John Gayford considers the Riddle of the New Testament
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has been a matter of considerable dispute over the centuries. Hebrews is anonymous, and unlike epistles it does not begin with a greeting nor with the name of the sender in contrast with the letters attributed to St Paul. We can assume that the author’s name was known at the time the work was written. The search for the recipients of the work is almost as elusive as our hunt for the author. It is generally agreed that they were second-generation Christians who were literate Jewish Christians, a community of the first century (between AD 45 and 90) probably before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 while Jewish sacrifice was still being offered. There seemed to be a danger of these converts abandoning the Christian faith and going back to the Jewish faith (the Old Covenant). The work could have been written to the leader of a house group for their members, possibly in Rome.
The text produced is one of the most powerful impressive works of the New Testament with distinct and profound theology. It is best called a word of exhortation which was a title used of some synagogue sermons. It is considered by Greek scholars to contain the most polished and sophisticated Greek in the New Testament with good syntax (sentence construction) and command of Greco-Roman rhetoric. The assumption is made that the work was written by a Greek Christian (possible a Jewish convert).The writer is pointing out that this has been superseded by the New Covenant in which the sacrifice is made by Christ the supreme high prieSt As Hebrews 4.14 says in Jesus, the Son of God we have the supreme high prieSt He is also human and can feel our weakness but is a compassionate high priest able to forgive our sins and enlighten us. He is eternal after the order of Melchizedek. Thus we have what is rightly called high Christology. Hebrews is prolific in its use of Old Testament from the Septuagint, or by shorthand (LXX Greek). By way of encouragement earthly worship is seen as a shadow of heavenly worship. The readers are invited to participate in what lies beyond the veil with the all-powerful presence of the divine. Sacraments are seen as communal physical acts that involve sharing in spiritual realities.
Hebrews has been recognised as part of the Canon of the New Testament since the fourth century but it is not mentioned in the Muratorian Canon (but this is only a fragment of Greek text written about 180 AD.) Also it is not mentioned by Eusebius nor is it listed among the works of St Paul by Irenaeus (c.130-203), Tertullian (c.155-c.220) or Hippolytus (c.170-c. 235). The traditional view was supported by St Jerome (c. 342-420) and St Augustine of Hippo (345-430) that St Paul wrote in Hebrew and St Luke translated it into Greek. This can be traced back further to Pantaenus (who died about 200) and was a Stoic philosopher before becoming a Christian and taught in the Alexandrian Catechetical School. It is from Alexandria that the earliest extant text of Hebrews in Greek can be found, placing it in the Bible immediately after St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Origen (c.184-c.253) distinguished Hebrews from the writings of St Paul on the grounds of style of content. He later changed his mind several times. In the Eastern Churches Pauline authorship was generally accepted, as seen in early Coptic and Syrian biblical texts, but not in the Western Church until after the time of St Augustine of Hippo. St Paul had a number of close associates who were responsible for writing in St Paul’s name and the possibility of their authorship of Hebrews has to be considered. This raises the possibility that a similar anonymous author wrote Hebrews such as St Barnabas but the case is weak as we only have the suggestion by the testimony of Tertullian. An obvious candidate is St, Luke where there are similarities in style based on the classic model of Greek writing at the time. Certainly they share an interest in the Temple and the two Covenants, but can we really claim that Luke wrote both Hebrews and Acts when the latter is devoid of references to Christ as the High Priest?
Apollos as we see in Acts 18.24-28 is an eloquent man with a sound knowledge of the Scriptures. We are told that he preached with great spiritual fervour and was accurate in all the details he taught about Jesus. Apollos was respected by St Paul and they worked together for a time developing the early churches both in Ephesus and Corinth. It would seem that Priscilla and Aquila were impressed by him and gave him further instruction. Martin Luther in 1527 proposed him as author of Hebrews rather than Paul or Barnabas. There are no known texts written by Apollos for comparison. Further it has been suggested that Hebrews was written by Aquila and Priscilla both of whom were Jewish converts, or even by Priscilla alone, but due to the culture of the times women would be invisible. Modern biblical scholarship makes claims for both Apollos and Priscilla as the real authors of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Apollos was a learned Jew from Alexandria a philosopher and well versed in Greek-Roman rhetoric. In the Synagogue he spoke well in the favour of the messiahship of Jesus, this was at the times when Jews and Christians could worship together. Initially he had been baptised by John and had to have further education in the Christian faith. Bishop Montefiore makes twelve points in favour Apollos being the true author of Hebrews. Priscilla (a preference among many female biblical scholars) was a wealthy missionary leader in the Pauline circle who lead house churches in Rome, Corinth and Ephesus in the 50’s AD. She was clearly a highly intelligent woman who had a good relationship St Paul who lived working as a tent maker with her husband Aquila for over a year. Ruth Hoppin makes ten points in favour of Priscilla being the true author of Hebrews, if so she would be the only female author in the New Testament. In Rome she ran a house church before moving to Corinth where she met St Paul who held her in high esteem and they worked together for over a year before she moved again to Ephesus but finally returned to Rome in the 50’s AD. There is Biblical evidence that she provided St Paul with some protection and Christian education. If not the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, she could even as a leader of a house church be the recipient.
There are striking similarities in the first Epistle of Clement 19 to the Corinthians and parts of the Epistle to the Hebrews (12.1-3). Clement’s Greek was good and some similarities with Hebrews is no proof that he was the author of Hebrews. Did Clement copy from Hebrews or was it the other way round? A deduction could be made that the author of Hebrews and Clement were both using the same source. Erasmus raised doubt about St Paul’s authorship of Hebrews in 1516. John Calvin (1509-1564) in his commentary to Hebrews concluded that he could find no reason why it was written by Paul but was more likely written by Luke or Clement of Rome There is now quite an extensive list of other possible authors, it has even been suggested a possible connection with the Qumran community. By the time of the Council of Trent the authorship of Hebrews had become a political football. The fourth session of the Council of Trent on 8th April 1546 unequivocally included the Epistle to the Hebrews as one of the fourteen Letters of St Paul. This was reaffirmed by the 22nd session of the Council in 1562.
The oldest manuscript of Hebrews, from an Egyptian text of about 200 AD, places it after St Paul’s letter to the Romans. In St Jerome’s Vulgate Bible completed in 405 (but not immediately accepted) it was placed just before the letter of St James, a position that was retained in the King James Bible of 1611 and also in the Douay- Rheims Bible translated into English by Bishop Richard Challoner in 1749-1752 for Roman Catholics. Modern English translations like the New English version and the Jerusalem Bible continue with this tradition.
The Epistle to the Hebrews can be described as an anonymous homily to encourage Christians to renew their fidelity. The book’s name was added by a scribe when the text was included among St Paul’s letters possibly at the beginning of the third century. Through the centuries various biblical scholars have discussed the authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews. We can see how they have struggled and often changed their minds. Most start with the belief that Hebrews was written by St Paul but eventually realised that there is not the evidence to support this. Some were prepared to accept the general teaching of the time but did not show conviction. Others went further by saying that if St Paul did not write Hebrews it did not have apostolic authority and it was not scripture, with radicals saying it should not be in the Bible.
In the past it has been claimed that the Eastern Churches accepted Pauline authorship but this is not a view shared by modern Coptic and Greek Orthodox scholars. Modern Roman Catholics now admit that Hebrews was not written by St Paul. Nevertheless there is still some reluctance to dismiss St Paul’s authorship. This is encouraged by quoting Pope Pius X in his motu proprio Praestantia Scripturae of 1907 which states that the Epistle to the Hebrews is the genuine epistle of the Apostle Paul.
So who wrote Hebrews? The short answer to this is that we do not know. When asked this question Origen simply said ‘God knows.’ Many names have been put forward by their various supporters and the discussion could continue endlessly. This long list would lend support to the assumption that it is a complete mystery. We should be grateful to good biblical scholarship that has shed light on this most beautiful but challenging book of the New Testament with its own distinctive vocabulary and theology telling us that Jesus is the perfect high priest, but that does not reveal its authorship.
Suggested Further Reading.-
– Hoppin, R. Priscilla’s Letter. Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews Lost Coast Press Fort Bragg California 2019.
– Mitchell, A.C. Hebrews in the Sacra Pagina Series edited by Harrington, D.J. Liturgical Press Collegeville Minnesota. 2007.
– Montefiore, H.W. The Epistle to the Hebrews. A & C Black London. 1964.