The text of the epistle to the Hebrews doesn’t tell us who wrote Hebrews. But it does give us clues, and external evidence gives us more clues.
Because the author isn’t identified in the text, we don’t need to know who wrote it to teach or learn it. But even though it’s not essential, it is certainly interesting.
Suppose you download an mp3 of a sermon from a link that doesn’t say who preached it. The sermon itself might still give you quite a few clues as to who preached it.
- Does it give any clues that show when or where it was preached?
- Does it mention someone you know?
- Does it mention any prayer requests?
- Does it have any autobiographical information?
- Does it have a strong content or stylistic resemblance to other works by a preacher?
Each of these types of clues are present in Hebrews.
Internal Evidence: Date
Several verses in Hebrews suggest that it was written before 70 A.D. In that year, the Temple was destroyed and the sacrifices of the Old Covenant ceased. But Hebrews speaks of the Old Covenant sacrifices and priesthood in the present tense. (Emphasis added.)
- Hebrews 9:24-25: “For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another” (NKJV; all quotations NKJV except as noted). The high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another.
- Hebrews 7:5: “And indeed those who are of the sons of Levi, who receive the priesthood, have a commandment to receive tithes from the people according to the law, that is, from their brethren, though they have come from the loins of Abraham.”
- Hebrews 8:13: “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” The Old Covenant had not yet vanished away. But it was “ready to vanish away.” I believe this is a prophecy that the fall of the Temple and the end of sacrifices was near.
- Hebrews 5:1-4: “For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness. Because of this he is required as for the people, so also for himself, to offer sacrifices for sins. And no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was.”
- Hebrews 8:3-5a: “For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle.”
- Hebrews 10:1-3: “For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year.”
Although Hebrews 8:13 states that the law was ready to vanish away, Hebrews speaks of the law, the office of the priesthood, and the Holy Place in the present tense.
Internal Evidence: Those Who Heard
Hebrews 2:2-4 says:
For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?
One phrase in this passage is an autobiographical clue. It’s in verse 3: “and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him.” This is generally understood to mean that the author probably did not follow Jesus’ ministry during His time on earth.
This does not, however, mean that the author of Hebrews never heard Jesus’ voice. He did not hear it “at the first.” But Hebrews is inspired Scripture. II Timothy 3:16 tells us that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” The word translated “inspiration” means “divinely breathed” [Strong’s Greek 2315]. We understand that the author of Hebrews received divine inspiration as he wrote this book; so it would be unwise to say that the author of Hebrews never heard God’s voice. He only didn’t hear Jesus’ voice at the first, during his earthly ministry.
This tells us that the author became a Christian between 33 and 70 A.D.
Five individuals are identified as primary authors of New Testament epistles: Peter, John, James, Jude, and Paul. Peter and John heard, believed, and followed Jesus during His earthly ministry. James and John were Jesus’ brothers; even if they did not come to saving faith until later, they did hear some of Jesus’ teachings during His earthly ministry (see John 2:12 and 7:1-13). We don’t know if Hebrews was written by the author of another epistle; but if it was, Paul is the only remaining option.
Internal Evidence: The Italy Connection
Hebrews 13:24 says: “Those from Italy greet you.” (The King James renders it, “They of Italy salute you.”)
There is some debate about how to correctly interpret this. Hebrews was either written from Italy, to Italy, or from a town with a substantial presence of Italian expatriates.
Either way, this suggests that the author had substantial Italian connections. Two of the apostles with the strongest Italian connections were Paul (as the author of Romans) and Peter (who, according to church tradition, was an early leader of the church there.) We already know Peter didn’t write Hebrews (due to Hebrews 2:3).
Internal Evidence: Imprisonment
The author had been and possibly still was imprisoned. Notice Hebrews 10:32-35:
But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven. Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward.
The author had been imprisoned. The subjects of the letter had compassion on him in his bonds. This passage, on its own, does not tell us if he was still imprisoned. But Hebrews 13:18-19 suggests he was:
Pray for us; for we are confident that we have a good conscience, in all things desiring to live honorably. But I especially urge you to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner.
Chapter 13 only tells us that the author of Hebrews was hindered from leaving his current location to go to the recipients of this book. If this verse was the only reference to the topic in the book, we could as easily take it to be a spiritual hindrance as opposed to a physical imprisonment. Given the other references to physical imprisonment as recently as within the time to include a timely thank-you message for an act of compassion by the readers, this suggests an active imprisonment.
A few verses later, in verse 23, we read: “Know that our brother Timothy has been set free, with whom I shall see you if he comes shortly.” The author was delivering news of Timothy’s release from imprisonment. He was expecting that the epistle’s readers may visit him alongside Timothy.
This verse points us to a more detailed examination of one of the most significant pieces of internal evidence. Let’s reflect further on Hebrews’ mention of Timothy.
Internal Evidence: Mention of Timothy
The only people mentioned in Hebrews are Old Testament characters, Jesus, and Timothy. Hebrews 13:23 says: “Know that our brother Timothy has been set free, with whom I shall see you if he comes shortly.”
The author of Hebrews was evidently in fairly close contact with Timothy. The author and Timothy, as this verse suggests, were probably either imprisoned or under house arrest together. We know that Timothy was with Paul in his imprisonment at several points. Paul and Timothy collaborated on several prison epistles, including Philippians and Philemon.
Hebrews 13:23 states that Timothy had been freed from his imprisonment. It also expresses the hope that he will return. In II Timothy 4:9-13, Paul requested Timothy to come to him in his imprisonment.
Be diligent to come to me quickly; for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica—Crescens for Galatia, Titus for Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry. And Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come—and the books, especially the parchments.
This could be referring to the same return of Timothy or a different one.
Internal Evidence: Singular and Plural Pronouns
Ten times, the author refers to himself in the first person (in Hebrews 7:9, 10:34 2x, 11:32 2x, 13:19 2x, 13:22 2x, 13:23). The author frequently speaks of himself and his audience in the plural. But seven times, he says “we” or “us” in reference only to the authors (in Hebrews 2:5, 5:11, 6:9-11, 13:18). This suggests that there was a primary author of Hebrews who often spoke in the first person, but that he served alongside others in ministry and sometimes expressed their mutual sentiments.
Some writers have said that “church tradition” says that Paul wrote Hebrews. It’s not quite as simple as this, for this testimony is strong but not unanimous. Let’s look at each opinion in historical order.
Historical Evidence: Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria was born Titus Flavius Clemens. He was a pagan philosopher born in about 153 A.D. in either Alexandria or Athens. After he became a Christian, he became a presbyter or elder of the Church in about 189. He became head of the catechetical school at Alexandria and wrote most of his surviving works by 200. He died in about 220.
He wrote an eight-volume commentary on the entire canon of Scripture called the Hypotyposes. Sadly, this has not survived in its entirety. But it was circulated for several centuries. Eusebius quoted this work in his history of the early church, Ecclesiastical History 6:14:
And in the Hypotyposes, in a word, he has made abbreviated narratives of the whole testament of Scripture; and has not passed over the disputed books, – I mean Jude and the rest of the Catholic epistles and Barnabas, and what is called the Relevation of Peter. And he says that the epistle to the Hebrews is Paul’s, and was written to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language; but that Luke, having carefully translated it, gave it to the Greeks, and hence the same colouring in the expression is discoverable in this epistle and the Acts; and that the name “Paul the Apostle” was very properly not prefixed, for, he says, that writing to the Hebrews, who were prejudiced against him and suspected, he with great wisdom did not repel them in the beginning by putting down his name. [Clement, The Hypotyposes, as quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6:14, as quoted in Roberts et al, Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, Vol. 2, pg. 579.]
Historical Evidence: Tertullian
Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus, better known as Tertullian, was born in 145 and became a Christian about forty years later. He became a presbyter or elder in about 190. He served in this role for about a decade before, in 199, he left orthodox Christian doctrine for the Monatist heresy. He died somewhere between 225 and 240.
In his works, Volume 4, No. 7, “On Modesty,” he said:
I wish, however, redundantly to superadd the testimony likewise of one particular comrade of the apostles, – (a testimony) aptly suited for confirming, by most proximate right, the discipline of his masters. For there is extant withal an Epistle to the Hebrews under the name of Barnabas – a man sufficiently accredited by God, as being one whom Paul has stationed next to himself in the uninterrupted observance of abstinence: “Or else, I alone and Barnabas, have not we the power of working?” And, of course, the Epistle of Barnabas is more generally received among the Churches than that apocryphal “Shepherd” of adulterers. Warning, accordingly, the disciples to omit all first principles, and strive rather after perfection, and not lay again the foundations of repentance from the works of the dead, he says: “For impossible it is that they who have once been illuminated, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have participated in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the word of God and found it sweet, when they, shall – their age already setting – have fallen away, should be again recalled unto repentance, crucifying again for themselves the Son of God, and dishonouring Him.?” “For the earth which hath drunk the rain often descending upon it, and hath borne grass apt for them on whose account it is tilled withal, attaineth God’s blessing; but if it bring forth thorns, it is reprobate, and nighest to cursing, whose end is (doomed) unto utter burning.” He who learnt this from apostles, and taught it with apostles, never knew of any “second repentance” promised by apostles to the adulterer and fornicator. For excellently was he wont to interpret the law, and keep its figures even in (the dispensation of) the Truth itself. [Tertullian, Vol. 4, No. 7, “On Modesty, ” in Roberts et al, Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, Vol. 4, pg. 97.]
We can certainly recongize verses from Hebrews 6 in this quote.
But the situation is somewhat complicated. There is an Epistle of Barnabas (which was probably not written by the original Barnabas). Tertullian was definitely not free from error, and he may have quoted from Hebrews and mis-identified the quote as coming from Barnabas.
Some writers have assumed that Clement spoke for an Alexandrian tradition that Paul was the author and Tertullian spoke for a Latin tradition. Perhaps this is true, but it is also true that Tertullian wrote this work in or after the year 208. Roberts’ Ante-Nicene Father (vol. 4, page 74) dates this work as “written not earlier than A.D. 208; probably very much later.” So Tertullian wrote this about a decade after he became a Monatist, so he could also have been reflecting a Monatist tradition.
(A brief sidebar on Monatism: Monatus, its founder, put modern-day prophecies on par with Biblical revelation. He encouraged his followers to prepare for Christ’s Second Coming by withdrawing from the world. He encouraged ascetic practices like being a hermit as though they were divine commandments. And, according to some of his opponents, he claimed he was the promised Paraclete or Comforter.)
So it is not certain that Tertullian actually thought Paul wrote Hebrews. And it is not certain that, if he did, he was reflecting any orthodox tradition. But if he did believe this, he was the only writer in the early centuries of the church to attribute the epistle to Barnabas.
If Barnabas was imprisoned in Rome, no record, Biblical or extra-Biblical, has been made of this. And, as mentioned earlier, Paul worked closely with Timothy and first met him just after parting ways with Barnabas. We have no record of Barnabas and Timothy serving together on a ministry team, with Paul or otherwise.
Historical Evidence: Eusebius
Eusebius was the first church historian. His Ecclesiastical History included a section on the authorship of Hebrews. We’ve already considered his quote from Clement of Alexandria. But he also expressed his own views on the topic.
In Ecclesiastical History, 3.3.4f, he stated that there were fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul. However, he said, “some have rejected the letter to the Hebrews, saying that it is disputed by the church of the Romans as not being by Paul.” This is interesting; those who did not believe Paul wrote Hebrews believed that this meant it did not belong in the New Testament. To them, the two issues were connected. There was a sense in the early church that the writings accepted as part of the New Testament canon had to either be written by an apostle or under an apostle’s authority.
Besides this reference in the context of canonical discussions, Eusebius cites at least two passages in Hebrews (10:34 and 12:22) and attributes them to Paul [F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 198.]
Historical Evidence: Canonical Lists
From the early years of the church through around the Council of Hippo in 393, there was debate over which books belonged in the New Testament. Several writers who spoke to this topic provide us indirect testimony to Hebrews’ authorship:
- Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote a letter to announce the date of Easter in 367. This letter included an enumeration of the New Testament canon, where he called the church to receive “fourteen epistles of Paul the apostle, written in this order: the first, to the Romans; then, two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians, then, to the Philippians; then, to the Colossians; after these, two of the Thessalonians; and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon” [Bruce, Canon, 208-09, and quoted here.]
- Cyril of Jerusalem, who died in 386, called the church to “receive the fourteen epistles of Paul” [Bruce, Canon, 210-211, quoting Cyril, “Catechetical Lecture,” 4.36.]
- Gregory Nazianzen, in about the 380s, produced a metrical list of “the genuine books of inspired scripture.” He said to accept “Paul’s fourteen epistles” [Bruce, Canon, 212, quoting Gregory, Hymn 18.104.22.168, lines 30-39.]
- Amphilochius of Iconium produced a metrical list of the canon of Scripture, also in about the 380s. He said that Paul “wrote in wisdom to the churches twice seven books: to the Romans one, to which must be added two to the Corinthians, that to the Galatians, that to the Ephesians, after them that in Philippi; then the one written to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, two to Timothy, and to Titus and Philemon one each, and one to the Hebrews. But some say the epistle to the Hebrews is spurious; they say not well, for its grace is genuine” [Bruce, Canon, 212-13, quoting Amphilochius, “Iambics to Seleucus,” lines 298-309.]
- Epiphanius of Salamis in Cyprus wrote a summary of the canonical books in the second half of the 300s, including “fourteen epistles of the holy apostle Paul” [Bruce, Canon, 213, quoting Epiphanius, Panarion, 76.22.5.]
- Augustine, in his book On Christian Learning, wrote that the New Testament canon contained “Fourteen epistles of the apostle Paul—one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, two to the Thessalonians, one to the Colossians, two to Timothy, one to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews” [Bruce, Canon, 230, quoting Augustine, On Christian Learning, book 2, chapter 13.] However, elsewhere in his writings, Augustine referred to it as anonymously written at least once.
- The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles is an eight-volume collection of basic Christian doctrine. Its date is disputed, but it was likely written before the Council of Nicea in 393. Portions appear to draw from the Didache, a likely second-century work. But this is probably a later iteration. Book 8, Section 48, verse 85 gives a canon of Old and New Testament books, and includes “the fourteen Epistles of Paul” [Roberts et al, Ante Nicene Fathers, vol. 7, 505.]
- It is worth a passing reference to Pope Innocent’s canonical list in 405. The manuscript evidence whether he actually said thirteen or fourteen epistles of Paul is divided, so his testimony is uncertain.
We can also consider canons adopted at church councils:
- The Council of Laodicea (367), in its list of the canon, called the church to receive “Fourteen epistles of Paul, as follows: one to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, one to the Galatians, one to the Ephesians, one to the Philippians, one to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, one to the Hebrews, two to Timothy, one to Titus, one to Philemon. [Bruce, Canon, 210, quoting Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 14, 159.]
- The Council of Hippo (393) used interesting wording, calling the church to receive “the thirteen epistles of the apostle Paul, [and] the one to the Hebrews, by the same” [Bruce, Canon, 233.]
- The Third Council of Carthage (397) repeated the wording of the Council of Hippo.
The New Testament canon was more or less settled by 400. Plenty of later witnesses testified to Paul’s authorship, but these are far enough from the source that they would largely be relying on church councils and other secondary sources rather than on primary sources we don’t have.
Historical Evidence: Manuscript Testimony
In the early centuries of Christianity, book-making techniques had not reached the point where a book as large as the New Testament would be bound together in one scroll or volume. But portions circulated together from the earliest decades. There are four sets of writings that were customarily bound together in the early church: The Gospels, Paul’s Epistles, Acts with the non-Pauline epistles, and Revelation.
From the earliest collections we have of these epistles, Hebrews is circulated with the Pauline epistles rather than the non-Pauline epistles.
The papyrus 𝔓46, dated about 200, is the earliest manuscript containing most of Paul’s writings. It includes Hebrews. Portions are fragmentary; only seventeen verses from I Thessalonians survive, and none of II Thessalonians or the Pastoral Epistles has survived the ravages of time. But Hebrews is included and is one of the best-preserved epistles in the manuscript.
Objection: No Salutation
Paul’s thirteen other epistles all begin with an introduction identifying him as the author. If he really wrote Hebrews, why didn’t he write a typical introduction?
Here are a few possibilities:
- Especially if he was imprisoned, Paul may have been short on parchment or ink. He may have wanted to devote all possible space to the most important content. There is only one personal reference before the concluding verses. Once he reached the concluding verses, he may have had enough room to add a few personal references.
- Hebrews may have not been intended as an epistle. Epistles begin with salutations and are primarily concerned with the problems of a specific person or church. Only one of the four Gospels begins with a salutation. This could have been intended from the start for a wider audience.
- Eusebius, an early church historian, included a section on the authorship of Hebrews. He referred to Clement of Alexandria’s work Hypotyposes. Eusebius quotes Clement as saying: “The epistle to the Hebrews is Paul’s, and was written to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language; but that Luke, having carefully translated it, gave it to the Greeks, and hence the same col[o]ring in the expression is discoverable in this epistle and the Acts; and that the name ‘Paul the Apostle’ was very properly not prefixed, for, he says, that writing to the Hebrews, who were prejudiced against him and suspected, he with great wisdom did not repel them in the beginning by putting down his name.”
This last theory is the strongest, especially because of the early external evidence. It is a very real possibility that Paul originally wrote Hebrews in Hebrew and that the introduction was not included in Luke’s translation for a broader, Greek-speaking audience.
Objection: Paul was an Apostle to the Gentiles
It has been objected that Paul could not have written Hebrews since he was an apostle to the Greeks and thus could not reach out to the Hebrews. But Acts 17:1-3 says that whenever Paul went into a city, he would first go to the synagogues – first to the Jews:
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.”
He also said, in I Cor. 9:19-22:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
To the Jews Paul became as a Jew, that he might gain the Jews.
Romans 9-11 speak extensively of Paul’s heart to reach the Israelites. He said in Romans 9:3 that he “could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh[.]”
In Romans 11:13-14, he added: “For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them.”
These verses show conclusively that Paul’s apostleship to the Greeks did not prohibit him from reaching out to the Jews.
Objection: Writing Style
Another common objection is that the writing style and vocabulary differs from Paul’s other epistles.
Most of Paul’s ministry focused on Gentiles. So most of his epistles are written in a Gentile context, to address Gentile concerns.
But Acts 22:3 tells us that before Paul’s conversion, he studied under Rabbi Gamaliel, one of the most prominent rabbis of that era. He would have learned how to write and reason in the Jewish style and traditions. And in I Cor. 9:20, Paul said that he became as a Jew to the Jews that he might gain them. Thus, it would not have been a surprise if when writing to them he changed his style somewhat to fit within their culture.
When we consider stylistic elements, we should consider not only wording, but doctrinal and thematic elements. Hebrews contains a number of references to Paul’s favorite themes:
- One of Paul’s favorite verses was Habakkuk 2:4b, “But the just shall live by his faith.” Paul quoted it in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11. It is also quoted in Hebrews 10:38.
- The new covenant is a major theme of Hebrews 8. There is a parallel in Romans 11:27, with similar wording.
- We are citizens of Heaven and strangers and pilgrims on this earth. This theme is developed in Phil. 3:20 and Heb. 11:13-16.
- Hebrews’ closing words are: “Grace be with you all. Amen.” Every epistle identified as Paul’s closes with a benediction in the grace-with-you format. None of the seven epistles by other writers close with a benediction in this format. II Thessalonians 3:17-18 refers to an identifying mark of a genuine Pauline epistle. The context suggests this mark may be his grace-with-you benediction, perhaps written in his own hand.
Several works, including David Allen’s Lukan Authorship of Hebrews, argue that the vocabulary has similarities to Luke’s work in Luke and Acts. If the church tradition is correct that Paul wrote Hebrews in Hebrew and Luke translated it to Greek, it would stand to reason that the theology shows Paul’s influence and the vocabulary shows Luke’s influence. This is what we see in Hebrews.
The author of Hebrews became a Christian after Christ’s ministry on earth. He was a leader in the church before the fall of Jerusalem. He was probably imprisoned or under house arrest when he wrote the epistle. He served alongside Timothy and anticipated a visit from him. And, he was probably one main person and not a book-writing committee.
Many of the doctrines emphasized are emphasized in Paul’s other epistles. Paul had a heart for the Hebrews. Most of the testimony from early church fathers points to Paul as the author. And Hebrews often circulated bound in manuscripts with Paul’s other epistles.
None of these points are conclusive on their own. But taken together, I believe they point to Paul as the most likely author of Hebrews.