Saturday, September 13, 2008

Rope tied to the high priest's ankle?

John Gill
Exposition of the Entire Bible
(Image from Wikipedia)

The New Testament scholar Jeffrey B. Gibson posed an interesting question today on the "First Century Judaism Discussion Forum":
Can anyone tell me the origin of the (so far as I know) wholly apocryphal idea, apparently prominent amongst certain fundamentalist groups, that the high priest had a rope tied around his ankle when he went into the holy of holies so that his body could be pulled from the HofH if he died while he was inside it?
The abbreviation "HofH" stands for "Holy of Holies," the most holy place in the Jewish Temple. Since God's holiness was believed to pose a danger to sinful human beings, then entering the Holy of Holies supposedly could prove fatal unless one were authorized to enter and even then only if one were in a sufficiently purified state. The story of a "rope" tied to the high priest's ankle does not occur in the Bible, but I've often heard it cited as though it were biblical.

Anyway, another list member, known to me only as "Arden," replied to Gibson's query:
The only source is the Zohar (Acharey Mot 67:1) and is therefore fairly late. One wonders why fundamentalist groups would attach themselves to this particular source and story... I'm assuming that you are referring to Christian fundamentalists because modern Jewish haredim take it as metaphorical because it contradicts other halachic requirements for the high priest on that day.
I added a bit from my store of knowledge:
I've heard this anecdote about the high priest rather often among evangelicals (as well as among fundamentalists), and so far as I recall, it was cited as evidence of the danger that God's holiness poses for sinful human beings, i.e., for everyone, even the high priest.

I doubt that these evangelicals or fundamentalists have been reading the Zohar, so I suspect that they get it from some Protestant commentary, such as John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible (An Exposition of the New Testament, 3 vols., 1746–8, and An Exposition of the Old Testament, 6 vols., 1748–63).

John Gill lived from November 23, 1697 to October 14, 1771, and the anecdote appears in his remarks on Hebrews 9:7:
Hebrews 9:7

Ver. 7 But into the second went the high priest alone, once every year,.... Though this is not expressed in so many words in Le 16:2 only it is said that "Aaron came not at all times into the holy place within the vail"; yet it is the constant and generally received sense of the Jewish writers, in agreement with the apostle here, that the high priest went into the holy of holies but once a year {q}, on the day of atonement, which was on the tenth of the month Tisri, and answers to part of September; not but that he went in more than once on that day, for he went in no less than four times {r}; the first time he went in to offer incense; the second time with the blood of the bullock, to sprinkle it; the third time with the blood of the goat; and the fourth time to bring out the censer {s}; and if he entered a fifth time, they say he was worthy of death; wherefore Philo the Jew {t} seems to be mistaken when he affirms that, if he went in three or four times on the same day, he suffered death, nor was there any pardon for him; and as it was but one day in a year he might enter, so when he did, no other man, either Israelite or priest, might go in along with him; he went in alone without any attendance: the Jews say {u}, that a cord or thong was bound to the feet of the high priest when he went into the holy of holies, that if he died there, the rest might be able to draw him out; for it was not lawful for another priest to go in, no, not an high priest, none besides him on the day of atonement. Pausanias {w} makes mention of a temple of Minerva into which the priests entered once every year; which very likely was observed in imitation of this custom of the Jewish high priest; who in it was a type of Christ, and of his entrance into heaven, and of his constant and continued intercession there:
not without blood; for he went in with the blood of the bullock and the blood of the goat; which was typical of the blood of Christ, by which he entered in once into the holy place, into heaven, when he had obtained eternal redemption by it, Heb 9:12 which he offered for himself and for the errors of the people; the bullock was offered by the high priest for himself and his family; and the goat for the sins of the people of Israel, even all their iniquities, transgressions, and sins, Le 16:11, but Christ the antitype having no sin, had no need to offer for himself, only for the sins of the people; See Gill on "Heb 7:27".
{q} T. Hieros. Yoma, fol. 42. 4. & 43. 1. Bab. Pesachim, fol. 86. 1. {r} Bemidbar Rabba, sect 7. fol. 188. 4. Maimon. Biath Hamikdash, c. 2. sect. 3. Moses Kotsensis Mitzvot Tora, pr. neg. 303. {s} Maimon. & Bartenora in Misna Celim, c. 1. sect. 9. {t} De Legatione ad Caium, p. 1035. {u} Zohar in Lev. fol. 43. 3. & Imre Binah in ib. {w} Arcadica, sive l. 8. p. 531.
I have to admit that I didn't actually know that this story about the cord on the high priest's ankle was apocryphal until Jeffrey Gibson pointed it out, but as soon as Arden noted that the story appears in the Zohar, I knew that evangelicals must be getting it from John Gill, for I'd used Gill myself in some research on John Milton's use of dove imagery in Paradise Lost, and I had seen how steeped Gill was in Jewish sources.

Gill's Exposition continues to be read among evangelicals today.

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At 12:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had heard this on a couple of occasions, but have no idea where it originated, except what you mentioned.
Some stories seem to have a life of their own.
In a book some time ago about treasure stories in the Ozarks, it seems that every community in the Arkansas and Missouri hill country has a tale about the "lost gold or silver mine." They all follow the same pattern of someone finding a mine full of gold or silver, and when people wouldn't believe them, they would show some examples, then leave and never be seen in these parts again. In our own area this tale has been handed down through generations, and at least a few old timers had their opinion where to find it.
If you are openly skeptical you will incur their wrath as an unbeliever. For instance, when my mother in law years ago was relating this tale (again!), and hinting that she knew where it could be, I asked, "What would you do if you found it?", she replied angrily, "THEN WE WOULD ALL BE RICH, NUT!!!" I was appropiately chastened, except for wondering how you could find riches on someone else's property, and be entitled to them, and not the owner.
Could be this rope on the priest's foot is such a tradition, but who am I to doubt?

At 4:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

In my search, I read several 'debunkings' of the tale. The Zohar is a 13th-century composition, and the story of the rope is found nowhere else, so the tale of the rope is likely a late story, one invented to answer a 'what-if' question. Moreover, some argued that the rope wouldn't work because the curtains separating the Holy of Holies from the place where the lower priests were allowed were so thick and heavy that the high priest's body wouldn't be able to be pulled through.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:37 AM, Blogger gene said...

I'm now working on Byzantine icons, and I notice sometimes ropes are attached to Christ's ankles. I have no idea what this exactly means. If you have any clue, could you tell me please? (

At 10:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Gene, I don't know for a fact, but I'd guess that the ropes were simply used for binding. Perhaps if you gave links to the icons, I could look.

I suppose that the ropes could refer to the binding of Isaac, who was seen as a type of Christ.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:48 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

After being troubled with this illustration being used again and again to reinforce the idea that God's disposition was characteristically harsh during the O.T. period but then somehow became "nice" after the Advent, I decided to search and found your post. Good job!

At 7:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the kind words.

Jeffery Hodges

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