How Both New Testament “Presbyters” and Old Testament “Cohenim” Became “Priests” in English

Marc Chagall. Aaron and the Seven-Branched Candlestick from Exodus (1966).

Marc Chagall, Aaron and the Seven-Branched Candlestick from Exodus (1966).

A recent commenter complained, as Protestants often do, that there is “no biblical basis” for the New Testament priesthood. My immediate response: Of course there is. There is ample demonstration throughout the New Testament of ministers — deacons, presbyters, and bishops — who are called to serve the Lord and the Church in a special way and appointed to that purpose. The Greek word presbyter (πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros]), even, is the root of our English word priest. Even saying it, though, it struck me as odd: If the New Testament Greek word presbyteros is the origin of the English word “priest,” why is it that the Old Testament priesthood is translated with that word in English today, and not the New Testament?

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

If fact, the word priest is the word applied in English to any religious minister in any religion, especially to one who makes sacrifices. But the word for those ministers in each of the various source languages is not priest or anything related to it. So what happened? How did a Christian minister come to be called a “priest” at all? How did this word that originally referred to the New Testament Christian minister come also to be applied to a Jewish minister of the Old Covenant, and in fact to any religious minister? And how is it that, in English today, this word “priest” no longer refers strictly to Christian ministers at all, such that modern Bible translations use the word in the Old Testament (in which it has no historical or etymological root) but not the New Testament (from which it actually derives) — and Protestant Christians are left to question why the New Testament ministry is even called a “priesthood”?

In answering these questions, I embarked on a fascinating journey through language, etymology, and Bible translation, uncovering surprising accidents of translation, usage, and reaction.

Catholic priest

The complaint of some Protestants that the “priesthood” of the Catholic Church has no biblical basis has two separate fronts: a linguistic one, opposed to the use of the word “priest,” and a theological one, opposed to the idea that the New Covenant of Christ has any need of a “priesthood” akin to that of the Old Covenant. Regarding the first point, I will show that the use of the word “priest” in English to describe the ministers of the Christian New Covenant is entirely appropriate, and the use of that same word to also describe ministers of the Jewish Old Covenant is mostly the result of a linguistic accident. I will address the second point in another post.

I. The Words of Scripture

A. “Presbyters”

Eugene and Macarius, presbyters and martyrs

From an icon of Eugene and Macarius, presbyters and martyrs at Antioch (Wikimedia).

As any student of the New Testament knows, St. Paul instructs us in Scripture, according to most modern Bible translations in English, about the ministry of elders and overseers. There is no mention at all in many recent translations of “priests” or “bishops” — leading Protestant readers especially to presume that the Catholic priesthood has no basis in Scripture, and stems only from “traditions of men.” In this case, though, the titles used in English in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches are primarily an etymological tradition (handed down by language and words) that does have a very firm basis in Scripture.

Modern Bible translations are correct in their translations of the original meanings of the Greek words used in the New Testament. The Greek word translated “elder” is πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], and in Classical Greek, it literally refers to an elder or older man. Likewise, the word translated “overseer” is ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos], meaning literally one who sees (skopos = Latin scopus) over (epi) others. These two offices were apparently more or less equivalent in practical biblical usage (cf. e.g. Titus 1:3, 5).

St. Timothy.

St. Timothy.

But almost immediately upon their introduction, these terms came to have meanings apart from their literal senses and apart from the literal interpretation of Scripture, referring specifically to the offices which they named in the developing Christian Church. Timothy, the recipient of Paul’s epistles, by all appearances was an elder or overseer, exercising the duties appointed to those offices (e.g. 1 Timothy 1:11-16, 4:17) and having the authority to appoint both (1 Timothy 3) — and yet Timothy was not an “older man” at all, but one to whom Paul exhorted, “Let no one despise you because of your youth” (1 Timothy 4:12). Ignatius of Antioch, writing in circa A.D. 107, commended an overseer who was likewise not an “older man” (Epistle to the Magnesians III). The office of presbyter, then, was not exclusively limited to “older men,” and came to mean more than the literal meaning of the Greek; and that word continued to be used, even when a younger man held the office.

The fact that the Christian office took on a different meaning than its literal Greek etymology is also evident in the fact that when the New Testament was translated into Latin, and when early Christian writers of the West wrote of Christian ministers, the Greek word πρεσβύτεροι [presbyteroi] was transliterated, copied directly into the Latin as presbyter, and not translated: “older men” in Latin would have been seniores (the word used in other locations of the New Testament where an older man is clearly meant, e.g. Matthew 27:1).

B. “Cohenim,” “Hiereis,” and “Sacerdotes”

cohen

We now turn to those Jewish religious officials in the Bible who are today generally translated into English as “priests.” The Old Testament Hebrew word for the ministers of the Old Covenant is כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [kō·hēn·īm or cohenim], singular כֹּהֵן [kō·hēn or cohen]. Despite the fact that the word “priest” originates from the New Testament presbyter, and that that word has no immediate, etymological connection to the ministry of the Old Covenant — these Hebrew ministers came to be called “priests” in English, and in fact there is no other word in English that can adequately be applied to them or what they did.

The same Hebrew word cohenim was used to describe Egyptian religious ministers (Genesis 41:45) and ministers of Baal (2 Kings 10:19), Chemosh (Jeremiah 48:7), and others. So it appears that even in Hebrew the word was a generic term for what a minister did, his role and relationship to a divine cult, and not anything specific to the Hebrew God or covenant. It is fitting, then, that when the Hebrew ministers were described in other languages, they were likewise described with those languages’ words for a sacrificing religious minister.

James Tissot, The Chief Priests Take Counsel Together

James Tissot, The Chief Priests Take Counsel Together (c. 1890) (Wikimedia).

In the Greek New Testament, when the Jewish religious officials are described in the Gospels, or when Jesus is called our “high priest,” the Greek word used is ἱερεύς [hiereus], plural ἱερεῖς [hiereis], from ἱερός [hieros], hallowed or holy [cf. English hieroglyphics, “holy symbols”]: meaning a minister in the cult of a god, especially a minister who makes sacrifices. It is the same word used in Greek for the ministers of the pagan Greek religion. In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, the cohenim of the Old Covenant were likewise translated as hiereis.

Likewise, when the Christian Bible was translated into Latin, and when the Old Testament was described by the Latin Fathers of the Church, the ministers of the Old Covenant (Hebrew cohenim or Greek hiereis) were translated as sacerdotes [singular sacerdos], literally those who make holy gifts [sacer (holy or sacred) + dos (gift)]. It is the word used in Latin for the ministers of the Roman religion as well as the Greek religion and other similar religious officials.

So in the earliest writings of the Hebrews, the ministers of the Old Covenant did not have a distinct, unique word applied to them. The Hebrew word כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] was a generic word for a sacrificing religious minister to any god. Accordingly, this word was translated into Greek and Latin with those languages’ words for sacrificing religious ministers, ἱερεῖς [hiereis] in Greek and sacerdotes in Latin. These words cohenim, hiereis, and sacerdotes have no essential connection to the Greek word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], originally denoting an older man but in Christian usage coming to refer to the office of presbyter, a presiding elder at a local church.

II. Words in Time

A. “Priests”

The Venerable Bede translating John

The Venerable Bede translating John. Bede was contemporary with these linguistic developments in English.

How, then, did presbyters come to be known as “priests” in English? It is important to note that the English language first developed (as Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons) in the Christian era, only after the Anglo-Saxons had been Christianized in the seventh century A.D. That being the case, our historical evidence of the English language has no surviving indigenous terms (that I’ve been able to discover) for religious ministers.

Thus from the very beginning in English, Christian ministers — the presbyters of the New Testament — became known as prēostas (priests) — the term simply being adopted from Latin biblical and ecclesiastical language. The term bisceop (bishop) was likewise simply adopted from the Latin episcopus (Greek ἐπίσκοπος). On the other hand, Old English adopted the word sacerd (plural sacerdas), from Latin sacerdos, to refer to the priests of the Old Covenant, and in fact as a generic word for any priest (as sacerdos is in Latin). Jewish and pagan ministers were also sometimes called bisceopas (bishops) in Old English. Only Christian ministers were thus originally known as priests in English, and Jewish and other ministers called something different. From the very earliest English manuscripts, there was some overlap in the use of the word bishop.

By the Middle English period (post-Norman conquest), however, the word sacerd had fallen into disuse, and prēost became the generic term for any religious minister. This is the term that came to be used to describe Christian ministers, pre-Christian pagan ministers, Jewish ministers, and Greek and Roman ministers, and any other religious office. Because ministers in their adopted Christian religion were called “presbyters,” it is from this term that the Anglo-Saxon people eventually adopted the word for all religious ministers. Historical linguists are uncertain how exactly the Greek and Latin word presbyter phonologically evolved into the Anglo-Saxon prēost. Perhaps, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, a late Latin form of presbyter was prebester, leading to prēost and similar developments in other Germanic languages. It is also uncertain why the generic term sacerd was lost.

So rather than the Catholic Church “inventing” the idea that New Testament Christian ministers were priests in analogue to the Old Testament priesthood, quite the opposite happened: The English language, developing around the Christian religion, called Christian ministers priests first. The cohenim, the priests of the Old Covenant, came also to be called priests only after the Christian ministers, because they were seen to be analogous to Christian priests, not the other way around.

So we find, for example, that when John Wycliffe made the first complete translation of the whole Bible into English, in the late 14th century, he translated the ministers of both the New Testament and the Old Testament as priests:

For cause of this thing Y lefte thee at Crete, that thou amende tho thingis that failen, and ordeyne preestis bi citees, as also Y disposide to thee. (Titus 1:5)

And the preest schal brenne tho on the auter, in to the fedyng of fier, and of the offryng to the Lord. (Leviticus 3:11)

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe.

Even Wycliffe, a proto-Protestant, understood the ministers of the New Testament to be rightly called priests, and the Latin word presbyter he was translating to be the root of the English word priest. Wycliffe, too, translated the ministers of the Old Testament — sacerdotes in the Latin — as priests in English. As tempting as it is to pin this coincidence on Wycliffe, it is unclear how much influence Wycliffe’s translation had on later translators. His translation choices probably reflected the common usage of his day: the ministers of both the Old and New Testaments were called priests. (Wycliffe also retained the traditional English translation of bishop for episcopus.)

The original meaning of the Greek πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] as “elder” had thus been lost in translation: but then again, the identity of the Christian presbyter as an “older man” had ceased to be essential to the office almost as soon as it originated (see I.A.3 above). Early English speakers, and the earliest translators of Scripture into English, likewise saw the office of “priest” as distinct from its etymology.

B. “Elders”

With the coming of the Renaissance and eventually the Protestant Reformation, there was a renewed interest in the original texts and languages of the Scriptures. In the early sixteenth century, the first polyglot editions of the Scriptures, including the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts, were printed. This paved the way for the work of William Tyndale and other Englishmen who translated the Scriptures directly from their original languages into English.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale.

Tyndale, translating the New Testament into English from the original Greek, translated πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] according to the literal meaning of the Greek: he translated it elder. But not even Tyndale objected to calling these Christian officers priests. Tyndale, in fact, makes an essential connection between the elders of the Old Covenant and the elders (presbyters) of the New Covenant:

In the Old Testament the temporal heads and rulers of the Jews which had the governance over the lay or common people are called elders, as ye may see in the four evangelists. Out of which custom Paul in his pistel and also Peter, call the prelates and spiritual governors which are bishops and priests, elders. Now whether ye call them elders or priests, it is to me all one: so that ye understand that they be officers and servants of the word of God, unto the which all men both high and low that will not rebel against Christ, must obey as long as they preach and rule truly and no longer. (“W.T. unto the Reader,” preface to 1534 edition of New Testament)

The fact that ministers in the Anglican Church continued to be called priests indicates that English-speakers at the time of the English Reformation saw no disconnect between the words presbyter and priest — in fact probably recognizing their essential and etymological connection.

In the Old Testament, Tyndale likewise translated the word כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] as priest. By the 1530s, there was simply no other word in English to capture the meaning. As the English language developed, priest had become the word for any religious minister, especially one who sacrifices, thus becoming synonymous with the Latin sacerdos.

(Tyndale, on the other hand, retained the traditional English translation of bishop for ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos], as does the King James Bible — leading to a generally greater acceptance of that term among Protestants.)

The heirs to Tyndale’s translation, including the King James Bible and every major English translation since (including most Catholic ones) have translated the word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] as elder. There is certainly a element of reaction and even rebellion in some Protestant translations, particularly in more recent ones: a conscious rejection of the idea of a New Testament ministerial priesthood. It is worth noting that they translate the words πρεσβύτερος and ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos] according to their literal, primitive meanings as elder and overseer, but not the word διάκονος [diaokonos], which is rendered not by its literal meaning of servant but by the traditional deacon in most English translations. This acknowledges that the word diakonos here has taken on an additional and traditional meaning, referring to the Christian office, more than its literal meaning of servant. Why not, then, leave the other offices to their traditional renderings as priest and bishop — which likewise have taken on additional, traditional meanings more than elder and overseer? The reaction seems particularly pronounced for the word priest, given that the same word is now applied to the Old Testament priesthood, and there is an understandable effort to make a distinction between the two.

Over time, as the English language continued to evolve, the etymological connection between presbyter and priest was lost and forgotten — such that I was taken aback to learn of it as I was becoming Catholic, just as many others are.

Conclusion

Pope Francis at Mass

Pope Francis at Mass.

The premise — which I myself held once — that to call the Christian ministers of the New Testament “priests” is an innovation not supported by Scripture — is false on its face. Stemming directly from the word in the original Greek, πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] or presbyter, the word “priest” was the original term for Christian ministers in English and a perfectly appropriate one. The ministers of the Old Testament — כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] in Hebrew — were originally called sacerdas (after Latin sacerdos) in Old English, and only in time, as an analogy to Christian priests, came to be called priests in English also.

It should be noted, too, that equating the priests of the Old and New Covenants with a single word is not endemic to Catholicism but only to English and other Germanic languages (though French, with Germanic influence, seems to do the same). In several of the Romance languages (Spanish and Italian notably), the words for priest used in Catholic teaching are still more obvious cognates to presbyter (presbítero and presbitero respectively) — while those languages still refer to priests of the Old Covenant as sacerdotes and sacerdoti. In those languages, Christian priests can also be called sacerdotes in analogue to priests of the Old Covenant.

This reflects another development that took place long before even the development of the English language, that no doubt contributed to the ministers of both the Old and New Covenants being called priests in English: Even in Greek and Latin, Christian ministers came sometimes to be referred to as ἱερεῖς [hiereis] or sacerdotes. This appellation, which can be found in some of the very earliest Christian writers such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Cyril, was primarily by analogy: Christian priests were like the cohenim of the Old Testament in their ministry toward God and His people, adminstering Jesus’s work as our high priest (ἀρχιερεύς [archiereus]) to the Christian flock. In this sense, priests became synonymous with sacerdotes first in Greek and Latin — paving the way for them to become synonymous in English.

And this begs the question, and the second point of the Protestant charge: Is there any analogue between the priests of the New Covenant and the cohenim of the Old Covenant? Is the priesthood of the Church a sacrificing priesthood, as the Old Testament priesthood certainly was and as the Greek term ἱερεῖς [hiereis] and Latin term sacerdotes understand? Were the Church Fathers correct in applying this analogy, and is there any merit to referring to the priests of the Old and New Covenants by the same term, as we do in English? Or were the Protestants correct to stress the distinction between the two orders? How did the early presbyteri of the Church themselves understand their role? I will strive to address these questions in my next post, so don’t go away!

The New Testament Church: One Body in Christ

Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1511) (<a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adora%C3%A7%C3%A3o_da_Sant%C3%ADssima_Trindade.jpg">Wikimedia</a>)

Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1511)

Last time, we examined how, in the usage of the New Testament authors, especially Paul and Luke, the churches of Christ were often referred to in the plural, not as a single body — giving rise to a common Protestant claim about the independence of the New Testament churches — yet how Paul’s frequent exhortations to be of one mind betray a certain sense of unity among all Christian believers. This is made clearest in the words of Christ Himself: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they may also be in Us” (John 17:20–23).

Many Protestants tend to read these appeals to unity as references to a vague, undefined, invisible “unity” that somehow contains all believers “in the Spirit,” regardless of the depth of their actual division and disagreement. But such notions of “unity” do not fit with or maintain the biblical call for a true oneness in mind and spirit; they are not the reality of the Church Jesus founded or Paul exhorted.

One Body

Jesus prayed that all who believed in Him would be one, just as He and the Father are one: that is, not just in a loose, spiritual affiliation, but completely, indivisibly One in Christ, of the very same substance and being. Paul tells us that we are one not only spiritually, but corporately:

I therefore beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. … Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. (Ephesians 4:1, 3–6, 15–16)

These words go beyond exhortation: Paul describes the oneness of the Body not merely as a worthy model to strive for, but as a transcendent reality: There is One Body, One Spirit, One Lord. This oneness applies not only within each local body of believers, but across all believers, the entire, whole Body of Christ: the Epistle to the Ephesians is generally thought to have been a circular letter, circulated among a network of churches if not all churches. And lest there be any question that this Body of Christ to which Paul refers is to be understood as the Church, he tells elsewhere in the same letter:

[God] has put all things under His feet and has made Him the Head over all things for the Church, which is his Body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22–23)

And in other letters:

He is the Head of the Body, the Church; He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything He might be pre-eminent. (Colossians 1:18)

One Church

All Saints

Fra Angelico. The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24).

The Greek word usually translated “church” in the New Testament is ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia). Most literally it means a calling out of people into a gathering or assembly or congregation; it was a standard word in Greek for a legislative assembly. I have heard Protestants seek to argue that the New Testament only understands the church in this general sense (the “little-c” church) and not as a single, corporate, universal body (big-C Church). But the verses already cited should leave little doubt to the fact that, just as we (even Protestants) today make a distinction in English between those two usages (the local church and the body of all believers), the New Testament authors and even Jesus Himself also saw a higher meaning of the word ἐκκλησία:

“On this Rock I will build My Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

The use of that word ἐκκλησία had an even deeper meaning for a Greek Christian: ἐκκλησία was the common Greek translation the Hebrew קהל (qahal), that appeared in their editions of the Hebrew Old Testament, commonly translated in English as assembly — the assembly or congregation of the Israelite people. The ἐκκλησία, in the mind of a New Testament Christian, was not merely a local assembly of believers: the word evoked striking imagery of the Exodus, the calling out of God’s covenant people out of bondage and into promise.

And so, Jesus’s words echo even more powerfully when He said, “I will build My Church”: not a building, not an institution, not a mere gathering of people, but a calling out of His people, a covenant people of His own. Here He laid its foundation, built on His apostles and prophets, destined to become a holy temple for the Lord (Ephesians 2:20). Here is the One Body of Christ, the Church.

Next time: “The Universal Church”: how the One Body of Christ proceeded whole and undivided; and how it came to be identified as the Catholic Church.

“Saying Jesus’s Name Wrong”: A Fallacy of “Hebrew Roots”

Andrea Mantegna, Ecce Homo (1502)

Andrea Mantegna, Ecce Homo (1502) (WikiArt).

One of the most common and insistent tropes of the “Hebrew Roots” movement is the claim that the majority of Christians in the world are “saying Jesus’s name wrong” — that the name “Jesus” itself is improper, a Westernization and a corruption of the Messiah’s true name. The true name of our Lord, the proper way to address Him, these people argue, is by His original Hebrew name, ישוע (yēšūʿa) — most often rendered in English as Yeshua.

Make no mistake: It’s quite true that the original, Hebrew and Aramaic name of Jesus was probably ישוע, a variant of the name of the Hebrew leader and hero יהושע (yəhôšūʿa), meaning “The Lord is salvation.” And if you’d like to call the Lord that, then more power to you. But before you go around condemning traditional Christians who hail our Lord Jesus, here are a few things you should consider:

  1. There is nothing “traditional” about calling the Lord Yeshua (or Y’shua, or Yah’shua, or any variant).
  2. There is nothing “improper,” no form of syncretism or invention or corruption, in the traditional name Jesus.
  3. To insist that Yeshua is the only proper name by which to address our Lord is, in fact, to reject the entire received Christian tradition, to disown the Apostles and Evangelists, even to deny Scripture itself — and to contradict the very message of the Gospel.

An Invented Tradition

Hebrew Roots

Proponents of “Hebrew Roots” often support their arguments with claims that they are returning to the “authentic traditions” of the first Jewish Christians. But is this really true?

Tradition means what has been handed down. And the truth is that there is no tradition — no writings, no hymns, no inscriptions, no traditional teaching or custom — of our Lord being addressed as Yeshua, passed down by the earliest Christians or by anyone else at all, until the beginnings of the “Messianic” movement in the nineteenth century.

Proponents argue that the name Yeshua is what the Apostles themselves would have called the Lord; and that might very well be true. But they left us no record, no tradition of it. Historians believe that Jesus and the Apostles probably spoke Aramaic as their primary language — not Hebrew. Yeshua is a modern reconstruction, based not on Aramaic but on Hebrew pronunciation.*

* Jews wrote Aramaic with the Hebrew script, but pronounced it differently than the biblical Hebrew language. Our transliteration of Hebrew is based on the rabbinical pronunciation of the biblical texts. The original Hebrew texts had no vowels; the system of vowels and pronunciations we have of ancient Hebrew today was passed down (and in some cases made up, or at least formalized) by rabbis. So a rabbi reading ישוע in a biblical text would pronounce it completely differently than a first-century Jew on the street speaking Aramaic, reading the same characters. Syriac Christians (see below), whose liturgical language is essentially Aramaic as it would have been spoken in the first century, pronounce these same characters, ישוע, not as “Yeshua” but as “Isho.”

On top of this, there is the matter that Hebrew and other Semitic languages can only be transliterated incompletely into English, which lacks both the phonemes and the graphemes to fully express those languages’ sounds and meanings. Even presuming the rabbinic tradition of pronunciation — Yeshua, like any other rendering, is at best an approximation. Rather than adhering to the “true” name of the Lord, proponents of this are just as guilty of “translating” His name into their own language as the early Greek Christians were in calling Him Jesus.

There are in fact Christians who have been speaking Aramaic for the past two thousand years, since the time of the Apostles, who have passed down the Christian faith in what can be called its native language: the Syriac Christians, whose liturgical language is essentially Aramaic as Jesus would have spoken it — but they pronounce the Lord’s name not “Yeshua,” but “Isho.” Yeshua was passed down by nobody at all, but invented from imagined traditions in modern times.

What the Apostles did pass down to us, the earliest written records preserved of the Christian Church, are the New Testament Scriptures — written not in Hebrew, not in Aramaic, but in Greek.

The Name of Jesus

Jesus Christ icon

Contrary to arguments I am hearing increasingly from “Hebrew Roots” proponents, the name Jesus is not a late, syncretistic introduction by “Rome,” nor a “corruption” of the true Hebrew teaching, nor any other attempt to pull true Christians away from the “Hebrew Roots” of Christianity. When the Apostles and their associates wrote the New Testament Scriptures in Greek — under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit — they wrote His name as Ἰησοῦς (Iēsous). Every manuscript of every book of the New Testament attests to this.

And this was not a novelty, even for the first Christians. The name Ἰησοῦς had already been extant in Greek for several centuries, as the standard transliteration of the Hebrew name (commonly transliterated in English) Joshua. In the Septuagint, the classic translation of the Old Testament Scriptures into Greek, which can be dated as early as the second century B.C., Ἰησοῦς was used as the name of Joshua, both the man and the book. In applying that name to the Christ, Greek-speaking Christians were following conventions established long before His coming.

When the Apostle Paul, the first great missionary, carried the Gospel of Christ beyond Judea and Palestine, he carried His name not as Yeshua but as Ἰησοῦς. The name Iesus is a natural transliteration of the Greek name into Latin, and thence, with the translation of the Bible into English, Jesus. Is Scripture itself, then — the divine foundation that even “Messianic” Christians claim — compromised, or corrupt, or flawed? Were the Apostles agents of syncretization or dilution, of leading the people of Christ away from His “Hebrew Roots”? This is in effect what these arguments entail. Clearly, if there were any problem, any heresy or corruption or dilution, in translating the name of the Lord into the native tongues of each of His peoples, then the Apostles themselves would not have done it.

Every Tongue Shall Confess

Nesterov, Resurrection (c. 1892)

Resurrection (c. 1892), by Mikhail Nesterov.

St. Paul himself tells us, in fact:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9–11)

Every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” — declared in Greek, what was then the lingua franca of the civilized world. The word tongue in Greek, γλώσσα or glōssa, could also refer to language, as with the Latin lingua, and as we continue to use tongue in English. Was “every tongue” to confess the Lord, but only as Yeshua? Plainly not: in that very sentence, Paul hails Him as Jesus in Greek.

Arguing that only “Yeshua,” or any other rendition of the name, is the correct and proper address for our Lord, denies the entire received Christian tradition, the handing down of the faith to every people as the Apostles and their spiritual descendants have done. Just as the Greek people received the name of the Lord as Ἰησοῦς, the English people received Him as Jesus, the Spanish as Jesús, and so forth:

Names of the Lord in Various Languages
Language Name Transliteration
Albanian Jezusi
Amharic ኢየሱስ Iyesus
Aramaic ܝܫܘܥ Isho
Arabic يسوع ʿĪsā
Aragonese Chésus
Bengali যিশু Jishu
Chinese 耶稣
Greek (Koine) Ἰησοῦς Iēsous
Greek (Modern) Ιησούς Iēsous
Hebrew (Modern) ישו Yeshu
Hindi ईसा Jesu
Hungarian Jézus
Irish Gaelic Íosa
Italian Gesù
Korean 예수
Latin Iesus Jesus
Romanian Isus
Russian Иису́с Iisús
Church Slavonic Їисъ
Slovak Ježiš
Tagalog Hesus
Tamil இயேசு
Turkish İsa
Vietnamese Giê-su
Yiddish יעזוס Yezus

… I think you get the idea; and I’m having far too much fun with this. This is only a random smattering of just a few languages, pulled from Jesus’s Wikipedia article.

The point is this: Are any of these languages “wrong”? Were the apostles, missionaries, evangelists, and translators who carried the faith of Christ “to the ends of the earth,” to each one of these peoples, “wrong”? To argue that there is only one name by which Jesus can properly be addressed is to deny the universality, the catholicity, of Christ’s message of salvation; to cast aside the very message of the Gospel, of forgiveness and acceptance and inclusion into Christ for all peoples. Is Jesus a Savior for the Jews only? Or did He come for the lost sheep of every nation, tribe, people, and tongue? The greatest danger of the “Hebrew Roots” movement, I fear, is that it in effect recycles the heresy of the Judaizers, in arguing that the only true way to be a Christian is to be a Jew — an argument that Scripture rejects again and again.

“Jesus” is not “Yay-Zeus”

Athanasius smacks Arius

St. Athanasius, defender of the Trinity, smacks the heretic Arius upside the head.

I recently had a run-in with a man who was apparently a Oneness Pentecostal or some variant, a non-Trinitarian espousing the idea that God is not a Trinity, but that rather there is only one God, and His name is the LORD*. This was a new one to me: before I had heard that the one God’s name was Jesus. The Trinity, this man informed me, was a pagan, syncretistic doctrine imposed by the Roman emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea in 325. He further informed me that the name Jesus was also a pagan corruption, incorporating the name of the Greek god Zeus. I was taken aback by the absurdity of these claims, the ignorance of both history and language.

* He actually said the tetragrammaton, the Holy Name I will not name.

El Greco, Christ blessing (The Saviour of the World)

El Greco. Christ blessing (The Saviour of the World) (c. 1600) (WikiPaintings).

The Name of Jesus

Now, more and more recently I have been hearing opposition to the name Jesus, particularly among “Hebrew Roots” groups. More correctly, they say, the name of our Lord is Yeshua — and, indeed, that is a more accurate transliteration of the Hebrew name ישוע. And if it floats anyone’s boat to call Him that, then they can justify themselves in doing so — though it makes me cringe every time I hear someone say it. Inherent in that is a rejection of the cultural tradition of the entire Christian Church, by which the Lord’s name passed into the Greek New Testament as Ἰησοῦς, into Latin as Iesus, and thence to English.

But the claim that the name Jesus is a veiled attempt by the Catholic Church to introduce pagan worship of the god Zeus into Christianity is patently absurd for several different reasons:

  • The earliest Christians spoke Greek. They wrote their Scriptures — the same Scriptures which, at least traditionally, Protestants embraced as their sole rule of faith — in Greek. The name of Ἰησοῦς (Iēsoūs) is the name by which the Christ is called, in Greek, by the inspired authors of the New Testament. Any injection of the name of a Greek god into Christian worship would not have been “veiled” at all. To reject the name Ἰησοῦς as a pagan corruption is to reject the inspiration of Scripture itself and to impugn the motives and credibility of the Apostles themselves and their associates — and If you’re going to go that far, I don’t know why you’re still calling yourself a “Christian.”

  • The Hebrew name ישוע (yēšūă), “The LORD is salvation,” is the same name as the Old Testament leader whose name is translated in English Joshua. Yes, Joshua and Jesus have the same name. And that name, in the Old Testament, was translated in the Greek Septuagint as Ἰησοῦς — several centuries before the coming of the Christ. That was the standard transliteration of the name, according to standard principles of translation, long before any Christian came along.

  • The names Jesus and Zeus didn’t even sound alike in Koine Greek. Zeus is spelled Ζέυς, the “sus” part of Jesus spelled σοῦς. The zeta and sigma made distinctly different sounds — precisely the difference, in English, between Zeus and Seuss. Moreover, the Greek diphthong ευ made a very different sound than ου. Though in English we pronounce eu as a long /uː/ or /juː/ (as in deuce or eugenics), in Greek ευ was pronounced as a double vowel, each sounded separately but quickly as the same syllable, along the lines of eh-oo. In sum, no Greek speaker would ever have seen any connection between “Jesus” and “Zeus.”

Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity

The development of the doctrine of the Trinity has a complex history that is covered elsewhere much more thoroughly, with better authority and support, than I can do in a brief space here (see the Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholic Answers, Wikipedia, and many more). But I will say that the Trinity was not “invented” at Nicaea, but had been being considered for centuries before, since the very beginning. The first recorded use of the word τριάς (trias) in reference to God comes from St. Theophilus of Antioch (ca. A.D. 180). Scripture itself very clearly teaches the divinity of Christ, and His oneness with, yet distinctiveness from, God the Father (e.g. John 10:25–30, Luke 10:22), and the distinctiveness of the Holy Spirit (e.g. John 14:26, Luke 11:23) yet His oneness with the Godhead (e.g. Romans 8:11, Philippians 1:19, Matthew 3:16). And then there are clear statements naming the three as a Trinity (e.g. Matthew 28:19, 2 Corinthians 13:14). So the Trinity is on firm footing, both scripturally and historically. And yet, in this day and age, more and more believers, shorn of the Tradition of the Church, are rejecting it.

Is Baptism the Circumcision of Christ?

Baptism tapestry

A baptism, from an early Renaissance tapestry.

Is Baptism the “circumcision of Christ” that Paul was referring to in Colossians 2:8-15? It is a question that has far-reaching implications. Here is a little Scripture study I whipped up a few days ago.

See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fulness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him. (RSVCE)

8a. “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition [τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, lit. the traditions of men]…” — this is the exact phrase that Jesus used in Mark 7:8. In the context of Paul’s teachings against the heresy of the Judaizers — that it is by faith that we are saved, not by circumcision or by other observances of the Torah, as the Judaizers preached (Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16, Ephesians 2:8-10, etc.) — and its resolution at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) — and in the context of the rest of this passage regarding circumcision, Paul’s reference is clear: He reminds the Gentile Christians of Colosse that it is faith, not the bodily circumcision of the Jews, that saves them, as some were no doubt still teaching.

8b. “…according to the elemental spirits of the universe [κατὰ τὰ στοιχεῖα (stoicheia) τοῦ κόσμου], and not according to Christ.” — Paul is speaking here against the teachings of the Stoic philosophers, which were then in vogue — and which were just as empty as any other “traditions of men.”

9–10. “For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily [σωματικῶς (somatikos)], and you have come to fulness of life [lit. you have been filled up] in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” — How are we filled up?

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

Baptism of Christ (c. 1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

11a. “In [Christ] you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands — by putting off the body [τοῦ σώματος (somatos)] of flesh [τῆς σαρκός (sarkos)]…” — We are filled up with life, by Him, in whom the fullness of deity dwells bodily, he circumcising us with a circumcision made without hands — by putting off the body of flesh. Clearly this circumcision, though it is made without hands, has something to do with our bodies, and with Christ’s Resurrection and bodily life.

11b–12a. “…in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism” — It is important to note that there is no “and” here in the Greek, nor is there a semicolon (the biblical Greek manuscripts had no punctuation). Rather, Paul leads directly into a participle, συνταφέντες (suntaphentes), “having been buried.” A more literal translation of this verse is [see the NASB, known for its literalness, which translates it this way] “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh by means of the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in Baptism…” The Greek is absolutely clear, even if the English fails to get the point across. The “circumcision of Christ” is Baptism.

12b. “…in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” — We died and were buried with Christ in Baptism, and are raised together with him through faith in the working of God. Compare Romans 6:3-4: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” — Putting it all together: We are filled up with life by Christ, through a circumcision made without hands, the circumcision of Christ, by which we put aside the body of the flesh, the body of the flesh having been buried with Christ in Baptism, and we being raised to a new, regenerated life in Him.

As if it weren’t already crystal clear enough, Paul continues to emphasize the point:

Baptism, Catacomb of St. Callixtus

A third-century representation of Baptism from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome.

13a. “And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh [τῆς σαρκός (sarkos)], God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses…” — We were dead in the uncircumcision of our flesh, and we were made alive together with Him, through Baptism (in which we are “raised together with Him”), having forgiven us all our trespasses (cf. Acts 2:38a, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins“). By this circumcision of Christ, which is Baptism, He redeemed us who were under the Law (Galatians 3:27, 4:1), we are now circumcised in our hearts — so that, just as the circumcision of Abraham marked Jews as sons of Abraham, the circumcision of Christ (Baptism) marks us as sons of God (Galatians 4:4-7).

13b. “…having canceled [lit destroyed, obliterated] the bond [lit. certificate of debt] which stood against us with its legal demands [lit. ordinances]; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” — Christ obliterated the demands of the Law, the debt we owed under the covenant of Moses, to its ordinances and legalistic observances. Therefore we are no longer under Law (Torah), but under grace (Romans 6:14).

So yes, explicitly, this passage rightly calls Baptism the circumcision of Christ.

And a question for further thought: If circumcision was given to infant boys on the eighth day, and Baptism is the “circumcision of Christ” — should it not also be given to infants?

“Let him be Anathema”: Not what many Protestants think it means

Giraudon, Council of Trent

The Council of Trent, 4th December 1563 (23rd session).

I do hope this can be a very short, breathless break, since my thesis is picking up momentum and I don’t want to do anything to put on the brakes. But this is something that has come up frequently in my conversations with Protestants: Many Protestants misunderstand the idea of anathema, as in the formula used by the councils of Church in rejecting various doctrines — most particularly the canons of the Council of Trent in rejecting Protestant doctrines:

CANON IX. If any one shall say, that by faith alone the impious is justified; so as to mean that nothing else is required to co-operate in order unto obtaining the grace of justification, and that it is not in any respect necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema. (Council of Trent, Sixth Session [1547], Decree concerning Justification [trans. Theodore Alois Buckley])

(For the most piercing and enlightening commentary I’ve ever read on these pronouncements of Trent concerning justification and other doctrines, you should read my dear frend Laura, a former Protestant like myself who can sweep away Protestant questions and confusion like nobody else I know.)

The Council of Trent

The Magisterium of Church, assembled at the Council of Trent.

So anathema: To translate the word etymologically and literally, it can mean “accursed”; even “devoted to destruction.” Many Protestants understand that when the Council of Trent declared holders of these doctrines to be “anathema,” it was “devoting them to destruction” or even pronouncing “eternal damnation” on them — such that Protestants think that to “anathematize” someone is to “damn them to hell.” Naturally, Protestants are rather offended by this, and rightly hold that any Church that would pronounce eternal damnation on someone is not acting according to God’s will — which is that all men should be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).

But that’s not what the council was saying at all. Through generations of use, beginning even with the usage of St. Paul in the New Testament, anathema came to mean something other than its literal, etymological meaning — particularly in Latin, and particularly in the councils of the Church. Anathema sit (“Let him be anathema”) became a legal formula, something repeated by the councils to announce a particular, traditional judgment. When the councils pronounced holders of a doctrine anathema, it marked a formal excommunication from the Church: nothing more and nothing less.

Ribera, Saint Paul (1637)

Saint Paul (1637), by Jusepe de Ribera.

Excommunication, too, is often misunderstood; even though it is a biblical doctrine that many Protestants practice (I have heard them refer to it euphemistically as “disfellowship,” but the concept is the same): to remove one who is unrepentant in sin or incorrigibly teaching error from one’s church body, as St. Paul recommended in 1 Corinthians 5, even using language evocative of anathema (“deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh”, v. 5).

But the Catholic Church’s model of excommunication is just as St. Paul’s: it is not a pronouncement of eternal damnation, but a disciplinary measure designed to motivate the sinner to repentance and reconciliation. The full verse above reads, “Deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.The goal of excommunication is not damnation, but salvation. It is the Church’s mission to love and lead the lost to salvation in Christ, not to hate or damn to hell (hello Westboro Baptist Church). Excommunication is tough love, the Holy Mother Church kicking her prodigal son out of the house until he gets his act together. And just as with the father of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32), it is the Church’s great joy to accept and embrace her lost son back as soon as he repents and seeks forgiveness (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:5–11).

El Greco, Portrait of Pope Pius V (c. 1605)

El Greco, Portrait of Pope Pius V (c. 1605) (WikiPaintings.org)

“But… but… you’re making that up!” I’ve heard Protestants say. “You’re just trying to change the meaning to whitewash what the council did!” “Show me where it says that this is what it meant!” Well, simple logic dictates that the Church was not pronouncing a permanent, irrevocable damnation here: If that were so, then the Church would not have gone to such great effort to win back our separated Protestant brethren during the Counter-Reformation (notably through the efforts of the Jesuits) and ever since: If any holder of Protestant doctrines was irretrievably damned — if the Church wanted to damn him — then why bother? Many, many separated brothers, even whole countries, such as Poland and Lithuania, were brought back to the Catholic faith, and accepted with open and loving arms.

Also, for what it’s worth, the canons of the councils of the Catholic Church apply only to members of the Catholic Church: after one has formally separated from the Catholic Church and rejected its authority, then its disciplinary pronouncements have no more bearing on him. The declaration of anyone as “anathema” at the Council of Trent does not technically apply to Protestants today, only to Catholics who were espousing those doctrines. You can’t very well be excommunicated from something you were never formally a part of.

But here are a few sources explaining the meaning of anathema, not made up by me or anyone else:

ANATHEMA. A thing devoted or given over to evil, so that “anathema sit” means, “let him be accursed.” St. Paul at the end of 1 Corinthians pronounces this anathema on all who do not love our blessed Saviour. The Church has used the phrase “anathema sit” from the earliest times with reference to those whom she excludes from her communion either because of moral offences or because they persist in heresy. Thus one of the earliest councils — that of Elvira, held in 306 — decrees in its fifty-second canon that those who placed libellous writings in the church should be anathematised; and the First General Council anathematised those who held the Arian heresy. General councils since then have usually given solemnity to their decrees on articles of faith by appending an Anathema.

Neither St. Paul nor the Church of God ever wished a soul to be damned. In pronouncing anathema against wilful heretics, the Church does but declare that they are excluded from her communion, and that they must, if they continue obstinate, perish eternally. (W. E. Addis, & T. Arnold, A Catholic Dictionary. New York: Catholic Pub. Soc., 1887], 24)

And for a bit lengthier and more precise:

Anathema. — This may be a convenient place to explain the true meaning of the phrase, “Let him be Anathema,” with which these and so many other definitions of doctrine close. The word is of Greek origin, and exists in that language in two forms, distinguished by a very trifling difference of spelling, but very distinct in use. Both are derived from a verb meaning “to set aside,” and in one form (ἀνάθημα) the word is used of something precious, set aside for the service of God, such as the gifts with which the Temple in Jerusalem was adorned (St. Luke 21:5; see also 2 Maccabees 9:16). But the word occurs also in another form (ἀνάθεμα), and with this spelling it is employed to signify a penal setting aside, whether of a thing which has been used as the instrument of wickedness, or of a person who has lost his social rights by crime. It occurs in both senses, in a verse of Deuteronomy (7:26). St. Paul uses the word more than once, to signify that a person is not worthy to be admitted into the society of Christians (1 Corinthians 16:22; Galatians 1:8, 9).

In the language of the Church, the phrase, “Let him be Anathema,” is used in the same manner as by St. Paul, and is a form of assigning the penalty of excommunication for an offence; when used, as it often is, to enforce definitions of faith, it means no more than this; but sometimes an Anathema seems to mean an excommunication pronounced against an offender with solemn and impressive ceremonies, which, however, do not alter the nature of the punishment. As we remarked in the place cited from our first volume, no anathema or other act of a human judge can take away the grace of God from the soul, if by any error the judgment has been pronounced against an innocent man.

In one place (1 Cor. 16:22) St. Paul adds to the word Anathema “Maranatha;” and the same is sometimes done by Councils of particular Churches, but the usage has not passed into the general Canon Law. It has been supposed, but wrongly, that the addition of this word signifies that the censure will never be relaxed (Benedict XIV, De Synod. 10, i. 7). Maranatha is in truth an Aramaic word, belonging to a language familiar to St. Paul and most of his readers. It means “The Lord is at hand,” and has the same force as when this expression is used in its Greek form. (Philippians 4:5) The phrase enhances the force of that to which it it appended, by solemnly reminding the reader that Christ will come again, to judge the world. (S. J. Hunter, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed., vol. 2 [New York: Benzinger Bros., 1896], 399–401)

And for a secular source, lest you think this is a Catholic conspiracy to change history:

anathema, (from Greek anatithenai: “to set up,” or “to dedicate”), in the Old Testament, a creature or object set apart for sacrificial offering. Its return to profane use was strictly banned, and such objects, destined for destruction, thus became effectively accursed as well as consecrated. Old Testament descriptions of religious wars call both the enemy and their besieged city anathema inasmuch as they were destined for destruction.

In New Testament usage a different meaning developed. St. Paul used the word anathema to signify a curse and the forced expulsion of one from the community of Christians. In A.D. 431 St. Cyril of Alexandria pronounced his 12 anathemas against the heretic Nestorius. In the 6th century anathema came to mean the severest form of excommunication that formally separated a heretic completely from the Christian church and condemned his doctrines; minor excommunications, while prohibiting free reception of the sacraments, obliged (and permitted) the sinner to rectify his sinful state through the sacrament of penance. (“Anathema,” in Encyclopedia Brittannica)

You’ll find much the same in any other scholarly source (barring the likes of Jack Chick and Loraine Boettner).

Once again, I fail, predictably, at brevity. I’d better get back to work. I do hope this will be helpful to some seeker.

Some light on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

Rembrandt, Adoration of the Shepherds (1646)

Adoration of the Shepherds (1646), by Rembrandt. (WikiPaintings.org)

It being Christmas, the celebration of Nativity of the Lord, it seems appropriate that I make this post that has been on my mind for a week or two, regarding the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.

The Perpetual Virginity of Mary is one of those Marian dogmata that over much of my conversion, I affirmed more out of loyalty to the Church than out of credulity. I accepted that the Catholic Church was the true Church of Christ and the bearer of Apostolic Tradition, and therefore I would abide by her teachings. But being a lifelong Protestant, I didn’t believe that really, did I? It was one of the two doctrines I struggled with most (the other being Mary as Παναγία [Panhagia] or All-Holy), because there simply was no biblical support for it at all. In fact, Scripture says the opposite: Jesus had brothers and sisters (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55–56). This doctrine seemed to me to be a demonization of human sexuality, equating sex with sin and undermining the Church’s teaching on the family: the Holy Family was not a functioning, conjugal, procreative family at all, but one consisting of Mary Ever-Virgin, All-Holy; Joseph, her “most chaste spouse”; and the Christ Child, who was God Himself. The perpetual virginity smacked of the kind of argument one would expect from an admiring child: “My Mother never did that!

Fr. Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church

It was reading Fr. Luigi Gambero’s Mary and the Fathers of the Church that opened my eyes: Belief in the perpetual virginity has been a part of the Christian faith since the very beginning. It does not undermine teachings on the family, but affirms the Full Humanity and Full Divinity of Christ. It does not equate sex with sin, but holds forth Mary’s womb as the sacred sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the New Covenant, that it must have been to contain God Himself. The Protoevangelium of James, an early apocryphal gospel, can be dated to around A.D. 120, and though certainly not historical, it testifies clearly to a firm belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity at that early date; in fact, supporting it seems the text’s principal aim. Though pseudepigraphical, claiming as its author James the Just, the “brother of the Lord,” the text was written within living memory of Mary. Origen, writing early in the third century, rejected the text, but nonetheless concurred with its author in affirming Mary’s perpetual virginity (Origen, Comm. Matt. 10.17). And indeed Mary’s perpetual virginity was affirmed by Fathers of the Church from then on; questioned and at times challenged, but always defended and maintained.*

* I don’t have the Gambero book with me at the moment, or I would give you some quotations; it’s still in a box somewhere lost among a mountain of other boxes. But it is chocked full of patristic quotations on every aspect of Marian doctrine, if anyone should be interested.

Over the year or two I’ve been becoming Catholic, though, I have realized that there is scriptural support for Mary’s perpetual virginity. I found another strong indication just last week, and wanted to rush here immediately to share it.

El Greco, Virgin Mary

Virgin Mary (c. 1600), by El Greco. (WikiPaintings.org)

Behold, Your Mother

First of all, and most prominently: Jesus on the Cross, in the Gospel of John, gives his mother into the care of John (John 19:26–27):

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

It would make little sense for Jesus to place his mother in John’s care if she had other children living — and, according to the Protestant argument, she certainly did: at the very least James, “brother of the Lord,” and Jude, who both wrote New Testament epistles. Therefore it seems that James and Jude and the other “brethren” of the Lord were not “brothers” in the full and literal sense, but rather in the sense of “kinsmen.” This is not a new argument; the Fathers discovered it ages ago, as Gambero illustrates.

Maria, by Cano

Maria (c. 1648), by Alonzo Cano. (WikiPaintings.org)

Apostles and Brothers of the Lord

More and more lately, as I dig deeper into the New Testament, I’ve been becoming aware of another argument that undoubtedly supports the argument the “brethren” of the Lord were not full and literal “brothers.” I explored it to some degree in my post on the Apostles named James. At the time, I considered the conclusion somewhat fanciful and poorly supported — but you know, one instance of this in Scripture might have been a case of poor wording; but two or three, and the idea gains some weight.

St. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, examines the “rights” of the Apostles (1 Corinthians 9:5):

Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?

Duccio, Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (1311)

Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (fragment) (1311), by Duccio. (WikiPaintings.org)

In increasing order of importance, Paul lists: (1) the other Apostles, (2) the brothers of the Lord, and (3) Cephas, or Peter, the chief Apostle. Together, this statement seems to refer to the Twelve, and includes “the brothers of the Lord” among them — brothers plural, implying at least two “brothers of the Lord” were among the number of the Apostles.

Protestants, of course, argue that Paul is using the word “apostle” in a broader sense than in reference to the Twelve — after all, Paul himself was an “apostle” and not one of the Twelve. An “apostle” (ἀπόστολος) is literally anyone who has been sent. But in an analysis of the Greek New Testament, it seems that it is rarely used in this broad sense*, but that the term is a specific and technical term referring to an office of the Church, and applied almost exclusively to the Twelve and to Paul.

* See analysis below.

Which brings me to my discovery last week: In Galatians, perhaps the earliest of Paul’s letters, we have one of the most unambiguous examples of the word apostle. Following Paul’s conversion, he did not immediately go to Jerusalem to consult with “those who were Apostles before me” (Galatians 1:17). But then (Galatians 1:18–19):

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.

Immediately I was struck. I was impressed by the example above in 1 Corinthians, though it was rather unspecific; but here we have it clear and unambiguous: James, the “brother” of the Lord, was an Apostle — and not just an “apostle,” meaning a messenger or someone who was sent, but one who was an Apostle before Paul — one of the Twelve.

Duccio, The Apostle James Alphaeus (1311)

The Apostle James Alphaeus (1311), by Duccio. (WikiPaintings.org)

But how is this possible? We know the names of the Twelve Apostles, and none of them are identified as brothers of the Lord (Matthew 10:1–3, Mark 3:13–18, Luke 6:12–16, Acts 1:12–14). But there are two Apostles named James — James, called the Greater, the son of Zebedee; and James, called the Less, the son of Alphaeus. James the Greater was certainly dead by the time Paul met with the other Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1–3). So if the James whom Paul met was one of the Twelve, then it follows that James, the “brother” of the Lord, is in fact James the Less, the son of Alphaeus.

But how, then, can he be a “brother” of the Lord? Well, as I demonstrate in the other post focusing more intently on this problem, neither the Hebrew language nor the Aramaic language which Jesus spoke had a word for “cousin” — which it seems this James may have been (see the post). The word ἀδελφός in Greek, too, could carry the connotation of “kinsman” or any relative. Though the Scripture says “not even his brothers believed in Him” (John 7:5), it does not say that none of His brothers (i.e. kinsmen) believed in Him. James the Less may have been one of the less ardent and conspicuous Apostles during Jesus’s earthly life and ministry, but as a cousin Jesus would have called him “brother,” in an even closer sense than he called all the Apostles “brothers” (e.g. John 20:17) — an epithet he carried with him for the rest of his life. Following his witness of Jesus’s Resurrection, it seems that James the Less — James the Just — stepped up to his calling and served the Lord with his life.

A merry and blessed Christmas to all of you, dear brothers and sisters.


* Appendix: An Analysis of the Word “Apostle” (ἀπόστολος) in the Greek New Testament

Matthew: 1 use, Matthew 10:2, in enumerating the Twelve Apostles
Mark: 2 uses, Mark 3:14, 6:30, in enumerating and referring to the Twelve
Luke: 5 uses, five times referring explicitly to the Twelve, Luke 6:13, 9:10, 17:5, 22:14, 24:10, one time in Jesus saying that God would send “prophets and apostles” (Luke 11:49) — connecting the ministry of the Apostles to the ministry of prophets
Acts: 28 uses, the first 18 cases referring unambiguously to the Twelve (Acts 1:2, 1:26, 2:37, 2:42, 2:43, 4:33, 4:35, 4:36, 4:37, 5:2, 5:12, 5:18, 5:29, 5:40, 6:6, 8:1, 8:14, 8:18 ); 8 times referring to the “apostles and elders” at Jerusalem or in Judea, most likely referring to the Twelve (Acts 9:27, 11:1, 15:2, 15:4, 15:6, 15:22, 15:23, 16:4); twice referring to Paul and Barnabas (14:4, 14:14)
Romans: 3 uses, twice of Paul referring to himself as an Apostle (Romans 1:13, 11:13); once referring to “the apostles,” most likely the Twelve (16:7)
1 Corinthians: 9 uses, three times Paul referring to himself (1 Corinthians 1:1, 9:1, 9:2), the latter two cases in the context of the other apostles, and admitting some would not consider him an apostle (9:2); once, the verse above, referring to the apostles as an undefined body, but including himself and apparently Barnabas among their number (9:5, cf. 9:6); three times referring to apostles as a body or apostleship as a ministry of the Church (4:9, 12:28, 12:29); twice in unambiguous reference to the Twelve (15:7, 15:9)
2 Corinthians: 6 uses, once Paul referring to himself (2 Corinthians 1:1); once referring to ἀδελφοὶ ἡμῶν, ἀπόστολοι ἐκκλησιῶν (“our brothers, apostles of the churches”), who are “the glory of Christ,” most likely referring to the Twelve, but commonly translated in Protestant Bibles as “messengers,” in the tradition of the King James Version (8:23); three times referring to “super-apostles” or “false apostles” (11:13, 12:11, 12:12)
Galatians: 3 uses, once Paul referring to himself (Galatians 1:1); twice referring unambiguously to the Twelve (1:17, 1:19)
Ephesians: 4 uses, once Paul referring to himself (Ephesians 1:1); three times referring to “apostles” as a body and ministry among other ministries of the Church (prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers) (2:20, 3:5, 4:11)
Philippians: 1 use, Philippians 2:25, referring to Epaphroditus as “messenger” to the faithful at Philippi
Colossians: 1 use, Paul referring to himself (Colossians 1:1)
1 Thessalonians: 1 use, Paul referring to “we” who had ministered at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:6)
1 Timothy: 2 uses, both times Paul referring to himself (1 Timothy 1:1, 2:7)
2 Timothy: 2 uses, both times Paul referring to himself (2 Timothy 1:1, 11:1
Titus: 1 use, Paul referring to himself (Titus 1:1)
1 Peter: 1 use, Peter referring to himself (1 Peter 1:1)
2 Peter: 2 uses, once Peter referring to himself (2 Peter 1:1); once referring to an unspecified body of “your apostles,” possibly referring to the Twelve (3:2)
Jude: 1 use, referring to “the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ,” probably referring to the Twelve (Jude 17
Revelation: 3 uses, once referring to false apostles (Revelation 2:2); once referring to “saints and apostles and prophets” (18:20); once unambiguously referring to “the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb” (21:14)

In conclusion, though the word ἀπόστολος can have a general usage as “messenger” in Greek, in the New Testament it is rarely used in that sense (once or at the most twice out of 81 uses). Rather “apostle” is a specific and technical term referring to an elite office and ministry of the Church, holding more authority than elders (πρεσβύτεροι or presbyteroi) — who in time became priests as we know them. When any “apostles” are identified, it seems that the term is applied exclusively to the Twelve, to Paul, and twice to Barnabas.

On this Rock: An Analysis of Matthew 16:18 in the Greek

St. Peter

Peter Paul Rubens. St. Peter. c. 1611. Oil on canvas.

One of the Roman Catholic Church’s chief scriptural supports for the authority of St. Peter as the leading Apostle, who would become the bishop of Rome — whom we would eventually refer to as the first pope — is the verses of Matthew 16:17-19:

And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’

This is also a favorite passage of anti-Catholics to pick apart. But with even a basic understanding of the ancient languages, the wordplay that Jesus and the Evangelist were implementing here becomes clear: These verses cannot be interpreted any other way but as an explicit declaration of Peter’s authority. And they never were, until the time of Luther.

Let’s look at the Greek, especially of the critical verse 18 (Greek text from NA27; see also, in English, BibleGateway, Bible.CC, New Advent):

κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ἅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς.

Now, I don’t expect my readers to have a lot of Greek. If you do, I am delighted — but I’m here to make this as simple as possible. Here it is transliterated into Roman characters:

kagō de soi legō hoti su ei Petros, kai epi tautē tē petra oikodomēsō mou tēn ekklēsian, kai pulai hadou ou katischusousin autēs.

And one more time, all together: this time cribbed so you can understand it.

κἀγὼ [I, emphatically, in response to Peter’s delaration] δέ [and, also, postpositive: together with first word, and I or I also] σοι [2nd person singular dative pronoun, to you] λέγω [(I) say] ὅτι [that] σὺ [2nd person singular nominative pronoun, you, emphatically] εἶ [2nd person singular present active, are] Πέτρος [Peter], καὶ [and] ἐπὶ [preposition on, upon] ταύτῃ [this] τῇ πέτρᾳ [rock] οἰκοδομήσω [first person singular future active I will build, as in building a house] μου [my (lit. of me)] τὴν ἐκκλησίαν [church (lit. a calling out, a meeting, an assembly — but concretely and universally in Christian lit. refers to the Church)], καὶ [and] πύλαι [(the) gates] ἅδου [of hades] οὐ [negative particle, not] κατισχύσουσιν [3rd person plural future active, will overpower] αὐτῆς [it].

Now, the first thing to note about this is that Jesus addresses Peter in the second person singular: that is, he says you and not y’all. The distinction between the second-person singular and plural personal pronouns has died out in modern English; technically, the singular personal pronouns (thou, thy, thee) have died out and been replaced by the plural (ye, your, you). This is why the Southern U.S. y’all will save the English language. But back to the point: Jesus addresses Peter in the singular you — the King James’ Thou art Peter actually preserves the important distinction. So there can be no question that Jesus is speaking to Peter and to Peter alone here; not to all the Apostles; not to all Christians.

Second, and more important: the wordplay. The name “Peter” — Petros in Greek, Petrus in Latin — translates as “Rock.” Jesus is giving Simon a new name, Peter or Rock, in reference to his firmness or steadfastness.

And on this Rock I will build my Church. “You are Rock, and on this Rock I will build my Church.” That’s the proper way to understand the statement, had it been spoken in English.

Now, the common anti-Catholic refutation of this is thus (first put forward by Luther himself): the Evangelist uses different words in the Greek for Peter and Rock. You are Peter (Πέτρος, Petros) and upon this Rock (πέτρα, petra) I will build my Church. Not only are the two words different, but they are different genders — Petros is masculine and petra is feminine — and they have supposedly, according to the Protestant argument, different meanings in Greek. A petros is a small rock or a piece of rock; a petra is the bedrock or a massive rock formation. Therefore clearly, Jesus wasn’t referring to the same rock in both cases, so the argument goes.

There are several reasons why this argument doesn’t work. First of all, the context. Jesus had asked the disciples who they said he was: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, some other prophet? And in one of the most dramatic moments of the Gospel, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ. And Jesus in turn confesses Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to you . . .” The episode would not make any sense if Jesus had said, “I rename you Peter, a steadfast Rock; and on this (other) rock I will build my Church.”

Not only does that not make sense — but Jesus doesn’t say “other” — he says ταύτῃ, this rock. And there doesn’t seem to be any other rock, any petra present. The common Protestant argument is that petra here refers to Peter’s confession or Peter’s faith. But if that were the case, why the wordplay on Peter’s name? Even more so, why the wordplay without any clarification of the ambiguous metaphor? It seems unlike Matthew to let such an ambiguous statement go without explanation, who in other places is careful to provide explanations for the fulfillment of prophecies (Matthew 3), difficult parables (Matthew 13), and foreign words (Matthew 27:46). The reason he doesn’t here is because to Matthew, and to his earliest readers, it wasn’t ambiguous.

In fact, the literary structure of Jesus’s proclamation mirrors Peter’s exactly: “You are the Christ”; “You are Peter.” And Jesus’s other pronouncements here are perhaps even more important, more indicative of Peter’s singular authority, than His pronouncement of Peter as “Rock”. Jesus gives three separate blessings directed to Peter and Peter alone that leave no doubt of His intention to invest Peter specifically with authority:

  1. You (Peter) are “Rock,” and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

  2. I will give you (Peter) the keys of the kingdom of heaven [mirroring “the gates of hell”].

  3. Whatever you (Peter) bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven [linked implicitly to the “keys”].

Further, there is no evidence, beyond the assertion itself, that the meanings of petros and petra are as distinct as Protestants argue. No scholarly lexicon I have consulted, in particular neither the LSJ for Classical Greek nor the BDAG for Koine, supports the definiton of petros as merely a small rock or piece of rock. The words seem, rather, to be nearly synonymous. If there is a distinction between them at all, it is between petra, a great mass of rock, and petros, stone as a monumental building material — for building, say, a Church.

But most important: there are perfectly good reasons why Matthew used two different words here, Petros and petra: this was the only way to compose the statement so that it would make sense in Greek.

  1. Peter’s name in Greek is Petros, not Petra. Why didn’t they call him Petra in Greek? Because Petra is a feminine noun, and Peter is a male. By the time the Gospels were written, Petros had been his Greek name for decades.
  2. Even supposing the Protestant argument about the different meanings of the words petros and petra were true (all evidence is that this is an anti-Catholic invention) — Jesus wouldn’t have said “on this petros I will build my Church,” to make the statement in Greek seem less ambiguous (to us), because that wasn’t what He meant. He meant “I will build my Church on this bedrock,” this unmovable foundation, not this piece of rock.
  3. Greek is an inflected language, meaning that the endings of words change depending on the grammatical function in which they are used. For example, πέτρος (petros), πέτρον (petron), and πετρῷ (petro[i]) are all the very same word. So variations in the endings of words with the same stem seem quite natural to the Greek mind, and the difference between petros and petra would have seemed much less significant than it does to an English-speaker. In fact, this type of wordplay between similar-sounding words, called paronomasia, was common in ancient Greek.
  4. Jesus wasn’t speaking Greek at all. Scholars are pretty certain that in His day-to-day life and teachings, Jesus spoke Aramaic. The Gospels quote Jesus in Aramaic for special dramatic emphasis: “Talitha cumi” (Mark 5:41), “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36), “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (Mark 15.34).
  5. So if Jesus was speaking Aramaic, the words for Peter and RockPetros and petra — would have been the same word: Kepha (כיפא‎).
    “You are Kepha and on this Kepha I will build my Church,” is what Jesus would have said (pretending that the rest of the sentence is in Aramaic, which I don’t know, and you probably don’t either).
  6. The Aramaic Kepha (כיפא‎) was rendered into Greek as Kephas (Κηφᾶς). Why didn’t Matthew just use that in both cases? Because it would have been as awkward as my sentence above, saying most of the sentence in Greek and a couple of words in Aramaic, and then having to explain it. Matthew’s readers apparently didn’t know Aramaic — or at least, if the book was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic as some of the Church Fathers suggest, whoever translated it into Greek didn’t expect his readers would know Aramaic, and provided a crib for the Aramaic phrases.

To further confirm the Catholic interpretation — it’s not a Catholic interpretation; at least not an invention or reinterpretation of the modern Catholic Church as anti-Catholics charge. This is the way this Scripture has been interpreted since the very earliest biblical commentators:

“. . . I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a Church whose faith has been praised by Paul . . . The fruitful soil of Rome, when it receives the pure seed of the Lord, bears fruit an hundredfold . . . My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the Cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the Rock on which the Church is built! This is the house where alone the Paschal Lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the Ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails.”

—St. Jerome, To Pope Damasus, Epistle 15:1-2 (A.D. 375)

“Number the bishops from the See of Peter itself. And in that order of Fathers see who has succeeded whom. That is the rock against which the gates of hell do not prevail.”

—St. Augustine, Psalm against the Party of Donatus, 18 (A.D. 393)

“Wherefore the most holy and blessed Leo, archbishop of the great and elder Rome, through us, and through this present most holy synod together with the thrice blessed and all-glorious Peter the Apostle, who is the rock and foundation of the Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith, hath stripped him of the episcopate, and hath alienated from him all hieratic worthiness. Therefore let this most holy and great synod sentence the before mentioned Dioscorus to the canonical penalties.”

—Council of Chalcedon, Session III (A.D. 451)

To me, this makes a rock-solid (that’s petra-solid) case: In this verse, there is no doubt that Jesus is declaring Peter to be the Rock on which He would build his Church. Seeing these words in stone did more to move me to this truth, and toward the Catholic Church, than almost anything else: my banner above is a photograph I took of this same declaration, in Latin, around the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, over the high altar and St. Peter’s tomb.

See also: Early Testimonies to St. Peter’s Ministry in Rome

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

Sacred Heart

Pompeo Batoni. Il Sacro Cuore (The Sacred Heart) (1740).

I feel like I’ve been on the offensive a lot lately. I apologize for that. I’ve made three posts in the past two weeks against sola scriptura — and I have to confess, it’s been partly out of annoyance at the closed-mindedness the doctrine engenders. Forgive me for that. My deeper aim, in this blog and even in those posts, is to extend to my Protestant brethren the fullness and beauty that the Apostolic Tradition of the Church has to offer.

(For what it’s worth, that last sola scriptura post had been on the back burner half-formed since I posted the first two, so I decided I needed to finish it. I also have another rather critical post I began writing last year sometime, before I even entered the Church, about church membership, that I put down because I decided it wasn’t the tone I wanted my blog to take. I may look at it again sometime to see if there’s anything to salvage.)

Today is the Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and June is the Month of the Sacred Heart. The Sacred Heart is a devotion to the wounded physical heart of Jesus as a representation of His all-surpassing divine and human love for all humanity. This devotion — really the idea of devotions to things other than God Himself — is a new, rather strange concept to my evangelical brain. Isn’t devotion to or worship of an object idolatry? Well, no. Idolatry is worship of something as a god that isn’t God. Veneration of the saints is not idolatry because it’s not worship. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is not idolatry because the Blessed Sacrament really is Jesus. Likewise devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is not idolatry because it is an aspect of Jesus: it’s the love of Christ for all humanity, the love of God for all the world; and God is love (1 John 4:16).

Devotion to the Sacred Heart has a long tradition, with roots in Scripture and in the Church Fathers. I have an excellent book (picked up on one my thrifting quests) about the history and theology of the Sacred Heart, Heart of the Redeemer by Timothy T. O’Donnell, S.T.D. The earliest Christians associated the water flowing from the side of Christ at his Crucifixion with the “rivers of living water” flowing “from his heart” (John 7:37-38). . . .

[And a sidenote: I’m thrilled that the ESV and some other newer Bible translations, even Protestant ones, have translated this verse as “out of his heart.” Traditionally, that Greek word, κοιλία (koilia — in the phrase, ἐκ τῆς κοιλίας), has been rendered “belly” or “bosom”: according to the LSJ, it is a common Greek noun that refers to a cavity of the body, especially the belly or abdomen, but also any body cavity, ventricle, chamber, such as in heart, lungs, liver, brain: figuratively, the innermost center of being and consciousness of a person. It is the same word used for Mary’s womb in Luke 1:42. The Hebrew word used in Proverbs 4:23, the essence of which John 7:38 seems to follow, is לב (lêb), and most certainly refers to the heart (translated καρδία [kardia] in the Septuagint). In short, I think it’s pretty fantastic that the ESV translators, in translating a verse that refers to Old Testament prophecy, considered the Hebrew context of the words in their translation decisions from Greek. Jesus more than likely would have been speaking Aramaic, and may have quoted the passage in Aramaic rather than Hebrew; though especially the Evangelists Matthew and John would have been familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. Both the Evangelists and our modern translators had to consider all these things in translating to and from Greek.]

St. Bernard

St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

. . . And the Church Fathers saw this wound, this flow of blood and water from the side of Christ, from His heart, as a symbol that the Heart of Jesus is the source and fountain of the living water that gives us grace, salvation, and the Sacraments (O’Donnell 49). Jesus’s wounds, his suffering for our sake, became a visible symbol of His love for us. Over the centuries of tradition, increasing devotion to the Heart of Jesus developed. There are so many wonderful passages I could quote (this book is really amazing), but here are some of my favorites. From St. Bernard (1090–1153):

The secret of His Heart is laid bare in the wounds of his body. One can easily read in them the mystery of God’s infinite goodness and merciful tenderness which came down to us like a dawning from on wounds. How could you indeed, Lord, show us more clearly than by your wounds that You are indeed ‘full of goodness and mercy abounding in love.’

From David of Augsburg (d. 1272) (O’Donnell 101):

From the burning Heart of Jesus flows his blood, hot with love. Jesus showed us from the Cross his faithful heart, glowing with love, since the death of our souls touched him more nearly than the death of his body. Ah, dearest Lord Jesus Christ, what great love and faithfulness wilt thou show when thou displayest thy riches and openest thy Heart to thy beloved friends!

The devotions grow longer, more elaborate, more flowery, until in the late seventeenth century, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French nun and mystic, experienced a series of visions of the suffering Christ, in which He revealed his Sacred Heart to her, and set her own heart aflame with the fire of His. It is from her revelations and her writings that our modern conception of the Sacred Heart has proceeded. Devotion to the Sacred Heart spread throughout France, and gradually beyond its borders. Pope Pius IX first extended the Feast of the Sacred Heart to the entire Church in 1856. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII consecrated the entire human race to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, following the visions of Blessed Mary of the Divine Heart, in whose visions Christ Himself requested the consecration.

So in short: The Sacred Heart is, to put it simply, an ancient, God-inspired Christian meme. So much in tradition works this way: a writer has a revelation, and then another writer picks it up and elaborates upon it, until over time, a whole tradition of devotion and literature develops around it. No matter how you might feel about the personal revelations of these nuns, it is the symbol of the Sacred Heart that is important: the symbol of Christ’s divine and human love for the whole world, that has been a longstanding Christian tradition and object of devotion. To dedicate oneself to the Sacred Heart is to dedicate oneself to live in and for the love of Christ.

Christ-centric, not Man-centric

Mass

One of the many things I love about Catholicism is that in our liturgy, in our worship, in our Sacraments, the focus is on Christ, not on the man at the front of the church.

In evangelical Christianity especially, there’s such a tendency to build up a cult of personality around a popular and well-liked preacher, and have that person be the reason one comes to or remains in a church; for one to leave the church when the pastor leaves, or go to a new church because they don’t “like” the new guy’s preaching or style. Now, I have to tread lightly here: because I know that Catholics can be just as guilty of this kind of thinking. Maybe I am drawing a false distinction here. But I do believe there is an essential difference.

In evangelical churches, the focus is so much on the preacher or pastor — on his preaching, on his teaching, on his leadership. Because personal preaching and teaching — sermons — are the highlight, the greater part of a Protestant service. One of the main reasons people go to church is to hear the sermon.

On the other hand, at a Catholic Mass, no one claims that the priest’s homily is the highlight of the Mass or the reason why ones goes. The homily, though it may be insightful and edifying, is merely an exposition and commentary on the Scripture readings. The highlight of the Mass is the Eucharist — the sacrifice of Christ for all of humanity, the presentation of His Body and Blood to the Father, the sharing of Communion with Him and with all of His people. The focus is on the liturgy (λειτουργία, leitourgia, public service) — not just the actions of the priest before God, but the participation of all the people. The words of the liturgy are powerful and efficacious in themselves; it is not the priest in himself who makes them so.* No matter where I go, no matter who is celebrating the Mass, no matter if I personally like the man, it is the same Mass. Because Catholics believe that the priest who ministers the Sacrament steps aside completely, that he ministers in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. He fades from the scene so that it is actually Christ before us who ministers.

* It does have to be a priest who says them!

Now, there is a fine distinction here. We Catholics can certainly like our pastors and find their leadership and teaching and personality important! In more concentrated dioceses, I am sure there is a tendency for some to pick a parish based on whether one likes the priest there. There is also a tendency in some dioceses, I gather, to diminish the role of the priest as the shepherd of his flock, and to shuffle around a priest between parishes often as if the connections he makes are not important. They are. But my point is this, that the priest is not the parish; he is not the center of gravity. The center is Christ, much more than I’ve experienced in evangelical churches.