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Priesthood and Jesus' Jewish inspiration

Priesthood and Jesus' Jewish inspiration

by Aaron Milavec

In the following analysis of Jesus' true intentions, I have incorporated some extracts from my latest book: "Salvation Is from the Jews" (John 4:22): Saving Grace in Judaism and Messianic Hope in Christianity, Liturgical Press, July 2007.

1. Jesus as a Jew never imagined that he or any of his disciples were "priests" in a cultic sense.   No priestly ordination is ever mentioned or implied regarding the "do this" at the Last Supper. 

      In the past, the origins of the eucharist were approached by examining Jesus' deliberate intention voiced at the Last Supper to have his disciples "do this in memory of me."  When these words were heard within a horizon of understanding that regarded the sacrament of the eucharist as absolutely unprecedented within Judaism and as absolutely unique to the Christian church, the mandate to "do this" was tantamount to establishing Jesus' direct intention of instituting a sacred rite that immediately and permanently sets the Christian church outside of Judaism. 

     When these same words are heard within a Jewish horizon of understanding, however, the mandate to "do this" can be linked with the divine mandate of Dt 8:10 -- thereby re-establishing the link whereby Jesus as a Jew would have been moved to bless God within the context of a Jewish meal.  The former point of view [in the par. above] takes great care to preserve the uniqueness of the eucharist (and the uniqueness of the Church) by cutting Jesus off from his Jewish roots.  The latter point of view takes care to preserve the uniqueness of Jesus' exemplary mode of table fellowship while allowing that the metaphors and intentionality with which he gave thanks were well within the understanding of the first century Jewish disciples who carried on his tradition.  The former point of view finds it imperative that the narrative of institution focuses exclusively upon what Jesus did and said at the Last Supper.  The latter point of view is content to allow that Jesus and his disciples came to the meal due to a divine mandate to celebrate the Passover or, if multiple meals were involved, the divine mandate to give thanks as found in Dt 8:10. 

 

(from: "Salvation is from the Jews")

2. Jesus never envisioned creating a new order of priesthood to replace the inadequate temple priesthood.  The Christian Church later does this by way of denigrating the Jewish tradition.  At best, one can allow that the Letter to the Hebrews begins this process.

 "Sacrifice permeated the ancient world, and it was a fact of life with which any new religions had to reckon" (Stevenson:11).  In like fashion,  the spiritualization of sacrifice made firm inroads during the first century within both Jewish and gentile attitudes toward sacrifice.  Paul, for instance, at one point, urged Christians "to present your bodies as living sacrifice (thusian), holy and acceptable to God" (Rom 12:1) and, at a later point, he referred to his own "preaching the Gospel" as his "sacrificial/priestly service" (Rom 15:15).

The strongest instance of this is found in the Letter to the Hebrews.  Hebrews argues that, since Jesus was not a Levite, "if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all" (Heb 8:4).  In the heavenly sanctuary, however, Jesus is the eternal high priest, chosen by God as an exceptional case paralleling God's former choice of Melchizedek (Heb 7:1-17).  [Note that this is Jewish midrash in action.] In the end, the author of Hebrews brings this revolutionary framework home by specifying a novel understanding of sacrifice: " Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice (thusian) of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.  Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices (thusiais) are pleasing to God (Heb 13:15f).

The reference to a "sacrifice of praise" here can be interpreted as referring, among other things, to the eucharistic prayers; yet, the text is far from clear on this point.  What Hebrews does make plain, however, is that "brotherly love" (Heb 13:1), "hospitality to strangers" (Heb 13:2), and many other aspects of Christian living (Heb 13:3-15) constitutes "acceptable worship" (Heb 12:28).    Hebrews is absolutely insistent that, since Jesus is the best high priest in the best place who never dies, he has no need of assistants or of successors.  Thus, even the community that received and venerated Hebrews never understood any ministry on earth to be conferred by ordination to a chosen few who were greeted as "priests." 

 

(from: "Salvation is from the Jews")

 

3. Jesus' views on the sacred, his antagonism to temple Judaism, may never be presented as exclusively belonging to him or, worse yet, of taking him outside of Judaism.  It was as a Jew that Jesus held such views.  As such, Jesus shared many beliefs with the Pharisaic movement. In fact, it can be argued that the Pharisaic Revolution was the Mother of the Church.   

 

The Jesus movement emerged out of the Pharisaic revolution which had transformed Jewish identity.  Many Christians will find this strange.  After all, don't the Synoptic Gospels portray the Pharisees as the enemies and rivals of the Jesus movement?  Precisely.  Yet, it was because the church emerged out of the synagogue (and not out of the temple) that it inherited a system of thought liberated from the temple cult as defining worship and from the Aaronide priesthood as defining conduct.  Ellis Rivkin, in his fascinating book, The Shaping of Jewish History (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons 1971) offers the following portrait of how the Pharisees turned temple Judaism on its head: 

(1.)   Instead of relying upon the temple cult managed by the priests to define worship, the Pharisees gave every Jew the right and the obligation to address God.  As such, daily prayers and simple rituals conducted by ordinary individuals served "to bring the individual into direct communion with God" (58).  Furthermore, these prayers and rites were performed, not in the divinely ordained holy temple, but within the ordinary places of their home and their synagogue.

This was a truly revolutionary step, for nowhere in the Pentateuch is prayer obligatory. . . .  The Pharisees were therefore once again going off on a highly original tack when they made mandatory the saying of the Shema--"Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one"--in the morning and evening, and when they introduced the recitation of the prayer now called the Amidah or Shemoneh Esreh as the prayer par excellence; when they required each individual to utter benedictions before meals, after meals, and on other occasions; and when they established fixed readings from the Pentateuch and the prophets on the Sabbath.  And although the synagogue may at first have been a place where Scripture was read and only later a house of prayer, the Pharisees were its creators. (58f)

Furthermore, when it came to Jewish holidays, the Pharisees enabled ordinary Jews to celebrate these holidays within their homes thereby making their homes a "sacred place." The mother and father officiated at simple rites within their family without any need to be a priest or to call upon a priest.  This transformation paved the way for Jews to live out their entire lives independent of the temple cult--a situation which became a permanent reality following the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 C.E.

(2.)   Instead of having the priests direct the reading and the interpretation of Torah (32-41), the Pharisees gave every male Jew the right and the obligation to read and to interpret the Torah for himself guided by the oral traditions handed down by the rabbis.  The assertion that there was a binding oral tradition alongside the binding written scroll separated the Pharisees from the Aaronide priesthood.  By taking charge of their own interpretation, the Pharisees declared their intellectual and spiritual independence from the priests. “The Pharisees even went so far as to allow discussion, debate, and even alternate renderings of the Law [Torah].  This too was revolutionary innovation” (60). The Pharisees made it possible for living oral traditions to expand and contract their sense of what God would have them be and do--something which, according to the priests, was frozen in the scriptures.  When it came to the discussions and debates with Jesus and his disciples, the Pharisees sometimes took issue with their understanding and application of the scriptures, yet they never contested the right of non-priests to read and to interpret Torah as such.  This was their shared heritage.

 

(3.)   Instead of allowing the centralized and centralizing temple to dominate Jewish religious existence, the Pharisaic revolution generated pinpoints of light throughout the Roman world.  In local synagogues (which were frequently in private homes or in open spaces), ordinary Jews experienced greater responsibility and involvement in the shape and the shaping of their way of life. In contrast to the centrist policies of the Jewish priesthood . . .

            . . . the triumph of the Pharisees was the triumph of universalism.  Now the vital issue was salvation, not the land and the cult. . . . The Pharisaic revolution thus made it possible for the Diaspora to become a generating force free of the dependence on the land of Israel. . . . (85f)

In sum, when these three aspects of the Pharisaic revolution are taken together, they provide insights as to how the Hellenized Jews within the Jesus movement were the first to gainsay the centrality of the temple and the first to extend the way of Jesus to outsiders (see Acts 6:8-8:8).  All in all, therefore, the Pharisaic Revolution served as the springboard for both rabbinic Judaism and the Jesus movement.

(from: "Salvation is from the Jews")

 Conclusion

The origins of the Jesus movement lie, first and foremost, in Judaism.  The Vatican Council's Nostra Aetate (1965)  and later explicitating documents clearly imply that "Jesus was born, lived, and died as a Jew."  The same can be said of all his immediate disciples, both men and women.
 
Attempts to rescue Jesus from present-day conservative medieval interpretations may not, at the same time, espouse a Jesus that sets him in opposition to his own people.
 
The fact that Jesus broke down the barriers between the sacred and profane and set apart a new sacred group can be affirmed as having validity because of the kind of Judaism that Jesus embraced and not because he left behind his Judaism.  If enemies are to be named, it should be "temple Judaism." If allies are to be named, it should be "synagogue Judaism." 
 

If anything, the struggle within Judaism in Jesus' day is partially similar to the struggle within Catholicism in our own day. . . .  Just as our opposition to the Vatican's imposition of its own notion of "priesthood" upon the universal church never sets us outside Catholicism; so too, Jesus' opposition to the temple establishment of his day never set him or his disciples outside of Judaism. 

Aaron Milavec

John Wijngaards


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