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Jesus the High Priest, Jesus the Prophet, Jesus the Suffering Servant – Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

July 16, 2012

The major titles the New Testament applies to Jesus are as follows: Prophet, Suffering Servant, High Priest, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord, Savior, Word, Son of God, and God. Far from being a mere litany of honorifics, these titles actually refer to different aspects of his work and identity.The Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann, from whom this list has been drawn [Oscar Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, revised edition, trans. Shirley C. Guthrie and Charles A. M. Hall (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963)] usefully clusters these titles under four rubrics: Prophet, Suffering Servant, and High Priest refer to the earthly work of Jesus; Messiah and Son of Man refer to the future work of Jesus; Lord and Savior to his present work; and Word, Son of God, and God to his preexistence. To be sure, Jesus is also given other titles in the New Testament, such as “rabbi” (“teacher”) and “carpenter” but these are not distinctive enough to set Jesus off from other men by specifying in what way he is unique, although both titles do indicate (or at least imply) his full membership in the human race. Similarly, Jesus is also called simply “man,” but that specification (in the literal sense of naming his membership in a biological species) can hardly be called a “title,” since it pertains to all male human beings and, in some contexts, to all human beings whatsoever. However, in contexts where some early Christians denied the full humanity of Christ, the term “man” could be confessional, as perhaps here: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).

In this first selection we will look at the titles that refer to the earthly work of Jesus, namely Jesus the Prophet, Jesus the Suffering Servant and Jesus the High Priest

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Jesus the Prophet

At first glance the title “prophet” seems to be, so to say, a “job description” that anyone — or at least anyone inside the chosen people of Israel — could fulfill with the right qualifications. [Actually, the title "prophet" is not exclusive to Israel, for other cultures know of prophets too. Students of Homer and Virgil are already familiar with Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess cursed by Apollo (the god of prophecy to the Greeks) always to be right in her predictions and never to be believed. For a cross-cultural history of prophecy and its relationship to Hebrew prophecy, see Johannes Lindblom, Prophecy in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1962)].

Now the reason the title “prophet” can be applied to anyone irrespective of his talents and personality is that, in the Bible, a prophet was someone who experienced the word of God coming to him from the outside.[ Note that the title does not include (necessarily) any notion of being able to foretell the future; indeed the Bible abjures the very concept of soothsaying or fortunetelling (Deuteronomy 18:14; Isaiah 44:25).]

Moreover, this divinely vouchsafed word was not given to the prophet for his own benefit but was meant to be handed on to the people in a similarly external, confrontational manner (often at great cost to the prophet himself). Thus the title would not seem to convey anything specifically unique about Jesus: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth” (Deuteronomy 18:18). In fact, the New Testament often implies that the title somehow misses the mark: “Others said, `He is a prophet, like one of the others” (Mark 6:15).

But at the time of Jesus the role of prophet had changed somewhat, and this shift in meaning rendered the title rather less “generic,” that is, more amenable for describing the uniqueness of Jesus. First of all, the era of the classical prophets enshrined in the Old Testament — Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the like — seems to have died out after the Jews returned from Babylon to Jerusalem in the reign of the Persian king Cyrus. This means that the ascription to Jesus of the title “prophet” would have marked him as at least relatively unusual in his time. In other words, to be called a prophet in the time of Jesus would have implied the dawn of a new era — a restored era, to be sure, but new because it had been so long absent.

Second, some of the prophets (Elijah primarily but not exclusively) were expected to return, coming down from heaven or at least reappearing in some mysterious way. This expectation then imbues the term “prophet” at the time of Jesus with a certain eschatological hue: Could this man whom many were calling “prophet” be the very Elijah now come down from heaven whither he had been taken up so many centuries ago?

This expectation clearly affected the kind of reception both Jesus and John the Baptist received from their contemporaries, as we see most clearly in the passage from the Gospel of Mark (already partially cited above and which must now be given in full):

King Herod heard of these things [the miracles of healing and exorcism done by the recently called Twelve], for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” (Mark 6:14-16)

Obviously those of the crowd who thought Jesus was John the Baptist returned from the dead could not have known Jesus during the time of John’s active ministry, and perhaps most of them (like King Herod in fact) did not know either one of them directly. But this at least we can say: they connected Jesus and John by their ministerial behavior. Neither Jesus himself nor his evangelist Mark is explicitly applying the title “prophet” to Jesus here. Rather, Mark is merely citing the term as it was being used by people who knew Jesus by report or by misinterpretation.

Nonetheless both Jesus and the Gospel writers make the behavioral connection with prophecy clear in other contexts, especially when Jesus cleansed the Temple of moneychangers, a prophetic gesture clearly alluding to the protests of Jeremiah inside the Temple precincts as recounted in Jeremiah 25. Moreover, Jesus explicitly aligned his own fate at the hands of the chief priests and elders in Jerusalem with the fate of the prophets (Matthew 23:37 = Luke 13:34) [Ben Witherington III, Jesus the Seer: The Progress of Prophecy (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999).] But despite these parallels and allusions, reticence on the part of Jesus and the evangelists regarding this title is the key, as Cullmann explains:

We conclude that according to all four of the Gospels a section of the people expressed their faith in Jesus by the title “the Prophet” and by the associative thoughts which were connected with that term in the Jewish eschatological hope. But Jesus himself did not identify himself in this way. We should repeat here, however, that the prediction of his own return is at least foreshadowed in the conception of the return of the Prophet. Nor did the Synoptic writers express their personal faith in Jesus by means of this conception.
Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, pp. 36-37

Jesus the Suffering Servant
Like the term “prophet,” the title “Suffering Servant” refers to an Israelite who fulfills a certain role during his life on earth; and since this is a role that anyone (given the disposition and vocation for it) can assume, that disjunction between person and role implies that the prior life and identity of the person called to this role are more or less irrelevant to the call (vocations, after all, can come to those whose past life makes them seem quite unsuitable for their new role, like Paul).

The term “Suffering Servant,” however, is quite ambiguous in the Old Testament, much more so than the term “prophet,’ for it seems not to have been historically instantiated by any known historical figure, the way the lives of Isaiah and Jeremiah tell us about what a prophet is by their activity.[In fact the title "Suffering Servant" is a modern scholarly invention, referring to a figure sketchily portrayed in the second half of the book of Isaiah, where he is called simply "servant" or "servant of the Lord" (in Hebrew, 'ebed YHWH). But because this anonymous and rather vaguely described servant is characterized primarily by his suffering, modern scholars use the term (usually capitalized as Suffering Servant) as a shorthand reference to the four songs devoted to this figure in Isaiah. But one must be clear that this title, as such, was unknown in the time of Jesus, although the figure himself assumes a significant role in New Testament Christology.]

Indeed, some commentators hold that the relatively few descriptions of the Suffering Servant in the second half of the book of Isaiah are meant as a personalized description of a collective reality: that is, that Israel as a nation is the real subject of the hymns in Isaiah. But much more important than this question of identification remains the central fact, undisputed by all commentators, that the Suffering Servant Songs in Isaiah introduce a new motif in Old Testament prophecy: that of vicarious suffering.

To be sure, the prophets suffered too, but their suffering was regarded as simply a byproduct or consequence of their mission, so much so that many prophets, upon first hearing the call, shirked from their mission precisely because of the suffering that would be entailed by their obedience to it. But the Suffering Servant suffers as the very essence of his mission. One of these Songs is especially relevant for the New Testament, whose key passage needs to be quoted here in full (the italicized words highlight the inherent necessity of the Servant’s suffering if he is to fulfill his vicarious role):

He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes were we healed.

All we, like sheep, have gone astray; and we have turned, every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away…. By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities…. Because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors, yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
(Isaiah 53:2-12)

These passages of extraordinary beauty, the culmination of the Bible’s Hebrew lyricism, clearly affected the narrative structure of the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels (see Matthew 12:15-21), especially in the Passion narratives. Moreover, we know from Acts of the Apostles that Jesus’ fulfillment of these passages was a crucial factor in the preaching of the earliest church, for these were the very Songs that the Ethiopian eunuch was reading when the apostle Philip came upon him and whose explanations prompted the man to convert to Christianity (see Acts 8:26-40). Finally, a comparison of the four Songs with the accounts of the Passion in all four Gospels shows how much the evangelists shaped their narrative in terms of the vocabulary and cadences of the Songs.

The question becomes how much Jesus saw himself in those terms, a complicated question that cannot be fully resolved until we come to the next chapter dealing with the diachronic, historical development of the New Testament and the historicity of the Gospel accounts. But this at least can be said: the notion of vicarious suffering is the most distinctive semantic implication of the Suffering Servant Songs. In much of the rest of the Old Testament, suffering is seen as either just punishment inflicted upon Israel for its sins or as the inevitable, if regrettable, consequence of obedience to a call. Job’s suffering is somewhat exceptional here, as he did nothing to merit his suffering, nor did his suffering come as the consequence of a prophetic call; but even Job is not understood to suffer vicariously, only innocently.

This means that the real question about Jesus and the Suffering Servant revolves not so much around his explicit and conscious assumption of the title (the Gospels do not record him speaking of himself in those terms), but what his attitude was toward his own suffering as explicitly a vicarious suffering. And this we do know: that in all of the accounts of the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus on the night before he died, he saw his suffering and death as a vicarious act meant to atone for the sins of “the many,” an interpretation made even more solemn by its validation in the Eucharist itself.

Even so, however, a puzzle remains: as Cullmann says, “The `Servant of God’ is one of the oldest titles used by the first Christians to define their faith in the person and work of Christ. [But] like that of the Prophet, this title disappeared quite early.”[Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, p. 51]Why that happened will emerge as the analysis of the titles applied to Jesus proceeds. But this at least we can say at this point: the fact that the title of Suffering Servant fell into disuse by the time the Gospels were composed says something significant about the Gospel depiction of the Last Supper:

Thus when Jesus took the last meal with his disciples, he announced what he would accomplish the next day on the cross…. By the time the Synoptic Gospels were written, [the term Suffering Servant] as a title for Jesus was no longer common in the early Church. The Gospels prefer other titles for him, above all “Christ.” It is thus all the more remarkable that not only Paul but also all three Synoptics in relating the story of the Last Supper recall that Jesus at this decisive moment ascribed to himself the role of [Suffering] “Servant of God.”
[Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, p. 65]

Jesus the High Priest
At first glance the title High Priest would seem to be, of all the titles applied to Jesus, singularly inappropriate, since it was the High Priest at the time who actively colluded in the death of Jesus. Moreover, the institution of the priesthood in Judaism was completely fused to the Temple in Jerusalem, whose cult the High Priest oversaw; and charges swirled around Jesus that his witness and ministry were a threat to the Temple: “We heard him say, `I will destroy this temple made with hands and in three days will build another not made with hands” (Mark 14:58).

But it is just that link that provides the key to the basis for this title as applied to Jesus. From the Dead Sea Scrolls we already know that some Jews, presumably the same group Josephus identified as the Essenes, had already made rejection of the current regime of the high priesthood compatible with an idealization of Temple worship in a future millennial reign inaugurated by God.

In addition, the concept of priesthood always entails a recognized need for a mediator; otherwise a society would not have recognized an institutional need for priesthood, [Anthropologically considered, priests always serve as mediators between heaven and earth.] which makes inevitable the linkage between High Priest and the mission of Jesus, especially given Jesus’ own supersessionist identification of himself with the Temple: “Something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6). As Cullmann rightly summarizes:

We conclude that Judaism knew of an ideal priest who, as the one true priest, would fulfill in the last days all the elements of the Jewish priestly office. The Jewish conception of priest was bound sooner or later to lead to this expectation. Because of his office, the High Priest is the proper mediator between God and his people, and as such assumes from the very beginning a position of divine eminence. Judaism had in the High Priest a man who could satisfy already in the present the need of the people for divine mediation in a cultic framework. But the weaker became the correspondence between the reality of the empirical priesthood and their high expectation, the stronger became the Jews’ hope for the end when all things would be fulfilled. This hope included also the concept of priest, so that the figure of a perfect High Priest of the end time moved ever nearer to that of Messiah.
Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, p. 86

This background to the title High Priest goes far to explain the great innovation introduced by the Letter to the Hebrews. At first glance, the title High Priest seems an exalted one, as the word “high” already implies. But the whole point of the Letter to the Hebrews seeks to show that, by virtue of Jesus’ sacrifice and his identification with the Temple, the Mediator also became the victim, so much so that Hebrews even identifies Jesus the High Priest with Jesus the Suffering Servant:

Christ was offered once and for all “to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:28), a direct reference to the fourth Suffering Servant Song (at Isaiah 53:12). But this linkage works both ways, for now the Suffering Servant is no longer seen merely as victim, a pathetic figure whose suffering is otherwise inexplicable except as somehow being mysteriously redemptive; rather, now the Suffering Servant is transfigured by the voluntary and representative mediatorship of the High Priest, or in Cullmann’s words:

“A new and valuable element is introduced into Christology with the Jewish concept of high priesthood. It is the idea that in his very self-sacrifice Christ manifests his high priestly majesty.
[Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, p. 91]

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