In this series, I attempt to assess Second-Temple-era Jewish messianic expectation. Start at Part I or see all parts in the series.
The case for Jesus as a messianic priest figure is most explicitly laid out in the anonymous letter to the Hebrews. The author devotes a chapter to framing Jesus as a High Priest. The key, the writer says, is that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.”1 The High Priest, he goes on to say, is selected by God to represent humanity and must be called—so he must be anointed and endowed with special divine authority.
The author appeals to Psalm 110, considered one of the most clearly eschatological messianic in the Psalter: “You are a priest forever,” writes the Psalmist, “in the order of Melchizedek.” Melchizedek is the King of Salem and a priest of YHWH who meets Abraham (at the time still Abram) and blesses the patriarch with a sacrifice of bread and wine. Abraham then volunteers a tenth of all of his possessions to Melchizedek as a show of respect.
Importantly to the author of Hebrews, Melchizedek is a clear type of the messiah and, furthermore, that Jesus fits that role. He lays out three main relevant reasons in the seventh and eighth chapters of Hebrews: First, Melchizedek’s name means “King of Righteousness.” Second, his kingship was over Salem, which is to say that he was the “King of Peace.”2 The author of Hebrews would likely point to prophetic scripture such as Isaiah 9 and the foretelling of the messiah as a “Prince of Peace” who establishes a kingdom of righteousness as confirmation of this connection.3 Finally, the writer reads the lack of biographical or genealogical information on Melchizedek as a suggestion of timelessness and eternity. Melchizedek as a character lacks parents or context, and is thus in a sense begotten in the text rather than made by his parents—along this same vein, the messiah, as a priest in Melchizedek’s order, is eternal. “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God,” the writer tells us, “he remains a priest forever.”4
The author of Hebrews makes his case for why this eternal priest is important; essentially, a priest who lives forever and is blameless is the strongest possible advocate for humankind. It is ultimately in Jesus’ sacrifice, the author of Hebrews tells his Jewish audience, that Jesus fulfills the role of the High Priest. He sidesteps the sacral system to express the truth of sacrifice more boldly, decisively, and eternally: Jesus lays down the sacrifice not in a temple made with hands but rather in the space after which the earthly temple is modeled; he offers not a sinless though dumb animal, but rather himself—a fully conscious, fully sinless Self. “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” Indeed, Jesus’ sacrifice almost becomes the Platonic Ideal of the Sacrifice, and Christ the Ideal of the High Priest. He is at the heart of a covenant sealed not in the blood of a third party animal but rather in the blood of God and the High Priest himself.
These are only some of the parallels—indeed, early Jewish Christians would certainly have seen the connection between the wine and bread offered by both Melchizedek and Christ; and as active participants in the Hebrew sacral system, their appreciation for the centrality of bloodshed to a covenant with God would be only greater than our own.5
Still, while it is clear and relatively straightforward to draw these ties, we must be wary of submitting to ex post facto theologizing if our concern is truly to discern what Jewish Christians at the time thought. Fortunately, Hebrews is a relatively early snapshot of some Jewish Christian thought. Though its authorship is unknown, it is very likely that it was written before 70 CE, or else the writer most certainly would have folded the destruction of the Second Temple into his argument to a Jewish audience. Moreover, there are clear references to the active practice of Jewish sacrifice.6 7 It is difficult to imagine that these would be unaddressed were the text from after the razing of the temple.
Even with a legitimately dated Hebrews, there seems to be very little in the Levitical texts that feature the High Priest most prominently to suggest a significant High-Priest dimension to an eschatological High-Priest figure. “[N]owhere does the Pentateuch or any succeeding Old Testament text suggest that when the faithful in Israel worshiped at the tabernacle or later in the temple, they looked to the Aaronic high priest as a foreshadowing of a future messianic high priest” in the same way as they might have for kings of the Davidic line, writes Block.8
Some scholars concur with him on this point, but relatively recent discoveries as well as non-canonical Jewish texts suggest otherwise. The future high priest “is a central eschatological figure in much of the Qumran literature,” writes Hays, citing the work of Marinus de Jonge.9 While this by no means establishes the eschatological high priest as a popular type that people expected of a messiah figure, it—along with Hebrews—does prove that the notion did exist at the time and that some in Roman Judea were watching actively for it.
1 Hebrews 4:15
2 Hebrews 7:2
3 Isaiah 9:6-7
4 Hebrews 7:3
5 Mark 14:22-25
6 Hebrews 9:6-10; 10:1-4
7 The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1992. v. 3, 97.
8 Block, Daniel. “My Servant David: Ancient Israel’s Vision for the Messiah” in Israel’s Messiah in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2003. 33.
9 Hays, J. Daniel. “If He Looks Like a Prophet and Talks like a Prophet, Then He Must Be…” in Israel’s Messiah in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2003. 68.