James Rendel Harris (1852-1941) was a British biblical and patristics scholar and a collector and curator of ancient manuscripts. He taught at Cambridge, Johns Hopkins, Haverford College, and Leiden University, before becoming director of studies at the Society of Friend’s Woodbrooke College near Birmingham. He also served as the curator of manuscripts of the John Rylands Library in Manchester.
In this lecture Harris seeks to build upon Harnack’s argument that Priscilla is the author of Hebrews by focusing primarily on chapter 11. The author of Hebrews wants to include women among the witnesses of faith. Harris finds the three references to women in this catalogue of faith astonishing examples.
Harris claims that Hebrews reads like it was written by someone who is in exile. The author attempts to instill in his readers the “Christian grace of detachment, which results from a right estimate of things transitory and of things eternal” (156). The author emphasizes that there remains a rest for the people of God. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were sojourners in a foreign land seeking for a heavenly dwelling (cf. 11:8-10, 13-16). Joseph spoke of the exodus and the return of his bones to the promised land (11:22). Moses too fled Egypt “not fearing the wrath of the king.” Harris finds in this last example a parallel to the edict of Claudius which expelled the Jews from Rome. This would accord well with what we know about Priscilla and Aquila. Moreover, 13:13-14 also echoes the sentiments of an exile.
Harris tries to address two major objections to the argument of Harnack. The first objection is that the “feminization” of chapter 11 is insufficient to support a female authorship. Harris begins by asking what is the extent of the author of Hebrews’ Bible. He argues that his Bible extended from Genesis through 4 Maccabees. The wording of Heb 12:2, 4 seems to echo the language of 4 Macc 17:10 (which praises a women and her seven sons who were martyred for their resistance to the policies of Antiochus). This enables Harris to appeal to the Praise of Famous Men found in Sirach chapter 44 and following. During the entire course of Sirach’s rehearsal of Israelite history he never mentions any women (Of course Sirach evinces misogynistic tendencies throughout his whole work, so this is not surprising). This is the way a man would write Israelite history, Harris argues, so this reinforces Harnack’s argument that the author of Hebrews has feminized Israelite history: “It is either a woman, or a man under the influence of woman” (166).
Harris proceeds to note that the roll call of Hebrews 11 changes from an enumeration of names to a enumeration of their deeds. Nevertheless, the heroes of Israelite history can still be detected behind the allusions. Daniel and the three Hebrews can clearly be detected among the allusions. In addition, allusions to the martyrdoms of Isaiah (sawn in two) and Jeremiah (stoning) appear to be in view. Harris attempts to identify further allusions by turning to 1 Clement. Chapter 17 elicits allusions to Elijah, Elisha and Ezekiel. Harris believes that chapter 55, in its discussion of Judith and Esther, also alludes to Hebrews 11. Here is where Harris’ argument gets really dubious. Based on the similarities of two words in 1 Clement and Hebrews Harris avers that 11:34 alludes to the story of Judith. Harris wants to amend the text to read thus: “[women] from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” The masculine adjective ισχυροι presents no problem for Harris, since Clement says that “women, made strong by Divine Grace performed manly deeds” (171). Harris also believes that Esther may be alluded to among the exemplars of faith, but he fails to identify an adequate allusion. So, Harris thinks he has added Judith and Esther to the three other female exemplars of faith. Harris reiterates his contention that the author of Hebrews recounts Israelite history through the Maccabees. Heb 11:38 appears to be an allusion to 2 Macc 10:6.
Harris turns to the second fatal objection to Harnack’s argument: the use of the masculine singular participle in 11:32. Here he raises the possibility that “as it is a case of variation of a single letter, the text may have undergone correction” (175). However, Harris confesses that he has not found a single manuscript to support this supposed reading. So Harris’ argument founders at this point. Harris delivered this lecture in 1908, but to date–as far as I can tell–no manuscript has surfaced to support this theory.
In an earlier post I have already expressed my reasons for rejecting Priscilla as the possible author of Hebrews. I think that the grammar of 11:32 eliminates her as a candidate, especially in view of the fact that the author was known by his audience. The supposed “feminization” of Israelite history in Hebrews 11 does not make her candidacy any more likely. However, I see no major objection to Aquila as a possible author. Aquila would have shared the same experience of exile as Priscilla, and if they were co-equal partners in ministry together, Aquila would have had a higher view of women than perhaps many of his contemporaries. So perhaps the “feminization” of Hebrews 11 could be explained on these grounds.
Out of curiosity I though I would check Ben Witherington’s new commentary on Hebrews in his Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians. Witherington has been a big proponent for women in ministry, and has written (to my recollection) three or four books on the role of women in the ministry of Jesus and in the early church. In a footnote on page 22 he says this:
For the original suggestion that Priscilla was the author of this document, see Harnack, “Probabilia.” For a popular treatment of this thesis, see Hoppin’s Priscilla and Priscilla’s Letter. One of the problems with Hoppin’s work is that she assumes that the name of the author is lost, whereas (since this is a homily and not a letter) one should assume that the author’s name was well known to the audience and did not need to be mentioned. Hoppin does not consider the similarities with the case of 1 John, another homily. Additionally, if the document was by Priscilla we would expect Aquila to be involved, but clues in the text suggest a single author. I do not rule out this thesis entirely, but much stands against it, including the grammar of Heb 11:32. The author of this document is both very literate and well educated, which was a rarity for Jewish women of this era, who when they had education were not expected to do advanced studies in the Septuagint or rhetoric! Perhaps most tellingly, our author has some sort of authority over Jewish Christians in Rome. How many ancient Christian women fit this formidable profile in the mid-first century? Very few indeed.With this assessment I agree.