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'Let her keep it, Jesus' ordination of Mary of Bethany, A New Approach to John's Gospel through its Use of Mosaic Oracles.' By Thomas W. Butler. Review by Theresia Saers

Let her keep it, Jesus' ordination of Mary of Bethany, A New Approach to John's Gospel through its Use of Mosaic Oracles. By Thomas W. Butler, Doctor of Ministry. (1998)  Quantum Leap Publisher, Tracy, California.'

Review by Theresia Saers

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Mary anointing Jesus' feet

In this remarkable study the author explores the possibility that, contrary to what we have always been made to believe, the Beloved Disciple of the Fourth Gospel is Mary of Bethany. When she anoints the feet of Jesus she officiates in a liturgical event. Mary’s anointing of Jesus results, as Butler puts it, “in her own anointing into a leadership role among the disciples, a role, which Jesus affirms and defends with the words ‘Let her keep it’ ”. Butler concludes he has to contradict the view that nothing in Scripture can be found to support the idea that Jesus intended women to be ordained as priests.

Tradition has called the first three Gospels synoptic, as opposed to the Fourth, which takes a rather different point of view when it tells of Jesus’ life and words among us. There must have been an important reason for that different way of treatment. Butler is convinced that carefully woven into the Fourth Gospel there are two story lines. The Fourth Gospel so to say is more profound in its understanding and more revealing when it comes to Jesus´ innovative ministry.

The author tells us that he has used the tools suggested by Dr. R. Alan Culpepper in An Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, applying the ‘Poetics’ method to the Fourth Gospel. “This method allows a new way of approaching Scripture and at the same time offers a link to what some scholars are now acknowledging as the method that was probably used by first-century students and writers of Scripture.”  Culpepper calls it the reader-response criticism.

Butler´s starting point is a hypothesis that first-century Christians must have been greatly influenced still by Jewish thinking and that accordingly this will be apparent in the Scripture writing of the time. They must have used the Septuagint translation of the Pentateuch for their method of teaching, which relied strongly on ‘midrash’. This is a method in which the student must answer a question regarding Scripture by referring to other parts of Holy Writ and to commentaries on the same by learned teachers. Studying the Fourth Gospel with this method in mind, the book which we have been used to call John’s Gospel reveals to the student a remarkable second story below the surface story that we have known of old.

´The centre piece of this hidden story, found in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth chapters of the Gospel is that Jesus not only included women among his disciples, he ordained at least two of them. He also ordained an indeterminate number of men: many more than the twelve that are acknowledged in the Synoptic Gospels.´

Butler has the reader inspect every basic ingredient and idea of Mosaic liturgy and compare it with the text of the Fourth Gospel. Little by little we come to discover that this new reading of the words and deeds of Jesus has great inner consistency. We must learn to recognise the traditional signs or ‘semeia’ as the Septuagint calls them, which helps us to obtain an insight into the code that reveals a Jesus who replaced the old order and the old Mosaic liturgy. Indeed, he created a completely transformed set of festivals, a new Church and new priests, because the priests of the old order had failed to fulfil their high duties.

Butler explains how the first five books of the Bible, the Penateuch, make extensive use of what English translators call ´signs´. In Greek they are called ´semeia´. ´Semeion is the Greek term for a sign, a characteristic, or mark which is designed to make a specific perception or insight possible. The Mosaic writings are full of them e.g. a rainbow in the sky.

In Part One Butler deals with two semeiotic patterns: the meaning of head, body, hand, and foot, and the meaning of separation and remembrance. Each of these two patterns is an important part of the symbolism used in the rites of the Hebrew temple, and it is certainly important in the rite of ordination of priests. Both patterns are replicated in the Gospel of John as signs pointing to the rite of ordination by Jesus of his disciples. ´These same semeia are used as oracles in the Gospel of John to tell two truths that the authorities of that time could not accept, but that ´ those with eyes to see ´ would recognize: 1) that the disciples were ordained into a new priesthood by Jesus to replace the pristhood represented by temple authorities identified in the Gospel as ´the Jews´, and (2) this new priesthood included women.

He goes on to explain about semeiotic patterns in the ordination rituals of the Pentateuch and the consecration of Nazarites. Summarizing he comments that although the Pentateuch does not specifically indicate that women were not permitted to be priests who practised the rites of sacrifice, the passage regarding Nazarites does certainly indicate that women as well as men could be consecrated and considered as holy in Israel as the High Priest. It is significant, he maintains, that Nazarites were allowed to participate in he elevation offering during their own service of consecration and that they were prmitted to climb the steps to the sanctuary. Of great importance to the subject is the ritual a Nazarite follows with his or her hair during the completion of the Nazarite vow. The fact that Mary of Bethany performs rituals that use all of these semeia suggests that she was a  Nazarite.

In Part Two of his book Butler inspects the Fourth Gospel from a new angle, thereby using a full concordance of Mosaic and Johannine oracles, which he adds to his work as an Appendix.

Butler´s thesis assumes that

* The original students of the Fourth Gospel were familiar with the Septuagint, the early translation of the Pentateuch into Greek;

* These students would have appreciated the precise wording in the translation as holy writ and have considered many of these words as the holy oracles which they were meant to be.

The author goes on to study how these oracles were used anew, when the Gospel of St. John was eventually written. He considers how Jesus in this coded story changes the Temple Sacrifices, indicts the Old [Priesthood] and finally installs the New [Priesthood], his Disciples.

Part Three introduces a semeiotic Ordination Trilogy. Butler considers the raising of Lazarus, the anointing of the Lord´s feet by Mary of Bethany and the washing of the feet of the disciples by Jesus himself as a trilogy, a three-act play. In it Jesus ordains his disciples as priests. The centrepiece is the story of the anointing. Studying the semeiotic pattern closely we will find the coded story of how Jesus ordained Mary as a bishop, charging her to keep the tradition of his death. Martha becomes a deacon and all the apostles  become elders.

Part Two also spends ample thought on the hypothesis that Mary of Bethany may have been the Beloved Disciple (chapter 10).

Chapter Three contains an elaborate consideration of  the above mentioned trilogy. It is the most intriguing part of the book. Mary and Martha are examined, they have to prove their faith in Jesus (chapter 11). The raising of Lazarus and its meaning, the resurrection of the priesthood  are discussed in chapter 12 . Finally Butler reaches the apotheosis of his work and the essence of his thesis, when he explains how in the washing of Jesus´feet and the anointing Mary of Bethany is anointed a priest.

The Epilogue deal with the question of the authorship of the Gospel of John. It would not be fair to either writer or reader to divulge more.

‘Let her keep it’ is a book that is certainly thoroughly researched.  It makes very interesting, albeit not very easy, reading for those that are willing to keep open the possibility that Jesus ordained more priests than the Twelve and also ordained women priests.

I am disappointed by the fact that Butler leaves the role of Mary Magdalen out of his study concerning the ordination of women priests in Jesus’ ministry. After all it is she that has gone down in the sensus fidelium as the woman who did the anointing and was so important to Jesus´ ministry. Why have all four Gospels and the Church, too, consistently picked out the Magdalen for a special role, including that of anointing the Lord, if another woman, Mary of Bethany, was a much greater one in the leadership of the Early Church. In fact, the title of Butler’s book and its meaning can be applied to the Magdalen for the same reason as it is to Mary of Bethany. The Magdalen, too, officiated in a liturgical function of anointing Jesus, if any one ever did (Luke mentions her anointing the feet of Jesus, which Butler finds so interesting) and he praised her for it. ‘She has done a good deed!’ Are the two Maries one and the same? I myself have tackled this question in An Alabaster Jar.

I have one more piece of criticism. Butler holds that Mary officiated in a liturgical function, when she anointed the Lord’s feet. I agree wholeheartedly, but I disagree with his conclusion that through doing so she is ordained a priest. It is illogical to say on the one hand that at that moment she anointed the altar of the Temple, Jesus’ feet, thereby officiating in a liturgical function and then only afterwards to as it were make her  priest through that strange ordination, her hair which accidentally was the means of anointing her as a priest. It seems so happenstance after she has already functioned as one. I think that when she came into that house, so almost queenly, with her gesture of breaking the jar, When will you stupid elders of Israel recognize the greatness of Jesus, your guest?, she in fact acted as a priest, and Jesus said in all four Gospels: ´LET HER´. It may just be that in Jesus´ new covenant it is not any longer anointing, which makes one a priest.

Theresia Saers Soc. JMJ.



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