Regardless of its profound harshness, the letter to the Hebrews has something peculiar about it. It is anonymous. The author and the addressees are mysterious since they have not been indicated in the book. Indeed, the ambiguity has cast doubts among some interpreters who cannot relate its anticipated purpose in a given framework.
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Furthermore, its obscurity has made theologians conceptualize, as well as generalize the content to fit various contexts. Indeed, due to its anonymity, one might assert that the expression ‘without a father, without a mother, without genealogy’ best befits the book’s position.
Over the ages, scholars have attempted to find out the human author of the book of Hebrews. Traditional theologians believe it is Paul while contemporary scholars contest this stance by linking the book to several other authors. This paper seeks to explain the authorship of the Hebrews even as the extrication of the mystery continues.
Authorship of the Book of Hebrews
Believers of the Alexandria school of thought such as Wright among other scholars averred that the human author is Paul.1 They supported their belief with several internal references from the epistle. However, in North Africa, Tertullian had a contrasting view, alluding that the letter must have been written by Barnabas.
Modern scholars have further insisted that Paul was not the author. Others claim that the author could be Apollos, Priscilla, or Clement. Indeed, according to Wagner, no other section of the New Testament has attracted theological dispute as the Hebrews.2 Based on this general evidence, the subsequent section of the paper will analyze individuals who have been linked to the authorship of the book of Hebrews.
Paul was among the first individuals to be associated with the authorship of Hebrews. Pantaenus of Alexandria chose Paul as the writer. The name was barely opposed until the period of reformation. Paul had the strongest support from Alexandria. Gradually, the name gained the followership of Jerome and Augustine, particularly during the fourth century. The Pauline authorship view was mainly backed by the basic argument that Paul had a good understanding of the Old Testament. Pauline greeting signature is present in the book.
Furthermore, the recognition of Timothy in the book in chapter 13 verse 23 as a friend to Paul substantiated Pauline authorship. However, not only the supporters but also critics have found the above reasons inconclusive. It appears that the major intention of identifying Paul as the writer was to offer the book a canonical position.
Most contemporary theologians, Catholics or Protestants, object designating Paul as the author. Foremost, the grammar and vocabulary that are dominant in the book of Hebrews may be termed as the master rhetorician, namely the Greek style. The style contradicts Paul’s writing technique.
Observers such as Cockerill assert that Paul often adjusted his torrent of thoughts, especially in the process of ending a letter.3 Paul’s technique contradicts the anonymous authorship, which utilizes Greek writing styles. Furthermore, although Paul was familiar with the Old Testament teachings as witnessed in the case of the writer of the letter, the manner in which the teachings are quoted in Hebrews is inconsistent with Paul’s style. Secondly, the nonexistence of Paul’s name is also a major point of criticism.
Regarding the letters of Paul, he had the habit of introducing himself and his mission as a follower of Christ. Furthermore, he identified himself as the Gentiles’ messenger. For instance, he says, “For this I am ordained a preacher and an apostle as I speak in truth…as teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity” (NIV 1Tim 2:7) Further references in Romans 11: 13 and Galatians 2:8 confirm this style. Expositors such as Bateman claim that the style indicated how Paul remained ardent based on his key mission of speaking to the Gentiles.4
Thirdly, the writer seems to have a second-hand knowledge. The author asserts, “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation, which began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him” (NIV Heb 2:3). Paul could not have spoken from a second-hand experience since he had the actual understanding. As per the author, he or she must have learned about Christ from others.
Paul was emphatic as evident in his epistles. According to Nelson, he knew Christ through revelation but not men.5 The contradiction triggers doubt among scholars who seek to unravel the Hebrews mystery. Paul says, “For I neither received if of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ” (NIV Gal 1:12).
Some of the challenges facing the Pauline authorship have been explained over the years. First, Clement explained that the nonexistence of Paul’s signature in the letter followed his (Paul) need to conceal his identity from the Hebrews. The Hebrews disliked him and that they could have possibly opposed his teachings. As a result, Clement asserts that Paul drafted the epistle in Hebrews and that Luke later translated into Greek.
Although Paul was a messenger to the Gentiles, his letter to the Hebrews was because of his superabundant love and grace of reaching all people via the word of God. Therefore, the lack of Paul’s signature should not deny the title of authoring the book. Moreover, ruling out Paul as the author because his name is absent in the book may simply mean that no other authors should be given credit for the book because it mentions no one.
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Furthermore, the contradictory statement made by the author in Hebrews 2:3 would simply mean that Paul was affirming that he was not among the first twelve apostles of Christ. Certainly, he was in the company of the first disciples such as Simon Peter, Mathew, and John who listened to Christ’s teachings.
However, this assertion does not conflict with his message to the Galatians. The first apostles were always viewed as the spiritual leaders of the Jewish religionists. They always led Paul whenever he visited Jerusalem as evident in Acts 21: 18-26. According to Cockerill, since Paul was writing to Jews who submitted to the first apostles, it would be right if Paul identified with the Jews and/or recognized the spiritual leadership of the first disciples.6
Despite the skepticism on Paul’s authorship of Hebrews, no evidence has been established to prove or disprove his authorship. Supporters of Clement’s view use internal evidence such as the acknowledgment of Timothy in the epistle as a ground to corroborate their belief. Perversely, critics such as Guthrie proclaim that the language that is used in the document and the absence of evidence mentioning Paul create a loophole for examining the possibility of other authors as suggested by contemporary researchers.7
Priscilla and Aquila
After identifying the haziness in crediting Paul’s authorship of Hebrews, modern intellectuals proceeded to recognize other authors such as Priscilla and Aquila. Guthrie claims that the letter was prepared by Priscilla assisted by her husband, Aquila. The name of Priscilla was absent chiefly because the early church did not encourage such top positions for women in the Church.
Indeed, Priscilla and Aquila were qualified teachers of the gospel as attested in Acts 18:26. Using internal evidence, they were in a position to recognize Timothy since they had interacted with him. Furthermore, they had led a Church in Rome, which would have been the destiny of the epistle.
From an initial reading, Guthrie’s view seems tenable. However, a further scrutiny reveals the damaging drawbacks. First, the letter might have been sent having an unidentified author and recipient so that it can communicate the gospel in various regions, especially Syria and North Africa.
The claim is explicable. However, it is inconceivable why the document would be circulated in Rome anonymously. Moreover, according to Hoppin, it is implausible to presume that the hypothesized author concealed her name because of the religious view of women during the early church.8 An author who has been inspired by the Holy Spirit to write to the Church would readily be accepted for the unanimously beneficial qualities. Moreover, one cannot discount that the book was a personal exposition and not a general document.
Priscilla had resided and hosted believers in their house in Rome where she taught them the gospel. Paul even acknowledges her in his letter to the Romans. Priscilla must have had friends and disciples in Rome who supported and adored her. The premise that the feminine authorship would have been repelled by the recipients is flawed.
Even if it would be supposed that the Roman Church discouraged women from occupying top positions in Church, it is obvious not the entire Church would have disregarded Priscilla and her teachings. Another detrimental error in the theory of Priscilla’s authorship can be drawn from the internal evidence. The original Greek grammar that is used in the book of Hebrews shows the author using a masculine language when identifying himself.
According to Nelson, the masculine participle in Hebrews 11.32 conveys an obvious message.9 The author is a male. Grammatical errors are indefensible. Allowing such a pretext could open a platform for other researchers to substantiate their thoughts with flawed information.
The scripture is flawless. If the feminine authorship were warranted, the language used in the verse would have helped in affirming the claim. Contritely, the masculine grammar closes the discourse on whether Priscilla was indeed the author. If the masculine participle referred to Aquila, then he, and not Priscilla, should have primacy. It follows that Priscilla’s authorship should not be tolerated.10
When the ideology that Paul was the anonymous author of Hebrews received incessant objection, the early Church fathers gave an alternative option, that is, Barnabas. Barnabas wrote the epistle to believers in Jerusalem to address specific issues that the Church was facing. As a Levite, Barnabas was conversant with the Jewish traditions. He was a companion of Paul in spreading the gospel. These facts are consistent with the internal evidence.
According to Bateman, it is also apparent from the book of Hebrews that the author must have been a person of great prowess and mental adaptability.11 The author utilizes teachings from Peter, Stephen, James, and Paul. Barnabas qualifies perfectly with the character of mysterious Hebrews’ author. Acts 4 refers to him as a ‘Son of Encouragement.’12 He had a great impact on Jerusalem in companion with other apostles. Christians in Antioch treated him with remarkable reverence.13
The Jewish features of Hebrews suggest that the book was not written by Paul but rather a believer who had Jewish characteristics. Therefore, Barnabas would be best placed to understand the significance of practicing in the Jewish Church than any regular Jewish nonprofessional person.
One would assert that his transition to Christianity would make him consider the Jewish traditions deceptive.14 However, this claim would be improbable since his conversion was a quiet development. Furthermore, the epistle regards the Jews as the original beneficiaries of the gospel, a position that Barnabas and Paul also held. However, Paul who deemed himself a missionary to the Gentiles gradually detracted from the ideology. This finding declares Barnabas who was still in good connection with the Jews the most qualified candidate.15
Barnabas is viewed as the Jewish apostle. He was in a good position to preach to the Jewish Christians. Likewise, the character of Barnabas is consistent with the writer of Hebrews. Furthermore, both Barnabas and Paul played an important role in Timothy’s transition to Christianity. Consequently, just as the mentioning of Timothy in the letter was initially linked to Paul, it should be linked to Barnabas.
The consistency of the suppositions easily leads one to credit Barnabas with the authorship of the book of Hebrews. Furthermore, scholars have claimed that the anonymous author either was a priest or had a priestly background. Out of the several names that have been suggested by various theologians, this inference principally coincides with Barnabas.16
Certainly, some of the qualities of the books’ authorship are in uniformity with Barnabas. Barnabas’ major task was to encourage believers. This role is inconsistent with the writer of Hebrews who provides a ‘word of exhortation’ as evident in Hebrews 13:22. Hence, most scholars seem to have ignored the aforementioned Tertullian opinion. There is inadequate literature supporting or criticizing Barnabas as the author of Hebrews.
As indicated earlier, the increased interest concerning the authorship and destination of the book of Hebrews began in the Reformation Period. One of the prominent religionists at the time, namely Martin Luther, suggested Apollos as the writer of this book. This proposition attracted the attention of most researchers because of the wording of Acts 18: 24-26.17 The extract from Acts was about Apollos was consistent with most characteristics of the unidentified author.
Apollos was a male Hellenistic Jew. Besides being expressive, he had a profound knowledge of Greek and the Old Testament. He was conversant with the Alexandrian writing style, which was utilized by the author of Hebrews. Moreover, besides knowing the synagogue practices, he had interacted with believers in house churches based in Rome. He had a second-hand reception of Christ’s teachings based on how he preached the gospel with zeal.
Apollos would appear the most qualified candidate for the title of Hebrews’ human author. In fact, modern theologians concur with Luther. However, Apollos lacks any documented support from the early believers. Indeed, it is puzzling why great theologians such as Clement and Origen did not notice that an Alexandrian was the actual writer of this interesting letter.
If Apollos had been the author, the Alexandrian church would have known and celebrated him. The absence of such recognition casts a lot of doubt in Luther’s opinion. Nonetheless, the possibility of Clement being the author is quickly disregarded because of the profound knowledge that is present in the text.
Recommendations on the Authorship of Hebrews
Having considered the thoughts of several theologians, both traditional and modern, some apparent recommendations are evident. The external and internal facts suggest that the author should be a male Hellenistic trained Jew who is conversant with Greek writing techniques.
He should also have an Alexandrian background and a deep understanding of the Old Testament teachings. Moreover, he should be knowledgeable about the Jewish culture and in particular, the sacrificial practices. He must also have heard the teachings of other preachers and teachers of the gospel. Additionally, he should be a companion of Timothy and one who is familiar with Christians residing in the peripheries of the Mediterranean Sea.18
Considering the above proposal and recalling the qualifications of Apollos, one would easily conclude that he is the author. A further supposition would be that Apollos drafted the letter and passed it to his companions and teachers, Priscilla and her husband, Aquila. Later, Priscilla and Aquilla must have circulated the message to the Churches in Rome and North Africa. According to Gareth, they opted to conceal the name of the author for the obvious reason that they were not the original writers.19
However, since this contention has no scholarly backing, it can simply act as a point for further research. Meanwhile, readers can opt to either let the human author of Hebrews be a mystery or assume it is Paul. There has been an exhaustive study on why or why not Paul is the author. Indeed, the closing phrase in Hebrews coincides with other thirteen Pauline epistles. Paul was an educated apostle who was conversant with the Jewish practices and Greek viewpoints.
He had been held captive in Italy. During his visit to Rome, he was assisted by his closest companion Timothy to communicate to the Churches from the West to East. Furthermore, he had a good comprehension of Mosaic laws and other Old Testament scriptures. Notably, various theologians have explained criticisms that have been raised against Pauline authorship of Hebrews. Hence, although it might be inconclusive, Paul seems the most conceivable author of the book of Hebrews among the entire list of suspected authors.
Scholastic uncertainty on the author of the book of Hebrews has existed for centuries. The puzzle is expected to continue for years. Theologians have used the existing external and internal evidence to reveal the mysterious human author. Several names have been suggested over years, with Paul, Apollos, Barnabas, Priscilla, and Aquilla being the most common inferences.
Over years, it appears that premises that Paul or Apollos could be the author of the Hebrews are more tenable in relation to the other proclamations. Although Apollos lacks support from the early Church, this paper proposes him as the author. Meanwhile, no evidence to prove or disprove Paul has been established. He can also be considered the author as future researchers focus on getting evidence to support Apollos.
Bateman, Herbert. Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional, 2007.
Cockerill, Gareth. The Epistle to the Hebrews (New International Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.
Guthrie, George. Hebrews: The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.
Hoppin, Ruth. The Epistle to the Hebrews is Priscilla’s Letter. London: A&C Black, 2004.
Nelson, Thomas. The NKJV Study Bible: Full-Color Edition. Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2014.
Wagner, Brian. “The Authorship of Hebrews from an Evangelical Perspective of Church History.” Journal of Dispensational Theology 14, no. 43 (April 2010): 45-53.
Wright, Tom. Hebrews for Everyone. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004.
1 Tom Wright, Hebrews for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), 89.
2 Brian Wagner, “The Authorship of Hebrews from an Evangelical Perspective of Church History”, Journal of Dispensational Theology 14, no. 43 (April 2010): 48.
3 Gareth Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews (New International Commentary on the New Testament) (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 43.
4 Herbert Bateman, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional, 2007), 32.
5 Thomas Nelson, The NKJV Study Bible: Full-Color Edition (Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2014), 1901.
6 Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 74.
7 George Guthrie, Hebrews: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 67.
8 Ruth Hoppin, The Epistle to the Hebrews is Priscilla’s Letter (London: A&C Black, 2004), 147-170.
9 Nelson, The NKJV Study Bible, 1981.
10 Hoppin, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 153.
11 Bateman, Four Views, 45.
12 Nelson, The NKJV Study Bible, 1201.
13 Wagner, “The Authorship of Hebrews,” 49.
14 Wright, Hebrews for Everyone, 109.
15 Wagner, “The Authorship of Hebrews,” 52.
16 Guthrie, Hebrews: The NIV, 102.
17 Nelson, The NKJV Study Bible, 1310.
18 Wagner, “The Authorship of Hebrews,” 93.
19 Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 47.