The Author of the Letter to the Hebrews

Travis Rogers, Jr.

The Author of the Letter to the Hebrews

7 mins

The Epistle to the Hebrews has, for all we know, only occasionally been attributed to any specific author. In examining all the possible candidates, the weight of the evidence is shown to favor one particular missionary pioneer of the early church, a faithful companion of the Apostle Paul. 

For most of my academic life, I have studied the translations and mistranslations of scripture, especially pertaining to the status and role of women. One day, I came across a book by Adolf von Harnack who proposed that Priscilla was the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. In fact, there were several books in the first half of the 20th century that picked up that theme. 

In the latter half of the 20th century, important new commentaries on Hebrews were published that expanded the base of knowledge. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, as well as the tablets at Ras Shamra and Tell El Amarna. Those discoveries brought about discussions of various issues related to the book of Hebrews. 

In 1957, Russell Prohl wrote a book called Woman in the Church and he commented, “There are a number of Bible critics who suggest that Priscilla wrote the Epistle of the Hebrews. Someday, we may learn that this is true.” In the 1960s, a woman named Ruth Hoppin wrote a book called Priscilla: Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I discovered that book in 1982 and was immediately taken with it. 

In 1997, Hoppin wrote a follow-up book called Priscilla's Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Hoppin took great care in her scholarship, following up on the works of Harnack and J.H. Moulton and others. It is Hoppin’s scholarship that is the most compelling.

Background to the Letter

In Apostolic times, a remarkable letter was written to a group of Christians by one of their spiritual leaders. A few years later, copies were circulated to churches in other locations. This letter eventually found its way into the New Testament Canon and is known to us as the Epistle to the Hebrews. In a tangled strand of history, deep mystery surrounds the name of the author.

Hebrews is a literary and theological masterpiece and the letter was much too good to go without naming an author. So, before long, names of many different church leaders began to be attached to the letter. Some named Clement of Rome, others Barnabas, and even Paul were the foremost candidates. Luke, Silas, Phillip and others worthy of honorable mention. But each theory surrounding those individual authors is wracked by contradictions, all except for one. That is Priscilla.

Hebrews is hardly ever ascribed to Paul these days. But there was a time when some Bible translations even called the letter Paul's Letter to the Hebrews. And they were wrong. 

Why Not Paul?

In 1st Century Alexandria, a theory developed that the Letter to the Hebrews was a free translation of Paul's words or maybe even a paraphrase of his thoughts, according to Brooke Foss Westcott in his great book The Epistle to the Hebrews: the Greek text with notes and essays. However, even though there are deep affinities with Paul's thought, it is certainly not from Paul's hand. 

Why would we say that? The author of Hebrews describes the conversion that was mediated by those who saw and heard Jesus which was at variance with the conversion story of Paul but some choose to overlook that. The apologetic tone of the postscript, which we will discuss in some detail, and also the absence of Paul's usual signature also goes unnoticed or, at least, unremarked. And there is a huge difference between the vocabulary and style of Hebrews as compared to the authentic letters of Paul. Further, the subject matter has great difference with the letters of Paul. Those items alone are enough to disqualify Paul .

Is this an anonymous letter? 

The author's identity must have been known to the original recipients of the letter. How else can we explain the authors request for prayer that the author could be restored to them sooner in chapter 13 verses 18 and 19? Westcott wanders if the author simply failed to sign his or her name or was the name lost in some other way? 

Here's the deal: the omission of personal greetings, where the name of the author usually occurs, at the beginning of Hebrews is striking. Some scholars thought that perhaps this is no letter at all but rather a study paper. That idea runs into trouble from the very beginning because there are certain personal greetings present in the letter. The author knew the recipients well enough to be dissatisfied with their progress period from the past, the author discusses the evidence of their faith. With affection and some chiding, the author underscores their present apathy. Hebrews is, without a doubt, an epistle and the author was known to the original recipients of that letter.

Unlike other letters of that time, the letter to the Hebrews has no prescript with the author’s name. Did someone to decide to do away with the prescript. It wouldn't be difficult to find a motive for that. By suppressing the name of the author, the letter could be assigned to Paul after all and that would be much to the liking of certain elements within the church. 

Or could the loss of the prescript be accidental? 

The possibility of that is too distant to even be taken seriously. Here are the facts of the case and they are simple and clear. We have about 14,000 letters from the ancient world. Many of them are originals. Not one lacks the usual greetings. There is no record in all 14,000 originals of any prescript, by itself, becoming lost from any papyrus role. If Hebrews is the exception, it is the only exception. Now remember, the prescript is usually one sentence containing the name of the sender, the name of the recipient, and the preliminary greetings. Paul customarily used two sentences. 

It is far more likely that the prescript was left out by the author him or herself. 

Loss of the author's name 

The loss of the author's name occurred very early and it created the world's most provocative detective story. When copies were circulated from Rome, at a certain time, the name was already omitted. The prominence of women in the church was also falling out of favor. And even though the author was known to the first recipients of the letter, the name came to be omitted either to suppress its female authorship or to protect the letter itself from suppression. 

Once again, Clement of Rome made extensive use of Hebrews in his Epistle to the Corinthians in 96 AD but he never said who he was quoting. On the other hand, Clement frequently mentioned Paul—and not the specific letter—when quoting him. 

Harnack argued that, since the letter was attributed at one time to Barnabas and also to Paul, there must have been a time when it circulated anonymously. He thought that, most likely, the identity of the author was suppressed intentionally. Gilbert Belezekian, a biblical scholar, wrote “The lack of any firm data concerning the identity of the author in the extant writings of the church suggests a deliberate blackout more than a case of collective loss of memory.” 

[Next week: Proposing Priscilla as the author]

This article was orginally reported by
Travis Rogers, Jr.

Travis is the Publisher with Nicole and is the Editor-in-Chief and Sales Manager.