Who wrote Hebrews? That’s the question, isn’t it?
Most of the letters in the New Testament open by identifying the author. Paul, James, Peter, and Jude always do so, and John identifies himself in Revelation. But the letter of Hebrews has no such introduction, and the writer never identifies themself in the letter.
Furthermore, the church hasn’t traditionally agreed on who wrote Hebrews. Paul, Barnabas, Priscilla, Apollos—you can find arguments for these people (and others!) being the author Hebrews.
There’s one verse that might give us a hint about who didn’t write the book, though. The author claims that salvation was first spoken through Jesus, then through those who heard Jesus. “Those who heard” then performed signs, wonders, and miracles (Heb 2:3–4).
The author of Hebrews puts himself and the readers in a third category of people: those who heard about Jesus second-hand from the eyewitnesses. This probably rules out eyewitnesses like Paul and Peter. However, even though the author wasn’t an eyewitness of Jesus, they were pretty important in the church. The author is familiar
with the church in Rome, and probably knows Timothy well (13:23–24).
It’s a frustrating mystery, but we’re not the first ones to struggle with it. Even the ancient theologian Origen says, “Who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows.”
We sure don’t.
The letter is aimed at Christians who, like the author, heard about Jesus via other witnesses (Heb 2:3–4).
According to tradition, the epistle is written to (surprise, surprise) Hebrew Christians. The text of the letter never clearly states that the readers are Hebrews, but they must have known a lot about the Old Testament.
For example, the author of Hebrews drops references to all kinds of Jewish history—and it’s not all stuff an Old Testament newbie would pick up on. Here are just a few examples:
• Moses, Joshua, and the Sabbath (3:3; 4:8–9)
• Aaron’s priesthood and the accompanying rituals (5:1–4)
• God’s covenant with Abraham (2:16; 6:13–15)
• Melchizedek, an obscure character from Genesis 14 (7:1–3)
• Various characters from Judges (11:32)
These people may not have been Jewish, but they sure had a handle on the Old Testament. So our original readers were probably well-versed in the Old Testament. They had probably been Christians for a while, too.
They were familiar with the elementary Christian teachings (6:1) and had already suffered for their beliefs (12:4). In fact, they’d been established long enough for the author to think they should have been teaching others (5:12).
Hebrews was probably written around 64-69 A.D.
The Bible was written over the course of about 1,500 years, from Genesis to Revelation.
Hebrews (and the rest of the New Testament) was written during the last few decades of that time period: after Jesus had risen from the dead and before John saw his return.
How many times have you written a message that said, “I just wanted to say thanks,” or “Just a note to remind you…”?
It’s pretty customary for us to explicitly state why we’re writing what we’re writing.
Sometimes the authors of the Bible do the same thing. Some writers come right out and tell us why they’re putting pen to paper.
The apostle John may be the best example of this. As John wraps up his story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, he says, "Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name." (Jn 20:30–31)
See how John tells us exactly why he’s writing all this down? That’s the kind of stuff you want to keep your eye out for when you’re reading a book of the Bible for the first time. Fortunately, the author of Hebrews gives us a few explicit statements of purpose, too.
Hebrews is a letter of exhortation:
"But I urge you, brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly." (13:22)
“Exhortation” isn’t a word we throw around in conversation a lot today. It means “coming alongside,” or an earnest motivation to do God’s will. Exhortation comforts. Exhortation warns. Exhortation strengthens and establishes.
Although the author doesn’t label his letter until the last few verses, you don’t have to wait until the end of the book to learn that this is a letter of exhortation. The epistle is peppered with strong calls to action throughout:
Let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it. (4:1)
Let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall. (4:11)
Let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace (4:16)
Let us press on to maturity (6:1)
Let us draw near with a sincere heart (10:22)
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful (10:23)
Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds (10:24)
Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us (12:1)
Let us show gratitude (12:28)
Let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. (13:13)
Let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. (13:15)
The author also spends a lot of time addressing some of the believers apostasy (falling away/renouncing their faith) in these times of struggle. While they are being encouraged by the author, they are also being exhorted to remain faithful in what they have been taught, and what they believe.
Hebrews is also about Jesus’ ministry:
The author spends a lot of time talking about Jesus, specifically Jesus’ role as a priest. The author tells us explicitly that there’s a lot to say about this:
And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation, being designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. (5:9–11)
Hebrews is about reunions:
In addition to all the teaching elements of Hebrews, the author has logistics to consider, too. The author wants to let the readers know that he will be visiting soon.
Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a good conscience, desiring to conduct ourselves honorably in all things. And I urge you all the more to do this, so that I may be restored to you the sooner. (13:18–19)
Take notice that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom, if he comes soon, I will see you. (13:23)
(portions taken from Jeffrey Kranz's work on "How to Study Hebrews")