Jeopardy got it wrong!
Last night, on Jeopardy’s “Tournament of Champions,” the Final Jeopardy category was “New Testament.” As a student of the Bible and an ordained pastor whose work revolves around this collection of writings, I would have bet everything on this last clue. But I would have lost everything…because the “correct” answer is, in reality, incorrect.
Here’s the clue: “Paul’s letter to them is the New Testament epistle with the most Old Testament quotations.”
The answer that was deemed to be correct: “The Hebrews.”
This is understandable, but it is incorrect, specifically because Paul did not write the letter to the Hebrews. That’s the overwhelming consensus of biblical scholars. Yes, Hebrews contains the most Old Testament quotations of all the epistles (letters) in the New Testament. But Paul didn’t write that letter.
How do we know?
Three main reasons:
First, the letter to the Hebrews is anonymous. Usually, when Paul wrote a letter, he put his name on it, often at the beginning and the end of the letter. This was common practice for people who wrote letters in the first century – the equivalent of putting your name and address in the upper-left-hand corner of an envelope when you send a letter in the US mail. Check it out for yourself: find the very first word of Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. In every instance, each one starts with the word “Paul,” the author of these letters. (There is scholarly debate about Pauline authorship of, for instance, Ephesians and Colossians, but that’s another story.) But Hebrews has no authorship designation, no introductory material at all. Hebrews jumps right into some heavy content: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…”
Second, the content of Hebrews is quite different from Paul’s writings. The perspective of Hebrews is substantially different from Paul’s letters. Hebrews is a deep, complex theological treatise. It does not address moral and ethical situations like Paul often does. Hebrews uses language differently than Paul does. Hebrews is concerned with different topics than Paul is. Besides, Paul considered himself to be an “apostle to the Gentiles” – so why would he write a long letter to Jewish folks? Paul’s letters are almost always addressed to Gentile churches or to people who worked with them.
Third, the order of the New Testament letters is significant. The New Testament was assembled through a lengthy process over many years in the fourth century. What emerged from this process is, more or less, the New Testament that we have in our Bibles today. The structure of the New Testament is deliberate:
- The Gospels are first: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
- A book of history is next: Acts.
- Then we have Paul’s letters: Romans through Philemon (see the list above), arranged in descending order of length.
- Then we find the other letters: Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, arranged in descending order of length.
- Finally we arrive at Revelation, which is unique among the books of the New Testament.
The 27 books of the New Testament have stood in this order for centuries. Long, long ago, Hebrews was considered to be one of Paul’s letters, but students of the New Testament gradually came to understand that Hebrews was not written by Paul. Otherwise, they would have included it in the block of Paul’s letters. Instead, Hebrews is the longest of the letters that were not written by Paul. That’s why it appears after Philemon, the shortest of Paul’s letters. (For more information, read this summary about the authorship of Hebrews.)
But what about King James?
Yes, I know, the King James Version of the Bible gives the full title of Hebrews as “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.” And many people, especially today’s older adults, grew up with the King James Bible as their primary (or only) Bible. Even today, some Christian groups are “KJV Only,” meaning they reject any other English translation in favor of the King James.
However, remember that the King James Bible was created in 1611, long after the New Testament was finalized. (The KJV has several serious textual problems and translation mistakes, but that’s another story as well.) Remember also that the titles of books of the Bible are not divinely inspired. Neither are chapter and verse numbers, section headings, footnotes, or any other study aid. These devices have all been added to the biblical text as an aid to readers.
But just because the KJV says Paul wrote Hebrews doesn’t make it true. (The same principle holds for the five “Books of Moses,” the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Once again, that’s another story.)
Why does this matter?
I am a Christian, a follower of Jesus, and the sacred text that guides my spiritual life is the Christian Bible. I need to be familiar with this book, to study this book, to understand how this book is constructed, to recognize what this book teaches. I need to put into practice all the literary principles that I learned in grade school, college, and seminary. This includes considering authorship, context, language choice, genre, character development, and many other characteristics of literature. I don’t just assume that Paul wrote Hebrews because someone taught that to me once, or because I read those literal words in a certain translation of the Bible.
If I am locked into a literal reading of the phrase “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews,” then I might be locked into a literal reading of, say, Mark 16:18, where Jesus himself says that his followers “will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all.”
I need to take this book seriously, to handle it carefully, to know it deeply. I need to be open to this text, to exploring this text, to accepting facts about this text that might seem counterintuitive to me.
Perhaps the same is true for you, too.
So who wrote Hebrews?
What should have been the correct Final Jeopardy answer?