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Winter 2006


Responding to Harnack’s theory that Priscilla wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews

Ruth Hoppin

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 thoughtful reflection.

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.

Harnack’s reasoning won the support of prominent Bible scholars of the early twentieth century. These included the well known commentator Arthur Samuel Peake,2 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 woman.”6

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 similar contradictions?

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 Prisca.11

Harnack is suggesting that the authorship of Hebrews has been hidden in plain sight all along.

Friedrich M. Schiele, writing in The American Journal of Theology in 1905, concurred:

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 human minds.

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), 1:16–41.
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), 72–73,76–77.
11. Quoted in Starr, Bible Status of Women, 407.
12. Schiele, “Harnack’s ‘Probabilia,’” 290.


  Ruth is the author of "Priscilla's Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews" (International Scholars Publications, 1997 and Lost Coast Press, 2000). She is a contributor to the InterVarsity Press Women's Bible Commentary. Her chapter, "The Epistle to the Hebrews is Priscilla's Letter" appears in "A Feminist Companion to the N. T. and Early Christian Writings" (T&T Clark, Co., Ltd, 2004).

Ruth's articles on Priscilla have been published in various journals, including "Priscilla Papers." They have been translated into Marathi and published in an Indian journal, "Dawn of Knowledge." Ruth has presented papers at regional meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature.


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