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:
- 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!
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):
- 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.