Friday, February 22, 2013

Who is the Author of Hebrews?

Good morning.  Today is the final day of week seven, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are  Leviticus 4-7 and Hebrews 3.  Rather than discussing any of these specific scriptures today, I'm going to talk about the author of Hebrews.

The question of biblical authorship intrigues me.  The common (though often debated) understanding is that the books which have a person's name affixed to them were written by that person.  So Luke was written by Luke, and Habakkuk was written by Habakkuk, etc.  Then, there are the books that have a longstanding tradition of authorship.  For example (though some debate it) the first five books of the Bible (called the Pentateuch) are commonly attributed to Moses.  Still, there are some books that never claim an author at all.  The book of Hebrews is one of these.  

Recently, a colleague of mine said she had heard somewhere that Lydia has been suggested as a possible author of Hebrews.  I liked this idea, first because my daughter's name is Lydia and I've always tried to show her that she could be like this biblical character, a wealthy businesswoman with a can-do attitude who also practiced the gifts of hospitality, generosity, and service.  So adding "biblical author" to the list seemed like a good idea to me.  Secondly, I like the idea that women might have some representation among the long list of biblical texts penned by men.  After all, if Deborah and Huldah and the daughters of Phillip can prophesy, then why couldn't a woman write a Biblical book?  Galatians 3:28 (NIV) says, "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

So I did a little research to find out who wrote the book of Hebrews.  I've come up with a lot of suggestions, including Luke, Barnabas, Apollos, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Priscilla.  The fact is that nobody really knows, but conjecture can certainly be fun.  I found an online discussion board, called Ship of Fools, that debates the authorship of Hebrews. I will copy some of the posts below, simply because the debate that they share reflects the debate that continues to circulate in academic settings.  One poster said: 

"I once heard the late Dom Bernard Orchard (OSB) a great scripture scholar advance the hypothesis that Mary the Mother of the Lord had dictated the letter to St Paul. I don't know how widespread the theory is but I find it even more heartening than the Priscilla one."   

Another points out that Priscilla was one of Apollos' first teachers, so even if it were Apollos who wrote it, Priscilla's influence must definitely be there. 

Yet, another person points out that there's a masculine participle that excludes the possibility that the author could be female: 

"the masculine participle diegoumenon in 11:32 which modifies the personal pronoun me (a male author)."   

But this doesn't mean that the author must be male.  For example, one article, "10 Famous Females who Used Male Pen Names" points out that the author George Elliot was actually a woman named Mary Ann Evans.  Both the Bronte sisters published under the last name Bell.  In their day, female authors were looked down on, so they took up male nom de plumes in order to expand their readership.  Even in modern times, author J.K. Rowling chose to do this.  The article says:

As author of the outrageously popular series Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling gained widespread popularity in a span of only a few years. Known almost solely as J. K. Rowling to the public, Rowling’s full name is Joanne Rowling (with no middle name). Rowling wrote the first installment of the Harry Potter phenomenon and submitted the work to her publishers under the name "Joanne Rowling". Her publishers urged her to use only initials for the publication with fear that the target audience of young boys would not read something written by a woman. The "K" as the second initial of Rowling’s pen name is completely fabricated.

So it is possible that a woman may have written the book of Hebrews, even using the masculine participle for "me," simply because social convention dictated it.  But this is still conjecture.  
Another poster writes:

" should be recalled that Flannery O'Connor used the masculine pronoun to refer to a writer when speaking of what obviously came from her own experience. She didn't exactly use the masculine directly of herself, but that tendency to think of the masculine as "generic" was still alive in her day.

Given the sentiments in much of the early Church that women who got involved in Church leadership or in teaching were spreading silly doctrines or outright heresies, if a woman did write that book, she very well might have used the masculine in referring to herself."

So...who wrote Hebrews?   Personally, I'd like to think that the author was female, if only to add a woman to the list of biblical writers.  What about the possibility of Priscilla?  Click here for an article that pursues this question.
But if the writer isn't a woman then I lean toward the Apollos theory, agreeing with someone who posted:  

"he seems to have been the sort of erudite up-on-Jewish-geeky-details that the writer of Hebrews clearly is. If it comforts anybody, Priscilla was his first teacher in the faith, so her influence would certainly be there!"

In addition to this, Apollos was well-known for his eloquence, and Hebrews is certainly a well-crafted piece of writing.  One poster says:

On the subject of the authorship of Hebrews, Dick (R.T) France follows Luther in suggesting Apollos as a credible suggestion, and I think his argument worth quoting:

“From the contents of the letter we may deduce quite a lot about what sort of person wrote it. He ... was Jewish to his fingertips, deeply learned in the Old Testament, a scholar with a subtle philosophical mind and a fine grasp of Greek idiom and style. Some of the language he uses is similar to that of Philo, the first-century Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, and the author must have been well-acquainted with Alexandrian thought (as opposed to the more conservative Judaism of Palestine). But he is a clear-sightedly Christian Jew, and experienced in controversy with non-Christian Jews. And he is a caring and conscientious Christian pastor.”

“Apollos fits this portrait remarkably well: a learned Jew of Alexandria, ‘eloquent’, ‘well-versed in the scriptures’, an enthusiastic propagandist for ‘the Way of the Lord’ ... he travelled around the Mediterranean as a preacher and church leader, ‘powerfully refuting the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus (Acts 18:27-28). His influence at Corinth was great, bidding fair to eclipse even that of Paul (1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:4-9,22; 4:6); ... Such a man could well have written Hebrews. But of course we don’t know whether he did!” (Timothy Titus and Hebrews / Dick France. BRF, 2001. (The People’s Bible Commentary) p.107) 

Still another posts:

Another point that may support Apollos as author is that 1 Cor makes it clear that he was regarded in Corinth as highly as Paul and Peter, but as representing a clearly different "strand" of Christianity. You could argue that Paul was the leader of the Gentile faction, Peter the leader of the Judean Jewish faction and Apollos the leader of the Alexandrian Jewish faction - which Hebrews certainly seems to reflect.

So...when we come to the end of all that discussion, who really wrote the book of Hebrews???

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT) says, "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work."

The fact is that when we talk about authorship of Biblical books we often lose sight of who the Author really is.  We can debate who wrote Hebrews, or whether Moses wrote the whole Pentateuch, or any of these questions, all day long.  But in the end, the scripture is clear that God is the Author.  What do we mean when we say this?  Well, I believe that in the places where it says, "thus saith the Lord" (or some such phrase), in those words of prophecy that put God's words in quotation marks, these places were given by word-for-word revelation from God.  Yet throughout the rest of the Bible (which is the majority of the Bible) the human writers were free to put the thoughts that God gave them into their own words.  We see the personalities, and even opinions, of the biblical writers in the pages of the text.  Yet it was God who prompted them to put pen to parchment, and God who impressed upon them the subject matter upon which they were to write.  It was God who placed ultimate truth in their hearts and God who helped them choose their words carefully.  Further, it was God who through the centuries has maintained the integrity of His Word by inspiring those who chose the canonical books of the Bible.  (Click here for an article about the canonicity of the Bible.We pray that today God continues to direct Bible translators who put His Word into the hands of unevangelized people groups around the world.  

I'm very aware of the debates that scholars have in their ivory towers about the authorship of many of the Biblical books (I Isaiah and II Isaiah, etc).  Frequently, though, these debates do nothing but undermine the idea of divine authorship.  To me, the point is not whether Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch or whether Apollos or Lydia or Priscilla penned the book of Hebrews.  Neither is the point whether I'm reading the Koine Greek, the King James Version, or the Living Bible.  Instead, the point is that when I hold a Bible in my hands, I'm holding the Word of God for me today.  As I approach the text, I'm not asking questions of canonicity, but seeking to hear God speak to inspire me or give me some wisdom for my life.  

That's not to say that scholarly pursuits are fuitless--but there is an end to learning.  At some point, you've got to put down the academic studies and, as James 1:1 (NLT) puts it, "humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls."  

You see, it's not just about God's inspiring the biblical writers.  It's about God inspiring you--the biblical reader--to understand and obey what God is telling you today.  I pray that as you read the Bible today, and as you read it through with us this year, God will inspire you perfectly.



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