It is a striking feature that, while there are pagan priests and Jewish priests in the pages of the New Testament, no individual Christian is ever specifically identified as a priest.
We need to recognise that the term presbyteros means an elder, not a priest, as it is sometimes wrongly translated. The term priest is hiereus or its Latin equivalent, sacerdos.
Hebrews speaks of the high priesthood of Jesus who carried out the definitive blood offering of the Holy of Holies for the sins of the people. But Hebrews does not associate the priesthood of Jesus with the Eucharist or Last Supper, nor suggest that other Christians are priests in the likeness of Jesus.
Sometimes this once-and-for-all, definitive priesthood of Jesus (Heb 10:12-14) is used to assert that all human priesthood has been fulfilled and finished. This is far too big a generalisation.
Hebrews belongs to the time after the destruction of the centre of Jerusalem’s priesthood, the Temple. The sacrificial function of Jewish priesthood was ended, so Jesus is now a priest who has replaced the priests and sacrifices of Israel, a theology one also finds in the great replacement themes of the Gospel of John.
Not priestly function but holiness
Another factor that Luther made popular and which is receiving increasing recognition in Catholic circles is that all Christians were looked on as priests so there was no need for special priests. From the wish of Moses that all Israel be a ‘kingdom of priests’ (Exod 19:6) to 1 Pet 2:9 that ‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’, we have the seeds of such thinking.
But again we have to qualify such an approach, for the primary sense of both texts is that people were and are bound to God by a special covenant relationship to be a holy people, as holy as priests should be. The primary concern of the text is not priestly function (cultic sacrifice) but priestly holiness.
The idea of the royal priesthood of a whole people (Israel) did not exclude the rise of a cultic Levitical priesthood so it is wrong to argue from the royal priesthood of Christians to exclude the existence of a Christian specialised cultic priesthood. Yet the text of 1 Peter 2:5 that Christians offer ‘spiritual sacrifices’ is a figurative reference to a holy way of life.
The earliest Christian knowing
It is always tempting to read a later development into its earliest expression. A reason often given why individual Christians are not specifically designated as priests in the NT is that the apostles who presided at the Eucharist were priests in all but name because the term was too closely associated with the Jewish priests of the Temple. But this is a serious oversimplification and derives from supposing that in NT times the Eucharist was regarded as a sacrifice and thus associated with priesthood.
Because of Christianity’s origins in Judaism we should really see the opposite—animal sacrifice would be thought of in terms of blood and there was no visible blood in the Eucharist.
There are sacrificial overtones in the Eucharist words of Jesus, his mention of shedding his blood, for you—covenant language before a bloody death. But in its earliest expression there is no proof that those Christian communities who broke the Eucharistic bread after the resurrection thought they were offering sacrifice.
Now, to be very clear, this is not to question a legitimate later development in theology where the church came to understand Eucharist as sacrifice. The point to be made here is that we have no basis to assume that early Christians considered the priest as the one who presided at the Eucharistic meal.
A continuing priesthood
If anything, the Jewish practice of the head of a household telling the Exodus story and enacting its ritual would have continued in some form into early Jewish Christianity’s celebration of Eucharist. Early Christians continued to worship in the Temple until its destruction in the year 70 so it is very likely that early Christians acknowledged the Jewish priesthood as valid and never thought of a priesthood of their own.
Many of our assumptions about early Christianity are quite erroneous when we think of Christianity as a new religion with its own institutions. Hopefully, the Year of St Paul would have taught us that this was just not so; Paul never thought of himself as a follower of Judaism who converted to Christianity but as one who found in Christ the fulfilment of the Judaism he lived.
For the emergence of the idea of a special Christian priesthood in place of the Jewish priesthood several major changes had to take place. First Christians had to see themselves as constituting a new religion distinct from Judaism, a situation that arose with the increasing predominance of Gentile Christianity and the growing importance of other major centres over a declining Jerusalem.
In the period between 85 and 90 the synagogues began excommunicating Jewish Christians, furthering the break.
A second development that had to take place for the emergence of a special Christian priesthood was that Christianity had to have a sacrifice. The Eucharist came to be seen as an unbloody sacrifice replacing the bloody sacrifices no longer offered in the now destroyed Temple after the year 70.
This first appears at the turn of the century in an early Christian writing, the Didache, where Christians are instructed: ‘Assemble on the Lord’s Day, breaking bread and celebrating the Eucharist; but first confess your sins that your sacrifice may be a pure one… For it was of this that the Lord spoke, “Everywhere and always offer me a pure sacrifice”.’
The quotation is from Malachi 1:10-11, a passage important for a Christian understanding of the Eucharist as a pure sacrifice offered among Gentiles from the rising to the setting of the sun.
Implications of such a development
The historical picture given here modifies the claim that Jesus instituted the priesthood at the Last Supper, a statement true to the same real but nuanced extent that the historical Jesus instituted the church.
The nucleus was formed by Jesus of what would develop into a community and then the church. By giving special significance to the elements of the Passover meal of Jesus with his disciples, Jesus gave his community a rite that would ultimately be seen as a sacrifice whose celebrants would be understood as priests.
Reference: R E Brown Priest and Bishop Paulist Press.