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Review: Priscilla’s Letter

Hoppin, Ruth. Priscilla’s Letter. Fort Bragg, CA: Lost Coast Press, 1999. ISBN: 1-882897-50-1

In general when I write something I call a “review” I might better call it a set of notes. I don’t think my opinion about a book, positive or negative, is of much value in and of itself. But if I can give you some direction in terms of what is valuable, and what is not so valuable–that seems worthwhile to me.

I had my attention called to this little book when the author, Ruth Hoppin, was an author of the month for the Compuserve Religion Forum. Unfortunately, I hadn’t read the book at that point, and thus was unable to engage the author seriously on her major arguments. Such arguments as she did give left me wondering if she was not continuing well past the limits of her evidence.

Nonehteless, I think I’m biased slightly in favor of her conclusion. I would like to see some substantial solution to the authorship of Hebrews, one that could command a substantial consensus of Biblical scholars. I’d also be quite pleased to see the authorship of a book of the New Testament by a woman, because I believe it is important that we include more women in ministry. I do not believe it is essential to have such a letter. It’s merely useful to help shake some people loose who are too much bound by tradition.

Unfortunately I ended this book in the same position in which I started it. I’m of the opinion that there is no solution to the authorship of Hebrews. All possible hypotheses have some problems, and none is likely to command the respect of a consensus of Biblical scholars, nor does any deserve to.

This is not because Biblical scholars are too lazy, or too divisive to come to a conclusion. There simply is insufficient evidence to put a name to the author of Hebrews. The blurb on the back cover notes: “Recognition of Priscilla’s claim will advance the social and religious status of all women.” That is a goal devoutly to be desired, and yet I have to ask why such advancement should depend on whether or not a woman wrote one of the books of the Bible. It is plainly clear, as one can see from Ms. Hoppin’s little book, along with a substantial percentage of the books in my library, that women can write well. Church leaders who will reject the obvious gifts of the women who are present in their congregations are unlikely to be convinced against their will be easily deniable evidence.

And that’s really the problem with this book. It is not that it is a bad book. It’s actually rather good. It’s not that it displays sloppy scholarship. In general, it is well-researched and painstakingly footnoted. The problem is that the author claims: “The scale tells us that the Epistle to the Hebrews should be ascribed to Priscilla.” After reading the same evidence as presented in this book, I would say that what has been demonstrated is simply that Priscilla should not be excluded as a possible author of Hebrews.

There is an interesting rhetorical approach in this book which I find fairly common in books of critical Biblical scholarship. After some substantial speculation, the author will make a very positive statement about what has gone before. Her “charge to the jury” approach provides an interesting framework for this rhetorical certainty, as we are repeatedly reminded of the accumulating evidence in favor of Priscilla. But if we look more carefully, each element of this case is very speculative.

For example, one of the reasons for rejection of Paul as the author is the style of the epistle, which does not seem to match that of Paul’s authentic letters. This is a fairly good argument against Paul, and one that I personally find convincing. But the reason it is a convincing argument is that I have authenticated letters of Paul, and I have the book of Hebrews, and I can compare the styles. While Hebrews itself is not a large literary work to give me comparative material, it is sufficient to show that, at a minimum, this letter is unlike the epistles Paul is known to have written. Since I have several of Paul’s letters, and they all show common features of form and style, the probability increases that Paul used a single style for epistles, and didn’t change that a great deal due to subject matter or audience. This is not conclusive, but it is highly persuasive.

But in the case of Priscilla, I have absolutely nothing to go on. I have nothing that she wrote. I have no information on her theology, except that she associated with Paul, and we know of people who associated with Paul (Apollos, for example) whose theology was apparently not identical. So in this case Priscilla’s claim is not derailed simply because we have no evidence in that category. This argument applies equally to stylistic and theological criteria.

The one issue of style that can potentially be tested is whether the author is most likely a man or a woman. Ms. Hoppin dedicates two chapters to that topic, chapter 3, “Is the Author Feminine?” and chapter 4, “Does the Author Identify with Women?” But here again we do not have large volumes of theological texts in Greek from the 1st century that were written by women to compare to the one letter we have before us. It’s quite possible that differences in approach between the 1st century and the present outweigh any differences between a man and a woman writing then.

The author of Hebrews does, indeed, give us a substantial list of women in Hebrews 11, but remember that every one of those stories came from somewhere in Hebrew scriptures and or tradition, largely written and transmitted by men. Thus they were women already acknowledged by the faith tradition to be important women of faith. I think it is quite possible for a woman to have written Hebrews 11, but unfortunately I also consider it quite possible for a man to have done so.

All of the evidence with regard to Priscilla’s education, her skill with the Greek language, her theological and Biblical knowledge is largely speculative. I’m quite certain, based on the scriptural evidence presented that Priscilla was a teacher in the church, and I can’t help but point out to my complementarian brethren that it is quite clear that she taught men. If you get nothing else from this book, get that one point. Priscilla and Junia (Romans 16:7) are both good examples of women of influence in the church. Speaking of which, what is there to prevent Junia from being the author of Hebrews? We don’t know that she was, but we also don’t know that she wasn’t.

Must the author of Hebrews come from those people known to be in Paul’s circle? I think this is one of the weakest elements of the argument. I would suggest that yes, indeed, there are enough Pauline related themes in Hebrews to suggest that the author was somehow touched by Paul’s teaching. But the tenuous connection of the author of Hebrews to the Pauline circle (knowing Timothy, Hebrews 13:23, hardly guarantees that the author will also be directly “tight” with Paul. The relationship with Paul’s theology could easily be mediated by Timothy himself, for example. And if the author is Priscilla, why does she not mention coming with Aquila, rather than with Timothy, or perhaps mention both? I don’t think this is truly a barrier to Priscilla’s authorship, but that idea is no more speculative than most of the evidence in favor of Priscilla.

This is just a sample of the issues I found in this book. I would mention in passing that in determining that the destination letter must be Ephesus, some weight is placed on the community of Essenes there. Again, there is no necessity, in my view, to see that the book of Hebrews relates exclusively to Essene themes. It is a great temptation when dealing with ancient history to focus everything on the things for which you do have evidence. The Qumran community must be Essenes, because we know about them, and if they’re not Essenes, they’re just some new sect. But there are differences, and just how substantial a distinction is there between calling the Qumran Community “Essense with some distinctive doctrines” and “a community with the following doctrines”? In fact, the latter seems better, because then we will be less tempted to apply quotes from the Dead Sea Scrolls to every Essene community we come across.

In determining the relationship between two sets of ideas it is equally important to check the things that are dissimilar as it is to check the things that are similar. I’m remind of the line in the movie Johnny Dangerously when Johnny’s mother is attempting to persuade a neighbor and rival to loan her some money. She says something like, “We have lot’s in common.” “No,” says the other, “we have nothing in common.” “Well,” says Johnny’s mother, “we both do laundry, we’re both swell lookers, and neither one of us is Chinese!” That’s from memory, but I think it is close enough. Similar techniques are often used in identifying sects and movements in history, because it is so unsatisfying not to have a solution to a problem. Thus we prefer any solution that is not excessively improbable over simply admitting we don’t know.

In the case of the authorship of Hebrews, my conclusion is that we don’t really know. Having said that, I think anyone studying the book would do well to consider Ruth Hoppin’s contribution to the subject. Her proposal is certainly not less probable than all the rest. It is simply one effort to to work through the sparse evidence to a possible conclusion. The ride is fun, even if I don’t find the final stop all that convincing.

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  1. So – has it been widely accepted that it’s Junia (female) and not Junius (male)?

    Also, while your opinion on whether a book is good or not probably won’t sell it to me (mostly because we have FAR too many books already, given the size of our house!) I do appreciate your explanation of what you thought about it and why. It deals with an issue I know very little about, and yet you put things clearly and simply, so that I can understand what’s going on. And if I actually REMEMBER what I read (one can only hope…) then I will have learned something. Yey!

  2. Dana, the short answer to your question about Junia is “yes”, by the Greek scholars and even by those opposed to women’s ministry like Daniel Wallace. For a longer answer see the long series of posts on this issue at the Better Bibles Blog, such as this one and the earlier ones indexed here.

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