For the past 35 years, the question of the authorship of Hebrews has intrigued me. The more I have studied the issue, the more I have become convinced of the viability of the theory of Lukan authorship. Questions of authorship can seldom be established with certainty, and I do not make such an ambitious claim for this project. The discovery of an early manuscript of Hebrews with the words "Luke the Physician... to the church at..." would be helpful to the case. My purpose is to suggest there is sufficient evidence to warrant a new presentation of an old theory, namely that Luke, the companion of the apostle Paul and author of Luke-Acts, is the independent author of Hebrews.
The suggestion that Luke had something to do with the writing of Hebrews finds early support among the church fathers. Eusebius quoted Origen as saying that some believed the epistle could have been the work of Luke. Throughout church history, a few scholars have suggested, though none has argued extensively for it, that Luke was (or could have been) the author of Hebrews. On this list are such prominent names as John Calvin and Franz Delitzsch. However, modern New Testament studies are content to leave the question unanswered; since 1976 there have been no new theories concerning the provenance of Hebrews combining authorship, recipients, and date. Hughes is simply summing up the attitude of most when he says that "as things are, the riddle of the authorship of Hebrews is incapable of solution."
Before I offer a summary of the theory to be presented, the reader should be cautioned to keep in mind several things throughout the discussion. First, any theory that pretends to be able to answer all questions and to neatly categorize all data so that everything fits snugly into place is immediately suspect. As in the realm of scientific investigation, a new hypothesis need not answer all questions in order to be considered viable. A good theory is one that accounts for most of the available data but, like the periodic chart of the elements, does not fit everything neatly into the system, nor does it have to do so. One must simply live with the anomalies.
Second, because the text does not name the author, the historical testimony is inconclusive, and the internal evidence does not provide enough information to determine authorship, the most fruitful approach is to consider theories that provide other textual data with which to compare Hebrews in terms of lexical choice, style, and conceptual framework. This is an argument against considering either Barnabas or Apollos as the author, in that as far as we know, there are no extant texts written by these men to compare with Hebrews. Of course this does not mean it could not have been written by one of them. (Matthew, Mark, James, and Jude each authored only one book in the New Testament.) It merely means there is no way of making any comparative study.
Third, in a study of this nature, one should be cautious about selectively presenting evidence of similarity between two writers or texts while minimizing their differences. Some who argue for Pauline authorship appear to have fallen into this trap. We must seek balance in treatment of the issue. We must avoid the Scylla of superficial treatment of the evidence and the Charybdis of dogmatism. As James Swetnam is reported to have remarked, "Fresh investigations are always to be welcomed if they are really fresh and really investigations."
Fourth, the unavoidable uncertainty that plagues the attempt to identify the author of Hebrews is magnified by the number of first-century details that elude our knowledge. Although the attempt to identify the author is worth the effort, one should not imagine that we tread on terra firma for most of this journey. While venturing beyond information found in the book itself concerning the author poses a danger of entering "into the uncharted realm of conjecture and idiosyncratic reconstruction," the voyage is well worth the taking, with proper precautions. After all, history is replete with discoveries that result from such intrepidity.
Fifth, although it is possible that Hebrews was written by an unknown author in the first century, the most helpful place to begin our search should be with the New Testament authors themselves, and then major figures in first-century Christianity who are mentioned in the New Testament (such as Apollos and Barnabas). This was the approach of the church fathers. One should first examine the possibility that the author is among the known New Testament authors. When this is done, two candidates emerge as front-runners: Paul and Luke. As Michael Goulder humorously put it when he asserted that Luke made use of Mark and Matthew as sources (while rejecting Q and other unknown sources): "We certainly ought to consider the devil we know before opting for the devil we don't know."
The following is an abstract of a holistic theory of Lukan authorship that will be argued in this study. By holistic I mean that I shall present a theory regarding the authorship and background, including recipients and date, for Luke-Acts and Hebrews. The author of Luke-Acts was Luke the physician, who traveled with the apostle Paul and who wrote the Gospel of Luke (c. ad 60-61), and Acts (c. ad 62-63). Acts was written in Rome during Paul's first Roman imprisonment. Luke's intended reader of his two-volume work was Theophilus, a former Jewish high priest who served in Jerusalem from ad 37-41 and was deposed by Herod Agrippa. The grounds for this deposition are not known. Herod may have wanted to ensure that the high priest was firmly committed to his new leadership, and perhaps Theophilus was too lenient on the Christians to suit Herod, or had become a Christian himself.
Luke was the independent author of Hebrews, which he wrote from Rome c. ad 67-69, probably after the death of Paul. The letter was written to former priests of the Jerusalem temple, the first group of whom had been converted to Christianity during the early years of the Jerusalem church before the Stephanic persecution (Acts 6:7). These former priests constituted a segment of the church in Syrian Antioch, where they had fled as a result of this persecution. Once relocated in Antioch, they lived in relative safety and became part of the Antiochene church. Luke was probably a member of this church or, at the very least (since both Scripture and tradition link Luke with Antioch) probably had contact with these former priests on numerous occasions.
Chapter 1 surveys the history of the question of authorship with a focus on the history of the theory of Lukan authorship. Chapter 2 evaluates the evidence for Barnabas, Apollos, and Paul as authorial candidates. Chapter 3 considers the linguistic argument and evaluates the similarities between Luke-Acts and Hebrews, including lexical, stylistic, and textlinguistic similarities. Chapter 4 compares the purposes of Luke-Acts and Hebrews. Chapter 5 surveys the theological viewpoints of Luke-Acts and Hebrews. Here, the conceptual theological framework that undergirds the three works will be evidenced. Chapter 6 adduces evidence for the Jewish background and milieu of Luke-Acts. I will suggest that Luke was Jewish and, even if not, capable of writing a work such as Hebrews. Chapter 7 provides a historical reconstruction of the circumstances surrounding the writing of Hebrews. Here, I will synthesize matters of authorship, recipients, location of recipients, date, and other relevant background material into a holistic framework.
These chapters carry varying degrees of evidential weight. To borrow an analogy from architecture, chaps. 3-5 comprise the "load-bearing walls" of the structure (argument). These chapters in the aggregate produce the most salient evidence of vocabulary and stylistic comparisons, theme/purpose comparisons, and theological comparisons, which serve to identify Luke as the author of Hebrews. The two chapters that propose Luke's Jewishness and offer a plausible historical reconstruction of background and provenance are not as crucial for the overall theory. Luke may have been the author but may not have been Jewish, may not have written from Rome, may not have written to former priests living in Antioch, and may not have written prior to ad 70, as I have suggested. I trust the reader will judge the case on the merits of the linguistic, textlinguistic, and theological evidence, and not on some of my conjectures in other areas.
To employ another analogy to make an important point about this work, what I am attempting to do, with a few exceptions, is aerial photography as opposed to crop-dusting. In this age of specialization, there is still a need and a place for the bird's-eye view of things lest we lose the ability to see the forest for the trees. This work is an effort to get the big picture. In many places the evidence has been presented in broad sweeps, simply because covering every "field" minutely would require time, space, and expertise that I do not possess. Luke-Acts comprises 28 percent of the entire New Testament, Hebrews another 4 percent; hence, these three books together comprise almost 33 percent of the New Testament. Whole monographs have been written on individual aspects of Lukan theology as well as the theology of Hebrews, but are treated in this text in only a few pages or paragraphs. The past forty years have witnessed an endless stream of books, commentaries, articles, and monographs in studies of Luke as well as Hebrews. The burgeoning pile of literature is so enormous that one would have to do nothing but read just to keep abreast of it. To go into detailed comparison in each major area of the chapter on theology alone, much less other chapters, would be a Herculean task. We hope enough is presented to show that the similarities between Luke-Acts and Hebrews are significantly greater than previously noted, and that the Lukan authorship of Hebrews is a viable, even preferable, theory.
On occasion, however, we will abandon our aerial mapping of the lay of the land and swoop down to a particular field for some row-by-row crop-dusting. This will occur, for example, in chap. 2 when we engage William Leonard's arguments for Pauline authorship, in chap. 3 when we look at certain linguistic evidences, and so on throughout each chapter.
This leads to a third and final analogy: the courtroom. This work is an attempt to prosecute the case for Lukan authorship by presenting a preponderance of evidence, the cumulative effect of which becomes difficult to deny. When enough physical evidence from the "crime scene" is collected and evaluated; when the field of "suspects" is narrowed to include two or three individuals; when the historical, textual, and other witnesses have been interrogated, the crucial question becomes, "Which suspect is most implicated by the evidence?" When all the clues are assembled and appropriate deducing is done, a compelling case can be made for Luke.
The importance and uniqueness of the theory presented here lie in the fact that no one has argued for independent Lukan authorship by collating the evidence particularly in the area of linguistics and presenting it in a systematic fashion as I have attempted. Previous comparisons of the vocabulary of Luke-Acts with Hebrews have often miscounted words unique to the three works. In addition, I have charted a number of stylistic data unique to Luke-Acts and Hebrews, which have not previously been presented. Second, no one has sought to argue for the Jewishness of Luke as further evidence of his authorship of Hebrews. Third, no one has synthesized the evidence into the particular theory of authorship and background that I seek to present through historical reconstruction in chap. 7.
As Hughes remarks with regard to the authorship of Hebrews, "Failing the discovery of fresh and positive evidence... we must be content with our ignorance. To say this is not to imply that the offering of conjectures is out of place...." It is not only the synthesis of evidence for Lukan authorship that can be gleaned from others, but also the "fresh and positive evidence" which I am presenting here that merits renewed consideration for the theory of Lukan authorship.
In my estimation, the primary reason Luke has not been considered seriously is the presumption he was a Gentile, while the author of Hebrews was apparently a Jew. For centuries, the paradigm in New Testament studies that Luke was a Gentile has been axiomatic, as can be seen by any cursory reading of commentaries on Luke-Acts. However, within Lukan studies today, there is no such consensus regarding Luke's background. As will be demonstrated, there is much evidence to suggest Luke was a Hellenistic Jew whose writings exhibit both Jewish and Greek characteristics.
Sometimes interpretative communities become locked into viewing the world from a particular grid, so new ways of looking at things often are dismissed or simply do not come to mind. How true is the axiom that a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing. Many in New Testament studies today see the Lukan situation through the twin lenses of Gentile background and post-Pauline time frame. This latter focus has always troubled me in that the straightforward testimony of the Scriptures and early church history clearly locates Luke within the Pauline circle. The internal and external evidence for such a perspective is quite strong.
The practice of picking up the stick from the other end often results in new solutions to old problems, i.e., the construction of a new paradigm, to put it in Kuhn's terms. My theory on the authorship of Hebrews is the result of such an approach. If Luke were Jewish, then authoring Hebrews becomes both possible and plausible and is supported by other corroborating factors. In addition, with regard to the date of Luke-Acts, I am picking up the stick from the pre-ad 70 end. This well-worn tradition was for a time seldom advanced, but in more recent days is experiencing a revival among certain scholars.
I hope to make several contributions with this study. First, the issue of the authorship of Hebrews needs to be reopened. A trickle of articles and one colloquium on this subject in the last few years may be an indication that this issue may be reexamined. With the advent of more sophisticated language tools and the computer, we are able to compare the vocabulary and style of other New Testament books with Hebrews in a much more detailed and accurate way.
Second, approaching the question of Lukan authorship of Hebrews and the background of Luke from a somewhat different perspective (by offering a holistic theory undergirded by linguistic, theological, literary, and historical evidence) will, I hope, provide a viable explanatory paradigm. Unlike a single hypothesis, a paradigm is more like a cluster or complex of hypotheses. I am suggesting more than Lukan authorship of Hebrews, although that is indeed the primary argument. I am approaching the entire subject from a paradigm composed of several hypotheses: Luke wrote Luke-Acts; he was a traveling companion of Paul; he wrote Luke-Acts prior to ad 70; his ethnic background is Jewish; the recipient of Luke-Acts was Theophilus, a former Jewish high priest who served in Jerusalem from ad 37-41 and was deposed by Herod Agrippa; and the recipients of Hebrews were former Jewish priests who converted to Christianity and fled to Syrian Antioch during the persecution following Stephen's martyrdom. Virtually all of these hypotheses, with the exception of the first, could be proven wrong and yet Luke still be the author of Hebrews. The merits of the case for Lukan authorship should be judged primarily on the more tangible linguistic and theological evidence presented in chaps. 3-5.
Third, if there is merit to this theory, then exegetical/interpretative insights may be gained that will deepen our understanding of Hebrews. If the author were one of the New Testament writers, then from a hermeneutical perspective Hebrews could be interpreted in the light of his other writing(s), and perhaps new light could be shed on certain exegetical questions. For example, the translation of machairan as "sword" in Heb 4:12 might be better translated as "scalpel," a secondary but nonetheless legitimate meaning of the Greek word. Both the context and the suggestion of Lukan authorship would make this interpretation and translation of the word much more likely than "sword." If the recipients were indeed Jewish priests, then perhaps the word refers to the double-edged knife used by the priests to prepare sacrifices. Such a meaning is within the semantic realm of possibility and has much within its context to commend it even if the recipients were not former priests.
A fourth contribution is theological. Again, if the author is a New Testament writer, this fact would allow us to interpret Hebrews against the backdrop of his other writing(s). Conversely, Hebrews might furnish a helpful perspective that would allow us to clarify a certain theological motif in a given author's work. For example, Lukan studies since Conzelmann have generally held that Luke attributes no direct soteriological significance to the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. Recently, a number of Lukan scholars have broken with this interpretation. If Hebrews were the work of Luke, then clearly Conzelmann's thesis would not only need the recent modification it has undergone, but would have to be rejected.
Fifth, this work furnishes additional data to the growing body of evidence that Luke's ethnic background was Jewish. Chapters 5 and 6 collate this evidence, which has been difficult to find elsewhere in a single work. Those interested in this aspect of Lukan studies will find food for thought.
Sixth, chap. 1 is the only place I know where one can trace the history of the theory of Lukan authorship for Hebrews from Origen to the present day. I trust this material will be helpful to all interested in the subject and will provide at least some background to the discussion over the past two thousand years of Christian history.
If the paradigm suggested here elicits new insights and leads to a new understanding of the problem of the authorship of Hebrews, or a new or at least broader understanding of Luke's writings, then this work will have fulfilled its purpose. To this end, perhaps New Testament studies will benefit from this modest contribution.