Monday, March 18, 2013

"Why Priests?": PART 2: The Priesthood in Jewish Eschatological / Messianic Expectations

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

Before looking at the New Testament evidence regarding priesthood in the New Covenant age we really ought to be sure that we have the proper context for the discussion. Specifically, we must remember that Jesus was a Jew. So were his earliest disciples. Their understanding would have been shaped by Israel's scriptures and the Judaism of their day.

This raises an important question: How did ancient Jews envision priesthood in the age of the Messiah?

It is widely acknowledged that ancient Jews anticipated the coming of a new temple in the future eschatological / messianic period. This hope is clearly annunciated in biblical books like Isaiah, which identify the temple as the future site of the ingathering of Israel.
2 It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, 3 and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths (Isa 2:2–3; cf. Mic 4:1–2).

6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, every one who keeps the sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isa 56:6–7)
The latter passage is cited by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels as part of his action in the temple (cf. Matt 21:19; Mark 11:17; Luke 20:46).

In short, as Michael Bird himself has persuasively demonstrated (see his excellent book, Jesus and the Gentile Mission, pp. 155-61), the Gospels clearly present Jesus as affirming the hope for a coming eschatological temple. Specifically, this temple is associated with Jesus (cf. John 2:19; Mark 14:58).

Such imagery is likely present in Jesus' apparent application of Psalm 118 to himself at the end of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants: "The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner..." (cf. Mark 12:10; Ps 118:22). Since the temple is both the context for Psalm 118 (cf. Ps 118:26) and the episode in which Jesus spoke these words (cf. Mark 11:27), it seems hard to doubt that the building project envisioned here involves temple imagery. In short, (much, much more could be said!), Jesus is identifying himself with the temple and probably the Church as well (he is its cornerstone).   

The New Temple, the New Priesthood and the New Cult

But it is important to recognize that, for ancient Jews, the belief in a coming “new temple” necessarily involved hopes for a new priesthood and a new cult. Therefore the biblical prophets repeatedly insist that there will not only be a new temple but also a new priesthood and a new cult. 

A few examples will suffice:
  • Malachi 3 explains that the eschatological age will see the purification of the sons of Levi, who will present “right offerings” (מגישי מנחה בצדקה) (cf. Mal 3:3). 
  • Ezekiel, famous for his vision of the new temple (Ezek 40–48), provides a detailed description of the offerings that will be made therein (cf. Ezek 42:13; 43:18–27; 44:11, 15–16, 29–30; 45:13–25; 46). 
  • In Isaiah 56:6-7 (quoted above), we read a vision of the new temple that includes the assertion that foreigners will “minister” [šārat] to God. This is a stunning statement. This terminology is used to describe priestly cultic activity throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Exod 28:35; Num 3:6; 8:26; 18:2; Deut 10:8; 17:12; 1 Kgs 8:11; 2 Chr 5:14). Not surprisingly, this particular element of Isaiah’s prophecy is left out in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars recognize that the omission is likely due to discomfort with the implication that Gentiles might somehow serve as priests. [1]
The Prophetic Critique of the Cult

Here it is important to mention that many have overlooked this aspect of the prophetic hope because of anti-cultic / anti-priestly theological prejudices. For many years scholars have read the prophetic critique of the corruption of the cult as a whole-sale rejection of cult and priesthood. 

Yet this would be to misread the prophets!

The truth is, the prophets never reject the divinely instituted nature of priesthood and cult. Indeed, many clearly affirm its role in the eschatological / messianic age notwithstanding their condemnation of its corruption in their day.

Jeremiah, probably the most forceful critic of the temple cult, insists that in the future day of the eschatological ingathering of Israel the people will offer sacrifices in the new temple:
“And people shall come from the cities of Judah and the places round about Jerusalem, from the land of Benjamin, from the Shephelah, from the hill country, and from the Negeb, bringing burnt offerings and sacrifices, cereal offerings and frankincense, and bringing thank offerings [תודה] to the house of the Lord” (Jer 17:26; cf. also Jer 33:10-11).
Transcending the Law

It is worth mentioning that many of the prophetic texts envision a sort of transcending of the Levitical priesthood. For example, Isaiah, as mentioned above, seems to envision foreigners serving as priests. Likewise, he envisions Gentiles offering sacrifices in Egypt.
“In that day shall there be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt… and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day and worship with sacrifice and burnt offering [minḥâ], and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them” (Isa 19:19a, 21).
Ancient fragment of the Testament of Levi
Such expectations clearly continued into Jesus' day. A noteworthy passage in this regard is found in the Testament of Levi:
Levi, your posterity shall be divided into three offices as a sign of the glory of the Lord who is coming. The first lot shall be great; no other shall be greater than it. The second shall be in the priestly role. But the third shall be granted a new name, because from Judah a king will arise and shall found a new priesthood in accord with the gentile model and for all nations. His presence is beloved, as a prophet of the Most High, a descendant of Abraham, our father. (T. Levi 8:11–15; OTP 1:791)[1] 
This is apparent in other prophetic books as well. For example, Jeremiah 30:21 explains, “Their prince shall be one of themselves, their ruler shall come forth from their midst; I will make him draw near (והקרבתיו) and he shall approach me (ונגש), for who would dare of himself to approach me? says the Lord.” The term translated, “I will make him draw near” (והקרבתיו), is frequently used in cultic settings (cf. Exod 29:4, 8; 40:12, 14 Lev 3:6; 7:35; 8:6, 13, 24; Num 8:9, 10; 16:5, 9, 10), as is “he shall approach me” (ונגש; cf. Exod 28:43; 30:20 Lev 21:23; Ezek 44:13). Together these terms seem to indicate a priestly role for the coming Davidic messiah.

Specifically, three priesthoods are mentioned here: 
  1. the first lot, the high priesthood given to the descendents of Aaron; 
  2. the second, the order of the Levites
  3. the third, established by a coming king (=the messiah?), which is linked with the Gentiles.
Although this schematization could easily be seen as betraying the hand of a later Christian editor, it should be pointed out that the association of Gentiles with the priesthood may simply be seen as reflecting what is found in, for example, Isaiah 56, which, as we observed above, links the Gentiles with priestly activity in the eschatological age. Still, if it is a Christian text, it is just another piece of evidence that Christians appropriated such Jewish hopes for the priesthod.

Jesus the Jew?

The Temple Scroll discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
This scroll details the duties of priests
in the eschatological / messianic age.
All of this provides us with important context for reading the New Testament. As is well known, such hopes for a new priest and a new cult continued well into Jesus’ day (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls, which details the activity of priests in the eschatological age in various ways).

Indeed, it is important to note that there are no Jewish sources that reject the expectation of a future temple cult! There are variations on what it would involve, but such hopes are ubiquitous—from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Josephus. Even Philo, who spiritualizes the meaning of the temple, nevertheless never rejected the Jerusalem cult!

In short, the evidence suggests that a vision of the new covenant age without a cult and priesthood would be, by definition, un-Jewish. Given the evidence, it simply isn't plausible to think an ancient Jew in Jesus' day would entertain such expectations.

With that we come to the all important question: Did Jesus reject such hopes for a new priesthood and a new cult? Did he believe—unlike every other Jewish source we know of—that the eschatological age would mean the end of an ordained priesthood and cultic worship? 

I don’t think that’s what the New Testament suggests. But we’ll deal with that evidence in the next post.

[1] Dwight W. Van Winkle, “An Inclusive Authoritative Text in Exclusive Communities,” in Writing and Reading the Scroll of Isaiah (eds. C. C. Broyles and C. A. Evans; Leiden: Brill, 1997), 425 [423–40]. 


Anonymous said...

Isa 66:18-21 is a difficult passage, but v. 21 seems to express the hope that in the future, some foreigners will come to Zion and function as priests and Levites.

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