Messiah #3: Priest or high-priest

Messiah (mâšîah, "the anointed one"): Jewish religious concept, a future savior who will, in some sense, come to restore Israel. Both the nature of the Messiah and the restoration were matters of debate.

The Messiah as high-priest

Modern scholars discern four kinds of messianology in the years between 170 BCE and 140 CE.

  1. The Messiah as military leader
  2. The Messiah as sage
  3. The Messiah as high-priest
  4. The "prophet like Moses"

In this part of this article, we will focus on the third kind of messianology, which probably has its roots in the administrative practice of the second half of the second century BCE. The early Hasmonaean leaders (Jonathan, Simon and John Hyrcanus) were high-priests and national leaders, and their position seems to have been the model of this type of messianology. This explains why texts about the priestly Messiah sometimes describe him as a warrior: an unexpected occupation for a priest, but an activity that the Hasmonaean high-priests were certainly familiar with. (One is also reminded of Psalm 110, quoted above.)

Take, for example, the following fragment, in which a fight is described between the archetypal priest Melchizedek and the evil forces, commanded by Belial.

And Melchizedek will avenge with the vengeance of the judgment of God [...] from the hand of Belial and from the hand of all the spirits of his lot. And to his help are all the heavenly ones on high. He [...] all sons of might and [...] this.

This is the day of salvation about which God spoke through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah who said: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace, who brings glad tidings of good, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion: "Your heavenly one is king." [Isaiah 52.7]

Its interpretation is this. The mountains are the words of the prophets, those who [saw the things ordained and] prophesied to all those who mourn in Zion. And who brings good news: this is the Messiah of the spirit, of whom Daniel speaks: He who brings glad tidings of good, who proclaims salvation. That is what is written concerning him, when He speaks [...] to comfort those who mourn in Zion to instruct them in all the ages of the world.note

In other words, the priestly Messiah, Melchizedek, defeats the enemies of Israel and brings good news.

Other text that deserve attention are Psalms 2 and 20. In these songs, an idealized king, a "son of God", is presented, who will defend truth, humility and righteousness by defeating the enemies of Judah. Psalm 110 adds that this anointed one will be "a priest for ever" and will judge the nations. Comparable texts assume that the priestly Messiah will restore the true Temple cult, which had been defiled when the high-priesthood had fallen into Hasmonaean hands. (They were no Zadokites, which created tensions. Go here for more information.)

The most important text containing a priestly messianology is the Letter to the Hebrews, which was written - probably before 70 CE - to an audience of Jewish Christians. Jesus of Nazareth is seen as someone who wanted to help mankind, has sacrificed himself and is now sitting at the right hand of God Himself, as an eternal high-priest.

Seeing then that we have a great high-priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high-priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.note

Menahem ben Yehuda, who defeated a Roman army in 66 and was killed when he wanted to enter the Temple of Jerusalem, probably thought of himself as a priestly Messiah. It is tempting to see in Jesus' "cleansing of the Temple" a similar attempt to behave according to the ideas about the priestly Messiah.