Hebrews 11:32 By Ruth Hoppin (Guest Blogger)

Derek Ouellette —  August 24, 2010

Today’s post is an excerpt taken from an article written by Ruth Hoppin titled Priscilla and Plausibility. It is published here on Covenant of Love on the request of Ruth as a fuller response to someone who commented on the interview (posted here). Brian (the commenter) raised the question of Hebrews 11:32 which reads:

“And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell [διηγούμενον]… (NIV)

The Greek word for “tell” is masculine and refers to the person writing. It would seem that the use of this word would exclude Priscilla as a potential author of Hebrews. Yet Ms. Hoppin believes that this passage can be plausibly explained:


The controversial participle in Heb. 11:32, diegoumenon, or telling, in the phrase “time will fail me telling…” is routinely cited as masculine – routinely and by rote, because not much thought is given to it and we have the impression that one commentator copies from another. The participle allegedly disqualifies a female author or as one source declares “thereby disposing of Priscilla.” “Disposing of” is strong language.  Upon more nuanced reflection we will see that Priscilla is not gone.

As we know a participle is a verbal adjective. Just as in English, an adjective modifies a noun or pronoun. In 11:32, telling modifies the pronoun me. Just as in English, me is in the accusative case, so that telling is in the accusative case.

This is significant because in the accusative case, the masculine and neuter forms of the participle are identical.

If we had the pronoun I or egw, thus the nominative case, the masculine form would be diegoumenos and the neuter form diegoumenon, the feminine being diegoumenan, differing by only one letter, eta, in next to last position.

But we don’t have the nominative case. What we have is a participle that is either masculine or neuter.

When I wrote my 1997 book, Priscilla’s Letter: Finding the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, I knew that the masculine and neuter forms were identical, but I didn’t realize that the neuter might have been intended. In November 1997 two events occurred. First, through serendipity, I met a Professor of NT Greek at the annual SBL convention in San Francisco, who  later informed me he had new evidence for my Priscilla theory concerning the participle in Heb. 11:32. Second, my newly published book was removed from general circulation, paving the way for its eventual reprinting by another publisher in 2000, with inclusion of the new material.

In brief, he said the participle diegoumenon may have been neuter in intention as well as form. According to good classical usage, when the individuality of the author is not crucial in a sentence, the use of the neuter has ample precedent.

Tracing the grammar, we recall that a participle is both a verb and an adjective. According to Blass and Debrunner:

“When the predicate stands for the subject conceived as a class and in the abstract, not as an individual instance or example, then classical usage puts the adjectival predicate in the neuter singular, even with subjects of another gender.” (2)

In Heb. 11:32. time would fail anyone in telling.

In addition to BDF I wish to cite another reference, an earlier work, Herbert Weir Smyth’s Greek Grammar for Colleges published earlier, in 1920.

Yet, there have been objections to the explication of telling as an adjectival predicate intended as neuter. One is “it’s not an adjective; it’s an adverb.” My response is “it’s not an adverb; it’s an adjective.” An adverb modifies a verb. Where is the verb?

If the participle has an adverbial quality to it, referring to duration of time (Time will fail me telling…) that is an issue in English translation.

When translated from Greek into English, an adjectival predicate can morph into an adverbial clause. In the phrase, “time will fail me telling,” it is clear that “telling,” which modifies the pronoun “me” is a verbal adjective. However, English translations sometimes introduce the pronoun “I” and/or change the participle to an infinitive, “to tell.”  Thus in the NAB, we have “I have no time to tell,” giving the adverbial sense of time failing “as I tell.”

NT Professor Martin Culy of Briercrest Biblical Seminary (Apr. 13, 2004 b-greek@lists(dot)ibiblio(dot)org) asks “what syntactic basis (in most cases) remains for viewing the participles as adverbial? I would suggest that the only basis relates to English translation rather than Greek syntax…If “adjectival” elements modify constituents like nouns and pronouns, while “adverbial” elements modify verbs, I prefer to label these participles, which go with a pronoun, adjectival and to then ask how that syntax affects our understanding of the text.”

In his article, “The Clue is in the Case: Distinguishing Adjectival and Adverbial Participles,” he writes:

“Adverbial participles will always be nominative, except for absolute constructions or when they modify an infinitive.”

(3) Our participle thus remains accusative and adjectival.

However, he has posed a different objection: “It’s not a predicate.” In email correspondence he wrote that the participle, in referring back to the pronoun, is not a predicate, and so does not qualify as an adjectival participle covered by the rule in BDG.  According to the first-mentioned Professor of NT Greek, the participle, being part of a “pat construction”, is an adjectival predicate, and is covered by the rule in BDF. According to a recent email from Prof. Carl W. Conrad, the participle is obviously in the predicate, although he disagrees that it is an adjectival predicate under the rule in Blass and DeBrunner.

Prof. Bernard LaMontagne  recently reviewed the relevant material, and in his own words:

“I read Heb. 11:32 in Greek without any consideration for the English in order to capture the sense of the original…I still do believe that it’s neuter (an impersonal or general reference.)”

Along a slightly different line, Prof. Culy suggested that the idiom, time will fail me in telling, was so common that it may have become “fossilized,” that is, the masculine form might have been used by an author of either gender. This is the “editorial masculine” that Harnack and others considered plausible, that is, the author speaks for herself, for herself and another person, or for people in general. Priscilla may have been speaking for herself and Aquila, as Harnack suggested. Or the “literary masculine” may have been intended. On three other occasions the author refers to lack of time, in behalf of hypothetical multiple writers: 2:5 about which we are speaking; 5:11 about which we have much to say; and 9:5 of these things we cannot speak now in detail.

Carl Conrad does not consider the participle “decisive for the possibility of authorship by Priscilla.” He writes that one could use “the generic Greek masculine form just as a writer of American English in the past could have written “he” rather than “she.” It is plausible that the original document may have had the feminine participle, even without manuscript evidence for this possibility. At a time when female teachers and leaders were falling out of favor in the church, the suppression of a feminine participle would have been essential to gain acceptance for the letter. The plausibility of this scenario increases in connection with substantive evidence for Priscilla’s authorship.

In setting forth grounds for a grammatical resolution of Heb. 11:32 in favor of Priscilla, I acknowledge one more differing viewpoint.  According to one professor of NT Greek, we can’t ascribe a neuter intention in every such case. He personally thinks the intention was masculine. However, he agrees that the matter has been thrown into uncertainty, in which case Priscilla cannot be eliminated as a possible author. That is all one needs to show.

-excerpt from a paper by Ruth Hoppin (Priscilla and Plausibility)

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://polumeros.blogspot.com Brian Small

    My first reaction is that the documentation for her assertion is inadequate. See the full article here:


    She claims to cite Smyth’s grammar, but then neither provides a quotation, nor gives us the reference. I would also like to know where she is getting the quotation from Marty Culy (the comment about the expression becoming “fossilized”). She also cites a Carl Conrad and a Bernard LaMontague, as well as an unnamed Greek professor, with no accompanying documentation. Presumably, these were private conversations or email exchanges for which she has no documentation, but the cumulative effect is that there is no way to independently verify all of her claims. While I do not intend to call into question Ms. Hoppin’s veracity in these matters, it is the standard practice in the academic community for scholars to provide documentary evidence so that other scholars can evaluate the claims. Perhaps Ms. Hoppin has misconstrued the comments, but we have no way of checking because she does not provide all of the documentation.

    In one of the places where she can be checked, BDF par. 131, her argument does not stand. It is curious that BDF does not cite Heb 11:32 as an example of a construction of an adjectival predicate in the neuter singular; that’s because it isn’t. First, there is no copula in the sentence as in all the examples that BDF gives. What we have is a verb (επιλειψει) with a direct object (με). The participle διηγουμενον modifies the direct object, not a predicate. Culy’s analysis is probably correct; διηγουμενον is probably an adjectival participle, but this does not help her case since the participle is not in the predicate position. I also don’t see how the sentence could be “neuter in intention” since the indefinite pronoun τινα was readily available for the author to use, instead of the personal pronoun.

    If this explanation does not work, she resorts to other conjectures: perhaps the phrase is a “fossilized” expression such as an “editorial masculine” or a “literary masculine.” She cites 2:5, 5:11, and 9:5, for the latter explanation but I don’t know how these verses help her case since none of them use a masculine pronoun. In order to strengthen her case it would be helpful if Ms. Hoppin could cite actual instances in Greek literature that have comparable expressions. She has not…

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

    Part 2:

    …provided any examples, but only engaged in conjectures. If none of these explanations work, then she offers one final conjecture: that the participle may have been changed from a feminine to a masculine form. There is no textual evidence for this assertion. If this supposed change was made it would had to have been done early on in its textual history before the document was widely circulated. Certainly anything is possible, but here we are in the realm of pure speculation.
    Ms. Hoppin asserts that the case for the masculine participle has been thrown into uncertainty, but then she manages to turn this uncertainty into certainty for Priscillan authorship. This seems to me to be a strange way to make an argument.

  • Ruth Hoppin

    Hello again. Your request for documentation is well-considered and I don’t take it at all to mean you doubt my veracity. I no longer have relevant email in my computer, but I have a file holder labelled “Heb. 11:32,” which has hard copies some of which I will have scanned. Please allow time for this. Interestingly, I have already come across some info I had filed and forgotten that could be helpful to me. Again, I mentioned the possibility that a feminine participle might have been altered, not that there is manuscript evidence for such an assertion, but I knew it would occur to some of my readers. Uncertainty over the masculine participle doesn’t make the case, but it does remove an obstacle in the minds of many.

  • Ruth Hoppin

    Hi Brian. I do have copies of the relevant email correspondence and will send you a set of photocopies using the mailing address that I found in the SBL membership directory. I believe this will reassure you that I have rightly understood and fairly reprented my correspondents.
    You may, of course, refer to these documents in future dialogue but please do not post them online anywhere (not that you would).

    You asked about the reference for Smyth; it is Herbert Smyth, “A Greek Grammar for Colleges,” section 1048. The quote is “A predicate adjective referring to a masculine or feminine singular subject is often neuter singular and equivalent to a substantive. This occurs chiefly in statements of a general truth, where the subject refers to a whole class, not to an individual thing.”

    Concerning instances in the literature that are relevant to this discussion, I am looking into interesting leads I found in my file.

    I came across an article online, “Jude as the Author of Hebrews,” this is all to the good, the topic is current.


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

    Thanks Ruth,

    The Smyth wording is more understandable. I found the BDF wording quite convoluted (apparently it was translated from German, which would explain it). Looking at the examples from Smyth, I notice again that the examples cited all have a copula or an implied copula in the sentence, so I don’t see how this rule is applicable to Heb 11:32.

    This grammatical structure is used “in statements of a general truth, where the subject refers to a whole class, not to an individual thing” (Smyth, 1048). Again, I don’t think this applies. The author was using a rhetorical commonplace called aposiopesis. It is not a gnomic statement in my estimation.

    I will review with interest the email exchanges you send me. I have never heard of some of these gentlemen, though I trust they are reputable scholars. While I am sure their opinions carry some weight, I would still like to see concrete evidence of such fossilized expressions which are comparable to Heb 11:32. It is one thing to have an informed opinion about a matter, but it is another thing to back up one’s opinion with concrete evidence.

    Apparently, the issue of the authorship of Hebrews is still a lively topic as evidenced by David Allen’s new book on the Lukan Authorship of Hebrews.

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