Thursday, February 04, 2010

Does Hebrews Envision a New Ministerial Priesthood?

Since Pope Benedict has declared this the "Year for Priests," and since I am now teaching at a Catholic seminary, I've been doing some thinking and writing about the origins of the ministerial priesthood. 
In the course of this research, I went back to the council of Trent's decree on the ministerial priesthood, and found that in key text, the Council rooted its teaching on the institution of the ministerial priesthood in a text from the epistle to the Hebrews:
"Sacrifice and priesthood are so united by the ordinance of God that both have existed in every law. Since, therefore, in the New Testament the Catholic Church has received from the institution of the Lord the holy, visible sacrifice of the Eucharist, it must also be confessed that there is in the Church a new visible and external priesthood (canon 1), into which the old has been translated (Heb 7:12). Moreover, that this was instituted by that same Lord and Savior (canon 3), and that to the apostles and their successors in the priesthood was handed down the power of consecrating, of offering and administering His body and blood, and also of forgiving and retaining sins, the Sacred Scriptures sho and the Church has always taught. 
(canon 1)." (Council of Trent, Session XXIII)

Several things are interesting about this text, not least of which is the language used to describe what is now commonly called the 'ministerial' priesthood. For one thing, Trent refers to this as the "visible and external priesthood," which presents a contrast to the priesthood of all the baptized, which I presume would be an "invisible and interior" priesthood. Moreover, Trent also speaks of the "translation" of the old priesthood into the new. This is intriguing language, perhaps not one would expect when thinking of the establishment of a new priesthood. 

Finally, it is interesting that Trent focus on Hebrews 7:12, since the context of that seems to me to suggest both (1) that Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek, and (2) that there has been "a change in the priesthood," not a dissolution of the priesthood:

11 Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levit'ical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for
another priest to arise after the order of Melchiz'edek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? 12 For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is 
necessarily a change in the law as well. 13 For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. 14 For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. (Heb 7:11-14)

Notice also that the context is specifically priestly ministers--i.e., those who "serve at the altar" (Heb 7:13), which was something that was never done by all Israelites, even though they were all "a kingdom of priests" (cf. Exod 19:5-6). What is fascinating about this emphasis on service "at the altar" in combination with a "change in the priesthood," is that Heb 7:13 is not the last reference to an altar. Rather, in Hebrews 13 we find the following:

We have an altar from which those who serve in the tent have no right to eat." (Heb 13: 10)

What "altar" is the author referring to? It seems clear to me that  is a reference to the eucharistic sacrifice, from which Christians may eat, but not the levitical priests in the Jerusalem Temple. If right, this is highly significant: if Hebrews sees the Eucharistic table as an "altar" of sacrifice, one would be hard pressed to deny (especially in a first-century context) that the author also saw the Christian ministers of the altar as priestly figures. This becomes suggestive when we recall that the context of this statement is surrounded by an inclusio focused on obeying the Christian "leaders," who are distinct from the lay faithful (Heb 13:7, 17, inclusio). 

In sum, at first glance, it seems to me that it is precisely in Hebrews that we find some of the most intriguing references to a new priesthood, centered on the new altar of the eucharistic sacrifice. Of course, unlike the Levitical sacrifice, the eucharistic banquet would be an
unbloody sacrifice of bread and wine, but  that is precisely what Melchizedek offers in Gen 14:18, and why he is appropriate type for Jesus' own priesthood and the priestly leaders of the new covenant.


Peter Kirk said...

Surely (at least it seems sure from my Protestant perspective) the altar in Hebrews 13:10 is the one in the new holy place described earlier in the book. Chapters 8-10 spell out how the Jerusalem temple has been replaced not by church buildings with altars but by a heavenly sanctuary of which the temple was just a copy (8:1-6), a "greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands" (9:11). It is in this sanctuary, and so presumably on its altar, that Christ was sacrificed once (9:24-28). So the author proclaims the end of the old system by which priests offer daily sacrifices in a man-made building (10:11-14). Thus there is no way that in this author's thinking the altar of 13:10 is one for daily sacrifices like the mass. He or she may have been thinking of the cross as the "altar" on which Christ died, but more likely of the altar in the heavenly tabernacle, from which flows the grace, contrasted with ceremonial foods (13:9), by which Christians alone are fed and strengthened.

If there is a reference to the Eucharist at all in this letter, I would suggest that it is in the "strange teachings" about the benefits of "ceremonial foods" mentioned in 13:9.

Bob MacDonald said...

Interesting post - thanks for the insight. I am, of course, more likely to agree with Peter - but it seems neither point of view really works. One weekend I was at schule the Saturday and the Eucharist at a high Anglican church the next day. In the first I clearly saw Hashem in the praises of his people - without any visible priesthood. In the second I marveled that humans could recreate the liturgy of Aaron based on an epistle that specifically says there has been a change in the high priest and the order of the priesthood. But I saw how the gifts of the Torah to worship could be carried over into the new tradition. They get in through a razor's edge - perhaps even an infinitesmal - crack in the dimension of glory - for glory seeps into both worship traditions since both take part in the pouring out (Proverbs 8:23) or anointing of the Beloved before the foundation of the world. But there can be no separation of the invisible from the visible. The priests at the earthly altar had better remember that they have no existence qua priest apart from the body of which they are a part, as the Eucharist has no validity apart from the great amen. (Note the careful spacing of a part and apart, framing my use of 'validity'! It must be the word of God since it has wordplay and I was at play before the foundation of the world.)

Brant Pitre said...

Dear Peter and Bob,
Thanks for the responses.

Peter, for the sake of argument, let's grant your point that the altar in Heb 13:10 is the one in the new holy place described in Heb 8. Nevertheless, I notice that you left unexplained what Heb 13:10 means by "eating" from an "altar" which is different than the earthly altar in the Jerusalem Temple? Anything "eaten" from an "altar" is by definition a sacrifice, and the only plausible referent here is the bread and wine of the Eucharistic banquet.

Also, the "ceremonial foods" which you mentioned (Heb 13:9) are of course the earthly food eaten in the earthly Temple from the earthly altar. (Look at the context of Hebrews: it is about lapsing back into the Jewish liturgy, not about denigrating the Christian eucharist as a mere "ceremonial food".) Again, in book substantially devoted to Christ as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek, it seems clear that the sacrificial banquet being eaten by Christians is the bread and wine of the eucharist, just as Melchizedek offered bread and wine (Gen 14:18).

Finally, lest there be any doubt about this connection between the Eucharist and sacrifice, recall that this is precisely how Paul explains the eucharist as a participation in the body and blood of Christ:

"I speak as to sensible men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. ***Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?*** (1 Cor 10:14-18)

Body, blood, sacrifices, partners in the altar: these are all sacrificial terms used with direct reference to the eucharist. If Paul did not wish the eucharist to be viewed as a sacrificial banquet, he would never have drawn this analogy with the temple sacrifices, and likewise, if Hebrews did not see the eucharist as sacrificial, then he would not of spoken of Christians having a special "altar" from which they alone can eat.

Cheers, and thanks again for the comments!

Leroy and Kari Huizenga said...

Another direction: Do the present tenses in 13.10 indicate that the Temple is still standing (equating "tent" with Temple), and thus Hebrews should be dated before 70 CE?

Perhaps that's obvious, but many commentators want to put it post-70.

Bob MacDonald said...

Related question rising out of the one above from LKH. Since it is evident that Paul already had 'replaced' temple with the 'body' (1 Corinthians 6, Romans 12:1) some 15 years prior to the war, why would there not be a doctrine of temple worship in the assembly before the destruction? Hebrews might then be, as someone suggested in 2006 at St Andrews, a message to Jerusalem to get out while the getting was possible.

Peter Kirk said...

Brant, I will grant that the "ceremonial foods" of 13:9 are "the earthly food eaten in the earthly Temple from the earthly altar". But they are contrasted not with the Eucharist but with "grace". So surely the same contrast is continued in 13:10, and on into verse 12: what the old priests could not eat but we can is this same grace. Of course we eat this only metaphorically. I can grant that the elements of the Eucharist are a sign or sacrament of this grace, but not that they are the literal referent here.

This chapter goes on to explain that there are sacrifices which Christians should offer: praise (v.15) and good works (v.16). But it is not through these sacrifices, but only through the blood of Christ (v.12), that we are made holy and worthy to come into God's presence.

Pablo Gadenz said...

With regard to "sacrifice of praise" (Heb 13:15), it is helpful to interpret this expression in light of its OT background. The phrase in fact occurs only here in the whole NT, but in the Greek OT (LXX) it is used for the todah or thanksgiving sacrifice (Lev 7:11-15) which involves the eating of bread, a sacrifice, and prayers/hymns. A case can be made that Heb 13:15 is referring to the Christian transformation of the thanksgiving sacrifice which is precisely the Eucharist. The Protestant exegete Hartmut Gese has written about the Lord's Supper as the Christian todah.

Peter Kirk said...

Pablo, this could be right, but in that case why is this sacrifice called "the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name"? Surely those words strongly suggest that this sacrifice is the verbal praise of God.

Brian Small said...

Leroy and Kari,
Some commentators have noted that some later writers referred to the temple in the present tense even though the temple had already been destroyed. So one cannot simply make an argument on the temple's existence at the time of the writing of Hebrews simply on the usage of the present tense.

Pablo Gadenz said...

Good point, Peter. Certainly there is the verbal praise of God, but this accompanies the ritual action -- as in Psalm 116 where the psalm accompanies the "sacrifice of thanksgiving" (Ps 116:17; "sacrifice of praise" in the Greek LXX). So, in the Christian todah / sacrifice of thanksgiving (= Eucharist), you have the threefold combination of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ, its memorial involving the eating of bread from the "altar" (Heb 13:10), and the verbal praise of God (Heb 13:15). As I see it, Hebrews does not contrast ritual and no-ritual (see the reference to "baptisms" and "laying on of hands" in Heb 6:2), but rather between ineffective ritual and effective ritual - ritual which is made effective by and united with Christ's once-for-all sacrifice.

Gary said...


Very interesting post. I was struck by the order of the logic in Hebrews 7:12- For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is
necessarily a change in the law as well.
This seems to imply that the change in the priesthood is first, then the change in the Law is a result of the change in the priesthood. I would be interested to know your thoughts on this. I am still not sure what this implies, only that this is not the way I would have thought of it initially.


Omaha Greg said...

Great post--I have always been intrigued by this question Hebrews as well.
Scott Hahn suggests in his series on Hebrews that it is highly likely the epistle is an example of the "discipline of the secret" (if I'm getting the terminology right?), meaning that the language is intentionally somewhat vague, to the point that it might almost be called 'coded.' Of course, in the early Church the catechumens were not allowed to participate in the liturgy of the Eucharist, but were dismissed after the liturgy of the Word and were were vetted extensively to make sure they weren't infiltrating the ranks. It is in this sense that it makes sense that Hebrews' reference to the priesthood, both on the one hand, alludes to the priestly and sacrificial nature of the Christian liturgy, while, on the other, not using the explicit, unambiguous descriptions of the New Covenant priesthood and sacrifice that one sees in the Fathers.
Lastly, as to the mention of the "altar", one must also consider 1 Cor. 10 when the table of the Lord is compared with pagan altars of sacrifice, with the clear implication that the Eucharist is the "Christian sacrifice"..notice Paul doesn't say "don't you know, we Christians don't have a sacrifice any more" but rather "we partake at the table of the Lord" (ie, that is OUR sacrifice).

Jeremy Priest said...

This is from Fr. James Swetnam, S.J (Gregorian University) and available at his website -

Fr. Swetnam makes the argument that Hebrews 13.1-21 focuses on a Christian offering of the "sacrifice of praise." My apologies, but Fr. Swetnam's Greek text does not translate to this medium.

"In the Epistle to the Hebrews the full expression qusiva aijnevsew~ is found at 13,15 in a context which implies that the tôdâ was in use among the Christians who constitute the addressees as well as the author of the epistle: “Through him therefore let us offer up a sacrifice of praise [qusiva aijnevsew~] regularly to God, that is, fruit of lips which confess his name.” On the basis of the author’s own indication that he and his addressees are in a position to offer up a qusiva aijnevsew~ it would seem justified to look to the “sacrifice of praise” for the liturgical practice which seems to underlie Heb 13,1-21. In a writing which is as clearly Christian in its entire orientation as
Hebrews it is immediately evident that a “sacrifice of praise” would have to be an adaptation of the Jewish “sacrifice of praise”, for Christ’s sacrifice of himself is presented in the epistle in contrast to the offerings of the Old Testament priests (cf. Heb 5,1-10). Thus one would seem warranted in inferring as well that Heb 13,12, which depicts Christ’s expiatory death, takes the place of a temple sacrifice.

This leaves two other elements to be accounted for in a Christian adaptation of the tôdâ. Vv. 9-10 involve ritual food of some sort. Vv.15-16 involve “fruit of the lips” which are explicitly related to the qusiva aijnevsew~. Hence all three aspects of the “sacrifice of praise” seem to be involved in Heb 13,1-21, but in a Christian adaptation, for the center is no longer a temple sacrifice but the bloody sacrifice of Christ."

Jeremy Priest said...

Another piece from Fr. Swetnam:

The “Sacrifice of Praise” in the Hebrew The Old Testament hdwt jbz in the Hebrew text is one of the more moving cultic practices in the Old Testament. The hdwt jbz (zebach tôdâ or simply tôdâ) is a bloody sacrifice proper to the worship of the temple but which is also intrinsically connected with ceremonies that in themselves are not bloody. These non-bloody ceremonies consist of a ritual offering and consumption of bread accompanied by a hymn or hymns of praise/thanksgiving accompanied by verbal prayers. Together with the bloody temple sacrifice or holocaust (which has to be offered by the Levitical priests) these ceremonies constitute an integral public ceremony. The tôdâ is offered by a Jewish male, priest or layman, as a public testimony in order to acknowledge with his friends a signal act of salvation (for example, preservation from death in war or famine) performed by God in his favor. This signal act of salvation can be of the past or of the future. In the latter instance, of course, such testimony is a sign of special trust in God’s saving designs on the offerer’s behalf.

The words zebach tôdâ or simply tôdâ occur a number of times in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. The basic texts are found in Lev 7. There are also several important occurrences in the psalms. Arguments have been advanced to show that the use of the expression tôdâ in the psalms reflects a “spiritualization” of the ceremony. That is, the physical ceremonies in the course of time have been abandoned in favor of an evocation of what they signified. But a detailed examination of this interpretation seems to indicate that such argumentation is not conclusive.

The word tôdâ is untranslatable in English. It conveys three basic ideas which are normally separable in that language: 1)thanksgiving; 2) praise; 3) public act. In the Semitic way of looking on one’s relations to God, to “praise” God in certain contexts is to “thank him”.

Leroy and Kari Huizenga said...


I get that...but given that the writer is speaking of present Christian experience ("We have an altar...), it suggests to me he's contrasting that with present non-Christian Jewish experience. Put differently, Heb 13.10 looks different to me than much of the rest of the comparison between old and new in the homily. I could of course be wrong, and it'd be hard to decide with confidence either way.

One thing that's haunted me, though, is that Hebrews doesn't mention the destruction of the Temple. Given that most writings post-70 can't avoid mentioning it since it's such a devastating psychic wound, and given how the destruction of the temple would (presumably) be helpful to the homily's argument, I can't imagine that the writer would avoid it if he were writing post-70. But I know that's controversial too.

Brant, thoughts?


Brian Small said...

If the author of Hebrews was writing before 70 AD then why does he mention the tabernacle and not the temple, since the temple would still be in existence? I find the lack of reference to the temple perplexing either way you slice it.

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