Some things God has made known to us, and some things he has kept from us for all time. The New Testament was written nearly two thousand years ago by many different authors to many different people. To the extent that so much is known about the books of the Bible, who wrote them, to whom they were written, and for what purpose, there is also a lot of information that we do not, nor will we ever know. The book of Hebrews is one such example, having neither an identified author, nor a clear intended recipient. Yet even with the author’s name missing from the letter, we can still identify many characteristics about the author and who he was writing to. Using this same information, we can also rule out who the author was not. There have been several theories circulating over the past two millennia about who may have penned Hebrews. By examining the statements of past biblical historians, the style by which it was written, and excerpts from the letter and other New Testament books, we can better determine who the author of the book of Hebrews may have been.
Hebrews was accepted alongside the letters of Paul, but many reject Paul as the author. William Barclay writes that “Hebrews won its way into the New Testament on the grounds of its own greatness, but to get in it had to be included with the letters of Paul and come under his name.”1 In the early history of the church, many had their beliefs in whether or the book of Hebrews should be accepted in the canon and as such the book was repeatedly removed from and placed back into the canon. Authorship was eventually granted to Paul, as the King James Version of the Bible later attests to, due in part that Timothy is mentioned as a companion of the author’s just as he was mentioned as a traveling companion of Paul’s in several of his other letters. The author also mentions that he had been in bonds in Hebrews 10:34. It is known that Paul was imprisoned when he wrote four other letters in the New Testament, though Paul was probably not the only person to have been imprisoned for his beliefs. This view went undisputed for about one thousand years until the advent of the Reformation.2 However, some modern critics have rejected any association to Pauline authorship for a number of reasons. One reason for this rejection is that the author does not introduce himself. Paul makes it a point to introduce himself in his thirteen known letters with the phrase, “Paul, an apostle…” or some variant thereof. In contrast, the book of Hebrews begins with, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets…”.3 This type of introduction is uncharacteristic of Paul’s writings. It has been argued that if it was Paul’s epistle, it would not have been accepted by the Hebrews since he used his Greek name, as opposed to his Hebrew name Saul, and therefore he left out the mention of it. However, any Greek named author would have come under the same opposition when writing to the Hebrews.
Another reason to reject Paul’s authorship of the book of Hebrews is the Greek style of writing in which Hebrews was written. Donald Guthrie in his commentary on Hebrews makes note of third century biblical scholar Origen’s comment, that the book “’lacked the apostle’s rudeness of expression’ and that it ‘is more idiomatically Greek in the composition of its diction.’”4 The style of writing is that of someone who was well cultured in the Greek language. While we can accept that Luke may have translated into Greek Paul’s ideas on the matter, it still doesn’t explain the differences between Paul’s other epistles and the thought process behind the writing of Hebrews. Gerald L. Borchert outlines other reasons to reject a Pauline authorship including different ideas on the meaning of faith, law, flesh and spirit, covenant, and priesthood. “Moreover, the lack of emphasis on the resurrection seems telling. Paul is an apostle of the resurrection. Such is not the emphasis of Hebrews.”5
The epistle tells us several identifying characteristics about the author that can help in pinning a name to the writing. The author’s awareness of Timothy suggests he also knew Paul and was associated with him. He was intimately knowledgeable in the Jewish religious system and in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew scriptures. He is familiar with his readers and the readers with him. He was also well versed and an eloquent writer in the Greek language.6 William Barclay states that, “Hebrews demands such a knowledge of the Old Testament that it must always have been a book written by a scholar for scholars.”7 Some have named him the most eloquent writer in the New Testament.
Two of the more note-worthy guesses as to Hebrew’s authorship have been those of Barnabas and Apollos. Barnabas, Paul’s traveling companion and fellow apostle, was a Levite from Cyprus. Cypriots, as they were called, were famous for the caliber of the Greek they spoke and being a Levite, he would have had a good knowledge of the priestly and sacrificial system. He was also referred to as the son of encouragement, whereas Hebrews calls itself a word of encouragement.8 The case for Barnabas begins to lose support when in the book of Acts, Luke notes that while at Lystra, the people named Paul Mercurius for his boldness of speech, and Barnabas received the title of Jupiter for being quiet and reserved. Despite the compelling similarities between Barnabas and the writer of Hebrews, Barnabas’s quiet demeanor does not fit with the bold public speaking of the author of the letter. Another testament against Barnabas is that Hebrews is more closely written in a style that better reflects that of an Alexandrian tongue such as the writings of Philo, a Jewish Biblical philosopher from Alexandria.
Apollos is another possible and more preferable candidate to be the author of the book. According to the New Testament, Apollos was a Jewish Christian from Alexandria, Egypt, a place of refinement and enlightenment. He was an eloquent man and mighty in the scriptures, who boldly criticized the Jews in public. He had been converted to Christianity second hand, by those who heard the Lord, a differentiating conversion story than that of Paul’s, but one that agrees with Hebrew’s author in 2:3. These characteristics are all brought out in the author of the book and reflected in Apollos as he is described by Luke in Acts 18:24-28.9 Apollos would also have known of Philo, as he was a prominent man of the day, being selected by the community to represent the people before the Roman emperor Gaius Caligula.10 It is with the writings of Philo that we can make a comparison between the composition of Hebrews and the Alexandrian thought.
It is compelling, based on what we know of the two men, to argue for a Barnabas or Apollos authorship. Apollos seems to be the most likely possibility given the two to be the author of Hebrews given what we know of him, and the characteristics of the unnamed author. The case for Apollos as author of Hebrews is convincing. Although Origen may have believe Paul wrote the famous epistle, he may hold the last words to this argument when he made the remark that only God knows for certain who wrote the letter to the Hebrews.
1 William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews. The Daily Study Bible Series. Revised Edition. (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1976), 8.
2 Wikipedia, “The Epistle to the Hebrews,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_to_the_Hebrews (accessed March 10, 2012).
3 The Interlinear NASB-NIV Parallel New Testament In Greek and English, Translated by Alfred Marshall, Zondervan Publishing House, 1993.
4 Donald Guthrie, The Letter to the Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986) 20.
5 Borchert, Gerald L. “A superior book: Hebrews.” Review & Expositor 82, no. 3 (June 1, 1985): 319-322. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 10, 2012).
6 Christian Inconnect, “An Overview of the Book of Hebrews,” http://www.christianinconnect.com/hebrews.htm (accessed March 10, 2012)
7 William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews. The Daily Study Bible Series. Revised Edition. (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1976), 7.
8 William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews. The Daily Study Bible Series. Revised Edition. (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1976), 9.
9 The Holy Bible. The New King James Version. The New Open Bible Study Edition. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990. (Acts 18:24-28, Hebrews 2:3)
10 Wikipedia, “Philo,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philo (accessed March 17, 2012).