Origen on the Authorship of Hebrews
The Book of Hebrews is one of the greatest writings of the New Testament. It has exerted great influence and done much good. Yet its authorship remains a puzzle. Who can possibly have written it?
Belief in the authorship of Hebrews as by Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, was anciently held by Christian writers, but it is now widely given up. As most scholars will put it, “the author was certainly not Paul.”
I had long felt this way myself. But the evidence keeps bringing me back to the Pauline authorship of Hebrews as a sounder point of view. What is the evidence for Paul, and does it not call for a faithful reconsideration?
There is one consideration of major importance that has been widely—one may even say totally—neglected in dealing with the authorship of Hebrews. This is the evidence of the church father Origen. Origen’s adherence to the Pauline origin of Hebrews was determined by an ancient belief that he knew to be well founded. His testimony has been preserved for us by Eusebius:
That the character of the diction of the epistle entitled To the Hebrews has not the apostle’s rudeness in speech, who confessed himself rude in speech, that is, in style, but that the epistle is better Greek in the framing of its diction, will be admitted by everyone who is able to discern differences of style. But again, on the other hand, that the thoughts of the epistle are admirable, and not inferior to the acknowledged writings of the apostle, to this also everyone will consent as true who has given attention to reading the apostle…. But as for myself, if I were to state my own opinion, I should say that the thoughts are the apostle’s, but that the style and composition belonged to one who called to mind the apostle’s teachings and, as it were, made short notes of what his master said. If any church, therefore, holds this epistle as Paul’s, let it be commended for this also. For not without reason have the men of old handed it down as Paul’s. But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows. Yet the account which has reached us [is twofold], some saying that Clement, who was bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, others, that it was Luke, he who wrote the Gospel and the Acts.
Origen meets the stylistic objection to Pauline authorship in a manner similar to that of his predecessor Clement: the thoughts are Pauline, but the style and diction are to be credited to another hand. In this way Origen maintains the apostolic origin of the epistle while removing the objection drawn from the diversity of style. When Origen says, “For not without reason have the men of old handed it down as Paul’s,” and then adds, “But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows,” he does not mean to suggest uncertainty about the author but only about the penman—that is, the one who reduced the letter to writing—for he has just asserted that the thoughts are those of the apostle Paul. To assert (as is all too often asserted) that Origen meant to suggest that only God knew the author of the epistle is to suppose that Origen has contradicted himself in the very same paragraph.
It is astonishing to see how these basic facts about Origen’s view of authorship are overlooked by commentators on Hebrews, who almost always quote him in support of an agnostic position on the letter’s authorship (and, by extension, its conceptual background). It is clear that Origen is referring, not to the author responsible for the contents of the letter, but to its penman, and he is certain that the former is none other than the apostle Paul. Had these authors read the works of Origen they would have seen that his actual method of quoting Hebrews indicates a firm belief in the Pauline authorship of the letter. A sampling of quotations from Origen will make this clear.
De Principiis 1:
And therefore I think it sufficient to quote this one testimony of Paul from the Epistle to the Hebrews, in which he says [Heb 11:24-26], “By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of the Egyptians.”
De Principiis 3.2.4:
And the apostle Paul warns us [Heb 2:1]: “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest perhaps we should let them slip.”
De Principiis 4.1.13:
In another Epistle also, when referring to the tabernacle, he [the reference is to Paul] mentions the direction which was given to Moses [Heb 8:5]: “Thou shalt make (all things) according to the pattern which was showed thee in the mount.”
De Principiis 4.1.13:
Moreover, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, discoursing of those who belong to the circumcision, he [Paul] writes [Heb 8:5]: “who serve for an ensample and shadow of heavenly things.”
De Principiis 4.1.24:
For Paul openly says of them [Heb 8:5], that “they serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things.”
De Principiis 2.7.7:
And the apostle [Paul] says with reference to the law [Heb 8:5], that they who have circumcision of the flesh, “serve for the similitude and shadow of heavenly things.”
De Principiis 2.3.5:
I will show, however, from what statements of Paul I have arrived at this understanding. He says [Heb 9:26], “But now once in the consummation of ages, He was manifested to take away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.”
De Principiis 3.1.10:
To show more clearly, however, what we mean, let us take the illustration employed by the apostle Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where he says [Heb 6:7-8], “For the earth, which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, will receive blessing from God; but that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing, whose end is to be burned.”
Against Celsus 7.29:
And it is in reference to this Jerusalem that the apostle [Paul] spoke, as one who, “being risen with Christ, and seeking those things which are above,” had found a truth which formed no part of the Jewish mythology. “Ye are come,” says he [Heb 12:22], “unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels.”
Against Celsus 3.52:
For the word is used by our Paul in writing to the Corinthians, who were Greeks, and not yet purified in their morals…. Now the same writer, knowing that there was a certain kind of nourishment better adapted for the soul, and that the food of those young persons who were admitted was compared to milk, continues [Heb 5:12-14]: “And ye are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness; for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
To Africanus 9:
For the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in speaking of the prophets, and what they suffered, says [Heb 11:37], “they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, they were slain with the sword.” …some one hard pressed by this argument may have recourse to the opinion of those who reject this Epistle as not being Paul’s; against whom I must at some other time use other arguments to prove that it is Paul’s.”
These examples are sufficient to show that Origen, in his extant works, ascribes the authorship of Hebrews to the apostle Paul. He knew that the ancients had handed Hebrews down as a Pauline epistle, and it was on the strength of that tradition that he constantly cited the letter as Paul’s and declared his readiness to prove his convictions by arguments. Origen was aware of two conjectures, one identifying the assistant as Clement of Rome, the other identifying him as Luke. Nevertheless, on the strength of the ecclesiastical tradition that he had inherited from the “men of old,” Origen consistently cited the epistle as Paul’s.
One author has written:
This is well-meaning but incorrect. It was only in reference to the identity of the penman that Origen wrote “in truth God knows.” In light of this fact, any further attempt to use Origen’s words in support of an agnostic position on the authorship of Hebrews is not to quote Origen, but to misquote him.
February 5, 2004
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com. He is currently finishing a 600-page work on Hebrews entitled Paul and Hebrews Compared.