How the Gospel of Mark Portrays Jesus as High Priest

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by Neil Godfrey

Crispin Fletcher-Louis
Crispin Fletcher-Louis (CrispinFL Blog) See the previous post for the bibliographic details of the article this post is exploring.

Continuing from Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah in the Gospel of Mark . . . .

The Holy One of God

In the first dramatic miracle performed by Jesus, the expelling of the demon from a man in a Capernaum synagogue, Jesus is addressed as “the holy one of God”.

Mark 1:

21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God (ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ)!

Who or what is “the holy one of God”? It’s not a title of a king. Nor of a prophet, although in 2 Kgs 49 and Judg 16.7 we read of Elisha and Samson respectively being called “a holy one”. Crispin Fletcher-Louis:

God is Israel’s Holy One. And angels are often called holy ones. But the only precedent for a singular ‘the Holy One of God’ is Aaron (Ps. 106.16; Num. 16.7 ‘the holy one (of the LORD’), who dramatically wins the right to the title in the battle with Korah and his rebellious company in Numbers 16. (p. 63)

It might prove interesting to study this exorcism in Mark in comparison with the Korah-Aaron contest. That’s an aside, however.

Three Forms of Impurity; Three Healings

Numbers 5 lists together three forms of impurity that require anyone becoming defiled to be removed from the Israelite camp:

The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Command the Israelites to send away from the camp anyone who has a defiling skin disease or a discharge of any kind, or who is ceremonially unclean because of a dead body. 3 Send away male and female alike; send them outside the camp so they will not defile their camp, where I dwell among them.” 4 The Israelites did so; they sent them outside the camp. They did just as the Lord had instructed Moses.

In the same sequence Jesus

  • heals a leper (Mark 1:40-45)
  • heals a woman with twelve year flow of menstrual blood (Mark 5:25-34)
  • and raises a young girl from the dead (Mark 5:35-43)

In each case Jesus heals or restores through touch. He not only heals but removes ceremonial defilement. The Law declared anyone who touched those in any of these three conditions was unclean and would require various ritual washings to be restored to the community.

So when Jesus heals by physically touching in each of these three cases there is clear significance. Mark showed that Jesus could well enough heal by command alone. He did not need to touch. The touching was evidently conveying a particular message to readers/hearers of the gospel. (There is no reason to assume Mark was describing various medical or psychosomatic processes as some have suggested.)

Some scholars have interpreted Jesus’ acts of touching these people as messages that the ritual laws were no longer relevant, that Jesus disregarded them. Others have assumed that Jesus would have observed the required washings and periods of social exclusion after touching these persons. It did not have to be stated.

On the other hand, there is now an emerging consensus championed by B. Chilton (and taken up by M. Bockmuehl, Craig Evans and Joel Marcus among others) that a third way through these two alternatives best explains Jesus’ behaviour. The way Jesus heals means that, instead of the contagion of impurity flowing from impure to pure, it flows from pure to impure.

Or, in the words of the narrator at Mk 5.30, after Jesus is touched by the haemorrhaging woman, ‘…aware that power had gone out from him, Jesus turned in the crowd and said “who touched me?'”. Because Jesus purifies through his power to heal it is not he who contracts impurity; rather, it is the woman who contracts purity.

This means that Mark’s Jesus did respect the distinction between impure and pure but, because he is so supercharged with purity, he is not contaminated by impurity and does not need to go through the requisite rites of purification. The historical Jesus may well have undertaken those rites. But the fact that he expressly tells the purified leper to present himself to the priest in accordance with Torah, whilst nothing is said of Jesus’ own submission to purification rites, expresses the early Christian view that Jesus thought them unnecessary in his own case. (pp. 65-66)

We see how the high priest’s garments and touch had this power in the Old Testament.

The High Priest’s Contagious Holiness

Ezekiel 44:19

“When they go out into the outer court, into the outer court to the people, they shall put off their garments in which they have been ministering and lay them in the holy chambers; then they shall put on other garments so that they will not transmit holiness to the people with their garments.

In Exodus 30:29 anything that is touched by the holy oil (including the high priest’s garments) becomes holy.

In the Wisdom of Solomon (called as a witness to first century Jewish ideas) we read that Aaron the high priest went out among the people in his priestly garments that were normally forbidden to be worn outside the sanctuary) and it is something about those clothes that empowers him to overcome the destroying angel:

18:20 Yea, the tasting of death touched the righteous also, and there was a destruction of the multitude in the wilderness: but the wrath endured not long.

18:21 For then the blameless man made haste, and stood forth to defend them; and bringing the shield of his proper ministry, even prayer, and the propitiation of incense, set himself against the wrath, and so brought the calamity to an end, declaring that he was thy servant.

18:22 So he overcame the destroyer, not with strength of body, nor force of arms, but with a word (or perhaps “by Logos” — Fletcher-Louis) subdued him that punished, alleging the oaths and covenants made with the fathers.

18:23 For when the dead were now fallen down by heaps one upon another, standing between, he stayed the wrath, and parted the way to the living.

18:24 For in the long garment was the whole world, and in the four rows of the stones was the glory of the fathers graven, and thy Majesty upon the daidem of his head.

18:25 Unto these the destroyer gave place, and was afraid of them: for it was enough that they only tasted of the wrath.

Fletcher-Louis comments:

Wisdom highlights the cosmic significance of the garb and this too probably contributes to Aaron’s ability to withstand the power of death. As an embodiment of the perfect order and beauty of the cosmos, Aaron withstands the forces of death, which would undo that order in the lives of the Israelites, Aaron’s clothing gives him a sacramental power over death . . . 

The high priest’s garments emanate a cosmic power that overcomes the physical presence of disease and death. (p. 68. Italics original bolding mine in all quotes)

So it is interesting to understand this sort of background understanding when we read of a woman being healed by touching Jesus’ clothing.

Compare, then, what we read in Mark 6:56

And wherever he went–into villages, towns or countryside–they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

I have not discussed here the detail of the fringe on the garments that the woman was said to touch. We could explore further the idea of such an item of dress identifying the laity with their priests, but I’ll keep this post focussed on the primary ideas.

Authority to Forgive Sins

We know the story of Jesus healing the paralytic who had been lowered through the roof. Jesus challenges his opponents in the room:

But that ye may know that the Son of man hath authority on earth to forgive sins . . . 

Recall from the previous post that we saw plausible reasons for reading Daniel 7:13 and its description of the Son of Man in the context of the high priest and his role in the Temple. If we continue with that thought then we can understand why Jesus connects the Son of Man title with the power to forgive sins:

You shall make a rosette of pure gold and you shall engrave on it the engravings of a seal ‘holy to Yahweh’ (or, ‘and you shall engrave on it the engravings of a holy seal…), “You shall put it on a blue cord that it may be on the turban, on the front of the turban. It shall be on Aaron’s forehead and Aaron shall bear/remove/forgive … the guilt of the holy things that the sons of Israel sanctify for all their holy donations; it shall always be on his forehead,… (Exodus 28:36-38, Fletcher-Louis)

Then again in Leviticus 10:17

Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and God has given it to you in order that you may remove/forgive … the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement on their behalf before the LORD.


Such passages convey the idea of the high priest having the power to remove guilt, to forgive sins. We know that some Jews took these passages to mean that the high priest’s job was to take away—to forgive—sin because in 2 Enoch 64 his contemporaries come to Enoch at the site of Israel’s future temple, they fall in reverential prostration before him, kiss him and say:

2 Enoch 64.5 You will be glorified in front of the face of the LORD of all eternity, because you are the one whom the LORD chose in preference to all the people upon the earth; and he appointed you…to be the one who carried away the sin of mankind (J recension; A recension has ‘who carries away our sins’) and the helper of your own household.

Enoch has already been installed as high priest in chapter 22 (vv. 8-10) and here he does what Exod. 28.38 and Lev. 10.17 say he should do: he takes away the sin of the people. (p. 73)

Lord of the Sabbath

We know the priests are allowed to work on the sabbath because their Temple duties require it. But Jesus claims the right for his disciples to engage in what others see as work even when they are in a Galilean cornfield — with no obvious relevance to Temple duties.

Jesus’ justification is confusing. His reference to David’s action as a precedent would only be valid if the Galilean cornfield had the same legal status as the Temple.

Mark 2:23-28

And it came to pass, that he was going on the sabbath day through the grainfields; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears.

24 And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?

25 And he said unto them, Did ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was hungry, he, and they that were with him?

26 How he entered into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the showbread, which it is not lawful to eat save for the priests, and gave also to them that were with him?

27 And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath:

28 so that the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.

Fletcher-Louis believes he captures the logic of Jesus’ argument here:

Holiness of place is dependent on the sanctifying presence of [the human embodiment of the divine Glory], perfectly embodied in the (high) priesthood. If Jesus is the true eschatological high priest, then it stands to reason that whereever he may be there rests the sacred space of the true temple. And if David’s men can eat the bread of the presence at a sanctuary at Nob (1 Sam. 21.1), why cannot Jesus set up a new sanctuary for his disciples in the Galilean countryside? (p. 76)

Mark’s narrative adapts the original story in 1 Samuel 21 so that David acts the part of the priest who enters the sanctuary and distributes the old bread to his fellow-priests.

But we still have not yet explained why Jesus calls himself the Lord of the Sabbath.

Jesus says the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. This accords well with the fact that Dan. 7.13 envisages the future arrival of a high priest on the Day of Atonement, that is, the ‘Sabbath of Sabbaths’ (Lev. 16.31; 23.32). Yom Kippur is the day of cosmic purgation when creation recovers its rest; a rest that Jesus now gives to his weary disciples.

Mark 2.27 relates the Son of Man figure to the Adam for whose benefit the Sabbath came about according to Genesis 1. The conceptual transition between verses 27 and 28 is natural within the cultic worldview, where the God-intended humanity of Genesis 1 is recapitulated, and sacramentally reconstituted, in Israel’s priesthood, in the temple-as-microcosm. As true high priest υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου is both ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son of Adam’; the one who extends the Sabbath rest for the good of his fellows.

Jesus justifies his disciples’ breach of the Sabbath because he claims to be a sacral king and high priestly Son of Man. Where he is, in that place there is the transcendent liturgical space and time of the true temple in which his disciples can legitimately act as priests for whom the Sabbath prohibition against work does not apply. (pp. 76-77)

This is an interesting perspective. I need time to think this through more carefully. It changes a lot of things about the way we read the Gospel — and even the Gospel’s place in the origin of Christianity.

But Galilee Is Not the Temple

In Mark 1:15 Jesus proclaims:

The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has drawn near (ἤγγικεν)

Fletcher-Louis raises an old question: what is the precise meaning of the word ἐγγίζω in this context and what is the significance of the perfect tense? His answer is different from anything I had considered before:

I suggest that for Mark the point is that the reality of God’s presence that has hitherto been present primarily in the temple and her priesthood is now available not (just) in Jerusalem but also in the towns and villages of Galilee. Those who go to the temple to worship ‘draw near . . . (to God) (Exod. 16.9; Lev. 9.5; Deut. 4.11; Ps. 65.5 [4]; cf. Exod. 12.48; 4Q400 1 i 6).

And those who are ordained are similarly drawn near (Priests: Exod. 40.12,14; Lev. 7.35; 8.6,13,24; Levities: Num. 3.6; 8.9,10). So, in a narrow sense, only those ordained can draw near to God (Num. 16.5, 9, 10; 17.5; Lev. 21.17).

Now, according to Mark’s Jesus, with the eschatological arrival of the Kingdom of God, the potent reality of God’s presence has proactively drawn near to his people. They no longer need to go to him in Jerusalem to encounter the Kingdom because its reality (forgiveness of sins, the temple’s experience of Sabbath rest and contagious healing holiness) are coming to them. By the same token, the καιρὸς (time) that is now fulfilled is not just eschatological: it is quasi-liturgical (cf. the semantic range of the Hebrew … ‘appointed time, festival, season’). (p. 78)

Wow. If we accept this interpretation then suddenly the Gospel of Mark looks a lot more like the Gospel of John with its “realized eschatology” than is generally imagined. And if so, then we might want to rethink the meaning behind the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 (as I have sometimes tended to do) . . . .

Mark is symbolic. We’ve known that. But now I’m thinking it is far more symbolic at more levels than I had ever contemplated before. ???


Addendum: The death of the high priest — see http://vridar.org/2014/11/10/addendum-the-power-of-the-death-of-the-anointed-high-priest/





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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “How the Gospel of Mark Portrays Jesus as High Priest”

  1. I say all this in regards to your post because the role of ‘high priest’ is specific to 2nd Temple Judaism
    and how it transmits a more obscure ‘history’ of the 1st Temple and earlier Mosaic ‘traditions’. To me, the
    misinterpretation is quite clear, and represents a crucial deflation of current apologetics; what is strictly
    relevant to a certain time period, may become anachronistic in future time periods:

    I see Christianity falling back into late 2nd Temple Rabbinical theology, and that same Judaic period dissolving
    into antiquity, so both dwell where they belong. Current Reformed Judaisms may have some relevant value,
    but if Mark is not what we think it is, and Matthew and Luke are seriously ‘undone’ by a new exegetical view
    of Mark, then 1900 years of Christian doctrine will crumble. Nicene Christianity is for sure, completely artificial
    in terms of a palimpsest of distortions; Papias/Ireneaus leading up to Eusebius/Jerome.

    In other words, Jesus Christ has nothing to do with anyone born after the period of 70ad-130ad?

    IMO, Christianity is a heretical Judaic sect(s) which somehow made it through 1950 years of history.

  2. Hi Neil, I think the following is not entirely correct:

    “- heals a leper (Mark 1:40-45)
    – heals a woman with twelve year flow of menstrual blood (Mark 5:25-34)
    – and raises a young girl from the dead (Mark 5:35-43)
    In each case Jesus heals or restores through touch.”

    It seems to me there are three types of healing with the hands
    – laying on of hands (or fingers in Mark 7:33)
    – touch
    – raise up, taking by the hand

    In my opinion, Markus distinguishes these types quite consistently. The young girl is raised up, taking her by the hand. The deaf mute man (Mark 7:33) is healed inter alia by touching his tongue.

    Greetings, Kunigunde

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