When discussing Jesus as a Priest (cf. Part 9), special attention must be given to this theme as it is presented in the Letter to the Hebrews. As previously discussed, references where Jesus is described or depicted as a priest are rare in the New Testament—more common is the image of Jesus as a sacrificial offering, rather than the priest who administers the sacrifice. However, in Hebrews, the theme of Jesus as Priest appears in a complex and highly developed manner, set in the very heart of the book (chapters 4-10). It is not possible to give a thorough exposition of these passages in one relatively short article, but I hope to present and outline and survey of how the author treats the theme.
To begin with, the Christological paradigm is set already in the prologue or introduction (Heb 1:1-4):
- The Son as “heir of all things”—divine pre-existence—role in Creation (vv. 2b-3a)
- His sacrificial and atoning death—”cleansing of sins”
- The Son inherits a name and position greater than the Angels—exaltation to the right hand of God (vv. 3b-4)
The Son’s greatness over the other divine/heavenly beings (Angels) is not due to a special (eternal, pre-existent) relationship with God the Father (as would be the case in the Gospel of John and later Trinitarian orthodoxy), but rather as the result of his sacrificial death for the sins of humankind. Thus the atoning death (and resurrection) of Christ is the central tenet of the Christology in Hebrews, one that the author describes in terms of the Priesthood of ancient Israel. Interestingly, there is no attempt to define this in Messianic terms, for, in Hebrews, the Messianic elements of early Christianity (titles, terminology, Scripture passages) have already been fully assimilated into a Christological matrix. Note, for example, that there is not one instance where “the Anointed (One)” [o( xristo/$] occurs as a title (apart from the citation of Psalm 45:6-7 in 1:9); instead, it is used as a name, virtually identical with “Jesus” (Heb 3:6, 14; 5:5, et al). Similarly, “Son of Man” does not appear, except in the general sense of the expression as cited (Ps 8:4-6) in Heb 2:6, though the basic identification of Jesus with a heavenly/divine figure at the right hand of God is assumed throughout.
The Priestly motif is introduced at several points in the first two chapters, most notably in Hebrews 2:5-18:
- Heb 2:11—where Jesus is referred to as “the (one who) makes holy”, and believers as “the (one)s (who) are made holy”. There is a strong incarnational aspect to the argument in 2:5-18—i.e. the extent to which Jesus shares and identifies with human weakness and suffering. This underlies the power and significance of Jesus’ death and is the basis for his Priesthood.
- Heb 2:17—the climactic declaration of this section: “…he was obligated to be(come) like one (among) the brothers according to all things, so that he might come to be a merciful and trust(worthy) Chief Priest, unto [i.e. so as to be] providing acceptance [vb. i(la/skomai] (with God) (regarding) the sins of the people”.
The verb i(la/skomai (hiláskomai, found only in Heb 2:17 and Lk 18:13) is almost impossible to translate literally in English—in a religious/ritual context it has the sense of making God (or the gods) friendly/gracious to human beings, and is thus somewhat similar to the verb katalla/ssw (i.e. change, make things [completely] different), including the idea of reconciliation or restoration of the relationship (broken by sin) between humans and God. Equally rare are the related nouns i(lasmo/$ (hilasmós, 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10) and i(lasth/rion (hilast¢¡rion, Rom 3:25; Heb 9:5), which indicates the general lack of sacrificial language and terminology in the New Testament. For sacrificial offerings, Hebrews typically uses the concrete noun qusi/a (lit. the animal that is slaughtered), along with the verb prosfe/rw (“bring/carry toward”), i.e. of the priest bringing the offering toward God (by way of the altar).
In chapters 3 and 4 (Heb 3:1-4:13), the historical context and setting of the Wilderness period—Moses, Aaron, the Tabernacle and the establishment of the (Old) Covenant—provides the basis for the comparisons with Jesus (Old Covenant vs. New Covenant) which follows. The two main sections which describe Jesus as a (High) Priest are Hebrews 4:14-5:10 and 6:20/7:1-10:18.
Here Jesus is identified as the Great High Priest (4:14), partly on the basis of his exaltation to heaven and his status as the Son of God, but more properly as the result of his sacrificial death (the sufferings of which are due to his identification with, and sharing of, our human nature). The following points are made in this section:
- 4:14-16: Jesus’ association with human weakness—incarnation and sacrifice
- 5:1-4: Priests are appointed by God to sacrifice for sin
- 5:5-10: God appointed Jesus to be High Priest (of the order of Melchizedek), atoning for sin by way of human weakness—suffering and submission of the Son
The association of Jesus with Melchizedek in Heb 5:5-10 (citation of Ps 110:1 in vs. 6) is stated again in 6:20—a transitional verse which concludes one section and leads into the next (7:1ff). The figure of Melchizedek, (Canaanite) Priest-King of ancient Salem, passed into Jewish and early Christian tradition through two Scriptural texts: (1) the Abraham narrative in Gen 14:17-20, and (2) the reference in Psalm 110:4. The original context of Psalm 110:4 is instructive for an understanding of how the figure had come to be interpreted by the 1st century A.D. (cf. below). here is an outline indicating how the author of Hebrews develops the Jesus/Melchizedek parallel:
- 7:1-10—Melchizedek: introduction and summary from the Abraham narrative
7:11-22—Application to Jesus (‘High Priest of the order of Melchizedek’, Ps 110:4)
- 7:23-28—Jesus as Priest is greater than human priests
8:1-13—He is High Priest of a New Covenant
- 9:1-10—The service of priests in the Sanctuary, esp. sacrifice and the Day of Atonement
- 9:11-14—Jesus as Priest is greater than human priests—replaces the sacrificial offerings
9:15-28—He is High Priest of a New Covenant—Sacrifice
- 10:1-18—Concluding statement on Christ’s Priesthood and Sacrifice
For additional references to the Priesthood theme in the remainder of the book, cf. Heb 12:24; 13:10-16, 20.
Jesus and Melchizedek
The reference to Melchizedek in Psalm 110 is somewhat obscure, but it seems to be based on an underlying royal theology in the Psalm, deriving from ancient Near Eastern tradition. Taking the old Abraham narrative in Genesis 14:17-20 at face value, “Melchizedek” was an historical figure, a Canaanite Priest-King. His name (qd#x# yK!l=m^ malkî-ƒedeq), vocalized originally as malk£-ƒidqu (according to Cross, p. 209) would have meant something like “my king is (the) Righteous (One)”, where “Righteous” (‚idqu) is a Divine name or epithet. Later Israelite/Jewish tradition rendered or interpreted “Melchizedek” as “just/righteous king” (in Greek basileu$ dikaio$), while Hebrews 7:2 translates it as basileu\$ dikaiosu/nh$ (“king of justice/righteousness”). He is said to have been the King of Salem, generally identified with the ancient site of Jerusalem (for the different understanding of šlm by W. F. Albright, cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 231-2) and Priest of °E~l ±Elyôn. la@ (°E~l, Canaanite/Amorite °Il[u]) was the name/epithet of the high Deity in ancient Canaan; the name originally would have meant something like “Mighty (One)”, and already in early Israelite tradition, it was identified with YHWH. The way Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek is narrated in these few brief verses suggests that it refers to a longer tale or tradition now entirely lost to us.
If the reference in Ps 110:4 is genuinely to the “Melchizedek” of Gen 14 (for a differing view, cf. M. Dahood, Psalms III: 101-150 Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 17A, p. 117), then we must ask just what the Psalmist meant by it. In the ancient Near East, kings typically functioned as priests as well, officiating on certain ceremonial occasions—palace and temple complexes being closely connected. This was also the case in ancient Israel, where kings and princes fulfilled a priestly role in the offering of sacrifices, and so forth (cf. 2 Sam 6:17-18; 8:18; 1 Kings 8:63-64; 2 Kings 16:12-13, etc). It would seem that only traces of this historical situation are preserved in the Old Testament, while in the Torah and Chronicles (both with a strong priestly/Levitical orientation) we find opposition to the idea of rulers appropriating the Priest’s role (cf. especially the episodes in Numbers 16 and 2 Chron 26:16-20). In all likelihood, Psalm 110 preserves a bit of the royal theology surrounding the kings of Israel/Judah, associated with Jerusalem and the Davidic line—i.e. they are priests, not according to the lineage of Levi and Aaron, but according to the pattern of Melchizedek, to whom even Abraham gave homage. It is possible that the Hasmonean (Maccabean) rulers drew upon this tradition as well (cf. 1 Macc 14:41) when they assumed the position of High Priest (1 Macc 10:18-21; 13:42; 14:4-47; Josephus Antiquities 13.299-300; 16.162, etc). In this regard, Psalm 110:4 appears to have played a role in Messianic thought, specifically in shaping the figure of the exalted Priest or Priest-King to come (cf. Jubilees 32:1; Testament of Levi 8:14-15).
If the interpretation of Psalm 110:4 suggested above is correct, then the author of Hebrews has made use of Melchizedek in a somewhat similar way, applying it of course to Jesus, within a very specific Christological matrix (cf. above). He lays out the line of argument in the opening verses (Heb 7:1-10):
- Melchizedek is both Priest and King (vv. 1-2)
- He has no genealogy (vv. 3ff)
In my view, these two points derive from the same basic royal theology that underlies the use of Melchizedek in Psalm 110 (cf. above); but note how the author develops these:
- Jesus, like the Davidic rulers, is King and from the line of Judah, yet he is also Priest (the High Priest), even though he is not from the tribe of Levi or a descendant of Aaron. The priesthood of Melchizedek preceded that of Levi, and is thus superior to it.
- Melchizedek, in fact, is a High Priest (i.e. Priest of the Most High), though there is no priestly lineage ascribed to him anywhere in the Old Testament. This argument from silence is given a very specific interpretation: that he has no natural, traceable genealogy. More importantly, this means that his (and Jesus’) qualification for the (High) Priesthood is not based on an earthly line of descent.
The specific way the author frames this last point has led commentators to question whether it is an imaginative (midrashic) application of the simple absence of any genealogy for Melchizedek, or whether he believed that Melchizedek was a divine/heavenly being of some sort. The phrasing and force of verse 3, along with the comparison in verse 8, perhaps suggest the latter:
“without father, without mother, without (any) account of (his) coming-to-be [i.e. genealogy], having no beginning of days (and) no completion of life, but having been made (very much) like [a)fwmoiwme/no$] the Son of God, remaining (the) Sacred-official [i.e. Priest] into the carrying-through [dihnke$, i.e. continually, unbroken]” (v. 3)
“…and (on the one hand) here men dying-away [i.e. who die] receive the tenth, but (on the other hand) there it is witnessed that he lives” (v. 8)
There are two possibilities: (1) the sketchy figure of Melchizedek has been fashioned according to what the author already believes about Jesus, in order to make the comparison fit, or (2) it reflects an existing tradition or belief that Melchizedek was a divine/heavenly (and immortal) being. The latter possibility is strengthened by several references in texts from the two centuries B.C./A.D.:
- The Qumran text 11QMelch(izedek) [11Q13] (late 1st cent. B.C.?), in which Melchizedek is described as a Messianic (end-time) figure who will appear as Deliverer of the people of God and Judge of the wicked (Belial) who held his people captive. The application of Psalm 82:1-2, especially, has led many commentators to believe that Melchizedek here is Heavenly/Angelic being, similar to Michael (cf. 1QM 17:6-8; 4QAmram 3:2).
- In 2 (Slavonic) Enoch 71-72, Melchizedek (as a child) is taken up by Michael into heaven and thus achieves an exalted status similar to Enoch in Jewish tradition, and Jesus following the resurrection in the earliest Christian tradition (Acts 2:33ff; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34, etc). The text of 2 Enoch is difficult to date, but its core probably stems from the late-1st or early 2nd century A.D.
- We find the idea of a Heavenly/Messianic Priest in several writings of the period—e.g., the Testament of Levi 18; Assumption of Moses 10:2; and the earlier Qumran text 4Q541.
- In Jewish tradition, the Angels are often depicted functioning as priests in Heaven—cf. 1 Enoch 9:1-11; 15:2; 40:6; 47:2; 99:3; 104:1; Jubilees 31:14; Testament of Levi 3:4-6, etc; and note especially the so-called Angelic Liturgy (or “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice”) from Qumran, 4Q400-407, 11Q17.
We might also note the allegorical image of the High Priest as symbolizing the Logos/Word of God in Philo—On Flight and Finding §117-8, The Migration of Abraham §102ff, On Dreams 1.215, etc.
For a number of the references above, cf. Attridge, Hebrews, pp. 97-103, 192-5.
In conclusion, let us see how the author of Hebrews expounds the Jesus/Melchizedek parallel in the remainder of chapter 7 (vv. 11-28):
- 7:11-14—Two facts or points of belief are combined:
(a) Jesus was from the royal line of Judah, not the priestly line of Levi (i.e. the priesthood according to the Law), and
(b) Jesus is a (High) Priest by way of his sacrificial death => his priesthood must be of a different origin (i.e. a different Law or Covenant)
- 7:14-19—Jesus’ priesthood comes through Melchizedek, however:
(a) it is not by way of physical/biological or earthly lineage
(b) it is according to (Divine) Power and (Eternal) Life
This qualification is supported by the author’s gloss on Psalm 110:4—the phrase “the ta/ci$ [order/arrangement/succession] of Melchizedek” (v. 17) is interpreted as “the o(moio/th$ [likeness/resemblance] of Melchizedek” (v. 15). In all likelihood this means that Jesus is an Exalted/Heavenly being, just like Melchizedek (cf. above).
- 7:20-28—Jesus’ (eternal) priesthood is confirmed and demonstrated by:
(a) God’s own promise (oath), and
(b) The holiness and sinlessness of Jesus
In spite of the comparison with Melchizedek, it is clear that, for the author of Hebrews, Jesus’ position as (true) High Priest is ultimately based on: (1) his position as the (pre-existent) Son of God, and (2) his death as an atoning sacrifice. This is emphasized in the concluding verse of this section, and is tied in with the idea of God’s oath regarding Jesus, that is, the word which He speaks (cf. Heb 1:1):
“but the word [lo/go$] of the oath th(at is) after the Law [i.e. changes the Law, cf. v. 12] has completed the Son into the Age”
This completion/perfection of the Son is the result of his sacrificial death for the sins of humankind (2:10ff; 5:8-10; 9:11-14), which, in turn, completes and perfects those who believe in him (10:1, 14; 11:40; 12:2, 23).
References marked “Cross” above are to F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).
Those marked “Fitzmyer” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament (Scholars Press: 1974)
Those marked “Attridge, Hebrews” are to Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Fortress Press: 1989)