Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Who wrote Hebrews?

Who wrote Hebrews – and why it matters.

I promised my September resolution would be to get back to blogging.  One thing I plan to do is get round to writing those posts that, over the years, I’ve promised: the ‘7 habits’ one, the ‘Liz Murray’ one (the video no longer works on this entry - try Youtube) – maybe even the dispensationalist one (but it would be unwise to hold your breath for that!)

But first, a little piece on Hebrews.  I’ve always believed that Paul wrote Hebrews, and I still do – largely because the evidence against it is so flimsy.  The ‘traditional’ view is that Hebrews was written by the apostle Paul, sometime around 55-58 A.D.  This view is now often regarded as outdated and you may come across statements along the line of ‘Nobody nowadays believes Paul wrote Hebrews.’  Well, I do; let me give you some reasons (and you may also like to read Fred's).

1. Why ‘Pauline’ authorship is often denied

Remarkably few reasons are actually given, but they include:

a)      the Greek style is very different

b)      there is no opening greeting from Paul

c)      When Hebrews quotes the Old Testament, it quotes the Greek, Septuagint, version, whereas Paul does not

d)      2:3 seems to suggest that the writer had heard the gospel second-hand; Paul insists that he received the gospel personally from the Lord (see Galatians 1:11-12).

2. Why I still believe Paul wrote Hebrews

Starting with the ones above, then moving on:

a)      Stylistic differences may be easily accounted for.  For example, Hebrews may have been written in Aramaic for its Jewish audience, and then translated into Greek.  Or it may simply reflect different times and circumstances.  The Greek style of John’s gospel, 1,2 and 3 John and Revelation are said to be quite different, but they all come from John’s pen.

b)      The missing greeting is interesting but not conclusive; circumstances may have required it in some way.  It's a strange argument anyway: 'It doesn't say Paul wrote it, so he didn't.'  Hmm.  It doesn't say anybody wrote it - perhaps nobody did?

c)      If Hebrews was first written in Aramaic and then translated (by Paul or someone else) it would have been natural to include Scripture quotes from the Greek Old Testament.  And many writers on the Bible quote different versions at different times.

d)      This is the strongest argument, but is equally easily turned in favour of Pauline authorship.  Galatians tells us that Paul received the gospel directly from Jesus, but that it was confirmed by the other apostles (Galatians 2:5-9).  That’s just what Hebrews 2:4 says!

e)      The writer of Hebrews is very close to Paul’s ‘son’ Timothy – 13:23.

f)        Ancient writers from as early as 150 AD say that Paul wrote Hebrews (Clement of Alexandria, 150-215 AD, Origen, 185-253 AD).  The early church historian Eusebius also attributes it to Paul.

g)      The earliest collection of Paul’s writings, known as the Chester Beatty manuscript and dated about 200 AD, includes all of Paul’s epistles except the Pastorals, but does include Hebrews (between Romans and 1 Corinthians).

h)      Peter says clearly (2 Peter 3:15) that Paul had written ‘Scripture’ to Peter’s (Jewish) readers.  If that’s not Hebrews, we don’t know what it is.

i)        Writings were only accepted as ‘canonical’ by the early church if they had apostolic authorship or approval.

Why it matters

But does it matter?  I’ve always said ‘No’, but I’ve changed my mind.  Let me tell you why.

As I've said, the church decided which of the many writings available were ‘Scripture’ on the basis of apostolic authority: did an apostle write it?  If not, was an apostle behind it (as seems to be the case with the gospel of Mark)?  If yes, it was Scripture, God’s word.  If no, then it wasn’t – full stop.

If Paul didn’t write Hebrews, then there is no evidence at all of an apostle behind it.  If that’s true, it isn’t Scripture.  The comments we sometimes read (‘Oh, it’s so obviously God’s word; anyone can tell that…’) are so subjective as to be worthless.  And they’re effectively the ‘burning bosom’ argument that Mormons use to justify their own rubbish.

If you don’t think Paul wrote it – why is it still in your Bible?


Guy Davies said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guy Davies said...

If Paul wrote Hebrews he would have said so, 2 Thess 3:17.

Gary Benfold said...

Guy - It's a good point, but I don't think the text bears the weight you give it. He doesn't say he always begins his letters with his own name (though in every other case he does) but that there are hand-written personal remarks/greetings at the end of his letters. The greeting Paul 'always' pens with his own hand could well be, in Hebrews, 13:22ff. Compare it, for example, with Ephesians 6:21ff where Paul does not mention his own name, but does have a similar personal note to the Hebrews end. We know Ephesians is Pauline.
What do you think?

Guy Davies said...

Could be. But in every other case Paul clearly identifies himself at the beginning of his letters.

As you say, with Mark and Luke apostolic approval rather than authorship make the writings canonical. In that case why could Hebrews not have been written by Barnabas, or Apollos, say?

If Hebrews is canonically doubtful if written by an apostolic associate rather than an apostle, how you account for the canonicity of James or Jude?

Gary Benfold said...

Guy - I haven't said at all that'Hebrews is canonically doubtful if written by an apostolic associate'. As you say, that would make James, Jude, Mark, Luke and Acts canonically doubtful too.
What I'm saying is that there's no evidence that Hebrews was written by an apostolic associate, as far as I'm aware. Barnabas, Apollos, Priscilla - have all been suggested but not, as far as I'm aware, with any evidence at all.
My point is - and the post, and the link within it, make the point - Hebrews was originally accepted as Scripture on the basis of Pauline authorship. (Am I wrong?) Now, if we had discovered that, say, it wasn't Paul at all but Peter, or John - no problem. But if it isn't Paul - and we've no idea who it was - we can't simply say 'But it's Scripture anyway'. WHY is it? Nor can we say 'Because it's Scripture, let's assume that there's apostolic approval behind it.' WHERE'S the evidence for that apostolic approval?

Need I say - I do believe Hebrews is Scripture. I honour it as such, preach on it as such, feed on it as such. (And I believe Paul wrote it.)