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Jesus’s priesthood was unexpected

08 April 2022

Christ’s priesthood was beyond the cultic conventions of his day, says Simon Cuff 


The young Jesus found by his parents in the Temple: mosaic in the Rosary Basilica at Lourdes, France

The young Jesus found by his parents in the Temple: mosaic in the Rosary Basilica at Lourdes, France

IT IS never a bad idea to begin theological thinking by reflecting on Jesus. The phrase “Christ’s priesthood” should immediately cause us to sit up and stop our theological thinking in its tracks.

We are so used to thinking of Christ as priest, however (one of three titles: prophet, priest, and king), that we often draw lines from Christ’s priesthood to the ordained priesthood, or priesthood of all believers, without spending time thinking precisely how it is that Christ is priest.

The unlikeliness of Christ’s priesthood enables us to keep God’s search for the unlikely and the unexpected consistently to the fore.

This is one of the surest guards against the “likely” or the “expected” or the “entitled” from gaining a foothold in our ways of existing as Church. There is a danger in how we think about, and live, ordained ministry; and particular ministries are liable to be elevated through the dynamics of clericalism. This danger stems from a lack of attention to the particularity of Christ’s priesthood.

All too easily, Christ’s priesthood is seen simply as a continuation par excellence, or culmination, of the cultic priesthood of Jesus’s day. Jesus is seen as the best or sole example of priesthood, and his priesthood is viewed as the example to which all other forms of priesthood relate.

Viewing Jesus’s priesthood this way, however, opens the door to a kind of clericalism, of looking at priesthood simply as the domain of a priestly elite.

LOOKING at Jesus’s priesthood this way finds its basis in Hebrews 7: a vital text in establishing how it is that Christ functions as priest. This view of Christ’s exemplary priesthood flows from a one-sided reading of Hebrews 7; Jesus is seen as replacing — or at least surpassing — the old cultic priesthood of the temple by surpassing it in his death.

Hebrews 7 is the earliest sustained witness to a long theological tradition of referring to Jesus as priest, even if our understanding of how it is Jesus is priest is remarkably underdeveloped in modern theological thought.

Priests were everywhere in the ancient world. Likewise, animal sacrifice was a regular feature of religious and daily life. It is worth noting that, in scholarly terms, it is perhaps harder to answer what priesthood is in the ancient world than we might expect.

Partly, this is because our English word for “priest” comes from a different word than is used in the Greek-speaking world for a religious “official”. The English “priest” derives from a contraction of the Greek “presbuteros” (from which we derive the term “presbyter”). “Presbyter”, or elder, is one of the favoured words for what we might call a Christian minister in the New Testament.

The word for the kind of priest we are referring to when we speak of “priesthood” in the ancient world is the Greek “hiereus”, which derives from “hieros”, and reflects the sacred or divine connotation of the ancient priesthood. It is used to translate the Hebrew for “priest”.

SACRIFICE was an essential part of the duties of the hiereus. Priests offered animal life and gifts to various gods in a pagan context, while the Israelites differed in offering sacrifice to the God of Israel alone. Sacrifices were offered by those who were not priests in the ancient world.

There is evidence of this in the Hebrew Bible. The first sacrifice mentioned in the Bible is offered by Abel, with no indication that he is a priest (Genesis 4.4). Further, while animal sacrifice was an essential part of the duties of the priest in the ancient world, the function of priesthood was likely wider than animal sacrifice alone.

We see this in the Old Testament, in, for example, the consultation of the priest concerning the uncleanliness or cleanliness of lepers (Leviticus 13-14). In the first century AD, Josephus (the Jewish historian who is one of our main sources for the Judaism of Jesus’s day) ascribes a variety of functions to the Jewish priesthood beyond simply animal sacrifice, as administrators of general affairs and conduct in public life.

Albert Henrichs refers to the example of Plato’s definition of the spiritual as mediating between the earthly and heavenly, and the part played by priestly figures in “interpreting and transporting human things to the gods and divine things to men; entreaties and sacrifices from below, and ordinances and requitals from above: being midway between, it makes each to supplement the other, so that the whole is combined in one”.

He notes further how such a mediatory function also leads to the priest becoming so closely associated with the divine that the priest can become a quasi-divine figure.

Gradually, a system emerged in Israel by which only Aaron’s descendants were permitted to offer sacrifices. Later, Israelites differed from their pagan neighbours — at least theologically — not only in insisting on the Aaronic descent of their priests, but insisting that all sacrifice could take place only in the temple in Jerusalem.

We see this reflected in the Samaritan woman’s discussion with Jesus in John 4: “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4.20). The use of the plural “you” here, along with the Samaritan woman’s opening question in John 4.9 (“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”), suggests that the Samaritan woman is viewing Jesus as representative of Jewish attitudes towards right worship.

In the first century AD, Josephus writes of the suitability of having only one place in which sacrifice is permitted, and God worshipped: “There ought also to be but one temple for one God; for likeness is the constant foundation of agreement. This temple ought to be common to all, because he is the common God of all.”

There is some evidence that, while Josephus might be reflecting the majority view within the Judaism of the first century, there are also some other sites outside of Judaea in which cultic priests offered sacrifices to the God of Israel.

While Jesus’s prediction in John 4.21 is that the time is coming when worship will no longer take place in Jerusalem, this evidence for priestly sacrifice outside of Jerusalem in Jesus’s day remains out of step with the normative view. The theological focus we find on the Jerusalem temple was reflected in the size of annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

JESUS’s priesthood is not at all obvious in the cultic conventions of the day. He is not from the right family. We see him offer no animal sacrifice as a priest. This foundation will be essential to how we conceive of the ordained priesthood as grounded in Christ’s priesthood, and liberative of the calling of every person of God.

The essential text in the New Testament for establishing the nature of Christ’s priesthood is the letter to the Hebrews. Here, we see set out a robust doctrine of how Christ is priest, and what this means for the Christian life, and what it is that Christ’s priesthood has achieved. Some argue that this makes Hebrews unique among the New Testament canon, and that no other biblical author considers Christ to be priest.

Reasons for this include the fairly late date of composition — after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the end of the position of the Jewish high priest — which sees Hebrews as a piece of sustained theological reflection both on the death of Christ and on the events that had taken place in Jerusalem in the year 70.

More recently, Nicholas Perrin has demonstrated that the presentation of Jesus as priest, and the application of priestly themes to Christ, is more widespread throughout the New Testament as a whole. The evidence Perrin collects suggests allusions to Jesus’s adopting and transcending functions and actions reserved for the cultic priesthood of his day.

For example, he points to the cleansing of the leper in Mark 1.40-45, in which Jesus seems immune to the potential for cultic impurity as a result of the contact with the leper; and, further, “Jesus’ instructions after the cleansing (‘See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them’ [Mark 1.44]) are equally telling. Ordinarily, the leper would have had to consult the priest prior to his having been declared clean (Leviticus 13-14). That Jesus essentially skips this step, however, implies that he has taken this priestly judgement on himself.”

The argument for the presentation of Jesus as priest is perhaps strongest in the Gospel according to St John. In fact, some argue that Jesus is presented by John not only as priest, but high priest, echoing the theological reflection on Christ’s priesthood that we encounter in Hebrews.

John Paul Heil argues that the “Johannine Jesus does function as high priest, not in the systematic and sweeping manner of the Letter to the Hebrews, but in a more subtle and symbolic way.”

He points especially to the seamless robe of John 19.23 as a deliberate allusion to the high-priestly garment which is described by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus as similarly seamless, “not composed of two pieces, nor was it sewed together upon the shoulders and the sides, but it was one long vestment”.

The soldiers’ decision not to tear the robe (John 19.24) likewise echoes the high-priestly robe which was woven so as not to be torn (Exodus 28.32). The high-priestly garment itself represented the unity of the people of Israel.

In this light, John’s description of Jesus’s seamless robe here unexpectedly casts Jesus in the position of high priest, but also, as Heil notes, through the robe’s not being torn, “the irony of Gentiles preserving the seamless tunic of the high priest Jesus indicates Jesus’ self-sacrificial death unifies all believers into a universal people composed of Jews and Gentiles”.

This is an edited extract from Priesthood for all Believers: Clericalism and how to avoid it by Simon Cuff, published by SCM Press at £19.99 (CT Bookshop £15.99); 978-0-33406-102-1.

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