Apostolic aggression


10th-century Bible at St. Mary of Zion, Aksum, Ethiopia


Why Priests? A Failed Tradition by Garry Wills (Viking)

- Reviewed by Randall Balmer

Garry Wills wants us to know that he really bears no animus toward priests. Truly. Some of his best friends, not to mention his mentors, are priests. His quarrel is not with priests but with the specious notion of the priesthood, which, he argues, finds no precedent in the early church and precious little warrant in the New Testament.

Jesus never claimed for himself the mantle of priesthood, nor did he, a Jew, hail from the priestly tribe of Levi. The sole reference to Jesus as priest in the New Testament, Wills says, occurs in the Epistle to the Hebrews, an enigmatic letter of unknown provenance. The writer of the letter introduces the notion of Jesus as priest not in the line of Aaron (Levite) but in the tradition of Melchizedek, the obscure Canaanite king of Salem who makes a cameo appearance in Genesis and is mentioned again briefly in Psalm 110.

Using his linguistic skills and his impressive command of both secondary literature and patristic sources, Wills raises doubts aplenty about ‘the Melchizedek myth,’ and the priestly claims for Jesus in the ‘idiosyncratic’ Epistle to the Hebrews. He notes as well the linguistic anomalies of the Genesis passage and even questions the inclusion of Hebrews in the canon of Scripture.

The Epistle to the Hebrews also posits a novel interpretation of the Crucifixion, Wills argues, that of substitutionary atonement: the death of Jesus was necessary to placate the anger of a wrathful God against a sinful humanity. In this scheme, God demanded the blood sacrifice of his own son.

Wills challenges this notion on several grounds, including its regressive ‘substitution of human sacrifice for animal sacrifice.’ In fact, he points out, the Greek word for ‘sacrifice’ occurs 15 times in Hebrews, more than in the rest of the New Testament combined.

Jesus, moreover, understood himself as a prophet, not a priest. ‘Jesus was acting in the prophetic tradition when he cleansed the Temple, driving out the money changers,’ Wills writes. ‘Though he attended the Temple, as any Jewish layman would, he performed no priestly acts there; presided over nothing; did not enter the Holy of Holies; made no animal sacrifice,” according to Wills. “He excoriates priests, and priests in return contrive his death.’

So, to quote the book’s title, ‘why priests?’ The standard Catholic teaching is that all priestly authority derives from Peter, to whom Jesus bestowed ‘the keys of the kingdom’; the authority of every priest, according to Catholic doctrine, can be traced through a line of ‘apostolic succession’ back to Peter, the first bishop of Rome.

The teachings of Jesus, however, were radically egalitarian: ‘The last shall be first, and the first last.’ Neither Jesus nor his followers claimed to be priests, Wills maintains, and ‘there is no historical evidence for Peter being bishop anywhere — least of all at Rome, where the office of bishop did not exist in the first century C.E.’

Having attributed the abiding conundrum of the priesthood to ‘the Melchizedek myth’ propagated in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Wills writes that this new priestly class began over the centuries to arrogate to itself powers and prerogatives unimagined by Jesus and his disciples. Although Jesus had instructed his followers not to ‘address any man on earth as father,’ priests demanded that very ­honorific….

- Randall Balmer is a prize-winning historian and Emmy Award nominee who  earned a PhD from Princeton University in 1985 and taught as Professor of American Religious History at Columbia University for 27 years before becoming the Mandel Family Professor of Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College in 2012.

Full review in The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/books/review/why-priests-by-garry-wills.html?pagewanted=all

Catholic Answers on Garry Wills: http://www.catholic.com/blog/karl-keating/garry-wills-not-as-smart-as-stephen-colbert

Washington Post Opinions on Garry Wills’s new book: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-02-15/opinions/37121075_1_garry-wills-number-of-catholic-priests-spiritual-authority

Wikipedia on Randall Balmer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randall_Balmer


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