Interview with Ruth Hoppin, Author of Priscilla’s Letter

Derek Ouellette —  August 21, 2010 — 9 Comments

I recently read and reviewed David Allen’s book Lukan Authorship of Hebrews. In it David has a chart which lists all of the primary candidates for Hebrew authorship along with the scholar who proposed them. Priscilla was last on the list, being the most recent to step forward, and Ruth Hoppin is Priscillian Authorships strongest defender. While I was still reading Lukan Authorship of Hebrews Ruth Hoppin contacted me asking if I would be interested in considering Priscillian Authorship. She sent me a copy of her book (Priscilla’s Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews), and after having read it we exchanged a few email’s with some Q&A. The following interview is the result of that exchange.

Derek: Priscilla’s Letter was first published in 1997, but only remained in print for a few months before it was republished in 2009. Can you tell us a little bit about the “suspicious circumstances” (p.x) revolving around its early and untimely removal from publication?

Ruth: Priscilla’s Letter was indeed removed from general circulation soon after publication, despite promising initial sales and an obligatory two-year contract. Surreal happenings  took place, for example a woman who wanted to review the book in area churches  was reprimanded by the publisher for calling repeatedly in order to obtain books in quantity. The melodrama unfolding in 1997 intensified when I sued for breach of contract and suppression. Thanks to the perseverance of attorneys in California and Maryland, I collected  a settlement of $70,000 in 2003. I never envisioned these events when I innocently signed a publishing contract!

Meanwhile I had to find another publisher. Priscilla’s Letter was re-issued by Lost Coast Press in 2000 and recently reprinted.  I think it is relevant to add that the Spanish language edition, translated by a minister in Arizona, was also issued by Lost Coast Press last year.

Derek: Luke is not in the line-up of possible candidates of Hebrew authorship you address for rebuttal. Given Dr. David Allen’s recent book, Lukan Authorship of Hebrews (which came out after Priscilla’s Letter) it would seem that Luke is now as much a candidate as anyone. What reasons would you have for rejecting Lukan authorship of Hebrews?

Ruth: Yes,  I learned about David Allen’s research too late to give Luke the extra attention he apparently deserved. Luke really seemed like a minor candidate. I had some friendly dialogue with David Allen when I learned about his work. We have a lot in common, that is, we have both spent many years pondering the authorship of Hebrews. Well, I can think of two main arguments against Luke. One is that he did not have a teaching and pastoral ministry in the destination city, as far as we know, or for that matter a teaching and pastoral ministry in any one location. Luke did know what was going on in Ephesus, but there is no evidence for his ministry there. Second, I can’t imagine why or how his name would have been lost.

Derek: Without the archeological evidence which is brought to light in Priscilla’s Letter, is it still possible to posit Priscilla’s authorship of Hebrews?

Ruth: Could we posit her authorship without that entire chapter? Yes, because I tried to develop several lines of reasoning to make the case. The archeological evidence for Priscilla is valuable, and fills in many parts of my argument, her Roman background being related to her likely association with Peter, an “eye-witness”  who preached about Jesus (Heb. 2:1-3). Her family background is also very relevant, in establishing her educational advantages.

Derek: In Priscilla’s Letter you set forth to make the case, appealing to her social status and literacy, and with the help of a “testimonia” book, that Priscilla would have been capable of writing an epistle such as the Epistle to the Hebrews whether or not she was a Jew by birth. What qualifications did she have to write an Epistle addressed to an Essene community with the specific theology of that community in mind?

Ruth: Let’s see. Long conversations with Paul, with Aquila, study of scripture, and use of a testimonia book, and her own incisive mind made it possible for her to explicate the High Priesthood of Jesus in the context  of the beliefs and concerns of her readers. Sometimes people ask me why Priscilla was so interested in the priesthood. I believe that she wrote about the priesthood of Jesus (despite his lack of priestly lineage) because her people, that is, the recipients of the epistle were interested in the topic.

It seems ironic, doesn’t it, that Christ as High Priest should be a major theme of Hebrews. Jesus, in his earthly ministry, had so much trouble with high priests.

Derek: Your thesis makes for the argument that Priscilla was recognized in the early church as a great teacher in spite of the fact that she was a woman. The recipients to her Epistle were aware of who its author was and so presumable was the church in Rome. What do you think caused the shift from acceptance of a woman author of Hebrews to a suppression by Clement and others shortly afterwards?

Ruth: I do think there was a certain “backlash” against the gender egalitarianism that is so well documented in the early church. This was undoubtedly fueled by cultural factors outside the church as well as the attitude of some within the church.

Derek: Given that Priscilla and Paul were close friends, and assuming Paul wrote both first and second Timothy, how do you think Priscilla would have understood Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 2:12?

Ruth: I think Priscilla would have been very cross with him indeed.

That is, if he really wrote it, which is disputed by many if not most scholars. Certainly, he could have strayed from his right thinking about gender equality, in accommodation to cultural factors outside and inside the church. We really need to weigh restrictive verses about women against the tenor of scripture which testifies to an extraordinary acceptance of women in all kinds of leadership roles.

Derek: Do you believe the world is ready to accept that a woman wrote scripture?

Ruth: I don’t know if the entire world will ever be ready to welcome a woman author of scripture, but circumstances are favorable. At this time in history we have a tradition of scholarly investigations into the Bible that is not inextricably bound to faith and piety. In the United States we have seen the emergence of one human rights movement after another, with feminism closely following the black civil rights movement. This has created a certain climate of opinion that affects everyone. Evangelicals, as well as moderate and liberal persons of faith have come to look upon knowledge not as a threat, but rather as “faith seeking understanding.”

Derek: What is at stake in the Hebrews authorship debate and what would be gained if Priscilla’s authorship were confirmed?

Ruth: First of all, knowledge would be gained, knowledge about our Holy Writings, and the impetus behind them.

There is no denying the impact of a female author writing at the highest level of inspiration, teaching and guiding people throughout the ages. Yes, I believe the spiritual and social status of women would be elevated, that is to say, the way they are perceived and perceive themselves. Even in countries where women enjoy the benefits of freedom, there are women who accept domestic abuse as a consequence of religious attitudes. And in countries where women have no freedom, acceptance of Priscilla’s claim would surely resonate.

Comments Welcomed!

Would a woman author of scripture improve the status of women in the Christian community?

Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Geneinne

    Although I would need much more proof of authorship than offered int he book I can agree that many women would feel more valued if the author was a women.As to the idea of women staying in relationships where abuse is taking place I do not beleive that the bible suggests that women should stay in these circumstances. I think that has always been a man-made ( not just man as in gender) (smile), falso teaching. I do beleive that Jesus highly appraised women and personally do have a problem with the idea that women are very able to do more than just teach Sunday School. Thank God I have a wonderful husband who’s masculinity is not based in feeling superior and we are able to commend and critique each other. I beleive we are partners in every sense of the word and my husband does not have a hard time receiving from a women in leadership. It’s the quality and truthfulness of the preaching or teaching rather than which gender is doing the teaching. Praise the Lord for real men of God who are secure enough in themselves to be open to God’s Word from many sources!

  • Tom

    Thanks for posting this … while the thesis might be tenuous, it sounds like there’s some critical, if circumstantial, evidence to support this.

    But what makes great sense to me is why the church, after being Romanized, would want to eliminate this possibility … and why conservative publishing houses wouldn’t want to touch this.

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek

    I should add that I don’t necesserily agree with Ruth. I make every effort to read Priscilla’s Letter with an open mind, and to ask my questions in a journalistic (unbias) yet critical fashion. Keep watch for my critical review of Priscilla’s Letter to follow. Many of her arguments are surprisingly good, but some, in my opinion, are a little thin.

  • http://polumeros.blogspot.com Brian Small

    I had a cordial email exchange with Ms. Hoppin a year or two ago about the authorship of Hebrews. Like you, I am not persuaded by her thesis. While I am not philosophically opposed to Priscilla being the author, I think the possibility remains highly remote due to the self-referential masculine participle at 11:32. I think her understanding of the Greek construction there is flawed, and there would be no reason to “hide” her identity since the author is apparently known by the recipients. I wondering, though, if the arguments made for Priscilla could also point to Aquila, with Priscilla as a “co-author” since in a couple of places the author uses second person plural pronouns in some places.

  • Ruth Hoppin

    Hello Brian. I would like to reply to a couple of your comments, not necessarily in order. Aquila is almost certain to have been involved in the content of the epistle, with his insight and knowledge. I can’t imagine him being sidelined and, as Harnack believed, Aquila was the likely cuase of the plural pronouns. As for the actual writing, the epistle is so tightly and expertly written that even if there had been a writing partnership, one author would have been dominant.

    Now concerning the matter of Heb. 11:32, which is often cited to disqualify a female author. A couple of years ago I gathered comments by NT Greek scholars concerning a grammatical rebuttal to this objection. To sum up briefly, the grammatical rule in rebuttal is that the masculine and neuter forms of the participle in the accusative case (as here) being identical, the neuter is often intended when a person in general not any specific person, is the subject. Some but not all raised objections saying the rule doesn’t apply here, so there’s a difference of opinion. What is most interesting is the statement of one scholar that we cannot always ascribe a neuter intention in such cases, that he personally thinks the masculine was intended (to me this aappears subjective) but concedes that the matter has been thrown into uncertainty.

    One suggested that the idiom “time will fail me in telling” was so common that it became “fossilized”, that is, the masculine form might have been used by an author of either gender.

    One other thing. Of course the author was known to the original readers. Alteration of a single letter to hide identity would have occurred later if at all, and this is not the case I am proposing.

    Ruth

  • http://polumeros.blogspot.com Brian Small

    Hi Ruth, nice to dialogue with you again.

    It was Harnack’s article that suggested to me that the arguments he made concerning Priscilla could equally be made for Aquila, so I maintain that Aquila could have been the primary author and Priscilla a co-author.

    I remember you pointing me to a paragraph in BDF that supposedly supported your grammatical argument, but when I looked at it I didn’t think the grammatical structure in Hebrews was comparable. I ran the passage by one of my former Greek professors at the University of Kentucky and asked for his opinion (without letting him know the reason for my request because I didn’t want to prejudice him) and he agreed that the participle has to be masculine.

  • Ruth Hoppin

    Brian, I think you will be interested in my Guest Blog that Derek posted today, which is an excerpt from a paper I presented (PCR/SBL) that pertains to Heb. 11:32. It is obvious that there is a variety of opinion among scholars on whether the participle can be construed as neuter in intention
    and also if common usage would explain how it can apply to a subject of either gender. Even if the latter is a minority opinion, I feel that there has been a “rush to judgment” to eliminate Priscilla as a possible author.
    Ruth

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