This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology. You can visit my web pages here, but note that they are not kept up-to-date.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

New evidence that Hebrews was written by a man

The author of the epistle to the Hebrews had previously visited the recipients and intends to travel to them again (Heb 13:19, 23). This suggests that the author was a man, since women rarely, if ever, traveled, except in the company of male members of their households. This point has been overlooked, as far as I can tell.

I argued here that those who travelled among the diaspora churches were all men. I think that women could  take any role in the early church, but (due to the misogyny of the wider non-Christian society) did not travel. Most of the New Testament was written by people, such as Luke and Paul, who, through travel, had witnessed events and developed relationships that gave them occasion to write histories and letters. This, I think, goes a long way to explaining why no New Testament document is attributed to a woman. Women, I suggest, had the authority to write scripture, but, since they did not travel, they did not have the occasion to write it.

Tal Ilan's "The Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity Part III The Western Diaspora 330BCE-650CE" contains 1230 entries for females and 4419 entries for males. Ilan conveniently gives a description field for each entry, in which she includes any references to the person's place of origin in the source.  For example, an epitaph records Judah "of Tarsus" (Ταρσεύς). I laboriously searched all 1230 female entries and found just 18 with a place of origin description. I then searched a representative 1230 male entries and found some 45 such entries. From this we can project that the data base contains about 162 male entries with a place of origin description. By any measure, therefore, far fewer women than men had a place of origin description. This does seem to support the assumption that women rarely travelled. Reference to a person's place of origin is unlikely if the person was born, lived, and died in the same location.

Some have argued that Hebrews was written by Prisca/Priscilla. I am grateful to Ruth Hoppin for making the evidence available here and here, and to Brian Small for hosting some further discussion here and here. I would be interested to know how Ruth and others respond to the evidence that women did not tend to travel on church business.


  1. June 24, 2011


    We have the example of Phoebe (Romans 16:1,2) who travelled on church business from Cenchrae to Rome, a distance of about 616 miles, and presumably made the return trip as well wince she was a church leader in Cenchrae.
    As for Priscilla, she travelled from Rome to Corinth and from Corinth to Ephesus in the company of Aquila, who as I posit in my book, also accompanied her on this journey.

    Ruth Hoppin

  2. Hi Ruth. Welcome to my blog.

    I argue that women did not travel except in the company of male members of their households. See my discussion here. As far as we know, Prisca travelled only with Aquila. Phoebe, as I mentioned, was a wealthy benefactor/patron and therefore probably travelled with servants. Also at the time of Romans she may have been returning to Rome to live, just as Prisca and Aquila (and probably many of the others who are greeted) had recently returned to Rome. I suspect that Claudius had expelled the leading Christians and/or Jews from Rome and Phoebe could well fall into that category. So, for all these reasons, I think it is unlikely that Phoebe travelled alone.

    The author of Hebrews expects to travel only with Timothy. Heb 13:19 and Heb 13:23 both use the first person singular, so the author's spouse does not appear to be in view. Do I understand correctly that you think that Prisca expected Aquila to accompany her with Timothy to visit the recipients of the letter? What is the evidence?

    If women were able to travel without male members of their households, why do we not have more female apostles in the NT? Women had the authority to teach didn't they? But perhaps you agree that women did not travel independently?

  3. June 25, 2011

    Thank you, Richard, I am pleased to reply to your questions. Although Heb 13:19 and 13:23 use the first person singular, Heb. 13:18 uses the first person plural, in requesting prayers for both. Harnack noted that the singular and plural are alternated in the epistle to the Hebrews, hinting at a married couple, or joint authorship
    and making him think of Priscilla and Aquila.
    I can vouch for this; in personal correspondence I can't avoid using the singular and plural interchangeably.
    You will find a chart and discussion of this topic on pages 15 and 16 of "Priscilla's Letter."
    I don't believe the author was planning to merely visit the recipients, rather she was planning to return with the expectation of continuing a teaching ministry (Heb. 6:1-3).
    As for women apostles, we should perhaps ask why there were ANY, the prominence of women in the entourage of both Jesus and Paul being such a break with precedent. Two of note, Mary Magdalene and the Samaritan woman at the well, have long been denied the title, "apostle" which they deserved. In the New Testament epistles, Junia, hitherto an apostle of note, was given a masculine name in translation, and Nympha has a similar story to tell.

    Ruth Hoppin

  4. Thanks, Ruth.

    You suggest that the author of Hebrews included a spouse or partner in the first person plural. But don't you also need evidence that the spouse/partner was included in the travel plans? I'll read the pages from your book when I am next in the library.

    I agree with you on Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman, Junia, and Nympha. There is also good evidence that Julia was demoted by an early scribe (see here). I have blogged on Junia too, and also on the Mary of Rom 16:6. Oh, and Tabitha/Dorcas as well.

    Concerning Mary Magdalene, you may be interested in my thoughts on her epithet. See my blog post here and follow the link.

    Hmm.... By my reckoning the NT church had almost as many female benefactors as male benefactors, even though men had most of the wealth in the ancient world. I wonder how this compares with statistics on pagans and Jews of the same period.

  5. June 26, 2011

    Hi Richard,

    As for proof that Aquila accompanied Priscilla, one needn't show proof, merely plausibility, but I can do better, show probability. We have two instances of the couple traveling together, and no record of the couple traveling separately. Why would Aquila not accompany Priscilla in this instance?
    I will follow the links you suggested and read them with much interest.


  6. Hi Ruth,

    I could not find "Priscilla's Letter" in the library today. I found only your other book on Priscilla as author of Hebrews.

    The problem remains that if the author had intended to travel with her husband, she would not have used singular verbs for such travel especially if, as you suggest, she used plural verbs elsewhere when including her husband. I therefore think it is unlikely that the author was a woman.

  7. July 8, 2011
    Hi Richard,
    She used both plural and singular pronouns when including Aquila. See my chart and discussion of first person references in "Priscilla's Letter." I posit Priscilla and Aquila traveling together to Rome and returning to Ephesus - with Timothy, contingent upon Timothy's timely appearance.
    Try to get the 2009 edition of my book; it is somewhat improved with a beautiful new cover.
    In any case I wouldn't rule Priscilla out on the travel issue, not with Phoebe traveling alone, as far as we can tell, on church business.

    Ruth Hoppin

  8. I am new to the topic and have not read Hoppin's book, but it seems to me that a modern analogy of a woman using a singular when traveling may be Joyce Meyer when she says she will be in a certain city doing one of her conferences. She uses the singular even though her husband accompanies her to most of her conferences, because she does the teaching, and he works in the background to assist her in the endeavor. But still when she announces her travel plans so people can register to come to her events, she doesn't say (nor spokespeople doing her advertising say) "Dave (her husband) and I" are going to be in such and such city, but that she is coming.

  9. Thanks for that, Anonymous#2. I guess it comes down to a judgment call about whether Prisca would have used the singular when referring to occasions when in the company of Aquila, who is sometimes listed before Prisca. To me it seems a little odd that she would discuss the presence of Timothy, while overlooking that of Aquila.

  10. Richard,

    I am also new to the topic, but I write a blog myself about the ministry that my husband and I do together, and I admit that I go back and forth in using the singular and the plural when writing about how we are serving the Lord... and usually within the same blog post! When I am writing, I am recounting MY thoughts and OUR experiences, so it is entirely logical to me that that's how Priscilla would write. Is my personal experience historical evidence that Priscilla was indeed the author of Hebrews? No, but if you are going to use this particular argument, it doesn't hold weight for me from a logical perspective.