Everyone loves a good mystery…especially one that can be solved. But in the case of the New Testament’s greatest mystery—who wrote the Book of Hebrews?—we might never get a definitive answer. For untold reasons, God has left us in the dark over a most enlightening document.
Some readers assume Paul is the writer; after all, he wrote thirteen other New Testament epistles, a hefty third of its content. And there are reasons we might think so. Before his dramatic conversion, Paul was a self-described “Hebrew of Hebrews”, a prominent Pharisee, faultless in his legalistic observance of the Law, and insanely dedicated to persecuting Christians, whom he viewed as heretics (see Philippians 3:7-10). If anyone had the scope of Old Testament knowledge necessary to pen the book of Hebrews, Paul certainly did.
But after memorizing several of Paul’s letters, followed by Hebrews, I reject this assumption. The personal tone Paul uses in all his epistles, even those written to Christians he didn’t personally know (e.g. Colossians), is missing in Hebrews. Also, the Hebrew writer doesn’t introduce himself, as Paul always did in his opening sentences, nor does he remind his readers of his divine call to apostleship—something he does in nearly every other letter, knowing his claim to apostleship was often questioned. Why? Because claiming to be an apostle was no small thing.
Being a true apostle meant belonging to an extremely elite, time-sensitive group. The original twelve (including Judas) were carefully chosen by Jesus, after a full night of prayer. When Judas fell away and killed himself, his replacement, Matthias, was chosen by the remaining eleven, as directed by Old Testament prophecy (Acts 1:20-26). And the criteria was very specific. To be considered, all candidates had to have been with Jesus throughout his entire ministry, beginning with John’s baptism and ending with his ascension to heaven. He had to be an eyewitness of Jesus’ life and ministry. Two men met the criteria, and of the two, Matthias was chosen through prayer and drawing lots.
Paul, chosen later by an ascended Jesus, wasn’t an eyewitness with the other twelve. But he DID see Jesus, and was taught the gospel through private revelation by Christ himself (Gal. 1:11-17). Paul also knew how much he’d be called to suffer for his Lord and Savior. And he knew being known as an apostle was no idle claim, but a crucial component of his God-given authority to preach and establish early church doctrine.
God loves to confound us with his unexpected methods and means, and he certainly did this with the apostles. Paul, perhaps the most well-versed Pharisee of his time, was handpicked to preach to the Gentiles (non-Jews)—an audience that couldn’t care less about his former credentials as a super-educated Jew. And Peter, the fisherman from the despised backwaters of Galilee, was called to preach to the Jews—a move that required status-conscious Hebrews to swallow their pride and prejudice in order to be saved.
I love God’s deliberate choice to do things ‘backwards’! It reminds me of a very fruitful period at MIT University, when my husband, humbly educated at a tiny Bible college in Ontario, was called to lead a campus ministry among the world’s most brilliant scholars and scientists. In spite of this odd choice of leadership—or perhaps because of it—many former atheists and skeptics were converted by the unadorned gospel, and most of them are still faithful, many of them leaders, over thirty years on.
One more comment about apostleship—and those claiming to be apostles today. Paul writes he was the last person Christ appeared to after his resurrection (1 Cor.15: 3-11). This means if anyone else claims to have seen Jesus, and/or to be a later-age apostle, they are either lying or deluded. As noted, real apostles were a rare breed, living only in the first century and given unique authority—and the ability to perform miracles— by God. Anyone claiming otherwise is not to be trusted.
Back to our mystery about authorship. As well as the lack of personal references common to Paul’s letters, this telling verse gives us another clue:
This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Heb. 2:3-4)
Did you catch it? The Hebrew writer puts himself outside the camp of those who received the gospel directly from the Lord—the eyewitnesses. Instead, he’s a second-level recipient, having learned from those in the inner circle. In other words, he’s not an apostle, though he might have been a close associate of those who were.
Which widens—and narrows—our list of suspects. Could the writer have been one of Paul’s close colleagues, someone like Barnabas, Titus, Silas, Sosthenes, Zenas-the-lawyer, or Apollos? We know he must have been an ardent Jew before becoming a Christian. We know he was friends with Timothy, Paul’s treasured protégé. We know he was writing from Italy, and he apparently loved writing long letters, as he considered this dense epistle to be “only a short letter”(all clues from Heb.13:22-25).
My money’s on Apollos, though it’s merely a guess. He’s noted in Acts 18 as being “a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures”, and he spent time with Paul. But again, this is speculation. God chose to leave us without definitive evidence of authorship for Hebrews, something rare in the canon of Scripture. I have to conclude it really doesn’t matter. Whoever wrote Hebrews did a bang-up job, and I assume he’s rejoicing in heaven with all his Old Testament heroes, indifferent to being an anonymous writer on earth.
What a gift to be chosen at all! What a gift to pen such enduring, enlightening words, ripe for countless generations of discovery.
And what a gift we’ve been given: this lingering mystery book, full of hope and promise!
So whoever dunnit, we do know, in the end, Who Really Matters:
The Author and Spirit behind the sacred words.