Who Wrote the Letter to the Hebrews?
Most evangelical Christians today maintain that the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews could not have been written by the apostle Paul. For example, the monumental Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (published 1993 by Inter-Varsity Press Academic, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid) does not include the Letter to the Hebrews among those written by Paul. Some commentaries and books on the New Testament suggest that Apollos or Barnabas, instead, could have written this letter. Others also suggest Priscilla.
One Bible commentary has even judged that, because of the lack of a clear identity of the author of this letter, it would be presumptuous for anyone to suggest any possible author.
Notwithstanding that, I believe that the New Testament has three strong clues that point to the likely author of the Letter to the Hebrews. Why should it be considered “presumptuous” to cite such Scriptural clues?
The strongest clue is found in Hebrews 13:23, where the author writes: “Know that our brother Timothy has been set free, with whom I shall see you if he comes shortly.” Who was the closest person that worked with the evangelist Timothy? This was no other than the apostle Paul himself!
Paul wrote an intimate first letter to Timothy (as preserved in the New Testament), where Paul gave some lengthy instructions to Timothy about the pastoral care of the church under Timothy’s charge. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul addressed him as “a beloved son” (2 Timothy 1:1) — a more endearing personal address than that in 1 Timothy 1:2, where he is called “a true son in the faith.” In 1 Timothy 1:18 Paul addressed him as “son Timothy.” And in 2 Timothy 2:1 Paul addressed him explicitly as “my son.” Timothy, therefore, was not just a true and beloved son of God, but more particularly Paul’s spiritual son!
Paul considered himself a “father” to Timothy. Elsewhere Paul wrote to the Christians who believed and obeyed the gospel of Jesus as Paul preached it, that it was he who had thus “begotten” them (1 Corinthians 4:11-15). He considered himself a “father” to them — just as he felt toward Timothy (Philippians 2:22). In 1 Corinthians 4:17 Paul called Timothy “my beloved and faithful son in the Lord.”
In 2 Corinthians 1:1 and Philippians 1:1 Paul begins his letter by including Timothy in his greetings to the brethren in Corinth and Philippi. Paul acknowledged that Timothy was his companion in preaching the gospel of Christ (2 Corinthians 1:19). Paul expressed his intention to send Timothy to the brethren in Philippi (Philippians 2:19-23).
In Hebrews 13:24, the author conveys greetings of the brethren, particularly “those from Italy.” Who among the apostles was in Italy and who could thus rightly convey this message? Why, it was the apostle Paul who, as the account in Acts 28 records, was imprisoned for Christ’s sake — in Rome!
While in prison there, Paul wrote a letter to Christians at Ephesus. He shows this where he speaks of himself as “I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles” (Ephesians 3:1), “the prisoner of the Lord” (4:10), Christ’s “ambassador in chains” (6:20).
Paul also told the Christians at Philippi about “my chains…in Christ” (Philippians 1:13-14). Hebrews 10:34 also mentions “me in my chains.” Although some believe this should read “the prisoners,” this could be another clue to Paul’s authorship of the letter.
The apostle Peter reveals that Paul had written — presumably a letter, as Peter talks about Paul’s epistles — to the same people whom Peter wrote letters to (2 Peter 3:15-16). In 1 Peter 1:1 Peter addresses his letter “To the pilgrims of the Dispersion [Greek, diaspora] in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” The “diaspora” included, certainly, the Jews who had been dispersed into various countries in the Mediterranean area.
But, as the chief apostle to the “circumcision” — the children of Israel — (Galatians 2:7-9), Peter also had the overall charge of the dispersed tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel. As Jesus commissioned His 12 disciples, they were “not to go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). These “sheep” were from the 10 tribes of Israel which seceded from the once unified kingdom of Israel under King Solomon’s son Rehoboam (story in 1 Kings 11 through 15, etc.). They had long gone into captivity by the Assyrians to other lands, before the southern kingdom of Judah was carried away captive to Babylon. [See: God’s Kingdom and Israel.]
The southern kingdom of Judah (which was comprised of the tribes of Judah and Levi and a part of the tribe of Benjamin who are known by the name “Jews” — short for Judah) and the former northern kingdom of Israel (now scattered) were together classed as “Hebrews.” [The term “Hebrew” is from the name Eber (Genesis 11:14-17). It came to be applied later to the descendants of Abraham (formerly named Abram, Genesis 11:26).]
The Letter to the Hebrews, then, was addressed mainly to the Christians who had been converted from the remnants both of the Jews and the northern 10 tribes of Israel, wherever they had dispersed to.
Did the apostle Paul have the right and authority to address these Hebrew Christians? Most certainly! The resurrected Christ commissioned Paul “to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Apollos and Barnabas did not have that commission from Christ — nor, much less, did Priscilla [Paul had some divine revelation about women teaching men; see 1 Timothy 2:11-14].
Why the resistance to Paul’s authorship
What could be the reasons for the resistance — even strong objection — mainly by evangelicals, to Paul being the probable author of the Letter to the Hebrews?
One reason advanced by some is the obvious difference in “style” of writing in this letter when compared with Paul’s acknowledged letters or epistles. But why should this be an issue here? Don’t we normal human beings write in a different style to our close friends and relatives — with whom we share a lot of things in common from previous experience — than we would to other people with whom we have not had the same experience? Can we not allow Paul to be a bit more “folksy” when writing to his fellow-Hebrews than when writing to a mixed readership of Jewish and Gentile Christians, as in his other letters to the churches?
Far more weighty than the matter of writing style, the objection to Paul’s authorship has arisen, more likely, from the content of the letter!
While the author affirms the temporary and inferior status of the old covenant which God struck with the children of Israel as compared with the new covenant (Hebrews 1:1-10:18), the author, however, also teaches that Christ’s earthly ministry does not do away with God’s law. Rather, the author declares that, in Christ, the Old Testament prophecy in Jeremiah 31:31-34 is fulfilled: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Hebrews 8:10).
The author also affirms that, through His sacrifice “for the redemption of the Transgressions Under the First Covenant,” Jesus Christ has become the Mediator of the new covenant that promises eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:14-15). Rather than doing away with the old (“first”) covenant law of God, the author affirms that Christians — whether Hebrew or Gentile — are redeemed from transgressions under that old covenant.
The law in the old covenant remains the same basis for reckoning what sins or transgressions are that people commit and need to be redeemed from. Of course, Jesus came to expand that law to include not only the letter but also — and more importantly — the spirit and intent of God’s law, which is love. [See: The Law of Christ, Moses and Jesus — Are They Contraries? Freed From Bondage, Law Added to Law Transgressed, and God’s Spirit and Obedience.]
Thus, it has seemed rather difficult for most evangelicals to accept that the apostle Paul could have written the Letter to the Hebrews. Many have the erroneous idea that Paul taught that faith in Christ does away with the law of God which defines what sin is and what righteousness is. Clearly and certainly Paul says: “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31; see also Romans 7:7, 12 ).
Because, on the one hand, Paul seems to “dump” the law of God as unable to justify man from sin and, on the other hand, Paul does clearly believe in establishing that same law, some people have called Paul a “muddle-head.” But Paul was not a person with a confused mind. Rather, as a faithful servant of God personally hand-picked and taught by the resurrected Christ (Acts 9:15; Galatians 1:11-12, 15-17), Paul preached and taught the truth of God as he was inspired by the Holy Spirit.
No doubt about it
With these strong clues from the letter itself and other scriptures, there ought to be no doubt about the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews. None other than Paul could have written it!
But, as some may ask, why couldn’t have God made it very clear in the letter itself who it was that wrote it — unlike the other epistles of the New Testament? An all-knowing and all-wise God knows best!
God allows gaps in one part of His Word to be filled by related details in another part of that Word. This may cause some to stumble over the matter, as indeed some have stumbled — like in the case of the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews. As the apostle Peter wrote, Paul wrote in his letters “some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).
God may do this in order to “screen” or “sift” those whom He is calling to salvation now from those He will call later (Matthew 13:10-17; Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8:9-10; Romans 11:7-10; 1 Peter 2:7-8). [See: Predestination.] In His day, many were offended or stumbled at the teachings of Jesus and His declarations of God’s truth (Matthew 13:57; 15:12). It was not their time to be saved [see: This Is Not the Only Day of Salvation and Predestination].
Some today have stumbled at the way God’s Word is written!
For example, take the exact words written by Pontius Pilate on the sign above the “cross” on which Jesus was nailed. Some have questioned why the four gospel writers did not write the same exact words of that sign, and thus they have accused the Bible of being inconsistent and shot-through with discrepancies. But why should this be a problem?
It’s like how different journalists see the same event from different perspectives, and so their respective reports would contain different details of the same event. So it was with the way the four gospel writers reported, according to their respective vantage points, how the sign read.
Matthew has the sign as reading: “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Matthew 27:37). Mark has it as: “THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Mark 15:26). Luke has it as: “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Luke 23:38). And John has it as: “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (John 19:19). [All capitals provided.]
Although each gospel writer made a different report about the sign than the others did, each told the truth about what each saw. The four gospel writers did not tell a lie; they only each saw a part of the truth.
When we put all four reports together, we have this complete sign as it actually read fully: “THIS IS JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.”
I have done a similar “detective” thing in this article, as well as in past articles. I trust this has been a helpful exercise. I trust this helps you understand and appreciate the Letter to the Hebrews much better than before! And may the rest of the contents of this website help God’s truth come clear and plain to you, and direct you towards obeying the will of God and receiving everlasting life.
Finally, may we all ascribe the same benediction Paul uttered, in Romans 16:27: “To God, alone wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.”
Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.