My ETS Presentation: “You Can Make Me Clean,” The Matthean Jesus as Priest and the Biblical-Theological Results

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Update: This paper has been accepted for publication in a future edition of the Criswell Theological Review.

Tomorrow, my good friend Nicholas Piotrowski and I will present our paper (“You Can Make Me Clean”: The Jesus as Priest and the Biblical-Theological Results). Our argument in brief is the Gospel writers, and Matthew in particular, presented Jesus in priestly actions, even as they  withhold the title “priest” from him. Our test case is the healing of the leper in Matthew 8:1–4, where Jesus proves to be a greater priest than the sons of Levi who were supposed to adjudicated cases of leprosy (Leviticus 13–14).

We’ve been working on this paper, a mashup from our two dissertations, for the last two years—yes, that’s how academic writing goes. We’re convinced that this minority view shines light on the way the Gospels are written and even more on the work that Christ did in his earthly life and sacrificial death.

Here’s the introduction. Let us know what you think.

The munus triplex [Jesus’ triple office of prophet, priest, and king] is an important biblical-theological and systematic category. While it is common to observe in the Gospels Jesus’ role as “the prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14; cf. also Matt 17:5 and parallels with Deut 18:15) and the royal “Son of David” (cf. esp. Matt 1:1; 21:9), theologians often turn to Hebrews for Christ’ priestly office.  Lately, however, scholars are increasingly appreciating the historical Jesus’ self-consciousness as a priest.[1] The result is to bring more attention to the Gospels for understanding Jesus’ munus sacerdotal. This paper singles out Matthew specifically where Jesus is put forward as Israel’s eschatological priest.­[2] From this flow several biblical-theological considerations.[3]

The reason scholars dismiss Christ’s earthly priesthood is manifold.  Linguistically, in all four Gospels, Jesus is not once called a priest.[4] Covenantally, Christ does not qualify as a priest. Born under the old covenant, Jesus’ Judean lineage would disallow him from serving in the temple.­[5] Theologically, there is strong reason for denying Christ’s earthly priesthood: his priestly service would come to depend upon his resurrection and his appointment as a better priest.[6] This is the argument in Hebrews, and many scholars reason that it is anachronistic to read Christ’s priesthood back into the Gospels. Philosophically, since the Enlightenment an academic aversion has existed towards any notion of “priest-craft.”[7] Proportionately, due to the extensive attention given to other aspects of his person and work, it is understandable how Christ’s priesthood can be overlooked. For these reasons and more, the idea that Christ is a priest in the Gospels is underrepresented.[8]

It is our contention, however, joining the growing chorus, that the Gospels are filled with evidence for Christ’s earthly priesthood. . . .

Looking forward to make our case tomorrow. If you’re at ETS, we’d love for you to come join us in Room 402 at 8:30AM. If you’re not, I will (probably) post a PDF tomorrow for the seven people in the room and anyone else interested in considering this argument.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

_________________

[1] Citing a handful of exceptions, Brant Pitre rightly observes, “If there is any single subject which modern historical scholarship on Jesus has almost completely neglected, it is the subject of Jesus and the Jewish priesthood” (“Jesus, the New Temple, and the New Priesthood,” in Letter and Spirit, vol 4., Temple and Contemplation: God’s Presence in the Cosmos, Church, and Human Heart, ed. Scott Hahn and David Scott [Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2008], 71). Crispin H. T. Fletcher-Louis has outlined several reasons for the prior neglect of this subject, and contributed greatly to redressing it (“Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah: Part 1,” JSHJ 4 [2006]: 155–75; idem, “Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah: Part 2,” JSHJ 5 [2007]: 57–79).

[2] Jesus is not “presented” exclusively as a priest in Matthew, but as prophet, priest, and king. The onus of this paper is to show the ways he functions as a priest.

[3] To be sure, however, this is not a “redaction-critical” study.  The final form of Matthew, nonetheless, is the result of redacting forces; either of Mark, Q, the oral tradition, or some inexorable web of all of them.  We do not attempt to ferret out how the redaction occurred, but to explore to rhetorical results once it was done.

[4]A word study of the Gospels and Acts finds 122 occurrences of “priestly terminology” (priest, high priest, priesthood, etc.). However, the number of times that such language refers to Christ or Christians is zero, which would understandably lead anyone dependent on that method of research to abandon the effort (Vanhoye, Old Testament Priests and the New Priest, 63–66).

[5]Technically, if Karl Deenick (“Priest and King or Priest-King in 1 Samuel 2:35,” WTJ 73 [2011]: 325-39) is correct that 1 Samuel 2:35 points to a Davidic priest, Jesus’ Davidic lineage would not disqualify him from priesthood. It would do the opposite. But it is still necessary to show, as Hebrews 5 does, how a son of David could supersede the Levitical priesthood.

[6]See David Schrock, “Resurrection and Priesthood: Christological Soundings from the Book of Hebrews,” SBJT 18.4 (2014): 89–114.

[7]Peter J. Leithart, “Attendants of Yahweh’s House: Priesthood in the Old Testament,” JSOT 85 (1999): 3–4.

[8]For a survey of how scholars understand Christ’s priesthood in the gospels, see Crispin H. T. Fletcher-Louis, “Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah: Part 1,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 4 (2006): 155–75; idem, “Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah: Part 2,” JSHJ 5 (2007): 57–79.

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