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Jesus the Priest, by Nicholas Perrin

21 December 2018

Henry Wansbrough is unconvinced by this theory but impressed

IN HIS introduction, the author explains that this book is the second in a trilogy. The first volume, Jesus the Temple, focused on the actions of Jesus, interpreting them as counter-temple activities in Jesus’s quest for a renewed sacred space. The present volume centres on the words of Jesus, aimed at showing that Jesus saw himself as the new high priest. The projected third volume will be Jesus the Sacrifice.

Although written in a lively and humorous style, full of puns, self-conscious word-play, and unexpected images, Jesus the Temple is a deep and serious work, resting on dozens of careful and well-considered exegeses of New Testament passages, and a profound and thoughtful knowledge of the Old Testament and inter-Testamental and later Jewish writings. It is carefully explained, with frequent summaries to point the way for a bewildered reader. Nevertheless, enriched by many of the exegeses, I remain unconvinced of the central thesis.

The basic contention is that, in the last analysis, the expected Messiah or the son of David was to bring not political autonomy, but a renewal of sacred space and a fully functional Temple, and that Jesus saw his primary identity as a priest. This has slipped from view, especially in recent centuries, because of Protestant neglect of ritual and all things cultic. So the first move to set things right is to remove the well-known contention of Joachim Jeremias that what set Jesus apart was his deep consciousness of his personal relationship with his Abba. Such awareness is not denied, but a widespread study of inter-Testamental literature shows that it was far from unique.

Next, an extended study, a “deep read” of the narrative of the baptism of Jesus, is held to show that the identification of Jesus on this occasion as son of God conveys his function as “imminent high priest”. The following chapters do the same for the appellations “son of David” and “son of man”. Finally, the confrontational implications of “son of man” and its priestly overtones are laid out, particularly in the climax of the story, the Passion narrative.

With interpretations that almost bear the weight put on them, the author finds cultic overtones everywhere. The Hebrews at the Exodus are a kingdom of priests. Elaborated on the basis of Ezekiel 36, the Lord’s Prayer was designed for a cadre of eschatological priests, the oral charter for a new eschatological priesthood. The use of two priestly psalms (Psalms 2 and 110) designates the baptism of Jesus as a priestly consecration. The Beatitudes show Jesus as a priest because blessing is a priestly act.

The “moniker” (Perrin avoids the expression “title”) “son of David” links Jesus to David’s priesthood; the moniker “son of man” (especially at the trial before the high priest) receives its sense from the sacerdotal function of the son of man in Daniel 7. Jesus and the disciples eating grain in Matthew 12.1 are doing a priestly work, proleptic of the eschatological sabbath. Jesus’s mention of wisdom in Luke 7.35 is sacerdotal because “Wisdom is the special domain of the high priest.” The controversy over the payment of tribute constitutes a claim that Jesus rather than the Emperor is the true Pontifex Maximus, high priest of the whole Roman world, and the “inscription” of Jesus as king on the cross counters the “inscription” of the Emperor on the coin.

This monocular vision of the priesthood of Jesus is not without its difficulties; I would focus on three principal neglects. There is insufficient attention to the meaning of the priesthood at that time; what was the spiritual function of the Temple priesthood? What does it mean to say that Jesus saw himself as the eschatological priest?

Second, although Jesus’s criticism of the Temple cult as it was practised is a central point of his message, there is far less indication of any alternative ritual or cult.

Third, concentration on priesthood and the sacral creates too narrow a focus, so that Jesus’s teaching on the Law, repentance, and moral reform, as well as his healing ministry, fall out of view. This does not alter the fact that by his deep reading and attention to detail the author throws valuable new light on many passages of the Synoptic Gospels.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

Jesus the Priest
Nicholas Perrin
SPCK £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

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