One of the Catholic Church’s traditional arguments against the priestly ordination of women revolves around Jesus of Nazareth being a man.
According to this “official” line of reasoning, the priest must be “another Christ,” a male other Christ. Such an individual must have a “natural resemblance” to the first Christ. By definition, a female can’t fill that role.
The authors of the Christian Scriptures would never have understood that logic.
In the 40-year period between Jesus’ earthly ministry and the writing of the first gospel (Mark), his apostles certainly passed on many of the words and actions of the carpenter who lived between 6 BCE and 30 CE: the “historical Jesus.”
But while they did so, they also were convinced this particular itinerant preacher had risen into a “new creation.” (II Corinthians 5:17)
The person who rose from the tomb into a new creation on Easter Sunday was just as much a slave as a free person, a gentile as a Jew and a woman as a man (Galatians 3:28). Jesus, now risen, could not be considered a first-century Jewish man.
Many of us make the mistake of confusing biblical resurrection with resuscitation. In the Gospel of Luke, Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son and Jesus’ friend Lazarus, didn’t “rise” from the dead. Jesus simply resuscitated them.
Though I presume at one point they were clinically dead when they came back to life, they were still the same persons they were before they stopped breathing. If the widow’s son, for instance, enjoyed ball games before he died, he continued to like them when he returned home alive from his funeral procession. More importantly, all three died again. They’re no longer around today.
In Scripture, only Jesus of Nazareth rises from the dead. That unique person — not a resuscitated Jesus — is front and centre to both the first preachers and those who composed the Christian Scriptures; it is this risen Jesus, not a “returned” historical Jesus, that they preach and eventually write about. They understand that if Jesus is now alive and present to the community of believers, what he is doing right here and now is the critical issue requiring attention.
That’s why, among other things, both mid-first-century preachers and the evangelists don’t hesitate to change the Aramaic the historical Jesus spoke into the koine Greek which the risen Jesus speaks in their sermons and writings. They do this for the sake of their Greek-speaking audiences, a group the historical Jesus never encountered.
Neither do the preachers or evangelists have any scruples adding to or changing the historical Jesus’ words. A classic example: his teaching on divorce. Matthew’s Jesus — in Chapter 19 — says only that a man may not divorce his wife. Women are off the hook! But Mark’s Jesus — in Chapter 10 — insists neither men nor women can divorce their spouses. What did the historical Jesus actually command? Given the early church’s belief in the risen Jesus, the answer is simple. Matthew’s Jesus — like the historical Jesus — addresses a Jewish-Christian audience that knows nothing about a wife divorcing her husband. Mark, on the other hand, writes for a gentile-Christian community in which women have the right to divorce their husbands. The historical Jesus said one thing; the risen Jesus says something else. Like any living person, the risen Jesus constantly modifies his message to meet the needs of new times and new audiences.
Perhaps one of the most insightful biblical passages revolving around the risen Jesus is in Acts 9, the narrative of Paul’s conversion. This zealous disciple of the Mosaic law is on the road to Damascus, bent on bringing back to Jerusalem “in chains” those Jews who “belonged to the Way,” when he’s knocked to the ground by someone claiming to be “Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Much to Saul’s surprise, this confrontative risen Jesus identifies with all his followers. This is significant, since the author just told us Saul was going to “arrest any men and women” who followed that Way. According to Luke’s theology, not only were the Christian men in Damascus other Christs, so were the women!
Reflecting on Galatians 3, spiritual author Michael Crosby once mentioned it took 30 or 40 years before the church overcame the Jew/gentile issue, and almost 1,900 years before it finally settled the slave/free question. Then he pointed out the obvious: “We’re still dealing with that male/female thing!” Just as the church once struggled to surface the risen Jesus in gentiles and slaves, it continues to struggle with experiencing that same unique person in women, especially in women who have a calling to preside at the eucharist.
Perhaps during this Easter season, as we contemplate the historical Jesus’ transformation into the risen Jesus, it might be helpful for us Christians to deliberately go back to our biblical roots. After all, we can best show our faith in Jesus’ resurrection by simply looking around and experiencing him/her in the person next to us — especially these days if that person is a woman.
Rev. Roger Vermalen Karban, a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., is a Scripture scholar and widely published writer.