Saturday, April 29, 2006

Jesus the Priestly Messiah - Beaten to the Punch

In reading over the contents of the latest JSHJ I gasped in horror, threw my hands in my face, banged my head on the desk, and then cried, "Damn you Crispin H. T. Fletcher-Louis, you beat me to it". The reason being is that it looks like Fletcher-Louis has written a rather good article on Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah. I was hoping to do a similar study, but no longer see the need to. In the words of the great American philosopher, Homer Simpson, "Doh!" The abstrack to Fletcher-Louis' article is cited below.


Recent study of the priesthood in Second Temple life and thought invites a reconsideration of Jesus’ self-understanding. The appeal to Psalm 110 and Daniel 7.13 indicates that Jesus thought that, although not of priestly lineage, nevertheless he would ultimately be the nation's king and priest after the order of Melchizedek. Mark 1–6 contains a programmatic statement of Jesus’ claim to a high priestly identity as the ‘holy one of God’ (1.24), with a high priestly contagious holiness (1.40-45; 5.25-34; 5.35-43), freedom to forgive sins (2.1-12) and the embodiment of divine presence in a Galilean cornfield (2.23-28). As true high priest he makes divine presence ‘draw near’ to God's people (1.15), where before they had to ‘draw near’ to the Jerusalem temple. The hypothesis that Jesus thought he was Israel's long-awaited eschatological high priest resolves otherwise intractable problems in historical Jesus scholarship. This is Part 1 of a two-part essay.

Although some argue that traditions of a priestly messiah had little to do with either Jesus' or the early church's messianic hopes (e.g. Dunn, Jesus Remembered), other have maintained that there is likely to be some point of contact. Hebrews is evidently one example, but do we find priestly-messiah traditions earlier than that in the primitive Jesus movement.

My contribution to the debate was (I think I'll give it up now) to outline incidents and episodes in Jesus' life where Jesus appears to exercise priestly perogatives. For example:

• Cleaning lepers (e.g. Mk. 1.40-44)
• Statements about the temple tax (Mt. 17.24-6)
• Statements about what is clean/unclean (e.g. Mk. 7.1-15)
• Giving to temple (Mk. 7.9-13; 12.41-44)
• Dispensing Forgiveness (Mt. 6.8-10; Lk. 7.47)
• Binding/Loosing (Mt. 18.18)

Other interesting background features are:

- The Christology of Hebrews as a Christian expression of priestly-messianic traditions.
- Obviously the idea of two messiahs in the DSS, one Davidic and one Aaronic.
- The interpretation of Zech 6.12 in the LXX, MT, DSS and Tgs.
- Priestly-Messianic traditions outside the Qumran scrolls, e.g. Tg.Sam. 5.35 ‘I will raise up before Me a trustworthy priest, who will minister according to my word, my will, and I will establish for him an enduring kingdom and he will my Messiah all the days’.

Other written works of relevance include:

Horbury, William. "The Aaronic Priesthood in the Epistle to the Hebrews." In Messianism among Jews and Christians: Tweleve Biblical and Historical Studies. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2003. 227-254.

VanderKam,James C. "Jubilees and the priestly messiah of Qumran." Revue-de-Qumran 13 (1988): 353-365

Higgins, Angus John Brockhurst. "Priestly Messiah." New-Testament-Studies 13 (1967): 211-239

Donaldson, Terry L. "Levitical messianology in late Judaism: origins, development and decline." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 24 (1981): 193-207

Well done to Crispin for not only beating me to the punch but for pursuing this interesting subject; and probably doing it a lot better than anything I would have said anyway. This article is worth reading.


Jim said...

Don't lament- just remember,
ואין כל חדש תחת השמש

James Crossley said...

Crispin has been doing this for a while and published a few things on it. I've got to say that in my opinion there is absolutely nothing in the synoptic tradition which points to Jesus as a priestly/high priestly Messiah. Jesus cleansing lepers, for examaple, Jesus cleanses them but does not declare them clean. Declaring clean is for the priests and so in Mark 1.40-45 Jesus sends the leper to the priests. In terms of say loosing etc. does this apply to other healers/exorcists? And, more generally, why is there no serious evidence of people criticising Jesus for setting himself up as priest/high priest? Why does Jesus not just come out and say it? This whole idea of Jesus as some kind of alternative temple/priest is very commmon which I find strange given the complete lack of serious evidence.

Michael F. Bird said...

James, my main point is not to show that Jesus intended to be or was understood to be a "priestly messiah". My primary purpose was to map the points of contact between priestly messianic traditions and davidic messianic traditions in the synoptic Gospels. A good example of the interface of Davidic/priestly motifs is Mk. 2.23-28. Also, in pronouncing forgivness Jesus pronounces that which the priests were meant to be pronounce, and yet outside of the temple cultus. I think there is something in that.

James Crossley said...

Ok, but even so I'd still be a bit hesitant: there are Jewish examples of forgiveness outside the Temple and there is the use of the divine passive in Mk 2.1-12 (I don't beleive that it is a conflict over forgiveness - it's barely a conflict in terms of HJ as opponents speak internally - more over authority to heal/loosen but that's another story). The priestly echoes in Mk 2.23-28 are more to do with stressing the Sabbath context and how David got away with a far more serious act rather than reflecting on Jesus as priest.

But do I take it Mike that you could (for argument's sake if you see what I mean) accept that kind of argument and are thinking more in the recpetion of the motifs that come up in the Jesus tradition and the idea of Jesus traditions being influences by priestly ones? I think I would go along with that actually. But that would not be anywhere near as strong as Crispin who does push for Jesus as an alternative HP/priest. And if that is anywhere near accurate, Crispin hasn't beaten you to it as he's done something different. So there you go Mike, there is still the opportunity to tell it how it is!

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...


Binding/Loosing as a function of the Aronic priesthood strikes me as a novel idea.

Perhaps I have missed the point somewhere along the way. This happens :-)


Luther's Stein said...


I have been reading recently concerning Zech. I found your post interesting because I have been wondering why the church wouldn't have made greater use of the prophecy concerning Joshua's crowning. Since the Davidic themes are among the earliest that arise in the church, if a developed priestly theology were early, then one might imagine that the potential blending of roles would have led to a greater apologetic use of Zech. 6. What are your thoughts.

I think that you might have something with Mark 2. I would be interested to see a post on it.

J. B. Hood said...


Kelly Kapic has done interesting work with an article in WTJ you've probably read, available online at "RECEIVING CHRIST’S PRIESTLY BENEDICTION: A BIBLICAL, HISTORICAL, AND THEOLOGICAL EXPLORATION OF LUKE 24:50-53." Robby Holt picks this idea up in Reading Luke (final volume in Scripture and Hermeneutics), though I'm not sure I'm sold on either idea, and it may not brush up against your own or those of CHTF-L. I'm not sure Robby or Kelly chase down the possible implications of Mary's Levitic Jesus son of Judah and son of Levi?

One interesting point from my research--a number of scholars have suggested that Matt is echoing famous biblical and post-biblical priestly names in the third section of Matt's genealogy. If the genealogy is of course a litany of Israel's Story and leadership, this makes good sense given the history of Israel leading up 200 years. It runs deeper than M. D. Johnson's old idea, that Mt 1:1-17 is a "Pharisaic" compendium designed to emphasize davidic messiahship; Jesus is more than that in early Xianity, of course (though certainly not less). I don't think Matt's necessarily attempting a "historical" genealogy, although those interested would chase up Mary's possible Levitical connections (Luke 1).

Of course, neither of these are quite the historical Jesus bit you're looking for.

Michael F. Bird said...

TB Baylor,
Good question. Why the church cited some passages as key texts (e.g. Pss 2, 110, 118) and not other texts (e.g. Isa 66.19-21 on mission) has always baffled me. I do not know for sure.

Interesting stuff. Matt's geneaology certainly weaves priestly contours into Jesus' lineage. I think Matt might want to foreshadow a prophet, priest, king theme into his overture of Jesus.

Jim Hamilton said...


You should still write the piece!


Danny Zacharias said...

This is a very interesting piece. I've been reading a bit about this from a slightly different angle- especially around 4Q521 and its parallel in the gospels (see my series of 5 posts on deinde). John Poirier argues that Elijah was understood as the eschatological high priest in 4Q521, and Jesus echoes this tradition in Matt 11:2-6 and Luke 7:18-23.

Crispin said...

have you read my article? I give a perfectly good explanation there why it is that jesus 'does not just come out and say it'. He does and when, for the very first time that he makes an unequivocal, public statement that he is the high priestly messiah - and the king (of Psalm 110) it gets him killed.
As for Mark 2:1-12 there Jesus appeals to the Son of Man's authority to forgive sins, in the light of which the early divine passive is beside the point. Leaving aside hypothetical HJ reconstructions, Mark thought this was about authority to forgive. So why did he or anyone else think that was a matter for the one like a son of man figure of Daniel 7:13?
Mike, I'd be interested in seeing your thoughts on those other texts which I do not discuss in my article.

dacroteau said...

David Allen (SWBTS) has done some interesting research on Jesus as High Priest in Luke. It's supposed to be published in his forthcoming book: "The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Luke." As you can see, his agenda/purpose is to demonstrate that Luke wrote Hebrews. Regardless, he does make some intriguing arguments.

James Crossley said...

Crispin, I've actually read a fair bit (perhaps most for all I know) of what you've written on this subject. I'm not sure the example you cite is a particularly explicit example at all of Jesus coming out and saying it. The lack of conflict and the lack of it being explicit and unambiguous are serious counter arguments. As for forgiveness of sins and Mk 2.1-12 the divine passive is relevant: couldn't God forgive sins outside the Temple too? Besides, we don't have to resort to hypothetical HJ examples to make a claim that there is something other than forgiveness that is the problem. The semantic area of aphiemi is very broad and other meanings (e.g. loose) are well attested. And back to the ongoing debate there is no explicit indication that Daniel 7.13 is mentioned. If we are talking HJ then the Aramaic would simply be too general to include an explicit reference to Dan. 7.13. If the sacred text is to be given pride of place then it still remains general with no mention of clouds of heaven or even 'one like' in Mk 2.1-12. TElsewhere, yes (and even there that doesn't necessarily mean in some priestly sense), but not here.

Crispin said...

James, several points:
1. this is not a matter of privileging a particular sacred text (in many ways, reconstructed historical jesus texts have functioned as sacred texts for those who have believed in them). This is simply a matter of sound historical method. Our first task is to explain Mark's text written, as it is, in a thoroughly Jewish milieu with a rich biblical intertextuality.
2. I fail to see how aphiemi in the context of Mark - with sin as its object - can mean anything other than forgive.
3. In Mark Jesus does not think that it is simply God who has forgiven sins, but the SM. Period.
4. your claim regarding the Aramaic expression being general is precisely that: 'a claim'. We both know that the historical jesus could very well have used Aramaic words that indicated clearly he was talking about the character in Dan 7:13. Given the evidence of Mark - who evidently thought Jesus is referring to Daniel - the burden of proof is on you to show that Mark (or someone before him) has misrepresented Jesus. And I fancy that, without new textual material surfacing, that cannot be proven.