Hebrews' Priestly Christology and the Understanding of the Death of Jesus: Taking the Temple Cult Seriously

The letter to the Hebrews views Christ as a complete replacement of the sacrificial system serving as a high priest in the heavenly Temple. There is no need for an Aaronite high priest and an earthly building any longer. It is quite common to read Hebrews as an attack on the validity of the sacrificial cult. According to this view, the author of Hebrews wants the readers to sever their ties with the Jewish Temple cult and the Law and therefore shows that their time has passed. Another possible way to understand the purpose of Hebrews is that it addresses believers in Jesus who are still devoted to the Jewish traditional Temple and sacrificial cult. The author attempts to fulfill their cultic needs and feelings by replacing the cult with high priestly Christology and a Temple in heaven. Reading Hebrews' presentation of the priestly cult carefully, however, points to fundamental difficulties pertaining to both of these interpretations. First, the author describes cultic practices stressing the manner in which sacrifices are performed and atone for sins. He shows great respect for the priestly system and acknowledges the integrity and power of the Temple cult. He uses the high priesthood and sacrifices as a model for his Christology. Second, while introducing a better alternative, Hebrews never attacks the integrity of the cult or the morality of the high priest. Third, if the author wants to dispense with the sacrificial cult and replace it, he should not remind the reader how it is conducted and why it is prominent. In doing so, the reader would still consider it essential. My suggestion is that Hebrews aims to make sense of the Death of Jesus for others’ sins. When Paul introduces ransom Christology or relates to Christ as a sin offering he hardly explains it further. Furthermore, the ransom or sin offering models are problematic because they relate to Jesus as a somewhat passive, and he does not function as a religious leader. Hebrews makes sense of Christological doctrine using the sacrificial system and the role of the high priest in order to explain Jesus' expiation for others and his function in relation to God and humans. Jesus' high priesthood and service at the heavenly Temple aim to make sense of his crucifixion and exaltation in the context of Jewish religion. It is as if Christ's atonement and priestly service conform to tradition and continue the priestly system. For the author, only the high priest's atonement for others by offering sacrifice can explain how Jesus atones for others by his own death. In order to fulfill this task, Christ must serve in the Temple, and thus Hebrews turns to the concept of the heavenly Temple.