The Author of a Major N.T. Epistle was a Woman

Priscilla wrote the N.T. Epistle to the Hebrews

A Roman Matron

It will probably surprise some of you to learn that many Bible scholars believe that a New Testament woman named Priscilla wrote the book of Hebrews.  No, this is not a news flash.  The argument for Priscilla’s authorship of Hebrews has been around for over 110 years.  The case has been gaining ground since it first came out, but it’s something that a lot of people haven’t heard about.Priscilla and her husband Aquila are mentioned seven times in the Bible, and Priscilla’s name usually comes first, suggesting that some people thought she was the dominant or more significant of the two.  Priscilla and Aquila were well-educated and articulate.  They are recorded as having explained the way of Christ to Apollos, a favorite teacher of many of the early Christians.

Apollos began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18:26)

These are the first hints that Priscilla could legitimately be considered the author of Hebrews.  Based on internal evidence, the nearly universal verdict is against Pauline authorship.

Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930)

Adolf Harnack

Adolf von Harnack (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first person to argue for Priscilla’s authorship of Hebrews was Adolf von Harnack, one of the most significant theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  (A German Lutheran, he felt his calling as a theologian was to open up “freedom of thought, of pursuing truth on every path, the freedom from interference by those who have been given authority in human institutions.”)  This “liberal theologian” put forward his case for Priscilla’s authorship in 1900.

In his blog, Polumeros kai Polutropos, Baylor University New Testament professor Brian Small summarized von Harnack’s case like this:

1) The author was highly educated and seems to have held a prominent teaching  position. In Acts 18 Priscilla along with Aquila were able to instruct Apollos who was himself an eloquent and learned man (Acts 18:24-26).

2) Both Priscilla and Aquila were among the Pauline circle of friends and were
associates with Timothy (13:23).

3) Assuming the Roman audience, the author would then have been a part of the Roman church and been familiar with the circumstances of the Christians in Rome. Moreover the author seems to have been a respected leader among the Roman Christians and hoped to be restored to them someday (13:19). We know from Acts 18:1 that Priscilla and Aquila were expelled from Rome due to the Edict of Claudius in 49 A.D.

4) It is clear that Hebrews was written by one individual since the first-person singular is used (11:32; 13:19, 22). But at other times the author uses the first-person plural that suggests that the author was speaking for more than him or herself. The most decisive example for me that Harnack gives is 13:18 in which the author says “pray for us.” Harnack also believes that 13:22 and 6:1-3, 9, 11 are other examples in which the author speaks for others. Since Priscilla and Aquila were partners, it would be logical to assume that the author was also speaking for his or her partner. (click here)

Anna Lee Starr summarized von Harnack’s case in The Bible Status of Woman (Fleming H. Revell, 1926) which is cited in numerous places on the web.

Letter to the Hebrews was written to Rome—not to the church, but to the inner circle (Romans 16:5)

    1. The fact that the author’s name was “blotted out by the earliest tradition” is considered “amazing.”

Harnack gives four reasons for his conclusion that Priscilla wrote the Letter to the Hebrews:

    1. Priscilla had an inner circle in Rome, “the church that is in their house”  (Romans 16:5).
    2. She was an Apostolic teacher of high standing,er and known throughout Christendom of that day (Romans 16).
    3. She was the teacher of the intelligent and highly educated Apollos (Acts 18).
    4. She and her husband Aquila labored closely and taught together, explaining why both the pronouns “I” and “we” were used by the author.

Like many other issues, there is no little debate on this.  New Testament scholars weigh in on this side or that.  Harnack’s advocacy of Priscilla, however, has stimulated more discussion than any other.

I think most people never entertain the idea that something in the Bible could have been written by a woman.  We talk about the gospel writers, about Peter, James, and John, Moses, David, and of course Paul, but we rarely mention Priscilla.  Many New Testament scholars plead “scholarly agnosticism” on the authorship of Hebrews, saying that we will never know for sure who wrote it.

Church history is filled with literally innumerable times when some dogma that was widely believed and officially taught was questioned and refuted by someone.  Initially the new understanding is rejected, perhaps even violently repressed, but is revived by some individual or group later on when the times are more conducive to re-evaluation of the entrenched dogma.

People believed and taught that Paul was the author of Hebrews for centuries, despite reservations which explain why it is placed at the end of the rest of Paul’s letters.  Pauline letters are ordered from longest to shortest, and Hebrews suddenly “pops up,” because scholars have never quite known for sure.

I don’t absolutely know that Priscilla wrote Hebrews.  But this is to let y’all know that a lot of people do, that I believe a woman wrote it, and that I refer to her as the author when citing material from her epistle.

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About Ron Goetz

Author, Widower, Grandpa, Son.
This entry was posted in Bible, Diversity, Religion, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The Author of a Major N.T. Epistle was a Woman

  1. Savannah says:

    I totally agree…and wish I had found this website a lot earlier. Whenever I read it I walk away with joy. No, I don’t know whether Priscilla wrote Hebrews, I am just glad there’s someone out there who sees her as a major contender… I have for many years 😉

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    • Ron Goetz says:

      😀 I’m glad you found it, too, Savannah. It’s good to know you’re getting a blessing out of my posts.

      They call it “historical imagination,” right? The ability to “see” the ancient people and events we read about. And not just the events and characters portrayed in the Bible, but the authors, the unknown redactors and scribal copyists, all of them.

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  2. Very interesting. Of course, I am familiar with the general belief that many of the Pauline letters were not written by Paul, but this is my first introduction to the idea that Priscilla was the author of Hebrews.

    The risk here is that we could get embroiled in a argument with the Fundamentalists as to whether Priscilla really was or was not the author and lose sight of the more important certainties that

    a) Women were leaders with full stature in the early Christian church, far more stature than they have today, at least in the Catholic church.

    b) The power structure in the early church was a rejection of the socially accepted power structure of its time.

    c) Everything the Bible tells us should not be taken as literal truth (in this case, the authorship of Hebrews.)

    d) Some things about the Bible are just unknowable.

    Thank you for this great blog. I always look forward to seeing what you have to say.
    Pax Christi!

    Like

    • Ron Goetz says:

      Amen to all four point, Roger.

      I was thinking more about women readers than fundamentalists. I must confess, I sometimes spend more time worried about fundamentalists than with my actual readers.

      Your four points are all dead on. Thanks for posting them. 🙂

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  3. This is a familiar conversation. I don’t have my references at hand, but remember an old conversation that argued for one (or more) of the OT books having been written by a woman because of certain linguistic characteristics. Who knows. I do know that this collection of books we call The Book, was heavily cherry-picked by the court of King James (King James Bible, anyone?) Politics and religion. Ugh.

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  4. aboyandhiscat says:

    Reblogged this on Φml.

    Like

  5. veryrarelystable says:

    I would personally love it if it could be shown that any book in the bible was written by a woman. The idea that Hebrews was one such work does have a major stumbling block, though. One of the very verses you quoted B Small citing to evidence individual authorship, 11:32, has the author self-referring using the word διηγούμενον. This is the middle or passive deponent present participle in its accusative 1st person, singular, masculine form. Were the author a woman, we would expect such a participle to be feminine. Indeed, if one is going to use this word (as Small and von Harnack do) to argue that the author is an individual, then the corollary is that the author is a male individual.

    Of course there are arguments levied against this. Broadly these arguments could be divided into 2 categories:

    1) Conjectural emendation: the text must have become corrupt here, and we do not have the original wording; either a feminine participle was used in the original and has become changed in the manuscript tradition, or the sentence didn’t originally say anything like what it does now, and more extensive corruption has occurred.

    2) The text as we have it is correct, but in some way a female author could have written a masculine participle when describing herself. There are a number of ways of explaining why this would be the case.

    I’m interested to know which explanation do you adopt and why?

    Like

    • Ron Goetz says:

      V.R.S., there are reasons why I didn’t pursue a career in academia and become a scribe! 🙂 And I can see that you’ve got it all over me in terms of the original languages.

      There are many opinions and arguments on the authorship of every book and letter in the Bible, Hebrews included. Adolf von Harnack was 1,000 times the scholar I am — there’s no shame in following his lead!

      What’s your take on the authorship of Hebrews?

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      • veryrarelystable says:

        I can never make up my mind! The arguments for dealing with διηγούμενον and maintaining female authorship are frequently possible (some seem more – or less – likely than others), but it seems to me that there’s nothing compelling either way. Perhaps something will come along…

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      • Ron Goetz says:

        Ahh, hope springs eternal! 🙂

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  7. Ruth Hoppin says:

    Hello Ron Goetz,
    Congratulations on your well-reasoned defense of Priscilla’s
    authorship of Hebrews. You may be interested in my case for
    Priscilla in “Priscilla’s Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle
    to the Hebrews” (Lost Coast Press, 2009). You will also find
    several of my articles on the topic on Wiley Clarkson’s
    website http://www.Clarksons.org/spiritleads/spiritleads.htm.
    Ruth

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  8. Pingback: Was Priscilla the true author of Hebrews? | The Crowe's Nest

  9. Momma says:

    As I read through the Epistle of Hebrew I could easily see a woman writing it. Then I searched for answers and came upon this article. It reaffirms what I felt! It is sad the early church leaders denied women both in the Bible and in the church equality, however, God does! How much more did women contribute to the OT and NT that has been hidden? Hebrews does Not sound like the Pauline letters we know of, today! The author remains unknown because the Church Leaders knew it was a woman who wrote it…they were not about to give credit to a woman. God Will!

    Like

  10. Nicolas Gold says:

    There are definitely places in the Bible in which women contributed, but Hebrews isn’t one of them. Personally, I would like it if a woman (Priscilla or Junia or Phoebe) wrote this epistle, but I must go with the evidence not my wishes. Verse 11:32 indicates the author is a man. There is absolutely no evidence that the text has ever been corrupted at this point. Tertullian (On Modesty 20) attributed Hebrews to Barnabas without reservation. This is the earliest attribution and is probably the safest bet.

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