As we study Scripture, we are increasingly convinced of how important the context of the described events is. Along with considering the historical background of the narrative, it is also necessary to align it with the geography and traditions of the biblical peoples. The Day of Atonement is an ancient Israeli holiday that sheds new light on the known words of Christ in response to Peter’s confession of the Messiah. We find a surprisingly deep and rarely articulated parallel between what happened on the way to Caesarea Philippi and the celebration of Yom Kippur.
When did Peter’s Confession Take Place?
“You are Christ, the Son of the Living God. Then Jesus answered and said to him: Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you, but My Father who art in heaven; and I say to you: you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven: and what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what you will permit on earth will be permitted in heaven ” (Matthew 16: 13-19).
According to the Gospel, six days after the confession of the Messiah by Peter, the Transfiguration of the Lord took place (Matt. 17: 1). Some researchers, in particular, Riesenfeld, made a convincing general assumption about the connection between the Transfiguration and the Jewish autumn celebrations (Riesenfeld H. Le Christ Trasfiguré. Uppsala, 1947). Other researchers have specified that the events of the Transfiguration are associated with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot or “the Feast of Tabernacles”, which took place on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (Le Déaut R.). It becomes clear now on what day Peter’s famous confession of the Son of God took place. Yom Kippur, one of the three most important celebrations of the year in Israel takes place exactly six days before Sukkot. It was on no ordinary day that Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, but on the great Day of Atonement. What conclusions can we draw from this?
Atonement Day in the Temple
The reconstruction of this feast’s temple service order in the intertestamental period can be done based on several sources, such as: Mishnah (oral Torah); Yoma and Tamid (two Jewish religious tracts); Plutarch’s works and, which is most interesting, the Book of Sirach (chapter 50). The latter source is considered the most authoritative by the Orthodox readers. According to the above sources, the Feast of the Atonement consisted of several main elements. The offering of a sacrifice in the Temple’s Holy of Holies, located on the Foundation Stone, was followed by the solemn invocation of the Name of God by the great high priest and the general absolution of all Jews present.
Day of Atonement on the Road to Caesarea
Knowing what the feast day was like in the Temple, let us project that onto the road to Caesarea Philippi, where the Lord asked His disciples who they thought He was. We will see that Matthew directly refers us to the ritual taking place in the Temple at that time. Just as Yom Kippur being a national and obligatory holiday for all Jews, the entire people of Israel were represent in the Temple, with the service led by an Israeli high priest, so Christ, the Eternal High Priest, was on His way to Caesarea, together with the Twelve Apostles, personifying all 12 tribes of Israel. Being questioned by Jesus, Peter, on behalf of all the disciples, confesses Him as the Messiah, becoming similar to the high priest in proclaiming God. In response, the Lord calls Simon, the son of Jonah, Cephas, i.e. the Stone or Rock, on which His Church is to be firmly founded. We see here a remarkable connection between the Foundation Stone (the cornerstone of the Temple Mount on which the Jerusalem Temple’s Holy of Holies rested and where once a year the high priest performed the sacrifice of atonement by anointing the Ark of the Covenant with sacrificial blood) and the right confession of Cephas, which is to form the foundation of the new Israel.
The parallel doesn’t end there. After the proclamation of the Name of God in the Temple, a general absolution was made. It was connected with the entire people’s sins being symbolically assigned to the scapegoat, which was driven out into the wilderness. Christ’s blessing to Peter also includes endowing the apostle with the Power of the Keys and the grace to forgive the sins of those who believe in the atoning work of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. We can find another noteworthy fact in the Book of Sirach where the Israeli high priest’s name appears to be Simon, the son of Onias. Notably the translation of that passage has revealed numerous discrepancies, whereas in most versions, the high priest’s name is Simon, son of Jonah (van Esbroeck M., van Cangh J.-M.). It is also interesting that the name of the high priest, who condemned Christ, may have been Cephas; the same name the Lord calls Simon Peter. However, the established vowelization in many manuscripts and the obvious desire not to associate one with the other has brought across to us the more familiar “Caiaphas” (Jastrow. M. A Dictionary of the Targumim).
So, we see that at the very dawn of apostolic times, the Christian church perceived itself as the New Israel, headed by the Eternal High Priest; as the New Temple, built on the solid rock of Peter’s confession. In this new assembly of God, His Name is called not once a year, but every day, while everyone who, like the Christian high priest Cephas, has the right confession of Christ, receives in His Blood the remission of sins and access to the Kingdom of Heaven.