Why This Book Was Written
Preface of 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. Quantum Leap Publisher 1998, Tracy, California; here reprinted with permission of the author and publisher.
That You May Know the Truth
Whenever I hear my brothers and sisters in Christ saying that nothing inScripture can be found to support the idea that Jesus intended for women to be ordained as priests, I feel pain. For centuries women have been instructed to deny what they feel in their souls for that reason. The fact that an increasing number of women of all Christian faith traditions are hearing and responding to the call to ordained ministry, in spite of an entrenched attitude in many churches against their taking on that role, suggests that a tension between the action of the Holy Spirit and the ecclesiology of the institutional church exists.Could it be that the Holy Spirit is working to break down the barriers that we Christians have erected between ourselves and God?
We know fromScripture that the Spirit of God strives for wholeness, unity, shalom among God's people. Might not God's Spirit be prompting reconciliation between those who see themselves as gatekeepers of the sacred institution of the church, and those who are denied acknowledgement of God's call? From the perspective of the Gospel According to John, the incarnation of Jesus Christ fulfills this very purpose: to reconcile God's children by correcting flaws in the human understanding of what it means to serve as God's priests. In the Gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples to rely upon the authority of the Word, which he embodied, proclaimed and developed. He said, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free (Jn. 8: 31-32)."
It is in search of
that liberating truth that this book has been written. None of the insights in
this study have been devised by the author or others in recent history. Rather,
I believe they are revelations of a truth that, while available for at least
1900 years, has remained hidden because we, the church, have not had the eyes
to see it. To be set free from our blindness, we must first want to know the
truth, then be willing to follow the path that leads to it. This work is
intended to focus some light on the landmarks in the Gospel of John that
indicate where this truth has been hidden all along. It requires the reader to
become a kind of detective, searching for clues to the ancient mystery of the
meaning behind this masterpiece of scripture. Let us begin now to uncover those
Carefully woven into the Fourth Gospel are two story lines. The surface level story bears a close resemblance to the orthodox Jesus story of the Synoptic Gospels. A second story is hidden by the Gospel's author (or authors) through the ingenious use of metaphorical language. It tells a Jesus story that is extraordinarily unorthodox, though internally consistent, about how Jesus and his disciples replaced every part of the ancient system of worship in Israel. The center 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 SynopticGospels.
The Pentateuch: An Ancient Cipher
To decipher the code
language within which this secret gospel is told, seekers of truth must refer
to the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch, to learn how oracles were used
in the Mosaic tradition. Understanding how symbols were incorporated into the
ancient Hebrew traditions relating to the temple and the priesthood will help
to open the eyes of the twenty first century disciple to the world view of the
first century community from which the Fourth Gospel came. The holy scriptures
of the Mosaic tradition, translated from Hebrew toGreek, were the initial point
of reference, the world view, from which the theology of the first century
disciples sprang. It is this theology, which presupposes an extensive knowledge
and understanding of the Pentateuch, which is reflected in the Gospel According
to John. Applying the meaning of those Old Covenant symbols to the orthodox
Jesus story, a method entirely consistent with the teaching methods used in
both early Christian and first century Jewish schools, brings to the forefront
the theological perspective of a radically unorthodox community of disciples.
This community testifies, through their hidden gospel, that Jesus and his
disciples systematically replaced the Herodian temple, the Mosaic festivals and
sacrifices, and the Aaronic priesthood, because all of these elements of the
Hebrew tradition had ceased to fulfill their symbolic functions as defined in
the Mosaic Law.
Jesus ordained his
disciples as the new priests, and carefully defined their roles in order to
prevent them from losing sight of their function, as the priests during the
Herodian period of the temple did. Jesus defined the new priesthood so that it
would not be a restricted tribe, as were the Levites. The disciples were to
include all of those who were able to see Christ in Jesus and believe in him.
That group of disciples included women.
Mary's Anointing -- "Let Her Keep It"
In Jn. 11: 55 - 12: 8, Mary of Bethany anoints the
feet of Jesus with perfumed oil, then dries his feet with her hair. Why did she
do that? What does it mean? A preliminary look at commentaries written on this
passage adds to the mystery. Most scholars agree that this is an anointing
story. Some scholars think that Jesus is being anointed for his royal entry
into Jerusalem as the Messiah. Others believe that the anointing of Jesus is in
preparation for his burial. Neither interpretation is convincing.
Some scholars acknowledge that translation of the
anointing passage is difficult, and point out that it doesn't really qualify as
an anointing story, because the anointing oil is applied to Jesus' feet, not
his head. The head of a king or prophet would be anointed as a sign of office,
while the entire body, including the head, but not restricted to the feet,
would be anointed in preparing a body for burial. The problem is that the oil
is not applied to Jesus' head. The oil is applied to Mary's head! Could it be
that in serving Christ, Mary was anointed? If so, wouldn't that mean that Jesus
anointed (ordained) Mary of Bethany?
The Beloved Disciple
Most commentators seem intent on asserting that the difficulties in translating this passage (Jn. 11: 55 - 12: 8) must be interpreted in some way that avoids consideration of Mary's role. Much more attention is given to discovering the identity of a character found only in the Fourth Gospel: a mysterious figure called "the disciple whom Jesus loved, the other disciple, or the Beloved Disciple." Because of the assumption that Jesus called only male disciples, nearly every scholar, in spite of the anointing story, disregards the possibility that Mary of Bethany, or any woman, might be this mysterious, hidden figure.
One scholar lists Lazarus, Mary, and Martha as
candidates for the role of Beloved Disciple. Then, after considering and
discarding the candidacy of Lazarus, fails to apply his criteria to Martha or
Mary, even though Mary fits the role as he defines it! Another lists Mary and
Martha as candidates, but quickly excludes them from consideration because at
the end of the Gospel, Jesus, while dying on the cross, appears to be referring
to the Beloved Disciple when he says to his mother, "Woman, here is your son."
Only one scholar, Maria Luisa Rigato, considers
Mary to be a full-fledged disciple. In a brief article in an Italian
periodical, Rigato presents her thesis that in John 12: 1-8 Mary of Bethany
anoints the feet of Jesus as a prophetic gesture to acknowledge him as her
King, the Anointed One of God, whose body, like the temple, is due to be
destroyed. In making this unusual gesture, says Rigato, Mary is anointed. I
have found nothing more than this one brief article, printed in Italian, by
Rigato or anyone else, on this thesis.
Thesis: Mary of Bethany Is the Beloved Disciple
My studies have led me to this conclusion: Mary of
Bethany is the Beloved Disciple of the Fourth Gospel. In John 11: 55 through
12: 8, she officiates in a liturgical event (the consecration of the new
Temple) by anointing the altar of that Temple (the feet of Jesus). This
anointing results 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." My thesis is born out by a careful consideration of the Greek words,
borrowed in most cases from the Septuagint (LXX) version of the Pentateuch,
which were used in the writing of the Gospel According to John. These Greek
terms support the interpretation that John's Gospel includes a hidden story
line, one that includes the story of the ordination of Mary of Bethany as well
as the ordination of other male and female disciples.
Biblical Evidence for Ordaining Women
Is this the Biblical evidence supporting the ordination of women that so many say does not exist? It certainly appears so, though to consider it the reader must be open to a different understanding of the Gospel than previously written. The key to seeing the pathway is a simple one: consider the possibility that Jesus had male and female disciples. Recent studies in the emerging field of feminist theology have produced evidence that this idea has been historically and systematically repressed in the Christian church.
The fact that some in the church recoil in anger and shock at such an idea is all the more reason for the church of the twenty first century to look at it carefully. This liberating idea has persisted for two thousand years in spite of intense repression. Could it be the truth? This author is convinced that it is.In the tension created by those with the courage to offer a fresh "new" approach (though many of the ideas in feminist theology are anything but new), the church is feeling the birth pains of truth.
Dr. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott encourages a reconsideration of the ancient metaphors in order to allow them to take new life as aids in the formation of faith and the assertion of religious truth. The hidden truth of the Gospel According to John is that Jesus did, indeed, call women to be among his disciples, and that he ordained all of his disciples, including the women, and especially Mary of Bethany, to serve as priests in God's House.
Field of Study
The present study considers the works of contemporary historical critical scholars of the Gospel of John, like Barrett and Brown, as well as the work of an emerging group of neo-Aristotelian scholars who use a method of literary analysis, variously called "poetics" (after a work byAristotle of that same name) or "post modern literary criticism" or"reader-response criticism," which promises to be a new paradigm for New Testament studies.
The former group might be identified as form critical historians who belong to what is being called "the second quest." That is, they believe that it is possible, by analyzing and dissecting scriptural text, primarily from the Synoptic Gospels, to identify the historical Jesus. Much valuable information has been generated in this quest, including careful studies of the words used in scripture. This study relies heavily on this important literary source.
The latter group begins with an entirely different
set of assumptions when addressing themselves specifically to the study of
scripture. They consider the Gospel as though it were a novel with a plot,
characters, and settings. They consider not only who the author might be, but
who the implied author might be and who the reader and the implied reader might
be. All of this is considered to have been carefully structured to bring the
reader to a different "world view" than the one the reader brings initially to
encounter the Jesus story. To use this method, it is necessary to restrict our
understanding of the "action" of the plot to the "narrative world of the Gospel
of John," avoiding the assumptions that are easily made by inserting
understandings derived from the Synoptic Gospels.
We will use 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 of
Let us put ourselves into the mind set of those
first readers of this most extraordinary Gospel, expecting to learn more from
the words within it than can at first be discerned. Let us use the method they
may well have used to uncover the story that was hidden there in plain view for
those who had eyes to see it. To do this we must first become familiar with the
relevant parts of the Greek version of the Old Testament, looking especially at
the specific Greek words used as oracles there. Then we will consider how the
use of such words to describe places and times, to name people and describe
what they do, tells the unorthodox story that I have just described.
The impatient reader will want to jump to the
eleventh chapter, where an exegesis of the passages in the Gospel of John
begins. This will allow such readers to see how the conclusions are drawn in
this admittedly unorthodox study. Jumping ahead will deprive the reader,
however, of the experience of discovery that awaits those who take the time to
explore the more ancient texts and learn how to read the signs with which the
gospel is written.
This book can attempt to be nothing more than an introduction to a method of study and a "world view" that will certainly feed the spiritsof those who attempt it. This is a serious and complex journey we are about to take, but I guarantee that you will not regret the time you spend taking any one of the steps outlined herein. Be patient. Start in the beginning, which is where the Teacher behind our Gospel begins.
Thomas W. Butler
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