Is Christ’s Priesthood Non-Transferable? Examining “Aparabatos” in Hebrews 7:24

The chapter of Hebrews 7 focuses heavily on Christ’s participation in the priestly order of Melchizedek by interpreting the texts of Psalm 110:4 and Genesis 14 through a Christocentric lens. In light of of Hebrews 7:24, which reads: “but he [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.” (NRSV), some have chosen to render the word ἀπαράβατος as meaning “non-transferrable”. This interpretation views the priesthood held by Christ as being “non-transferrable” rather than “permanent” or “unchangeable”, and has been used within Evangelical-Mormon discourse to critique the Mormon concept of priesthood. Mormonism understands ordination to the Melchizedek priesthood as being obtainable by other individuals (worthy males), rather than being held exclusively by Christ alone. Indeed, this same argument has been personally advanced to me in the past by James White during an exchange I had with him outside the Mesa, Arizona Temple in 2017.

During this exchange, White said to me:

“…I think one of the weakest LDS positions is the claim on the priesthood. According to the Book of Hebrews, if you hold the Melchizedek Priesthood, you have no father and mother, no genealogy, you hold the priesthood on the basis of indestructible life. And it says that Jesus holds that priesthood, according to Hebrews 7:24, ἀπαράβατον (aparabaton) is the Greek term. Every Greek manuscript ever discovered of the Book of Hebrews has the same word. There is no textual variant there…… Aparabaton means “without successor”. So what do you [do?] I hope these words will stay in your mind. I really do. If you pursue that, in light of what you already know, please recognize, claiming to hold a priesthood that only Jesus Christ himself holds is a very weighty thing. Especially if it is not true. You’ve got to dig into that, man.”

White then proceeded to tell me how concerned he was for me given that how, after openly listening to his arguments against Mormonism, I remained unconvinced. Such, he said, would only cause me to be all the more accountable in the end. This caused us to move onto a conversation about whether or not I had any control over my own conversion according to Reformed Theology (I don’t, God does) in which eventually reached a crux in the conversation and ended it civilly.

Though James White was quite heavy on the theological fear-mongering, I want to say that his words have indeed stayed in my mind since our conversation several years ago. Indeed, as I am sure he would approve, I immediately sought to weigh the truthfulness of his claims in light of existing exegetical and academic treatments of Hebrews 7:24. What I found however was rather completely contrary to what he had claimed, leading me to doubt the seriousness in which he has actually engaged this passage. Though White’s reading of ἀπαράβατον = “without successor” was largely popularized through since-dated resources such as Strong’s Concordance and Theyer’s Lexicon, the drastic improvement of scholarship within the last century have assisted in rendering this interpretation as highly untenable. There is some irony then, in relying upon that argument to demonstrate the alleged weakness of the LDS claim on the priesthood, when the argument itself is is both antiquated and misleading.

Below, I have gathered a number of exegetical treatments of Hebrews 7:24 which argue against the translation of ἀπαράβατος as “non-transferable”:

ἀπαράβατος, ον (s. παραβαίνω; belonging to later Gk. [Phryn. 313 Lob.]; not LXX) Hb 7:24 usu. interpr. ‘without a successor’. But this mng. is found nowhere else. ἀ. rather has the sense permanent, unchangeable (Stoic. II 266, 1; 293, 31 [Chrysipp.]; Plut., Mor. 410f; 745d; Epict. 2, 15, 1, Ench. 51, 2; Herm. Wr. Fgm. XXIII, 48 [494, 26 Sc.], Fgm. XXIV, 1;Philo, Aet. M. 112; Jos., Ant. 18, 266, C. Ap. 2, 293; Just., A I, 43, 7; as legal t.t. over a long period of time in pap: PRyl 65, 18 [I b.c.]; PLond III, 1015, 12 p. 257 [VI a.d.] ἄτρωτα καὶ ἀσάλευτα καὶ ἀπαράβατα; Mitt-Wilck. II /2, 372 V, 19; PEllingworth, JSNT 23 ’85, 125f).—M-M. TW. Spicq.—DELG s.v. βαίνω.

Bauer, Walter et al. “A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Second Edition” (University of Chicago Press, 1979), pg. 80.

“Because of its eternality (vs 21), Christ’s priesthood is “inviolable” (ἀπαράβατος) . While many patristic and some modern interpreters take the term to mean “untransferable,” the word never has this meaning in ancient sources. It does appear in both legal and religious or philosophical contexts, meaning “inviolable” or “absolute.” The legal language of the preceding pericope may be continued, but it is also likely that the term carries some philosophical connotations as well. In contrasting Christ’s priesthood with that of the Levites it reinforces the connotations of μένειν. Christ’s priesthood is not simply one that is not passed on; it is, as part of the eternal realm, absolute.”

Attridge, Harold W. “Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews” (Fortress Press, 1989), pg. 210.

The simple μένειν has not precisely the same meaning as παραμένειν : the contrast is between the Levitical priests, who are prevented by death from retaining office, and one whose endless life stretches out into eternity; as the people rightly said, St. John xii. 34, though led thereby to take offense at the cross: ό Χρίστός μένει εὶς τόν αὶῶνα. For even as His life, for whom the lifting up on the cross has been changed for a lifting up into glory, he is henceforth a life absolute and without end, even so He holds His priesthood as something ὰπαράβατον, inviolate, interminable, unchangeable. Theodoret is followed by Œcumenius and Theophylact, along with Tholuck, Ebard, Hofmann etc., in taking ὰπαράβατον in an intransitive sense = μὴ παραβαίνουσαν (εὶς ἄλλον), that which passeth not over to another, and so is non-transferable (ἀδιάδοχον). But this is grammatically inadmissible. For (1) παραβαίνειν is not thus used of the passing over of an office by way of succession. (2.) the verbalia in ατος, especially those from βαἰνειν, e.g. βατὁς, ἄβατος, ἔμβατος, ἐπἰβατος, etc., have generally a passive signification, according to which it seems ἀπαράβατος must mean that which cannot be overstepped. So (3) even in Josephus, c. Ap. ii. 41 (τἰ γὰρ εὺσεβεἰας ὰπαραβάτου κἀλλιον), and Antiq. xviii. 8, 2 (εὶς νῦν ὰπαράβατοι μεμενηκότες), ὰπαραβατος is not to be taken (though that is assumed by Lobeck, Phryn. p. 313) in an active sense (non transgrediens leges), but still passively (transgressionis expers), being formed not from the verb παραβαίνειν, but from the substantive παράβασις, after the analogy of ὰγήρατος, ageless. And even granting that verbalia in βατoς may sometimes have an active signification, or that ἀπαράβατος, as derived from the noun, might be rendered transition less, and so obtain the meaning of “non-transferable,” it would yet be adventurous to assume this against the uses loquendi in respect to this word, especially when the ordinary signification is quite suitable to the context, and comes in the end of the same thing. For if our Lord possesses His priesthood, as something which cannot be overstepped or invaded, nor is subject to change, it is equally evident that it cannot pass away from Him to another. Our eternal Priest then holds, as ever living, an unchangeable, ever-enduring priesthood.

Delitzsch, Franz “Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews” trans. Kingbury, Thomas L. (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952), pg. 370-371.

ἀπαράβατος. In P Ryl II. 6518 (B. C. 67 ?—in any case Ptol.) a judgement ends with καὶ τἄλλα τὰ δι’αύτηῆ[ς δι]ωρισμένα μένειν κύρια καὶ ἀπαράβατα, “valid and inviolate” (Edd.). The legal formula, thus established for an early period, survives six centuries later in P Genf I. 607 (A.D. 581) πἀαραβάτῳ πράσει : “inviolable” must be the sense, though the words follow a hiatus. Another example, also vi/A.D., is in P Lond 101512 (=III. p. 257) ἄτρqτα καὶ ἀσάλευτα καὶ ἀπαράβατα[…, a contract for the surrender of property. See also P Catt rector.v.19 (ii/A.D.) (=Chrest. II. p. 422) ἔνια ἀπαράβατά ἐστιν, “es gibt Dinge, an denen sich nichts ändern lässt” (Ed.). It is clear that the technical use, compared with the late literary (ap. Lobeck Phryn. p. 313), constitutes a very strong case against the rendering “not transferable”. Phrynichus himself prescribed ἀπαραίτητος: what sense that would have made in Heb 724 passes comprehension. Vettius Valens has the adverb five times (see index), always as “validly” or “inevitably.” It occurs in P Strass I. 4023 (A.D. 569), rendered “unverbrüchlich” (Ed.).

Moulton, James Hope & Milligan, George “The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament: Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources” (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1949), pg. 53.

[Heb 7:24] is straightforward in its meaning, asserting Jesus has a permanent, perpetual, unchanging priesthood because he “lives for ever.” When the adjective aparabaton, “permanent,” is translated attributively, as in the NIV, KJV, and a few other translations, it is a violation of Greek grammar. The adverbial rendering as in the NASB is also problematic. It is better to take the adjective in a predicate relationship to the noun, as “Jesus has the priesthood (and it is) permanent,” or as a relative clause, “a priesthood which is permanent.”

Allen, David L.Hebrews” in The New American Commentary, vol. 35 (B&H Publishing Group, 2010), p. 428.

This is a rare word found only in later Gk. Only very infrequently does it have the sense of “inviolable.” Epict. Enoch .. 51:2 νομος απαραβατος also P. Ryl., II. 65 18: P. Grenf., I. 60, 7. its usual sense is “unchangeable,” “immutable.” In this sense fate is said to be unconditionally fixed and subject to no change or alteration. Plut. De Fato 1 (II.568d): η ειμαρμενη λογος θειος απαρβατος δι’ αιτιαν ανεμποδιστον; De Plactis Philosophorum. I. 28,4 (II, 885b): οι Στωικοι ειρμον αιτιων, τουτεστι ταξιν και επιουνδεσιν απαραβατον; M. Ant., XII, 14, 1: αναγκη ειμαρμενης και απαραβατος ταξις . . . In the sense “unchangeable” the word is a tt. in law. A judgment from the 1st cent. A.D. (P. Ryl., II, 65, 18) ends with the words: και ταλλα τα δι’ αυτη[ς δι]ωρισμενα μενειν και απαραβατα (“valid and unalterable”) . . . Hb. 7:24 says of Christ that because He remains to eternity He has an unchangeable and imperishable priesthood. Instead of the pass. “unchangeable” many expositors suggest the act. sense “which cannot be transferred to another”: “Christ has a priesthood which cannot be transferred to anyone else.” This is a natural interpretation and yields a good sense, but it does not really fit the context. We should keep to the rendering “unchangeable,” the more so as the act. sense is not attested elsewhere. 

eds. Kittell, Gerhard and Friedrich, Gerhard “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament” trans. Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967], 5:742-43.

There has been a persistent tendency to find in the predicate adj. ἀπαράβατον the intransitive meaning “without a successor,” or “untransmitted” (cf. Moffatt, 99; Spicq, 2:197; Strathman, 112; Ketter, 53, 56-57; TEV: “does not pass on to someone else”). In contrast to the succession of former priests (v 23), Jesus’ priesthood is nontransferable. Lorimer has even conjectured that the winter originally wrote, or “meant to write,” ἁμετἀβατον, “without a successor.” He attributes the corruption of the text to the presence παρα[μἑνειν], “to continue in office,” in v 23 (NTS 13 [1966-67] 386-87). There is no textual support for Lorimer’s conjecture, and the active sense of the term ἀπαράβατον is not attested linguistically elsewhere. The term is used broadly in hellenistic Gk. but always in the pass sense of “unchangeable,” “permanent,” “inviolable” (Simpson, EvQ 18 [1946] 187-88). If the term is taken in this common sense, it fits the context well (so BAGD 80; Michel, 276; Schneider TDNT 5:742-43; Demarest, “Priest,” 14-15, 339; Cockerill, Melchizedek Christology, 130, 133-34; et al.).

Moule has called attention to a delicate subtlety in placing ἀπαράβατον in a predicate position relative to the article. The article suggests that it is known that Jesus possesses a priesthood: it is “his known (or, assumed) priesthood.” But the predicate adj has the effect of a relative clause, thus throwing the emphasis on the fact that he possesses a priesthood “which is permanent” (Idiom-Book, 109, 186).

Lane, William L. “Hebrews 1-8” in “Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 47A” (Zondervan Academic, 2017), treatment of 7:24, see footnote “u.”

The adj. ἀπαράβατον is the acc. sg. masc. or neut. of ἁπαρἁβατος, -oν, “permanent,” “unchangeable” (BDAG 97b; J. Schneider, TDNT 5:742-43). An act. understanding (“does not pass on” [GNT]; “untransferable” [Bruce 171]) is not attested in extant literature (Lane 1:175-76 n. u; Ellingworth 390). Christ’s priesthood is “not passed on; it is, as part of the eternal realm, absolute” (Attridge 210). The ending -oν could be the masc. form of the two-ending adj., which would be used to modify ἱεροσύνην (“priesthood” [most EVV; BDAG 471d; see 7:11]), which functions as a pred. (T 186) or even parallels a rel. clause (“he has the priesthood that is permanent”). The latter would offer additional (subtle) contrast with the impermanent Levitical priesthood (R 656; Moule 109). Alternatively, the ending may be acc. sg. neut. and function as an adv., “permanently” (many EVV). The placement of ἀπαράβατον is also emph. (Cockerill 334 n. 93). The art. could indicate that Jesus’s priesthood is unique (cf. Wallace 223-24), although it not tr. by most EVV. A possessive sense of the article is also possible (ESV, NET).

Harris, Dana M. “Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament: Hebrews” (B&H Academic, 2019) 5.A.3

And finally, a translation of an exhaustive source predating Strong’s Concordance by close to two decades:

ἀπαράβατος, ον, rare, and only in later Greek; from παραβαίνω, as the combinations with νὀμος, ὅρκος, and the like show. (I.) = that cannot be transgressed, inviolable. Very rarely in this sense. Proxagor. ap. Phot. Bibl. Codd. 62, pp. 20, 28, σπονδὰς συντηρεῖν ἀπαραβάτους. Usually with the signification derived from this (II.) invariable, unchangeable; in harmony with which is the remark of Phryn. ἀπαράβατον παραιτοῦ λἐγειν, ἀλλ’ ἀπαραἰτητον. So Plut. de fat. 1 (p. 568 D), ή είμαρμἐνη λόγος θεῖος ὰπαρᾀβατος δί άτἰαν ὰνεπὀδιστον, synon. with ὰΐδιος, de plac. Phil. 855 B; likewise of fate, τάζιν καὶ ὲπισὐνδεσιν ὰπαρἀβατον. Cf. A. Gell. v. 2, εἱμαρμἑυη ὲστὶ φυσικὴ σύνταζις τῶν ὅλων ὲζ ὰῑδίον τῶν ὲτέρqν τοῖς έτέροις ὲπακολουθούντων καὶ μετὰ πολὺ μὲν οὖν ὰπαραβάτου οὔσης τῆς τοιαύτης συμπλοκῆς. Plut. de def. orac. 410 F, εὶ βουλὁμεθα τῷ ἡλἱῳ κατὰ τὰ πάτρια τὴν νενομισμἑνην τάζιν ὰπαράβατον ποιεῖν, “we would bring proof that the sun’s motion assumed by those before us hitherto is invariable,” as opposed to ibid. C, τὸν ούρανὸν ὁμαῦ καὶ σὑμπαντα μεθἱσταντες. The word has this meaning also in combination with νὁμος. Plut. conviv. ix. 14 (p. 745 D), ἡ δ’ ἑν θεοῖς ἁνάγκη δύστλητος οὔκ ἑστιν οὑδὲ δυσπειθὴς οὑδὲ βιαία πλὴν τοῖς κακοῖς, ὥς ἑστι νὁμος ἑν φὁλει τοῖς βελθἱστοις τὸ βἑλτιστον σὑτῆς ἁπαρἀτρεπτον καὶ ἁπαράβατον οὑ τῷ μὲν ἁδυνάτῳ τᾢ δ’ ἁβουλἡτῳ τῆς μεταβολῆς, where, as the οὑ τῷ—μεταβ. shows, ἁπαρἀτρ. καὶ ἁπαράβ. are one and the same conception. Galen. in Hippocr. de fractur. comm.i. 44 (181), πρὸς γὰρ τὸ κατεπεῖγον ἁεὶ χρὴ τὸν ἱατρὸν ἴστασθαι καὶ μὴ καθἁπερ νὁμον ἁπαράβατον φυλἁττειν τὰ κελεσυσθἑντα πρἁττεσθαι ; cf. what precedes, μἡ τις οὶηθεὶς εὶς τὸ διηνεκὲς εἶναι τὸ παρηγγελμἑνον ὑπ’ αὑτοῦ. Jamblich. fit. Pyth. 28, προῥῤἱσεις σεισμῶν ἁπαράβατοι, terrae motus infallibiliter praedicti. Ocell. de rer. nat. i. 15, αὕτη (sc. ἡ ἱδἑα τῆς κατὰ χυκλον κινἡσεqσ) δὲ ἁπαράβατος καὶ ἁδιἑζοδος. Epiphan. Haeres. lxxvi. p. 983, ἡ μὲν μεταβἁλλεται, ἡ δὲ ἁπαρἁβατον ἔχει φύσιν. Hence used with τἠρησις, εὑσἱβεια, e.g. Hierocl. carm. aur. 72 ; Joseph. c. Apion. ii. 41, εὑσἑβεια ἁπαρἁβατος = immutable. So also of persons, Joseph. Ant. xviii. 8. 2, οὑδ’ ἂν αὑτοἱ παραβαἱημεν τοῦ νὁμου τὴν προσαγὁρευσιν, θεῷ πεισθἑντες κἀρετῇ (al. θεοῶ πεισθἑντες ἁρετῇ) καὶ πὀνοις τῶν ἡμετἑρων προγὁνων εὶς νῶν ἁπαρἁβατοι μεμενηχὁιτες, not = sine transgressione vivimus, but = “we have invariably preserved, have remained stedfast ; cf. Arrian, Epict. ii. 15. 1, τῷ κριθἑντι ἁπαραβἁτως ὲμμἑνειν. The adverb often occurs in this sense in patristic Greek. Accordingly we are to explain Heb. vii. 24, ὁ δὲ διὰ τὸ μ-νειν αὑτὸν εἱς τὸν αἱῶνα ἁπαρἁβατον ἕχει τὴν ἱεροσύνην = an unchangeable, eternal priesthood ; compare above, Galen. l.c., where νὁμος ἁπαρἁβατος stands side by sides with εὶς τὸ διηνεκὲς εἷναι τὸ παρηγγελμἑνον. The assumption of an active meaning = not passing over to another, as analogous with σκἐλη ἁδιἁβατα (keeping within compass), is not only untenable, and totally against the constant usage of the word, but is neither adequate to the foregoing διὰ τὸ θανἁτῳ κωλὑεσθαι παραμἑνειν, nor to the following ὅθεν καὶ σώζειν εὶς τὸ πανταλὲς δύναται, for which we should had ὅθεν καὶ αὑτὸς σὡζειν κ.τ.λ. ; compare Matt. I 21, xii. 50.

Cremer, Hermann “Biblio-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek” trans. Urwick, William (T&T Clark, 1872), pg. 655-656

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