“Mary Has Chosen the Better Vocation. Do Not Take It Away from Her.”

One problem for a Catholic, even an ethnic Catholic like me, is that getting a Ph.D. tends to make you think you have the right to argue with the Pope, even if he doesn’t think so. Actually, one has a duty to argue with the Pope, because few laypeople have had enough theological training to even know what the conversation is actually about. When the Pope is wrong, it is a sin of omission not to tell him so.

Recently Benedict XVI gave a public statement in which he said that pedophilia committed by Catholic priests was both a sin and a crime and would be punished. Better late than never. One can see why it has been a logistical problem. Apparently, if it had been dealt with when it happened, the Catholic Church in America would have been even more seriously understaffed.

However, unfortunately, at the same time, Benedict said that advocating the ordination of women as priests was just as serious a sin as committing pedophilia. Even Catholics are wondering what planet Benedict thinks he’s living on. The ordination of women as priests is now routine in many Christian denominations, and many Catholic worshippers believe their church’s ban is wrong. But the Vatican, together with the Catholic wing of the Church of England, believes that since Christ did not appoint any women as apostles, it is wrong for women to assume leadership in the Church. That is a specious argument, and it is hard to believe that Benedict, who is a brilliant theologian, does not know that.

There are many peripheral issues around this topic that are relevant, but, if anything, get in the way. One point that needs to be understood is that “apostle” did not mean “disciple.” The Gospels say that Jesus appointed twelve men as ambassadors (“apostle” comes from “apostellen,” which meant “to send out”), that is, to be missionaries, travelling in pairs around the country, for safety. It was merely one specific task, but one  absolutely too dangerous for women in that society. However, there were many more than twelve disciples. Further, the Greek term usually translated as “disciple” was not a churchy word and did not imply any sort of ordination. It was mathetes, the ordinary term for any student, including the students of a Rabbi.

Look at the Gospel of Mark. It says that Jesus sent two students to prepare the Seder meal and later arrived there with the twelve men. So the two students who prepared the meal were NOT from the Twelve, and in that society, it was women who cooked the meal, not men. In addition, women must be present for the Seder ritual to be carried out according to the traditional requirements. Anyone looking at that story with fresh eyes would deduce that the two cooks must have been women.

Still, circumstantial arguments like that are not convincing, and the tactics devised for explaining them away have been stockpiled over the centuries. There is a more convincing story, if it is correctly translated. As I mentioned, before I began my doctoral program in 1974, I taught myself to read Greek. I wanted to be able to tell if the Gospels had been translated correctly and honestly. There are a few places where they have not been; for some of these, it is hard to believe that the mistranslation was not intentional.

On the topic of ordaining women, the crucial story to understand in the one about Mary and Martha, in Luke 10. Jesus has come to have dinner with these friends. While Martha is cooking, Mary is sitting at his feet as he talks. This was the ordinary way for students of a Rabbi to sit. He sat on a stool; they clustered around him, arms around knees, so that he did not have to raise his voice. There is a passage in the Talmud that says, “When a sage visits your home, do not sit beside him on the couch. Sit at his feet and listen as attentively as if you were in the schul.” So that’s how Mary was sitting, as a student among the men students.

Martha comes out and complains to Jesus that Mary is not helping her. Jesus’ reply is usually interpreted as meaning, “Don’t worry about it. It’s okay for her to listen to me tonight instead of cooking and doing dishes.” That sort of translation is not only wrong, but intellectually dishonest. I looked at the Greek text at some time in the early 1980s, and was stunned by what I discovered. The Greek word usually translated as “choice” or “lot” actually means “choice of career,” what we now call “vocation.” Jesus was not saying, “Mary is making a good choice for tonight.” He was saying, “Mary has chosen the better career,” the same career as the men students among whom she was sitting. I told this to the young sisters whom I was teaching at Holy Family College in Fremont, California, in about 1982. Many of them hoped to be ordained, despite what church policy was. Upon hearing this correct translation, some of them cheered, and some of them broke into tears.

The next line puzzled me for a long time. “It shall not be taken away from her.” What an irony, I thought. It has been taken away from her. I guess this is one of those embarrassing places where Jesus was just plain wrong in his predictions. Finally the explanation dawned on me, with another shock. The Greek uses an ordinary imperative construction. Jesus was not making a prediction. He was giving a commandment: “Do not take it away from her.” He was saying, Do not take Mary’s vocation as my student away from her. She is entitled to whatever the men students are entitled to. She has the right to be ordained.

Clearly one belief among Roman Catholics and many other varieties of Christians is that Jesus’ commandments must be obeyed. Why not this one? The meaning in Greek is not ambiguous. It has been misunderstood and ignored by being mistranslated, perhaps not on purpose—I don’t know whether that’s the case—but certainly as inspired by the endemic misogyny of classical and much of medieval civilization. This is the time and the ammunition with which Catholic women, especially the Sisters, can confront the Bishop of Rome over their rights. It will not be easy for him to admit that he and every Pope since a long time ago have been wrong, but that is the objective situation.  So admit you were wrong, Father, make amends, and be forgiven.

It is hard to understand how very liberal Jesus was toward women without understanding a great deal about the beliefs and practices of his times. Many of the stories in the Gospels have totally different meanings given such an understanding. But let me throw one more bombshell at you.

Because of the internecine warfare and atrocities between official Christianity and official Judaism over the centuries, there are not many stories about or quotations from Jesus left in the Talmud. But there are a few. Consider this one, in Gittin: “The son and the daughter shall inherit equally.” Again, that’s not a prediction; it’s a commandment. How in the world did it get left out of the Gospels? (Perhaps you detect some sarcasm.) The Reverend Barbara Harris, as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, is proof that the Episcopalians have figured all this out.

As many others have noted, if the Roman Catholic Church had women priests, married priests, and even married women priests, it would not be so short-handed. It does have married priests now; arguments that it can’t have more are bogus. And, of course, having such priests would be far preferable to having supposedly celibate male priests who obviously are not celibate at all. In fact, celibacy was not made requisite for all priests until the tenth century, mainly so that priests’ children could not inherit the local churches. But that’s another story.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1295012/Vatican-labels-ordination-women-grave-crime-par-sex-abuse.html#ixzz1yrr3xfVl


  • Robert Mathiesen

    Excellent! Another fact — if I have remembered it correctly — that may support your argument is that the Gospel according to John has nothing to say about “apostles” at all, except for one jab at people whom it calls “pseudo-apostles.” At the last supper it is an unspecified number of “disciples” who are present, and in the last, added-on chapter, the author of that gospel is himself called a “disciple,” not an apostle.. From here one may move to Eusebius’s well-known quote from the lost works of Papias to the effect that there were two Johns who were authorities on what Jesus had said, one an apostle, the other an elder, and hypothesize that the John who wrote that gospel was not the Apostle John, but another disciple with the common name John, later called an “elder.”

    BTW, I am greatly enjoying your blog, and am very glad that you are taking the trouble to write it.

    • aidanakelly

      Thank you, Bob. I had never run into that fact about Jn, and I agree that it is quite significant. Apostle” is rarely a positive term in the NHLE documents, and since it was the favorite Gospel of the “Gnostics” and may have received that rewrite in order to conform it to what became the mainstream theology, and since the first version may have said a great deal more about Mary, its remaining differences from the Synoptics may be more important than we can now guess. E.g., in the Lazarus pericope, why is it Martha who comes to see him first and makes her confession of faith, then is replaced by Mary? Was it Mary who made that confession in version 1? Did it say Jesus then conferred the Rabbinic power of interpreting the will of heaven on her as Mt says he did with Peter? I think it hugely important that Origen and Hippolytus say that the Alexandrians derived their “apostolic authority” from her and James, not fromthe Twelve” (unless James was actually one of them, as Jeffrey Buetz has argued). More will be revealed, I hope..

      • Robert Mathiesen

        Take a look, when you have time, Aidan, at the document Morton Smith discovered half a century ago, which purports to be an 18th-century handwritten copy of a fragment of a letter by Clement of Alexandria about a variant form of the Gospel according to Mark, preserved as a secret tradition in the Church of Alexandria. Mainstream scholarship is uncomfortable enough with what this letter says that very many solid scholars think that it must be a forgery, probably made in the 20th century and possibly by Smith himself. But it is not so simple as all that. My brother, who is a world-class expert on Greek paleography, does not see how the extant copy can possibly be a 20th-century forgery of an 18th-century Greek hand by any Western scholar (therefore including Smith).

        As for the initiation rite of the “mystery of the kingdom of heaven” that Clement’s letter describes Jesus as administering to a naked young man alone at night, it need not be a rite of baptism. There is another ancient rite preserved in the Eastern Orthodox Church (and probably in other Eastern churches) called the rite of the “Angelic Habit (Schema),” now reserved for the most experienced monks, which looks to me as though it parallels what Clement is talking about. At any rate, it expressly conveys to the initiated monk the “mystery of the kingdom of heaven,” which he did not possess before undergoing the rite.

        (My apologies to Aidan’s other readers, who may find all this puzzling or boring. He and I have similar academic backgrounds and interests.)

        • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

          I’ve known about the Secret Gospel of Mark for a while, but had not heard of the “Angelic Habit (Schema)” before now. Where could one read more on that, Robert? *very curious*

          • Robert Mathiesen

            You have Greek and Latin, don’t you, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus? If so, you can read a late form of the ritual and vows in Jacobus Goar’s _Euchologion sive Rituale Graecorum_ (2nd ed., Venice, 1730), pp. 403-418 [on google books]. But it’s a long and florid ritual. You should pay the most attention to the vows and the teaching, which contain the most archaic parts.

            There are English versions, not complete, of more recent forms of the ritual here and there on the web, for instance, at:

            I’m on vacation now, far away from any good library, so what follows is from memory. I may not have got it quite right. IIRC, the ritual is usually reserved for elderly, tested and tried, monks or nuns. It initiates the candidate into the highest degree of the monastic life. It is called a “second baptism” in the ritual, and it remits all previous sins, confessed or not. (However, sins committed after this ritual are impossible or very hard to remit, so it carries considerable spiritual danger with it for an unworthy candidate.) In the ritual it is called a “mystery,” and it offers sure admission into the Kingdom of Heaven (assuming the candidate does not prove false to his vows). It calls the candidate (whether male or female) into Christ’s bridal chamber. It mystically transforms the candidate into an actual angel while he (or she) is still in the flesh, and thereafter he (or she) is a member of the angelic court around the Heavenly Throne. After death he (or she) continues to be an angel and a member of that court, not simply a saved soul like other Christians.

            [This is an odd sort of thing to be discussing on a Pagan blog. Aidan knows my background, but for other readers I should probably mention that I was raised in a family of old-line SF Bay area magical pantheists well before Wicca ever came to the USA, but I spent my academic career as a specialist in Medieval Eastern and Southern Slavic philology and historical linguistics. Since almost all the surviving old texts from that part of the world are Biblical or liturgical, I had to develop a measure of expertise in Biblical textual criticism and the history of the Christian liturgy.]

          • aidanakelly

            And all the Nag Hammadi documents associated with Alexandria talk about the initiation in the bridal chanber. Wow. That could almost be a passage out of the Gospel of Philip. I have also discovered that the Greek word translated as “bridal chamber” also meant “a temple of Dionysos, Demeter, and Kore,” that is, a temple of the Mysteries. Not sure where to go with this, but it reconnects with Pagan religion.

          • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

            Very interesting! I shall look more into this! Thanks very much indeed!
            I have an M.A. in religious studies from a Jesuit university, so most of my formal theological training is in the Catholic tradition. My Ph.D. is in Celtic Studies, but I’m one of those weird modern Celticists who also knows an awful lot about Greek and Roman things. So, while my Greek isn’t as good as my Latin or my Old Irish, I’ve been using Greek more in my recent work, thus having access to the original texts is a tremendous boon! And, I’ve always been a big fan of Secret Mark ever since I first heard of it in my M.A. program. I read that critique of it, The Gospel Hoax, recently, and I don’t buy that argument. The existence of the manuscript has been confirmed meanwhile. And, I think the insights it gives on the Carpocratians is also very interesting…but that’s a whole other matter! ;)

          • Robert Mathiesen

            I don’t think Carlson’s _The Gospel Hoax_ was a very good piece of scholarship at all. Carlson was a lawyer, IIRC, before he went back to school, and his book is a lawyer’s set of arguments, designed to create doubt and suspicion rather that dispassionately get at the truth.

            Peter Jeffrey’s book on Secret Mark is better, but his argument hinges, IIRC, on baptism being the only possible early Christian ritual to which Secret Mark might refer. Though Jeffrey is immensely learned in liturgical matters, he has entirely overlooked the ritual of the “Angelic Habit (Schema),” which — I am reliably told — is first attested in Egypt in the writings of Pachomius (in the 4th century CE?). If Secret Mark refers to a secret ritual practiced by Jesus that is an ancestor of the Angelic Habit, then Jeffrey’s argument falls to the ground entirely.

            Again, I’m on vacation far away from any library, so all this is from memory, and I may have gotten some things a little wrong.

          • aidanakelly

            And Pachomius is the name associated with the community that apparently buried the Nag Hammadi documents. Hence it is not impossible that this Greek Orthodox monastic ritual does connect historically with the ritual alluded to in Secret Mark and with the initiation in the Bridal Chamber that is all over the Gospel of Philip and several other of the documents. The orthodox will forever refuse to believe any such thing of course, but it is certainly fodder for another novel, i.e., an experiment in simulation modeling on an alternative religious history that, probably unfortunately, never happened.

          • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

            I’ll look for Jeffrey’s book as well–thanks for the recommendation and synopsis!

            One of the other religion teachers at one of my colleges, little did I know, pretty much inspired Carlson to write The Gospel Hoax, and I got into a bit of an argument with him over a dinner one time about Secret Mark and why he thought it couldn’t possibly be real. He hadn’t known about the manuscript verification, for starters…And, when I brought up that Carlson is a lawyer rather than a paleographer, patristic scholar, or anything else, he said “But that’s an ad hominem critique”; what is a good bit of Carlson’s argument other than an ad hominem critique/hermeneutic on Morton Smith’s sexuality? In any case, not a very good nor convincing argument…

            I’m glad to have had this brief discussion with you, because I don’t know anyone else personally who has read that book (or who is really interested in or knowledgeable about this topic at all)! :) Thanks so much!

        • aidanakelly

          I hadn’t thought about Secret Mark lately, but it does fit. Given Smith’s animosity to Christianity, suspecting him of forgery was not unreasonable, but his description of analyzing Clement’s writing without the aid of a computer is convincing. Didn’t know about the “Angelic Habit (Schema)” either but it does fit. I think it was the original Jewish followers who fled to Egypt and founded the community there, and Pachomius’ community apparently descended from them. I got hired to teach at an Armenian High School in 1995 because of knowing Coptic–because the Copts and the Armenians are both Monophysites. Met their Catholicos; nice guy. Curious that the Coptic Pope who visited the US about them was named Shenudi, a name you must know of a major author of the Coptic monastic writings we cut our teeth on in Leonard Lesko’s Coptic I01 class. Another lead to follow up on.

          • Robert Mathiesen

            Oh my, Aidan, an old home week! Leonard Lesko came to Brown after leaving UC Berkeley, and we became friends. I, too, did a bit of Coptic at Berkeley (but before Lesko’s time, under Klaus Baer) and a bit of Armenian in my college years. I have forgotten almost all of it by now, through lack of use.

            Smith was a very smart man, but genuinely puzzled by what he had found.

          • aidanakelly

            Yes, you had told me about him at some point during a call. If you’re in touch with him, please tell him that one of the characters in my “Goddess Murder” novel is based on him. Only a bit part tho. He did promise to give me credit for an alternative translation in one of the Coptic texts we worked on. Maybe he did!

            “I know we are here to serve others. What the others are here for I have no idea.” W. H. Auden

            https://www.amazon.com/author/aidankelly (you can find my books here)

  • Chas Clifton

    You write, ” She has the right to be ordained.” But just to play devil’s advocate, Jesus was not in the business of ordaining anyone; therefore, that argument is specious too. His teacher-student relationship, which included Mary (and yes, I know about the Nag Hammadi book attributed to her), did not include creating other ranks than “apostle,” so far as I know.

  • Richard Norris

    David R. Calin, the author of Can A Catholic Be A Democrat, had an interesting reply to the question of the ordination of women. “If women have more of an aptitude than men for Christian sanctity, doesn’t that
    mean that they are called more than men to the priesthood?” I don’t know whether
    they are more “called” or not, but their aptitude for Christian sanctity is
    precisely the reason, as I see it, that they should be kept out of the
    priesthood. For if women were to be ordained, they would soon – within 50 years,
    I’d guess – become overwhelmingly predominant in the priesthood. Female priests
    would outnumber male priests by ten or 20 to one, if not more. Catholicism would
    be perceived, and correctly so, not just as a “feminine” religion but as a
    female religion. Males would pretty much abandon it.”

  • Dave Burwasser

    Glad you’ve picked up on this controversy. I hadn’t heard of this translation problem before.

  • Christopher Smith

    This post is, at the very least, misleading in many ways and makes several broad assumptions. For example, “Recently Benedict XVI gave a public statement…” I hadn’t heard of anything like that “recently” so I had searched the web using the following terms, “benedict ordination of women pedophilia” and a ton of hits came back – all from JULY 2010. Now, I remember. Maybe the author considers something from over two years ago as “RECENTLY” happening, but I would guess most would not. The author should have either given the date or chosen a different wording.

    What happened in July 2010 wasn’t so much that Pope Benedict “gave a public statement,” as if he called a press conference, but rather the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issue a document of “substantive norms.” That is not an insignificant difference. Taken together the introduction of the article leads readers to think Pope Benedict stepped in front of some microphones in the last week or so and made an announcement. Compare that to what actually happened: a curial department in the Vatican issued a document two years ago.

    Additionally the simplicity with which the author [falsely] introduces this topic makes it sound as if Pope Benedict made a simple statement linking pedophilia and women’s ordination. People who have been Catholic for a long time should already have alarms going off. Nothing the Church does is that simple. The CDF’s substantive norms document from July 2010 is over 5000 words long, with 31 articles, and hundreds of in text and footnoted citations to other ecclesial documents and canon law. In other words, it is NOT a light read.

    Furthermore, the word pedophilia is not in the document; however, I will grant there is some wording that could pass for the defintion of pedophilia. Here it is: “the delict against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue committed by a
    cleric with a minor below the age of eighteen years; in this case, a person who
    habitually lacks the use of reason is to be considered equivalent to a minor.” See what I mean about “not a light read?” It couldn’t just say “a priest who commits pedophilia?”

    But what was the point of this document? It was to establish juridical procedures (norms) within the Church on a variety of topics, to include priests sexual involvement with minors and invalid priestly ordination (of women), but also on other topics such as sanctity of the Sacrament of Penance and sanctity of the most Holy Sacrifice and
    Sacrament of the Eucharist. All of these issues are mentioned in the document, but none of them are linked, compared to, or likened to another other.

    So here is the real deal: over two years ago (July 2010), an office in the Vatican (not Pope Benedict), released a document (not a statement), on how it will conduct legal matters within the Church. What the author of this article does, is twist all that to lay the groundwork for her argument for woman’s ordination. Given her twisting of the facts surrounding the mundane, simple stuff of who, what, when, and where, readers should be extremely cautious about accepting any of her scholarship. To say that Mary’s vocation as a student of Jesus equates to priestly ordination is quite a leap.

    I think the real problem with getting a PhD isn’t that you think you should argue with Pope, its that many people who have them think it’s a license to put forth their own opinions as “scholarship” or fact. But what do I know? I only have a MA, not a PhD in theology.

    Here is the document http://www.vatican.va/resources/resources_norme_en.html

    • aidanakelly

      Yes, the article was from 2010, but I only encountered it recently. The CDF could not have issued it without Benedict’s approval. It does equate pedophilia with ordaining women as equally serious offenses. Quibbling about what constituted ordination is casuistry. Jesus conferred the Rabbinic power; commissioning missionaries was different from that. You seem to miss the point that Jesus’commandment about Mary has always been mistranslated; it explicitly authorizes and insists on the ordination of women. BTW, I’m a him, not a her. If you want to do your own research on Luke 10, go for it. This is still a free country.

      • Christopher Smith

        Thank you for your reply. I am very sorry for my gender typo in my original post. I am embarrassed and should have done a better job of proof reading.

        I also wanted to thank you for “coming clean” about the article/document you were referring to. I hope you understand there is a considerable difference between your statement, “Recently Benedict XVI gave a public statement” and the truth that you recently encountered an article that is over two years old. That is really sloppy. I don’t believe that an intelligent, highly educated person makes that kind of mistake on accident. I think it was intentional. If you had only recently come upon the article, why not just say that? Even if Benedict had approved of the release of the document (2+ years ago), which you are probably right that he did, that is not the same as “recently gave a public statement.”

        In fact, the gravity of the discrepancy interferes with your primary argument, the one you say I am missing; specifically, that Jesus’ commandment about Mary “has always been mistranslated.” You want people to take your research into the translation of ancient texts seriously and yet you misled them with your introduction. I think you shoot yourself in the foot by having people call your credibility into question. Please note, I’m not even delving into the quality of your research. You’ve done it; I haven’t. In fact, I’m trying to help you by insisting that you be upfront with your audience. That way you don’t have to worry about jerks like me giving you a hard time.

        Let’s assume that you had stumbled upon some great theological discovery, one that could revolutionize the Church as we know it. You create double, maybe triple, the work for yourself trying to get people to hear/understand/believe your primary point because they are too busy wondering if you have a credibility problem because you mucked around with the introduction.

        I may look into some of the points you raised about Luke 10. I have some other projects I’m currently working on, but your points have intrigued me. Thankfully, the issue of whether or not this is a free country was never up for dispute. On this point, you and I are simpatico.

        • aidanakelly

          Thank you, Chris. We may or may not disagree about things not yet discussed, but I’m glad to be in touch with someone who understands how important this translation issue can be. You’re right. Not noticing the date on the newspaper column was 2 years old was sloppy. But that doesn’t change Benedict’s equation.
          BTW, if you want to check the translations, you need to look the words up in the Liddell-Scott-MacKenzie-Jones unabridged Greek dictionary. That way you can see what they meant at the time when the Gospels were being written. I don’t think many people do that.

        • Carla

          For me, it doesn’t matter when the article was initially written. If the pope has not addressed this issue since the initial article all is withstanding. Like Aidan said, the whole point of his (Aidan’s) article is, for me anyway, to point out that Jesus’ teachings have not been followed. Translations were incorrect. My other question is why was Mary’s book left out of the bible. And thank you Aidan for your work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000890023627 Re DuVernay

    Not to be a pain, but I can’t find a definition for “ethnic Catholic” anywhere! Would I be correct to assume that it’s somewhere along the lines of “raised Catholic, but not currently a believing Catholic”.

    • aidanakelly

      Yes, that’s what most people mean by it. I’m more in a position of having a theology, as well as personal beliefs and experiences, that I know fall within an extremely liberal understanding of Catholicism, but do not exclude the truths of some (not all) other religious persuasions. I am in the position of being able to go participate in the Eucharist with a good conscience on a day when I’m feeling particularly in need of help, but I also find help in many other places as well. Also, having been a devout Catholic until age 14, I feel that I still have a dog in that fight.

  • Ian Phanes

    One very minor correction: The current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church is Katharine Jefferts Schori, not Barbara Harris (who was the first woman bishop in TEC and the Anglican Communion).