Jesus the Priest: Studies in Mark, Pt. 21

When one reads Mark’s account of the Gospel, especially the first few chapters, they see Jesus going around from synagogue to synagogue teaching, preaching and doing supernatural things. In Mark’s account Jesus also causes a stir among the scribes and priests. He heals on the Sabbath (3.1-6) and He eats with unclean persons (sinners; 2.15ff). He also plucks grain on the Sabbath (2.23-8). And when He is plucking grain on the Sabbath, He tells a story about the time when David entered the Holy of Holies and ate bread. Of course, when David did this, it was not the norm; this bread was reserved only for priests. Jesus likens this story to He and His disciples picking grain. He says, “In the days of Abiathar the high priest David…entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions” (2.26).

I am not going to deal with the issues surrounding the accuracy of Abiathar’s priesthood, needless to say, I believe what Mark recounts here is correct. I may offer an explanation in another post. What I want to focus on here is the idea that by telling this story and making this statement, Jesus is associating Himself with the priesthood; He is referring to Himself as a priest. Why is this so overlooked though (I myself have overlooked this so many times while studying Mark’s account)? In this episode, Jesus who is talking with the Pharisaic priests considers Himself a priest. Of course, Jesus is not in the line of Levi (the priesthood) but of Judah, so, how can He do this? How could He be a priest?

Usually, when people want to talk about the priesthood of Jesus, they go to Hebrews. That is a good place to go and there is much to be offered there but I would suggest that Mark’s account also portrays Jesus, while at odds with the established priesthood, as a priest too. However, He is not like the Judaic priests in office; He is different. This raises a few questions: What was Jesus’ understanding of a priest (as Mark portrays it)? And, How is Jesus different?

It appears that Jesus’ understanding of a priest was someone who was of God. A few verses before this encounter with the priests, Jesus heals a leper and tells Him, “Go show yourself to the priests and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded…” (1.44). If we work backwards in this statement, we see that Jesus understands the priests to be affiliated with Moses. Of course, Moses received the commands from God and brought them to the people. From these two passages early on in Mark’s account, we see that central to Jesus’ understanding of a priest, then, is that a priest is someone who is from God, who brings the word (commands) of God to the people, who serves them the bread consecrated to God and lives a life of sacrifice for the community of God.

Now, when we get to chapter 7 of Mark’s account, we see these roles appear again. In the beginning of this chapter, Jesus has another run in with the religious leaders. On the surface, the whole issue looks like it has to do with cleanliness rituals. However, it has much more to do with who is truly a priest, than anything else. Really, the Pharisees have an almost legitimate reason to wonder about Jesus being a priest. Remember, they heard Him refer to Himself this way in 2.26 and now they see Him doing something that doesn’t quite line up with what their understanding of being a priest was: Jesus is eating with unclean hands.

Now, I need to make a clarifying note here. Mark 7.3 reads, “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing…” It should be noted that as in many cases in Mark, the word “all” is not meant to be taken wooden literally. For example, in the opening verses of his account, Mark said that “all of” or “the whole Judean countryside and of Jerusalem” went out to the Jordan River. We should not think that every person left Jerusalem and made the long voyage to where Jesus was at; Mark is using a figure of speech here, which we use all of the time too. He does it again in 1.32 where “all” the sick and demon-possessed are brought to Him. This is Mark’s way of saying a lot. So, in 7.3 the reader should not take Mark’s phrase overly seriously. In fact, it was only required for priests to wash their hands before eating, not just any normal Jewish person (see: 30.18-21; 40.30-2). And that is an incredibly significant point! Did the leaders' challenge to Jesus on hand washing issues imply that they were interpreting Him, in some way, as acting or attempting to act in the role of a priest? Where could they have gotten such an idea but from 2.26? They were trying to catch Him breaking one of the priestly roles so that they could discredit His claim to being a priest.

Jesus doesn’t break the hand washing command of the priests because the command only calls for washing before entering the tent of meeting or before approaching the altar (see: Ex. 30 & 40). What the religious leaders had done was add to that law; they tacked on their own extra rules and stipulations. This is what Jesus has a problem with! In fact, He gives a prime example of this when He talks about Korban. Jesus then goes on to tell how they created Korban, a rule that allowed them to place their money in a treasury so that they did not have to use it to take care of their parents. They called it Korban, which meant “funds devoted to God” to make it seem like a holy action. However, Jesus sees right through that act and deems it unholy. He points out that the priests developed Korban under the guise of something holy, in order that they could do something unholy—break the 5th commandment. This is what Jesus explicitly means when He says they nullify the word of God; they nullify it by adding to it so they don’t have to keep it.

Contrary to a surface reading that might make Jesus seem anti-Law, Jesus actually affirms and keeps the Law here. In fact, He blasts the priests because they don’t. What is proven is that Jesus is the one who has fulfilled the role of priest, the only one. There are other allusions to this in Mark. For instance, Jesus bringing the word to the people! Mk. 1.14-5 makes this clear. Jesus also serves the bread that is consecrated to God (in fact, He serves bread many times!). Jesus also is a person from God, as Mark makes clear in the opening verses and is attested all throughout the Gospel. Jesus is also a person who serves among the people (and serves the people). Even a cursory reading of Mark reveals this as Jesus is going all over the place meeting people’s needs. Lastly, Jesus is the one who makes the sacrifice of sacrifices: He gives Himself up to be slaughtered as an offering.

One last thing, it might be the case that all throughout Mk. the priesthood and the Herodians are shown as teaming up (esp. 3.6) because Mark wants to highlight that not only is Jesus, the King of kings but in line with the priestly Christology of Hebrews, He is also The Priest of priests; Jesus is what a real king or priest looks like. Sadly, to my knowledge, this has not been picked up on yet. In fact, many commentators on Hebrews make statements such as, “Neither Paul nor the Gospels portray Jesus as a priest.” It is time, though, that such remarks are corrected.


  1. Good stuff, Michael.

    Funny, two years ago I presented a paper at SCJC suggesting Jesus as High Priest, but went about it a different way...

    What I noticed was that Jesus combined two texts together to talk about what He was doing: Psalm 110 with Daniel 7. My thesis was: Jesus understood Himself as God by His unique and radical combination and interpretation of the role of the High Priestly King in Psalm 110 and the exalted “Son of Man” in Daniel 7.

    I worked through showing Psalm 110 to be a chiasm with verse 4 as the most emphatic: the PRIEST King.

    3 quick examples where Jesus is asked by the High Priest who he is...and Jesus replies with Psalm 110 combined with Daniel 7. I think the High Priest understood Jesus to be 'outranking' him by quoting Psalm 110 [emphais on chiasm].

    [Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62, Luke 22:69]
    While no attempt is made to harmonize these accounts, these three texts show Jesus using Psalm 110 in the same way. When asked if He is the Messiah by the High Pries, Jesus answers affirmatively. Matthew and Mark record Jesus adding statements from Daniel 7: “Coming on clouds of heaven”. Daniel 7 depicts monsters rising out of the sea to oppress God’s people. God then exalts a “Son of Man” from the earth (cloud imagery) and leads him into His presence. This human defeats the monsters and God establishes his kingdom as everlasting. It is no wonder why Jesus combined Daniel 7 with Psalm 110, considering what He believed His vocation was. At this point in His career, it seems clear enough that Jesus was convinced of His personal calling and vocation to be the exalted King-Priest of Psalm 110 and to be the “Son of Man” exalted from earth to share YHWH’s throne.

    Also interesting, Stephen seemed to be aware of this tradition in Acts 7 [when standing before the High Priest at his deat].

    I suggest that this is the reality AND TRADITION that the writer of Hebrews reflected on: the tradition of Jesus as true High Priest/King exalted to share YHWH’s throne. The Hebrews author didn't just "put it together" but extrapolated on this tradition.

    As Jesus read Psalm 110 and Daniel 7, he combined the two eschatological roles into one and believed He could accomplish the role. Jesus would be the High Priest King exalted to share YHWH’s throne, and thus His worship.

  2. Yes,
    this is a bit of a dif. angle but your argument seems well reasoned. at this point, i do believe that paul wrote heb. and as i said at your blog, that paul used the gospel of mt. thus, this tradition that you are talking about would have been preserved there, where paul picked up on it.

    yes, JC is the priest king all over mark, he is also the prophet! i forget who it was that came up w/the 3fold office of prophet, priest and king but whoever it was, they were surely on to something.

    good thoughts jacob,
    again, keep up the good work!