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The Myth of the High Priest's Rope

It's a fallacy that some Christians have believed all of their lives.
A primary goal of the Center for Holy Lands Studies is to help pastors and laymen connect with their Bibles by giving careful attention to context and background. Often, ancient Jewish texts shed light on difficult passages in much the same way that archeological discoveries help us better understand the ancient world of Scripture. Unfortunately, like the Scriptures themselves, these ancient sources can also be misused. This article, written by Wave Nunnally, Ph.D., will deal with one example of such misuse of ancient materials. Nunnally is Professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins at Evangel University and is a regular instructor in Israel and Jordan for the Center for Holy Lands Studies.

Almost everyone has heard the explanation that when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippor), he wore a rope around his waist or ankle. In this way, he could be removed if he was struck dead for his sinfulness. One easy question we all need to learn to ask at this point is, "What is the source of that material?"

In fact, this story originates in the Zohar, a 13th-century AD work that originated in Spain. It also teaches gnosticism, theosophy, mysticism, reincarnation, numerology, and astrology. It is not a source that any version of Judaism has ever used to determine belief or practice, and is rejected as a source for historical reconstruction by Jewish scholars and religious leaders. One version of the story is found in Emor 102a:

A chain was tied to the feet of the High Priest when he entered the Holy of Holies, so that if he dies there they will take him out, since it is forbidden to enter there. How did they know whether he was alive or not? By a crimson-colored strap. If its color did not turn white, it was known at that time that the priest was there in sin. And if he came out in peace, it was known and recognized by the crimson strap that turned white…If not…all knew that their prayer was not accepted.

Note the modern changes to the story: rope versus chain, ankle/waist versus feet, no longer hearing bells tinkle versus the crimson strap. Note also that it teaches that if a Day of Atonement ritual is not carried out successfully, God cannot hear the prayers of his people. So since the Day of Atonement ritual has not been carried out properly since the destruction of the temple in AD 70, this would mean that God has heard no prayers since AD 70!

Another version of the story appears in Acharei Mot 67a:

Afterwards…he aims to enter…the Holy of Holies…A knot of rope of gold hangs from his leg, from fear perhaps he would die in the Holy of Holies, and they would need to pull him out with this rope.

Here, the Zohar appears self-contradictory: chain versus rope, feet versus leg, crimson strap versus no mention of the crimson strap.

Truly ancient Jewish texts demonstrate that the Zohar's story would create a problem known as chatsitsah: since Scripture decrees what the High Priest must wear into the Holy of Holies (Lev. 16:4, 32, etc.), any addition to his vestments would constitute disobedience to the divine command. Only one rabbinic text describes the death of a High Priest in the Holy of Holies (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 19b). Much later sources such as Maimonides, Rashi, and the author of Aruch HaShulchan indeed state that "many" High Priests died in the Holy of Holies, but they do not mention a rope and they date to medieval times and later. Another story describes a High Priest who delayed in prayer for so long that his colleagues became worried, entered the Holy of Holies, and escorted him out (Yoma 53b). Neither of these stories mentions a rope or chain used to extract the High Priest. The Bible itself is entirely silent on all these matters.

Such "insider knowledge" is discouraging because it suggests that only "special" people can really understand Scripture. Trying to add interest or excitement to the Scriptures is also dangerous because it sends the message that the Bible is not sufficient "to equip [us] for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:15, 17).

If we change and supplement the Scriptures to serve our needs, then we quickly become relativistic and postmodern. In addition, this is the approach to the Bible taken by pseudo-Christian cults. We certainly do not want to desensitize ourselves by adopting their practices, thus setting ourselves up to accept their false messages. These paths ultimately lead to our acceptance of the "word of man" in place of the "Word of God." One is the truth, which sets us free; the other eventually leads to hurt and bondage. Context and background indeed enable our understanding of the Scriptures, and ancient sources are important in this process. However, as with the Scriptures themselves, honesty and sensitivity must be exercised to use them properly!