“But one came and told them: Behold, the men whom you put in prison are in the Temple, standing and teaching the people. Then went the officer with the ministers and brought them without violence: for they feared the people, lest they should be stoned. And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest addressed them, saying: Commanding, we commanded you that you should not teach in this name. And behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine: and you have a mind to bring the blood of this man upon us. But Peter and the Apostles answering, said: We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our Fathers has raised up Jesus, whom you put to death, hanging Him upon a tree. Him has God exalted with His right hand, to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and remission of sin. And we are witnesses of these things: and the Holy Ghost, whom God has given to all who obey Him. When they had heard these things, they were cut to the heart: and they thought to put them to death.
“But one in the council rising up, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the Law, respected by all the people, commanded the men to be put forth a little while. And he said to them: Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do with these men. For before these days rose up Theodas, affirming himself to be somebody, to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves. Who was slain: and all who believed him were scattered and brought to nothing. After this man, rose up Judas of Galilee, in the days of the enrolling, and drew away the people after him. He also perished: and all, even as many as consented to him, were dispersed. And now, therefore, I say to you: Refrain from these men and leave them alone. For if this council or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it, lest you be found even to fight against God. And they consented to him.” (Acts 5:25-39)
What would lead a respected member of the Sanhedrin to save the lives of the Apostles? To answer this question we must go back to the formation of two great schools of Judaism that would shape the thoughts and attitudes of nearly every person in Israel. In doing so, we will see a divergence in the teaching of the masters of these schools that will help to explain why some devout Jews, with the help of God’s grace, recognized Christ as the Messiah, while others rejected Him as an imposter and sought His death.
In 30 B.C., the Rabbis Hillel and Shammai were the two greatest teachers of the Law in Jerusalem. Though both were Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin, they were very different from one another in their understanding and practice of the Jewish faith. The Mosaic Law consisted of 613 precepts which governed in detail nearly every aspect of daily life. Whereas Shammai fanatically held to the letter of the Law, Hillel was more practical in his approach. The Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes the conflict:
The differences between the two schools had regard chiefly to the first, second, third, and fifth parts of the Mishnah (Jewish oral Tradition)–i.e. to religious dues, the keeping of the Sabbath and Holy Days, and the laws in regard to marriage and purification. The law, for example, to prepare no food on the Sabbath had to be observed by not allowing even the beast to toil; hence it was argued by Shammai that an egg laid on the Sabbath must not be eaten (Eduyoth, iv, 1). Another debate was whether, on a Holy Day, a ladder might be borne from one dove-cote to another or should only be glided from hole to hole. In these and other discussions much pain was taken to push the Mosaic Law to an unbearable extreme, and no heed was given to the practical reform which was really needed in Jewish morals. It was the method of the school of Shammai rather than that of Hillel that Christ would condemn.1
Rather than focusing on strict interpretation, Hillel was much more concerned about observing the spirit of the Law given to the Children of Israel by God. In this way he served as an instrument of Heaven. Though he did not realize it, this was the first step in preparing the way of the Lord spoken of by Isaiah and embodied more forcefully by John the Baptist. In fact, two of Hillel’s relatives would play modest, but important, roles in the beginnings of the Christian Faith–one as a witness to the divinity of its Founder, the other as the teacher of its greatest Apostle.
In the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel, the Evangelist describes the birth of our Lord and the events that followed. When speaking of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Luke introduces us to a man named Simeon, who is believed by some Church Fathers to be the son of the Rabbi Hillel.2 What ensues is a foreshadowing of the Transfiguration and the first public declaration of Christ as the Messiah to be made in Jerusalem. Just as Moses and Elijah (representing the Law and the Prophets of the Old Covenant) would give witness to the divinity of Jesus upon Mt. Tabor, so too Simeon, who is both a Rabbi of the Law and a prophet, recognizes Christ as the Anointed One on the Temple Mount. He delivers one of the most beautiful and powerful discourses to be found in Sacred Scripture, and eloquently reveals our Lord to be the fulfillment of Salvation History:
“Now dost thou dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace. Because my eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples: a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.” And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel and for a sign which shall be contradicted. And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that out of many hearts thoughts shall be revealed.” (Lk. 2:29-32, 34-35)
Only through God’s grace was Simeon able to make such a statement. But it was the holy and balanced system of observing the Old Law established by Hillel that enabled him to see beyond the legalisms of the Deuteronomic Code and become a worthy vessel of election. Moreover, Simeon instilled this same view of God and the Law in his own son, Gamaliel, who would perfect it and bring it even closer to the teaching of Christ. This would be important in the formation of one of Gamaliel’s students in Jerusalem–a bright and zealous young Jew from Cilicia named Saul.
Tarsus, in Cilicia, was a city of the Diaspora and home to a large number of Jewish citizens. It was here that the Apostle of the Gentiles was born to a family of Hellenized Jews in either 7 or 8 A.D. His parents were descendants of the Tribe of Benjamin and were attached by way of religious practice to the Pharisee sect.3 Because of the Greek influence on their faith, the young boy’s parents gave him two names; Saul (Hebrew) and Paul (Greek). Though Tarsus at this time was considered to be a great center of learning behind only Athens and Alexandria, the Jewish citizens of the city did not send their sons to the secular pagan schools. Instead, Saul would have been instructed in his early years in what the Jews affectionately referred to as “the Sacred Grove” or “the Vineyard,” a local school considered so necessary that without it they believed a city would be doomed to destruction.4 At the age of five he was to be introduced to the reading of the Torah (the Law), at ten years of age he would be taught the Mishnah (the oral Tradition), and at fifteen he was to learn the Gemara (commentaries on the Mishnah which, along with it, compose the Talmud).5 It was at this point that Saul’s father made the decision to send his son to Jerusalem to study under one of the great masters of the Law who had established their schools in the Holy City. In God’s providence, Saul was enrolled in the School of Gamaliel. It was a decision that would have far-reaching implications in preparing him for his work as an Apostle of Christ.
Like Hillel and Simeon, Gamaliel had a much more spiritual approach to Judaism than did the followers of Shammai, whose rigorist views still held sway with the Sadducees. His teaching was full of hope, and he sought to lift the hearts of the faithful to God while still remaining true to the Old Covenant. He saw little value in dwelling upon the minutiae of the Mosaic Law or engaging in protracted disputes over its observance. Instead, he provided his students with instruction that would later prove to be remarkably suited to Christianity. Rather than fighting the Romans with swords, Gamaliel taught his students to concentrate on extending the Kingdom of God over the whole earth.6 He also taught that the Gentiles were worthy of being treated with caring and respect, especially those who were in the greatest physical or spiritual need. When it came to matters of faith, he expressed a desire for the emergence of an infallible authority who would end all disputes–a perfect description of Christ and His Church.7 The young Saul would spend at least seven years studying at the feet of this sage, whose orthodoxy, despite his unique views, was so recognized that he was the first Doctor of the Law to be given the title of Rabban (“our master”).8 One of Paul’s biographers deftly summarizes the impact that this man had in molding the future Apostle:
It could scarcely be denied that Rabban Gamaliel had a deeply religious soul and sound conscience....Such a man must have had a profound influence on a liberal mind such as Saul’s. A doctrinal influence, first of all, for the Pharisees believed in the immortality of the soul, providence, free will, the resurrection of the dead, the judgment of the just and the unjust; still more, an influence of spiritual enthusiasm and orientation in life, for with them religion was the end and means of everything, faith was the very pith of existence, and nothing that happened escaped the eye of God. Saul the Pharisee was never to forget these lessons.9
By the time Saul left the School of Gamaliel in 30 A.D., he was a master of the Law in his own right. He was a devoted Pharisee who was steeped in the traditions, history, and doctrine of his people, and he returned to Tarsus full of zeal for the glory of God. It is a great paradox, then, that after being taught by the broad-minded Rabban for so long, Saul had become very hard and inflexible in his beliefs. He was at this stage an uncompromising Scribe who was in some ways reminiscent of Shammai in his approach to the Law–and he was prepared to crush anyone who did not share his point of view.10 This, of course, manifested itself most clearly in his approval of the execution of St. Stephen and in his active persecution of all Christians following his return to Jerusalem in 34 A.D.
As if by divine providence, Saul had left Israel just as our Lord was beginning His public ministry. He had never seen Jesus and was not present during His trial or Crucifixion. But from his home in Asia Minor Saul had heard that the radical new sect established by this Rabbi was growing in popularity and drawing converts from among his fellow Pharisees. He returned to Jerusalem breathing fire and was determined to do everything in his power to snuff out what he considered to be a great heresy. When standing before Herod Agrippa years later, Paul recounted his persecution of the first Christians:
And I indeed did formerly think that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth, which also I did at Jerusalem. And many of the Saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority of the chief priests. And when they were put to death, I brought the sentence. And oftentimes punishing them, in every synagogue, I compelled them to blaspheme: and being yet more mad against them, I persecuted them even unto foreign cities. (Acts 26:9-11)
It was on such a trip to Damascus to arrest Christians that Saul’s life took a dramatic turn. Gamaliel had warned against this course of action and was opposed to the persecution of Christians. In his mind, the God of Israel was a God of mercy and everything should be placed in His hands.11 But Saul disregarded the counsel of his teacher and set out for Syria to hunt the enemies of Judaism. It would now take the intervention of the Supreme Master and Lawgiver to redirect the ardor of this zealous Scribe. With a great flash of light and some words from Jesus that cut straight to his heart, Saul was changed forever. Suddenly, the fog that had clouded his mind for so long was lifted and Saul could see the error of his ways. Another of his biographers paints a vivid picture of the conviction and wonderment experienced by Christ’s most recent conquest:
His Pharisaism had misled him. Gamaliel’s warning had pointed to the inner truth–the disease of sin needed a healer. The words and demeanor of Stephen were not merely those of Stephen; through him and in him was a mystery. Stephen, and all those men and women whom Saul had arrested and cruelly thrashed in Jerusalem, and whom he planned to bring bound from Damascus, all these were actually Jesus. They had the same air, the same atmosphere, the same Spirit as the Master who had subdued him. And Jesus was alive–in them, through them, and beyond them. Here was the reality of the Messiah, the Christos on whom Saul had meditated for so long: the Judge, the Man of Power, who was the Master of the world. Here He was at last, beyond all question, and more mysterious than any had ever dreamed.12
Over the next three years Paul (as he would now refer to himself) received the complete deposit of faith that had been revealed by Christ to the Apostles. Jesus appeared to him in ecstasies and gave him the doctrinal knowledge that would be required to evangelize both Gentile and Jew. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul also mentions a vision in which he may have been shown the very essence of God, for he says that he was “caught up to the third heaven...and heard secret words which it is not granted to man to utter” (II Cor. 12:2, 4). St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas both believe that Paul, like Moses upon Mt. Sinai, was temporarily given the Beatific Vision; “and not without reason,” says the Angelic Doctor, “since as Moses was the first teacher of the Jews, so Paul was the first teacher of the Gentiles.”13 Whatever Paul was shown in this ecstasy, it is clear that Christ revealed Himself to the Apostle in a very intimate way in order to prepare him for the work and suffering that lay ahead.
Now, armed with this knowledge of the Almighty, Paul began his labors as a slave of Heaven. In addition to the doctrine he had received from our Lord, Paul would also employ much of the wisdom that had been imparted to him by Gamaliel during his youth. As mentioned previously, Gamaliel had been the first of the great teachers of the Law to indicate that the Gentiles also had a place within the Kingdom of Heaven. Though the mission to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles was given to Paul by Christ, he would always exhibit the mind of Gamaliel in the generosity that he displayed toward them and in the way he fought for their prerogatives against Jewish converts to the faith who often opposed them. After the great debate at the Council of Jerusalem over what would be required of Gentile converts, it was agreed among the Princes of the Church that for the time being Paul would concentrate upon evangelizing the pagans, while some of the others (Peter, James the Lesser, and John in particular) would focus much of their effort upon the Children of Israel both in the Holy Land and the Diaspora (Gal. 2:1-10, Acts 15:1-30). This was not an exclusive arrangement, as Paul’s battles with the Jews in Thessalonica and his Letter to the Hebrews both attest. It is in the latter especially that much of what was poured into him during his school years in Jerusalem surged to the forefront.
The broad-minded interpretation of Jewish doctrine originally rejected by Paul was now embraced by him and used to confirm his fellow Jews in Christ. In this also, he displayed the mind of his teacher. Some Church Fathers, such as St. John Chrysostom, have seen Gamaliel as a man who was patiently awaiting the Kingdom of God and who realized that the Mosaic Law was not the final word, but a means to an end. This allowed him to espouse ideas that were rejected by the Sadducees, but showed Christianity to be the logical outgrowth of Pharisaic Judaism.14
This overarching philosophy that was instilled in Paul by his old mentor forms the basis of his Epistle to the Hebrews. In it, he does not discredit Judaism but shows it to be the precursor of the Christian faith. His comparison of the imperfect Temple sacrifices with the perfect Sacrifice of Christ (chs. 9-10), the Levitical priesthood with the Eternal Priesthood of Christ (chs. 7-8), and his exhortation on Christ’s superiority over the Angels and Moses (chs. 1-3) are all intended to reveal that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, and that He and the New Covenant established in His blood are the fulfillment of everything that was spoken of in the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament.
Likewise, an echo of Gamaliel can be heard in Paul’s teaching on the doctrine of justification. Gamaliel’s rejection of the pointless minutiae of the Mosaic Law and his emphasis upon moral reform bore tremendous fruit in the heart and mind of his star pupil. In his letters to the Romans (chs. 3-4) and the Galatians (chs. 2-4) Paul speaks of the necessity of faith over the works of the Law. This should not be interpreted, as was done by Martin Luther, to mean that faith alone is required for salvation. When Paul declares that we are justified by faith and not works, he is condemning the teaching of those Pharisees from the School of Shammai who taught that strict adherence to the Mosaic Law was all that was needed to obtain Heaven. Like Gamaliel, Paul teaches the importance of placing our trust in God and living in accordance with the spirit of His Commandments. He refers to this as a “circumcision of the heart,” one of the spirit rather than the letter (Romans 2:29).
Such a view of religion will manifest itself in works of charity–in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy spoken of by St. James in the second chapter of his epistle when he states that “faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:14-26). That this is so is confirmed by Christ in His discourse to the Apostles on the Final Judgment (Mt. 25:31-46): only those who alleviate the sufferings of the least of their brethren will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; those who do not, even though they have faith, will be condemned to eternal punishment. Thus, we are justified by both faith and works; and there is no contradiction between the teaching of St. Paul and that of St. James, no matter how desperately various Protestant commentators may wish to create one.
Finally, beyond the philosophical and moral preparation given to Paul by Gamaliel, other commentators have seen in the Apostle’s manner of expression the influence of his teacher. In the School of Gamaliel the Rabban would often combine the written word, oral Tradition, and right reason to craft his argument on any particular topic. Gamaliel was also not afraid to go beyond the literal meaning of Scripture. Fr. Constant Fouard describes this teaching method which was adopted by Paul and by the Catholic Church as a whole:
The Judaic education (Paul) received from Gamaliel was like a mold from which the Apostle’s thought received from the outset that form which it kept ever after, and is especially to be noted in his Epistles....His method is the same as the Talmud has preserved for us–the method of the Jewish Schools–where the lesson consisted in a long conversation between the master and his disciples. The interrogative and colloquial forms, so frequent in the Apostle’s letters, his persevering effort to base his argument upon the Jewish Traditions or the mystical meaning of Scripture; what is all this but the vestiges of an earlier education, a reminiscence of Gamaliel?15
From this brief overview we can see that Gamaliel was cut from a different cloth than many of his peers within the Sanhedrin. But what became of this Pharisee who exhibited such leanings toward Christianity? Many Jewish historians claim that he remained a devoted teacher of the Mosaic Law for the rest of his life. They cite a passage added to the Mishnah several years after his death which declares, “Since Gamaliel disappeared the honor of the Law is no more; with him died purity and piety.”16 However, Christian tradition states that Gamaliel converted to the Catholic Faith and remained a member of the Sanhedrin in order to aid his fellow Christians in Jerusalem.17 The historian Photius writes that the Rabban, his son Abibo, and Nicodemus were baptized by St. Peter and St. John,18 and indeed all three of them are listed in the Roman Martyrology for August 3rd as saints of the Church.
Which opinion is correct?
A difficult question that can be posed by critics of the Catholic position is as follows: If Gamaliel accepted the teaching of Christ and wielded enough influence within the Sanhedrin to possibly save His life, where was he during our Lord’s trial? One would expect to see Gamaliel rising up in the Council to do battle against the Sadducees if he truly believed that Jesus was the Messiah. But the biblical record is silent. One possible explanation is that, like Saul, Gamaliel did not convert to Christianity until after the Resurrection of our Lord. A more plausible explanation is that the opportunity to intervene was denied to him by the enemies of Christ. We know from history that Annas, Caiaphas, and the rest of the Sadducees decided to hold an illegal hearing in the middle of the night and that they did everything in their power to secure a conviction. Therefore, it is within the realm of possibility that only like-minded members of the Sanhedrin were informed of these proceedings and that those who would object to the trial were not summoned.
Perhaps the best explanation is to say in all simplicity that neither Gamaliel nor any other man would be allowed by God to mount a successful defense. Jesus had come into this world to die for our redemption. Had Gamaliel spoken out on His behalf, His passion and death may have been indefinitely postponed or avoided altogether; but by the most holy will of the Father, our Lord was to be immolated for the sins of mankind during the Passover. Christ would offer Himself in sacrifice upon the Cross, the veil of the Temple would be torn in two, and the Old Covenant would come to an end. Nothing would prevent God’s greatest act of love from being consummated.
Is Gamaliel then truly a Saint of the Catholic Church? While his acceptance of Christ as the Messiah is difficult to prove with absolute certainty, a good case can be made for his conversion. His understanding of the Mosaic Law as a precursor of the definitive covenant to be established between God and man suggests an openness to the possibility that Judaism as he knew it would cease to be practiced. Moreover, his belief that the Gentiles had a specific place within the Kingdom of God shows that he viewed the New Covenant as something that would extend beyond the borders of Israel and include men of all nations. Thirdly, his formation of St. Paul, his desire for an infallible religious authority, and his courageous defense of the Apostles before the Sanhedrin all have the marks of predestination. Lastly, though there is scant documentary evidence of his conversion and canonization, his inclusion in the Roman Martyrology and the attitude displayed toward him by some Church Fathers is persuasive.
Despite the mystery that surrounds his life, it is clear that Gamaliel was a man whose heart belonged to God. The Holy Ghost beckoned him through the words of the prophets and prompted him to seek the Messiah who would make all things new (Is. 65:17, Ezk. 11:19). One can only wonder what Gamaliel felt when he beheld Jesus for the first time and heard the voice of the One who had created him. Christ had said to his disciples, “I am the Good Shepherd; I know Mine, and Mine know Me” (Jn. 10:14). While many of the reprobate among the Jews and the Romans mocked Jesus as an imposter as He was lifted high upon the Cross, the predestinate whispered beneath their tears, “My Lord and my God.” I believe Rabban Gamaliel was among their number. St. Gamaliel, pray for us.
1 The Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Co., 1912 [online copyright: K. Knight, 2003 by]), s.v. “Shammai.”
2 Abbé Constant Fouard, Saint Peter and the First Years of Christianity (1892; reprint, Fort Collins, CO: Roman Catholic Books, n.d.), p.35.
3 Ibid., p.101.
4 Ibid., p.105.
5 Rt. Rev. Joseph Holzner, Paul of Tarsus (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1944), pp.17-18.
6 Fouard, First Years of Christianity, p.107.
7 Ibid., p.108.
8 Henri Daniel-Rops, Saint Paul: Apostle of Nations (Chicago: Fides Publishing Assoc., 1953), p.21.
10 Fouard, First Years of Christianity, p.112.
11 Robert Sencourt, Saint Paul: Envoy of Grace (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1948), p.48.
12 Ibid., pp.51-52.
13 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 175, Art. 3 (Benzinger Brothers, 1948), p.1909.
14 Acts of the Apostles, trans. by Joseph F. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1998), p.333.
15 Fouard, First Years of Christianity, p.110.
16 Daniel-Rops, Saint Paul, p.21.
17 The Catholic Encyclopedia, VI, 1.
18 Ibid., p.1.
This second festival in honor of the holy protomartyr St. Stephen (August 3) was instituted by the Church on the occasion of the discovery of his precious remains. His body had long lain concealed under the ruins of an old tomb in Caphargamala, a place 20 miles from Jerusalem, where there was a church served by a venerable priest named Lucian.
In the year 415, on the 3rd of December, the priest was sleeping on his cot in the baptistry, where he habitually retired in order to guard the sacred vessels of the church. Being half awake, he saw a tall, comely old man of venerable aspect, clothed in white and gold, who approached him and called him by his name three times, bidding him to go to Jerusalem and tell Bishop John to come and open the tombs where his remains and those of certain other servants of Christ lay. This act would permit God to open the gates of His clemency to many souls, the visitor affirmed. Lucian asked his name, and he replied, “I am Gamaliel, who instructed St. Paul in the Law.” Gamaliel then said they would also find the tomb of St. Stephen, protomartyr, and of Nicodemus, who came to visit Jesus at night and who, when driven out of Jerusalem by the authorities, had been sheltered by himself in his country residence at the present site. This vision was twice repeated, and on the third visit the priest was reproached for his delay. He was promised that the discovery would cause the current famine to cease.
After the third vision, Lucian went to Jerusalem and laid the whole affair before Bishop John, who directed him to go and search himself for these relics. And Gamaliel appeared again, this time to a holy monk of the same region, to indicate the exact site where the inhabitants of the village should dig. There indeed were found three coffins or chests with the respective names engraved on them; and without opening these, Lucian sent immediately to acquaint Bishop John with the discovery. The bishop was at the Council of Diospolis, and, taking with him the bishops of Sebastis and Jericho, he journeyed to Caphargamala.
Upon the opening of St. Stephen’s coffin the earth trembled, and there came from the coffin an agreeable scent. There was at that moment a vast multitude of people assembled at the burial place, among whom were many persons afflicted with various maladies; 73 recovered their health instantly. They kissed the holy relics, and then the chests were closed again. The bishop left the relics of Gamaliel and Nicodemus for the village, and consented to leave a small portion of St. Stephen’s relics there; then, amid the singing of psalms and hymns, the rest of them were carried to the Church of Sion in Jerusalem. They were later transferred to a magnificent church built in his honor in that city toward the end of the fifth century. The greater part of his relics are presently in Rome.
Alone among the Epistles of the New Testament, the Epistle to the Hebrews is anonymous. The Introduction, in which the author usually discloses his name and titles, is suppressed. The allusion to chains–which might be those of Paul–rests upon a false reading. Some rather vague characteristics, which present certain difficulties, have suggested St. Paul, but may very well suit other writers: “Know ye that our brother Timothy is set at liberty; with whom (if he come shortly) I will see you....The brethren from Italy salute you.” This is the most definite detail; and in these few words there are three ambiguities. Elsewhere the author seems to distinguish himself very clearly from the first generation of Christians and to number himself among those who have received the Gospel at second hand. At least, nothing thus far betrays a distinct personality.
The style completes our bewilderment. Nothing differs more from the language and manner of Paul. I do not speak merely of the choice of words, to which too much importance is often given in questions of authenticity, although the absence of certain expressions and particles which Paul does not seem able to dispense with, and the presence of phrases foreign to his terminology, give us food for thought; I refer to the diction in its broadest sense, images, comparisons, and the way of conceiving and presenting things. We can only subscribe to the verdict of Origen: “The style of the Epistle called that to the Hebrews is of a totally different character from that of the Apostle....The Epistle is written in better Greek, as everyone who is capable of forming a judgement in this matter must admit.” It is sufficient to read the first paragraph, so musical, so well balanced and harmonious, to be convinced that it is not of Paul’s writing. And the sequel does not belie the promises of the beginning. No biblical author, not even excepting St. Luke, writes so purely. There are few Hebraisms, and very few of those irregularities and inaccuracies–anacolutha, hyperbata, sense-constructions–which fairly swarm in the Pauline Epistles. The perfect connection of the ideas in the discourse, the art of natural transitions, the oratorical tone maintained without effort, the mastery of a language which is always copious and rhythmical, distinguish him clearly from Paul. The eloquence of the latter, made up of passion and logic, resembles an impetuous torrent which bursts its dykes, while the Epistle which we are now considering is like a majestic river, the windings of which only afford relief from its monotony.
The Epistle is full of reminiscences and biblical allusions; but its way of quoting and using the Old Testament is very far from Pauline. The Apostle almost always quotes from memory, often combining fragments of texts, while the author of this Epistle copies his manuscript of the Greek Bible word for word and never allows himself to make composite citations. Although he usually follows the Septuagint version, Paul does not fail to have recourse to the original when it is too divergent; the author of this Epistle, on the contrary, nowhere shows any knowledge of the Hebrew, even in cases of remarkable divergence between the two texts. Paul only attributes directly to God the words put by Scripture into the mouth of God; the other calls words of God even scriptural passages in which God is spoken of in the third person. Finally, the formulas of quotation are entirely different, as a simple comparison is sufficient to show: the Epistle to the Hebrews does not once employ the expression “as it is written” (gegraptai), which is the usual form of the Apostle.
And yet it is the best judges of style, the Fathers of Alexandria, who unanimously, as far back as one can go, see in it the work of Paul. Clement, following his master Pantaenus, Origen, St. Dionysius, St. Peter, St. Alexander, St. Athanasius, Didymus, St. Cyril, Euthalius–Arius himself apparently–all, without one exception, agree in this. Not that they shut their eyes to the differences in style. In order to explain it, Clement supposed that the letter, written originally in Hebrew, had been translated into Greek by St. Luke–an untenable hypothesis not defended now by anyone. If there is one thing positive, it is that the Epistle was composed in Greek. Never has a translation had such suppleness and freedom of movement. The author of it makes use of the Septuagint exclusively, even when its writers depart from the original text. He pours forth a perfect stream of plays upon words, assonances, and alliterations to a degree impossible in a translator. The art with which he rounds his periods would be an unheard-of literary feat if he had to deal with the little juxtaposed and co-ordinated clauses of some Hebrew original.
Finally, to say nothing of the rest, the reasoning based upon the double meaning of the word diatheke–covenant and testament–would be absolutely impossible in Hebrew. According to Origen, the ideas are Paul’s and the diction that of one of his disciples known to God alone. “The historical documents that have come down to us,” adds Origen, “name either Clement, Bishop of Rome, or Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts,” as the writer of this Epistle. Thus, though fully conscious that there are difficulties, Origen holds to what he calls the ancient tradition and practically, forgetting his doubts as critic and linguist, he quotes the Epistle without hesitation under Paul’s name. Eusebius does the same, although he places it once among the number of disputed writings, out of deference to the opinion of others. All the Greek Church, with the Council of Antioch (264) and that of Laodicea (390), with St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Isidore of Pelusium, St. Epiphanius, St. Basil and the two Gregories, St. John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia, Severianus of Gabala, the Syrian Church with the Peshitto, with St. Ephraem and St. James of Nisibis, give the same testimony as the Alexandrians. In a word, the East is unanimous.
Very different was the situation in the West. Known at Rome, from the time of the first century, by St. Clement, who makes use of it as his own property, the Epistle to the Hebrews was not generally regarded either as authentic or canonical. The Muratorian fragment and the priest Caius recognize only 13 Epistles of St. Paul. Neither St. Irenaeus nor St. Hippolytus, according to Gobar, admit its authenticity; it is a fact that the former does not once quote from it in his great work against heresies, and it is doubtful whether he ever makes an allusion to it. St. Cyprian refrains also from citing it; and when he affirms, with several other Latin writers, that Paul wrote to seven churches, he seems, indeed, equivalently to deny that it is the work of the Apostle. Tertullian, on what ground is unknown, attributes it to Barnabas, and the way in which he quotes it shows quite well that he does not believe it to be canonical. Among the heretics, Marcion rejected it; but, on the contrary, the banker Theodotus, the leader of the obscure sect of the followers of Melchisedech, accepted it. We do not know what the attitude of Novatus and Novatian was in regard to it, but we have no reason to claim, as has sometimes been done, that they took advantage of it to deny the Church’s right to remit sins. In the fourth century doubts on this point still persisted, and were not yet dissipated in the fifth. Nevertheless, St. Jerome exaggerates when he maintains that the Latins were not accustomed to receive the Epistle as canonical; there were disputes and disagreements, and there was no unanimity either in one direction or the other. If Ambrosiaster and Pelagius do not comment on it, if Phebadius, Optatus of Milevis, Zeno, Vincent of Lerins and Orosius make no use of it, if the codex Claromontanus and the codex Mommseianus exclude it from their canon, Victorinus, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan, Lucifer of Cagliari, Pacian, Faustinus and Rufinus are favorable to it; Pelagius and Ambrosiaster quote it sometimes unreservedly; and Philaster, contradicting himself, treats somewhere as heretics those who attribute it to anyone but Paul. It must be said that Philaster, according to the fine observation of St. Augustine, attaches to the word “heretic” a meaning peculiar to him. But when the Council of Hippo in 393 and that of Carthage in 397 had inscribed in the list of canonical books 13 Epistles of Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews of the same Apostle, when Innocent I in his letter to Exuperius of Toulouse in 405 and the Council of Carthage in 419 had simply catalogued 14 Epistles of St. Paul, the old doubts about its canonicity disappeared, and, although no new argument was brought forth in favor of its authenticity, little by little people accepted the general opinion or at least the usual way of speaking about it. Only the scholars, such as Isidore of Seville, retained the memory of the past discussions, the trace of which still exists in the place assigned to the Epistle, either in the tenth rank, or at the end of the Pauline Epistles, or even outside of the series.
It was precisely when the question appeared to have been decided irrevocably by three councils of which he had been the soul, that Augustine began to doubt its authenticity. His scruples increased steadily and, while formerly he had been accustomed to quote the Epistle as Paul’s, he abstained from doing so in his last years, or did so only with express reservations. The idea did not occur to him that the decision of a council would settle the question, any more than it occurred to St. Jerome, who, after having been present at the Roman Council where the Epistle to the Hebrews had been for the first time attributed to Paul, did not fear to write: “Nihil interesse cujus sit, cum ecclesiastici viri sit et quotidie Ecclesiarum lectione celebretur (When you are a man of the Church daily celebrating the lessons of the Church, it is of no interest ).” The public reading of the Epistle was an argument in favor of the canonicity, but did not at all prejudice the authenticity of an anonymous writing. To bind canonicity to authenticity and to maintain, as Cajetan did, that, if the Epistle were not from Paul, it would not be canonical, is one of the greatest of theological errors. It is, indeed, only by an abuse of language that authenticity is here spoken of, for authentic is the opposite of apocryphal, and nothing in the Epistle leads us to suspect that the author wished to pass himself off as Paul.
Since Origen’s time the question has not advanced. Although originated by Clement of Alexandria, accepted by Eusebius and St. Jerome, and adopted subsequently by several theologians of the Middle Ages, the hypothesis of a translator who clothed the Hebrew original of Paul in Greek, even taking the word translator in the broadest sense, is wholly abandoned today and does not now merit a refutation.
On the other hand, the authors suggested instead of Paul are not very satisfactory. Harnack proposes Aquila and Priscilla, especially the latter, because of some doubtfully feminine touch discoverable in the Epistle. Godet, without much more foundation, thought of Silas. Some ancient writers name Luke and Clement of Rome, either as translators or editors. It is certain that Clement knew and made use of our Epistle, but his style is so different that it can be affirmed with certainty that it does not belong to him. He coordinates his sentences instead of subordinating them, he abounds in doxologies, he quotes Scripture in a way peculiar to himself, and, finally, all his ideas and manner of expressing them show another cast of mind. Against St. Luke we should be less positive, principally because of the authorities who favor him. He has this in common with the author of the Epistle, that he writes Greek with purity and moves in the sphere of Pauline ideas. His relations with Timothy and his sojourn in Rome furnish two other favorable data. As Clement of Alexandria remarked, there exists between the Epistle and the Acts a certain affinity in the use of words and in diction. But in addition to the fact that the points of contact have nothing decisive or even striking in them, how can we persuade ourselves that St. Luke, a converted pagan, could know the Mosaic ritual so thoroughly and take so much interest in observances of no value in his eyes? And St. Luke nowhere betrays the peculiar rhetoric and Alexandrine culture with which the writer of the Epistle seems imbued. It is this last characteristic which has caused some to think of Apollos as the author, who was put forward by Luther and supported by numerous critics. Apollos was one of the confidants of Paul and was acquainted with Timothy; he was from Alexandria and might have frequented the school of Philo; he was very eloquent and “very well versed in the Scriptures.” But that proves at most that Apollos might have composed the Epistle to the Hebrews, if there were no decisive objection. Now it is not easy to see either when or how Apollos could have acquired the right to speak as a master to the Jewish-Christian Church, and it must not be forgotten that the theory which attributes our Epistle to him is wholly devoid of historical foundation or traditional support.
As far as hypotheses go, Barnabas is to be preferred. He has in his favor the positive testimony of Tertullian and of a considerable part of the West. He was a Jew by race, a Hellenist by education; as a Levite, he was familiar with the Mosaic ritual, and as a citizen of Cyprus Alexandrian literature must have been familiar to him; moreover, he possessed great authority in Jerusalem and in the Churches of Palestine. It is true, if the Epistle published under his name more than a century ago was his work, we could not think of him for a moment, but the scholars of our day are more and more agreed that the so-called Epistle of Barnabas is not by Barnabas at all. Hence there is no longer any valid objection to him, and he could be considered as the editor of the Epistle under the direction or the inspiration of Paul himself.
Certain modern critics, giving up all hope of finding the name of the great unknown, are satisfied with pointing out as the author an Alexandrine, or a disciple of Paul tinged with Philonism. This formula is deceptive. If we limit ourselves to a general and superficial comparison, we easily find quite numerous points of contact between our author and Philo; but if we press the parallel with texts in support, most of the similarities vanish or take a contrary meaning. Philo, indeed, calls his Logos high priest, messenger, mediator, and intercessor; but what honorable titles does he not give to the Logos? Moreover, the Logos of Philo is high priest of the universe, the immense temple of divinity, just as reason is the high priest of that other temple of God, man; what connection is there here with the high priest of the New Covenant? We are assured that the Logos of Philo, like the Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews, is called the apavgasma (“radiance”) and the charakter (“characteristic”) of the divine substance; but the Epistle certainly borrows the former appellation from the Book of Wisdom; and in Philo it is the human soul, not the Logos, that is the “charakter” of God. Some have wished to see a striking analogy in the way in which the two authors treat the history of Melchisedech; but Philo emphasizes chiefly the offering of bread and wine, of which the Epistle says not a word, and the resemblance is reduced finally to a very ordinary etymology, for no one is ignorant of the fact that in Hebrew melek signifies king and that zedeq means justice (Leg. alleg., iii, vol.i, pp.102-3).
As for the rest, the use of allegory by the two writers has nothing in common: the allegories of Philo are only moral symbols tending toward an accommodative sense; those of the Epistle to the Hebrews, if we insist on calling them by that name, are prophetic types. The same difficulty, still more pronounced, exists at another point where similarities are sought for in vain. The two writers often oppose heaven to earth, the visible to the invisible, the temporal to the eternal, the image to reality; but while the Alexandrian philosopher Philo turns toward the past and...contemplates the world of ideas (the intelligible world [kosmos noetos], which has served him as an archetype) the gaze of the saintly writer (of Hebrews) is constantly turned toward the future, and the events of Jewish history are the book in which he reads the destiny of the heavenly Jerusalem, unchangeable and eternal. We will not dwell upon similarities of less value, many of which are purely imaginary. Have not some critics claimed that “the word of God more piercing than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12) ought to be derived from the logos tomefs (“the separating word”) of Philo? As if the dividing Logos of Philo were anything but a demiurge, occupied in separating the elements of chaotic matter, a concept entirely foreign to the Epistle. The word more piercing than a sword (logos tomoteros) is the prophetic (penetrating) word infallibly attaining its aim. As to the use of the verb metreopatheen (to moderate one’s feelings or passions), which belonged to the philosophical language of that age, one must be truly short of arguments to maintain that the author of the Epistle must have borrowed it from Philo (See Cremer, Worterbuch , pp.799-800).
If the dependence of the Epistle upon Philo is more and more problematical in proportion as it is closely studied, its dependence upon Paul–a dependence of ideas, not of words–becomes from day to day more evident. It is admitted at present by the majority of critics. The impression received from a repeated reading of it is well expressed by one of the best biblical linguistic scholars: “The resemblance of its thoughts with those of Paul becomes at once apparent with constantly increasing evidence, and at the same time we are more and more surprised that anyone should have been found to attribute its style and diction to Paul” (Moulton, Commentary for English Readers , vol iii, p.279). We are, therefore, brought back to the opinion of Origen, shared again in our day by the majority of critics and exegetes, both Catholic and heterodox. Origen distinguished between the author and the editor, making the share taken by the latter a very large one. Paul would then have furnished the ideas and the inspiration, and a disciple of Paul, known only to God, would have collected them into a whole from memory, adding the necessary explanations to them. It is to him that the diction, the arrangement of the parts, in a word the composition, is due. He was the writer of which Paul remains the author. It was said formerly in the same sense that the second Gospel was the Gospel of Peter, and the third Gospel that of Paul, because St. Mark and St. Luke were thought to have reproduced respectively the preaching of the two great Apostles. The hypothesis of Origen is sufficiently elastic to yield to all the requirements of criticism. It takes account of the similarities and differences, and satisfies the data of tradition. We think it is necessary to adhere to this, and today the majority of Catholics, with infinite shades of opinion that it is neither possible nor useful to discuss, think the same. Directly or indirectly, the basis of the Epistle is Paul’s; the form is that of an unknown person, whose name is known to God alone.