Beyond Sex Roles: Priscilla as the Author of Hebrews | CBE International

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Beyond Sex Roles: Priscilla as the Author of Hebrews

Editor’s Note: Gilbert Bilezikian published the especially influential book, Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says about a Woman’s Place in Church and Family, in 1985—shortly before the founding of CBE International. Second and third editions appeared in 1989 and 2006. All three were published by Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group. The third edition included an extended endnote (note 55, pp. 248-50), which we reproduce here with kind permission from both the author and the publisher.

Luther’s suggestion that Apollos is the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has much to commend it. Should this be the case, we would be indebted to Priscilla for many of the insights contained in that great document.

Even more intriguing is the theory that Priscilla herself is the author of Hebrews (A. Harnack, A. S. Peake, O. Michel, R. Hoppin, among others).

It is not inconceivable that Priscilla had been commissioned by church leaders to address the issue of the relation of the two covenants. As a Jewish leader who had been associated with the now-deceased apostle Paul during his teaching ministry, she would be uniquely qualified to write authoritatively on an issue that they had confronted together repeatedly in their ministries to Jewish-Gentile churches. Because of the antifemale bias of the Judeo-Christian congregations, she may have been requested to write anonymously, with her identity known only by the local leaders who had given her the assignment. In this manner she would be able to address the issue from her expertise as a scholar of Jewish background, under the cover of apostolic authority derived from her close association with the apostle Paul and other worthies of the apostolic church.

In so doing, she may also have set a precedent for nonapostles such as Mark, James, and Jude, but especially for Luke, as he wrote the third Gospel and the book of Acts, both anonymous in the text but authoritative for the church on the strength of Luke’s association with Paul. This device of semi-anonymity would enable her to direct her exhortations to Christians wavering between the two covenants without her gender being an obstacle for the acceptance of her message by the tradition-bound Judaizing believers. This theory would help explain a number of baffling features of the epistle.

a. It could account for the absence of an authorial superscription and the conspiracy of anonymity that surrounded its authorship in the ancient church. The lack of any firm data concerning the identity of the author in the extant writings of the church suggests a deliberate suppression more than a case of collective memory loss.

b.  The assignment of such a task to Priscilla would explain the strange nature of this document, which is a cross between an epistle and a treatise. The author would be writing a general tract without the concrete historical specificity that would implicate her identity but with the real needs of a congregation in mind.

c. This theory would account for the tone of respectful deference extended to leaders among the readers, especially if the author had been commissioned by them to write the document incognito. The readers are called “holy brethren” (Heb. 3:1). They are exhorted to remember their leaders and to imitate their faith (13:17). In so doing, the author would place herself under the warrant of the leaders’ credentials for the acceptance of her message.

d.  The theory of Priscillan authorship would also provide an explanation for a number of semi-apologetic pleas for credibility found in the epistle. Statements such as the following seem to address a hindrance that pertains to the status of the author without constituting a reason for disqualification as a doctor of the church.

Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner. (Heb. 13:18-19)

I appeal to you, brethren, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. (Heb. 13:22).

e.  The theory would also account for the baffling remark made by the author prior to delving into high doctrine, “This we will do if God permits” (6:3). Rather than expressing confidence that death will not strike with the next dip of the pen, this statement seems to appeal to divine authority in pressing on to the exposition of the deeper dimensions of the Christian faith.

Likewise, the mention of the author’s travel plans as a companion of Timothy would make sense for a woman teacher desirous of receiving from Paul’s male disciple the guarantee of his advocacy as she would enter an alien and possibly unwelcoming church situation (13:23).

Such references would constitute subtle hints of the author’s understanding of the limitations pertaining to her status in a code language comprehensible to readers aware of her identity. In this light, the gender of the participle diēgoumenon in 11:32 need not be anything more than an editorial masculine.

f.   The explicit references as well as several allusions to women as exemplars of faith in Hebrews 11 come into clearer focus under the pen of a female author. Doubting Sarah (Gen. 18:12-15) becomes a claimant of the promise along with Abraham, the archetypal man of faith (Hebrews 11:11). Moses the deliverer of the people of God grows into manhood as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter (11:24). Rahab the harlot, another Gentile woman, makes possible the conquest of the land (11:31).

Verse 32 contains a list of six names in an order designed to cause puzzlement if not consternation. The list reads, “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel.” Placed in their proper chronological sequence, the names should read Barak, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, Samuel, David.

It should be noted that the list consists of three pairs of names, each pair belonging to a distinct period of history. Thus Barak and Gideon belong together, Jephthah and Samson likewise, and obviously Samuel and David were contemporaries. Moreover, the names in each pair have been inverted by the author of Hebrews so as to place the more prominent figure in first position. Gideon was more significant than Barak, Samson than Jephthah, and David than Samuel. However, in each case, the lesser figure placed in second position against the historical sequence was the one who set a precedent for or heralded the ministry of the more dominant personage. Thus, Barak the warrior set a precedent for Gideon; likewise, Jephthah paved the way for Samson; and without Samuel’s ministry there would have been no David.

Interestingly, the ministry of each lesser individual (Barak, Jephthah, Samuel) was made possible by a woman. Barak owed his victory to Deborah (Judg. 4-5), Jephthah to his daughter’s sacrifice (Judg. 11), and Samuel owed his ministry to the dedication of his mother, Hannah (1 Sam. 1). Indeed, by resorting to the subtle device of name inversions, the author of Hebrews seems to convey the message that God used the discreet ministries of women chosen by him to bring about the history-shaping deliverances of Gideon, Samson, and David. Behind the spectacular accomplishments of the heroes of faith stood great women of faith.

The last reference to women in this chapter of Hebrews is to those who “received their dead by resurrection” (11:35). Although the reference is to the prophetic ministry in the old covenant (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:17-37), this mention of the resurrection, coming as the culmination of the list of faith’s victorious achievements, cannot but evoke the figure of Mary, who gave the Messiah to the world and recovered him after death by the resurrection.

These seven reference to women, either explicit or allusive, illustrate the causalities of sacred history. At the origin of each phase of the unfolding story of redemption, there was a woman used by God to implement his will.

Sarah originated the people of God.

The daughter of Pharaoh brought up Moses the liberator as her son.

Rahab made possible the entrance of the people into the promised land.

Deborah and Jephthah’s daughter opened the way for the victories of Gideon and Samson.

Hannah was instrumental in the rise of David, whose descendant was to be the Savior.

And Mary gave him to the world.

Obviously, a male author sensitive to God’s activity in history across the gender difference would have been able to outline this noble epic. But the discreet development of the theme suggests the restrained hand of a woman.

g. Finally, the nurturing, human, compassionate tone of Hebrews has often been noted, along with a special interest in childhood (2:14; 5:8; 12:7-11). Such motifs are in line with J. Massyngberde Ford’s assessment that “we gain [in Hebrews] glimpses of Jesus’s character which do not appear elsewhere in the New Testament, qualities, we may add, which would be especially appealing to a woman—compassion, gentleness, and understanding of human weakness. No New Testament writing exhibits such a unique and delicate poise between the human and divine nature of Jesus or expresses his role as High Priest as does the Epistle to the Hebrews” (“The Mother of Jesus and the Authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews,” The Bible Today 82 [February 1976]: 684).

At this stage of New Testament research, the Priscillan authorship of Hebrews remains a theory. But the sketchy remarks above suggest that it is a theory worthy of consideration and of additional exploration. The same Priscilla who taught Apollos when he was already an eloquent man—well versed in Scripture, instructed in the way of the Lord, fervent in spirit, speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus (Acts 18:24-26)—could be the one who continues to nurture the life and thought of the church through this ageless portion of Scripture (see Ruth Hoppin, Priscilla’s Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews [Fort Bragg, CA: Lost Coast Press, 2000]).

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