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The Priests

The High Priest

At the top of the social and political scale was the High Priest. In the Old Testament period the High Priest did not have much power, but during and after the exile he apparently attained greater importance.1 In fact, many of the trappings of the monarchy were transferred to the High Priest, not merely the clothing but also the duties of government.

The prophet Zechariah of the restored community had already foreseen in his vision of Joshua the High Priest the union of the offices of King and Priest (Zech. 3 and 6); but these visions did not give an explanation of how one holding the high office in the line of Judah could also occupy the office of High Priest, which was in the line of Levi. The Hasmonean leaders attempted to unite the two offices, but since they were neither Davidic nor Zadokite2 they met great opposition.

The priesthood traced its lineage from Aaron through his son Eleazar to Zadok; the other son was Ithamar. The line of the High Priests was in the Zadokite family until the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, when Onias III had to flee for his life. Until that time, the office had a life-long tenure; but afterward the high priests were appointed and deposed at the will of the ruler, whether Seleucid, Roman, or Herodian.

The Hasmoneans were priests, but not of the line from Zadok. They first obtained the office of the High Priest from the Seleucids, but then simply took the office upon ascending the throne. Their control ended when Herod eliminated every male in the Hasmonean line.

During the Roman period there were 28 High Priests; Herod appointed seven of them himself. So there were always several ex-High Priests around, and they still retained their titles and their influence.3 But Herod and his successors controlled the office. There were only a few families of the nobility from which the High Priests could be chosen, but it may be that any member of these families could use the title. Jeremias suggests that anyone above the rank of an ordinary priest could be called one of the "chief priests." In the Gospel accounts the two best-known High Priests are Caiaphas (who ruledfrom18-36 A.D.)who presided over the group that turned Jesus over to Pilate for crucifixion, and Annas (who ruled from 6-15 A.D.), his father-in-law, who first examined Jesus.

The last High Priest of the Jewish state was a commoner chosen by lot when the Zealots took the Temple. The High Priest was supposed to be able to be able to trace his lineage from the High Priestly families. He also had to maintain ritual purity in himself and in his descendants. His major tasks were to make atonement in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, to officiate in the Temple, and (at certain historical times) to preside over the Sanhedrin. Of course, as High Priest he could officiate any time he wished.4

Priests and Levites

Any man who was born in the family of Levi and had an impeccable genealogy could serve as a priest in the Temple (262). Because of the importance of the Temple for Judaism, and because the priesthood was restricted to the family of Levi, this was an honorable position.

Those who could not trace their lines back were Levites. Their duties were outside the court of the priests: they were involved with Temple music, performed various physical and religious services for the Temple, and served as Temple guards. It was such a group of Levites who came to arrest Jesus (Mt. 26:47) and later the apostles (Acts 4:1-3).

The priesthood was divided into 24 courses or families, 16 were Zadokite and 8 were of Ithamar. Each group was responsible for one week of service in the Temple at a time, so in a given year they would serve a total of two weeks as well as the times of the festivals. The rest of the year they ministered throughout the land in the areas in which they lived.

Their duties included making the sacrifices and performing the ritual of the sanctuary, burning the incense along with their intercession in the Holy Place, and teaching the people the laws and the ritual(Deut. 33:9,10; Mal. 2:7).

There were various levels of priests: the Captain of the Temple seems to occupy the highest post; those in charge of the Temple treasury were important because of the vast sums contained there; and then the various overseers held lesser administration posts. Gowan thinks that these would be what the New Testament calls "chief priests" in Matthew 2:4 and 26:3.5 But Sandmel suggests the title "chief priests" would refer to the relatives of the High Priest who were not directly involved in the succession.6 It may be that the description included other officials such as former High Priests and heads of the 24 courses of priests.7

Concluding Observations

Sabourin concludes that one thing is certain: in the days of Jesus there existed a priestly aristocracy whose standard of living contrasted dramatically with the modest conditions of the common priests.8 They were the official representatives of the sacral life of the nation; and they, this priestly aristocracy, as a body rejected Christ as a transgressor.9 Notable among them are Caiaphas and Annas, High Priests from the Sadducean ruling class and part of Israel's nobility. They certainly held the power over the Sanhedrin in the trial of Jesus, even though they were subordinate to Pontius Pilate for their final decisions.

In the early days of the Church many priests came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 6:7). Many situations in the history of the Church have reflected such conditions in the clergy--an aristocracy that obtained one way or another the higher offices of the Church, but neglected the spiritual requirements of such positions, while many common priests tried to fulfill their duties faithfully. Even today it is easy to lose sight of what the ministry is all about, and to seek power over others. In the final analysis spiritual leadership can become a religious dictatorship. So the servant of God does have the greater opportunity for sin, for he can make the cause serve him. What is so often lost in the struggle for importance and authority is the pattern of Jesus Christ, our High Priest. He came not to be served, but to serve.


Spiritual leadership in the days of Jesus had certainly gone awry, and the spiritual life of the people was thrown into confusion. Of course there were a few faithful leaders around, good people who were devout, wise, learned, and capable, who were trying to minister as they understood they should do. But the greater number who occupied positions of authority had been caught up in the constant religious battles with pagan rulers and power struggles with one another. They disagreed with each other on theology, politics, ritual, and ministry. Too often they were pre-occupied with their own interpretations of the Scripture to hear the truth; they became self-righteous and self-serving. Their hypocrisy and unbelief blinded them to the truth of the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Against this backdrop our Lord called people to follow Him and learn of Him. The training that they received from Jesus was designed to make them into spiritual leaders in the Church that He was building. But the qualities of spiritual leadership that He was cultivating in them through their spiritual growth contrasted sharply with what they and everyone else could see in the current religious leaders of the day.

1 Gowan, p. 257.

2 They were priests, but not of the family of Zadok. Thus, they could not be High Priests.

3 Leopold Sabourin, Priesthood, A Comparative Study (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973), p. 163.

4 Ibid., p. 162.

5 Gowan, pp. 266,267.

6 Sandmel, p. 133.

7 Sabourin, p. 165.

8 Ibid., p. 165.

9 Ibid., pp. 165,166.

Related Topics: Christology