Priesthood and the epistle to the hebrews

Heythrop Journal 38 (1):51–62 (1997)

Abstract

Current controversies about the ordination of women have shown the need for a re‐examination of what the Christian Church means by priesthood. This article looks at the Epistle to the Hebrews’ contribution to our understanding. To that end it focuses on the institution of priesthood in its first‐century Jewish context and shows the use made of it by the author of Hebrews in his presentation of Christian faith.Section 1 emphasizes some all‐important differences between the NT’s use of the language of priesthood and ours. Not least, it nowhere uses “priest” to designate Christian ministers. All the more striking, therefore, is Hebrews’ depiction of Jesus as “high priest”.Section 2 discusses Judaism’ Day of Atonement ceremonies – Hebrews’ dominant cultic model. In the comparison drawn between Christ’s death and exaltation with these rites, he becomes not only the high priest but also the expiatory victim.As far as Judaism’ cultic institutions are concerned, however, Jesus was not and never could be a priest, since he was of the tribe of Judah rather than Levi. Hence Hebrews appeals to Melchizedek. How this non‐Israelite model is used by Hebrews to subvert the whole notion of priesthood as caste is discussed in section 3.Finally, in section 4 Isaacs concludes that for Hebrews there is no longer a role for an ongoing priesthood, since Jesus has definitively achieved access to God, which was its raison d’être. Melchizedekian high priesthood is unique to Christ; neither inherited nor transmitted. Hence, unlike other NT authors, for Hebrews even the church as a corporate body is not a priesthood. As its closing chapters show, in this Epistle the cultic model gives way to the more inclusive one of pilgrimage

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