The Anointing Priestess

Adapted and abridged from The Writings of John, published by Editores Volcán Barú.

Copyright © 2014, 2015, 2016 by James David Audlin. All worldwide rights reserved.

Reprinted here by permission of the publisher, Editores Volcán Barú.



John 2:20 – This verse makes it clear exactly to whom John intended to send this letter (actually never sent, or even completed, before his exile to Patmos). Unlike the disciples of Paul, this branch of the followers of Jesus was still fully Jewish, and as such their clergy were anointed, just as the Davidic kings had been, and the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem still were. John had been one of those priests, and so surely he administered the rite to those who were chosen to pastor the local congregations. Thus the letter recipients were meant to be the seven bishops of the local churches under his purview as regional bishop of the Roman province of Asia (Anatolia, now western Turkey), to read aloud to their congregations.

John says their anointing serves to teach them about all things; a phrase that comes from John 14:26 (“But the Paraclete, the Sacred Spirit/Breath/Wind whom the father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of all the things that I said to you.”), which tells us that John closely associated this anointing with the Paraclete, the Spirit of God. The Presbyter came to believe that the Paraclete was incarnated into (i.e., that its physical form was) the Gospel of John, which as he drafted this letter he was in the final stages of completion (he never would entirely finish it). It is all but impossible that all seven of these local congregational leaders had written copies of the gospel, since it was still being drafted; John is referring rather to its oral equivalent, his witness (μαρτυρια, martyria) that he has shared with them to the teachings and deeds of Jesus.

John further says they were anointed by the αγιου (hagiou), usually translated as “the Holy One”, with the standard assumption usually being that this means God, sometimes Christ. But always practical John cannot mean God appeared, nor in some spiritual sense Christ (as opposed to the man Jesus) and poured oil over these seven disciples. As to who it was, recall that Jesus anointed no one himself, but was anointed by Mary (John 1:32, 12:3), so these John’s disciples may too have been anointed by Mary. The word αγιου actually means “set apart”, set apart from the world, from common, ordinary things. It is an adjective being used here as a noun; here it appears in its masculine form, which is why scholars assume the “one set apart” to be either God or Jesus.

But Jesus was not the only one set apart, and the Peshitta version of this verse mentions the other one. The Aramaic word here is ܩܕܝܫܐ (qadīša), which has the sense as an adjective of “sacred”, “pure” as in ritually clean, or “set apart” from the mundane; but, as a noun, which is how the word appears here, it specifically means “priestess”: a Temple priestess. Mary is also called the holy priestess in the Aramaic of John 17:11b and Revelation 3:7. The latter verse refers to her not just as ܩܕܝܫܐ in the Aramaic, but as αγιου in the Greek too.

The Aramaic forces us to take another look at the Greek, αγιου. This word is often used to refer to the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and this sacred place is associated in the Johannine writings with Mary (see The Gospel of John, pages 991ff.). Revelation 3:7 also specifically refers to Mary as the αγιου. What is more, the word αγιου may also be used to refer to a priest or priestess, someone “set apart” for a sacred calling.


2:27 – In first-century Greek the third person pronoun (αυτου, autou) is not specific as to gender, which reflects correctly the pronomial suffix of the Aramaic particle ܡܢܗ (meneh, “from”); it too is gender inspecific, implying either “from him” or “from her”. As a result, scholars, with chauvinist lenses firmly fixed over their eyes, declare the person referred to by this pronoun is a male, and always render the phrase as “the anointing that you received from him”. However there the consensus ends. Some scholars associate the pronoun with Jesus, who is mentioned in passing in verses 22-24, and others with αγιου (hagiou), “the Holy One” of verse 20, which they usually take as referring to God. These scholars fail to see that the confusion over who the “him” is might be because they are wrong to assume that it means “him” rather than “her”. The reader will recall, however, that the Aramaic in verse 20 is best rendered as not “the Holy One” but “the priestess”, which is to say Mary. If as I suspect this letter was originally composed in Aramaic and translated into Greek, then I think we need to take seriously the possibility that this αυτου refers not to a man but to a woman, in which case the referent is Mary.

It would have been nice if, in writing this letter, John had made it as plain as possible who he meant in verses 20 and 27. But he and his recipients knew perfectly well to whom he was referring, and so there was no need to make things clear that were already clear to them – still, I think the text is clear enough for those who study it with care. The first pronoun is the only one really imprecise, being gender neutral in Aramaic and Greek. But the verse’s other pronouns in Aramaic are quite specific as to gender, and they will help us determine if “him” or “her” is intended here. The verse goes on to say that since the anointing received from the person is ultimately from God, “everything ܗܝ (me) teaches is true”, so these disciples must “remain with what ܗܝ has taught you.” This ܗܝ is a feminine pronoun, and since such a pronoun is modified by the previous noun, and translators have thus assumed it refers to the anointing, which in Aramaic is a feminine noun. They ignore the obvious fact that acts of anointing do not teach. They ignore the contrast drawn between this anointing person and someone else whose masculine status is emphasized in the phrase “you need no male to teach you” (this phrase to be discussed below), strongly suggesting that the anointing person is not a male, hence a woman. They further neglect the pronoun-suffix to ܡܢܗ, the one which refers to the person who did the anointing, and that this suffix is closer in the sentence to ܗܝ than the noun “anointing”, hence by Aramaic grammatical custom more likely to be the antecedent for ܗܝ. And even those scholars who correctly assume the pronoun-suffix refers back to ܩܕܝܫܐ (qadīša) ignore its primary meaning of “priestess”.

But ܩܕܝܫܐ does mean “priestess”, and this priestess is the object of the pronomial suffix to ܡܢܗ (meneh, “from”), and that suffix is the closest precedent noun to the feminine pronoun ܗܝ. I see consistency in seeing all three as referring to the same woman: the priestess is the anointing person who later in the verse is said to be teaching them truth. So I conclude that ܗܝ refers to the woman, not the anointing, that it means “she” here, just as it does in the Aramaic of John 21:24, where it tells us that the Beloved Disciple was a woman. This priestess who anointed them had to be Mary, wife of Jesus. Since English requires masculine or feminine pronoun in reference to an individual human being, this identification tips the scale to “she” in my translation of the gender neutral ܡܢܗ earlier in this verse.

These appearances of the Aramaic feminine pronoun ܗܝ are sharpened by the reference to a “male”, ܐܢܫ (ˀĕnāš ), who is the very man condemned in this passage: the liar, the anti-Anointed-One – mainly, Paul. By emphasizing Paul’s gender (which I do in the translation with “male” rather than “man”), John is implying Paul’s attacks on Mary as a mere woman and hence an untrustworthy source of the truth about Jesus (see pages 33ff.), when quite to the contrary Jesus treated women with equal respect, and Mary herself was favored by Jesus as the εκλεκτη κυρια (eklektē kyria), the “chosen Masteress”, the συνεκλεκτ (syneklektē), the “chosen-with” (I Peter 5:13), the Beloved Disciple, and the priestess (not only here but in Revelation 3:7. Paul himself implies her priestess status in Colossians 2:18 (see The Gospel of John, page 196), as does Celsus (ibid.). With this “male” epithet John may even be implying that Paul is not really a man at all but a eunuch (op. cit., pages 232f.), and that he is not really an apostle of Jesus at all but a power- and publicity-seeking sham.

Mary was united with Jesus at the resurrection in a hierogamy that undid the separation of the first human into Adam and Eve (see op. cit., pages 995-1006). As his feminine aspect she could easily have taught these seven about Jesus and then, as a priestess, anointed them. Thus we must conclude that John is referring to the Mary, the Masteress as he calls her in the beginning of II John, who is one with Jesus, and that Mary anointed these seven. Her centrality to the Johannine community is discussed throughout this book; see also Jane Schaberg’s The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene. This understanding of the text is far more logical and practical than the tortured standard reasoning that sees God as coming down to anoint these seven disciples, and that the anointing ceremony itself somehow taught them the truth about all things. Scholar Ariadne Green has pointed out to me the irony that Mary who ordained seven bishops was later demoted by dogma into a prostitute with seven demons inside her.

James David Audlin (89 Posts)

Born in the Thousand Islands. Retired; after decades as a pastor, newspaper editor, university professor, caregiver, musician, editor. Most recently lived in southern France; now lives in rural mountainous Panama; married to a Spanish-speaking local lady. Two children in Vermont. Author of 18+ books, with a dozen more on the way.

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