Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Thayer on the Authorship and Canonicity of Hebrews

Thayer, J. Henry. “Authorship and Canonicity of the Epistle to the Hebrews.” Bibliotheca sacra 24 (1867): 681-722.

Joseph Henry Thayer (1828-1901) taught at Andover Theological Seminary from 1864 to 1882 and was Bussey Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Harvard Divinity School 1884-1901. His most noted work was his Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.

This article is derived from a series of lectures delivered at Andover. The article deals primarily with the internal and external arguments pro and con for Pauline authorship and concludes with a consideration on how the issue of authorship affected Hebrews’ acceptance into the canon.

He outlines five basic characteristics of the author: 1) He does not try to conceal his identity; he is known by his audience; 2) He was among the distinguished teachers of apostolic times; 3) He was Jewish; 4) He was not an eyewitness to Jesus, but received the gospel second-hand; and 5) He was a close associate of Timothy.

Thayer first deals with internal arguments in favor of Pauline authorship. Some have suggested that the reference to “bonds” in Heb 10:34 and the author’s request for prayer in 13:19 indicate that the author was imprisoned, thus favoring Paul as the author. But these references are inconclusive. Neither does 13:23 imply that Timothy was imprisoned. The salutation of “those from Italy” (οι απο της Ιταλιας) has two possible interpretations: local separation “those away from Italy” or origin “those of Italy”, i.e., “the Italians.” Thayer concludes that the phrase is indecisive for determining locality.

Thayer notes a number of doctrinal resemblances to Paul with regard to theology, Christology and the Mosaic Law. He also notes a number of similarities in form: the epistle is divided into two parts (didactic/doctrinal and hortatory/practical – later interpreters have overturned this simplistic division of Hebrews); the author utilizes similar imagery as Paul; and similarity in singular expressions. However, these similarities are inconclusive since such similarities may be due to what was common to them and their time. Coincidences in language and thought can be found between any two bodies of writings.

Internal evidence that speaks against Pauline authorship include: 1) the absence of an opening salutation, so characteristic of Paul’s letters; 2) the usage of the OT differs from Pauline usage; 3) the author’s characteristic expressions; and 4) the general differences of style and diction.

Moreover, the doctrinal content of Hebrews differs markedly from that of Paul: 1) the epistle lacks any language of justification by faith. Instead “the fundamental view taken of Christianity in our Epistle is consummated Judaism” (700); 2) the high priesthood of Christ is the consummation of Jesus’ career rather than the resurrection; 3) the author makes no mention of Gentiles being co-heirs with Jews in the gospel; 4) the spiritualizing, symbolic interpretation of the OT exceeds that of Paul. The facts and allusions of a personal nature also speak against Pauline authorship. For example, the epistle is addressed to Jewish Christians, which is a departure from his usual practice; he alludes to the persecution and martyrs of his audience “in cool historic style” (703); and Heb 2:3 is uncharacteristic of Paul who often claimed that he received the gospel by direct revelation from Christ.

Turning to external evidence, the Eastern church, particularly in Alexandria, generally regarded Paul as the author, but the testimony is not unanimous. However, the Western church universally regarded it as non-Pauline until the time of Jerome and Augustine. Thayer concludes that Paul cannot be regarded as the author of the book, but he does not venture to posit anyone else as the author.

The issue of Pauline authorship directly affected the book of Hebrews’ reception in the early church. Since the Eastern church widely believed that Paul was the author, the book of Hebrews was received as authoritative. Hebrews was much slower in gaining acceptance in the West due to doubts about Pauline authorship. Nevertheless, by the fourth century, the Western church also began to regard Hebrews as authoritative.

Thayer’s article is a balanced essay considering both sides of the argument for Pauline authorship. In the end, though, he rejects Pauline authorship. I must concur with Thayer. The book of Hebrews was not written by Paul. The doctrinal content and literary style differs dramatically from Paul’s letters. Moreover, it lacks the opening salutation so characteristic of Paul’s letters, and personal references (e.g., his Jewish background, his apostleship, his sufferings and imprisonment, his personal revelations from Christ, the collection for the saints in Rome etc.) which are so prevalent in his other letters.

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