The New Testament letter to the Hebrews bears no author’s name. The arguments and themes of the document suggest that the author was a gifted theologian of the stature of contemporaries such as the apostles Paul and John. The first generation of readers, some of whom may have personally known the author, did not add the author’s name to the letter. Today, the identity of the author of the magnificent letter to the Hebrews remains an intriguing mystery.
One popular suggestion is that the Apostle Paul wrote the letter. Yet Clement of Rome, who flourished around 90-100 CE, writing to Christians at Corinth in about 96 CE, demonstrates familiarity with the letters of Paul, but quotes from the letter to the Hebrews with no hint that Paul may be the author.
The first known attribution to Paul is by Clement of Alexandria (c.155-c220), in the late second century, as recorded by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History, vi.14.3-4. Clement argued for Pauline authorship to ensure that Hebrews was included in the New Testament canon. Tertullian (c.160-c.220), writing around 220 CE, attributes Hebrews to Paul’s companion Barnabas, but offers no rationale (see his On Modesty, 20). In 1545, in his Commentary on Genesis, Martin Luther suggested that the author was Apollos, on the basis of the Alexandrian character of the letter’s thought (see Acts 18:24). New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson observes that Acts 18:24-28 and 19:1 “sounds almost like a job description for the author of Hebrews” (2006: 42).
John Calvin considered Luke to be one of several possible authors of Hebrews due to the letter’s excellent Greek style, but also suggested Clement of Rome as a contender for authorship. Today, scholars are reluctant to identify the author of Hebrews with any individual named in the New Testament, with notable exceptions such as David L. Allen, who published a scholarly book in 2010 titled Lukan Authorship of Hebrews.
What then can we say about the identity of the author of Hebrews? The fact that the Greek participle in Hebrews 11:32 has a masculine ending argues against female authorship. The author appears to be known the community to which he is writing (Heb 13:23). His prose is far superior in vocabulary and sentence construction to that of Paul, and he employs a range of images not found in Paul’s writings (e.g., Heb 2:1; 4:12f; 6:7f, 19). There are none of the autobiographical remarks characteristic of Paul’s letters. The author cites Old Testament Scriptures in a manner quite different from the way Paul employs Scripture. Johnson adds that a “Platonic worldview” pervades the letter to the Hebrews and is almost without parallel in Paul’s letters, with the exception of 2 Corinthians 4-5 (2006: 40).
Other possible candidates named in the New Testament include Barnabas, Apollos, Silvanus, the deacon Philip, Priscilla and Aquila, Jude, and Luke. The most likely of these is Luke. There are similarities between the Greek style of Hebrews and that of Luke-Acts. Early patristic evidence indicates that some believed that Hebrews was Luke’s Greek translation of an original letter by Paul written in Hebrew, or that it was the independent work of Luke. The pastor-scholar G. Campbell Morgan suggests that Luke wrote Hebrews as Paul’s amanuensis during Paul’s imprisonment at Caesarea (recorded in Acts 24) (1924: 506).
Allen argues that Luke was as rhetorically capable a writer as the author of Hebrews (2010: 377). He notes a significant similarity of purpose between Luke-Acts and Hebrews (e.g., an emphasis on “hearing the word”), and shared theological themes such as Jesus as high priest, eschatology, and prophetic fulfilment. The greatest objection to Lucan authorship is Luke’s supposed Gentile background and mindset, although Rick Strelan has published a book arguing that Luke was a Jewish priest. Allen holds that “the evidence seems to suggest that Luke was Jewish by birth” and that Luke’s use of the Old Testament in Luke-Acts is consistent with its use in Hebrews.
Biblical scholar William L. Lane sums up what is generally agreed concerning the author of the letter to the Hebrews:
The writer was an intensely devout man whose subconscious mind was shaped by the cultic categories and language of the Septuagint. He was also a pastoral theologian who shaped early Christian tradition into an urgent appeal to a community in crisis. He was a gifted preacher and interpreter of salvation, a covenant theologian whose spiritual insight, scriptural exegesis and situational discernment provided encouragement, admonition and pastoral direction. He presents himself as a charismatic leader whose effectiveness did not depend on office or title (DLNT,444).
While we cannot definitively state who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, it is reasonable to suggest that, of those named in the New Testament, the most likely candidate is Luke, the author of Luke-Acts and occasional companion of Paul.
Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister presently working as Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. He enjoys preaching, cooking, bush walking, watching the sun rise, and reading a good book.
References: David L. Allen, Lukan Authorship of Hebrews (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010); Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); William L. Lane, “Hebrews,” in Ralph P. Martin & Peter H. Davids (eds), Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), 443-458; G. Campbell Morgan, The Acts of the Apostles (New York: Revell, 1924); Rick Strelan, Luke the Priest: The Authority of the Author of the Third Gospel (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008).
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