ADVOCATES FOR PRISCILLA
Responding to Harnack’s theory that Priscilla wrote the Epistle
to the Hebrews
The writer of the
Letter to the Hebrews was committed to the spiritual well-being of
its first recipients. Within a short time that person, once known
and respected by the readers, became unknown and today is often
described as unknowable. The authorship of Hebrews is virtually
synonymous with “mystery.”
By the end of the
first century there was confusion over the author’s identity.
Clement of Rome, Barnabas, Paul, and other names were proposed
with little conviction and no unanimity. For many people Paul is
the assumed author. However, vastly different style, different
theological focus, different spiritual experience—all these make
his authorship of Hebrews increasingly indefensible upon
Still, the question
“who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews?” may trigger an automatic
response reminding us that Origen said “God alone knows.” This
third century quote is not meant to encourage investigation into
the topic. In fact it suggests that inquiry will not uncover the
answer and should not be pursued.
Recently, a professor
of biblical studies in a United States seminary asked his students
to “address the question of authorship for any NT document for
which it is uncertain or traditional authorship disputed…Though
the authorship of Hebrews is disputed, let’s avoid this one. It is
too speculative to be interesting” (italics original).
If Origen has the last
word, the authorship of Hebrews is forbidden fruit on some
biblical studies tree of knowledge. The message is “don’t go
there.” Surely with recent discoveries and fresh insight, the
outlook is different today and the mystery can be revisited.
With the introduction
of a serious female candidate there is added impetus to our
search. Consider how the theological landscape will change with a
woman teacher and leader who was accepted in the apostolic church.
Ponder the implications of a woman writing at the highest level of
inspiration for the edification of the church throughout the ages.
There is further
significance. One seeks in vain for a religious or philosophical
document of comparable length and undisputed female authorship in
the first century, or indeed the century preceding and the one
following. The epistle to the Hebrews may be the only extant
document of its type from this period.
Originally proposed by
Adolf von Harnack in 1900,1
Priscilla’s authorship of Hebrews has been referred to by one
researcher as the “Harnack-Hoppin theory.” The irony of the
hyphenated title is inescapable. With disparate backgrounds,
publishing one hundred years apart, we are an odd couple of
Priscilla advocates. I came across his hypothesis while
researching 1 Corinthians 14:34–35.
won the support of prominent Bible scholars of the early twentieth
century. These included the well known commentator Arthur Samuel
theologian Friedrich M. Schiele,3
and Greek lexicographer James Hope Moulton. Moulton referred to
Priscilla as the “Great Unknown (author of Hebrews)” linking her
to the wonderful definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1.4
An egalitarian Bible scholar, Lee Anna Starr, in The Bible
Status of Woman (1926), elaborated on Harnack’s article and
arranged for an English translation of it in her book.5
Nonetheless the hypothesis languished for many years with little
support in Bible commentaries.
For example, in the
1972 Anchor Bible commentary on Hebrews, George Wesley Buchanan
states that “…sources (possible authors) are not so limited that
it is necessary to…concede that the author might even have been a
Donald Guthrie’s 1983
commentary, The Letter to the Hebrews, mentions Priscilla
by name as a suggested author without further discussion.7
By 1991 there was some
progress in consideration of Priscilla. William L. Lane, in
Word Bible Commentary: The Letter to the Hebrews, names
Priscilla as a candidate without discussion of the merits of the
case, but he includes a good bibliography for further
consideration of Harnack’s proposal.8
A couple of years
earlier Harold W. Attridge, in his important work, A Commentary on
the Epistle to the Hebrews, had mentioned Priscilla as a possible
author, perhaps with Aquila, but his main comment was a reference
to “…the author’s masculine singular self-reference at 11:32…”9
It is almost
impossible to research the authorship of Hebrews without
encountering this same objection to
female authorship, but one must look further for the truth. In
this instance, in the accusative case, the masculine and neuter
forms of the participle “telling” (diegoumenon)
are identical. Furthermore, the phrase usually translated “time
will fail me in telling” in Hebrews 11:32 is a generality for
“time would fail anyone in telling.” Now, in statements of
a general truth, where the subject refers to everyone, not to a
specific person—such as the author of Hebrews—a neuter
participle can refer to subjects of either gender. No,
Priscilla has not been ruled out.10
Going beyond Harnack,
I integrated the evidence into a line of reasoning that points to
Priscilla or a Priscilla look-alike. Like Starr, I reversed the
direction of the letter, positing an arrow from Rome to Ephesus,
whereas Harnack had the destination at Rome. I linked information
from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Ephesus as the destination city.
Further, I constructed a “psychological profile” of the author
showing traditional feminine traits, and discussed the prominence
of women as models of faith.
We know specific facts
about the author. That person was close to Paul, with strong
connections at Rome (Heb. 13:24)—matching Priscilla’s background
(Acts 18:2). There are many more points of identity that must be
satisfied. The author was a teacher/catechist/evangelist in the
destination city, living there for a considerable length of time
(Heb. 13:22–24)—another match for Priscilla (1 Cor. 16:8). Apollos
became the student of Priscilla and Aquila because he knew only
the baptism of John (Acts 18:25). Another coincidence, the author
of Hebrews refers to having given instruction in baptisms (Heb.
6:1). This provides a literary link between Priscilla and the
unknown author. By the same reasoning, no person such as Silas or
Luke is a plausible suggestion. They lack a history of long-term
ministry in a church that resembles the destination church of
Hebrews. In fact, there is no record of Luke, Silas, and many
others ministering in any one church. While Apollos’ locale was
Corinth, there we find boisterous enthusiasm in worship, a poor
correlation with the readers of Hebrews, chided for their lukewarm
faith (Heb. 6:4–8).
In modern times,
Apollos is the author of choice for many. Yet, there are other
cogent arguments against him in addition to the examples cited
above. Whereas Priscilla embodies a reason for suppression of the
author’s name, one cannot imagine why anyone would want to
suppress Apollos’ authorship. Nonetheless, no one in antiquity
considered him the author, not even in his native Alexandria. He
was not the disciple of an apostle like the author and many of the
author’s people (Heb. 2:1–3), but more likely the convert of
Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:26). We cannot place him in Paul’s
closest circle of friends (Col. 4:10–11). One perceives an
undercurrent of rivalry between the two men (Acts 19:1–5) and
notes that Paul was always respectful toward him but never cordial
(1 Cor. 16:2). Under these circumstances, he would not be found
coordinating travel plans with Timothy (Heb. 13:23). Finally,
there is no evidence linking Apollos to Rome where the author of
Hebrews was highly esteemed (Heb. 13:24). Should he be the
front-runner? Would Priscilla even be considered in the face of
Let Origen’s voice be
in abeyance and listen to Harnack:
But there is—if not
everything is misleading—a solution to the problem (of
authorship), although as far as I know, nobody thought of it—Prisca
and Aquila. The hypothesis that leads the Epistle to the Hebrews
back to them is so highly commendable, because it does justice,
unrestrictedly, to all observations the letter offers concerning
author and recipients, and because it explains just as
unrestrictedly why the names were lost: it is on account of
Harnack is suggesting
that the authorship of Hebrews has been hidden in plain sight all
Friedrich M. Schiele,
writing in The American Journal of Theology in 1905,
It is readily admitted
that the authorship by Prisca possesses, in comparison with all
previous conjectures, the weight of probability…everything
formerly accepted in favor of Apollos’ authorship argues equally
for Prisca, while certain particulars which argue against the
authorship of Apollos favor Prisca…absolutely nothing positive can
be adduced against the Prisca hypothesis.12
Priscilla looms in
every avenue of our investigation into the authorship of Hebrews.
She had strong church and family connections at Rome (Acts 18:2)
and a ministry at Ephesus (Acts 18:19), to coincide with the
destination city in several ways, and where her colleague Timothy
ministered (2 Tim. 4:19; 1 Tim. 1:3). She was a coworker with Paul
(Rom. 16:3), an equal for the learned and eloquent Apollos whom
she instructed (Acts 18:26). Her authorship of Hebrews would
account for the otherwise inexplicable loss of the author’s name,
without provision of a consistent pseudonym. It would explain the
unprecedented naming of two women as heroes of faith (Heb. 11:11,
31), clear allusion to two (Heb. 11:35), and likely allusion to
many others (Heb. 11:34).
The voice of Hebrews’
author describes the church as a family of equals (Heb. 13:1),
provides the inspiration of men and women models of faith (Heb.
11), and echoes an admonition from ancient times to grow in
knowledge of scripture (Heb. 5:12–14). It presents Jesus as a
sympathetic priest who leads his people into the spiritual realm
(Heb. 4:15). Where the theology of Hebrews differs from that of
Paul, there is opportunity for enriched understanding of faith.
May that voice be not only heard but identified.
I believe that
weighing the evidence will identify Priscilla as a strong
candidate for the authorship of the epistle to the Hebrews. If not
Priscilla, then someone who strongly resembles her, with a
parallel career in New Testament times. May Priscilla—or her
look-alike—find a place at the table with New Testament authors.
In quest of Biblical
truth we should keep in mind that a statement is not necessarily
correct because it is often repeated. It is important to look for
opposing viewpoints and engage in further dialogue. Truth can be
hidden, denied, distorted, and obscured. On the other hand, it
always exists biding its time, waiting to impress itself upon
It is time to weigh
the evidence without prejudice or favor. Chris Barney, although
not an advocate, posted the following message on the internet:
“Priscilla, anyone? Thought that might get some discussion. It is
actually more widely-held than one might think.” His invitation
bodes well for the future.
1. Adolph von Harnack, “Probabilia uber die Addresse und den
Verfasser des Habraerbriefes,” Zeitschrift fur die
Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der aelteren Kirche
(E. Preuschen, Berlin: Forschungen und Fortschritte, 1900),
2. Arthur S. Peake, A Critical Introduction to the New
Testament (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1919).
3. Friedrich Michael Schiele, “Harnack’s ‘Probabilia’ Concerning
the Address and Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews,” The
American Journal of Theology (1905): 292–293.
4. James Hope Moulton, The Christian Religion in the Study and
in the Street (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1919), 68, 132.
5. Lee Anna Starr, The Bible Status of Woman (Zarephath,
N.J.: Pillar of Fire, 1955), 392–415.
6. George Wesley Buchanan, The Letter to the Hebrews,
Anchor Bible 36 (New York: Doubleday, 1972), 266.
7. Donald Guthrie, The Letter to the Hebrews, Tyndale New
Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983,
reprinted 1999), 21.
8. William L. Lane, Hebrews. Word Bible Commentary 47A
(Dallas: Word Books, 1991), xlvii–li.
9. Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary
on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Hermeneia—A Critical and
Historical Commentary on the Bible, ed. Helmut Koester
(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 4.
10. For further discussion see Ruth Hoppin, Priscilla’s Letter:
Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Fort Bragg,
Calif.: Lost Coast Press, 2000), 49–52, and “The Epistle to the
Hebrews is Priscilla’s Letter,” in A Feminist Companion to the
Catholic Epistles and Hebrews, ed. Amy-Jill Levine (Cleveland,
Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 2004), 147–48; also F. Blass and A. Debrunner,
Greek Grammar of the New Testament, trans. and rev. by
Robert W. Funk (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961),
11. Quoted in Starr, Bible Status of Women, 407.
12. Schiele, “Harnack’s ‘Probabilia,’” 290.