Jesus of Nazareth: Prophet, Priest, or King?

Jesus of Nazareth: Prophet, Priest, or King? January 17, 2023


Statue of Christ enthroned in the Basilica di San Pietro (Courtesy of Maurits Verbiest at Flickr)

Christianity considers Jesus of Nazareth to be the Davidic messiah whose coming is promised throughout the prophetic books of the Old Testament. This is its foundational fact, arguably even more foundational that the belief in Jesus’s divinity, for the claim of his divinity rests upon his being the messiah for whom the Jewish people have long waited. And yet, it is abundantly clear that if Jesus was indeed the messiah, he was a very different one than the Jewish people had been expecting. He was not the glorious king driving out foreign oppressors and making Israel the global superpower of the first century. What the Jewish nation was to experience in the decades after Jesus began his messianic mission—lost of the homeland and dispersal to the four winds—was about as far from the old promise of national rejuvenation as could be imagined. It was no wonder that, by and large, Jesus’s claim to messiahship has never been considered very persuasive in Judaism.

As I noted in my previous entry, Jesus did not have to claim to be the Messiah of David. There were plenty of other messianic roles for the taking in first-century Judaea. The Pentateuch itself had foretold the coming of a New Moses, a prophet whose authority would be equal to that of the first Moses and who would restore a pristine interpretation of the law to Israel. This role would have suited Jesus well. His famous words from the Sermon on the Mount, so often quoted but so rarely reckoned with, “Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17) demonstrate an abiding commitment to the law. This has not stopped Christians throughout the centuries from taking them to mean the exact opposite of their plain meaning, namely, that the grace offered by Jesus fulfills the purpose of the law and thus the letter of the law is no longer operative. But Jesus directly rebuts this interpretation himself a few lines later when he says, “Anyone therefore who sets aside even the least of the law’s demands, and teaches others to do the same, will have the lowest place in the kingdom of Heaven, whereas anyone who keeps the law, and teaches others to do so, will rank high in the kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:19). From this, it is clear that Jesus expects the law to be fulfilled in full by his truest followers. While not outright rejecting those who follow him but do not observe the law, he notes that they shall “have the lowest place in the kingdom of Heaven,” not an ideal outcome for any Christian.

Indeed, the rest of Matthew 5 further emphasizes both that Jesus is devoted to the law and that he expects his followers to be, as well. The remainder of the passage is a list of ethical demands that follow the formula “you have heard … but I say,” in which Jesus contrasts the old understanding of the law with the new one he is offering. Here can be found some of Jesus’s most famous (and most infamous) teachings: his insistence that “Anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to justice” with the same penalty as murderers (Matt. 5:21-22); his warning that “If a man looks at a woman with a lustful eye, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28); one of his many denunciations of divorce as tantamount to adultery (Matt. 5:31-32); and his well-known calls to “not resist those who wrong you” (Matt. 5:39) and to “[l]ove your enemies and pay for your persecutors” (Matt. 5:44). What these disparate sayings have in common is that they all begin with the old law and then offer the new. But never in any case is the new law an abnegation of the old.

It is true that each of these commands represents a “spiritualization” of the law, but not in the sense of the law’s physical demands being relaxed. Rather, Jesus intensifies the demands of the law by adding an inner “spiritual” component to the outer, physical one; now, what you think, feel, and intend is just as important as what you actively do. This is not a release from the law but an expansion of its reach; Jesus applies the dictates of the law to every aspect of personhood, including not just the physical but the mental, the spiritual, and the social as well. Christianity’s critics have long argued that such an ethical code, which seems to require that impure thoughts and negative feelings simply never arise, is functionally unworkable. However, as he considered himself the messiah, Jesus was probably looking at things from the perspective seen in the Book of Jeremiah, where the messiah’s reign is accompanied by the mystical transformation of the Jewish people’s moral and spiritual state in which backsliding is impossible. This is the state of “the new covenant” (Jer. 31: 32-33). Jesus probably expected that such a moral and spiritual elevation would soon manifest itself and that the people of the new covenant would therefore have no trouble keeping these intense precepts. This would certainly go a long way toward explaining Jesus’s constant frustration with the “generation of vipers” who persisted in their old, morally bankrupt ways despite his proclamation of the messianic age.

But regardless, Jesus’s concern was clearly for reforming the law in a more all-encompassing direction rather than rendering it unnecessary by an offer of grace. His further statement to the Pharisees, in another of his many diatribes against divorce, that “it is because of your stubbornness that Moses gave you permission to divorce your wives; but it was not like that at the beginning” (Matt. 19.8) indicates that he saw himself not as offering a new law or even a new formulation of the law but a return to the law in its original pristine state. He even suggests his superiority to Moses by indicating that while Moses had to depart from the original and proper form of the law to suit the wickedness of the times, Jesus himself is able to reestablish the law as it is meant to be without offering any such concessions. All of this lines up closely with what was expected of the new Moses. The Second Moses would act with an authority greater than or equal to the old, would settle disputes about the law, and would return it to its original, pristine form. This matches closely with Jesus’s own career; major episodes of preaching such as the Sermon on the Mount lay out a purified and restored vision of the law while Jesus’s innumerable debates with the Pharisees serve to settle, in his follower’s minds at least, the era’s great disputes about the law and its meaning. In short, Jesus seems to go out of his way to perform the role of the Second Moses, the restorer of the true Torah prophesied in Deuteronomy 18.

And yet, for all this, Jesus did not claim to be the Second Moses. He also did not claim to be the Messiah of Aaron. This is the priestly messiah of the Dead Sea Scrolls who is expected to ascend the high priesthood of the Temple and act in concert with the royal Messiah of David to bring about Israel’s rejuvenation. The priestly messiah fulfills much of the same function as the Second Moses—though the Dead Sea Scrolls suggest that the Qumran community, at least, considered them separate individuals—by restoring the proper understanding of religion and devotion to the Torah. The priestly messiah’s role did place more emphasis on restoring the proper forms of Temple worship and ritual observance than the second Moses—or, indeed, Jesus himself—but the fact that the priest was prophesized to face doubt and persecution before eventually triumphing certainly resonates with Jesus’s own sense of the contours of his mission. And the fact that he was specifically expected to make atonement for the sins of Israel suitably aligns with the own emphasis later Christianity would give to Jesus’s own role of atoning for humanity’s sins on the Cross. Furthermore, while the issue of Jesus’s descent from David has caused far more ink to be spilled over the centuries, it has sometimes been speculated that Jesus also was descended from Aaron and thus could make a legitimate, if largely hopeless, claim to the office of high priest in the Temple.

“Jesus Christ the Great High Priest” by Vojislav Luković (Courtesy of the blog Whispers of an Immortalist)

The idea of Jesus as the priestly messiah even seems to have had some currency among his early followers, judging by the Epistle to the Hebrews. Hebrews acknowledges Jesus as both the Second Moses and the priestly messiah. But while it does the first largely in passing by noting that “Jesus has been counted worthy of greater honour than Moses” (Hebrews 3:3), Hebrews is much more taken by the idea that Jesus is the “high priest of the faith we profess” (Hebrews 3:1), expounding at length the priestly role that a glorified Christ fulfills in Heaven, “this is the kind of high priest we have, and he has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of Majesty in heaven, a minister in the real sanctuary, the tent set up by the Lord, not by man” (Hebrews 8:1-2). Indeed, the notion of Christ’s messianic role being primarily that of the true high priest is the theological heart of the entire text.

Furthermore, Hebrews repeatedly ties Christ’s high priesthood to that of Melchizedek. In addition to his earthly role as the priest-king of Salem who blessed Abraham, Melchizedek appears here for the only time in the canonical Bible as the immortal, eternal, uncreated high priest of Heaven; Hebrews says of him, “He has no father, no mother, no ancestors; his life has no beginning and no end. Bearing the likeness of the Son of God, he remains a priest for all time” (Hebrews 7:3). This eternal, angelic being is the Melchizedek of the Dead Sea Scrolls, who is there identified with the Good Spirit God has placed in cosmic conflict with the Evil Spirit called Belial. There, it is he who plays the main role in the eschatological defeat of evil and salvation of the righteous, for “he will atone for all the Sons of Light and the people who are predestined to Melchizedek” and “he will deliver all captives from the power of Belial” (Wise et al. 456). That Hebrews brings the angelic Melchizedek in and makes him Heaven’s high priest indicates both that the author of the epistle was either drawing from the theology of the Qumran community directly or from a common source and that he views the role of high priest as specifically messianic and salvific. Both of these things would suggest that the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews was well aware of the tradition of the priestly messiah and saw in Jesus a particularly apt candidate for the role.

Whatever may be said about the author of Hebrews’s view of the matter—or the ironic fact that this text that shares so much overlap with the ultra-observant Dead Sea Scrolls holds to the Pauline view that the law has been superseded by Christ and is now non-binding—the idea that Jesus is the priestly messiah does not seem to be one he himself put forth. Like with the Second Moses, it is another curious case of a messianic role that Jesus was eminently suited for but did not explicitly attempt to claim for himself. Rather, of the three distinct messianic roles acknowledged by the Jewish apocalyptic consciousness of the first century, Jesus made his claim to the one to which he was objectively the least suited. He could occupy the role of reformist Moses-like prophet, or even, in a limited and informal sense, act as the messianic priest. But the poor laborer from the Galilee was about as far from the promised great warrior king driving the enemies of Israel before him as one could possibly imagine.

Even the Davidic lineage on which Jesus would have had to base his claim was questionable. Matthew traces Jesus’s Davidic descent back through Joseph but then immediately invalidates it by including the story of the virgin birth and assuring his readership that “Joseph … took Mary home to be his wife, but had no intercourse with her until her son was born” (Matt. 1:24-25). Luke does the same but muddies the waters even further by tracing Jesus’s descent from David’s son Nathan (Luke 3:31), making Joseph the heir of a little-known cadet branch of the Davidic dynasty rather than the main line from which the messiah was most often expected. That Matthew and Luke do not agree with each other and introduce some major complications into Jesus’s prime qualification for the messianic title suggests how vexed the question of Jesus’s Davidic descent must have been even in the first century.

And yet, despite the questions of his lineage, despite the vast unlikelihood that he could ever carry out the Davidic messiah’s program and, indeed, despite his apparent interest in carrying out the role of that other messianic figure, the new Moses, Jesus made the claim to be the royal Davidic messiah. Why exactly he did so, we can probably never say. One may suspect that the position of supreme authority and the chance to play the decisive part in the drama of Israel’s restoration might have been enough of an incentive. But neither was necessarily tied to the figure of the Davidic messiah. In their apocalyptic vision, the Dead Sea Scrolls had elevated the priestly messiah above the royal one in terms of prestige and authority and sometimes even gave him the larger role to play in the final triumph over evil. Thus, Jesus could have still claimed to be the ultimate arbiter of Israel’s destiny whatever messianic position he chose for himself.

That being said, the Davidic messiah was certainly the most famous and hoped-for of the three messianic figures in first-century Judaea—as he has indeed remained ever since. What is more, Jesus’s own conception of his messianic role seems to have been a hodge-podge of various distinct apocalyptic ideas current at the time, hence his annexing of the designation “Son of Man” found in Daniel 7’s famous “four empires” prophecy to himself despite the fact that in its original context it refers to the Jewish people as a whole. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that Jesus may have simply conflated all the various messianic roles together and assumed that they would all be fulfilled by a single figure. He might have seen no contradiction in claiming the role of Davidic messiah but fulfilling the role of Second Moses. And his followers in turn may have also welcomed the freedom this gave them to project Jesus’s own unique messianism into any of the models they inherited from Judaism, as the Epistle to the Hebrews did with the idea of the priestly messiah. Of course, this all remains speculation. Jesus’s real intentions must remain a mystery or, at least for believers, a matter of faith.

One wonders if the fate of Christianity would have been different if Jesus had chosen to identify himself as the Second Moses or the priestly messiah instead of the Davidic conqueror. Would a reconciliation with Judaism have been possible? Would more mainstream adherents of Judaism find it easier to tolerate the claim that Jesus had been the Second Moses or the priestly messiah, sent by God to lead a religious reformation and a return to purer Torah observance, if it had not been indissolubly combined with the idea that Jesus was also the Davidic messiah that was supposed to lead the nation of Israel into a future of endless peace and prosperity? It is not impossible that a Christianity willing to drop the claim that Jesus had been the Davidic messiah and instead make the case that he had been the new Moses or the priestly messiah could have found a Judaism receptive enough to achieve at least a tentative reconciliation. Of course, two thousand years on, with Christianity and Judaism in vastly different places in relation to each other than they were then, it is hard to imagine that any such development would even be possible, much less wanted. But the first century was a very different one from our own.

As it stands, however, Jesus’s claim to the Davidic messiahship ensured that the movement he founded would eventually be cleaved apart from Judaism. The Jewish people, for the most part, could not countenance a Davidic messiah so unlike the one that their scriptures had promised them. The Gentiles, of course, had less of an issue with this. And thus, while scholars may continue to debate whether Christianity’s universalist message goes back to Jesus or was the invention of St. Paul, Jesus’s own actions certainly pushed the faith in that direction. For it became the only viable outcome the moment Jesus chose to proclaim himself the Messiah of David rather than the Messiah of Aaron or the new Mosaic prophet.

That being said, even among the Gentiles, anxiety over the poor correspondence between the original conception of the Davidic messiah and Jesus’s own performance of the role would never go away. The Davidic messiah had had such a lasting appeal for a reason; through the figure of a worldly hero-king, it was able to offer the promise of physical security and material prosperity alongside that of moral improvement and spiritual enlightenment. The messianic program of a nascent Christianity may have provided a surplus of the latter but it offered very little of the former; the Book of Revelation specifically notes that it is “those who, for the sake of God’s word and their witness to Jesus, had been beheaded” who “reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4). Given this, and given the fact that Christ seemed to be in no hurry to return in glory and set up his millennial kingdom, it is perhaps no surprise that the notion of an earthly king descended from David who would smash the enemies of the faith began gain traction in Christian circles. The Islamic invasions of Christendom in the seventh century would be the spark that lit the fuse. In the explosion of prophetic thought that followed, not only would a new form of the two-messiah theory emerge that would come to dominate Christian apocalyptic throughout the Middle Ages, but the warlike Messiah of David would himself be revived in the Christian milieu. In the Syrian text known as the Apocalypse of Methodius, he would undergo a radical transformation and remerge in a new, distinctly Christian form, that of the Last World Emperor.


Works Cited

A Letter to Hebrews. The Oxford Study Bible, edited by M. Jack Suggs, Katharin Doob Sakenfeld, and James R. Meuller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 1521-1533.

Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation, edited and translated by Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, Jr., and Edward Cook. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996. [In accord with my previous practice, I have tried to increase readability by rendering quotations from here without the accompanying signs and symbols that indicate various nuances in the reconstruction. Curious readers are encouraged to seek out the original edition for a better understanding of the how its editors have reconstructed and pieced together the texts.]

The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. The Oxford Study Bible, edited by M. Jack Suggs, Katharin Doob Sakenfeld, and James R. Meuller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 778-847.

The Gospel according to Luke. The Oxford Study Bible, edited by M. Jack Suggs, Katharin Doob Sakenfeld, and James R. Meuller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 1327-1364.

The Gospel according to Matthew. The Oxford Study Bible, edited by M. Jack Suggs, Katharin Doob Sakenfeld, and James R. Meuller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 1267-1303. [Just like last time, I have emended this text’s “complete” to the more common “fulfill” in Matt. 5:17 on the grounds that the “fulfill” rendering is the only one current in most discussion of the passage.]

The Revelation of John. The Oxford Study Bible, edited by M. Jack Suggs, Katharin Doob Sakenfeld, and James R. Meuller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 1556-1575.


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