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'The Permanent Value of Jesus and the Apostles' by J. Massyngberde Ford from 'Women Priests'

'The Permanent Value of Jesus and the Apostles'

by J. Massyngberde Ford

from Women Priests by Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 183-189.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

(J. Massyngberde Ford received her B.A. from the University of Nottingham, a B.D. from King's College, London, and her Ph.D. from Nottingham. She has taught at Makerere University College in East Africa and was at the time on leave from Notre Dame, teaching at the University of Santa Clara. She has written on Neo-Pentocostalism in the Catholic Church and on Death and Sickness as well as her special field of scripture.)

The Declaration asks whether it would be possible for the Church to depart from the attitude of Jesus and the apostles. Without any doubt the New Testament shows that this is possible. Three examples will suffice. First, Jesus and the apostles in the Gospels do not have any organized mission to the Gentiles. Indeed, in Mt 10:5-6, Jesus charges the twelve apostles:

Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Yet Paul felt called to devote himself to a mission to the Gentiles and adopted the unprecedented custom of not requiring male circumcision. Secondly, Jesus, the apostles (both before the resurrection and afterwards) and Paul all attended the services and sacrifices at the Temple. Thirdly, the Epistle to the Hebrews breaks with all tradition and replaces the worship of the Temple and the traditional priesthood.

The most surprising omission from both the U.S. Bishops Statement on the Ordination of Women (1973)(1) and the Declaration is the complete absence of any reference to the Epistle to the Hebrews. One would, therefore, imagine, although this is not explicitly stated, that the hierarchy’s concept of priesthood is based largely or exclusively upon the Old Testament levitical priesthood. Even from the days of Clement of Rome(2) the Christian Church seemed to model itself upon the Aaronic one. This is patent, for example, in the list of those who were precluded from the priesthood until a few (about 5-10) years ago. In Lev 21:17-21 we read:

Say to Aaron, None of your descendants throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a man blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a defect in his sight or a catching disease or scabs or crushed testicles; no man of the descendants of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s offering by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God.

Canon 968 has been interpreted along these lines. To give a few examples of those precluded: those born out of wedlock; those having a bodily defect through mutilation, blindness, deafness, inability to speak, lameness which requires the use of a cane, the possession of a sixth finger, the adhesion of the three end fingers, epilepsy, judges who have imposed the sentence of death, members of a lynching party, slaves and castrati. It is possible to obtain a dispensation for many of these impediments nowadays. Yet would these people have a natural resemblance to the Jesus who did not join lynching parties but accepted Paul who was responsible for many deaths? He suffered, but did not impose, capital punishment. He conducted his priestly ministry on the cross as the most mutilated of all persons:(3) a handicapped person might well be a better image of Christ qua sacrificing priest than a healthy one.

It is, moreover, surprising that the Old Testament never specifically denies the priesthood to women although in surrounding cultures women did act in the capacity of priests and high priests.(4) At Mari near the Euphrates in Syria (mainly 1790-1945 B.C.) one finds women playing important roles in society and religion.(5) In Mesopotamia in the third millenium they could be chief priestesses in the Temple.(6) There was the Ugbabtum Priestess who could live either in a cloister or at home but could not marry or have children.(7) Such priestesses had to maintain a certain amount of dignity and even a certain distance from profane activities, e.g., they could not enter a tavern. Priestesses captured in war were shown greater deference than were the other captives.(9) In the light of this kind of material it is quite remarkable that we find no statement in the Old Testament nor the New denying that a woman can be an elder or a priest. This is all the more surprising in that at Ephesus there was a college of virgin priestesses to worship the goddess Artemis: some of Paul’s converts may have come from these ranks and perhaps this is why he does place some reserve on women although he never denies to them the priesthood or the presbyterate.(10)

Further, it is of utmost importance to state specifically that the words “priest” and “priesthood” are not used with reference to any individual Christian male or female (only Jesus) in the New Testament. The text mentions only Jewish priests who accepted the faith (Acts 6:7), the priesthood of the faithful who are baptised (Rev. 1:5 and 6; 5:10; 20:6; 22:3-5 and 1 Peter 2:5 and 9) and/or the priesthood (and kingship) of the whole community.(11) Jesus attended the Temple services and sacrifices until he died and his disciples appear to have continued this practice until the fall of the Temple to the Romans in 70 A.D. It is very interesting that Jesus and his followers did not imitate the practice of the Qumran covenanters or the Samaritans by refraining from worship in Jerusalem, which they deemed defiled. It appears that only after the destruction of the Temple did both Judaism and Christianity begin a religion without bloody sacrifice and without hereditary priesthood. Hereditary priesthood presupposes a married, not celibate, clergy; this marital regulation is deeply imbedded in the Scripture Tradition, but the Latin Church later saw fit to alter it.

Thus a study of priesthood must begin with a study of the priesthood of all the baptised whether male or female. Yet throughout the history of the Church, only males and hermaphrodites(12) (provided that the dominant sex is male) have been called to exercise this priesthood in liturgical and other functions.

However, to return to the New Testament. It is important to realise that in the eyes of his Jewish contemporaries Jesus was not a priest, either from the line of Aaron, Levi or Zadok, nor do we learn that any of the disciples were descended from the priestly families. The New Testament records no ordination of any followers of Christ to the priesthood, although women elders in Titus (2:2) are counseled to be hieroprepeis “priestly in their conduct.” On the contrary the New Testament emphasizes strongly that the priesthood of Christ is not according to Levi but according to Melchizedek (Heb 5:6), and thus those who are in Christ, dead, buried and raised with him, share in this same priesthood. Melchizedek, as we now know from the Dead Sea Scrolls (11 Q Mel) and Gnostic literature, was a supernatural figure, without father or mother and presumably sexless if he were “angelic.”

Fred L. Horton, Jr.,(13) cites James A. Sanders(14) who thinks that “Hebrews is a document relating to the revolt against Rome in the first century and was probably written in A.D. 69-70.” Melchizedek appears in Genesis 14:17-20 in a pericope thought to be a later inserton into the text and considered an aetiological legend showing Abraham’s submission to the Jerusalem (Salem) priesthood.(15) It is usually assigned to a date after the Priestly stratum of the Pentateuch.(16) Melchizedek appears in Ps 110:4, which some date in the Maccabean period when the rulers eventually combined the priesthood and kingship in one office.(17) But we have no evidence of a ruling dynasty in pre-Israelite Jerusalem, and Melchizedek in the Hebrew Bible is never unequivocally identified as king of Jerusalem.(18) Philo describes Melchizedek as “self-taught” and “instinctive,” and he makes him a peaceable king.(19) For Philo, Melchizedek is a presentation of the Logos.(20) He possesses a unique self-taught priesthood, and in Leg. All. 3:79 we find that “God did not prefigure any work of Melchizedek . . . but set him out from the very first as priest and king.”(21)

In 11 Q Mel from Qumran Melchizedek is a supernatural figure who comes to inaugurate the Jubilee and to take vengeance on the sons of Belial. He is in the assembly of El. The anointed one is a prophet who announces the reign of Melchizedek.(22) Melchizedek’s reign is a heavenly one but also an earthly one. However, we do not hear of an ascension. Sanders states, “In 11 Q Melch the great high priest of Gen 14 and Ps 110 is made not only a deity . . . in the heavenly court, but is set over all other elohim as king, judge, and redeemer, in the final great eschalological drama.”(23)

The Christian interest in Melchizedek began to develop towards the end of the second century A.D. He was thought to be a divine or angelic figure(24) Heretical sects, from which the majority of references came made him a heavenly being(25) sometimes superior to Christ.(26) One writer identifed him with the Holy Spirit(27) and others with the Logos and Son of God before entering the womb of Mary.(28) Gnostic sources also mention Melchizedek and call him the ''Great Receiver of Light.'' (29) Melchizedek takes the power he has received from the archons and purifies it. (30) He is said also to 'seal' souls. (31)

Perhaps the mainstream of the Church did not accept the figure of Melchizedek and relate it to the hierarchy of the Church because so many of the writings about Melchizedek come from heretical sects and because of the Qumran Supremacy of Melchizedek over the two Messiahs.

Yet in spite of the above exaggerations about Melchizedek he still remains the model priest both for Christ and all Christians. If he is an angel, he is also sexless (he is also without father or mother). This is the image and “natural resemblance” that must be projected at the altar, a priesthood according to Melchisedek and according to the Epistle to the Hebrews. The qualities and requirements for such a priesthood are as follows.

Firstly, perfection is not through the levitical law (7:3), which, presumably would correspond to the Catholic ritual law and canon law,

For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also: There were no priests from Judah before Christ (7:14)

“Of necessity” seems to connote logical consequence, not external force.

Montefiore(32) says, “He [the author of Hebrews] first deals with Melchisedek making the same kind of point as Paul did in connection with the promise given to Abraham (Rom 4; Gal 3:1-22). Paul wished to show that the Law had been abrogated, and in order to do this he had to go behind the Law to the period before it was given, to prove that, although it was given by God, it had only transitory authority and limited efficacy. Our author makes use of Melchisedek, again going behind the Law to the period before it was given in order to prove his point. But his application is necessarily different from that of Paul. Levitical priests were appointed on hereditary principle; the mother must be Israelite and the father a priest before him.”(33) “It was a fleshly ordinance, though free from Pauline over-tones of sin, but it connotes the transitoriness and earthly nature of the commandment.”(34) A priest-like Melchizedek could not be appointed because he did not conform to certain legal requirements.

As Westcott says of Jesus, “He was made priest because of his inherent nature.”(35) “He was not in priestly succession: he simply arises, as it were, out of the blue.”(36) His divine nature, united to his humanity, conferred upon the latter the power of a life that nothing can destroy.(37) This union of natures took place when the Son became incarnate, for it was then that he was given his priestly office (10:5). Thus an entirely new order (taxis)(38) of priesthood arose, and as Hering observes:(39) “Le dynamisme s’oppose au legalisme juif et 1’auteur en a pris nettement conscience.” Kata dunamis zoës means full of life or giving life.(40)

Buchanan remarks (41) that the Hasmoneans were levitical priests of the line of Aaron but descended through Joarib; they were not sons of David or of Zadok (Genisis Rabbah 97; 99:2). Simon was priest until a true prophet should arise (1 Macc 14:41). Simon’s son John Hyrcanus I “was the only one to hold three offces [at once], rule of the nation, high priesthood, and prophecy” (Josephus War 1:68). “Hyrcanus’oldest son, Aristobulus I, was the frst to assume the crown and openly claim to be both high priest and king” (War 1:70). The Hasmoneans associated themselves with Gen 14:18, they also identifed themselves with Ps 110. However, Buchanan also says,(42) “Nonetheless the Hasmoneans had arisen from Judah and had become high priests. Jews in the author’s [Josephus] time knew that very well, for the Hasmonean family continued to have a great deal of influence in Palestinian politics until the last of the fortresses had been captured in A.D. 73 and their memory never ceased.” The intertestamental Test. Lev. 8:14 predicted that a new king would arise from Judah who would establish a new priesthood. This was probably intended to apply to Hasmoneans.

Moffatt(43) points out that “the positive contrast (v. 19) is introduced by the striking compound epeisagogé, a term used by Josephus for the replacing of Vashti by Esther (Ant 9:190).”

Michel (44) observes the speciality of Melchizedek’s non-legal priesthood over against the levitical. It overthrows all priesthood and begins a new order (taxis). The distinct keywords: Melchizedek, dekatë (tithe), taxis (order), nomos (law), horkömosia (oath), eis ton aiöna (for the age), and archiereus (high priest).

Intertestamental Judaism saw the Levitical priesthood as everlasting and definitive (Jub. 13:25ff.). Michel thinks that Test. Lev. 8:14(from Judah new kingship will arise which will create a new priesthood for the people) may be a Christian interpolation. Test. Lev. 18:1-8 points to an everlasting and eschatological priesthood.(45)

For the author of Hebrews the Christian hope is better than Jewish hope, first because the Jewish law was static while Christian hope is eschatological, and secondly because only Jewish priests can “draw near” to God (Ex 19:22), but all Christians share in the priesthood (1 Pet 2:5) and all can “draw near” to God.

Hence our concept of priesthood must not be based on sex or any physical requirement but upon the indwelling of indestructible life, that is, the Holy Spirit. The human nature of Jesus originates only from a woman.

The second quality of the new priesthood is participation in the New Covenant. Jesus was the guarantee of a better covenant (7:22), and in Hebrews this covenant is identified with the one mentioned in Jer 31:31 which says that there will be equality between all people, not one person teaching another but everyone knowing the Lord; surely knowing the Lord is an essential requisite for the priesthood (Hebr 8:8-11; cf. 10:16; 12:24).

The third qualification is to be holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens (7:26). According to Catholic teaching Mary was so, and she has been portrayed as a priest dressed in the robes of Aaron since the fifth century. She is often portrayed by artists as close to the Eucharist.(46)

The fourth qualification is faithfulness. The women in the Gospels—and some contemporary women—are more faithful than men.

The fifth qualification is to be able to sympathizc with weakness, to be tempted yet without sin, to be approachable in confidence (4:14-16) and to deal gently with the ignorant and misguided because they are beset with weakness (5: 1-2).

The sixth is to make supplication and prayers with crying and tears (5.7), to be obedient in suffering; to make intercession continuously (7:25) and to be willing to do God’s will (10:7). All these characteristics are found in a high degree in women. Hence Hebrews shows the way that women can contribute to the Church. See the excellent article by L. Swidler on Jesus’ masculine and feminine characteristics in National Catholic Reporter, Vol. 13 (23 April, 1977), p. 15.


1. Printed in Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol.10, No. 4 (Fall, 1973), pp. 695-99.

2. 1 Clem. 43, cf. 40-41.

3. There is a Rabbinic legend that Jesus was lame (Sanh. 106b).

4. For a study of priesthood in the Old Testament, see Aelred Cody, A History of Old Testament Priesthood, Analecta Biblica (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1969). He gives only two scant references to Melchizedek

5. See Bernard Frank Batto, Studies on Women at Mari (Baltimore: John Hopkins University, 1972).

6. Ibid., p. 9.

7. Ibid., pp. 79-80.

8. Ibid., pp. 82-83.

9. Ibid., p. 86.

10. Markus Barth, Anchor Bible on Ephesians (New York: Doubleday, 1974), Vol. 2, p.661.

11. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in Priester für Gott (Münster: Aschendorff, 1972)expounds these texts with precision. She avers that the New Testament develops the unified concept of the teaching of the priesthood of the faithful (p. 43). The priesthood is that of the community and closely associated with that of Christ. The redactor of Revelation used not only Ex 19:6; Is 61:6 and Dan 7, but the cult and sovereignty as it was found in his own time. The priesthood in Revelation is predicated of all Christians (p. 419).

12. It is most interesting that the Church will ordain hermaphrodites “Andragynoides cum certo sint viri, ordinum capaces existunt” (Heriberto Jones, Commentarium in Codicem Iuris Canonici, Paderborn, 1954, Vol. II, p. 182; cf. also Emmanuel Doronzo, O.M.M. De Ordine, Vol. 3, De Subjecto1963. In the light of this it is difficult to maintain the concept of natural resemblances to Christ and also to preclude women from the priesthood for the bisexual person usually has a great many psychological problems to overcome and often commits suicide whereas women accept their sex.

13. Fred L. Horton, Jr., The Melchizedek Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

14. James A. Sanders, “Dissenting Deities and Phil. 2:1:11,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 88 (Sept., 1969), pp. 279-90.

15. Horton, op. cit., p. 17.

16. Ibid., p. 18.

17. See George W. Buchanan, To the Hebrews, Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1972), pp. 94-95.

18. Horton, op. cit, p. 45.

19.. Ibid., pp. 55-56. See Philo, Leg. All. 3:79-82; De Congr. 99 and De Abrah. 235

20. Horton, op. cit., p. 57

21. Ibid., p. 57.

22. Ibid., p. 80.

23. Cited by Horton, ibid., p. 80

24. Ibid., pp. 87-8.

25. Ibid., p. 89.

26. For the Melchizedekians see ibid., pp. 90-113

27. Ibid. p. 103.

28. Ibid. p. 107.

29. Ibid., p. 137.

30.. Ibid., p. 139.

31.. Ibid., p. 141.

32. H.W. Montefiore, The Epistle to the Hebrews (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1964), p. 123.

33. Ibid., p. 125.

34. Buchanan, op. cit., pp. 125-6, thinks that “fleshly” is used in disparaging ways; thus levitical priesthood “belonged to the classification of ‘fleshly’ which included all things that were ethically bad.” Power of indestructible life may refer to Jesus’ miraculous origin. As he had no end of days, his life was indestructible. The fleshly commandment was removed because it accomplished nothing. “In a similar way, Paul discredited the law which he described as being ‘of sin and death’ (Rom. 8:2)”; it was “powerless . . . in that it was weak through the flesh” (Rom. 8:3).

35. Quoted by Montefiore, op. cit., p. 125.

36. Ibid., p. 125.

37. Ibid., p. 126. Philo uses a very similar phrase in describing God’s creation of Adam (Leg. All. 1, 32)

38. Otto Michel, Der Brief an die Hebräer (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1966), p. 269.

39. Jean Héring, L’Epitre aux Hebreux (Paris: Delachaux et Niestlé, 1954), p. 70

40. Ibid., p. 71.

41. Buchanan, op. cit., pp. 94-100.

42. Ibid., p. 124.

43. James Moffatt, Hebrews, I.C.C. Commentary (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark), p. 98.

44. Michel, op. cit., p. 268-9.’

45. Michel (ibid.) compares the prophecy of Jer 31:31ff. to Hebr 8:8f.

46. Puy d’Amiens portrait. See the reproduction in A Century of French Painting, 1400-1500, ed. Grete Ring (London: Phaidon Press, 1949).

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