Aug 4, 2016

The Aaronic Blessing and New Testament Epistles

Recently while reading through the Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6:24–26, I noticed the references to grace and peace.
24 May Yahweh bless you and protect you;
25 may Yahweh make His face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
26 may Yahweh look with favor on you
and give you peace. (HCSB, my bold)
More specifically, I noted the order of the references to grace and peace. This is exactly the order, grace first and then peace, that one finds in the greetings of the majority of New Testament epistles (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; Col 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:2; 1 Tim 1:2 [plus mercy]; 2 Tim 1:2 [plus mercy]; Titus 1:4; Philm 1:4; 1 Pet 1:2; 2 Pet 1:2; 2 John 3 [plus mercy]). Indeed, the only clear exception to this pattern is Jude with his “mercy, peace, and love.”

I am not sure if the correspondence in order is significant. I have usually taught that the greetings in the New Testament epistles are adapted from Greco-Roman epistolary conventions with “peace” added as a Jewish element. I did a cursory search and found that Ernest Best in an article from 1960 takes a fairly cautious approach to this possible link.

The “benedictions” of Paul at the beginning and ending of his letters (for example, II Cor. 1:2; 13:14) approach most nearly the priestly blessings of the Old Testament (cf. Num. 6:23-26). These benedictions of Paul may however derive from the Greek epistolary style rather than from conscious imitation of priestly activity. There is no evidence in general in the New Testament of Christians using such blessings, but in the nature of the case it is highly improbable that there should be such evidence; we do not possess the letters of ordinary Christians nor do we know much of their day to day behavior in such matters. We can therefore draw no conclusion in regard to the “blessings” of Paul, whether they arise out of his membership in the general priesthood or pertain to his office as apostle and to a special priesthood. The conception of “blessing” adds, then, nothing to our doctrine of a general priesthood. (“Spiritual Sacrifice, General Priesthood in the New Testament,” Interpretation 14 [1960]: 291).
A little more recently, Gordon Wiles has argued that, “The attempt to link the Pauline greeting directly back to the Aaronic priestly blessing (Num. 6: 26) has not been generally accepted,” (Paul's Intercessory Prayers: The Significance of the Intercessory Prayer Passages in the Letters of St. Paul, SNTSMS 24 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974], 113, n. 3.

In sum, if Paul and other New Testament authors are adapting a standard Greco-Roman epistolary greeting then it might not be too surprising that their adaptation would be informed by the priestly benediction in Numbers. But caution seems to be in order in applying this to any priest-like functions that Christians might have today.

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