Skip to content

Masculine Greek: for an adulteress, not an authoress?

February 17, 2015

For some time, Greek readers of the unsigned and unclaimed New Testament epistle of Hebrews have wondered whether its author might be an authoress. Bloggers like me have wondered.

Facebookers continue to wonder. Yesterday, for example, one of my facebook friends posted this:

An oldie but goodie: Did Priscilla write Hebrews?

One of the most prolific “biblibloggers” responded tersely:


And I asked:

absolute no?

To which he replied, a bit more:

absolute we will never, ever know so no, no

Another of my friends (fb and IRL) entered the conversation to say how he wished the Harnack hypothesis that Pricilla wrote Hebrews were true but that he himself couldn’t overcome the fact that the author must be male because of the masculine Greek self-referential language used by the writer of the letter.

I gave a knee-jerk, bigger picture feminist response:

Recently, Deborah Copaken Kogan reminded us readers of the following:

… centuries of literary sexism, exclusion, cultural bias, invisibility. There’s a reason J.K. Rowling’s publishers demanded that she use initials instead of “Joanne”: it’s the same reason Mary Anne Evans used the pen name George Eliot; the same reason Robert Southey, then England’s poet laureate, wrote to Charlotte Brontë: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.”

The earliest epistolary literature of Christianity was not the biz of a woman’s life. Not even Priscilla’s, who would be inclined to use the masculine participle (to hide her being feminine), wouldn’t we all agree?

And the conversation has stopped. Now I want to start it up again only by getting back into the particulars of the masculine Greek.

A little primer in what the masculine Greek objection is all about and why it might not be relevant is here. Ruth Hoppin there is rightly quoted as explaining how the gender of the verb in question is ambiguous: that is, διηγούμενον may be not only masculine in grammatical gender but also neuter. The author might not be “telling” (or technically, rhetorically giving a διηγήσεται (or a diegesis, or ‘narration’) as a default male – as a man. It could be some somebody (with gender not specified), says she, Ms. Hoppin.

The whole sentence goes like this:

Καὶ τί ἔτι λέγω; ἐπιλείψει με γὰρ διηγούμενον ὁ χρόνος περὶ Γεδεών, Βαράκ, Σαμψών, Ἰεφθάε, Δαυείδ τε καὶ Σαμουὴλ καὶ τῶν προφητῶν,

In the KJV, that is Englished this way:

And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me [the man writing] to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets:

It’s the declension, the suffix if you will, that shows this verb takes a subject that is either a man or a gender generic (i.e., neuter) subject (i.e., anybody).

Even so, (and either ambiguous way) it is NOT a feminine verbal with a feminine subject.

But, however, nonetheless, and (as some of us, both anybody men and women, say in here Texas) hold your horses. There are examples in Greek literature, and Christian Greek literature, and Christian biblical literature (yes even the canonical Christian Bible, the Holy Bible) in which the masculine (or neuter) verb references a female. Yes, I know, that does not mean it’s feminist necessarily. The one example I want to give is of Jerusalem. Yes, that’s right. The Holy Polis, the Holy City. She is likened to a prostitute. She is called an adulterous adulteress who messes around with her own kind even. And not only the prophet of the LORD calls her that but also through the Prophet G-d Himself calls her that. Yes, I know. It’s a translation of the Hebrew scriptures. Yes, I understand; not everybody appreciates the Septuagint, that spurious translation done in Egypt, which enslaved the Hebrews. Nonetheless, here it is, what we call Ezekiel 16:34 –

καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν σοὶ διεστραμμένον παρὰ τὰς γυναῖκας ἐν τῇ πορνείᾳ σου, καὶ μετὰ σοῦ πεπορνεύκασιν ἐν τῷ προσδιδόναι σε μισθώματα, καὶ σοὶ μισθώματα οὐκ ἐδόθη, καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν σοὶ διεστραμμένα.

Here is how Sir Brenton Englishes that:

And there has happened in you [sir] perverseness in your fornication beyond other women, and they have committed fornication with you, in that you give hires over and above, and hires were not given to you; and thus perverseness happened in you.

Now, to be clear, Sir Brenton did not write the implied “[sir]” because his context shows that Jerusalem is a she, not a he. I’ve added that to his English. I’ve added it because the Greek of the LXX translators implies a male (or at the very least a gender unspecified neuter), not a female.

My question is this, Why in Christian Greek scriptures are we not so inclined to allow a Priscilla to do what another Jewish Greek writer would do? If an adulteress can be referred to by male (or clearly Not Female) terms, then why can’t an author who is a woman?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. yancywsmith permalink
    February 17, 2015 10:48 pm

    Great comments, Kurk. The problem I see with the argument is that the grammatical analysis is wrong. διεστραμμένον is clearly neuter and refers to a “perverse thing” and not the “you” in the phrase “in you,” σοὶ. And it is represented again in the plural διεστραμμένα, perverse acts/things for emphasis. In Hebrews 6 διηγούμενον functions with με in a very different way, like the “subject of the infinitive.” So διεστραμμένον refers to something, i.e. perverseness (neuter) that is not identified with “you,” it is a thing “in you” referring to acts done by the inhabitants, but not the inhabitant themselves. In με … διεστραμμένον the pronoun is gramatically an attribute of με, “Time will fail me [if] I were going on talking …” It cannot be neuter, it is masculine, even though the form is indistinguishable from masculine.

    The issue I have is that the audience knew the author. Unless she were speech writing for her husband, she would have no call to write as a man. Especially if she were of a certain class, as the argument runs in some forms. There are plenty of papyrus letters epistles (see the important collection of Juan Chapa, Letters of Condolence) written by women that were discovered in the sands of Egypt. Hebrews has a lot of similarity to letters of condolence, i.e., the exhortation to bear bravely and with great courage real or imagined and expected losses. The women dutifully and grammatically refer to themselves with feminine forms. It was indeed the business of women to write letters if their business demanded it.

    The Bible itself has women speaking as women with appropriate feminine forms (Hulda, Deborah, the Shulamite woman, etc, etc.)

    I have no objection to the romantic notion that Priscilla wrote Hebrews. I just think this piece of grammatical bone has always stuck in my craw when I tried to swallow it.

  2. February 18, 2015 7:29 am

    Yancy, Wonderful reply. Well, yes, I can see how you have a problem with the argument since you believe my analysis is “wrong.” Let me try to make a bit clearer my point here, and then see what you can make of the possibilities and the probabilities. Also, I’ll try to explore with you how come this “notion that Priscilla wrote Hebrews” has to be somehow “romantic.”

    Let’s go again to the Hebraic Hellene of “Ezekiel,”; you note that “διεστραμμένον is clearly neuter” and that, following the Hebrew punctuating and repetitive style, “it is represented again in the plural διεστραμμένα, perverse acts/things for emphasis.”

    Lancelot C. L. Brenton does a fine job of showing how you read this; and it’s worth bringing in his translation again:

    And there has happened in you [διεστραμμένον] perverseness in your fornication beyond other women, and they have committed fornication with you, in that you give hires over and above, and hires were not given to you; and thus [διεστραμμένα] perverseness happened in you.

    Noel Hubler (for the NETS translation from Greek to English) also does a fine job:

    And there was something [διεστραμμένον] perverted in you compared to other women in your whoring, and *next after* you they have not played the whore, while you would dole out payments, and payments were not given to you. And there were in you things [διεστραμμένα] perverted.

    One of the observations here has to be that grammatically neither form of the verbal, this participle, is feminine. These are “turnings into or towards” (implying per-version-ings) that are either default masculine or neuter. You can only, by the context, assert that “διεστραμμένον is clearly neuter.” So what must we do with the pronoun of καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν σοὶ?

    I’m not saying that the singular “you” changes the gender: that this “per-version-ing” or those “per-version-ings” or (if we have to imply the aorist) this “per-vert-ed” something or those “per-vert-ed” things must now somehow be feminized. I’m actually saying just the opposite. And I don’t think you have to rob the Greek phrase of its gender ambiguity. Yes, per-vert-ed-ness we tend to have as a neutered (i.e., not-male) notion; and yet, what if the native speaker of this Greek we’re reading could, and did, see it also as masculine. Again, my point is that the default is NOT feminine. διεστραμμένον is not something grammatically or referentially or metaphorically feminine. I may have gone too far in stressing the male-ness of it, since you see it as an it, not as a he. I think we must see at as both an it and a he (but “clearly” not a she).

    So the Prophecy here turns a Polis of people into a woman, a wife. She has breasts and children and sons and daughters. Your language for Jerusalem is “the inhabitants” and “the inhabitant themselves.” So the plurality, by the Greek translator(s), and first by the Hebrew writer(s)/speaker(s) is a pluralness focused into a single human. But a wife/woman/with a womb and female genitalia.

    There’s a double pun, then, perhaps unintended, when the Hebraic Hellene translator(s) uses a participial that is neuter (and masculine but not default feminine). And uses it to demonstrate, to show (in an epideictic way), a strophe, a turning in a feminine gendered way. Not only has Jerusalem, this wife/woman, become a whore, by comparison, she’s become a slut. There is now the use of a neuter Greek verbal (or a male one but not a feminine one) to mark a peculiar sort of per-verted-ness-ing that is reserved for females. (In English, by analogy, we reserve bitch, slut, whore, and prostitute for women and girls. We don’t uses the terms for things or men or boys, normally).

    And so I’m going on a bit, but it may be worth stopping with a bit of Greek humor from Euripides, who perverts gender categories received and unmarked. In the Bacchae he has the character Pentheus cross-dressing; at line 855 or so that gets marked this way:

    γυναικόμορφον ἀγόμενον δι’ ἄστεως

    Two translators respectively English that this way:

    parading him through Thebes, dressed as a woman

    led through the city in women’s guise

    Readers and the audience are supposed to laugh (and the lines of the play tell us so). This is odd and unexpected stuff. A man is not supposed to morph into a wife/woman/childbearing sexual being. This is my main contention of what is going on with the LXX language in Ezekiel 16. Except it’s default, unmarked neuter (or masculine) language for a feminine character. And so, possible, with the book of Hebrews, the author’s self reference in Greek there.

    Don’t we still need to discuss why you have come to consider “romantic” the idea that Priscilla, a woman, might be its author? I know I’ve gone on too long. So maybe the re-analysis here of the Hebraic Hellene is something first you’d comment on?

  3. yancywsmith permalink
    February 18, 2015 11:32 am

    So, von Harnack was a student of Albrecht Ritschl—the father of German romantic theology. And I think one of the halmarks of gendering in this period is the unresolvable paradox that men and women are philosophically equal, but that the norms of society enforce a strict gender stratification. See for example, “The sublime in women writers of the romantic period”
    Kathryn L Naylor, Purdue University. Exploration of that paradox is a motif and we are still living through the working out of that explosion of thinking around categorical imperatives and universal humanism vis-a-vis local, structure gender. I am also a romantic at heart. So the term is not, in my view a derogatory one, but an attempt at getting at why von Harnack himself would be motivated to argue for Pricillan authorship quite apart from the merits of the case.

    What we see in terms of gendering and literature in the Greco-Roman period is a near total lack of preserved female authors. But in the non-literary papyri and in the remains of Pompey and Herculaneum we find another world: one in which the exigencies of everyday life create spaces for women in letter writing, business, banking, patronage, etc., etc. We find women with voices right along side the literary remains of the culture in which the prevailing ethos of the culture negates the voice of the woman. We see a similar dynamic in the New Testament, for example in Colossians where “Paul” holds up the Aristotelian tripartate household of Husband-Wife, Fathers-children, Master’s and slaves. Yet in chapter 4 Nympha hosts a house church in which she would have been the putative leader. How would she and that church read and contextualized the Haustafeln that, to say the least, would have been an odd fit in the absence of a male head of household? I love to imagine the scenarios.

    But it is not that women could not make it into Christian literature! For example, the Martyrdom of Felicitas and Perpetua is a composition apparently written by a woman. (Ironically some feminist scholars have rejected the idea that it was written by a woman and that it was really written by a man masquerading as a woman!) And I think that sort of aporia is where Hebrews leaves us. If it was written by a woman, then she writes as if a man although other women writing non-literary letters to known friends have no shame at all in this period of time to write as women. For example, there are famous death masques from Roman Egypt that preserve the image of women holding stylus and/or parchment. Writing and reading were skills of the elite and the non-elite who desired to be perceived as elit. If she writes as a man to people who knew she was a woman, they would have assumed she wrote for a man (say, Aquila). To write as a woman would be a desirable sign of status in the family of the church. And, ultimately, we also need to recognize that authorship and writing is more of a group project than it is for us today. It involved, almost without fail, at least two people: the scribe and the “author.” But the scribe was more than a human typewriter, though he/she may have been a slave, the scribe contributed materially in the composition process helping to craft the rhetorical shape of the message of the letter … this is the clear message of the handbooks on letter writing, which wold be the specific τέκνη of the scribe.

    What exploded the romantic in theology was the discovery of greater depth of knowledge of the Hellenistic and Roman world in the papyri. The new social knowledge that began to come out was first elucidated by romantics like Adolf Deissmann, who saw Paul and the ancient world through Marxist categories. Von Harnack was on the same German romantic train. My take is that the idea of whether or not a woman wrote Hebrews is, as a question, much too romantic. Authorship itself was much more complex. So, it is a deconstructive move on my part to pull apart the very conceptual tool of “authorship” itself. What do we mean?

  4. yancywsmith permalink
    February 18, 2015 12:03 pm

    I suspect you are making the grammar too complicated. I don’t think there is any gender bending going on here. In the LXX my analysis boils down to this διεστραμμένον does not refer to persons but to a perversion without any explict reference to persons acting. It is a textual allusion to Deuteronomy 24:1: Ἐὰν δέ τις λάβῃ γυναῖκα καὶ συνοικήσῃ αὐτῇ, καὶ ἔσται ἐὰν μὴ εὕρῃ χάριν ἐναντίον αὐτοῦ, ὅτι εὗρεν ἐν αὐτῇ ἄσχημον πρᾶγμα, so that ἐγένετο ἐν σοὶ διεστραμμένον = εὗρεν ἐν αὐτῇ ἄσχημον πρᾶγμα. We are talking about things not persons. με γὰρ διηγούμενον refers to the action of a known person and therefore must have male or female gender.

  5. yancywsmith permalink
    February 18, 2015 12:10 pm

    After the above comments, I noticed the Pompeian mural painting with the woman holding a stylus and codex, which makes my point visually for the first century.

  6. February 18, 2015 4:38 pm

    Thanks for your replies, all three of them in a row. Looking at your first two, it may seem that you and I are being complex as we respectively and together deal with complexity. Let me try to respond in a way worthy of your comments (if I only have a few minutes – which may force me to be simpler, if not at all simplistic).

    1. I am also a romantic at heart…. My take is that the idea of whether or not a woman wrote Hebrews is, as a question, much too romantic. Authorship itself was much more complex. So, it is a deconstructive move on my part to pull apart the very conceptual tool of “authorship” itself. What do we mean?

    I absolutely love your personal, profound confession…. And I couldn’t agree with you more about the difficulty of some singular notion of “authorship.” This shouldn’t, in my view, prevent me or even you from letting the question of the a-nonymity of the writer(s) of Hebrews be open to the possibility that a woman had a (major) hand in the composition of the letter. I do think you’re on to something, looking at historiography and at patterns when the hidden authoress is eventually revealed. There are things like “womanly” writing and “masculinist” authorship and “voice” in rhetoric and written composition, of course. This is my very reason for looking to examples in Greek Ezekiel and further back in Euripides and in Sappho. Before Naylor and von Harnack and Ritschl, these ancients were playing with gender and voice and “authoring.”

    2. I suspect you are making the grammar too complicated. I don’t think there is any gender bending going on here.

    Your hermenuetic, of suspicion, works for me. And still you yourself are struggling with, admitting to, the complexity of authorship. Since you feel compelled to suspect, to deconstruct, with romance not far away, then would you allow me to push this a bit? I’m thinking of how C. S. Lewis observes (in two chapters of Reflections on the Psalms with “Second Meanings” in the title) how the “author” of the “original” often is not aware of good and fair meanings that were not, at first, intended. I’m not going to concede to loaded accusations of eisegesis (vs. its absolute binary exegesis); rather, I do think that language is, as Kenneth Pike saw it, N-Dimensional, where N= Infinity. If we males, and we Christians, can learn one thing from a Mary Daly it ought to be that “our” language has gendered meanings that are not only complex but also divide and exclude. At the very least, wouldn’t you agree that Jerusalem as a man, a husband, with the LORD as his wife, just would not work for Ezekiel or the sons of Isra-El or the men in Alexandria, translating him/them into Hellene? We have to see what is in the margins of this text, and what/who is not, and ask why, don’t we? Just to give one Mary Daly reference (that found its way into last Saturday’s 40th anniversary montage of SNL, did you catch it?): “therapist = the rapist.” I doubt Daly would be easily brushed off with our suspicions that she is making the lexicon too complicated. 🙂

    3. Thanks for noticing the author Sappho, the one Plato constructed as Socrates’s 10th Muse or his own. Notice, that in the British Museum’s shop online, for £20.00 today, unless you become a “Member” and get the discount, this image out of Pompeii of this woman is for sale: The only thing I can add is this picture of the author of Hebrews (not for purchase):


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: