The letter to the Hebrews

Published by 1c15 on

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Who is the Author?

Hughes speaks of the difficulty of working with the Hebrew epistle:

It is true that the Epistle to the Hebrews has been the battleground of discordant opinion and conjecture: its author is unknown, its occasion unstated, and its destination disputed. But these are matters at the periphery, not the heart of the book’s importance. All are agreed on the intrinsic nobility of its doctrine.

P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 1

The author of this work does not state their name, though they assume that the audience knows of themself (Hebrew 13:19, 22, 23). Most likely, the reason the author’s name is not appended is because this epistle was published on a scroll. Ancient papyrus scrolls frequently listed author and addressee on the verso side, while the text was written on the recto side (front & back). If this letter was written in such a manner, it is easy to see how the author/addressee would not have been copied; in fact, such a “label” could easily have been lost, smudged, etc., shortly after reaching its destination. So all of our primary evidence for authorship has to come from within the book itself, coupled with heavy conjecture based on what we know about possible candidates.

External evidence

The first author to cite this epistle was Clement ( 96 AD).

It is possible that the date for First Clement toward the end of the first century is much too late. Robinson, for example, presents evidence that it was written early in about 70 AD. If so, then Hebrews must be dated even earlier.

Though he does not say who wrote the book. It is omitted from both the Marcionite Canon and the Muratorian Canon. From the earliest times in church history, there has been great dispute as to authorship. A number of different authors were proposed, though Paul headed the list. Yet Pauline authorship was explicitly denied by Origen, the successor to Clement, who uttered his now-famous agnostic confession: “Whoever wrote the epistle, God only knows for sure.” Other names were suggested. Tertullian was the first to suggest Barnabas; Luther, the first to suggest Apollos. All in all, the external evidence counts for very little. The fact that it finds a place in P46, the earliest Manuscript of the corpus Paulinum (200 AD), ought not to be considered weighty.

Possible authorship candidates

Paul

The reasons for this would be 

  1. It has elements of a Pauline style (Origen, who denies his authorship affirms this)
  2. It’s literary and theological depth caused the early church to elicit an authority (They may of known the author personally whereas we don’t), and therefore was preserved in the canon
  3. 13:25 it closes the letter in Pauline fashion
  4. It’s structure is similar to Paul (doctrinal followed by practical section)
  5. There are several strong hints both of Paul’s point of view and even his wording in this letter (especially when compared to Galatians).

But

  1. The letter is anonymous, which is unlike all of Paul’s material
  2. The style of writing Is dramatically better than Paul’s (an amanuensis could have been used however)
  3. The logical development is much more tightly woven than is Paul’s (could an amanuensis have altered the core of the argument?)
  4. The spiritual eyewitnesses are appealed to, while Paul insisted on no intermediaries for his gospel (Gal. 1:12) 
  5. Timothy’s imprisonment (Hebrews 13:23) does not seem able to fit within Paul’s lifetime, since he is mentioned repeatedly both in Acts and in Paul’s letters and always as a free man. By the time of this imprisonment, Paul was all but likely executed.

Barnabas

Put forward by Tertullian The reasons for this would be 

  1. As a Levite, he would have an interest in the sacrificial system.
  2. There might perhaps be a play on his “word of consolation” (13:22) and the fact that he was called “the son of consolation” (Acts 4:36) (though this probably speaks more of the ingenuity of those who dug up this parallel than any intention on the author’s part). 
  3. Because Barnabas was from Cyprus, he would likely have had a good interaction with Alexandrian and hellenistic thought which is found throughout this letter.
  4. His possible contacts with Alexandria might well explain why the Greek is so finely written.
  5. Barnabas was converted shortly after Pentecost and could, therefore, have been impacted by Stephen’s instruction (and it should be noted there are parallels with Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 seen throughout the epistle).
  6. Barnabas was a mediator between Jewish Christians and Paul in Acts 9; he could well of continued in this role afterward as well. 
  7. Although Barnabas had accompanied Paul on his first missionary journey, there is nothing to suggest that he felt compelled to continue with the Gentile mission after the split-up over John Mark. 

Overall, “the strongest basis for this claim is the certainty that Barnabas as a Levite would have been intimately acquainted with the temple ritual.” [Guthrie, 674.]

But

  1. The work is anonymous and the author has quickly been forgotten
  2. Barnabas was not attributed to this book but was falsely attributed to an apocryphal work that had been refuted. Surely This would be the time to point to his genuine works?
  3. Is it is not Barnabas, a bona fire candidate, surely this rules out many more candidates who simply would not be forgotten about

Whoever wrote this epistle was a man of great literary power and theological insight—yet his name has been forgotten in the annals of church history!

Apollos

There are six main arguments in behalf of Apollos:

  1. Apollos’ close acquaintance with Paul, thus accounting for Pauline influences.
  2. His connection with Alexandria, which would account for the Alexandrian colouring.
  3. His knowledge of the Scriptures, which would explain the biblical content of the argument and the use of the LXX version.
  4. His eloquence, which well suits the oratorical form of the epistle.
  5. His contacts with Timothy.
  6. His considerable influence in various churches. [Guthrie, 679.]

But

  1. If Apollos had worked so much with Paul (at Corinth and Ephesus especially), and thus was committed to the Gentile mission, why would he write to Jewish Christians?
  2. Although there is nothing against this supposition in itself, there is a certain longtime familiarity between the author and recipients (Hebrews 13:19, 23). There are some questions as to whether such a man as Apollos could have this kind of association with such an audience.

Dual Authorship 

Origen’s agnosticism is admirable in this situation. Still, there is one possibility which, to my knowledge, has not been suggested. It is possible that this is a work of dual authorship. This is based on the fact that “we” is used throughout to signal the author (Hebrews. 2:5; 5:11; 6:9, 11; 8:1; 9:5; 13:18). To be sure, the author(s) uses “we” repeatedly throughout the epistle—in both an exclusive and inclusive way, that is, both to distinguish himself/themselves from the audience and to identify with the audience. But in two of the above references, an “editorial ‘we’” (i.e., plural used to refer to a singular author) is quite unlikely. In 6:11 “we desire each one of you to know” blurs the author while itemizing the audience (and is quite uncharacteristic of the editorial ‘we’ as used elsewhere in the NT); in 13:18 the author(s) urge(s) the audience to “pray for us”—followed straight afterwards with “I urge you the more earnestly to do this.” Both the use of the first person plural in an oblique case and the juxtaposition of the first person singular are highly irregular for the editorial ‘we.’

But there is a second argument based on the “we.” In all of Paul’s letters—even those where associates are mentioned in the salutation—before half way through the letter the “we” always and permanently reverts to “I.” Not so in Hebrews. Only in 11:32 and five times in chapter 13 (vv. 19, 22, 23) does the author use the first person singular. As scholar Daniel Wallace can verify from his cursory examination of the non-literary papyri, “this phenomenon does not parallel any uses of the editorial “we” common in the hellenistic period”.

So on reflection of this internal data, the work was proposed to be co-authored with one writer more prominent than the other. Is it Barnabas and Apollos? Who would be the main and the less vocal one if it were them? This is answered largely by the question of audience—which in itself is disputed. At this stage, the best guess is that Barnabas was the main author with Apollos as the assistant.

Manuscript evidence, Papyrus 46

Hebrews 13.20-1 Corinthians 1.3; 1 Corinthians 1.4-13, Papyrus 46 (P46) 200-225AD
https://viewer.cbl.ie/viewer/object/BP_II_f_38/1/LOG_0000/
For more from P46 https://viewer.cbl.ie/viewer/search/-/SUPERDEFAULT%253A%2528hebrews%2529+OR+SUPERFULLTEXT%253A%2528hebrews%2529+OR+DEFAULT%253A%2528hebrews%2529+OR+FULLTEXT%253A%2528hebrews%2529+OR+NORMDATATERMS%253A%2528hebrews%2529+OR+UGCTERMS%253A%2528hebrews%2529+OR+OVERVIEWPAGE_DESCRIPTION%253A%2528hebrews%2529+OR+OVERVIEWPAGE_PUBLICATIONTEXT%253A%2528hebrews%2529/1/-/-/ 

This is a Folio from the end of Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews and the beginning of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, from a codex containing the Pauline Epistles (P46), written in Greek with ink on papyrus; made in Egypt and dated c. 200 AD. The manuscript is the oldest surviving almost complete copy of the Pauline Epistles (P46); 86 of its original 112 folios survive. These are divided between the Chester Beatty (56) and the University of Michigan (30). 

The manuscript is the earliest manuscript eyewitness to date found of the original text with an early date of 200-225AD perhaps earlier. We have quite a few pages from this p46 collection, with other Hebrews Papyri also outside of this collection. 

Considering the average deterioration rate of a Papyri manuscript to be within a few hundred years, this manuscript is very impressive in it’s preservation and clear on its structure being that of the letter to the Hebrews.

Audience & purpose

Throughout its pages, Hebrews makes clear that Jesus Christ exceeds all other people, pursuits, objects, or hopes to which human beings offer allegiance. Hebrews pictures Jesus as better than the angels, as bringing better lives to humanity through salvation, as offering a better hope than the Mosaic Law could promise, as a better sacrifice for our sins than a bull or a goat, and as providing a better inheritance in heaven for those who place their faith in Him (Hebrews 1:4; 6:9; 7:19; 9:23; 10:34). Jesus is indeed superior to all others.

This message of the superiority of Jesus would have been particularly important to Jewish Christians in Rome, who were struggling under Nero’s persecution and were considering moving back toward the Mosaic Law. The writer to the Hebrews showed these Jewish Christian believers that, though they were faced with suffering, they were indeed following a better way . . . and they should persevere.

https://www.insight.org/resources/bible/the-general-epistles/hebrews 

Date

The earliest possible date of this epistle must surely be at/after the death of Paul (summer of 64 AD), as can be inferred from Hebrews 13:7 and 23.19 also, these are now second generation Christians (Hebrews 2:3). The latest date is surely when 1 Clement quotes so extensively from Hebrews. Normally this is dated 96AD, but it is possible that this date is much too late. Robinson, for example, presents evidence that it was written before 70 AD. If that is the case, then Hebrews must be dated earlier. Nevertheless, if we side with the broad stream of NT scholarship, the range is 64-95 AD generally (always first century and the Apostle John’s lifetime for reference).

Intriguingly, there is another piece of evidence which more and more scholars are seeing as quite decisive, especially stimulated as they are by the work of J. A. T. Robinson. Throughout Hebrews the entire levitical system is spoken of in the present tense (especially 5:1-4; 7:20, 23, 27, 28; 8:3, 4, 13; 9:6, 13; 10:2-3, 11). Although these have usually been downplayed by scholarship as bearing no weight (since many of them could easily be customary presents), “in some passages at least the writer is appealing to existing realities, whose actual continuance is essential to his argument.” [Robinson, 202.] After quoting 10:2-3 in his own translation (“these sacrifices would surely have ceased to be offered, because the worshippers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any sense of sin. But instead, in these sacrifices year after year are brought to mind”) Robinson makes the cogent point that “Had the sacrifices in fact ceased to be offered, it is hard to credit that these words could have stood without modification or comment. For their termination would have proved his very point.” [Robinson, 202.] Thus, it is not just the use of the present tense, but the incredible fact that the author does not point out the ruins of the temple in Jerusalem as vindication of his argument which argues for a date before 70 AD (Not to mention the three year siege of Jerusalem).

Finally, the total lack of awareness of eschatological fulfillment concerning the events of the Olivet Discourse had not yet begun to take shape. To be sure, the author warns of impending persecution—but this is better accounted for as Nero’s impending persecution is coming (especially in light of Paul’s very recent death!) than directly related to the destruction of Jerusalem. So 65 AD seems to be the best date. It is also likely to be in the spring or summer of 65AD is most probable, because in Hebrews 13:23 the senior author suggests that he will come visit his audience, with Timothy at his side, “if he arrives soon.” Travel would be relatively tricky (overseas, virtually impossible) during the winter, hence this note of some urgency would be most appropriate if there were enough time both of the audience to hear of his travel plans and for him to make the trip before winter.

https://bible.org/seriespage/hebrews-introduction-argument-and-outline#_ftnref3

Canonical status

What was the acceptance rate of Hebrews as canonical by those early and later witnesses of the text? Well we have Polycarp using it very early on and, even though they are not in the below chart (sorry!), 1 Clement of Rome contains many Hebrews quotes which could be dated anywhere from as early as 70AD perhaps. Irenaeus onwards we have a continuous chain of acceptance without question. To have Polycarp and Clement using Hebrews early on, in the first century is very helpful!

See this table for a list on who recognised each book as canonical (key(s) below)

It does not mention every Church Father who used the New Testament books, this is just a survey of some of the most known
  • Ig = Ignatius
  • Po = Polycarp
  • M = Marcion
  • Va = Valentinus
  • JM = Justin Martyr
  • IR = Irenaeus 
  • C = Clement of Alexandria 
  • T = Tertullian
  • MC = Muratorian Canon
  • O = Origen
  • E = Eusebius
  • CS = Codex Sinaiticus
  • A = Athanasius
  • D = Didymus the Blind
  • P = Peshitta (Bible of the Syrian church)
  • V =  Latin vulgate 
taken from ntcanon.org/table.shtml 

Jesus, nor the apostles, nor Polycarp, Clement or Irenaeus left much for us to work with in terms of a formal “ok so here’s the rules of determination”. But what they did do is inform us that they had an informative way of knowing what was truth and what was not. And the truth had to have a connection to eyewitnesses.

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

2 Peter 1:16 

2“So now we must choose a replacement for Judas from among the men who were with us the entire time we were traveling with the Lord Jesus— from the time he was baptized by John until the day he was taken from us. Whoever is chosen will join us as a witness of Jesus’ resurrection

Acts 1:21-22

One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out. (This report is from an eyewitness giving an accurate account. He speaks the truth so that you also may continue to believe.)

John 19:34-35

“God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this.

Acts 2:32

You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. And we are witnesses of this fact!

Acts 3:15

We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by God to those who obey him.”

Acts 5:32

“And we apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a cross,but God raised him to life on the third day. Then God allowed him to appear, not to the general public, but to us whom God had chosen in advance to be his witnesses. We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he ordered us to preach everywhere and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be the judge of all—the living and the dead. He is the one all the prophets testified about, saying that everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven through his name.”

Acts 10:39-43

[Paul] With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it.

Romans 9:1

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church.

1 Corinthians 15:3-9

And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you:

1 Peter 5:1

Caius the church father in 200AD writes how they knew of two fake letters circulating in Paul’s name. 

“There are also in circulation one to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrians, forged under the name of Paul, and addressed against the heresy of Marcion; and there are also several others which cannot be received into the Catholic Church, for it is not suitable for gall to be mingled with honey”.

Caius, Church leader

How did they work this out? How did they know what was the divinely inspired word of God? We can thank Eusebius for beginning to help us clear up this territory. In his Ecclesiastical History, he mentions his four categories of books with descriptions as to why some were accepted, disputed, rejected and seen as heretical from his survey of the church fathers history going back and into the apostolic age. This is the structure we will take when we assess the books of the New Testament and this includes investigating the books the church rejected. 

So these summarised standards are these:

  1. Apostolicity. Was it written by an Apostle or one of their colleagues?
  2. Orthodoxy. Was the teaching orthodox? Consistent with Old Testament and the Christian worldview?
  3. Catholicity. Not the Catholic Church (that doesn’t exist for a few hundred years yet!)… This meaning widely agreed upon
  4. Relevance. Was it relevant to the church? Or does it seem completely detached from what we already have in the canon? (I.e. everything Gnostic)
  5. Inspiration. Did it have the ring of truth, the life changing power within?

Apostolicity

Origen in 225 said “Who wrote the letter to the Hebrews? Only God knows!”. Even though the ancients of the second century didn’t know who wrote it, they still wanted to include it in the canon. Being written by an apostle wasn’t the only criteria they used. Some such as the Pauline Epistles which have some modern day doubt were included as they contained Pauline thought and were likely written by Paul himself or one of his colleagues. The same is said for Hebrews as our earlier argument outlines. Also being written early on in the apostolic era adds to the verification of the letter with uses by Polycarp and Clement.

Orthodoxy

The message of Hebrews makes clear Jesus exceeds all others in his deity and duty, sees Jesus as the highest, greater than the Jewish figures of old, all of which Jesus espoused being the fulfillment himself. So the letter is certainly orthodox. 

Catholicity

Like we’ve said earlier, the only challenge is knowing the original author of Hebrews, whereas the letter itself is widely agreed upon with Polycarp using it in the east and Clement in the west within the first century. 

Relevance

The letter couldn’t be more relevant for a culture going through the beginning’s of Nero’s persecution. Through the story we can see how some Christians are wavering and wanting to go back to what’s safe and sound, the Jewish life. There are times where Christians of all eras may want to escape persecution whether that be by conversion, or going back on old ways. But the Christian message throughout time has been not to give up and go back. This is the message in the first century and it has been relevant ever since. 

Inspiration

The author(s) of Hebrews wrote, we confidently assert in a pre-70AD era where persecution under Emperor Nero was being espoused. That the authors were committed to writing this at a time where the Christians needed to hear a sharp truth, rather than what perhaps could be a doorway to going back to where they once were.

Paul claims in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that all scripture is God breathed (and elsewhere we argue for Paul’s authorship of that letter) and this letter likely falls into that category with early church acceptance and used by first century church fathers and cannons prior to the 4th century.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *