Who Wrote Hebrews?

In my post titled “From Jesus to the Canon” I discussed the formation of our New Testament. However, in this post I would like to examine one specific book of the canon: The Book of Hebrews.

The Book of Hebrews is one of the most intriguing entries of the New Testament, mainly due to the mysteries surrounding its authorship. It is the only entry to the cannon in which there was no consensus in the early Church concerning the author. Nevertheless, it still met all the other canonical criteria in both its orthodoxy and widespread use & acceptance — so much so — that the Church came to accept the authority of the text as sacred scripture anyhow. The conclusion was that God was clearly involved in the creation of this beautiful masterpiece, regardless of who wrote it. This leads us to the question posed as the title for this post: Who Wrote Hebrews?

As one can derive from my introduction, no one really knows. But there have been several candidates put forward. The Apostle Paul seems to have been an early favorite. Clement of Alexandria theorized it was written by Paul in Hebrew, then later translated to its current Greek by Luke. Origen, while seemingly accepting Pauline authorship, noted that many believed Clement (of Rome) or Luke to be the actual author. Meanwhile, Tertullian was convinced it was written by Barnabas. Later on, Augustine vigorously advocated for Paul’s authorship, a view later accepted by the Catholic Church. During the Reformation, Calvin concluded it was written by either Luke or Clement of Rome. Meanwhile Luther surmised the author was an Alexandrian Jew named Apollos, referenced in Acts (Acts 18:24). In recent times, some scholars and theologians have advanced a case for Priscilla having been the author of Hebrews.

It is this later idea I would like to explore a little further. Priscilla was one part of an early Christian power couple: Priscilla and Aquila. They were both tent makers who worked in leathers. Paul also shared this trade and spent a good amount of time with them after they met in Corinth (Acts 18:3). Therefore, no doubt the couple learned a great deal from the Apostle. After a year and a half there, the three of them went off together to Ephesus (Acts 18:19), where Priscilla & Aquila remained while Paul continued on to Antioch. It is at Ephesus where Priscilla & Aquila gained some prominence and ministered to many believers. For instance, they were both learned enough believers to instruct Apollos in “the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26). It is also significant to note that Priscilla is almost always named first in the pairing with her husband. This order highly suggests that she was no doubt the more prominent and influential Christian of the two. So, perhaps the Book of Hebrews was actually sent from Priscilla and Aquila – but in fact written by Priscilla. If true, that could explain why the authorship was hidden so early on, i.e. they did not want the text discarded by others on the account it was written by a woman.

Advocates for Priscilla’s authorship argue that the Book of Hebrews provides four key clues to the identity of its author. The first is that no one really knows who wrote it. Specifically, the author did not identify themselves — such as (say) Paul always does in his greetings. Nor did the early Church identify the writer — suggesting a possible deliberate silence for the aforementioned reasons. Instead, many in the Church were simply left to speculate. Second, Priscilla and Aquila came from Italy, where the couple was among the group of Jews expelled from the city of Rome during the reign of Claudius (Acts 18:1-4). While this expulsion was short lived, it is logical to assume that during the interim there was a group of refugees from Rome in Ephesus for whom Priscilla and Aquila became leaders. Once more, that some of these refuges remained in Ephesus after this expulsion was lifted. This would explain why the author has reason to write: “Those from Italy send you their greetings” (Hebrews 13:24). Thirdly, the author both knew and was a close friend of Timothy (Hebrews 13:23). Once more, Timothy was the Elder at Ephesus where Priscilla & Aquila had been members             (2 Timothy 4:19). Finally, the author of Hebrews sometimes uses the pronoun “I” and other times “we”, indicating they had a partner — which makes sense if Priscilla & Aquila both had a hand in its composition. Therefore, all the clues taken together seemingly check out for Priscilla, but not so much for the other proposed authors.

In summary, below is a brief Five-Point Case from advocates arguing in favor of Priscilla’s Authorship of the Book of Hebrews:

  1. Priscilla’s prominence and higher social standing in the Church are demonstrated by the appearance of her name first, in five of the seven times Priscilla and Aquila are named together in the New Testament.
  2. Priscilla, was a close colleague of Paul (Acts 18:1-3), and also a colleague of Timothy       (2 Tim 4:19), with whom the author of Hebrews was a close contemporary (Heb 13:23).
  3. Apollos (knowing only the baptism of John) needed further instruction on baptisms, which Priscilla provided (Acts 18:25-26) — a topic also covered by the teacher and author of Hebrews (Hebrews 6:1-2). Once more, after receiving instruction by Priscilla in “the way of God more adequately”, Apollos’ preaching focused on proving Jesus was the Messiah foretold in scripture (OT) — a major theme of the author of Hebrews.
  4. The Book of Hebrews was written to Hebrew Christians, and appears aimed to those familiar with the Church in Ephesus. Ephesus was also a location for Priscilla’s ministry. Once more, it was seemingly written from Rome (Hebrews 13:24) around 65 AD, where we know Priscilla & Aquila came from (Acts 18:1-4) and later returned (Romans 16:2-4). Conversely, some argue it was written from Ephesus to recipients in Rome — in which case everything still checks out for Priscilla.
  5. Finally, it is the only book in the NT not attached to an author, nor one with a consensus. However, the early loss of this author’s name is plausibly explained if in fact a woman wrote it. Moreover, all the internal clues to the authors identity discussed earlier check out for Priscilla.

In conclusion, the Book of Hebrews is widely regarded as a masterpiece from antiquity, which not doubt contributed to its widespread use and acceptance by the early Church — despite the uncertainties surrounding its authorship. Nevertheless, many potential authors have been postulated to no end: from Paul, to Luke, to Clement of Rome, to Barnabas, to Apollos and now Priscilla. In fact, with all this speculation one has to ask: Can we ever say for sure who wrote Hebrews? I must admit, Priscilla seems like the best candidate to me, at least from what little evidence can be deduced. However, there are some reasons to doubt even this latest theory, i.e. certain masculine Greek verbs are used in the text, suggesting (but not requiring) a male author. In any event, it seems we will never know for sure just who actually penned this wonderful masterpiece. But to my mind, Priscilla is just as good a candidate as any other (if not better). Regardless, I think Origen sums up the mystery best, writing: “Men of old have handed it down as Paul’s, but who wrote the Epistle God only knows.”

Thank you for reading. I hope some may have found this post insightful.

JDN

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