This article originated as a paper that I presented at the Pacific Coast Region/Society of Biblical Literature meeting, New Testament Epistles and Apocalypse Section, at St. Mary’s College, Moraga, California, in March 2002. I wish to focus here on the distinctive theology of Hebrews and how it relates to gender equality.
Could Priscilla Have Written Hebrews?
To name Hebrews “Priscilla’s Letter” has its own implications for gender equality, of course. Here is a brief recapitulation of my argument.1
Eliminating other possibilities one by one, I match Priscilla’s career with that of the unknown author, citing the following points of identity:
- She was a colleague of Paul and Timothy.
- Her career centered along the Rome/Ephesus axis, route of the epistle.
- She was a teacher/catechist/evangelist.
- There are two literary links to the epistle. One is the reference in Hebrews to instruction in baptisms— instructions Priscilla had to give Apollos (Acts 18 and 19). The second is Hebrews’ scriptural grounding for the messiahship of Jesus—the subject of Apollos’s preaching as Priscilla’s protégé.
- She was trained in rhetoric as the daughter of an eminent Roman family.
- Priscilla broke with precedent by naming specific women as exemplars of faith in a roll call of heroes, and by alluding to many others clearly or obliquely.
- She embodies a cogent explanation for the loss of the author’s name.
If you are not ready to posit Priscilla as the author of Hebrews, then think “Priscilla—or a person who matches the same description.”
Implications of the theology of Hebrews for gender equality are just that: implications. Hebrews is not an intentional feminist polemic, but a pastoral explication and exhortation. If its theology tends to support gender equality, I believe its very unintentionality makes the case for gender equality even stronger.
In the apostolic church there appear to be two main lines of Christology: Paul’s, and that of the author of Hebrews. In Hebrews, Priscilla—or a Priscilla look-alike—presents a theology that differs in several key concepts from that of Paul. I will discuss four theological insights that are unique to Hebrews and have substantial, though generally overlooked, implications for gender equality. These insights counterbalance Paul’s theology. They interpret rather than contradict and are intrinsic to the theology, or theologies, of the early church, both reflecting and shaping their development.
1. The Meaning Of The Crucifixion
Paul and the writer of Hebrews differ in their interpretation of the meaning of the crucifixion. The crucifixion was, for Paul, a salvational event directly impacting the believer, encompassing mystical union with Christ.
For Paul, the crucifixion changes the believer, atoning for sin, facilitating a right relationship with God: “We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6, nrsv); “I have been crucified with Christ; . . . it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20); “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).
For the Hebrews author, the crucifixion was essential to salvation because it changed Jesus. Through the experience of suffering and death he was enabled to completely empathize with humanity (Heb. 5:7-10; 2:9-18):
- “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8);
- “and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb. 5:9);
- “crowned with honor and glory because of the suffering of death . . . that . . . he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9);
- “He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest . . . , to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17; emphasis added);
- “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are tested” (Heb. 2:18; emphasis added).
Only by having undergone this transformation through suffering could Jesus offer himself, a perfect offering for sin, in the capacity of High Priest (Heb. 10:12).
So for Paul, the crucifixion is sanctification, offering holiness through mystic union with Christ. For the writer of Hebrews, the crucifixion is redemption (Heb. 10:19-22), restoring the believer to a right relationship with God and a rightful place in the religious and spiritual life of the community. This is possible through the perfection of Jesus through suffering, refining his qualities of tenderness and empathy to the highest possible level.
The author of Hebrews does not claim that tenderness, sympathy, and empathy are exclusively feminine traits. On the contrary, they are considered human traits, for Jesus’ development of these traits is the pathway by which he fully identifies with humankind. The path began with incarnation in human form and ended with the experience of death as mortals experience death. Nonetheless, whether rightly or wrongly, the traits in question are traditionally perceived as feminine. By making these stereotypical feminine qualities a prerequisite to the salvational activity of Christ, they are elevated in value.
The theology of Hebrews thus has subtle but profound implications for gender equality. In such a theological milieu, both men and women are subliminally and overtly enjoined to value “feminine” traits through recognizing them as decisive in God’s plan of salvation. The perception of women is ultimately elevated. Since women are encouraged to value more highly the traits imputed to them their own self-perception is sure to be elevated.
2. The Perception Of The Church
Mystical union with Christ, a cornerstone of Paul’s soteriology, is not articulated in Hebrews. Equally notable for its absence in the epistle is Pauline and deutero-Pauline formulation of the church as the body of Christ and Christ as the head of the church.
Much has been written about the body/head metaphor. Is it to be construed as a cooperative arrangement in which the church acts in partnership with Christ—or is the headship of Christ a paradigm for the headship of the husband in reference to the wife? The reason why much has been written about it is that the metaphor is intrinsically ambiguous. Hierarchical in its expression, if not in its core meaning, it lends itself to the construction of other hierarchical relationships.
As an associate of Paul, the author might have echoed this key analogy of Pauline and deutero-Pauline thought. But this writer didn’t. Thus, such creative theology as “For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church” (Eph. 5:23) is nowhere to be found in the Epistle to the Hebrews. That entire passage in which the church, feminized and subject to Christ (Eph. 5:21-33), becomes the model for wives as subject to their husbands would never have gotten past this writer. Nor would: “Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3).
It is worth noting that three of five instances in which this metaphor appears have nothing to do with gender roles. In Colossians 1:18, Ephesians 1:20-23, and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Christ is presented as the origin of the church and the provider of spiritual gifts. Only in two passages (Eph. 5:21-33 and 1 Cor. 11:3) is the metaphor tweaked in the direction of hierarchical roles based on sex.
In Hebrews, the church is a house or household. Household imagery, in which hospitality is enjoined, appears elsewhere in the New Testament, but in Hebrews it is the dominant image of the church. There is no body/head metaphor just waiting to be given a nonegalitarian spin. Church members are alternately children (Heb. 2:10, 13, 14) or siblings (vv. 11, 12, 17) of Jesus.
For followers of Jesus, salvation is an ongoing process. Believers are assured of his intercession and promised direct access to God (Heb. 4:14-16; 6:19-20; 10:19-20).
In her article on the soteriology of Hebrews, Brenda B. Colijn writes: “The images of salvation presented in Hebrews are significantly different from the familiar images of justification and reconciliation that are the usual focus of systematic theologies… [salvation is viewed as] dynamic and relational rather than static and purely juridical.”2
In Hebrews we do, in fact, find a relational, inclusive, and nonjuridical outlook compatible with gender equality.
3. Focus On The Ascension
It is possible that Paul and the author of Hebrews differ not only in their interpretation of the crucifixion, but in its centrality. For Paul, the crucifixion/resurrection is the central salvational event. In Hebrews, the ascension/exaltation of Christ is the central salvational event. Christ’s exaltation to glory and enthronement at the right hand of God complete the cycle of salvation that began at the Incarnation.
Ascension soteriology, highlighted in Hebrews, is attested in a variety of New Testament writings besides the Gospels. Paul alludes to the Ascension indirectly in Romans 10:6. The disputed author of Ephesians underscores the importance of the Ascension as a prelude to bestowal of spiritual gifts (Eph. 4:7-12). Luke has Peter refer to the Ascension and spiritual gifting in an early sermon (Acts 2:33).
What are the implications for gender equality of the Hebrews focus on the Ascension? First, when Jesus ascended to glory, he withdrew from the historical milieu in which he was formerly confined—its cultural, historical, and religious presuppositions that marginalized women. Jesus’ earthly life and ministry has always been that of a first-century Jewish male, living in a particular region. But at his ascension, Jesus was divested of his first-centuriness so that he could be accessible to every era. He was no longer thirtysomething; he was the pre-existent Christ. He gave up his habitation in a particular region of the globe so that he could be accessible in every locality. He was no longer defined by the particularities of his earthly body, which he left to fulfill an eternal destiny as Spirit, to be worshiped in spirit and truth.3
Those who seek to justify the exclusion of women from leadership roles because the historical Jesus was male do well to ponder the ascension theology of Hebrews.
A second implication of the Ascension for gender equality is the commission to preach the gospel to all nations, with which it is linked. Power to enable the world mission was concomitant with gifts of the Holy Spirit, bestowed
after the Ascension. At Pentecost, and beyond, gifts of the Spirit were bestowed without partiality as to gender. Thus, the Great Commission to evangelize applied to both sexes. The gospel was to be preached by all believers regardless of gender, to all people regardless of gender. The gospel was not to be preached exclusively to men or exclusively by men.
To empower believers for this mission, diverse gifts were imparted. In a chapter enumerating spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12), apostles, prophets, and teachers are cited as recipients of these gifts, and all are admonished to “strive for the greater gifts.”
In verse 13, we find a truncated version of Galatians 3:28, with reference to Jews and Greeks, slave and free, but omitting “male and female.” Yet, the first two dichotomies suggest the third, especially in view of the reference to all baptized persons: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” The well-known egalitarian statement in Galatians 3:28, like the shortened form in 1 Corinthians 12:13, is preceded by an inclusive, unqualified reference to baptized persons: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female . . .” (Gal. 3:27-28).
Spiritual gifting of women and men for leadership, an outcome of the ascension of Christ, made possible the task to which they were called.
4. A Second Look At Melchizedek
We discern the fourth implication of the theology of Hebrews for gender equality in the introduction of a hitherto obscure figure into the New Testament. On the surface, the author’s intentions were innocent enough. She went to a Qumran document, 11 Q Melchizedek (11Q13), where Melchizedek had an exalted, near-divine status— that of a Priest-Messiah, in whom the two Messianic functions, Priest and King, were coalesced into one person. Then she did an end run around the Aaronic and Levitical priesthood, reaching back into salvational history recorded in the fourteenth chapter of Genesis, to fetch Melchizedek as the type of the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ (cf. Ps. 110:4). The Abraham-Melchizedek encounter was considered important enough to be recounted in Hebrews (chap. 7).
In the Genesis story, Melchizedek is introduced as a priest of El Elyon, translated “God Most High” in a later development. While the translation is technically correct, it is at once a means and result of the conflation of a Canaan-ite high god or gods with the Israelite God Yahweh.
As Joseph A. Fitzmeyer explains, El is the name of a well-known Canaanite deity of the second millennium B.C.; El and Elyan appear on an eighth-century B.C. Aramaic inscription from Sefire in northern Syria as the names of a pair of Canaanite gods. When these verses were taken over by redactors, El Elyon became a synonym for Yahweh.4
G. Levi Della Vida, writing in the Journal of Biblical Literature (1944), explains that El Elyon was a combination of two high Canaanite deities, the Lord of Earth and the Lord of Heaven. A redactor “boldly merged two of the chief Gods of the Canaanite pantheon into one being…”5
Earlier, there was merging in the Tell-el-Amarna Letters of the fifteenth-fourteenth century B.C., in which the Canaanites called El Elyon “the lord of the Gods.” The ancients often titled this chief Canaanite deity “Most High,” “Lord of heaven,” and “Creator of earth,” titles later conflated with the Israelite God.6
This leaves us with a Canaanite King-Priest who prefigures the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ. What could be more subversive of patriarchy in all its forms? The Canaan-ite high god, or gods, El Elyon, had two primary representatives on earth: the male deity Baal and the female deity Astarte.
We are talking about a female deity—not the feminine aspects of deity, amply attested in Scripture. Astarte, or Asherah, represented to worshipers in her temples by abstract wood, was the bane of Old Testament prophets who strove to eradicate her influence. The conflict went far beyond a war of words. In a climactic clash between Elijah and Jezebel, hundreds of prophets on both sides died violently. As if to forestall the unfolding conflict—as if to reach across the centuries and to assuage its deep wounds—Melchizedek, the Canaanite Priest who served a male and a female deity, blessed Abraham, a worshiper of the Israelite God.
Of course, the true work of healing and reconciliation was to come through Jesus. In private correspondence, John Beverley Butcher, author of Telling the Untold Stories: Encounters with the Resurrected Jesus, states that “With his Canaanite roots, his [Melchizedek’s] priesthood would have been more inclusive of the Divine Mother… when Jesus is seen as the Great High Priest after the Order of Melchizedek… The clash between Elijah and Jezebel is… healed in Jesus the Christ…” He sees Hebrews “as the great book of healing…, similar to Paul’s teaching of ‘neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Gentile.’”
In light of Melchizedek’s Canaanite roots, his ensconcement in a canonical New Testament epistle as a foreshadowing of Christ carries a message of undiminished relevance in a world in which gender equality does not yet hold sway.
It is fitting that Priscilla or someone like her should have delineated Christ a priest after the order of Melchizedek. In everything he said and did, Jesus was intent on restructuring social and religious norms that marginalized or demeaned women. By personal example and public statement, he was constantly upsetting the patriarchal apple cart by contesting male privilege in the realm of religion.
The characteristic soteriology of Hebrews, its disavowal through silence of the body/head metaphor for the church, its focus on the ascension and exaltation of Christ, and the startling introduction of a Canaanite priest into the theological equation all converge as arresting implications for gender equality.
- Ruth Hoppin, Priscilla’s Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Fort Bragg, CA: Lost Coast Press, 2000).
- Brenda B. Colijn, “ ‘Let Us Approach’: Soteriology in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” JETS, Vol. 39, No. 4, 571-86.
- Peter Atkins, Ascension Now: Implications of Christ’s Ascension for Today’s Church (Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001).
- Joseph A. Fitzmeyer S.J., “Melchizedek in the MT, LXX, and the NT,” Biblica 81 (2000), 63-69; www.bsw.org/project/biblica .
- G. Levi Della Vida, “El Elyon in Genesis 14:18-20,” JBL LXIII 1944 1-9
- Mathias Delcor, “Melchizedek from Genesis to the Qumran Texts and the Epistle to the Hebrews” (JSJ2, 1971), 115-35.