Textual Echos of Priesthood

The assignment was to discuss the ways that “priesthood” is echoed in the Gospel of Luke. I didn’t quite buy it. I was left either writing a paper I could not support or, else, ranting a bit. I tried to do a middle course and follow Thomas Aquinas: take the opposing position seriously and then state my objections and my own argument for my position.

JMJ

The Church has traditionally seen in Christ a threefold ministry or office. These functions, prophet, priest, and king, are called the “three munera” from the Latin munus which means “office”. These roles can be seen beginning in Adam and recurring through the Old Testament until they are fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah. In 1 Corinthians 15:45, Jesus is called the “Last Adam”. As the new Adam, we should see Jesus fulfilling the functions traditionally assigned to Adam but lost in the Sin of Eden. “Fulfilled” here means not only that they were prophesied in the past, but also that they are “filled up” in Jesus in a way that they were not previously. The Messiah fulfills (to a superfluity) all that is needed. When we see Adam and what he is described as doing in Eden, before the Fall, we see Man as we were intended to be. Christ is that man.

A comment in The Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture sidebar notes that “modern biblical scholarship has generally been skeptical that Christ is portrayed as a priest in this and other Gospel passages”, although recent scholarship has opened up some to this reading. The present writer numbers himself among the former, “modern” group that does not see. In this paper, we will be concerned with the munera of priest, but there will be more of a struggle than an exploration. Hebrews, especially in Chapter 7, presents a full argument on the priesthood of Jesus (“after the Order of Melchizedek” v.17, etc). Does the Gospel of St Luke (and all the Gospels generally) contain textual echoes of Christ in the role of priest in the way that, primarily, we see him most clearly in the book of Hebrews?

A book we referred to often in the previous class is of some help here. Bible Basics for Catholics by John Bergsma helps us trace the role of priest, prophet, and king through the different covenants in the scriptures.

Bergsma sees priesthood in the verbs used to describe what Adam does: “What else does the Bible tell us about Adam? Genesis 2 tells us that God planted a garden in Eden and placed Adam there “to till it and keep it”. There’s a bit of a word play going on here. In the Hebrew language, this phrase is literally “to serve (it) and guard (it).” It is uncommon to find these two verbs together in the Bible. We will not find them together again until much later, in Numbers 3:7-8 where are the two verbs – “serve” and “guard” – together describe what the priests do in the place of worship. For the ancient reader, Adam’s commission “to serve and guard” in the garden would have had a priestly sound to it.” (p 20-21.)

Adam is appointed by God to name the animals, which Bergsma sees as part of Adam’s Kingly function. Orthodox theologian, the late Fr Alexander Schmemann, sees this naming as also part of Adam’s priesthood also. Like Bergsma, Schmemann understands naming as a revelation of the very essence of the thing. Naming, then, is a eucharistic act: when Adam says, “this is an elephant” or “you are a dog” it is as constitutive as when Jesus or our pastors say, “This is my body.”

“The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973, p15.)

In these two descriptions, we can see three different priestly functions – speaking (to bless, to name), serving, and guarding (or keeping). Blessing and naming is, in fact, one of the things Jesus does most – not only in Luke but in all the Gospels. If one includes healing and exorcism under the rubric of “blessing” then almost the entire record of Jesus work is, by this light, priestly. This abundance of blessing seems to be a primary argument for these echoes of priesthood in the text.

While blessing, serving, and guarding are functions of priesthood in the Church, are these three verbs an argument for priesthood of Christ?

Bergsma notes that priesthood is a bit harder to find (p. 128). “Jesus’ role as priest is harder to see, but he says it is there. For example, he cites the Pharisees challenge Jesus for breaking their Sabbath rules about rest. Jesus replies, “Have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? (Mt 12:5) Jesus points out that priests are allowed to work on the holy days; in fact, they have to. The implication is that Jesus himself is a priest and has priestly rights.” In the footnote to this section (p. 175) the reader is directed to p. 108 of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: from the baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. Finding nothing on that page, I read the entire section (pp 106-112) entitled, “The Dispute Concerning the Sabbath”.

The passage is a sort of dialogue with another text, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (1993), by the late Rabbi Jacob Neusner. The Pope Emeritus is analyzing the Rabbi’s response to Matthew 12:1-8 where Jesus is questioned about his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. This event is also recorded in Luke 6:1-5. At issue is the question of violating the Sabbath by work. In Luke, Jesus says that David and his companions ate the bread reserved for priests so – sometimes – situations may require that laws change (or be broken). “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”. In Matthew, Jesus’ reply notes also that priests work on the Sabbath without actually breaking the Sabbath. Both readings can seem to indicate that Jesus is claiming priestly dignity (either to eat the bread of the presence or to work on the Sabbath) for himself and his disciples. The Rabbi thinks the issue of violating the Sabbath is not the point. “What troubles me, therefore, is not that the disciples do not obey one of the rules of the Sabbath. That is trivial and beside the point” (p.107). The issue is one of authority, but not priestly authority.

Over the course of the textual conversation, though, Rabbi Neusner and Pope Benedict come to the conclusion not that Jesus is a priest, but something altogether more than a priest. As the conversation between the Pope and the Rabbi continues the Rabbi comes to the conclusion that Christ is putting himself the place of the Torah itself and then asks, “Is your master God?” (p. 110). Christians would reply to that question with a strong affirmation. Indeed there is something more than a priest here. In one sentence on p. 108 of the Razinger text the Rabbi is quoted as saying that Jesus and his disciples now “stand in the place of the priests” but it is not as priests that they stand there rather it is replacing the priests. I think that’s why Bergsma and others find “Jesus’ role as priest is harder to see”: he is so much more than a priest or a prophet that those are eclipsed. While these functions are present in the Messiah, it’s as God-Man that he moves through the text. He is fulfilling the older priesthood – making it something more by the fact that he is not a priest, but God.

We – as his church, as human beings, need the munera all broken out. The Catechism, in ¶871-913, gives a full description of the priesthood of Christ and how the Laity participates in all of its functions. Ordained ministers are called specific types within this general class. Thus Jesus, as God, offers us (his Church) participation in his Divine-Human Messiahship in the form of the munera in the Church. To see the fullness of Christ in liturgy, one would want to see a Mass served in the presence of a Bishop (“pontifical” Mass) by presbyters and deacons together with the fullness of participation from the laity. There are all the baptized orders of the Church (laity, bishops, priests, and deacons) present the fullness of Christ’s body in action. So Christ, in the Gospel, does something more than priests do. In his Sacrifice on the Cross or giving us the gift of His own Body and Blood at the Last Supper we see Christ as a king (Bishop), as a leader (Presbyter), and also as a servant (Deacon). He’s not a priest as 1st Century Jews understood this – or at least I do not see it – but he is God doing these things.

This leads to one other issue with such a reading, especially in the context of St Luke: Why would Luke be using a typography from the Jewish Scriptures? Luke is generally seen pointing to Christ as a Gentile writing for other Gentiles. If the Messiah is presented as “filling up” the role of a priest, would it not make more sense for him to use the typography of Greco-Roman sources? Making references to obscure Jewish hints (even ones available in Greek) seems to miss the mark. Mind you, it would be very surprising to see them, but if the argument is for Jesus to be a priest, wouldn’t the evangelist take the culture of the intended audience into account? Are those hints even there in the Greek, though?

To go back to Genesis and the command to Adam in the garden, the Hebrew words cited by Bergsma from Genesis 2:15 are to work/serve עָבַד avad – Strong’s #5647 and to keep שָׁמַר shamar – Strong’s #8104. (I’m citing Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible which numbers each Greek and Hebrew root word used in the Bible and makes it possible to find other occurrences of the same word or words.) In the Septuagint they are translated into Greek. They are to work ἐργάζομαι ergazomai – Strong’s #2038 – and to keep/guard φυλάσσω phulasso – Strong’s #5442. These two Greek words are not found together at all in the New Testament. There is a whole rabbit warren of interesting verses linked with each of those words individually, but none of them tie to priesthood or directly to Jesus.

What might be going on with the arguments that some make, seeing priesthood for Christ in the Gospels? One possibility may be the perceived need to see everything Catholics do in the text. “Where is that in the Bible?” is a common question addressed to Catholics by both Protestants and non-Christians. We must remember ¶108 in the Catechism.

Still, the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living”. If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, “open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures.”

We do not follow the letter of the text. We do not need to find “our stuff” in the literal content nor are we under obligation to do so! That said, the present writer is not willing to dismiss the argument entirely: only to say it’s not textual. There are other arguments based on “textual echoes” as was presented in our last class (viz taxes). Is it possible to “hear” what might be in the mind of a 1st Century Jewish or Gentile listener? Or only possible to suggest it? It seems only the latter – even though it might be a great support for one’s argument. Yet this is not infallible: there is a “textual echo” argument, for example, which implies the story of the Centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5–13, Luke 7:1–10) indicates blessing a same-sex relationship. Such textual echoes seem, to this writer, to depend less on the text and more on the ears of the hearer.

Another – and to this writer’s mind better – argument might be the Holy Spirit and the Catholic practice of contemplating on the scriptures. Again, in ¶108, “the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, ‘open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures.’” As a reader prays in the Spirit and meditates on the scriptures, by God’s grace things may unfold in the mind to help further understand the content. Although these are perfectly valid – coming from the same Spirit that wrote the scriptures and formed the mind of the contemplator – they are not in the text but are rather the fruit of contemplation which may be passed on for the edification of others if they find it useful. In that light, while the present writer doesn’t find this material useful, others may be blessed by it.

There are places in the New Testament where Jesus is described as a priest: the Epistle to the Hebrews is foremost. But the Gospels seem to be concerned with proclaiming him as God. Jesus spends much of his time blessing and naming: exorcising, healing, and pronouncing clean. While these are the actions of a priest, they are also the actions of the Incarnate God in his person. He doesn’t need a priest to mediate the actions and doesn’t need to be a priest in himself. This enriches the prayer life also, but – perhaps – in a way more akin to Occam’s razor, it is the “more simple” reading here. Why is Jesus not subject to the purity laws or to restrictions around Sabbath? Because he replaces the Torah by fulfilling it – as Rabbi Neusner asks (Ratzinger, op cit p.110), “I ask again – is your master God?” Yes.

In closing, Pope Benedict’s book cited this meditation/dialogue from the Rabbi on pages 104-5. He cites the Talmudic tradition that there are 613 commandments in on Sinai (the Talmud says there are 365 “do not’s” or negative ones, coinciding with the number of days in the solar year, and there are 248 positive commandments or “do’s”, a number ascribed to the parts of the body). These were condensed, in various steps, down to the greatest commandments. The rabbi then notes that Jesus reported all this. He did not subtract anything but – Rabbi Neusner adds, perhaps saying more than he knows or wishes to say – Jesus did add something: “Himself.”

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He feeds the homeless and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

%d bloggers like this: