Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"Why Priests?": PART 3: The Priesthood of the Apostles in the New Testament

This post continues my response to Protestant scholar Michael Bird's post, "Why Priests?". Read the IntroductionPart 1 and Part 2.

Michael recognizes that there are biblical reasons to see "evangelical ministry" as "priestly ministry". He highlights Romans 15:15-16, in which Paul explicitly identifies himself as a priest.
“Yet I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. He gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:15-16).  
From this passage, Michael concludes: 
... the idea of setting apart/consecrating/devoting/ordaining a person to gospel ministry means to set apart/consecrate/devote/ordain someone to what the Apostle Paul calls a priestly work. If vocation defines description, then there is nothing illegitimate about calling such persons “priests.”
Given the clarity of this passage, I don't think there can be any doubt that Paul saw himself as exercising a priestly ministry. 

However, it should be noted, that this is only the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to the biblical evidence for the priesthood of the apostolic office numerous other texts could be cited.

In an article forthcoming in JBL I make the case that Peter's role in Matthew 16 should be read in priestly terms. I won't rehash all my arguments here. Suffice it to say, it is widely recognized that Jesus compares Peter to Eliakim, a figure described in Isaiah 22. Notably, Eliakim wears garments only otherwise associated with priesthood (i.e., the robe and the girdle). Indeed, ancient Jewish sources had no doubt about Eliakim's priestly identity. 

However, numerous other passages could also be mentioned. I highlight a number from Matthew in my JBL article. Let me here take a different approach and examine some passages in Luke, the focus of another forthcoming article of mine. 

The Priesthood of the Apostles in Luke-Acts

In Acts 1 the apostles choose a replacement for Matthias by casting lots. This seems an odd way about filling an apostolic vacancy. Determining apostolic ministry by a game of chance?

What is this, "holy craps"? 

Actually, to understand the imagery one has to appreciate the structure of Luke-Acts. Without going into a long tangent, scholars recognize that Acts deliberately rehearses the material from the Gospel of Luke. Drawing on Talbert's fine work, I've explained this elsewhere (see herehere, and here).

Thus from beginning to end Luke-Acts mirrors itself. Some examples: 
  • Both begin with a prologue to Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2). 
  • The commencement of Christ's and the apostles' ministry is described in similar ways: 
    • the descent of the Spirit in visible form (Christ's baptism, Pentecost) (Luke 3:21-22 / Acts 2:1-3 [described as "baptism", Acts 1:5]); 
    • a speech in the Jewish place of worship, i.e., synagogue / Temple (Luke 4:16-27 / Acts 2:14-40)
    • the healing of a man who is unable to walk  (Luke 5:17–26; Acts 3:1-10). 
  • That Paul stands accused before rulers four times at the end of Acts (Acts 23: Sanhedrin; Acts 24: Felix; Acts 25: Festus; Acts 26: Agrippa) is hardly accidental. Jesus also appears before rulers on four occasions in the Passion narrative of Luke (Luke 22:54: the high priest and the council; Luke 23:1: Pilate; Luke 23:9: Herod; Luke 23:11: Pilate). 
All of this invites the reader to look for parallels between the two books.

Is it just a coincidence then that as Acts begins with the casting of lots, so does Luke? I think not! 

Note the very beginning of the narrative of Luke's Gospel, where we read the following about Zechariah: 
Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. (Luke 1:8-9)
Luke reminds us that priestly duties were assigned by lot, a practice established in the Old Testament (cf. 1 Chr. 24:31).

In the hands of pagans, such as those at the foot of the cross, casting lots was nothing but a game (Luke 23:35). However, within scriptures of Israel, casting lots was a sacred rite, one of the means used for discerning God's will (Lev. 16:7-10). 

That Luke specifically tells us that the rite is linked with discerning priestly roles in Luke 1 should not be forgotten when we encounter lot casting Acts 1.

Indeed, Luke elsewhere links the apostles' role to priestly duties. Again, I can't highlight every example here, but let's just take one: 
You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Luke 22:28-30)
Here the apostles are identified as the future “judges” of Israel (cf. Luke 22:30). Notably, this was a role most prominently associated with the priests (cf., e.g., Deut 17:9; 2 Chr 19:8-11).

 In Jesus' day judging Israel was expressly understood as a uniquely priestly activity. Josephus assigns the task of judging solely to the priests (cf. A.J. 2.165; 4.304). 

Likewise, in texts relating hopes for the messianic age it is clear that judging is the role of the priests (e.g., Ezek 44:23; 4Q161 VIII–X, 24–25). 

In addition, like the Levites, the apostles’ commitment to Christ is linked to the renunciation of kin (cf. Exod 32:29; LXX Deut 33:9; Luke 18:29), a commitment in context also linked to a unique “inheritance” (cf. Luke 18:18), terminology also especially associated with the Levitical priesthood (cf. Num 18:20, 23; Deut 10:9; 18:1–2; Neh 13:10). 

All of this would seem to reinforce the idea that the “office” Judas has turned aside from in Acts 1 is best understood in priestly terms (cf. also Acts 1:20 and Num 4:16). It is no coincidence for Luke that the apostolic office is linked with lots--this is an appropriate way to select a person for priestly duties!

Other Texts
Other passages might also be mentioned. In light of the passages discussed above it can hardly be seen as a coincidence that Mark tells us that Jesus "appointed" (epoiēsen) twelve, using the same language employed in the LXX for the appointment of priests (cf. 1 Kings 12:31; 13:33; cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, 171).

Likewise, that Jesus gives certain disciples the authority to forgive and retain sins (John 20:23) also would seem to entail linking them to an action usually associated with priesthood.

But here I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll have more to say on John 20:23 later.

Suffice it for now to say that there is clearly good evidence to suggest that the apostolic ministry was was viewed as priestly activity.

That I am not simply reading my own theology into the New Testament however can be confirmed another way. How did the early Christians read the New Testament? Did they believe in an apostolic priestly ministry or is this simply wishful thinking on my part?

We'll deal with that next time.

As we shall see, that the New Testament itself bears witness to an apostolic priesthood is confirmed by patristic testimony--indeed, it is recognized from the earliest times!

(To be continued...)

1 comment:

Dim Bulb said...

I appreciate this series of posts and look forward to your forthcoming articles on Matthew (in JBL) and on Luke in relation to this issue.

I would like to suggest--and thereby fulfill a lifelong desire of mine to burden a teacher with extra homework--that you at least touch upon (perhaps as an appendix to your proposed posts) the Catholic understanding of the priestly ministry as intimately connected with the proclamation of the gospel. The Council of Trent stated that: "The preaching of the gospel...is the chief task of bishops". This was taken up by Vatican II in various documents and with various nuance (e.g., Presbyterorum Ordinis 4).

Soon we will be reading about the encounter of Jesus with the disciples of Emmaus (Evening Mass at Easter, Wednesday in the Octave of Easter). Many Catholics, as a result of the reformation rejection of the real presence and it emphasis on sola scriptura, fail to fully appreciate the significance of Luke24:25-31, focusing instead on Luke 24:31 alone. Ironically, in doing this they engage in the Protestant "either/or" approach to doctrine, rather than the Catholic "both/and" approach. The disciples at Emmaus didn't just recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread, but in the context of the whole process, his interpretation of scripture and the breaking of bread, i.e. the priestly function of liturgy.