Abstract: Why Care Whether Paul Wrote Hebrews

Kim McCall

prepared for delivery at
Sunstone Symposium
Salt Lake City, Utah
August, 1996

In lieu of a real abstract, here (stripped of footnotes) are the two introductory paragraphs from the paper

Among the 27 books of the New Testament is one that the King James translators labeled "The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews." But for at least its first 300 years in circulation, the actual authorship of this "epistle" had been very much in doubt. Again in the modern era, at least since Erasmus re-encountered the original letter in his compilation of a Greek version of the New Testament, the question has been raised again. To spill a few beans early, it is no exaggeration to say that virtually no current scholar of any repute believes that "Paul the Apostle" wrote this remarkable homily. Nevertheless within Mormon circles the Pauline authorship has been stoutly defended. The Church Educational System's Reading Guide allows that "the question of authorship . . . has puzzled many persons," but, citing arguments from Elder Bruce McConkie, concludes with his emphatic claim that "Paul did write Hebrews, and to those who accept Joseph Smith as an inspired witness of truth, the matter is at rest." The Gospel Doctrine Teacher's Manual simply assumes Pauline authorship without discussion.

Well, does it actually matter who wrote this book? Why even care? Let's consider this question: "Why care?" It can be taken in either of two ways. First, it could be intended rhetorically, meaning something like "Surely this isn't worth worrying about." And at some level this must be granted to be true. The epistle has exerted its profound, even seminal, impact on our understanding of Christ regardless of who wrote it, why, or to whom. Its truths are utterly independent of its author's identity or status. With some exaggeration, one probably frustrated commentator claimed that the efforts to determine who actually wrote the epistle "have no greater interest than a parlour-game." While that may be going a bit far, we should gladly admit the independence of both the truth and the historical importance of the epistle from its authorship. Granting this, we can then consider a second meaning of "why care?". Clearly, at least within official and quasi-official Mormon circles, many people do care. And, on a moment's reflection, I realize that I care. So, the question is: why? When we care, it is usually because we sense that something is "at stake." The main concern of this paper, then, will be to try to understand and explore what might be at stake for Mormons either in believing or in doubting that Paul wrote Hebrews.