in seminary pointed out that if you statistically compare the unique vocab of Paul’s epistles as a whole with individual books of Paul (for example, the whole body of Paul’s work compared to Ephesians, or the whole body of Paul’s work compared to Colossians, or compared to Hebrews) that Hebrews is the most similar book to Paul’s style. It is more typically Pauline than Romans!

hebrews 24. Paul’s testimony

Paul was not one of the original Apostles. He did not hear Jesus teach during the Messiah’s earthly life. He did not go to the wilderness with him, or see him walk on water, feed the crowds, or raise the dead. Instead, Paul had a unique testimony. Jesus spoke to him in a vision, and then sent Paul to Jerusalem to meet with the Apostles (those who had heard directly from Jesus). It was there that Paul was exposed to the confirming work of the signs of Apostles, gifts which he himself would later practice. Does all this sound familiar? It should, because it is the testimony of the author of Hebrews in Hebrews 2:3-4.

Moreover, Paul was a Jew and a Pharisee. If there was anyone equipped by God to deliver a convicting warning message to Hebrew believers on the brink of apostasy, it was Paul. As the Apostle to the Gentiles, he was not often in the Jewish world. But he never gave up his love and concern for his brothers (as evidenced in Romans 9:1-2), and this compassion is all over the book of Hebrews.

Finally, in Acts 13 Paul and Barnabas were asked to give “a word of encouragement” in a synagogue they were visiting. Paul stood up and gave just such a message, recorded in Acts 13:16-41. It is a message that has many similarities with the book of Hebrews, but there is one in particular that deserves mentioning. In Heb 13:22 the author describes the letter as “a word of encouragement”—the exact phrase used in Acts 13 to describe Paul’s gospel exhortation to Jews. Don’t miss this significance–the epistle of Hebrews calls itself by a very unusual term, and the only other place that term is seen in the NT is when Paul stands and addresses Jews.

In closing, here are responses to the two most common arguments against Pauline authorship that I have encountered (keep in mind that I listed these before reading Josiah’s post yesterday, so this is not meant to interact directly with what he raised):

  1. No name

Paul begins his other epistles with his name, but not Hebrews. Why? Well, first note that the lack of a name is a strong argument for Pauline authorship.  Simply put, if the church fathers were not absolutely certain of the authorship of the book, then it would have lost its canonical status. In other words, there are very few people in the early church who could have written a letter without their name expressly in it, and have that letter than be adopted into the canon. But second, because Paul was the Apostle to the gentiles, and this letter was written in many ways blasting the Jewish readers, it really is more effective without Paul’s name.

2. No style

Hebrews does not read like Paul’s other letters. But there is a simple reason for that. A widely held view in the early church is that this letter was actually a sermon that Paul preached to a Jewish congregation. This explains why he quotes scripture differently than he does when he writes to Gentiles, but it also explains the differences in style. His other epistles were written as letters, and this one was adapted from an oral delivery. Hence it preaches, but varies in grammar from his other epistles.

The bottom-line: the early church called Hebrews Pauline, it has internal support, external support, and the objections against Pauline authorship ultimately do not rise to the threshold required to set aside the convictions of those who were much closer in time to its composure. Even so, the massive amount of similarity between Paul’s letters and Hebrews is stunning, while the differences in style can be adequately explained by differences in form (letter vs. spoken).

After all, Hebrews–if anything–is a brief word for our encouragement.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Actually as I understand, the early church starting at about the 4th century said the author was Paul — but such authorship was never stated before the 4th century. And we know that other teachings, of more significance than this, had been altered by the people of the 4th century (premillennialism to amillennialism, an obvious one), so that’s really not a good argument.

    I don’t know about your Greek professor, but S. Lewis Johnson (another Greek scholar of high repute) frequently stated the opposite: the Greek in the book of Hebrews is markedly different from all of Paul’s writings — and that those who studied the original Greek would see this clear difference, brought out much more in Greek than in our English translations.

    Just from the text itself, Paul would never say, as the author of Hebrews says in Hebrews 2:3, “It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard” — indicating that the writer of Hebrews was not one of the apostles. Paul argued that point quite strongly as with the Corinthians and Galatians, that he had direct communication with the Lord and not dependent on what the other apostles had told him. We cannot brush Hebrews 2:3 aside by saying, oh well he wasn’t with the Lord during His three year ministry. Paul never wrote in such manner.

    • Thanks for your comments Lynda. Obviously I don’t take this issue to be one of primary importance. After all, Paul’s name IS NOT in the text, so this is not an issue where dogmatism is required. But I do want to respond to a few of your comments:

      The church fathers I listed above were almost all before the 4th Century. Pantaenus is perhaps one of the earliest extra-biblical church leaders. Clement was in the second century, and both held that Hebrews was Pauline. Here is a another article (not linked above) by David Allen Black that documents the evidence from the church fathers:

      As for the S Lewis Johnson quote–Josiah said the same thing yesterday, and I grant the point. Hebrews reads differently than Paul’s other epistles. My point is that this is because it had a different initial form (oral vs. written) and audience (Jew vs. Gentile). The statistics that my Greek prof (Farnell) used have been replicated by others, and have to do with individual vocabulary words.

      Thanks Lynda, and I always appreciate your interaction here!

    • John T. Jeffery

      The abiding uncertainty concerning the human author, IMHO, may have been intentional on God’s part in order to place that in the background and the divine authorship in the foreground. This is perhaps more relevant here than in any other NT book, especially when reading chapter one with this in mind. It may come across as trite, but given the sufficiency of Scripture, if God had wanted us to have certainty concerning the human author He would have revealed that to us in His Word. My paraphrase of Calvin’s dictum applies here as elsewhere, “Where God’s holy lips are sealed our mouths ought to be shut.”

      “…it would not even be useful for us to know what God himself, to test our moderation of faith, on purpose willed to be hidden.”[1]

      “Therefore let us willingly remain enclosed within these bounds to which
      God has willed to confine us, and as it were, to pen up our minds that they may not, through their very freedom to wander, go astray.”[2]

      “…let us remember here, as in all religious doctrine, that we ought to
      hold to one rule of modesty and sobriety: not to speak, or guess, or even to seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God’s Word. Furthermore, in the reading of Scripture we ought ceaselessly to endeavor to seek out and meditate upon those things which make for edification. Let us not indulge in curiosity or in the investigation of unprofitable things.”[3]

      [1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I:XIV:1. ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, in The Library of Christian Classics, gen. eds. John Baillie, John T.McNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1:160, s.v. I:XIV:1; on Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) at [accessed 16 APR 2012].

      [2] Ibid.

      [3] Calvin, op. cit., I:164, s.v. I:XIV:4.

      • Thanks John. I hope you saw Josiah’s post (linked above) b/c he makes some of those same arguments. .

  • Jason

    Good thoughts Jessie. I would also add the structure is Pauline. 1:1-10:18 is theological then it turns practical. Similar to Ephesians 1-3, Col 1-2, Romans 1-11 and Galatians 1-4.

    The other argument against Paul regarding style is suspect. We have 13 other Pauline books, but we really don’t have enough to argue against Paul. How does one choose the standard? Also Paul was intelligent enough to write formally with a more classic argument. His training before salvation would have included this.

    Good points!

    • Cliff Kvidahl

      The structure of Hebrews is not as neat as you suggest (i.e. theological then practical). This is clearly noticed in the transition from exposition to exhortation (warning passages). Also, Heb 11.1ff must be linked to what precedes and follows, especially 12.1ff.

      Regarding style, the style of Hebrews is remarkably different than the rest of the Pauline corpus: note the more classical style (similar to Lk-Acts); the literary features; etc. There are certain common Pauline words that are missing from Hebrews, i.e. εὐαγγέλιον.

      The theology of Hebrews is rather unique in the NT, though not radically different by any means. The emphasis on the wilderness generation and their experience in many ways is the backdrop for Auctor’s (what I call the author of Hebrews) sermon/homily. Auctor places the church within its own wilderness journey, with similar exhortations to be faithful. But for the church there are different emphases: greater high priest, greater sacrifice, greater law, etc. Nowhere in Paul do we find this argumentation.

      One notes also the exclusive use of the LXX over the Hebrew text. This raises problems for those who argue for a Greek translation of a Hebrew sermon. There are a few places where the LXX is different than the Hebrew.

      None of these are conclusive in an of themselves, but they do speak volumes when looking at this issue.

      • Jason

        Hi Cliff,

        The warning passages are digressions (or oral exhortations) provided to the reader. Paul habitually digresses throughout his writings to make another point.

        Paul was also trained by the Pharisees and knew how to make a classical argument. Again, to say because it matches Luke – Acts, doesn’t actually mean Paul couldn’t write it, it just means its in the style of Luke-Acts. I can write technical and casual, so can you. To box Paul in on “one-style” is overly simplistic.

        To argue the book does not have εὐαγγέλιον in it, is really an argument from silence. What you are saying is you know Paul’s mind so well that he would always use that word. Your argument is a logical fallacy at best.

        The main point of Hebrews is to Endure to the end. You can endure to the end because of what Christ as done. His death brings you into God’s presence, therefore endure. The wilderness generation serves as an example to the listeners. Using the OT backdrop as an example is also found in Pauline literature somewhere around 1 Corinthians 10.

        Unique theology does not negate Paul (or any other NT writer). The letter is to a specific people, with a specific message, for a specific purpose. The author thinks his theological stances will minister to those people. Again, you’re boxing Paul in and it sounds like you’re telling us “Unless Paul fits within the criteria determined to be ‘Pauline’ it cannot be Paul. That sounds like a rather small circle in your reasoning. For example you say, “But for the church there are different emphases: greater high priest, greater sacrifice, greater law, etc. Nowhere in Paul do we find this argumentation.”

        But that’s like saying, well, because John doesn’t mention John the Baptist, the high priestly prayer, or the vine in Revelation, then it cannot be the same John who wrote John. It’s an argument from silence.

        When we get to heaven, sit down with a beer and Paul, we can ask him there 🙂

        • Cliff Kvidahl

          A beer it is.

          Also, I don’t think John wrote the Gospel, so I am fine there. 😉

          • Jason

            Beer and coffee are preferred drinks when discussing Hebrews. He brews the best of both in heaven 🙂

  • Ray Adams

    Much appreciated. Loved the comment about the “word of encouragement” – most powerful. I have always held that any dissimilarities were to be accounted for by understanding that Luke was transcribing the typical sermon Paul always gave when he first visited the synagogue on entering town. Paul is the source of the content and Luke an amanuensis of sorts. Thank you for a helpful analysis.

  • george canady

    Thanks for the example of two men who can disagree, over an issue that some might perceive as of primary importance, in love.

  • Dan Phillips

    Is the next article going to be the truth? You know, about Apollos?

    • Or Apollos’s wife?

      • Dan Phillips

        Tsk, can’t be: masculine participle διηγούμενον, 11:32.

      • Lol! Or Priscilla, the modern-day feminists’ suggestion of Hebrews authorship.

    • Daniel Leake

      Anyone for Luke?

      • Dan Phillips

        David Black, right?

        • Daniel Leake

          David Allen. He’s wrote one of those NAC studies called “Lukan Authorship of Hebrews”.

  • Scott C

    Is it possible the author was mentored under Paul and thus adopted some of his style, vocabulary, argumentation, etc.? Even if it was a sermon, why would he not identify himself as its author?

    I think the Enlightenment influencing those accepting anonymity is unconvincing. I don’t think there is consensus on who wrote the book of Job, but that does not detract from orthodox believers accepting its canonicity, inspiration, etc.

  • Great work, man. Thanks for laying out the (correct) argument so clearly and succinctly. I think modern readers often overlook is just how unacceptable ambiguity over authorship was for a work to be received as canonical.

    Another point demonstrative of the early church’s understanding is the
    manuscript evidence. In early MSS, Hebrews is bound with Paul’s other
    epistles – even between Romans and the Corinthian letters at that!

    I’m also often struck with the inconsistency of those who reject form critical presuppositions in the Synoptic Gospels, for example, but then proceed to apply those very same principles to Hebrews.

    Thanks for the “Barnabas’ wife” line, I’m going to steal that – and, in the spirit of this, will be sure to attribute authorship to you.

    • Darrell Post

      I was just now reading these comments and was prepared to make the point about textual history, and got to the last comment and found Steve Meister made this point. I will add that even the oldest Pauline manuscript, P46 (late 2nd to early 3rd century), bundles Hebrews in with the Pauline epistles. Furthermore, it wasn’t just the early manuscripts. I just scanned through my own index of contents for the first 1700+ minuscules cataloged with a GA number and could not find a single example where Hebrews was included in a manuscript that otherwise only included the general epistles or Acts and the general epistles. Whenever Hebrews is found included it is always in a copy of just the Pauline epistles, or Pauline+other sections of the NT, or of course an entire NT. But you never see Hebrews in a manuscript that otherwise omits the Pauline epistles. I think its a pretty compelling issue. I am not saying it cannot be overcome, and its not my place to suggest workarounds, but the data is what it is.

  • Greg Pickle

    I agree with you for the reasons above. I find the non-Paul position on 2:3-4 highly specious. I wouldn’t die on this hill, but I think it’s pretty clear.

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