Tuesday, November 01, 2016

On the probable authorship of Hebrews - by Priscilla

Icon of Aquilla and Priscilla
I'm pleased to see that the second most visited post of all time in this blog is currently "Hebrews was almost certainly written by a woman, probably Priscilla" (Feb 2014) though I would be even happier if it were No 1. I added an update in 2015 but perhaps it's helpful to bring everything together here, and to respond to some points that I've read.

I don’t of course claim that the attribution to Priscilla is certain - Origen is clearly right to say “But as to who wrote the epistle, only God knows the truth”. The full quote is quite interesting: "But as for myself, if I were to state my own opinion, I should say that the thoughts are the apostle's but that the style and composition belong to one who called to mind the apostle's teachings and, as it were, made short notes of what his master said. If any church, therefore, holds this epistle as Paul's, let it be commended for this also. For not without reason have the men of old time handed it down as Paul's. But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows."  Eusebius, Ecc Hist, Bk 6, Ch 25.13-14 quoting Origen

But what I think we can say is that Hebrews was written by:
  1. A very wise and learned early Christian teacher
  2. Who was very close to Paul but not Paul himself
  3. Who had strong connections with the Jewish community in Rome
  4. Who was confident to reason from the scriptures but never appeals to personal authority
  5. Who for some reason the Church found it wise not to attribute authorship to widely - despite the fact that it must have been known to the first recipients.
It's fair to point out that Clement of Alexandria clearly thinks it is by Paul (See Stomata Bk 4 Ch 21, "Description of a Perfect Woman") and Eusebius quotes Clement as saying "the Epistle to the Hebrews is the work of Paul, and that it was written to the Hebrews in the Hebrew language; but that Luke translated it carefully and published it for the Greeks, and hence the same style of expression is found in this epistle and in the Acts" (Ecc Hist Bk 5 14.1-7). But it's not really in the same style as Acts.  Severian of Gabala (4th C) says "Paul was hated by the Jews on the grounds that he was teaching apostasy from the law...[...]. Therefore, writing something useful to the Hebrews, he does not append his name, so that they might not lose any advantage they could have derived from the letter because of their hatred against him. And he writes to them in the tongue of the Hebrews, which was also translated by one of his disciples"  Fragments on the Epistle to the Hebrews (prologue) but he also thought the Earth was Flat and was an enemy of St John Crysostom.

Of the people we know about only Priscilla and Aqullia fit (1-4) Luther suggested Apollos but he was from Alexandria not Rome. Tertullian suggested Barnabas but he was from Cyprus. Others have suggested Timothy but he was from Lystra. Only Priscilla fits (5). It has been suggested that Apollos, Barnabas or Timothy might have had their names suppressed because they were not apostles, but nor were Mark and Luke. Furthermore there is a very early extra-canonical Epistle of Barnabas so there was certainly no reluctance to attribute works to such figures.

We get some idea of how highly Priscilla was regarded by Luke from the fact that whenever he mentions "Priscilla and Aquilla" it in that order, as does Paul when he is sending greetings to them - interestingly when he is sending greetings from them he uses the conventional order of Aquilla and Priscilla (c/f “Andronicus and Junia” in Romans 16) and several scribes "corrected" the order on the occasions when Luke refers to them. Of course when Luke refers to Paul meeting them he says Paul first met Aquilla and then Priscilla but that is chronological.

There is also the very interesting detail that Luke refers to Priscilla and Aquilla taking Apollos aside and expounding the ways of God more accurately he uses the word ἐξέθεντο (exethento) which comes from ἐκτίθημι (extithEmi) which means expose of explain/expound. This occurs only 4 times in the NT and always in Acts:

  • (7:21) when it refers to Moses being exposed
  • (11:4) when Peter is explaining
  • (18:26) when Priscilla and Aquilla are instructing Apollos
  • (28:23) when Paul is expounding the scriptures to the Jews in Rome.
It's also at least somewhat suggestive that that author uses language about newborn babes and milk. This was a trope of Paul's as well of course, but makes it marginally more likely to be a woman.

Finally I observe that (s)he concludes "I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you." It would be pretty well impossible for woman to travel to Rome by herself, but in company of her brother it would be feasible.

None of this is certain, but cumulatively highly suggestive. 

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