Author Greg Koukl
Published on 09/04/2023

Why Include Hebrews in the Bible if We Don’t Know the Author?

Greg and Amy discuss possible reasons why the early church fathers included Hebrews in the New Testament even though it does not appear to have been written by an apostle.


Question: My understanding is apostolic authority was an important aspect in determining whether a book was to be considered Scripture. This makes sense, but I am wrestling with understanding how Hebrews would be included if the authorship is in question.

Greg: That’s a fair question. The whole process of a canonization wasn’t the result of a bunch of Christians getting together in a council who had, on their own authority, identified which books were in the Bible. This is kind of the Roman Catholic view that we wrote the Bible so we get to decide which books were in the Bible, and we get to decide what the Bible means. There was no Roman Catholic Church during that time. There were just a lot of churches. Christian populated areas had representatives that went to the Council of Nicaea in Rome. So, you didn’t have this group of people who said this is the text. What you had is—for lack of a better word—a progressive understanding of what was the text given by God—very similar to what you had with the Jews. The Jews had a text. They were a body of people that were God’s people that recognized the authoritative text as a body.

So, what you have, then, in the New Testament is that the church understood that the apostles spoke with authority. They were trained by Jesus, and so they spoke with authority, and if a book had a clear apostolic authority to it—either an apostle wrote it like John did or Paul, or it was written in close association with an apostle, like Mark’s Gospel was with Peter—the church just simply knew and acknowledged, well, this is Scripture. You have a few exceptions to that general rule, and one of them is Hebrews because there wasn’t a clear authorship there. It’s clear it’s not Paul because of the wording. Nevertheless, this was one of the books that the early church had a fairly unified sense that this was authoritative, that this was from God.

Now, there are other books like the The Shepherd of Hermas that had value for the Christians of that time to be read for their spiritual nourishment, but they didn’t have the authority of Scripture like the rest did, and there was some discussion back and forth, so there was some debate, but little by little, the church settled in on a group of Scriptures, and this can be identified by the writings of the early church fathers—the kinds of the books they quote from as authoritative and from God, whether it’s Irenaeus or Tertullian. J. Warner Wallace, in his book Cold-Case Christianity, does a great job of charting this all out.

So, the understanding of the authority of the corpus of inspired works is being solidified in the first couple centuries, and, it turns out, the book of Hebrews is included in that. And if you read the book of Hebrews, you can see why, because it’s a very profound and insightful assessment and analysis of the Mosaic Law in light of what Jesus did on the cross. Hebrews is declaring, in no uncertain terms, that the Old Testament sacrificial system is no longer in operation and no longer efficacious to forgive sins, or to cover sins, more specifically, and that Jesus is now the one and perfect sacrifice. If you continue in the old system, you’re not forgiven. Only Jesus forgives sins, for the reasons that the writer describes. And so, when you read through this book, you see there’s this self-presenting element of the authority that’s there, and this is what the early Christians saw.

When I talk about why people should believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, I can give reasons. But, it turns out, they’re not the reasons I believe the Bible is inspired and not the reasons that most people believe the Bible is inspired. It’s because of the self-presenting element there that the Holy Spirit is convincing our heart of the authority of Scripture. I’m not talking about “burning in the bosom.” I’m talking about something different—not something we seek and we’re praying, “God give me a feeling so I know that this is your book.” That’s what the Mormons do. No. You read. You don’t have to ask for a feeling. You read it. You engage it. And you come to the conviction that this is God speaking here. And that work of the Holy Spirit in an individual Christian’s life testifying to the authority of Scripture is something like what happened in the assembly of the canon.

Now, the assembly of canon was more organized, obviously. It wasn’t just a completely subjective thing. It was based on apostolic authority, largely, but that wasn’t the only factor, and there were books the apostles wrote—I’m thinking of one in particular, a letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians—that we don’t have. Why don’t we have them? Because God didn’t deem it appropriate to save them for the canon. So, just because an apostle wrote it doesn’t mean that it was going to be received as canon, but the ones that we have are the ones that the Holy Spirit superintended.

There are objective guidelines, but they’re not completely objective. There’s this somewhat subjective element, as well, but it’s not on an individual Christian basis. It’s the testimony of the whole church.

Amy: And it could be the early church actually did know for sure who had written Hebrews. There are some who argue that [Paul] did write it through a scribe, because he did that often, so there could be slight differences. And I think the argument, also, is that they gathered Hebrews with Paul’s letters in the organization of the canon. So, it’s possible Paul wrote Hebrews. There are a lot of different ideas about who wrote it. But it’s possible, also, the early church knew who wrote it, and so they were also basing it on that.

Greg: F.F. Bruce wrote a book called The Canon of Scripture. There’s been other books that have been written—quite a few since then—to try to explain the process. Our friend Michael Kruger, I think, has done some work on that. The work is out there. But I was just, kind of, giving an overview of the whole process, here. The Holy Spirit superintended the process. It wasn’t some group that had independent authority themselves that said, “Okay, here’s the right books.” It just didn’t work out that way.