hebrews, epistle to

Epistle to the Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews (abbr. Heb for citations) is one of the books in the New Testament. Though traditionally credited to the Apostle Paul, the letter is anonymous. Most modern scholars, both conservative and critical, believe its author was not Paul.

The letter has carried its traditional title since Tertullian described it as Barnabae titulus ad Hebraeos in De Pudicitia chapter 20 ("Barnabas's Letter to the Hebrews.")


The author of Hebrews is not known. The text as it has been passed down to the present time is internally anonymous, though ancient title headings attribute it to the Apostle Paul. Internal considerations suggest the author was male he was an acquaintance of Timothy and was located in Italy ().

Tradition attributes the letter to Paul, but the style is notably different from the rest of Paul's epistles. Eusebius reports that the original letter had a Jewish audience and was written in Hebrew, and then later translated into Greek by Luke. In support of this, Luke's record of Paul's speech in Antioch is sometimes claimed to have a similar style to Hebrews, notably different from Paul's letters to gentile audiences.

However, even in antiquity doubts were raised about Paul's alleged authorship. The reasons for this controversy are fairly plain. For example, his letters always contain an introduction stating authorship, yet Hebrews does not. Also, while much of its theology and teachings may be considered Pauline, it contains many other ideas which seem to have no such root or influence. Moreover, the writing style is substantially different from that of Paul's authentic epistles, a characteristic first noticed by Clement (c. 210). In Paul's letter to the Galatians, he forcefully defends his claim that he received his gospel directly from the resurrected Jesus himself.

Nevertheless, in the fourth century, the church largely agreed to include Hebrews as the fourteenth letter of Paul. Jerome and Augustine of Hippo were influential in affirming Paul's authorship, and the Church affirmed this authorship until the Reformation.

In general, the evidence against Pauline authorship is considered too solid for scholarly dispute. Donald Guthrie, in his New Testament Introduction (1976), commented that "most modern writers find more difficulty in imagining how this Epistle was ever attributed to Paul than in disposing of the theory. Harold Attridge tells us that "it is certainly not a work of the apostle"; Daniel Wallace simply states, "the arguments against Pauline authorship, however, are conclusive. As a result, few supporters of Pauline authorship remain.

In response to the doubts raised about Paul's involvement, other possible authors were suggested as early as the third century CE. Origen of Alexandria (c. 240) suggested that either Luke the Evangelist or Clement of Rome might be the author. Tertullian proposed Paul's companion Barnabas. Barnabas, to whom other noncanonical works are attributed (such as Epistle of Barnabas), was close to Paul in his ministry, and exhibited skill with midrash of Hebrew Scripture; the other works attributed to him bolster the case for his authorship of Hebrews with similar style, voice, and skill.

Martin Luther proposed Apollos, described as an Alexandrian and "a learned man" popular in Corinth and adept at using the scriptures and arguing for Christianity while "refuting the Jews" ().

In more recent times, some scholars have advanced a case for the authorship of Hebrews belonging to Priscilla. Perhaps the most thoroughly presented argument that Priscilla authored Hebrews came from Berlin Prof. Adolph Von Harnack in 1900. Starr's book contains Harnack's summary of his research:

  • Letter to the Hebrews was written to Rome--not to the church, but to the inner circle ()
  • The fact that the author's name was "blotted out by the earliest tradition" is considered "amazing."
  • Closing verses of chapter 13 say the letter was written by a person of high standing and an apostolic teacher of equal rank with Timothy. The author must have been intimately associated with Paul and Timothy. Therefore, Harnack reasons, there must have been a reason why the author's name is not given. Harnack concludes: "This can only be Priscilla."

Harnack gives four reasons for his conclusion that Priscilla wrote the Letter to the Hebrews:

  1. Priscilla had an inner circle in Rome, "the church that is in their house" ().
  2. She was an Apostolic teacher of high standing, and known throughout Christendom of that day ().
  3. She was the teacher of the intelligent and highly educated Apollos ().
  4. She and her husband Aquila labored closely and taught together, explaining why both the pronouns "I" and "we" were used by the author.

Nevertheless, other commentators have observed that the self-reference in Hebrews 11:32 employs a masculine participle, implying that Priscilla could not have been the author; or else she was masquerading as a male in order to gain credibility.

As Richard Heard notes, in his Introduction to the New Testament, "modern critics have confirmed that the epistle cannot be attributed to Paul and have for the most part agreed with Origen’s judgement, ‘But as to who wrote the epistle, God knows the truth.’


Hebrews was written to a specific audience facing very specific circumstances. We can discern various facts about the recipients of Hebrews through a careful mirror reading of the letter:

  • The original readers of the letter were conversant in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, as the author's usage shows.
  • The contrast in and the types of sins listed in suggest they lived in a city.
  • They had once faced persecution but not to the point of shedding blood (). It is possible that and imply that they would soon face renewed opposition.
  • Some had stopped assembling together, and this was possibly due to persecution ().
  • As the author saw it, at least some among them were being tempted to avoid severe persecution by "shrinking back" from the eschatalogical fulfillment of the true hope and faith of the Old Testament proclaimed by the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ. It is debated whether the anticipated persecution was from secular (i.e., Roman) authorities or Jewish authorities. Perhaps there were elements of both, or as we see elsewhere in the New Testament, the Jewish authorities may have stirred up the secular authorities to suppress the Christians. The author exhorted them to encourage "love and good works" and warned them that if they "sin willfully" by denying Jesus' sacrifice it will become ineffective for them(26). But for non-Jews, these loving actions are sufficient for "great recompense of reward" as long as they "hold fast the profession of our faith [in Jesus] without wavering"(), and thus do not need to convert to Judaism.
  • In the author says that those from Italy greet the readers. This could mean that the author is writing from Italy or that the author is writing to recipients in Italy, and that Italians present with the author are greeting those back home.

Traditional scholars have argued the letter's audience was Jewish Christians, as early as the end of the second century (hence its title, "The Epistle to the Hebrews"). However, Hebrews is part of an internal New Testament debate between the extreme Judaizers (who argued that non-Jews must convert to Judaism before they can receive the Holy Spirit of Jesus's Jewish covenant) versus the extreme lawless ones (who argued that Jews must reject God's commandments and that God's eternal Torah was no longer in effect). Peter and Paul represent the moderates of each faction, respectively. The Epistle emphasizes non-Jewish followers of Jesus do not need to convert to Judaism to share in all of God's promises to Jews. Liberal American theologian Edgar Goodspeed notes, "But the writer's Judaism is not actual and objective, but literary and academic, manifestly gained from the reading of the Septuagint Greek version of the Jewish scriptures, and his polished Greek style would be a strange vehicle for a message to Aramaic-speaking Jews or Christians of Jewish blood."

Hebrews is often erroneously named as one of the general (or catholic) epistles. But since it was written to a specific group of Jewish-Christians, it is not technically a general epistle.


Although the author is unknown, Hebrews has been dated to shortly after the Pauline epistles were collected and began to circulate, c. 95 CE. This date is dependent on a traditional date for I Clement of 96 CE. Harold W. Attridge claims only a general dating is possible and places the letter as being written between 60 CE and 100 CE.

Some, such as John A.T. Robinson, place the entire New Testament at a much earlier date. Robinson argues, for example, that there is no textual evidence that the New Testament authors had knowledge of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The use of tabernacle terminology in Hebrews has been used to date the epistle before the destruction of the temple, the idea being that knowing about the destruction of both Jerusalem and the temple would have influenced the development of his overall argument to include such evidence.

Purpose for writing

Most scholars today believe the document was written to prevent apostasy. (Apostasy is the abandonment of a political or religious belief.) Some have interpreted apostasy to mean a number of different things, such as a group of Christians in one sect leaving for another more conservative sect, one in which the author disapproves. Some have seen apostasy as a move from the Christian assembly to pagan ritual. In light of a possibly Jewish-Christian audience, the apostasy in this sense may be in regard to Jewish-Christians leaving the Christian assembly to return to the synagogue. In light of Pauline doctrine, the epistle dissuades non-Jewish Christians from feeling a need to convert to Judaism. Therefore the author writes, "Let us hold fast to our confession" ().

The Bible's Epistle to the Hebrews affirms special creation. It affirms that God by His Son, Jesus Christ, made the worlds. " God...hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son...by whom also he made the worlds" (). The epistle also states that the worlds themselves do not provide the evidence of how God formed them. "Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear" (().

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia: Epistle to the Hebrews:

... the Epistle opens with the solemn announcement of the superiority of the New Testament Revelation by the Son over Old Testament Revelation by the prophets (


Hebrews is a very consciously "literary" document. The purity of its Greek was noted by Clement of Alexandria, according to Eusebius (Historia Eccl., VI, xiv), and Origen of Alexandria asserted that every competent judge must recognize a great difference between this epistle and Paul's (Eusebius, VI, xxv).

This letter consists of two strands: an expositional or doctrinal strand (1:1–14; 2:5–18; 5:1–14; 6:13–9:28; 13:18–25), and a hortatory or ethical strand which punctuates the exposition parenthetically at key points as warnings to the readers (2:1–4; 3:1–4:16; 6:1–12; 10:1–13:17).

Hebrews does not fit the form of a traditional Hellenistic epistle, lacking a proper prescript. Modern scholars generally believe this book was originally a sermon or homily, although possibly modified after it was delivered to include the travel plans, greetings and closing ().

Hebrews contains many references to the Old Testament—specifically to its Septuagint text. It has been regarded as a treatise supplementary to the Romans and Galatians, and as a kind of commentary on the book of Leviticus and Temple worship in general.

See also


Further reading

  • Attridge, Harold W. Hebrews. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1989.
  • Hagen, Kenneth. Hebrews Commenting from Erasmus to Beze. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1981.
  • Heen, Erik M. and Krey, Philip D.W., eds. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Hebrews. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2005.
  • Hughes, P.E. A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977.
  • Hurst, L. D. The Epistle to the Hebrews: Its Background of Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Guthrie, Donald The Letter to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983
  • Phillips, John Exploring Hebrews (Revised). Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1977, 1988
  • Lane, William L. Hebrews 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 47A. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1991.
  • Lane, William L. Hebrews 9-13. Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 47B. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1991.
  • M'Cheyne, Robert Murray 'The Glory of the Christian Dispensation' (Hebrews 8 & 9) Diggory Press, 2007, ISBN 978-1846857034

External links

Online translations of the Epistle to the Hebrews:

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