Notes on Prayer: John 17:16-19

John 17:16-19

Verses 16-19 close the first Expository section of the Prayer-Discourse (vv. 12-19, cf. the outline in the previous study). A curious detail to note is the way that verse 16 repeats, almost verbatim, the second half of v. 14. This apparently led a number of scribes to omit the verse, but there a number of such repetitions throughout the Johannine Discourses of Jesus (and the Last Discourse, in particular), and text here is secure. As a result, we ought to regard the repetition as intentional, in terms of the structure of this section. It gives to the triadic structure a chiastic outline:

    • Expository narration—the work of the Son (vv. 12-14a)
      • Unity of Believers with Jesus—”not out of the world” (v. 14b)
        • Petition to the Father—protection from the evil in the world
      • Unity of Believers with Jesus—”not out of the world” (v. 16)
    • Exposition—the work and presence of the Son in believers (vv. 17-19)

According to this detailed outline, verses 17-19 are parallel to 12-14a, both representing the core exposition in the section. How do these two passages relate? The first deals with the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth (“When I was with them…”); the second focuses on the time after Jesus’ departure back to the Father. It must be admitted that the latter emphasis is not explicit or immediately apparent on a reading of the text; however, with a little study, I believe it come through quite clear. There are three statements in this exposition:

    1. A request that his disciples be “made holy” by the Father (v. 17)
    2. A declaration similar in formula to Jesus’ words to his disciples after the resurrection, sending them into the world as apostles/missionaries (20:21)
    3. A statement explaining that the disciples are “made holy” even as Jesus himself is made holy, using reciprocal language and hearkening back to the invocation (v. 1, cf. also 13:31)

Let us examine each of these in turn.

Verse 17

This is another petition by Jesus to the Father, and must be understood in relation to the central petition of vv. 9-11, as well as the further request in v. 15 (cf. the previous study). The motif of protection has been defined in terms of holiness—which, from a religious standpoint, essentially refers to separation from evil (and the world) and protection from it. Here is the request:

“Make them (to be) holy in the truth—your word is truth.”

We may isolate three key components to this petition:

    • The verb (a(gia/zw, “make holy, treat as holy”)
    • Emphasis on truth (a)lh/qeia), and
    • The identification of truth with the word (lo/go$) of God the Father

The second and third of these are important theological key words in the Johannine Writings (both Gospel and Letters), and occur far more frequently than the first. In this regard, they serve to expound and explain the primary petition comprised of the initial words: a(gi/ason au)tou\$, “(May you) make them (to be) holy”. The verb a(gia/zw (hagiázœ, “make holy, treat as holy”) is relatively rare in the New Testament, occurring just 28 times, compared with the much more common adjective a%gio$ (hágios, “holy”). In the Synoptic Gospels, in the words of Jesus, its usage is almost entirely limited to the opening petition of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9; Lk 11:2), a context similar to that in John 17 (with the emphasis on the name of God the Father and His holiness, vv. 1, 6ff):

Pa/ter […] a(giasqh/tw to\ o&noma/ sou
“Father […], may your name be made holy”

Pa/ter… (“Father…”, v. 1)
e)fane/rwsa/ sou to\ o&noma (“I made your name shine forth…”, v. 6)
Pa/ter a%gie th/rhson au)tou\$ e)n tw=| o)no/mati/ sou
(“Holy Father, keep watch [over] them in your name…”, v. 11)

Paul uses the verb 6 times in the undisputed letters (1 Thess 5:23; Rom 15:16; 1 Cor 1:2; 6:11; 7:14 [twice]); it occurs three more times in Eph 5:26; 2 Tim 2:21; 1 Tim 4:5. It is used 7 times in Hebrews (2:11 [twice]; 9:13; 10:10, 14, 29; 13:12), in the context of the Israelite priesthood—a point to be discussed on v. 19 below.

It is important to emphasize again that the following phrase “in the truth” and the statement “your word is truth” both qualify and explain the meaning of the petition. First, we have the full form of the petition: “Make them (to be) holy in the truth”. The noun a)lh/qeia (“truth”) occurs 25 times in the Gospel of John, and another 20 times in the Letters (9 in 1 John). It has a special theological (and Christological) meaning, going far beyond the simple idea of factual truth, or even moral and religious truth. Rather, it is a fundamental characteristic of God the Father Himself, and of Jesus as the Son (of God). Moreover, it does not refer primarily to Jesus’ teaching and the proclamation of God’s word (as a message), but is embodied in the person of Jesus himself. Cf. John 1:14, 17; 8:32ff, 44-46; 14:6; 18:37-38; 1 Jn 1:6, 8; 2:21, etc. Distinctive of the Johannine theology, including that expressed by Jesus in the Discourses, is the special association (and identification) of the Spirit with this Truth (4:23-24; 14:17; 15:26; 16:7, 13; 1 John 4:6). The declaration in 1 John 5:6 makes this identification explicit and unqualified, and provides the answer to Pilate’s provocative question (Jn 18:38, “What is [the] truth?”):

“The Spirit is the Truth”
to\ pneu=ma/ e)stin h( a)lh/qeia

This declaration also informs the statement in 17:17b (cp. Psalm 119:142b Greek v.l.), which has similar wording (the only real difference being the emphatic position of the verb):

“Your Word is (the) Truth”
o( lo/go$ o( so$ a)lh/qeia/ e)stin

Taking these statements together, we have the fundamental identification of God’s Word (lo/go$) with the Spirit. Again, this does not refer to any particular message or set of words spoken by Jesus (though these are included, Jn 6:63, etc), but to the essential identity of Jesus (the Son) as the living embodiment of God’s Word on earth (Jn 1:1ff, 14, etc). Jesus’ manifest presence with the disciples cleanses them (Jn 13:10-11; 15:3), culminating in his sacrificial death (1 Jn 1:7-9) that protects believers and makes them clean (i.e. holy) from sin. This cleansing power again is identified with the Spirit (“water and blood”, Jn 19:34; 1 Jn 5:6-8)—the living and indwelling presence of Jesus (and God the Father) in believers. The Spirit is given following Jesus’ death (19:30, 34, understood symbolically) and resurrection (20:22).

Thus we may see here in verse 17 an implicit reference to the Holy Spirit as the means by which the disciples (believers) are made holy.

Verse 18

This is confirmed by what follows in verse 18, a reciprocal statement similar to the ‘commission’ of the disciples in 20:21:

“Even as you se(n)t me forth into the world, I also se(n)t them forth into the world” (17:18)
“Even as the Father se(n)t me forth, I also send [pe/mpw] you” (20:21b)

In 17:18, the aorist is used (indicating a past occurrence), while in 20:21, in addressing the disciples, Jesus uses the present tense (and a different verb [pe/mpw]). It is possible that the aorist assumes a tradition such as in the Synoptics (Mk 3:14-15; 6:6b-13 par; Lk 10:1ff), where Jesus is to have sent the disciples out on preaching assignments. The Gospel writer is certainly familiar with such traditions (3:34-38; 6:67-71), though he makes little of them in the narrative. However, a better explanation is at hand in the context of the Last Discourse. An important point of emphasis (discussed in the prior studies) is that Jesus was able to sanctify his disciples by his presence with them on earth (i.e., in the past, up to this point). Now that he is about to return to the Father, he is no longer able to “make them holy” the same way—thus the need (in the present) for the Father to send the Spirit as the Divine Presence (and Power) to fill this role in Jesus’ place. The words of commission in 20:21 are followed directly by the disciples receiving the Spirit from Jesus (who, in turn, had received it from the Father). The Spirit’s presence cleanses the disciples and makes them holy.

In this regard, the disciples are to function in the manner of priests in ancient religious tradition. Through a proscribed ceremonial ritual, Israelite priests were consecrated (made holy) for service in the sacred place(s), handling of sacrifices and sacred objects, etc—e.g., Exod 40:13; Lev 8:30; 2 Chron 5:11. Jesus’ disciples (believers) are compared or described as priests at numerous points in early Christian tradition, part of a wider religious phenomenon whereby devotion to Jesus takes the place of (or fulfills) the earlier cultic ritual practiced by the priesthood. Of the passages in the New Testament indicating this, cf. Matt 12:1-8; Rom 12:1-2; 15:16; 2 Cor 3:6ff; 1 Pet 2:5ff; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6.

Verse 19

The imagery of priesthood is even more prominent in verse 19. Indeed, it is due almost entirely to the influence of verses 17-19 that the Prayer-Discourse in chapter 17 is sometimes called the “High Priestly” Prayer of Jesus. However, this label is quite inappropriate for the Prayer as a whole, since it is only in these three verses that there is any real indication of priestly language or emphasis. Nevertheless, it remains a small, but important, element of the Prayer, and follows the overall theology of the Gospel, in which it is not believers, but Jesus himself, who is described in priestly terms. The emphasis is on the sacrifice (esp. the Passover sacrifice) rather than the one administering it; however, as in the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus would certainly be seen as fulfilling both roles. This is expressed here in verse 19, where the Passion setting of the Prayer again comes to the fore:

“And (it is) over them [i.e. the disciples] (that) I make myself holy, (so) that they (also) would be made holy in the truth.”

Jesus functions as a priest, consecrating himself for service (symbolized by his actions in 13:4-12)—the primary service being his impending sacrificial death on the cross, which represents the completion of his ministry on earth (19:30). The only other occurrence of the verb a(gia/zw is in 10:36, which comes at the end of the “Good Shepherd” Discourse. The central motif of this Discourse is the idea that Jesus, as the excellent or exemplary (kalo/$) herdsman, lays down his life for the sake of the sheep. God the Father has given him the authority (and the command) to lay down his life (death) and take it up again (resurrection), cf. 10:11, 15, 17-18. The preposition is u(pe/r (lit. “over”), essentially the same idiom as we see here in 17:19, and also in the Last Supper scene in the Synoptics; let us compare these (and the general parallel in Jn 6:51):

    • “This is my blood of the covenant th(at is) being poured out over [u(pe/r] many” (Mk 14:24 par)
    • “the bread which I will give is my flesh over [u(pe/r] the life of the world” (Jn 6:51)
    • “…I set (down) my soul [i.e. life] over [u(pe/r] the sheep” (Jn 10:15, cf. also vv. 11, 17-18)
    • “I make myself holy over [u(per/] them…” (17:19)

There can thus be no real doubt that there is a direct allusion to sacrificial death of Jesus. The idiom in Mk 14:24 par is more concrete, drawing upon the ritual image of blood actually being poured (or sprinkled) over the people at the covenant ceremony (Exodus 24:6-8). In the Johannine references, it is more symbolic, dealing the sacrificial nature and character of Jesus’ death, much as we see in the Letter to the Hebrews (esp. throughout chapters 5-10). From the Johannine (theological) standpoint, it is the sacrificial death (and resurrection) of Jesus which releases the Spirit to believers, both symbolically (19:30, 34) and literally (20:22). The Spirit remains essentially connected with the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood (1 John 1:7-9; 5:6-8), transmitting its live-giving (and protecting) efficacy to the believer.

A point should be made about the reflexive use of a(gia/zw in verse 19, whereby Jesus says: “I make myself holy” (a(gia/zw e)mauto/n). We might have expected him to ask the Father to make him holy, or at least to emphasize the Father as the source of holiness (v. 11). The key to understanding this lies in the Johannine theological-christological framework, perhaps best expressed by Jesus in 5:26:

“as the Father holds life in himself, so also he gave life to the Son to hold in himself”

There is a parallel to this in 13:31-32, using the idea of honor/glory (do/ca) rather than life (zwh/). Moreover, the context of 17:19 is elucidated in this regard by turning back to the use of the verb a(gia/zw in 10:36:

“…the (one) whom the Father made holy [h(gi/asen] and se(n)t forth into the world”

This expresses the same chain of relation as in 5:26, both reciprocal and hierarchical:

The Son alongside the Father—made holy by the Father’s Life and Power
Sent into the world by the Father
The Son (on earth) has the Life and Power given to him by the Father
Prepares to finish his work in the world
The Son about to return to the Father—makes himself holy

This dynamic continues as the Son makes his disciples (believers) holy in turn, through his work, and, ultimately, through the presence of the Spirit. Indeed, the Spirit represents the presence of both Father and Son (together) in and among believers, and this theme of unity becomes dominant in the remainder of the Prayer (vv. 20-26), as we will begin to explore in next week’s study.

Yeshua the Anointed: Supplemental study on Hebrews

When discussing Jesus as a Priest (cf. Part 9), special attention must be given to this theme as it is presented in the Letter to the Hebrews. As previously discussed, references where Jesus is described or depicted as a priest are rare in the New Testament—more common is the image of Jesus as a sacrificial offering, rather than the priest who administers the sacrifice. However, in Hebrews, the theme of Jesus as Priest appears in a complex and highly developed manner, set in the very heart of the book (chapters 4-10). It is not possible to give a thorough exposition of these passages in one relatively short article, but I hope to present and outline and survey of how the author treats the theme.

To begin with, the Christological paradigm is set already in the prologue or introduction (Heb 1:1-4):

    • The Son as “heir of all things”—divine pre-existence—role in Creation (vv. 2b-3a)
      • His sacrificial and atoning death—”cleansing of sins”
    • The Son inherits a name and position greater than the Angels—exaltation to the right hand of God (vv. 3b-4)

The Son’s greatness over the other divine/heavenly beings (Angels) is not due to a special (eternal, pre-existent) relationship with God the Father (as would be the case in the Gospel of John and later Trinitarian orthodoxy), but rather as the result of his sacrificial death for the sins of humankind. Thus the atoning death (and resurrection) of Christ is the central tenet of the Christology in Hebrews, one that the author describes in terms of the Priesthood of ancient Israel. Interestingly, there is no attempt to define this in Messianic terms, for, in Hebrews, the Messianic elements of early Christianity (titles, terminology, Scripture passages) have already been fully assimilated into a Christological matrix. Note, for example, that there is not one instance where “the Anointed (One)” [o( xristo/$] occurs as a title (apart from the citation of Psalm 45:6-7 in 1:9); instead, it is used as a name, virtually identical with “Jesus” (Heb 3:6, 14; 5:5, et al). Similarly, “Son of Man” does not appear, except in the general sense of the expression as cited (Ps 8:4-6) in Heb 2:6, though the basic identification of Jesus with a heavenly/divine figure at the right hand of God is assumed throughout.

The Priestly motif is introduced at several points in the first two chapters, most notably in Hebrews 2:5-18:

    • Heb 2:11—where Jesus is referred to as “the (one who) makes holy”, and believers as “the (one)s (who) are made holy”. There is a strong incarnational aspect to the argument in 2:5-18—i.e. the extent to which Jesus shares and identifies with human weakness and suffering. This underlies the power and significance of Jesus’ death and is the basis for his Priesthood.
    • Heb 2:17—the climactic declaration of this section: “…he was obligated to be(come) like one (among) the brothers according to all things, so that he might come to be a merciful and trust(worthy) Chief Priest, unto [i.e. so as to be] providing acceptance [vb. i(la/skomai] (with God) (regarding) the sins of the people”.

The verb i(la/skomai (hiláskomai, found only in Heb 2:17 and Lk 18:13) is almost impossible to translate literally in English—in a religious/ritual context it has the sense of making God (or the gods) friendly/gracious to human beings, and is thus somewhat similar to the verb katalla/ssw (i.e. change, make things [completely] different), including the idea of reconciliation or restoration of the relationship (broken by sin) between humans and God. Equally rare are the related nouns i(lasmo/$ (hilasmós, 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10) and i(lasth/rion (hilast¢¡rion, Rom 3:25; Heb 9:5), which indicates the general lack of sacrificial language and terminology in the New Testament. For sacrificial offerings, Hebrews typically uses the concrete noun qusi/a (lit. the animal that is slaughtered), along with the verb prosfe/rw (“bring/carry toward”), i.e. of the priest bringing the offering toward God (by way of the altar).

In chapters 3 and 4 (Heb 3:1-4:13), the historical context and setting of the Wilderness period—Moses, Aaron, the Tabernacle and the establishment of the (Old) Covenant—provides the basis for the comparisons with Jesus (Old Covenant vs. New Covenant) which follows. The two main sections which describe Jesus as a (High) Priest are Hebrews 4:14-5:10 and 6:20/7:1-10:18.

Hebrews 4:14-5:10

Here Jesus is identified as the Great High Priest (4:14), partly on the basis of his exaltation to heaven and his status as the Son of God, but more properly as the result of his sacrificial death (the sufferings of which are due to his identification with, and sharing of, our human nature). The following points are made in this section:

    • 4:14-16: Jesus’ association with human weakness—incarnation and sacrifice
    • 5:1-4: Priests are appointed by God to sacrifice for sin
    • 5:5-10: God appointed Jesus to be High Priest (of the order of Melchizedek), atoning for sin by way of human weakness—suffering and submission of the Son

Hebrews 7:1-10:18

The association of Jesus with Melchizedek in Heb 5:5-10 (citation of Ps 110:1 in vs. 6) is stated again in 6:20—a transitional verse which concludes one section and leads into the next (7:1ff). The figure of Melchizedek, (Canaanite) Priest-King of ancient Salem, passed into Jewish and early Christian tradition through two Scriptural texts: (1) the Abraham narrative in Gen 14:17-20, and (2) the reference in Psalm 110:4. The original context of Psalm 110:4 is instructive for an understanding of how the figure had come to be interpreted by the 1st century A.D. (cf. below). here is an outline indicating how the author of Hebrews develops the Jesus/Melchizedek parallel:

  • 7:1-10—Melchizedek: introduction and summary from the Abraham narrative
    7:11-22—Application to Jesus (‘High Priest of the order of Melchizedek’, Ps 110:4)
  • 7:23-28—Jesus as Priest is greater than human priests
    8:1-13—He is High Priest of a New Covenant
  • 9:1-10—The service of priests in the Sanctuary, esp. sacrifice and the Day of Atonement
  • 9:11-14—Jesus as Priest is greater than human priests—replaces the sacrificial offerings
    9:15-28—He is High Priest of a New Covenant—Sacrifice
  • 10:1-18—Concluding statement on Christ’s Priesthood and Sacrifice

For additional references to the Priesthood theme in the remainder of the book, cf. Heb 12:24; 13:10-16, 20.

Jesus and Melchizedek

The reference to Melchizedek in Psalm 110 is somewhat obscure, but it seems to be based on an underlying royal theology in the Psalm, deriving from ancient Near Eastern tradition. Taking the old Abraham narrative in Genesis 14:17-20 at face value, “Melchizedek” was an historical figure, a Canaanite Priest-King. His name (qd#x# yK!l=m^ malkî-ƒedeq), vocalized originally as malk£-ƒidqu (according to Cross, p. 209) would have meant something like “my king is (the) Righteous (One)”, where “Righteous” (‚idqu) is a Divine name or epithet. Later Israelite/Jewish tradition rendered or interpreted “Melchizedek” as “just/righteous king” (in Greek basileu$ dikaio$), while Hebrews 7:2 translates it as basileu\$ dikaiosu/nh$ (“king of justice/righteousness”). He is said to have been the King of Salem, generally identified with the ancient site of Jerusalem (for the different understanding of šlm by W. F. Albright, cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 231-2) and Priest of °E~l ±Elyôn. la@ (°E~l, Canaanite/Amorite °Il[u]) was the name/epithet of the high Deity in ancient Canaan; the name originally would have meant something like “Mighty (One)”, and already in early Israelite tradition, it was identified with YHWH (cf. my articles on the names ‘El and Yahweh). The way Abraham’s encounter with Melchizedek is narrated in these few brief verses suggests that it refers to a longer tale or tradition now entirely lost to us.

If the reference in Ps 110:4 is genuinely to the “Melchizedek” of Gen 14 (for a differing view, cf. M. Dahood, Psalms III: 101-150 Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 17A, p. 117), then we must ask just what the Psalmist meant by it. In the ancient Near East, kings typically functioned as priests as well, officiating on certain ceremonial occasions—palace and temple complexes being closely connected. This was also the case in ancient Israel, where kings and princes fulfilled a priestly role in the offering of sacrifices, and so forth (cf. 2 Sam 6:17-18; 8:18; 1 Kings 8:63-64; 2 Kings 16:12-13, etc). It would seem that only traces of this historical situation are preserved in the Old Testament, while in the Torah and Chronicles (both with a strong priestly/Levitical orientation) we find opposition to the idea of rulers appropriating the Priest’s role (cf. especially the episodes in Numbers 16 and 2 Chron 26:16-20). In all likelihood, Psalm 110 preserves a bit of the royal theology surrounding the kings of Israel/Judah, associated with Jerusalem and the Davidic line—i.e. they are priests, not according to the lineage of Levi and Aaron, but according to the pattern of Melchizedek, to whom even Abraham gave homage. It is possible that the Hasmonean (Maccabean) rulers drew upon this tradition as well (cf. 1 Macc 14:41) when they assumed the position of High Priest (1 Macc 10:18-21; 13:42; 14:4-47; Josephus Antiquities 13.299-300; 16.162, etc). In this regard, Psalm 110:4 appears to have played a role in Messianic thought, specifically in shaping the figure of the exalted Priest or Priest-King to come (cf. Jubilees 32:1; Testament of Levi 8:14-15).

If the interpretation of Psalm 110:4 suggested above is correct, then the author of Hebrews has made use of Melchizedek in a somewhat similar way, applying it of course to Jesus, within a very specific Christological matrix (cf. above). He lays out the line of argument in the opening verses (Heb 7:1-10):

    • Melchizedek is both Priest and King (vv. 1-2)
    • He has no genealogy (vv. 3ff)

In my view, these two points derive from the same basic royal theology that underlies the use of Melchizedek in Psalm 110 (cf. above); but note how the author develops these:

    • Jesus, like the Davidic rulers, is King and from the line of Judah, yet he is also Priest (the High Priest), even though he is not from the tribe of Levi or a descendant of Aaron. The priesthood of Melchizedek preceded that of Levi, and is thus superior to it.
    • Melchizedek, in fact, is a High Priest (i.e. Priest of the Most High), though there is no priestly lineage ascribed to him anywhere in the Old Testament. This argument from silence is given a very specific interpretation: that he has no natural, traceable genealogy. More importantly, this means that his (and Jesus’) qualification for the (High) Priesthood is not based on an earthly line of descent.

The specific way the author frames this last point has led commentators to question whether it is an imaginative (midrashic) application of the simple absence of any genealogy for Melchizedek, or whether he believed that Melchizedek was a divine/heavenly being of some sort. The phrasing and force of verse 3, along with the comparison in verse 8, perhaps suggest the latter:

“without father, without mother, without (any) account of (his) coming-to-be [i.e. genealogy], having no beginning of days (and) no completion of life, but having been made (very much) like [a)fwmoiwme/no$] the Son of God, remaining (the) Sacred-official [i.e. Priest] into the carrying-through [dihnke$, i.e. continually, unbroken]” (v. 3)

“…and (on the one hand) here men dying-away [i.e. who die] receive the tenth, but (on the other hand) there it is witnessed that he lives” (v. 8)

There are two possibilities: (1) the sketchy figure of Melchizedek has been fashioned according to what the author already believes about Jesus, in order to make the comparison fit, or (2) it reflects an existing tradition or belief that Melchizedek was a divine/heavenly (and immortal) being. The latter possibility is strengthened by several references in texts from the two centuries B.C./A.D.:

  • The Qumran text 11QMelch(izedek) [11Q13] (late 1st cent. B.C.?), in which Melchizedek is described as a Messianic (end-time) figure who will appear as Deliverer of the people of God and Judge of the wicked (Belial) who held his people captive. The application of Psalm 82:1-2, especially, has led many commentators to believe that Melchizedek here is Heavenly/Angelic being, similar to Michael (cf. 1QM 17:6-8; 4QAmram 3:2).
  • In 2 (Slavonic) Enoch 71-72, Melchizedek (as a child) is taken up by Michael into heaven and thus achieves an exalted status similar to Enoch in Jewish tradition, and Jesus following the resurrection in the earliest Christian tradition (Acts 2:33ff; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34, etc). The text of 2 Enoch is difficult to date, but its core probably stems from the late-1st or early 2nd century A.D.
  • We find the idea of a Heavenly/Messianic Priest in several writings of the period—e.g., the Testament of Levi 18; Assumption of Moses 10:2; and the earlier Qumran text 4Q541.
  • In Jewish tradition, the Angels are often depicted functioning as priests in Heaven—cf. 1 Enoch 9:1-11; 15:2; 40:6; 47:2; 99:3; 104:1; Jubilees 31:14; Testament of Levi 3:4-6, etc; and note especially the so-called Angelic Liturgy (or “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice”) from Qumran, 4Q400-407, 11Q17.

We might also note the allegorical image of the High Priest as symbolizing the Logos/Word of God in Philo—On Flight and Finding §117-8, The Migration of Abraham §102ff, On Dreams 1.215, etc.
For a number of the references above, cf. Attridge, Hebrews, pp. 97-103, 192-5.

In conclusion, let us see how the author of Hebrews expounds the Jesus/Melchizedek parallel in the remainder of chapter 7 (vv. 11-28):

  • 7:11-14—Two facts or points of belief are combined:
    (a) Jesus was from the royal line of Judah, not the priestly line of Levi (i.e. the priesthood according to the Law), and
    (b) Jesus is a (High) Priest by way of his sacrificial death => his priesthood must be of a different origin (i.e. a different Law or Covenant)
  • 7:14-19—Jesus’ priesthood comes through Melchizedek, however:
    (a) it is not by way of physical/biological or earthly lineage
    (b) it is according to (Divine) Power and (Eternal) Life
    This qualification is supported by the author’s gloss on Psalm 110:4—the phrase “the ta/ci$ [order/arrangement/succession] of Melchizedek” (v. 17) is interpreted as “the o(moio/th$ [likeness/resemblance] of Melchizedek” (v. 15). In all likelihood this means that Jesus is an Exalted/Heavenly being, just like Melchizedek (cf. above).
  • 7:20-28—Jesus’ (eternal) priesthood is confirmed and demonstrated by:
    (a) God’s own promise (oath), and
    (b) The holiness and sinlessness of Jesus

In spite of the comparison with Melchizedek, it is clear that, for the author of Hebrews, Jesus’ position as (true) High Priest is ultimately based on: (1) his position as the (pre-existent) Son of God, and (2) his death as an atoning sacrifice. This is emphasized in the concluding verse of this section, and is tied in with the idea of God’s oath regarding Jesus, that is, the word which He speaks (cf. Heb 1:1):

“but the word [lo/go$] of the oath th(at is) after the Law [i.e. changes the Law, cf. v. 12] has completed the Son into the Age”

This completion/perfection of the Son is the result of his sacrificial death for the sins of humankind (2:10ff; 5:8-10; 9:11-14), which, in turn, completes and perfects those who believe in him (10:1, 14; 11:40; 12:2, 23).

References marked “Cross” above are to F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).
Those marked “Fitzmyer” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament (Scholars Press: 1974)
Those marked “Attridge, Hebrews” are to Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Fortress Press: 1989)


In discussing the Qumran text 11QMelchizedek mention was made of the Messianic Priest figure-type (on this, cf. Part 9 of the series Yeshua the Anointed). Another important text which gives evidence of this line of Messianic thought at Qumran is 4Q541, variously called 4QTLevi (d) and 4QAaron (A), according to the analysis of two different editors (Émile Puech and Jean Starcky). The text is made up of 24 fragments, of which most are two small to be intelligible; only fragments 1-2, 4, 7, 9 and 24 are intact enough to provide readable content. The largest fragment (9) provides almost the entire context for the surviving document; the parallels with the Testament of Levi (18:2-5 [see below]) explain Puech’s identification of it as related to Test. Levi. In point of fact, while a priestly figure is clearly in view in fragment 9, neither Levi nor Aaron is mentioned by name in 4Q541.

In general, the text would seem to be part of a series of apocalyptic pseudepigrapha dealing with the Patriarchs, and of Levi (and his lineage) in particular (4Q537-549). The Levitical priestly line would culminate with Amram, Moses and Aaron, from whom the Aaronid priesthood would arise. The priestly emphasis in the Qumran texts is to be explained by the fact that many in the Community were priests, including the leading/founding figure known as the “Teacher of Righteousness”. A major point of contention with the Hasmonean rulers in the 2nd and early/mid-1st century had been their appropriation of priestly duties and privileges, even though they were not from the line of Levi/Aaron. In this regard, the Hasmoneans were following the royal theology expressed in Psalm 110, symbolized by the person of Melchizedek, a priest-king who served God (and was honored by Abraham) long before the Aaronid priesthood was established; on such basis, a king could also function as priest. For the Qumran Community, however, the significance of Melchizedek was almost certainly the opposite—a priest who served as king.

The Qumran Community thus gave strong emphasis to the priesthood in their Messianic and eschatological thought. The only other Jewish writing from the first centuries B.C./A.D. to reflect this is the Testament of Levi, a pseudepigraphic work known in Hebrew from the Cairo Geniza remains, and in a Greek form in the Jewish/Christian Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. As it happens, this work is also known, in an older (Aramaic) form, preserved in a number of the scroll fragments at Qumran. This “Aramaic Levi Document” is represented by 1Q21, and the scrolls/fragments 4Q213-214. Only small portions survive, but 1Q21 makes the important declaration that “the kingdom of priesthood [atwnhk] is greater that the kingdom of…”.

Fragment 9 of 4Q541 is the central, principal surviving fragment. Column 1, as we have it, begins as follows:

“[…] the sons of his generation […] his [wi]sdom. And he will cover [i.e. atone, rpk] over all the sons of his generation, and he will be sent to all the sons of his [people]. His utterance is like the utterance of the heavens, and his teaching (is) according to the will of God. His eternal sun will shine, and his fire will burn in all the ends of the earth, and over the darkness it will shine.” (lines 1-4)

The words in line 2 may be compared with the statement in 11Q13 that the “tenth Jubilee” (i.e. the end of the current Age) will correspond with the Day of Atonement, and will be the time in which “to cover [i.e. atone, rpk] over all the sons of light and the men of the lot of Melchizedek” (lines 7-8). Here priestly sacrificial imagery (associated with the Day of Atonement) is used to express the end-time deliverance brought about by Melchizedek. At this time, the true Israel, the faithful remnant (i.e. the Qumran Community) will be delivered from the dominion of Belial, and returned according to their true identity as “sons of light” belonging to Melchizedek (the “Prince of Light”). In 4Q541, it would seem that sacrificial language (using the verb rpk, “cover, wipe away”) is also used to express something beyond the sacrificial ritual. The emphasis in fragment 9 is rather on the priestly role of teaching, of bringing revelation and enlightenment to God’s people. Even though the ritual detail of sacrifice still holds an important place in the thought of the Community (cf. 4Q214 and 214b), because of their separation from the Temple cultus, it came to take on a wider (and specialized) symbolic meaning, much as it did for early Christians. It is through the teaching and revelation of God’s word that the eschatological/Messianic priest-figure of 4Q541 atones for “the children of his generation”.

Some scholars, reading a bit too much into the references of opposition to the priest and his work in the remainder of fragment 9 (lines 6-7), have suggested that this figure has something of the character of the Isaian “Suffering Servant”, who atones for his people through his suffering, bringing him more closely into parallel with the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Messiah. This would seem to take fragment quite out of context. It is clear that the priest-figure makes atonement through his speaking [rmam], teaching and proclaiming the word and will of God.

Like Melchizedek, this figure stands and speaks in God’s place, with such powerful effect that “darkness will vanish from the earth and cloudiness from the dry land” (figuratively speaking). Yet, at the same time, unlike Melchizedek, this figure does not bring about the final redemption; rather, things in the world will actually get worse in his time, i.e. the current time of the Community which continues to exist as the faithful remnant during the dominion of Belial (the “Prince of Darkness”). Darkness vanishes for the Community, the true Israel, but not for the rest of humankind who “will go astray in his days and will be bewildered”. This is similar to what Jesus declares in his “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13 par)—that things will grow increasingly worse on earth, with a period of intense distress, before the end finally comes. Much the same idea is expressed elsewhere in the Qumran texts, notably in the Commentary (Pesher) on Habakkuk; there, commenting on Hab 1:5, we read:

“[… The interpretation of the word concerns] the traitors with the Man of the Lie, since they do not [believe in the words of] the Teacher of Righteousness from the mouth of God; and (it concerns) the traito[rs of the] new [covenant] si[n]ce they did not believe in the covenant of God [and dishonored] his holy na[me]. Likewise: [ ] The interpretation of the word [concerns the trai]tors in the last days. They are violator[s of the coven]ant who will not believe when they hear all that is going [to happen t]o the final generation, from the mouth of the Priest whom God has placed wi[thin the Commun]ity, to foretell the fulfillment of all the words of his servants, the prophets, [by] means of whom God has declared all that is going to happen to his people Is[rael].” (1QpHab ii. 1-10, translation García Martínez & Tigchelaar)

Fragment 24 of 4Q541, which may well represent the close of the work (or very near to it), has gained prominence due to the obscurity of lines 4-5, which have been variously translated; I offer two disparate examples (main differences in italics):

“Examine and seek and ask what the dove (or Jonah?) sought (?) and do not afflict the weak by wasting or hanging… [Let] not the nail approach him.” (Collins, p. 125)

“Examine, ask and know what the dove has asked; and do not punish it by the sea-mew and […] do not bring the night-hawk near it.” (García Martínez & Tigchelaar, 2:1081)

The translation of the word axx as “nail” (based on the Syriac) has suggested that it is a reference to crucifixion; based on what survives of fragment 24 as a whole, this seems rather unlikely. The context indicates that this is a concluding exhortation, either for characters in the pseudepigraphon, the readers of the work , or (most likely) both. Line 5 continues: “And you will establish for your father a name of joy, and for your brothers you will make a [tested] foundation rise. You will see and rejoice in eternal light. And you will not be of the enemy.” (translation García Martínez & Tigchelaar). From the standpoint of the Community, this serves as an exhortation to continue in faithful obedience—to the Torah, the message of the Prophets, and the inspired teaching of the Community—even during this current age of wickedness. Ultimately it will lead to salvation at the end-time (“eternal light”), even as now the faithful Community walks according to the light of the true teaching and revelation.

Testament of Levi 18:2-5

Above, I noted certain similarities (in thought and wording) between 4Q541 fragment 9 and Testament of Levi 18:2-5. I conclude here with a translation of these verses:

And then the Lord will raise up a new priest
to whom all the words of the Lord will be revealed.
He shall effect the judgment of truth over the earth for many days.
And his star shall rise in heaven like a king;
kindling the light of knowledge as day is illumined by the sun.
And he shall be extolled by the whole inhabited world.
This one will shine forth like the sun in the earth;
he shall take away all darkness from under heaven,
and there shall be peace in all the earth.
The heavens shall greatly rejoice in his days
and the earth shall be glad;
the clouds will be filled with joy
and the knowledge of the Lord will be poured out on the earth like the water of the seas.
And the angels of glory of the Lord’s presence will be made glad by him.
(translation by H. C. Kee, OTP 1:794)

In producing the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, as we have them, Christian scribes appear to have edited and adapted earlier Jewish material. We have the clearest evidence for this in the case of the Testament of Levi, due the parallel material in the Levi text from the Cairo Geniza and the Aramaic Levi document fragments from Qumran (cf. above). Christians appear to have been attracted to the Messianic thought expressed in these pseudepigrapha and sought to apply it to the person of Jesus.

References above marked “García Martínez & Tigchelaar” are to Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 2 volumes (Brill / Eerdmans: 1997-8).
References marked “Collins” are to John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (Doubleday: 1995).
References marked “OTP” are to The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 volumes, edited by James H. Charlesworth. Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (Doubleday: 1983).