For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The High Priest at Ephesus

I post the following as a hurried draft I had written recently, without references... It is a bit disjointed. What I will eventually try to do with this is flesh out the detail, to say that mystical practice and vision was very important, and that the Apostles themselves engaged in it. The connection of this mysticism with liturgy is that the Atonement liturgy of the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and then the Eucharistic liturgy which had significant ritual continuity with it, were seen as taking place in heaven. Temple mysticism - which became Eucharistic mysticism - takes the mystic to heaven, or to receive a vision of it. The early, Apostolic, development of the liturgy could therefore have been informed by visions of the risen Christ, which were given to the ecstatic in a liturgical frame of reference. Some of the stuff I am saying here is speculative, of course - and the piece about James as High Priest will not please those who think of the Bishop of Rome in that role. Shouldn't it have been Peter? I could take the speculation below to another and more doubtful stage, and suggest that it was the Roman church rather than its bishop which was the guarantor of orthodoxy in early tradition - although the pastoral role given by Christ to Peter does of course lend him the role of teacher, the one who confirms the brethren. But should the role of the High Priest, the liturgical primacy, if I could put it that way, go to someone a bit further East? Since Ephesus isn't so important in Asia Minor these days - Constantinople? What a relief that would be to a lot of us.

The Apostle John, one of the three "pillars" of the Apostolic church, outlived the other chief Apostles. The other two pillars, James the brother of the Lord and Peter, and also Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, were martyred by A.D. 70. He alone was left, and this would have made him unquestionably the most venerable figure in the Church for the final third of the first century: he is said to have died in old age, possibly surviving into his eighties and the time of Trajan.

There is reasonable internal evidence that the Apocalypse was written at around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, and John's exile on Patmos may refer to his flight from that city. The earthly Jerusalem, the place of Christ's crucifixion and his brother's martyrdom, and Rome, where Peter and Paul were recently martyred, are both presented as anti-types of the heavenly Jerusalem; the book is laden with the symbolism of the Temple and rotates around the Jewish liturgical year. But there is (as yet) no overwriting of this pattern with a specifically Christian cycle, or a Christology worked out in terms of the Christian rite itself. He is the Apocalyptic Christ, the Son of Man from Daniel; and if we glimpse a Christian liturgy, it is part of the narrative and there is no reading of the meaning of Christ through the liturgy. He is present in it, as an actor in the celestial drama, as the Lamb, but is not (explicitly) its subject.

Then we have the Gospel of John, written later in Ephesus, perhaps intentionally supplementing the other canonical Gospels, but which is deeply sacramental. In it, the famous discourse on the bread of life, the water, the vine, all presuppose an established ritual and liturgical life; the Jewish liturgical cycle has receded into the background, and any reference to e.g. the Day of Atonement is now present to add emphasis to Christ's depiction as the eternal High Priest, entering again into the Holy of Holies from whence he descended. The Passover feast is effaced to allow the final address of Christ, in which the eschatological return of Christ is juxtaposed with the pneumatic descent, and both together are placed in the Eucharistic feast.

What happens between John's authorship of these two books - assuming this dating is correct - between his flight from Jerusalem and his death perhaps 25 years later? There is a persistent rumour - through several fragments of lost authors including Polycrates, the second century bishop of Ephesus - reported in Eusebius, that John "wore the plate on the mitre" in Ephesus, which would have made him High Priest: the plate was the golden plate inscribed with the Tetragrammaton that the High Priest wore on his mitre in the Holy of Holies for the great Day of Atonement. But there are also odd hints around about James, the brother of the Lord (identified as having experienced a separate resurrection experience of Christ, apart from the Apostles, in Paul's first letter to the Corinthian church), having been the High Priest. A lost author quoted in Clement speaks of James as the only one being able to go into the sanctuary, and that he wore linen not wool (both the solitary privilege and the garb identifying him as High Priest); and other early writings - admittedly of doubtful provenance - talk about James as having been placed by Jesus over the twelve Apostles. But it does all add up, even the New Testament evidence: why should Paul refer to James receiving a specific visit of the risen Christ over and above the Apostles? And then there is the episode in Acts known as the council of Jerusalem, in which Peter (the chief of the Apostles) speaks, but James sums up and gives the final decision.

There is some evidence beginning to emerge about the continuity the Temple theology, and elements of Temple ritual, in the first century Jewish sect of Christians, or Nazarenes as they were called in Jerusalem. Suffice to say that it is interesting to note that this rumour of a significant figure in the New Testament wearing the High Priest's clothing should be attached first to James in Jerusalem and then John in Ephesus. First James, whose importance in the New Testament is emphasised even more startlingly outside it; and then, after his martyrdom and the destruction of Jerusalem, the same mystery follows John (now the only one of the pillars of the Church left) to Ephesus. What exactly was this mysterious role? It cannot have been anything (conceptually and theologically) like the role of the High Priest of the Temple, if the letter to the Hebrews is anywhere close to an accurate stating of early Christian ideas.

The practice of temple mysticism may provide a clue. Temple mystics were said to be "caught up" into heaven: even Paul, recounting his experience, was unsure if his whole body was rapt, or only his spirit. In his letter to the Galatians, he gives an account typical of what would come to be known as merkavah mysticism: he ascends to the Third Heaven, where paradise was located (each of the Seven Heavens of the mystics were home to various angels, heavenly bodies, and even places such as the Garden of Eden). He also speaks - at various times - of being given instructions by the Lord directly, and possibly even the form of the Eucharistic rite itself, if his "received of the Lord" in the first letter to the Corinthians does not mean indirectly, through the other Apostles. The temptations of Christ in the wilderness - his being caught up to the pinnacle of the Temple, or to an exceeding high mountain where he is shown the nations of the earth - may refer to a similar rapture. And the Apocalypse of Isaiah, contemporaneous with the Apostolic Fathers, gives a more detailed mystical vision, an account of Christ's death, resurrection and ascension, in a Dantesque vision of the descent and harrowing of Hell, and then the progressive and triumphant ascent through the Seven Heavens, through which he has descended disguised as an angelic being to come to earth under the devil's radar, so to speak.

If the book of Hebrews rules out a notion of James - or John - fully playing out the High Priest's role for the early Christians, then perhaps there is a clue here for what they were doing. In Apostolic theology, there was a surprising running together of a cosmic Christ the Logos (most famously in John's Prologue, but also in Paul's letters) with an adoptionist notion of Christ's Sonship: but then the theology of the High Priest's role was that he was "adopted" as the Lord, the Son of the Most High God, when he went within the Holy of Holies and made atonement, with the divine Name on his mitred forehead. The adoptionist theology drew upon this notion - with his divine adoption at the descent of the Spirit after his baptism in the Jordan - to name Christ the eternally adopted High Priest, and identify him with the figure of Melchisedec, the High Priest without beginning of days who appeared to Abraham. But Christ is not only the High Priest: he also specifies quite clearly in the Gospels that he is the Temple. And as every Jew knew, the Temple and its structure were the form and pattern of God's creation, from the First Day of Creation (the Holy of Holies) to the Sixth Day (Adam, the son of God and High Priest). So Christ as Temple is also the cosmic Christ as Logos, the pattern of the New Creation - that is, the Church, begotten upon the Eighth Day in his resurrection.

Thus it is only in the context of Christ as Temple, with all its connotations, that the idea of James or John acting as the Christian High Priest makes any sense at all. Firstly, if Christ was the Temple, then he was the pattern of the New Creation, and it is with this frame of reference that the role of a High Priest in the early church is to be understood (rather than the frame of the Day of Atonement, now declared eternally fulfilled by the author of Hebrews). The eternal Atonement on the celestial altar was the holy place which the Christian High Priest approached. Secondly, a prophetic vision of the totality of creation was revealed to Paul and the other Christian Temple mystics in the mystical rapture they experienced: their theology of the cosmic Christ as Temple was married to their mystical practice, and knowledge of the "pneumatic" or spiritual body of the New Creation. The entrance of James the High Priest into the heavenlies - and specifically alone, as the early author claims - may suggest mystical praxis.

There is one further connection that may be pertinent to the puzzle of the Christian High Priest. Some scholars are inclined to make short work of Basil's claim that the anaphora as it was in his time - he describes it as the part of the Eucharistic prayer said just before and after the words of institution, which are written in Paul and the Gospels - was handed down orally from the Apostles. A similar claim crops up in the Alexandrians, in Clement and Origen, too, and is given even less credence because it is mixed up with claims about hidden and mystical knowledge handed on by the Apostles. There is nothing that would disprove the claim: all that we know of the most ancient Eucharistic rites, the Liturgy of St James and the Roman rite, points to the fact that some parts of the Eucharistic prayer are too old to date from any extant references. But there are hints: for instance, the phrase "command thy Holy Angel to bear these gifts to thine altar on high" in the Roman canon could come straight from the book of Revelation, and is certainly witness to a form of expression of an adoptionist Christology that had disappeared in the late second century. No-one, not even at that early stage of church history, still refers to Christ as the "Holy Angel" (a term for the High Priest) who is both High Priest at the celestial altar of eternal atonement, and also the sacrificial gift upon it.

There is no dissonance in seeing the High Priest's role in the Apostolic age as both entering in to the heavenlies by mystical praxis, and also as a Eucharistic president who brought back the Manna from the heavenly altar. Temple mysticism was just that, related closely to the Temple; and it became (I would suggest) Eucharistic mysticism. James was a High Priest by virtue of his entrance into the highest Heaven as Christ (wearing the divine Name is equivalent to entering Heaven as Jesus); the saints of Jerusalem entered as Christ also, because by partaking of the Bread of the Face (shewbread) served by the High Priest, their sacerdotal character as a people is confirmed.

Was the liturgical and Eucharistic practice of the early Church was very "high", in the sense of being at certain points a highly proscribed (rather than an informal and spontaneous) ritual, even if very simple in its outlines and action? The central and most ancient prayers of the rites - as Basil claims - may indeed have been handed down as the authoritative High Priestly prayers to the bishops the Apostles appointed. If this is true, then the place for spontaneity in the liturgy is not in the Eucharist, but in the exercise of the gifts of the Spirit which may well have been the third part of a primitive tri-partite liturgy of catechesis, communion, and charismata. Just as there is canonical and Apostolic authority in the Scriptures, so also the ancient Eucharistic rites - like them, recognised and accepted without question for a millenium and a half - have an authority that makes the replacement of their prayers a doubtful proceeding. The reason for the presence of a visible liturgy in Revelation, and its comparative absence in John's Gospel, where it is replaced by a profound reflection upon the sacraments, is that John as Evangelist is no longer an observer of the High Priest's liturgy, but is himself the celebrant.

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