Saturday, August 12, 2023

Authorship of Hebrews: What does Hebrews 2:3 mean?

“How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard” (Hebrews 2:3, ESV).

This verse is commonly cited as a reason to doubt Paul’s authorship of Hebrews. I would say this is probably the most formidable objection to Paul’s authorship, so it’s worth responding to. In truth, I responded to this argument years ago on the blog, but I found myself thinking about it again today, and formulating a different approach to it.

As I see it, the author of Hebrews basically distinguishes two different categories of people in Hebrews 2:3, which could be described as follows:

Category 1: Those who heard the great salvation declared at first by the Lord.
Category 2: Those who did not hear the great salvation declared at first by the Lord.

And the author clearly places himself in category 2.

Doubters of Paul’s authorship often assume category 1 is equivalent to apostleship; and therefore, since the author places himself in category 2, this means the author is not an apostle, and therefore not Paul. But I believe this is too much of a leap. It’s unnecessary to insert the concept of apostleship into the passage, when we can simply interpret the author based on his own words.

Many would still argue (fairly) that Paul would have placed himself in category 1, since he heard from the Lord Jesus directly at his conversion on the Damascus Road. Yet the author does not describe category 1 as “those who heard the message from the Lord,” but as “those who heard the message from the Lord at first.” The phrase “at first” seems important to me. It could also be translated “at the beginning.” I believe it’s reasonable to view category 1 as a reference to the original disciples; in other words, those who were the first to encounter Jesus and sit under the original proclamation of the gospel during his earthly ministry.

And Paul was not part of that original group, but was accepted and approved by them at a later time (Gal. 2:9). Paul himself recognized that his apostleship was an odd case. He was not among those who “at first” heard the message, but rather the Lord appeared to him “last of all, as to one untimely born” (1 Corinthians 15:8).

So it doesn’t at all seem a stretch to me that Paul would have placed himself in category 2, which would nullify this objection to Paul’s authorship of Hebrews.

Other posts I've written related to this topic:

In Truth, God Knows
Against a Pauline Hebrews
Highly Precarious

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