Selected Teachings on
Did Paul Write the Book of Hebrews?

Richard Lloyd Anderson (LDS Scholar)

Hebrews has the same manuscript credentials as other letters of Paul, but its distinctive nature produced unnecessary skepticism among ancient and modern scholars. Yet trends are not necessarily truths. Of all the arguments against authorship, style is the most easily misused. The Gettysburg address is remarkably unlike most of Lincoln's speeches but of course was authored and delivered by him. With such cautions against prejudging, the evidence on Paul's authorship can be examined. At first glance, Hebrews must come from an early Christian leader, for it is quoted in the letter called 1 Clement, written by Clement, the bishop of Rome, about A.D. 96. This is one of several subapostolic books, mostly from bishops who had some personal knowledge of the apostles and who quoted them for authority in their arguments. Clement writes of "Jesus Christ, the high priest of our offerings" in these words: "Who, being the brightness of his majesty, is by so much greater than angels, as he has inherited a more excellent name." This clear use of Hebrews 1:3-4 omits phrases but runs in strict sequence with ten exact Greek words, the remaining four being synonyms of those in that passage.

Clement's quotation shows that Hebrews was in existence and circulating by the close of the first century. That fits into its probable writing prior to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, as discussed above. But Clement's use of Hebrews says something more. With the exception of some quotations from the Gospels and Acts, all of Clement's New Testament quotations come from letters attributed to apostles. Hebrews is used in several places in 1 Clement because it had apostolic authority. And in the first Christian centuries, no other apostle but Paul was named in connection with it. The most dramatic proof of that is the modern discovery of the Chester Beatty Papyri, which contain portions of most books of the New Testament. The most precious jewel in this find was a nearly complete copy of Paul's letters, the oldest known. This was written in book, not scroll, form. All the letters that Paul wrote to churches are found in this collection except for 2 Thessalonians, which obviously fits in the remaining pages known to have existed prior to destruction of the first and last pages of the manuscript. Not only is Hebrews in this ancient book, but it is in a place that shows that it was considered a letter of Paul when this document was written about A.D. 175. Paul's church epistles appear there in rough order of length as follows: Romans, Hebrews, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians. Commenting on the location of Hebrews in this manuscript, Kenyon said, "Its present position is a proof of the high importance assigned to it, and of the unquestioning acceptance of its Pauline authorship."

Since Hebrews was widely considered one of Paul's letters a century after his death, why is there any doubt? As noted above, the essential answer is the style of the letter. The most obvious problem here may be the most superficial one: opening without the name of Paul in the text. Most modern books and many ancient ones do the same, with the author identified on a title page or a heading. The Chester Beatty Papyri do just that by listing Hebrews as the second item in Paul's letters. So the book is certainly by an identified author, though it lacks Paul's name in its opening. At its end, Hebrews mentions Timothy, whose name appears only in Acts in connection with Paul and in eleven of Paul's letters. "Grace be with you all" ends Hebrews, and this phraseology closes every other letter of Paul—it does not close other New Testament letters. Paul's other letters begin with phrasing on grace and peace from the Father and the Son; Hebrews differs in wording but begins with the testimony of the Father and the Son. Hebrews is the one letter addressed to the Jews by the apostle called to the Gentiles—perhaps Paul's consciousness of transcending his normal assignment caused the absence of his name, apostleship, and authority in the letter to the Hebrews.

Must the most creative writer of the New Testament fit one literary mold? Scholars dash off informal letters and also labor over elegantly worded papers of logical symmetry. Paul was capable of this careful testament of faith to his nation as well as of the spontaneous, often dictated language in the majority of his letters. Thoughts and expressions characteristic of him are prominent in the personalized final chapters of Hebrews. Other New Testament writers do not use the comparisons of the church to the body (Heb. 13:3) and of enduring in an athletic contest (Heb. 12:1). Yet these are found throughout Paul's letters. Being fed milk is a positive beginning of growth for Peter (1 Pet. 2:2), but Paul uses the metaphor to shame those weakening in the faith (1 Cor. 3:1-2), the same viewpoint as in Hebrews (Heb. 5:12-14). In explaining justification by faith, Paul favors Habakkuk 2:4—"The just shall live by his faith"—quoting it in Romans 1:17 and in Galatians 3:11. It is quoted one other time in the New Testament as Hebrews 10:38 introduces the great chapter on faith. No one stressed that principle more than did Paul, and Hebrews 11 is the greatest chapter in the New Testament on that subject. But what about sentence structure and vocabulary? Those elements follow from the subject and the occasion; since Paul wrote to the Hebrews formally and only once, natural differences would appear. Indeed, stylistic differences are regularly exaggerated, for many words in Hebrews are distinctively Pauline. 

The earliest information about Hebrews supports Paul's authorship. Origen, the brilliant Christian scholar who lived from about A.D. 185 to 253, furnished an irresistible quotation that some use as the last word: "But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows." But that statement only represents Origen's judgment on the style of the penman, for he was convinced that "the thoughts are the apostle's," coming from a disciple's "short notes of what his master said." Yet Origen admitted that the historical tradition upheld Paul's authorship: "For not without reason have the men of old time handed it down as Paul's." Origen's teacher was the educated Clement of Alexandria, who lived about A.D. 150 to 215. Clement in turn relied on a source, "the blessed elder," apparently his Christian teacher Pantaenus, who flourished earlier in the second century. Thus, the following views of Clement and his teacher reflect the early conviction that Paul wrote Hebrews; their views are preserved by the later church historian Eusebius, who quoted Clement of Alexandria:

And as for the Epistle to the Hebrews he says indeed that it is Paul's, but that it was written for Hebrews in the Hebrew tongue, and that Luke, having carefully translated it, published it for the Greeks. Hence, as a result of this translation, the same complexion of style is found in this epistle and in the Acts. . . . Then lower down he adds: "But now, as the blessed elder used to say, since the Lord, being the apostle of the Almighty, was sent to the Hebrews, Paul, through modesty, since he had been sent to the Gentiles, does not inscribe himself as an apostle of the Hebrews, both to give due deference to the Lord and because he wrote to the Hebrews also out of his abundance, being a preacher and apostle of the Gentiles." 

It is logical that Paul would write to the Hebrews in their literary language, but Clement may have assumed translation on the narrow basis of style. What is important is that he and his teacher represent the informed conviction that Hebrews came from Paul, for they gave this view at the time when the scribe of the Chester Beatty Papyri copied Hebrews as second in its collection of Paul's letters. Thus, there is a substantial second-century conviction of Paul's authorship. On the level of inspired reaction to style and message, Joseph Smith did not claim formal revelation on the subject but consistently referred to Paul as the author. (Understanding Paul, p.197-201)