It seemed right, after reading through James’ letter—considered by some to be the most Jewish of all the Christian Testament documents—to next read through the Epistle to the Hebrews.
And for such an important book, nobody really knows who wrote it!
Who Wrote Hebrews?
The ancient Christian historian Eusebius (c. 260 – c. 340 AD) wrote,
Some have rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews, saying that it is disputed by the church of Rome, on the ground that it was not written by Paul.Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.3.5
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 AD) was quoted by Eusebius as verifying Hebrews really was written by the Apostle Paul—but originally in Hebrew!
He says that the Epistle to the Hebrews is the work of Paul, and that it was written to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language; but that Luke translated it carefully and published it for the Greeks, and hence the same style of expression is found in this epistle and in the Acts.
But he says that the words, Paul the Apostle, were probably not prefixed, because, in sending it to the Hebrews, who were prejudiced and suspicious of him, he wisely did not wish to repel them at the very beginning by giving his name.
Farther on he says: “But now, as the blessed presbyter said, since the Lord being the apostle of the Almighty, was sent to the Hebrews, Paul, as sent to the Gentiles, on account of his modesty did not subscribe himself an apostle of the Hebrews, through respect for the Lord, and because being a herald and apostle of the Gentiles he wrote to the Hebrews out of his superabundance.”Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.2–3, citing Clement’s Hypotyposes
Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 AD) pointed to a different author, one close to Paul to be sure, but not the apostle.
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?”Tertullian, De Pudic, 20
A couple of other early Christian writers also omitted the Epistle to the Hebrews from their collections of Pauline writings—Gaius of Rome (c. early 200’s AD, and cited by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History, 6.20.3) and Hippolytus (c. 170 AD – c. 235 AD)
I point all this out because these historians were only one or two hundred years in, so pretty close to the source.
Could It Be Barnabas?
I personally like the idea of Barnabas writing Hebrews.
First. Eusebius explored a number of possible theories, then concluded by once again quoting Clement:
Farther on he adds: “If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle, but the diction and phraseology are those of some one who remembered the apostolic teachings, and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this. For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul’s.
But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows. The statement of some who have gone before us is that Clement, bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, and of others that Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts, wrote it.” But let this suffice on these matters.Eusebius, quoting Clement, Ecclesiastical History 6.25.11-14
- Barnabas spent a great deal of time teaching side-by-side with Paul in Antioch, and later during their inaugural missionary journey. He would have gained greatly from Paul’s exegesis of the scriptures, and could easily have written them down once he and Mark returned to Jerusalem after their missions trip through Cyprus.
- Barnabas was of the tribe of Levi, and must have been himself well acquainted with the scriptures.
- Being wealthy, Barnabas would have grown up with a good education, fully capable of reading and writing well enough to author an epistle of instruction.
- Luke described Barnabas as a “good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” The kind of man who loved the Lord and the community of believers, would be well acquainted with the Jerusalem church, and was a particularly good candidate to give instruction to the Pharisees and priests who had come to saving faith
Purpose of the Hebrews Epistle
Truth is, though, we do not really know who wrote Hebrews. But, we do know why it was written.
God had given God’s people, the Hebrews, a rich and unique heritage.
To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs.Romans 9:4-5 (NRSV)
The law and covenants contained detailed instructions for all their sacrifices, for civic government, case law, moral code and ethics, all their festivals and temple practices, statutes and legislation that directed every aspect of every situation of their lives. God’s precepts governed how to worship, what foods to eat or not eat, who to marry, what to wear, and just everything!
This system God had given them had a purpose. It was all designed to point to God the Son. Now Christ had come, and much of the civic, ceremonial, and Levitical law was now fulfilled.
But many Jewish Christians felt the tug of their previous lives, being drawn back into trusting the old covenant, the fulfilled covenant. There were thousands of years of lived history here, a sense of rootedness and kinship, a lifetime of training and deep connection with their Jewish families, synagogue, and temple worship.
Plus, being a Christian had come to mean increasing persecution, being cast out of their families, and synagogues, being utterly shunned and rejected. It was so much easier to succumb to the pull, knowing God had blessed them and their ancestors for millennia through following and obeying the Laws of the Covenant.
We can discern from the book of Hebrews itself that the writer’s target audience had become weak in their prayer connection with Christ, they were no longer remaining faithful to the truth they had been taught, and were turning back to what felt more familiar, more comfortable, but was not actually true. They were spending less and less time in the teaching of the apostles, and had drawn back from what would otherwise have molded them into mature followers of Christ.
Christ, the All in All
Through this epistle to the Hebrews, the writer wanted to show Jewish Christians that what they were being tempted to return to was really inferior to Jesus, that the old covenant was itself inferior to the new covenant given in Christ.
Jesus is risen from the dead, superior to any other human from Moses all the way down through every prophet. He is the great high priest, seated at the right hand of God, greater than any priesthood founded in Aaron or even Melchizedek.
Jesus is the hope for all people, the one in whom are all the hopes of the world.
With many thanks to a really wonderful resource on YouTube called “The Bible Project,” let us begin our study of the Epistle to the Hebrews with this overview.
[A letter from sent to Egypt by a Christian in Rome, approximately 250-285 AD. The papyrus contains part of the first verse of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Papyrus Amherst 3b), and on the reverse side Genesis 1:1-5 (Papyrus Amherst 3c). | By Unknown author – Morgan Library, Amh. Gr. Pap. 3, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40713755%5D