Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Gardiner on the Authorship of Hebrews

Gardiner, Frederic. “The Language of the Epistle to the Hebrews as Bearing upon Its Authorship.” Journal of the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis 7 (June 1887): 1-27.

This article investigates how word frequency might shed light upon the authorship of Hebrews. Gardiner is perfectly aware of the inadequacy of this method, but undertook the exercise so as “to leave no stone unturned” (1) on the question of Hebrews authorship. It is not my intention in this review to give all of the excruciating details of the numerous statistics given in this essay. The reader is encouraged to peruse the article for oneself if one is so inclined.

According to Gardiner, Hebrews has 147 words “peculiar” to itself in comparison to the other books of the NT (2). Among the NT writers the author of Hebrews and the Lucan corpus “excel . . . in the richness of their vocabulary” (3). Gardiner next examines words that are common only to Hebrews and Luke, and Hebrews and Paul (he does not distinguish between the authentic and disputed Paulines). He notes that 34 words are common to Luke and Hebrews only, and that 46 words are common to Paul and Hebrews alone. He says such numbers explain the intuitive sense of the early church fathers who attributed Hebrews to Paul and/or Luke in some way. After surveying some of the characteristic words held in common, Gardiner concludes that “some sort of relation” exists among the three writers.

Gardiner proceeds to examine the usage of other words, such as ερχομαι and λαμβανω with their various compounds, and the usage of particles, adverbs, and prepositions. After this tedious examination of word usage, Gardiner concludes that the style of Hebrews is unlike that of Paul, nor that of Luke (13). Gardiner then examines common words that are characteristic of “phases of thought” that reveal the habitual thoughts of a given writer. For example, αγαπαω and its cognates are used frequently by Paul and John, but hardly used by Hebrews and Luke. Gardiner enumerates a long list of words that indicates a variance of usage by Hebrews, Luke, and Paul.

Gardiner then examines words that are frequently used by both Paul and Hebrews, such as νομος and πιστις. Although these words are used quite often, their nuances are different for each writer. For example, Paul employs νομος “chiefly of a method of salvation,” while Hebrews refers to it as “a definite collection of statutes.” Similarly, there is a distinction with the word πιστις: For Paul it is “reliance upon Christ as the means of salvation in opposition to the law and the works of the law”; for Hebrews “it is only a general reliance on God’s grace and promises” (17). Finally, Gardiner enumerates words characteristic of Hebrews in distinction from other NT writers, including μαρτυς, τελειος, and ιερευς, and their related words. The last of these group of words is most striking, as Paul never uses ιερευς and its derivative words anywhere in his writings, while it is most prominent in Hebrews.

Gardiner confesses that he embarked on this project “suppos[ing] beforehand that it would result in showing Pauline thoughts and reasoning, but the phraseology of S. Luke, and thus would confirm a very ancient and still somewhat popular hypothesis, that the epistle was actually written by S. Luke to express ideas and arguments received from S. Paul,” but his analysis forced him to change his mind (19). Gardiner notes in passing other differences between Hebrews and Paul, such as the rhetorical flow of the discourse, and the manner of citation from the OT (20).

Gardiner concludes his essay with a consideration of candidates for authorship. It is clear that the author must have been a companion of Paul’s who was thus affected by Paul’s mode of expression. Apollos is a strong candidate because of his eloquence and learning in the scriptures. He was an Alexandrian which could explain the epistle’s “Alexandrian tone of thought” and its use of the LXX, which seems to reflect the Alexandrian recension (21). Nevertheless, a strong objection to Apollos’ authorship is the fact that Apollos was never considered as the author by any of the ancients, including any of the Alexandrian authors. Luke and Clement are rejected out of hand by a comparison with their acknowledged writings. The strongest candidate for authorship is Barnabas: He was a Hellenistic Jew from Cyprus (and thus may have had access to Alexandrian literature); he was an early convert and one of the prominent leaders of the church in Jerusalem, a long-time companion of Paul’s, and a Levite (and thus acquainted with the service of the temple).

Although such a statistical analysis that Gardiner engages in has its weaknesses, I think he has sufficiently shown that the author of Hebrews could not be either Paul or Luke. We must look elsewhere. I am in agreement that Apollos and Barnabas are two of the strongest candidates for authorship, although I would also add Aquila as a strong possibility.


  1. This was fascinating, as I'm very interested in speculation about the authorship of Hebrews, and I don't really have time to do the kind of research you suggest.

    So, thank you to Gardiner for doing some for us!

    Two thoughts:

    I can't see Barnabas or Apollos (or Paul) writing about "those" who spoke the Gospel to "us," as in Hebrews 2:3-4. Luke might use such terminology, but men like Paul, Barnabas, and Apollos are part of the "those" that spoke the Gospel and confirmed it with signs following.

    Second, once we eliminate Paul or Luke, we're really guessing after that. Apollos is said to be from Alexandria, so it's not so far-fetched that we should throw out his name, but for any others we're just wildly guessing. There has to be dozens of possible authors, friends of Paul whose names we don't know.

    Paul, according to the fathers, was in Rome for at least a couple years, helping the church get established there. Who did he meet there? Was Mark there with Peter? Mark ended up in Alexandria. Did someone Mark met write it?

    That's a wild guess, very unlikely, but speculating about the author of Hebrews if it wasn't Paul is all wild guesses. There's a "long tail" of names we don't even know that could have been the author.

    It's a lot easier to eliminate possibilities. I suspect guessing at the actual author after we eliminate Paul and Luke is not very profitable.

  2. Hi Paul:

    Thanks for your comments. All I was suggesting in my review was that if my readers want to know the statistical breakdown of word usage in Hebrews, Paul, Luke etc., they should read Gardiner's article. I left most of the statistics out of the review.

    I think what 2:3-4 is suggesting is that the author, along with his audience/readers, belongs to the second generation of Christians. "Those who heard" probably refers to the apostles and others who had direct contact with Jesus. So, this does not rule out Barnabas or Apollos per se.

    Actually, many scholars favor Apollos as the author of Hebrews because of his description in Acts 18:24-26: he was an eloquent man, which aligns nicely with the rhetorical skill of the book, and he was mighty in the scriptures, which corresponds nicely with the author of Hebrews' skill in interpretation. Also many scholars see an affinity between Hebrews' use of scripture, and philosophical outlook, and that of some Alexandrian writers, such as Philo. Of course, we have no extant ancient witnesses that ever considered Apollos as the author of the book.

    I agree that we will probably never know who the real author of Hebrews is. I could make an equally good case for at least 3 or 4 different people. I tend to be agnostic about the authorship of Hebrews. But, of course, the fact that we will never know who the author is, has never stopped scholars from speculating! We can at least use our interpretive skills to make some educated guesses.

    If you are interested in some of my other article reviews regarding authorship, just click on the authorship link under "labels" on the sidebar and it will take you to some other reviews. I am sure more will be coming as I come across them.