More Christian Apocrypha Updates 5: On the Priesthood of Jesus

[This is the latest in a series of posts on texts to be featured in New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures edited by Brent Landau and I. The material here is incorporated also into the information on the texts provided on my More Christian Apocrypha page].

On the Priesthood of Jesus (aka, Confession of Theodosius, Apology of Theodosius) is an example of an embedded apocryphon—meaning, the text comes with a framing story, in this case a dispute between Jews and Christians in the reign of the emperor Justinian I (527–565) during which an account is brought forward that is said to have come from an old codex in Tiberius saved from the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. It is unlikely, however, that this old account actually existed apart from the larger work. It reveals that, early in the career of Jesus, a position became vacant in the 22-member priesthood. Jesus is put forward as a candidate but the priests must establish that he is a descendant of one of the priestly families. Since Joseph is deceased, they summon his mother, who reveals that Joseph was not Jesus’ earthly father but Jesus is still a suitable candidate because she is descended from the families of Aaron and Judah. As proof of her claim, the priests summon midwives to see if she is still a virgin. Her post partum virginity is established and Jesus is considered worthy of the priesthood. This makes it possible for Jesus to be the priestly messiah mentioned in Psalm 110:4 and provides background to the episode in Luke 4:16–22 where Jesus preaches in the synagogue.

The text was composed in Greek and is extant in several forms, including both longer and shorter Greek recensions, and a shortened telling of the story in the Suda (a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia). Other forms exist in Arabic, Slavic, and Georgian. The MNTA entry by Bill Adler features four translations: the longer Greek version, the Suda portion in parallel with a similar Greek manuscript of the text by itself, another short version from a Vatican manuscript, and a précis of the story by John of Euboea in his In conceptionem Deiparae 18 (comp. mid-8th cent.). This is the first time many of these texts have been translated into English.

Bill has given us quite a lengthy introduction to the text, with plenty of discussion of first-century qualifications for the priesthood, the narrative context for the story (the anxieties of crypto-Christians in Jewish communities), the text's popularity (and notoriety) in the medieval period, and the transformations undergone by the text over the course of its transmission. Of particular interest to me is Priest. Jes.' use of infancy traditions. Like other late-antique apocryphal texts, Priest. Jes. freely borrows form both canonical and noncanonical traditions (several motifs are taken from the Protevangelium of James) without any sense that one is more valid than the other.

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