I went trawling around the internet last week to see if there were any public domain commentaries on the Letter to the Hebrews. My heart leapt when I saw in the search engine results a commentary by St. Augustine, apparently available through the on-line library at Ave Maria University.
Hooray, I thought. Augustine is a Father and Doctor of the Church. If I can trust anybody to explain the text to me, surely it is Augustine. I should have known that I was setting myself up for disappointment
First disappointment: the commentary only covered the first six of thirteen chapters. There would be no words of wisdom from the Doctor of Grace on that thorny section of Chapter 10 that the Lectionary skips over.
Second disappointment: I flipped ahead to see what Augustine had to say about paying careful attention in verse 2:1, and I found the language of the commentary to be extraordinarily dense. I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. I mean that if you’re not used to reading this kind of writing (and I’m not), your eyes quickly glaze over and you start babbling in the corner. This commentary is not something that you’re going to pick up to get a quick read on the meaning of a particular passage. You (or should I say I?) would have to start several verses earlier and read several verses past and then really concentrate on thinking about what the words mean. It’s not a discipline that’s common in our culture of tweets and text messages and 15-second sound bites.
On the other hand, there is a section in the prologue where Augustine acknowledges that some scholars (even then!) doubted that Paul was the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. He then lays out his reasons for believing that the author was indeed Paul. I remain firmly agnostic regarding the identity of the letter’s human author. The question might have been important in deciding whether or not the letter belonged in the Canon of Scripture, but it was included and it’s not going to be removed. Folks far smarter than I can argue both sides – I’m content to trust the Tradition (capital “T”) of the Church. In the meantime, I’ll try to suppress my urge to shout, “We don’t know that!” every time a homilist asserts that Paul was certainly not the author.
[UPDATE 7/30/2014: The hyperlink is broken, and it appears that the URL in the link pointed to a commentary by Aquinas rather than Augustine. At the time that I wrote this post, I was certain that it was Augustine, but this would not be the first (or last!) time that I was mistaken.]