The Letter to the Hebrews: who wrote it and when?
Firstly, it is evident that throughout the centuries, the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews has never been definitively proven and has led to much controversy. It was originally called “The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews” but although the content is doctrinally in line with Paul’s other letters, the style and emphases are now widely recognised to differ from Paul’s. As Origen said “Who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, only God knows for certain.“. This much is clear – “If the authorship of this epistle is uncertain, its inspiration is indisputable” – DA Hayes “The New Testament Epistles”. The exact date that the Epistle was written and the nature of the recipients have also proved enigmatic (for more details about the authorship, date and recipients, see Appendix). According to AM Stibbs, “Indeed the only adequate answer of Christian faith to these very questions is that God Himself is the primary author and Christians of every age are the divinely intended readers.” from ‘The Letter to the Hebrews: an evaluative outline of the key themes and theological insights’ by Helen Redfern
As I explained yesterday, we’re going to be looking at the Book of Hebrews using an essay I wrote 11 years ago as part of a Living Theology Today course. I can’t remember what the word limit was, but I do recall I wrote three times the amount and have the content to prove it!
So the above is what appeared in the actual essay and the Appendix below is what I had to leave out! In Join Our Journey, I never normally go into this much detail about authorship, but it is fascinating to open up this controversy here and realise that the assumptions we often make may not be the whole truth!
Appendix: Authorship, Date and Recipients
This much is known. The author is clearly known by the recipients; he was of high literary ability (his writing was closer to Classical Greek than any other writer in the New Testament); Hebrews 11:32 confirms that he was a man; he comes across as an intellectual Hebrew Christian well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures; from Hebrews 2:3, we can deduce that he was not around at the time of Jesus and was therefore a second generation Christian.
The two main contenders, who both meet the above criteria, are Barnabus (1), as suggested by Tertullian in c.200 when he quotes from “an epistle to the Hebrews under the name of Barnabus” in his “De Pudicitia” and Apollos (2), as suggested by Martin Luther and favoured by many scholars today. Other suggestions include Luke, Silas, Philip and even Priscilla.
Date and recipients
As for the date of this epistle, the author writes in the Greek present tense about the Temple and the priestly activities surrounding it (3) so we can assume that it must then have been written before the destruction of the Temple in AD70. From Hebrews 10:32-36 and 12:4, persecution seems to be imminent and yet it is clear from the text that it is written to the second generation of Christians (4). This leads us on to the enigmatic question of the recipients. The epistle is like hearing one side of a telephone conversation and from that we can surmise some information about the addressees. For example, Hebrews 10:32 points out that they have forgotten the former days and Hebrews 13:7 states that some of the original leaders have died.
1. Acts 4:36 and 13:1-4 back up this view.
2. Acts 18:24; 1 Cor 1:12 and 3:4-6,22 back up this view.
3. See Hebrews 5:1-3; 7:23,27; 8:3-5; 9:6-9,13,25; 10:1,3-4,8,11; 13:10-11
4. Hebrews 2:1-4
It’s so complicated, isn’t it?
Well done to anyone who actually looked up all the verses! We don’t normally put in that kind of work to gain a picture of the context of the words we’re reading, do we? As Christians, we are often then guilty of quoting phrases and verses without a knowledge of the context. I like the analogy of hearing one side of a phone conversation. It’s all too easy to fill in the gaps and draw the wrong conclusion entirely.
In the essay, I conclude this section with the following paragraph.
Despite these uncertainties however, the truths and theological insights that this letter reveal are of immense value. According to Bishop Tom Wright, “The letter to the Hebrews is one of the most bracing and challenging writings in the New Testament.”. This should not serve to put us off, but rather encourage us to study and better understand what the Letter to the Hebrews has to teach us.
We do not need to be sure about the authorship, dates and recipients to be able to draw inspiration from this wonderful letter. Being aware of the conversation around the options is helpful and it may be helpful to you to draw some conclusions from this to gain a clearer picture of the context in your mind.
So are you ready for this bracing and challenging adventure?