Addendum: the Power of the Death of the Anointed High Priest

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by Neil Godfrey

I should have added the following to my latest post.

In previous posts I’ve discussed the implication of an anointed one (i.e. messiah, or in Greek, christ) being identified with the high priest:

If some Jewish groups in the early first century identified a messianic figure with the high priest as his template then then one must almost inevitably consider the possibility that they accepted that such a messianic figure would die. And that death would have a saving power if precedent be any guide:

Numbers 35:25

and the congregation shall deliver the manslayer out of the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge, whither he was fled: and he shall dwell therein until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil.

Barabbas the murderer was freed at the time of the death of Jesus. If Jesus were being depicted as a high priestly messiah then that would perhaps be ironically appropriate.

I am not suggesting the messianic figure must be either a king or a priest. We know some Jewish sects combined the two into one figure or they had two messiahs, one for each. But the high priestly associations do alert us to the fact that it was not such a strange idea among Jews that a messianic figure should die.


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10 thoughts on “Addendum: the Power of the Death of the Anointed High Priest”

  1. Neil,

    Within the context of the Jesus-Barabbas story, who was “the avenger of blood”? Rome? Can the freeing of Barabbas be viewed as demonstrating the people’s fidelity to the edict of Numbers 35:25, that the simple act of following God’s law resulted in the death of Jesus?

    Interesting puzzle. Thanks.

    1. I haven’t thought through the Barabbas murderer and high priest death link — it was just something that came to me as I was writing the post. Mark does go out of his way to say Barabbas had committed murder, but as for any further implications beyond the suggestiveness of the idea that crossed my mind I really have nothing to say — unfortunately. It might be interesting (or not?) to do a study on it — perhaps there are puns in the words used as is often the case in Mark’s gospel; perhaps some literary structural clue — to see if any clear association can be found and understood in a meaningful way.

  2. Was going to bring this up a few days back, but couldn’t phrase it intelligently enough. However, in Numbers, the High Priest’s death only atoned the blood of someone who killed inadvertently; not someone who was guilty of murder. Also, even an inadvertent killer could be slain without blood guilt if they departed the refuge city before the High Priest’s death. However, it is noteworthy that the death of an anointed does have an atoning value.

    I’m sure you’ve read it, but for those who haven’t, Thomas L. Thompson’s article ‘The Messiah Epithet in the Hebrew Bible’ (in the book Biblical Narrative and Palestine’s History: Changing Perspectives 2) broaches this along with other themes (Jesus is not the focus of the article).

    1. @scherben,

      I have the book and will make sure to take a look at the article again.

      It is not clear to me that Barrabas killed anyone himself or, if he did, that he did not do so inadvertently. The accusations of him being a murderer seem to be made in conjunction with him starting a riot (insurrection). I don’t know what Roman law was at the time, but according to modern law, if you are the getaway driver for a bank robbing gang, if another bank robber kills somebody inside the bank, you are guilty of murder because you are part of the gang, even if you did not participate in or intend that result. The idea that the author of the Barabbas story may have intended to demonstrate the irony that following Jewish law subverted Roman law in a manner that resulted in the death of Jesus is a very interesting one to me. It is a much more subtle accusation of the Jews’ responsibility for Jesus’s death, which always struck me as misguided.

      1. On the subject of irony in Jesus’s death, Fr. John Paul Heil is of the opinion that Matthew 27:5 “And all the people said, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!“, is intended to show that Jesus’s blood saves rather than condemns the crowds; it forgives even as they pronounce guilt upon themselves. http://faculty.cua.edu/heil/Articles/Blood%20of%20Jesus.pdf. I apologise for wandering off topic slightly, but I really like this reading.

    2. Given the price of the book it will be a little while before I see it but fortunately I have read the article from its publication in a 2001 journal. Yes, I cannot deny that some of my thinking on the messiah concept has been influenced by Thompson. It’s a long time since I’ve read extensively on this topic and am wondering if I will still think the same way if I relaunch my interest now. It’s something I do need to look at more carefully afresh. Carrier has led me to question some of my older ideas and provided an extensive reading list. Not saying I will change my mind — I simply don’t know yet what I might think about this a year from now.

      1. On that last sentence — whether or not Jesus existed, the OHJ book has certainly provided two awesome things:

        — Those big background information sections, a great resource on NT context and one that includes some points that the guild has let drop not because they were ever wrong or irrelevant but merely out-of-fashion and less useful to current agendas. (Ironically, the best probability I ever gave to Carrier’s hypothesis being true was when I had finished the background information but had yet to start the evidence chapters.)

        — A bibliography, one filtered and commented upon (in passing) by a skeptic, up-to-date, and due to the scope of the work, a large and comprehensive one at that.

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