Yeshua the Anointed – Part 9: The True Priest

In this article, I will be exploring the Messianic figure-type of Anointed Priest. This type appears to be less widely known or expressed in Judaism during the first centuries B.C./A.D., compared with the figures of Prophet (cf. parts 2 & 3) and King (parts 68). Our best evidence for it comes from the Qumran (Dead Sea) Scrolls and related texts (such as the Damascus Document), and, in at least several respects, it was influential on Messianic thought in the time of Jesus and the New Testament.


In ancient Israel and Near East, priests and kings were both ceremonially consecrated and set apart through the ritual of anointing. This is described or expressed in the Old Testament (Torah) in numerous places—Exodus 28:41; 29:7, 21, 29; 30:30; 40:13, 15; Leviticus 6:20; 7:36; 8:12; 16:32; 21:10, 12; Numbers 3:3; 35:25; including use of the substantive noun j^yv!m* (m¹šîaµ, “anointed”) in Lev 4:3, 5, 16; 6:22[15]. The special place and position of the Priest is indicated by the epithet “holy, holiness” [vd#q)]—Exod 28:36; 31:10; 35:19; 39:30, 41; 40:13; Lev 14:13; 21:6-8; 22:14; 23:20; Num 5:9-10; 6:20; 18:9-10; Ezra 8:28, etc. In early Israelite tradition, Moses and Aaron—Ruler/Lawgiver and Priest—provided two-fold leadership for the community. Following the era of kingship—where the anointed Ruler was dominant—with the fall of the kingdoms of Israel/Judah and the Exile, this dual leadership was restored in the early Post-exilic community—see especially the equal position of Zerubbabel (ruler from the line of David) and Joshua (the High Priest) indicated in Hag 1:1, 12, 14; 2; Zech 3-4 (esp. the two “sons of oil” in Zech 4:14); 6:9-14.

During much of the Post-exilic period, the High Priest was unquestionably the dominant ruling figure in Judah/Judea, which doubtless explains the prominence of the Priesthood in certain writings of the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. In the book of Sirach (early-mid 2nd cent.), at least as much praise is given to the Priestly figures (Aaron, Phineas, Simon son of Onias) as to the Kings (David etc)—cp. Sirach 47 with Sirach 45, 50. The Hebrew hymn at Sir 51:12 offers thanks to the (Messianic) “horn” sprouting for the house of David and the chosen “sons of Zadok” in tandem. The book of Jubilees has Levi (Priest) and Judah (Ruler) in the leading position among the tribes of Israel, with priority given to Levi (Jubilees 31, cf. Deut 33:8-11). A number of the texts from Qumran, such as 4QTLevi (related in some way to the later Jewish/Christian Testament of Levi), likewise give clear priority to the Priest (cf. below).

This elevation of the Priesthood, emphasizing its superiority over secular rule, may have a polemic role—i.e., against the Hasmonean (Maccabean) rulers of the 2nd-1st centuries B.C., who also obtained to the position of High Priest (until the time of Hyrcanus II c. 40 B.C.), despite the fact that they were not from line of Aaron/Zadok (nor were they kings from the tribe of Judah). This probably underlies much of the critique against the Priesthood and the Temple cultus in the Qumran texts. The situation became even worse after Pompey’s invasion (63 B.C.) and the installation of Herod as king with Roman support. This historical background is expressed vividly in the so-called Psalms of Solomon (mid/late-1st century B.C.), especially the Messianic Ps Sol 17. Given the corruption of the Priesthood and the nepotistic power of the leading Priestly families (also clearly targeted in the Gospels and Acts), it is not surprising that many devout Israelites and Jews at the time of Jesus would hope for a coming Priest or Ruler who would restore (or rebuild) the religious sanctity and prestige of the Temple, etc.

The Qumran Community

There are three prominent Messianic themes or motifs which can be found in the Qumran (and related) texts, related to the Priesthood: (1) the dual-leadership of Priest and King, (2) the figure of an Anointed Priest-King, and (3) the priority and superiority of Priesthood over Kingship.

1. Dual-Leadership of Priest and King

This is expressed primarily in the Community Rule documents—the Rule of the Community (1QS) and the Damascus Document (CD, QD), where there appears to be an expectation of two future/end-time Messianic figures: “the Anointed (One)s of Aaron and Israel [larvyw /wrha yjyvm]” (1QS 9:11). In the Damascus Document, we find a similar expression, but with the singular “Anointed (One) of/from Aaron and Israel” (CD 12:23-13:1; 14:19 [= 4Q266 10 i 12]; 19:10-11; 20:1). Scholars continue to debate whether this use of the singular is the same as the plural in 1QS 9:11—i.e. refers to separate Messiahs—or rather reflects the belief in a single Anointed Priest-King (cf. below). In the related rule-documents 1QSa and 1QSb, for the future/ideal Community envisaged in the texts, a leading High Priest appears to officiate in tandem with the Anointed Prince/Ruler—cf. 1QSa 2:11-22; 1QSb 5:20-21ff. Moreover, the Testimonia [4Q175, lines 1-18] seems to envision distinct eschatological figures—Prophet (Deut 18:18-19), Ruler (Num 24:15-17), Priest (Deut 33:8-11). In the Florilegium [4Q174], the Anointed Ruler (“Branch of David”) will arise along with the “Interpreter of the Law” at the end-time; this latter title would appear to be generally synonymous with the “Teacher of Righteousness” (CD 6:10-11), representing the same eschatological figure. The historical Teacher was a priest (4QPs a col. iii, line 15), and the future Teacher/Interpreter would certainly have been understood as a Priest as well (cf. the context of CD 6:2-11). This dual-Messiah paradigm may have been influenced by the “two sons of oil” in Zech 4:14.

2. An Anointed Priest-King

The possibility that the “Anointed of Aaron and Israel” in the Damascus Document (cf. above) refers to a single Priest-King figure receives support from the text 11QMelch(izedek) [11Q13]. In this fragmentary pesher-style commentary (on various Scriptures), “Melchizedek” represents an end-time figure who will bring freedom for those held captive by Belial (theme of the Jubilee, Lev 25:13; Deut 15:2). He will judge the nations (Psalm 82:1-2; 7:8-9) and carry out punishment/vengeance on the wicked (Belial). This figure is further associated with an Anointed Messenger (Isa 52:7; Dan 9:25) who will announce salvation (and judgment) for God’s people. According to the narrative in Genesis, Melchizedek was the Priest-King of Salem-Jerusalem (Gen 14:18ff) in the time of Abraham. Though the Torah, and much of the Prophetic tradition, would condemn the appropriation of the Priestly role by rulers (as the Hasmoneans later did)—see the examples in Numbers 16; 2 Chronicles 26:16-20—it is recorded that David and other Israelite kings/princes did, on occasion, function as priests (cf. 2 Sam 6:17-18; 8:18; 1 Kings 8:63-64; 2 Kings 16:12-13, etc). This was very much in accord with the ancient Near Eastern view of Kingship (as attested in the case of Melchizedek), where the ruler held priestly privileges and prerogatives, and would exercise them, at least on certain occasions. Indeed, it is this sort of royal theology which presumably underlies the mention of Melchizedek in Psalm 110:4—in its original historical context.

Many scholars would hold that Melchizedek in 11QMelch is a Heavenly/Angelic Redeemer figure, such as Michael in the book of Daniel, or the “Son of Man” in the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71). This view is probably influenced largely by the reference to Psalm 82:1-2 in column ii, lines 9-10; however, as is clear from the Qumran texts, the Enoch literature, as well as of Jesus in the Gospels, there can be a fine line between the conception of a Heavenly being and an eschatological (human) King/Redeemer appointed by God to bring about the end-time Judgment and establishment of the Kingdom for the people of God.

3. The priority/superiority of Priesthood over Kingship

Given the fact that the Qumran Community (and/or the community of the Damascus Document) was likely founded by priests, and the central/leading role that priests held in the Community, it is not surprising that “Aaron” (and the Anointed One of Aaron) would come ahead of “Israel” (and the Anointed One of Israel) in their eschatology and Messianic thought. In 1QSa 2:11ff, the (Anointed?) Priest enters and is seated ahead of the Anointed One of Israel. The “Levi” documents (4Q[T]Levi) at Qumran give to the Priesthood an exalted status and position, and in 4QLevia ar [4Q213] fragments 1+2 col. ii, Levi appears to be connected with both the priesthood and the kingdom (cf. also the language in 4Q541 frag. 9, col. i). These Levi texts are likely representative of the kind of Jewish source material that underlies the later Jewish/Christian Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. For a similar exalted view of the priesthood, see Testament of Levi 18; and, for the priority of Priest over King, cf. Testament of Judah 21-22.

Priestly Themes and motifs in the Gospels

It must be admitted that the Priesthood and Priestly motifs are not especially prominent in the Gospels, by comparison with some of the Qumran texts cited above. On a number of occasions, Jesus is shown as being at odds with the ruling Priestly authorities, but only in connection with the events surrounding his Passion (cf. the predictions in Mk 8:31; 10:33 par, also 11:18, 27; 14:1 par, etc), and they play a leading role in the opposition to him prior to his death (cf. especially the scene before the Sanhedrin, Mk 14:53-65 par). Elsewhere in Synoptic tradition, Jesus refers to the priesthood only twice—once in the positive context of fulfilling the ceremonial aspects of the Law (Mk 1:44 par), and once in the context of the Sabbath-controversies (Mk 2:26 par). Throughout the Gospels and Acts, positive references to the priesthood are rare, found only in the Infancy narratives (the parents of John the Baptist, Zechariah and Elizabeth [Lk 1:5-25, 67-79]), and the brief notice in Acts 6:7 that many priests in Jerusalem became obedient to the Christian faith.

Jesus’ relationship to the Temple and the cultic/ritual apparatus of sacrificial offerings, etc., overseen by the Priests, is rather more complex. The principal passages are: (1) the Temple action by Jesus (i.e. the “cleansing” of the Temple), and (2) the Temple saying, variously reported in the Gospels and Acts. As I have discussed these in some detail in an earlier article, I will only give a brief outline here:

  1. The Temple “cleansing” is recorded in all four Gospels—Mark 11:15-18; Matthew 21:12-17; Luke 19:45-58; John 2:13-17. Commentators continue to debate the precise interpretation and significance of the episode. Certainly, Jesus shows great concern for the sanctity and holiness of the Temple, but there is no indication that he is acting in the role of a Priest. However, he does level a definite objection to the current apparatus surrounding the Temple sacrifices (if not to idea of sacrificial offerings themselves), and, with it, a harsh critique against the priesthood. The citation of Isa 56:7 may indicate that he envisions a somewhat different purpose for the Temple—as a place of prayer, rather than of sacrificial offerings (bound up in commercial transactions).
  2. The Synoptic tradition (Mk 14:58; Matt 26:61) records an alleged claim by witnesses, during Jesus’ appearance before the Sanhedrin, that he claimed he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Mark/Matthew regards this as false testimony, but a similar saying by Jesus is recorded in John 2:19. Luke does not include this in the Passion narrative, but there would seem to be a reference to it in Acts 6:14. The Markan version of the (alleged) saying states that the physical Temple (“made with hands”) would be destroyed and a new Temple (“made without hands”) will be built in its place. The idea that Jesus might build a different kind of Temple, or that he effectively replaces it in his own person, seems to underlie the polemic against the Temple in Stephen’s speech, where the idea of being “made with/without hands” is central (Acts 7:40-41, 43, 48, 50; cf. also Acts 17:24). In John’s account, the Temple saying (Jn 2:19ff) is connected with the Temple cleansing (Jn 2:14-17), and given a specific interpretation: the “Temple” is Jesus himself (his body), and the destruction/rebuilding is a reference to his death and resurrection. Thus, while it does not depict Jesus as a Priest, he is viewed in a spiritual/symbolic sense as the sacred Place where the Priesthood operates. Cf. Matthew 12:4-6 for a similar idea in the Synoptics.

Jesus as (High) Priest

Here we will explore: (1) Sayings of Jesus which might identify him as a Priest in some way, (2) Narrative episodes or actions where he may be fulfilling a Priestly role, and (3) Other motifs in the New Testament and early Christian thought which specifically relate to Jesus as a Priest.

First, with regard to specific sayings of Jesus, there are only a few which seem to refer to the Priesthood in some meaningful way:

  • Jesus’ words in Mark 2:5-10 par, etc—the power/authority to declare forgiveness of sin, apart from the ritual means outlined in the Law, could be taken to imply that Jesus was fulfilling a Priestly role in this regard
  • Matthew 12:3-8 par—part of the Sabbath Controversy episode in Mk 2:23-28 par, in which Jesus compares himself and his disciples with the Priests of the Holy Place. The sequence of sayings in Matthew’s version strongly suggests, that, in some sense, Jesus (in his own person and teaching) takes the place of the Temple and Priesthood:
    —”He entered the House of God…” etc (vv. 3-4)
    —”the priests in the Temple cross over [i.e. violate] the Sabbath and are without cause (for guilt)” (v. 5)
    —”(Something) greater than the Temple is here (in this place)” (v. 6)
    —”I wish for mercy and not slaying (of sacrificial offerings)” (v. 7)
    —”For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (v. 8)
  • The words of institution at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22-24 par), associated with the (Priestly) act of blessing/benediction (cf. below). It is the words over the cup which are especially significant, in reference to:
    (1) The (new) Covenant—the ritual/ceremonial aspects and elements of the (old) Covenant were administered by the Priests
    (2) The Blood—the sprinkling and pouring out of blood was connected with the consecration of the Priesthood, etc, and the administration of sacrificial offerings
    (3) “Over many (for the forgiveness of sins)”—the atoning aspect of sacrifice, especially that of the sin offering, and the sacrifices offered on the Day of Atonement (for the entire Community)
  • The great Prayer-Discourse in John 17 is sometimes referred to as the “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus, but this is rather misleading, since there are few specific priestly images or allusions in the prayer. Only in a loose sense—in terms of Jesus representing his disciples before God, and interceding on their behalf—can it be interpreted in this way. Perhaps the closest we come to a direct priestly reference is in vv. 17-19:
    “Sanctify them in the truth…even as I sanctify myself over them, that they also might be sanctified in the truth”

Similarly, examples in the Gospel narrative where Jesus fulfills a Priestly role are few; I highlight what I consider to be the three most notable areas:

  • Jesus role in blessing the bread and the cup of the Last Supper (Mk 14:22-23 par). In Matthew and Mark, the verbs eu)loge/w and eu)xariste/w are used for the bread and cup, respectively (Lk 22:17-20 uses eu)xariste/w for both). While this need not mean anything more than the head of table giving the blessing for the (Passover) meal, Jesus’ words associated with the cup (“my blood of the [new] Covenant which is poured out…”) certainly indicates something deeper (cf. above). Jesus is depicted in a similar act of blessing during the (two) feeding miracles (Mk 6:41; 8:7 par), and cf. also in Lk 24:30.
  • In Luke 24:50-51, the Gospel writer clearly depicts Jesus in the role of Priest delivering the blessing/benediction to the people. This is confirmed by the parallel with Zechariah (father of John the Baptist, and priest serving in the Temple) in Lk 1:21-22. In that episode (the first in the Gospel), the Priest (Zechariah) is unable to give the expected benediction to the waiting crowd; here, in the last episode of the Gospel, Jesus finally does so—giving the blessing to his disciples before his departure (and ascension to the Father).
  • In the Gospel of John, Jesus frequently identifies himself (i.e. his own person and teaching) in various ways with: the Temple (Jn 2:13-22, cf. above), the Sabbath (Jn 5), and elements of the great Feast-days such as Passover and Sukkoth/Tabernacles (Jn 2:13-22; 6; 7-8)—all representing ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law which were administered and officiated by Priests. Most notable, are several key details which identify Jesus specifically with the sacrificial offering at Passover—the Paschal Lamb:
    • The Baptist’s declaration of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” in Jn 1:29-36. Most likely, the lamb sacrificed for Passover is intended, though the qualifying phrase in v. 29 “…the (one) taking away the sin of the world” perhaps better fits the sacrificial animal of the sin offering (Lev 4:3). There is also a plausible connection with Isaiah 53:4-7, 12. Cf. also 1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:18-19; Rev 5:6, 9 etc.
    • In John, Jesus is crucified on the eve of Passover (Jn 19:14) at the time the lambs would be slaughtered (cf. also Mark 14:12 par).
    • John 19:31-32, 36 is a clear reference to the Passover lamb (Ex 12:46; Num 9:12, cf. also Psalm 34:20).
    • The mention of hyssop in Jn 19:26 may possibly be an allusion to the blood applied to the door frame in Exod 12:22.

In light of the fact that the eschatological/Messianic figure of the “Teacher of Righteousness” and the “Interpreter of the Law” in the Qumran texts has certain definite parallels with Jesus as Teacher (of the Law) in the Gospels (cf. Part 4), it is worth pointing out again that this figure-type very likely would have been understood as an (Anointed) Priest.

Finally, we should consider other priestly motifs or descriptions of Jesus as a Priest in the remainder of the New Testament. It must be admitted that, here again, these are very few, apart from the notable exception of the letter to the Hebrews. We have:

  • The association with Passover sacrifice (cf. above) in 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Pet 1:18-19; however, it should be noted that Jesus is identified with the sacrificial Lamb, not the Priest who administers the sacrifice. Similarly in Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10.
  • In 2 Corinthians 3:6-18 Paul speaks of the “new covenant” for believers in Christ (marked by the Spirit), which supersedes and replaces the old (governed by Moses, the Priesthood, and the Law); cf. also Gal 3:15-18ff. In Romans 11:27, Paul speaks of this New Covenant in Christ in atoning/sacrificial terms (“when I take away their sins”, citing Isa 59:20-21); note also his citation of Jesus’ words over the cup at the Last Supper in 1 Cor 11:25 (cf. above).
  • The language of sacrificial offering (administered by priests) is also used in Romans 15:16; Phil 2:17; 4:18; Eph 5:2; 2 Tim 4:6; 1 Pet 2:5. 9, but these references have more to do with the idea of believers as sacrificial offerings, or functioning as priests in the service of Christ and the Gospel.

It is only in the Letter to the Hebrews that we see the image of Jesus as a Priest (High Priest) clearly expressed, and in considerable detail, reflecting a decree of theological/Christological development in the theme that is simply not found elsewhere in the New Testament. For a detailed survey and examination, see the Supplemental Study on Hebrews. In terms of Messianic thought at the time of Jesus, there are two aspects of the treatment in Hebrews which are noteworthy:

  1. The emphasis on the Priest offering sacrifice for the atonement/forgiveness of sins—Where a Messianic Priest-figure appears in Jewish writings of the period (cf. above), it tends to be associated with Teaching/Instruction, Blessing and the (joint) role of Ruler. However, in at least one text from Qumran (4Q541, fragment 9), it is said that this Priest “will atone for the children of his generation” and “…darkness will disappear from the earth” (cf. Testament of Levi 18:4).
  2. The figure of Melchizedek as (Heavenly) Priest-King—Melchizedek plays a central role in the fragmentary text 11Q13 (11QMelch[izedek]) from Qumran (late 1st-cent. B.C.?), as an end-time Deliverer of the people of God and Judge of the wicked (Belial). He is connected with the Anointed (One) of Isa 61:1 (cf. Isa 52:7) and Dan 9:25-26, and is often viewed by commentators as a Divine/Heavenly figure. In 2 Enoch 71-72, Melchizedek also has an exalted position alongside the Angels in Heaven.

For other early Christian reference to Jesus as a High Priest, see Ignatius Philadelphians 9:1; Epistle of Polycarp 12:2; Martyrdom of Polycarp 14:3; and also 1 Clement 61:3; 64:1, which may be influenced by the language of Hebrews.

Leave a Reply