Ichthys Acronym Image

Home             Site Links

The Canonicity of the book of Hebrews

Word RTF

Question #1: 

Hi Dr. Luginbill,  Do you have anything on your website that discusses how Hebrews was accepted into the canon of the NT? Which early church fathers quoted from it, or mentioned it? I know Clement of Rome mentions it, and I think he is quoted in Eusebius' book on church history (which I have, but haven't read much of it yet--I have to be in the mood to read it.) I came across this on a Bible study website; it gives the "bare bones." I don't expect you to go into great detail or anything, but is there anything you can add to this summation?

"The author of Hebrews presents strong arguments that we all need Christ, including: He is more wonderful than angels, for they worship Him. He is superior to Moses, for He created him. His sacrifice is once for all time, whereas the Aaronic (Jewish) system required repeated sacrifices. He is better than the Law, because we can live by Him, whereas the Law kills those who try to follow it. The original title of this book is "Pros Ebraious," "To Hebrews." No authorship is indicated.  By the fourth century A.D., this book was accepted by the Western branch of the church as authoritative Scripture. Early support of the canonicity of Hebrews came from Clement of Rome. In the fourth century, Jerome and Augustine gave the book their support and others fell into line. The Eastern church supported this book from the beginning. The last few verses of Chapter 13, from verse 18 forward, strongly suggest that the earliest readers of this book knew precisely who wrote this book. The Early Church was divided over authorship. Some attributed it to Paul, others Barnabas, while still others preferred Luke or Clement. Sentence composition within the book is very much like Paul, and Timothy is mentioned as having been "set free" from prison in 13:23. The Greek is more refined than that which is found in Paul's letters, which leads us back to Luke, but no one seems to be sure. Origin who lived in the third century, wrote: "Who was it that wrote this Epistle, God only knows."  The book of Hebrews was quoted in 95 A.D. by Clement of Rome, indicating that the book was written prior to that year. Hebrews speaks of the Temple in Jerusalem as an existing edifice. If it had already been destroyed, the author would have referred to that fact as an example of the less authoritative nature of the Judaic system. This epistle was written prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Timothy was still alive at the time of this letter (13:23), and the Jewish system was about to be removed (12:26-27). This book was written between 64 and 68 A.D. Hebrews presents Christ as Prophet, Priest and King, far superior to any religious system this world might devise. He who is from everlasting is better than anything or anyone found in this world-system."

Response #1: I have scheduled a portion of the Basics series to deal with canonicity, but it'll be some years before I get to it. One of the things that really bugs me about such discussions – and they are almost all along the lines of what you have pasted in here – is that they have things inside out. It is hard to imagine a serious Christian who has a basic education, let alone anyone with an advanced degree, who cannot see and understand that prima facie the Word of God is different from any other literature in the world. The Bible is, to paraphrase L.S. Chafer, "not a book that men could write if they would, or would write if they could". This is an elegant way of saying that the power of scripture is easily seen with the naked eye – at least for any and all who have the Spirit of God. One needs only to read contemporaneous Greek philosophy or the Apocrypha or any of the voluminous and multitudinous works of pseudipigrapha to see immediately that this is so. It is the difference between Bach performed by the Chicago Symphony and rap performed in someone's garage – no one is ever going to confuse the two. For that matter, not even the apostolic fathers or the Greek or Latin fathers present anything that even seems like scripture (even when it quotes scripture). There is thus a simple test of quality and spirituality that any Christian with a basic knowledge of the truth and a fundamental orientation to the will of God will easily be able to apply. If it looks, walks, and quacks like a duck, then surely it is one. Then again, if it doesn't, it isn't. One can argue that the style of Hebrews is somewhat different from that of Paul's other writings, but can one really claim that Hebrews does not empower, inspire, humble the ego, and elevate the spirit in the same way that all other scripture does? We can tell when a cut of meat looks well marbled, and, on the other hand, when a particular steak has gone bad – with a single sniff. Any amateur geologists can easily tell the difference between gold and pyrite. Any apprentice diamond merchant can easily discern whether the stone is real or merely paste. Why do we assume that in the case of the most important tangible thing in this world, the holy scriptures, that this will not also be the case? Jerome resisted translating the apocrypha for his Latin version but, in the end, was prevailed upon by his friends. He didn't see these non-canonical books as particularly useful, saying that reading them was like "looking for diamonds in the mud". The problem is that they and similar works are entirely "mud" when compared to the priceless jewels of the Word of God that shine forth from every verse of every chapter. Even when we don't notice them at first, they are there, waiting to reveal their luster, if only we are persistent in polishing them. For me, the only reason to delve into the sorts of "proofs" that are generally mustered for canonicity is to reassure new believers that this book of books didn't come out of nowhere. But the truth is that there is much that we don't know about the specifics, and much more that we do know that all too many Christians are all too eager to disavow because it smacks of the miraculous (e.g., "how could Moses have written the Pentateuch?" – but someone did, and that person was not named "Eloist" or "Deuteronomist", but Moses).

The truth is that the Bible is the Bible, and that the books in the Bible are the books in the Bible. We are very blessed that they are indeed true and right and good – the very words and Word of God. I suppose that the controversies of the past served the purpose of at least putting this issue aside – except that the issue always seems to keep bubbling up again and again. Scripture is scripture because God so ordained it, inspired it, oversaw its writing, its publication, its distribution, and its preservation. We can easily tell that scripture is really scripture, just by reading it. Thus the burden of proof lies not upon those of us who know full well from experience that the Bible is unique in this world, but upon all those who would say that any portion of scripture is not really a part of the canon. I think you can see well enough that the arguments adduced here against the book's canonicity are weak when one starts with the correct supposition that the book is legitimately part of the Bible. There is nothing adduced in the “information” given that should cause any Christian who has read Hebrews and felt its power through the Holy Spirit to now think that it is not legitimately part of the canon.

Since you have suffered through this far, I will give you one thing to consider in addition to the info in this summation, namely, that the book of Hebrews is included in the earliest and best complete manuscript of the Bible, codex Sinaiticus (ca. 3-4 cent. A.D.). Sinaiticus contains a complete copy of the book of Hebrews – positioned in the middle of the Pauline letters, in between 2nd Thessalonians and the pastoral epistles (a clear indication that, pace Origen, the producers of this wonderful manuscript assumed that Paul was the author).

On canonicity and related issues, see also:

            The Gospel of Judas, and Issues of Canonicity

            The Author of Hebrews

            The so-called "Documentary Hypothesis"

            The Relationship between the Books of Kings and Chronicles

            More on the Documentary Hypothesis

            The Canon (from "Read Your Bible")

            Jesus' use of "I AM" from Exodus 3:14 in John 8:58 (for LXX quotes)

In our Lord.

Bob L.

Question #2: 

I am in touch with someone who thinks that Hebrews doesn't belong in the NT canon. Anyway, he wrote this to me:

"Neither does it say much for anyone's scholarship not to notice that the first two chapters [of Hebrews] are full of misquotes. In Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Dictionary it states: "The author of Hebrews sounds more like a Platonic Philosopher than Paul when he speaks of the Old Covenant..." (certainly in line with what Rav Dave claims), as far as the date is concerned that also is guess work...not scholarship...which Nelson's concurs. The whole idea of the Book is Replacement Theology which is a root cause of the Holocaust, and makes God out to be a lair...and the Book contradicts itself with that thought and Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow..for according to what Hebrews teaches He sure did change His mind...troubling also is the Theology of if you backslide there is no hope of redemption."

I would like to see what you think of this paragraph. On the “mistranslations”, Psalm 8 comes to mind – how close is Hebrews to the OT here?

Response #2:

I'll not address the authorship issue - it is somewhat beside the point in any argument on canonicity. It seems that your correspondent has two main arguments: 1) style; 2) theology.

To take the second one first, it seems clear from this paragraph and from the previous e-mail that this individual has absolutely no clue about what the New Testament means in general. That certainly begs the question of what validity his theological observations on Hebrews would have. The fact that he quotes some other individual in his cult with similar views fails to impress. I do not have the Nelson text he quotes, but it should be noted that the author of the quote is not saying that Hebrews is not canonical – only that it doesn't sound to him like it could have been written by Paul. Your correspondent seems to think that if he can deny Pauline authorship, he can deny canonicity, but the two things obviously do not equate. With this caliber of logic, it is hard to know where to begin a discourse. As far as the "whole idea of the book" being "replacement theology", I suppose he means the misguided view that the Church has replaced Israel. I, for one, am wholeheartedly against the notion as well (and much more so than many evangelicals; see the link: “The uniqueness of Israel”), but am so on the basis of the Bible, and, quite apart from this position arguing for your correspondents view, would suggest instead that the Book of Hebrews really supports the oneness of Israel and the gentiles in the Church rather than any sort of "replacement" of Israel (cf. Heb.12:22-24, etc.). So I believe that your correspondent's ire is entirely misplaced. Rather than throwing out Hebrews because some people misunderstand and misuse it (e.g., Hebrews does not teach that there is no hope of redemption after backsliding but while continuing to backslide; see the link: Does Hebrews 10:26 teach loss of salvation?), he would be better served by delving deeper into scriptures that concern him. In doing so, one is always eventually rewarded (even if the reward must wait for years of patient exegesis to bear fruit). Finally, to suggest that Jesus "changed His mind" is to admit that one does not accept the divinity of Christ – at least in my considered view. At this point, I have to ask, "what does straw have to do with grain?" (Jer.23:28).

The argument from style is equally vacuous. What is a "misquote"? The New Testament is written in Greek, and the Old in Hebrew. Any author of any NT book therefore necessarily had to translate the Hebrew text into Greek. Before someone can claim that there has been a "misquote", one has to examine 1) the Hebrew vorlage (including any textual issues in the Hebrew original); 2) the true meaning of the Hebrew verse quoted; and 3) the purpose of the quotation. Our methods of citation are not the same as those used by the ancients. Moreover, even today, if I were doing an ad hoc presentation on a biblical subject, it would not bother me in the least if I gave the "gist" of a passage to which I meant to refer and did not in the process give a Simon pure KJV rendition (or any other version). That's me – these writers, besides translating from one language to another, were also penning their verses under the inspiration of the Spirit, so that we can be assured of the theological accuracy of the point, even when there are apparent discrepancies in the quote. In such cases, we may have a paraphrase or a deliberate interpretation – and while that may offend our sensibilities, it was clearly something with which the Spirit had no problem. Or we may have a translation which understands the Hebrew better than we think we do or made use of a better text than we presently have. In any case, the issue of OT citations in the NT is a very, very complicated one, and one, moreover, which constitutes a tremendously under-appreciated and under-researched area of NT studies. Given that scholarly NT studies have now almost entirely gone to pot, we Bible exegetes are left entirely to our own devices in making sense of just how a particular NT quote should be understood in light of the OT exemplar. For one thing, the role of the LXX is very much over-rated, and our understanding of what the various forms of it might have been during the first century only hypothetical. Add to that the fact that there were clearly other versions available when the NT was written – and this is a book by book thing for the OT Greek versions (i.e., we should not think of people running around with an entire OT Bible in Greek). Moreover, this is an issue in all the New Testament books – not just Hebrews. I venture to say that if we were to use this person's criterion for canonicity, we would be justified in throwing out the entire NT for "misquotes". In reality, or course, all of the quotes are perfect. What is imperfect in many instances is our understanding of them.

This is just to scratch the surface of LXX issues (but, for my money, the LXX is the most highly over-rated tool out there for textual and other biblical issues). The best source I know of on the issue of quotations (though not without serious shortcomings) is: Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament, by Archer and Chirichigno (Moody 1983).

Finally, on the one verse you ask about, Hebrews 2:7 / Psalm 8:5 (8:6 in the Hebrew), this is one verse that as it occurs in the book of Hebrews is both 1) exactly as it occurs in the LXX, and 2) a fairly literal translation of the Hebrew original.

Hope this helps,

In our Lord.

Bob L.

Question #3: 

Well, my correspondent finally shared the "misquotes" in the first two chapters of Hebrews. Personally, I don't see any misquotes, do you? I asked him if he had ever heard of "synonyms"--words that are very similar in meaning....Because that is all I see here, only slight variations which don't change the meaning one iota. Here is what he sent:

---All passages are from the NAU 1995...all of these
plus many more are misquotes..for which inclusion in
God's Word to man is unacceptable.

Hebrews 1:6 6 And (1)when He again (a)brings the
firstborn into (2b)the world, He says, "(c)AND LET ALL

Psalm 97:7 7 Let all those be ashamed who serve
(a)graven images, Who boast themselves of (b)idols;
(1c)Worship Him, all you (2)gods.


Psalm 104:4 4 (1)He makes (2a)the winds His
messengers, (3)Flaming (b)fire His ministers.

8 But of the Son He says, "(a)YOUR THRONE, O GOD, IS

Psalm 45:6 (a)Your throne, O God, is forever and ever;
A scepter of b)uprightness is the scepter of Your


Psalm 45:7 7 You have (a)loved righteousness and hated

Psalm 45:7 Therefore God, Your God, has (b)anointed
You With the oil of joy above Your fellows.


Psalm 102:25 25 "Of old You (a)founded the earth, And
the (b)heavens are the work of Your hands."

I pointed out to him that nowhere is the verse quoted in Matthew 23:3 found in the OT. The one about how Jesus would be a Nazarene. That isn't anywhere in the OT. However, someone else pointed out it may be based on Is. 11:1, since the word for "branch" in Hebrew sounds a lot like the Hebrew word for Nazareth. So, Matthew may simply be saying what the Isaiah verse actually MEANS, without actually quoting it. So I told him that I guess we should take Matthew out of the canon, since Matthew "misquotes." I also asked him that in the Genesis, where Pharaoh listens to Joseph's plan to prevent starvation during the seven lean years, that, if one Bible has "the plan looked good in the eyes of Pharaoh," and another had "Pharaoh liked the plan," is the latter a misquote? Or mistranslation? I explained about a word-for-word translation, the former, and a thought-for-thought translation, the latter. He hasn't answered that yet.

Response #3:

As I say, I also would want a definition of what constitutes a "misquote". The first passage you mention, Psalm 97:7 quoted at Hebrews 1:6 makes the point. First of all, what we find in the text of Hebrews is very close to what we find in the LXX, except for the conjugation of the verb "worship". It is really impossible to tell whether the author is deliberately altering the LXX text, or using another, similar text, or translating directly from the Hebrew himself (or a combination of the above – the language will admit of all of these possibilities). It seems to me that what your correspondent is doing is comparing English translations of the OT / NT respectively. That is a questionable practice for most serious Bible study, but is clearly a complete waste of time when the argument hangs entirely upon what the original languages say and precisely how they say it! But if the point is that there seem to be some differences between how one would translate a Hebrew verse and a Greek NT quotation of the verse, that is an issue one finds in every single NT quotation. To return to Psalm 97:7 / Hebrews 1:6, if I may engage in a little speculation about your correspondent's motivations, it may be that he objects to the word "angels" in the Greek where the Hebrew has "gods". This is a fairly common translation issue where "spirits", "messengers/angels" (mala'ach / angelos in Greek and Hebrew respectively)", and "gods" (lit., "mighty ones") are used somewhat interchangeably. As this is an issue that any translator would have to confront – even your correspondent, and even if he were merely trying to render an OT verse or an NT quote of the Old Testament in any NT book, it really doesn't serve much of a useful purpose to analyze these passages in the absence of a very clear definition of what he means by "misquoting". For all of the citations in Hebrews fall within the canons of quotation of OT verses in the NT as established in all of the other NT books. For it is important to note that none of the examples given above demonstrate anything that any reasonable person could call a “mistake” or even a “mistranslation”. So I would say that the burden of proof falls upon your correspondent to say 1) what is so different in principle about what is being done in Hebrews that it should be grounds for disqualifying its canonicity (but not that of the other NT books), and 2) how specifically that principle (whatever it is) is manifest in whatever verses he finds offensive. Otherwise, I feel I am engaging a "shifting paradigm" scenario like this, something that is never particularly profitable to spend much time on. For as soon as the person is pinned down, the ground of argumentation inevitably changes and one has to start anew.

I am happy to go into the details of any of these passages if you have specific questions.

In our Lord.

Bob L.

Question #4: 

I noticed that the quotes says something to the effect that Hebrews was influenced by Gnosticism, like some of the gnostic gospels that came out “at about the same time”. I presume it means, "the same time as Hebrews came out." Here is what he says:

"Ok here is the reasons I feel the Book of Hebrews is suspect:
A. There is no known author or more likely authors
B. There is no source
C. It is highly probable that it is the work of two
writers working together.
D. The thinking of the writers is highly esoteric
(Hellenistic/Gnostic), particularly in the view of
history as merely allegorical shadows of the then
present reality. Other writings of the times from the
same time period do the same, such as the "Gospel of
Thomas", "Gnostic Gospels"etc. expresses the same type
of views.
E. The first and Second chps of Hebrews are full of
misquotes, and are often used to argue against the
diety of Y'shua.
F. The assumption that the "New Covenant" (Jer 31:31)
was in the process of becoming a then present reality.
The premise doesn't hold up, as every single Tanakah
passage which addresses the New Covenant says it comes
after a return to the land by both Judah and Ephraim,
(those 10 tribes (Nothern Kingdom) dispersed amongst
the Gentile nations for their idoltary and refusal to
G. "Hebrews also has other factual recitations as
well. The ritual being referred to in Hebrews 9 is
that of the Red Heifer, which was instituted in
Numbers 19. The timing indicated though is much
earlier, the verification of the Convenant of Exdous
24:5-8. The blood was in actuality from bulls (male
cows), not heifers (female cows); no goats were ever
mentioned neither was the use of any water, scarlet
wool, or hyssop; and the book was not sprinkled, only
the people and the altar. The writer is confusing it
with a later ritaul. Likewise the story of Moses'
departure from Egypt need only be crossed-checked with
Exodous to see the factual inaccuracies. Moses never
rejected his adopted mother, nor suffered with the
people prior to leaving Egypt, and the entire reason
he did leave was fear of Pharaoh's discovery of the
murder he committed".

As for the misquotes, I checked, and some of them do appear to be paraphrases, or maybe it's the difference between quoting from the LXX and the original Hebrew text. But that doesn't make it qualify as a "misquote", if you ask me, since the meaning is the same.

I don't know about the rest--the different sacrifices and such, if there is error there. Or that it was
penned by two authors, not one.

As far as I can tell, the main thing that was against the early church accepting Hebrews was the unknown author, NOT its contents. Both of our commentaries (one by Lenski, btw), say that the contents are elegantly written and extremely powerful and Christ-centered. The key word is "better." How much better the old covenant is than the new one; how much Better is Jesus Christ and HIS sacrifice than the sacrificial system in the OT.

Response #4:

I think your take is exactly right. Some of the claims here are so far removed from any factual reality that one wonders what good it might do to point out the same. I mean, if your focus is grace not Law, how is it that you want to go back to the Law for dietary issues when the NT is filled with direct refutations of that point of view (cf. Rom.14; Col.2:20-23, etc.)?

As to his list, what does "there is no source" even mean (B)? We do have a plethora of texts of the Bible which include Hebrews (i.e., it is much better “sourced” than most works of classical antiquity which are seldom questioned on this basis). Or what does he mean by "highly probable" – in whose estimation of probability and on what evidentiary basis (C)? I see absolutely no evidence of this. In fact, the style of Hebrews is completely consistent throughout (as anyone reading it at least a few times in the Greek would see). You are certainly correct about there being absolutely no gnostic elements in Hebrews (D), and your correspondent doesn't even identify what he might mean by that. If anything, Hebrews shares important similarities with Ephesians and Colossians, books which are well known for the decidedly anti-gnostic content.

Hebrews 1-2 are specifically written to demonstrate the deity of Christ, so I find it difficult to think that your correspondent means anything other by point E than that he has issues with the divinity of Christ. I certainly rejoice in the fact there is a remnant of true Jewish believers, but all who truly believe by definition accept completely and without reservation both the humanity and the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. As to the contention that the New Covenant is yet future, Jesus' words about the New Covenant in His blood (Lk.22:20) certainly trump any esoteric understanding by this person of what he thinks that Hebrews might be saying about the New versus the Old (see the link: “Covenants”). In reality, the restoration of Israel to which we all look forward could not take place without the cross – that is the basis of the fulfillment of all of God's promises, the essence of what covenants are after all. So as far as I can tell here, any "assumption" is on the part of this correspondent alone (F). The fact that people misuse scripture is not a point against scripture but against the people who misuse it (that is a point that all contemporary Christians must understand well). And what in the world is meant to be understood by a "factual recitation" (G) – this point is filled with very scary, incoherent rambling. As to the authorship of Hebrews (A), I think there is good reason to suppose that Paul is the author and that the anonymity with which he wrote was both deliberate and entirely understandable, given the extreme hostility toward him in Judea at the time of writing.

See the link:

          The Author of Hebrews and Jesus' Completion of His Course

Anyway, as I say, I think you have got it exactly right.

In our Lord,

Bob L.

Ichthys Home