jump to navigation

The High Priestly Garments January 23, 2010

Posted by Lee in Xa: The High Priestly Garments.
add a comment

Some historical intrigue surrounds the Jewish high priestly garments. These vestments bestowed great splendor upon the high priest (cf. Sirach 45.6-13; Wisdom of Solomon 18.24). They were thought to bear some cosmic symbolism (Philo, Life of Moses, 2.109-126, esp. 2.117ff.). Josephus offers an elaborate description of the garments:

“When he officiated, he had on a pair of breeches that reached beneath his privy parts to his thighs, and had on an inner garment of linen, together with a blue garment, round, without seam, with fringe work, and reaching to the feet. There were also golden bells that hung upon the fringes, and pomegranates intermixed among them. The bells signified thunder, and the pomegranates lightning. But that girdle that tied the garment to the breast was embroidered with five rows of various colors, of gold, and purple, and scarlet, as also of fine linen and blue, with which colors we told you before the veils of the temple were embroidered also. The like embroidery was upon the ephod; but the quantity of gold therein was greater. Its figure was that of a stomacher for the breast. There were upon it two golden buttons like small shields, which buttoned the ephod to the garment; in these buttons were enclosed two very large and very excellent sardonyxes, having the names of the tribes of that nation engraved upon them: on the other part there hung twelve stones, three in a row one way, and four in the other; a sardius, a topaz, and an emerald; a carbuncle, a jasper, and a sapphire; an agate, an amethyst, and a ligure; an onyx, a beryl, and a chrysolite; upon every one of which was again engraved one of the forementioned names of the tribes. A mitre also of fine linen encompassed his head, which was tied by a blue ribbon, about which there was another golden crown, in which was engraven the sacred name [of God]: it consists of four vowels. However, the high priest did not wear these garments at other times, but a more plain habit; he only did it when he went into the most sacred part of the temple, which he did but once in a year, on that day when our custom is for all of us to keep a fast to God.” (War 5.7)

The region of Palestine had been riddled with unrest. Rome had grown tired of listening to the civil disputes and eventually began appointing new officials to Judea and the surrounding regions. Even these appointees behaved unruly at times, requiring official intervention from Rome in various capacities. One of Rome’s solutions to the power struggle involved taking custody over these seemingly powerful and glorious Jewish vestments in 6 or 8CE, when Annas was high priest.

But they were eventually returned to the Jewish priesthood in 37CE. As James VanderKam writes,

“During the period when the Romans assumed control of Judea, the governor took over these symbolic clothes and permitted the high priest to have them only during festivals. As Josephus explains, the robe worn by the high priest when he sacrificed was at all other times kept in the citadel located to the northwest of the temple complex. Herod himself kept custody of the robe, and after him the Roman rulers placed it under their control until the reign of Tiberius (14-37CE). At that time custody of the robe was given as a favor to the people by Vitellius, governor of Syria; Jewish control of it continued until the death of Agrippa I in 44CE. … The garment was thought to convey such a powerful impression that the authorities worried about the political and social effect it might have.” (Judaism, 180-181)

E. P. Sanders similarly notes,

“When Vitellius, the legate of Syria, visited Jerusalem in 36CE, he asked what return he could make for his kind reception. The Jews asked to have the [high priestly] vestments under their own authority, and Vitellius obtained this favour from Tiberius (Ant. 15.403-5; 18.90-95). They remained in Jewish control until the death of Agrippa I in 44. …Control of the vestments was important, so important that two Roman emperors concerned themselves directly with it, important enough that people who had absolute military power worried about letting these garments out of their control. …With his sacred vestments on, the high priest spoke for Israel to God, and for God to Israel. The office, symbolized by the vestments, was not just respected, it was revered. …In the absence of a Davidic king the natural assumption was that the high priest was ordained by God to lead the people. The vestments were sacred, and they symbolized his holy office – whether or not the wearer was worthy of them.” (Judaism, 326-327)

This historical data offers a significantly different understanding for Luke’s second volume. In Acts 9.31, we read that the church enjoyed a time of peace. This peaceful interlude followed Saul’s sanctioned persecutions on the heels of Stephen’s death (7.54-8.1). It is estimated by most scholars that this time of peace began in 37CE.

In 37CE, Caesar Tiberius died and Gaius Caligula was granted the throne. Marcellus replaced Pilate as Prefect of Judea and Herod Agrippa I was appointed Tetrarch of Batanaea. Two years prior, Vitellius had been given the governorship of Syria. So the region of Palestine saw significant changes in Roman authority.

Additionally, Caiaphas was desposed of the high priesthood by Vitellius, who appointed Jonathan ben Annas in his stead. Jonathan served for about one year from 36 to 37CE, when his brother Theophilus replaced him at Vitellius’ order. Theophilus served the high priesthood from 37 to 41CE.

All of this means that during Annas’ reign as high priest, the holy vestments were taken from Jerusalem in an effort to settle the unrest that had existed in Jerusalem and Judea. Consequently, the priesthood lost its visible glory and honor, and most probably the respect and homage from the people. When the vestments were returned, Theophilus ben Annas would have been the first to don them since his father. And this coincides with the peaceful interlude we find in Acts 9.31.

Of course, this time of peace should be understood as a direct consequence to the newly appointed officials in the region. But the holy vestments had given the people of Jerusalem a restored reverence for the office of the high priest, which had, at various times, lost control over a number of situations and disputes, not the least of which involved Jesus the Nazarene and his followers. These Jesus believers continued to reside in Jerusalem and worship in the Temple amid the disturbing, even hostile, environment (Acts 2.46; 3.1-10; 4.1ff.; 5.17-42). That the high priestly garments were revered by the Jewish leadership and people explains, to some degree, the ensuing peace upon their return.

The term of Theophilus ben Annas as high priest markedly contrasted the terms of his father and brothers (and brother-in-law Caiaphas). Annas and Caiaphas were visibly responsible for the death of Jesus and the struggled with Jesus’ followers (see the Gospels and Acts 4.6ff.). No such smear exists on Theophilus’ name. Instead, we read of a peaceful reign.

The high priest responsible for Stephen’s death is not named by Luke. This is puzzling, as he reveals no hesitation to name those high priests which had been directly responsible for previous matters (cf. Acts 4.6). Most likely, Theophilus’ brother Jonathan was responsible for Stephen’s death. Thus, his being deposed after a very short term. And that Luke does not name Jonathan might demonstrate his irenic appeal to Theophilus. Why implicate the brother of Theophilus in a document which might be read widely when Luke’s goal is to convince Theophilus of the legitimacy of the Jesus movement?

Certainly Theophilus’ appointment was accompanied by Rome’s demand for a peace in the region, especially on the heels of Stephen’s death at the hand of Theophilus’ brother. But that Theophilus had enjoyed the privilege of wearing the holy vestments surely contributed to the eradication of unrest in Jerusalem, or at least to a mutual respect between the priesthood and the people. Luke’s words found in Acts 9.31 should thus be understood as a compliment to his recipient, Theophilus ben Annas, high priest of 37-41CE.