Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah in the Gospel of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

Holman_The_Holy_of_HoliesI am going to have to re-read and re-think the Gospel of Mark. I have just read a two-part article in 2007 issues of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, “Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah”, Parts 1 and 2, by Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis.

The article adds some weight, I think, to the plausibility of the existence of pre-Christian Jewish sects who expected a messiah who must die. But the article doesn’t go that far at all. That’s an inference I draw from it.

This post skims the surface of a few of the points raised by Fletcher-Louis. (Caveat: F-L is interested in assessing what the historical Jesus himself must have thought of his own identity and role; my take is entirely on how and why the same data has been woven by the author into the Gospel’s larger theme.)

We know the importance of the Book of Daniel to Gospel of Mark. Jesus identifies himself with the Son of Man figure of Daniel 7 before the high priest; Jesus infers he is the same figure who will return from the heavens in the end-times in Mark 13; and there are other allusions. The evangelist introduces the Daniel 7 Son of Man figure early: we learn from the beginning that Jesus, speaking as the Son of Man, has the power to forgive sins and is Lord of the Sabbath. (I am aware scholars interested in a presumed historical figure behind the narrative argue that the “son of man” in these early chapters is an Aramaic circumlocution for an ordinary mortal. My interest is in the thematic significance of the phrase in the gospel itself, however.)

I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. (Daniel 7:13)

So what is the connection between Daniel 7 and a high priest?

Once the essentially temple-centred world of Jewish apocalyptic literature is appreciated, a new perspective on the problem of the identity of  the ‘one like a son of man’ of Dan. 7.13 emerges.’

This figure is neither a purely suprahuman angel nor is he simply a symbol for Israel and her coming vindication. Rather, this individual is Israel’s true eschatological high priest.

His coming to God with the clouds evokes the Day of Atonement when the high priest enters God’s presence surrounded by clouds of incense. The scene in Daniel 7 recalls the age-old Chaoskampf when God does battle with the forces of watery chaos and climactically defeats them at his holy mountain.

Where it used to be the king, as the representative of the nation, to whom God then delegated all (cosmic and historical) authority, now it is Israel’s high priest who receives, sacramentally so to speak, that authority on Israel’s behalf He does so as the truly human being—the image of God of Gen. 1.26-27—over against the bestial nations.^ Their being is grounded in chaos whence they emerge. His being is taken up into the life of God himself.

Indeed, his heavenly, cloud-borne, appearance—that is sometimes adduced as evidence that he is an angel—befits his high priesthood since in so many ways that is a divine office. He comes to God as if he is the divine warrior. And as near-contemporary texts show, on his return to the people from the inner sanctuary the high priest is a plenipotentiary of God’s own power and Glory: he comes from ‘heaven’ back to ‘earth’. The implicit liturgical scene fits the text’s life-setting: the day that the high priest fully comes to God is Yom Kippur and this is also the day that provides a cosmic purification of a world that has been defiled by pagan impurities.

This high priestly reading of Daniel 7 is natural for Jews who inhabited the world of temple and liturgy that modem scholarship has been so hesitant to enter.  (pp. 57-59)

A concluding sentence at the end of a lengthy footnote informs me that “the Pentateuch sets up Aaron as the true Adam”. That’s something I need to investigate. The same passage concludes from this that it would thus be more likely that the Septuagint of Numbers 24:7, 17 — with its explicit reference to the human nature of a future figure commonly interpreted as messianic — predicts “a priest or a priest and a king” than a king per se.

But let that be by the by for now.

The high priest interpretation of the Son of Man in Daniel 7 was well understood in the first century among the earliest Christians, Fletcher-Louis informs us:

Revelation 1:13-16 — Jesus appears as the Son of Man dressed in the “distinctive foot-length robe and golden girdle worn by the high priest on the Day of Atonement” (Lev. 16:4; Josephus, Ant. 3.153-55, 159)

Mark 8:38; 13:26 — Given that it is the high priest who is clothed in and embodies “divine glory and theophanic power” more than any other figure (Exod. 28:2, 40; Sirach 50:7; 2 Enoch 22:8; 4Q405 23 ii) — and that it is the high priest who “represents the divine warrior” — we would be right to see the coming Son of Man in the Gospel prophecies as a high priestly figure.

The Gospels also associate the Son of Man with the risk of blasphemy (Mark 14:62-64; Luke 12:10). Slandering the representative of God occupying the office that bore the image of God was worthy of death.

Luke 17:24 associates the Son of Man with thunder and lightning, trappings of glory worn by the high priest: 

So too the high priest (according to Josephus) appears as the divine warrior surrounded by thunder and lightning that are symbolized by his pomegranates and golden bells (War 5.231; Ant. 3.184).

(I leave aside for now certain beliefs among some sects that the Son of Man was expected to suffer.)

The Ransom Puzzle

Another indicator of the Son of Man being identified with the high priest is found in Mark 10:45

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give [δοῦναι] his life as a ransom [λύτρον] for [ἀντὶ] many.

Fletcher-Louis, p. 60, is interesting:

This saying has puzzled commentators because, whilst direct linguistic associations to the suffering servant song of Isaiah 53 are lacking, it is really hard to know what Jesus means. The saying is difficult in large part because the use of the word λύτρον for a human person, rather than for a pecuniary object, is almost unprecedented.

The only parallel to someone giving themselves as this kind of ‘ransom’, is the stipulation in Numbers 3 that the tribe of Levi is to be given (in 3.9 the tribe are δόμα δεδομένοι, ‘given for a gift’) to serve (3.7-8: לַעֲבֹ֖ד, LXX has ἐργάζεσθαι ‘to work’) in the sanctuary where they are to act as ransom monies (λύτρα) in place of (vv. 12,41, 45, ἀντὶ) the lives of the firstborn of the tribes of Israel.

That the Son of Man should act as a λύτρον is therefore fitting if he is of priestly (or Levitical) pedigree.

And a connection between Dan. 7.13 and Numbers 3 is perhaps also forged through the common use of the verbal root קרב ‘draw near’.

The Levites in Num. 3.6 are ‘brought near (הַקְרֵב֙)’ to serve as a ransom for Israel’s firstborn, just as in Dan. 7.13 the one like a son of man ‘came to the Ancient of Days and they brought him near (הַקְרְבֽוּהִי) to him’.

Then there’s another tantalising suggestion in a footnote here:

The sacrificial use of the haphel of קרב, at for example Ezra 6.10, 17, indicates that some might have thought that the ‘one like a son of man’ was sacrificially ‘offered’ to the Ancient of Days (see M. Barker, The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: T.&T. Clark Intemational, 2003, p. 82, and compare the Greek of Theodotian. . . . For the high priest sacrificing himself see Philo, Somn. 2.183, 249; cf. Leg. 2.56.

So Fletcher-Louis informs us that there are many suggestions in the gospels (not all covered in this post) — and we need to add that suggestions are also found outside the gospels — to lead us to understand that Daniel’s Son of Man (who also moves with ease between heaven and earth) is best seen in high priestly terms.

Jesus’ Priesthood: The Programmatic Picture of Mark 1-6

Mark 1.14-6.13 can fairly be treated as a literary unit that is programmatic for the Markan, and the synoptic, profiles of Jesus’ ministry. It contains a great deal that the synoptics have in common with John. It summarizes the key characteristics of the ministry whilst providing stories that exemplify and provide a theological foundation for his distinctive behaviour.

  1. Jesus announces the gospel, the good news: “the time has been fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has drawn near”.
  2. Jesus calls the twelve to symbolize the renewed Israel. Jesus is restoring Israel. These twelve extend the mission of Jesus.
  3. Jesus casts out demons; he heals (and raises the dead) often by a mere command, but other times by touch.
  4. Jesus is able to forgive sins.
  5. Jesus behaves on the sabbath in ways that cause offence and are regarded as breach of the law.
  6. Jesus teaches.
  7. Jesus is opposed by some who want to kill him.

Now see how each of these fulfils a high priestly function. But first I need some sleep. Will spread out some of the explanatory details tomorrow evening.



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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah in the Gospel of Mark”

  1. When I read: ‘A concluding sentence at the end of a lengthy footnote informs me that “the Pentateuch sets up Aaron as the true Adam”’, I thought of Dr Margaret Barker, and the claim that in rabbinic literature the Temple’s structure represents the days of creation – the Holy of Holies is day one, the veil is the firmament of day two, etc… and the High Priest himself is Adam.

    1. Adding to Timothy’s observation, this fits nicely with 1 Cor 15:42-49, the “first man” was of the earth, the “second man” was heavenly. The first man was the earthly high priest which is replaced by the heavenly high priest, Jesus. This appears to fit well with Carrier’s observations that the temple sacrificial system was a copy of the more perfect heavenly sacrifice of Jesus in the heavenly tabernacle.

  2. I can’t help but wonder how Mark can be so familiar with the intricacies of Temple ritual after the razing of the Temple. Wouldn’t he have had to write pretty soon after 70 in that case?

    Secondly, if he does intend to invoke this Temple imagery in his audience, don’t they too need to be situated fairly close to the destruction of the Temple in both time and space? Would a Roman audience have twigged to these allusions?

    1. Josephus wrote Antiquities in the 90s and that’s where Doherty situates Mark, and Carrier places it earlier than that if I recall. But I am not so sure — the references in Mark to the Temple were all familiar in other Jewish literature. No doubt such passages were spoken about even among Jews who had never or only rarely even visited Jerusalem. Given that the physical Temple was only a copy of the heavenly reality such conversations were surely inevitable. Rabbis could write about the same things long after the events of 70.

      On the other hand, what raises my interest is the apparent conflict between the supposed evidence of the ignorance of things Jewish among Mark’s audience (he supposedly needed to explain various rituals) while at the same time we have deep assumptions about things Jewish that would surely be missed by such an audience without explicit explanation.

  3. For what is worth my view, it seems that all this talk about Temple and Hig Priest very reminiscent of Epistle of Hebrews. Roger Parvus thinks that Hebrews was a proto-orthodox epistle, and the proto-orthodox are not very Jewish in a strict sense . . .

  4. It seems to me that Mark was the proto-orthodox one. Mark brought Jesus down to earth. Hebrews leaves the Jesus-priest in the celestial realm. Notice the “if” word: “Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all” (8.4).

  5. Jesus as “ransom.”

    That still tends to go also with the Gnostic idea of Jesus, doesn’t it? One who ransomed the prisoners of the Demiurge to the “higher, Good God.”

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