Authorship of Hebrews

Over at the ‘who’s that preacher?‘ blog, Gary Benfold has written a post on the authorship of Hebrews. He outlines his reasons for holding to the Pauline authorship of the letter and makes a case for why this is both significant and important.

Far be it from me to disagree with a more learned brother but I must admit to struggling with some of his arguments. Mr Benfold tells us there are four key arguments against the Pauline authorship (which he subsequently says are flimsy and therefore push him toward accepting that Paul was the author):

  1. The Greek style is very different
  2. There is no opening greeting
  3. Hebrews quotes the Septuagint and Paul does not
  4. 2:3 suggests the writer heard the gospel second-hand, Paul insist he received it directly from the Lord
Were these (a) the actual arguments and (b) the only arguments, I would agree the evidence against Pauline authorship is flimsy.

Here are some of the reasons I am not convinced Paul wrote Hebrews and on which I find myself at variance with Mr Benfold:
  1. It is not merely the fact that there is no opening greeting that speaks against the Pauline authorship. Rather, it is Paul’s specific insistence that he will always confirm the authenticity of any letter he writes (see 2 Thess 3:17 and Col 4:18). The lack of any such identification suggests Hebrews was written by somebody else. It is not an argument from silence, as Mr Benfold suggests (“it doesn’t say Paul wrote it, so he didn’t”), it is an argument from Paul’s clear statement he will always identify himself. In this letter, he doesn’t.
  2. Stylistic difference can occur in letters written by the same person e.g. the letters of John. However, were we to accept that Paul wrote Hebrews, it would appear his style was largely consistent across all his epistles with the pointed exception of Hebrews. Whilst this is by no means conclusive evidence that Paul did not write the letter, suggesting Paul was the author raises more questions than it answers on this point.
  3. Heb 2:3 clearly states the gospel was first ‘spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him’. The ‘us’ is a clearly distinct group from ‘those who heard Him’ (otherwise those who heard him are confirming it to themselves making the distinction pointless). Gal 1:11f makes clear Paul heard the gospel directly from Christ but 2:3 definitively writes the author out of the ‘those who heard Him’ camp – it doesn’t allow room to be in both. If Paul is the author, he cannot be in the ‘those who heard Him’ bracket even though he clearly places himself there in Gal 1:11f.
  4. Mr Benfold suggests Gal 2:5-9 indicates the same thing as Heb 2:3. But Gal 2:5-9 makes clear that Peter, James and John were confirming Paul’s apostleship (not the gospel he received) because this was (a) 14 years after Paul’s conversion; (b) he had already met with Peter and James before this and (c) had been preaching the gospel long before they recognised his apostleship. Heb 2:3, on the other hand, does refer quite explicitly to receipt of the gospel message. So Gal 2:5-9 and Heb 2:3 deal with confirmation of two different things: Paul’s apostleship (Gal 2:5-9) and the Gospel message (Heb 2:3).
  5. Mr Benfold argues, in favour of Pauline authorship, the writer is close to Timothy – who Paul elsewhere called his ‘son’. Not only does Heb 13:23 do nothing to particularly suggest Paul is writing, that he doesn’t use the word ‘son’ in reference to Timothy (as he does elsewhere) is further reason to reject the Pauline authorship. Unless, of course, Paul is the only person who could possibly have been close to Timothy?
  6. Whilst 2 Pet 3:15 states that Paul has written to Peter’s readers, Peter does not address his second letter specifically to a Jewish audience (note the greeting in 2 Pet 1:1 compared to his first letter). In fact, there is every reason to believe Peter is writing with a Gentile audience in mind (or a mixed congregation). That 3:15 says Paul wrote to these believers, does nothing to indicate he was the author of Hebrews. All it tells us is Peter is writing to somebody Paul has already written to and could refer to any of Paul’s epistles.
However, it is true that the authorship is of some importance. Mr Benfold is absolutely right to ask the question ‘if you don’t think Paul wrote it – why is it still in your bible?’. I very much agree with his argument against the view that Hebrews is in scripture because “it’s obvious”. Given that I don’t think Paul wrote it, how do we justify its place in scripture?:
  1. Acceptance into the canon wasn’t strictly based on apostolic authorship. We have several books e.g. Mark, Luke, James, Jude that were not written by apostles yet found their way (rightly) into the canon. The three tests were (a) is it in line with the orthodox teaching?; (b) is it accepted by the worldwide church?; and; (c) did it have any apostolic authority?
  2. Hebrews meets the criteria for inclusion into the canon on points (a) and (b). A letter in line with orthodox teaching and accepted across the worldwide church, is strongly indicative (though not a cast iron guarantee) of apostolic authority.
  3. More importantly, rejection of Pauline authorship does not mean that Paul did not ever see the letter and give it his seal of approval (thus giving it the weight of apostolic authority). In fact, most of the prime candidates are folk close to Paul so, without writing the letter, Paul could easily have seen it and approved it
  4. Rejection of Pauline authorship does not mean that another apostle other than Paul may have given it approval

2 comments

  1. Steve – thanks for your comments. My understanding is that Luke and Mark are included in the canon because of their apostolic associations – that is, with Paul and Peter respectively. James and Jude are a little different, of course, and I hope to come back to this when I'm under less pressure (if ever!)
    Now – left-wing and evangelical? Wow – that's something I'd like to discuss if ever we have the opportunity. God bless.

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  2. Thanks for your comment Gary.

    Evangelical and left-wing, yes indeed! There are a few of us and one hopes the two aren't mutually exclusive. I admit I am something of a rarity in the Grace Baptist circles from which I was drawn but there is no reason to presume 'reformed' and 'Tory' must go hand-in-hand – despite the fact that many do!

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