High Priest

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High Priest [1]

( הכּהן , ha - kōhēn , ὁ ἱερεύς , ho hiereús  ; המּשׁיח הכּהן , ha - kōhēn ha - māshı̄aḥ , ὁ ἱερεύς ὁ χριστός , ho hiereús ho christós  ; הכּהן הגּדל , ha - kōhēn ha - gādhōl , ὁ ἱερεύς ὁ μέγος , ho hiereús ho mégas  ; הראשׁ כּהן , kōhēn - rō'sh , ὁ ἱερεύς ἡγούμενος , ho hiereús hēgoúmenos  ; New Testament ἀρχιερεύς , archiereús ):

I. Institution Of The High-Priesthood

1. The Family

2. The Consecration

3. The Dress

4. The Duties of High-Priesthood

5. Special Regulations

6. The Emoluments

7. Importance of the Office

II. History Of The High-Priesthood In Israel

1. In the Old Testament

2. In the New Testament


I. Institution of the High-Priesthood.

Temples with an elaborate ritual, a priesthood and a high priest were familiar to Moses. For a millennium or two before his time these had flourished in Egypt. Each temple had its priest or priests, the larger temples and centers having a high priest. For centuries the high priest of Amon at Thebes stood next to the king in power and influence. Many other high-priesthoods of less importance existed. Moses' father-in-law was priest of Midian, doubtless the chief or high priest. In founding a nation and establishing an ecclesiastical system, nothing would be more natural and proper for him than to institute a priestly system with a high priest at the head. The records give a fairly full account of the institution of the high-priesthood.

1. The Family:

Aaron, the brother of Moses, was chosen first to fill the office. He was called "the priest" ( ha - kōhēn ) (  Exodus 31:10 ). As the office was to be hereditary and to be preserved in perpetuity in the family of Aaron ( Exodus 29:9 ,  Exodus 29:29 ), he is succeeded by his son Eleazar ( Numbers 20:28;  Deuteronomy 10:6 ), and he in turn by his son Phinehas ( Numbers 25:11 ). In his time the succession was fixed ( Numbers 25:12 ,  Numbers 25:13 ). In  Leviticus 4:3 ,  Leviticus 4:5 ,  Leviticus 4:16;  Leviticus 6:22 he is called "the anointed priest." Three times in the Pentateuch he is spoken of as "great priest" or "high priest" (  Leviticus 21:10;  Numbers 35:25 ,  Numbers 35:28 ). The first of these passages identifies him with the anointed priest.

2. The Consecration:

The ceremonies by which he was installed in his office are recorded in  Exodus 29:29 ff. Seven days of special solemnities were spent. The first consecration was by Moses; it is not said who performed the others. There was special washing and anointing with oil (  Psalm 133:2 ). Each new high priest must wear the holy garments, as well as be specially anointed ( Leviticus 21:10 ). Every day a bullock for a sin offering must be offered for atonement; the altar also must be cleansed, atoned for, and anointed, the high priest offering a sacrifice or minchah for himself ( Leviticus 6:24 ff).

3. The Dress:

Besides the regularly prescribed dress of the priests, the high priest must wear the robe of the ephod, the ephod, the breastplate and the mitre or head-dress ( Leviticus 8:7-9 ). The robe of the ephod seems to have been a sleeveless tunic, made of blue, fringed with alternate bells and pomegranates ( Exodus 28:31-35;  Exodus 39:22-26 ). The ephod seemed to be a variegated dress of the four colors of the sanctuary, blue, purple, scarlet and fine linen interwoven with gold ( Exodus 28:6-8;  Exodus 39:2-5 ). This distinguishing ephod of the high priest was fastened at the shoulders by two clasps of shōham stone, upon each of which was engraved the names of six tribes of Israel ( Exodus 28:9-14;  Exodus 39:6 ,  Exodus 39:7 ). Over the ephod and upon his breast he wore the breastplate, a four-cornered choshen suspended by little chains. Set in this in four rows were twelve precious stones, having engraved upon them the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. This breastplate must have contained a pocket of some kind inside, for in it were deposited the Urim and Thummim, which seemed to be tangible objects of some kind (Ex 28:15-30;  Exodus 39:8-21 ). The mitre or head-dress was of fine linen, the plate of the crown of pure gold, and inscribed upon it the words, "Holy to Yahweh" ( Exodus 28:36-38;  Exodus 39:30 ,  Exodus 39:31 ). When entering the Holy of Holies he must be dressed wholly in linen, but in his ordinary duties in the dress of the priests; only when acting as high priest he must wear his special robes. See Priest .

4. The Duties of the High-Priesthood:

In addition to his regular duties as a priest, the high priest was to enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement ( Leviticus 16:3 ,  Leviticus 16:15 ,  Leviticus 16:33 ,  Leviticus 16:34 ). He must also officiate at the ceremony of the two goats, when one is sent into the wilderness to Azazel, and the other slain to make atonement for the sanctuary ( Exodus 30:10;  Leviticus 16:8-10 ). He alone could make atonement for the sins of the people, the priests and his own house ( Leviticus 4:3 ff;   Leviticus 9:8 ff;   Leviticus 16:6;  Numbers 15:25 ). He must offer the regular meal offering ( Leviticus 6:14 ,  Leviticus 6:15 ). He must share with the priests in the caring for the lamp that burned continually ( Exodus 27:21 ), He must assist in arranging the shewbread ( Exodus 25:30 ). When he carried the breastplate with the names of the tribes inscribed thereon he acted as mediator between Israel and God ( Exodus 28:29 ). He alone could consult the Urim and Thummim before Yahweh, and according to his decision Israel must obey ( Numbers 27:21 ).

5. Special Regulations:

An office so important required certain special regulations. He must be free from every bodily defect ( Leviticus 21:16-23 ). He must marry only a virgin of Israel, not a widow, nor a divorced woman, nor a profane one ( Leviticus 21:14 ). He must not observe the external signs of mourning for any person, and not leave the sanctuary when news came of the death of even a father or mother ( Leviticus 21:10-12 ). He must not defile himself by contact with any dead body, even father or mother ( Leviticus 21:11 ); and is forbidden to let his hair grow long or rend his clothes as a sign of mourning ( Leviticus 21:10 ). If he should bring guilt upon the people, he must present a special offering ( Leviticus 4:3 ff). Sins affecting the priesthood in general must be expiated by the other priests as well as himself (  Numbers 18:1 ). He must eat nothing that died of itself or was torn by beasts ( Leviticus 22:8 ). He must wash his feet and hands when he went to the tabernacle of the congregation and when he came near to the altar to minister ( Exodus 30:19-21 ). At first Aaron was to burn incense on the golden altar every morning when he dressed the lamps and every evening when he lighted them ( Exodus 27:21 ), but in later times the common priests performed this duty. He must abstain from holy things during his uncleanness ( Leviticus 22:1-3 ), or if he should become leprous ( Leviticus 22:4 ,  Leviticus 22:7 ). He was to eat the people's meat offering with the inferior priests in the holy place ( Leviticus 6:16 ). He must assist in judging the leprosy in the human body and garments (Lev 13:2-59), and in adjudicating legal questions ( Deuteronomy 17:12 ). When there was no divinely-inspired leader, the high priest was the chief ruler till the time of David and again after the captivity. See Priest; Priesthood .

6. The Emoluments:

The emoluments were not much greater than those of the priests in general. He received no more inheritance among the tribes than any other Levite, but he and his family were maintained upon certain fees, dues and perquisites which they enjoyed from the common fund. In  Numbers 18:28 the priests were to receive a tithe of the tithe paid in to the Levites. Josephus says this was a common fund ( Ant. , IV, iv, 4), but the high priest was probably charged with the duty of distributing it. In general the family of the high priest was well-to-do, and in the later period became very wealthy. The high priest and his family were among the richest people of the land in the time of Christ, making enormous profits out of the sacrifices and temple business.

7. Importance of the Office:

The importance of the high priest's office was manifest from the first. The high priest Eleazar is named in the first rank with Joshua, the prince of the tribes and successor of Moses ( Numbers 34:17 f;   Joshua 14:1 ). He with others officiated in the distribution of the spoils of the Midianites ( Numbers 31:21 ,  Numbers 31:26 ). His sins were regarded as belonging to the people ( Leviticus 4:3 ,  Leviticus 4:12 ). He acted with Moses in important matters ( Numbers 26:1;  Numbers 31:29 ). The whole congregation must go or come according to his word ( Numbers 27:20 ff). His death was a national event, for then the manslayer was free to leave the City of Refuge (  Numbers 35:25 ,  Numbers 35:28 ). He had no secular authority, but was regarded generally as the leading religious authority. Later, he became also the leading secular as well as religious authority.

II. History of the High-Priesthood in Israel.

1. In the Old Testament:

In general the present writer accepts the historical records of the Old Testament as true and rejects the critical views of a fictitious or falsified history. Such views have only subjective reasons to support them and are based upon a naturalistic evolutionary view of the development of Israel's religion. As Moses was the founder of the high-priesthood in Israel he anticipated a perpetuation of the office throughout the history ( Deuteronomy 26:3 ). The high priest appears frequently. Eleazar officiated with Joshua in the division of the land among the twelve tribes ( Joshua 14:1 ). The law of the manslayer shows that he was an important personage in the life of Israel ( Joshua 20:6 ). He seemed to have the power to distribute the offices of the priests to those whom he would, and poor priests would appeal to him for positions ( 1 Samuel 2:36 ). The office seems to have remained in the family of Eleazar until the days of Eli, when, because of the wickedness of his sons, the family was destroyed and the position passed into the family of Ithamar ( 1 Samuel 2:31-36 ). A descendant of that family officiated at Nob in the times of Saul, whose name was Ahimelech ( 1 Samuel 21:2;  1 Samuel 22:11 ). His son, Abiathar, escaped from the slaughter, and later seems to have succeeded his father and to have been chief priest throughout David's reign ( 1 Samuel 22:20-23;  1 Samuel 23:9;  1 Samuel 30:7 ). Zadok seems to have had almost equal privilege ( 2 Samuel 8:17;  1 Chronicles 18:16;  1 Chronicles 24:6 almost certainly by copyist's error, transpose Abiathar and Ahimelech;   Mark 2:26 may be based on this reading. See Abiathar , etc.). Because he joined the party of Adonijah rather than that of Solomon, Abiathar was deposed and banished to Anathoth, where he spent the rest of his days ( 1 Kings 2:26 ,  1 Kings 2:27 ). Zadok was put in his place ( 1 Kings 2:35 ). He seems to have been a descendant of Eleazar. Under Jehoshaphat, Amariah was high priest ( 2 Chronicles 19:11 ) and was the leading authority in all religious matters. In the time of Athaliah, during the minority of Joash and almost his entire reign Jehoiada was high priest and chief adviser. He seems to have been the most influential man in the kingdom for more than half a century ( 2 Kings 11:4 ff;   2 Kings 11:2-16; 2 Ch 24 passim ). Azariah officiated in the days of Uzziah and Hezekiah ( 2 Chronicles 26:20;  2 Chronicles 31:10 ); Urijah in the reign of Ahaz ( 2 Kings 16:10-16 ), and the latter priest seems to have been a friend of Isaiah ( Isaiah 8:2 ). Hilkiah held the office in the days of Josiah when the Book of the Law was discovered ( 2 Kings 22:4 f;   2 Kings 23:4;  2 Chronicles 34:9 ); Zephaniah in the time of Jeremiah ( Jeremiah 29:25 f); Seraiah in the days of Zedekiah, who was put to death at Riblah by Nebuchadnezzar (  2 Kings 25:18 f;   Jeremiah 52:24 ). At the time, mention is made of a priest of the second rank ( 2 Kings 23:4;  2 Kings 25:18 ) and Zephaniah fills that office ( Jeremiah 52:24 ). It is doubtful whether this is the same Zephaniah mentioned in  Jeremiah 29:25 . This "second priest" was doubtless a deputy, appointed to take the high priest's place in case anything should prevent his performing the duties of the office. Lists of high priests are given in  1 Chronicles 6:1-15;  1 Chronicles 6:50-53 . The first of these gives the line from Levi to Jehozadak who was carried away in the captivity under Nebuchadnezzar. The second traces the line from Aaron to Ahimaaz, and is identical so far with the first list.

There could have been no place for the functions of the high priest during the captivity, but the family line was preserved and Joshua the son of Jehozadak was among those who first returned ( Ezra 3:2 ). From this time the high priest becomes more prominent. The monarchy is gone, the civil authority is in the hands of the Persians, the Jews are no longer independent, and hence, the chief power tends to center in the high-priesthood. Joshua appears to stand equal with Zerubbabel ( Haggai 1:1 ,  Haggai 1:12 ,  Haggai 1:14;  Haggai 2:2 ,  Haggai 2:4;  Zechariah 3:1 ,  Zechariah 3:8;  Zechariah 4:14;  Zechariah 6:11-13 ).

He is distinctly known as high priest ( ha - kōhēn ha - gādhōl ). He takes a leading part in establishing the ecclesiastico-civil system, particularly the building of the temple. In the vision of Zechariah (  Zechariah 3:1-5 ) Satan accuses the high priest who is here the representative proper of the nation. The consummation of the Messianic age cannot be completed without the cooperation of the high priest who is crowned with Zerubbabel, and sits with him on the throne ( Zechariah 6:13 ). The prophet also describes Joshua and his friends as "men of the sign," alluding to the coming Messiah under whom the sin of the land was to be taken away in one day ( Zechariah 3:9 f). The promise is made to Joshua that if he will walk in Yahweh's ways and keep His house, he shall judge Yahweh's house, i.e. Israel, keep His court and have a place to walk among those who stand before Yahweh (  Zechariah 3:7 ). He is anointed equally with the prince of the royal line, for the two sons of oil ( Zechariah 4:14 ) almost certainly refer to the royal Zerubbabel and priestly Joshua who are to be joint inspirers of Israel in rebuilding the temple.

This exaltation of the high priest is very different from the state of things pictured by Ezekiel ( Ezekiel 40 through 42). In that picture no place is left for a high priest; the prince seemed to be the chief personage in the ecclesiastical system. Ezekiel's vision was ideal, the actual restoration was very different, and the institutions and conditions of the past were carried out rather than the visions of the prophet. In the time of Nehemiah, Eliashib was high priest (  Nehemiah 3:1 ,  Nehemiah 3:20 ). For abusing his office by using a temple chamber in the interests of his family he was reprimanded ( Nehemiah 13:4-9 ). The list of high priests from Jeshua to Jaddua is given in  Nehemiah 12:10 . According to Josephus ( Ant. , XI, viii, 5) Jaddua was priest at the time of Alexander the Great (332 BC), but it is practically certain that it was Jaddua's grandson, Simon, who was then priest (see W.J. Beecher, Reasonable Biblical Criticism , chapter xviii). Thus is preserved the unbroken line from Aaron to Jaddua, the office still being hereditary. No essential change can be found since the days of Ezra. The Book of Chronicles, compiled some time during this period, uses the three names, ha - kōhēn , ha - kōhēn ha - rō'sh , ha - kōhēn ha - gādhōl . The word nāghı̄dh ("prince") is also used, and he is called "the ruler of the house of God" ( 1 Chronicles 9:11 ). This seems to imply considerable power invested in him. Usually the Chronicler in both books of Chronicles and Nehemiah uses the term "the priest."

The line of Eleazar doubtless continued until the time of the Maccabees, when a decided change took place. The Syrian Antiochus deposed Onias 3 and put his brother Jason in his place (174 BC), who was soon displaced by Menelaus. About 153 Bc J onathan the Hasmonean was appointed by King Alexander, and thus the high-priesthood passed to the priestly family of Joiarib ( 1 Maccabees 10:18-21 ). Whether the family of Joiarib was a branch of the Zadokites or not cannot be determined. After the appointment of Jonathan, the office became hereditary in the Hasmonean line, and continued thus until the time of Herod the Great. The latter set up and deposed high priests at his pleasure. The Romans did the same, and changed so frequently that the position became almost an annual appointment. Though many changes were thus made, the high priest was always chosen from certain priestly families. From this group of deposed priests arose a class known as "chief priests." The anointing prescribed in the law of Moses was not always carried out in later times, and in fact was generally omitted. The Mishna speaks of high priests who were installed in office simply by clothing them with their special robes (Schurer, II, i, p. 217, note 24).

2. In the New Testament:

In New Testament times the high priest was the chief civil and ecclesiastical dignitary among the Jews. He was chairman of the Sanhedrin, and head of the political relations with the Roman government. It is not clear just how far he participated in the ceremonies of the temple. No doubt he alone entered the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement, and also offered the daily offerings during that week. What other part he took in the work was according to his pleasure. Josephus says that he officiated at the Sabbath, the New Moon and yearly festivals. The daily minḥāh (  Leviticus 6:12 ff) which he was required to offer was not always offered by the high priest in person, but he was required to defray the expense of it. This was a duty which, according to Ezekiel's vision, was to be performed by the prince. The Jews had many contentions with the Romans as to who should keep the garments of the high priest. When Jerusalem fell into the hands of the Romans, the robe of state also fell into their hands.

In the time of Christ, Annas and Caiaphas were high priests ( Luke 3:2 ), though, as appears later in the Gospel, Caiaphas alone acted as such. Annas had probably been deposed, yet retained much of his influence among the priestly families. For particulars see Annas; Caiaphas; Jesus Christ . These two were also the chief conspirators against Jesus. As president of the council Caiaphas deliberately advised them to put Jesus to death to save the nation ( John 11:51 ). He was also chairman of the council which tried and condemned Jesus ( Matthew 26:57 ,  Matthew 26:58 ,  Matthew 26:63 ,  Matthew 26:65;  Mark 14:53 ,  Mark 14:60 ,  Mark 14:61 ,  Mark 14:63;  Luke 22:54;  John 18:12-14 ,  John 18:19 ,  John 18:24 ,  John 18:28 ). They were also leaders in the persecution of the apostles and disciples after Pentecost ( Acts 4:6;  Acts 5:17 ,  Acts 5:21 ); Saul sought letters from the high priest to Damascus to give him authority to bring any Christians he might find there bound to Jerusalem ( Acts 9:2 ). He presided at the council which tried Paul ( Acts 22:5;  Acts 23:4 ). See Paul , The Apostle .

In the Epistle to the Hebrews the doctrine of the priesthood of Jesus is fully and carefully elaborated. Jesus is here called the great High Priest, as well as priest. The opening words of the Epistle contain the essential thought: "when he had made purification of sins" ( Hebrews 1:3 ). The title of high priest is first introduced in  Hebrews 2:17 , "a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God"; also in  Hebrews 3:1 , "the Apostle and High Priest of our confession." Having thus fairly introduced his great theme, the writer strikes the keynote of his great argument: "Having then a great high priest," etc. ( Hebrews 4:14 ,  Hebrews 4:15 ). From  Hebrews 4:14 to   Hebrews 7:28 the argument deals with the high-priestly work of Jesus. His qualifications are not only those which distinguish all priesthood, but they are also unique. He is named after the order of Melchizedek. The general qualifications are: (1) He is appointed by God to His office (  Hebrews 5:1 ). (2) He is well fitted for the office by His experiences and participation in human temptations ( Hebrews 5:2-6;  Hebrews 2:18 ). (3) He undergoes a divine preparation ( Hebrews 5:8 ,  Hebrews 5:9 ). The special qualifications of His priesthood are: It is after the order of Melchiezedek ( Hebrews 5:10 ). This is an eternal one ( Hebrews 6:20 ); royal or kingly ( Hebrews 7:1-3 ); independent of birth or family ( Hebrews 7:3 ); it is timeless ( Hebrews 7:8 ); superior to that of Levi ( Hebrews 7:4-10 ); new and different from that of Aaron ( Hebrews 7:11 ,  Hebrews 7:12 ). It is also indissoluble ( Hebrews 7:16 ); immutable ( Hebrews 7:21 ); inviolable ( Hebrews 7:24 ). Thus, with all these general and special qualifications, He is completely fitted for His work ( Hebrews 7:26 ). That work consists in offering up Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the people ( Hebrews 7:27 ); entering within the veil as a forerunner ( Hebrews 6:20 ); presenting the sacrificial blood in heaven itself ( Hebrews 8:3;  Hebrews 9:7 ,  Hebrews 9:24 ); thus obtaining eternal redemption ( Hebrews 9:12 ); ratifying the new covenant ( Hebrews 9:15-22 ). The result of this high-priestly work is a cleansing from all sin ( Hebrews 9:23 ); a possibility of full consecration to God and His service ( Hebrews 10:10 ); an ultimate perfection ( Hebrews 10:14 ); and full access to the throne of grace ( Hebrews 10:21 ,  Hebrews 10:22 ). See Christ , Offices Of; Priest; Priesthood In The New Testament .


Articles on the priesthood in general, with references to the high priest in Hdb , Hcg , Eb , Jewish Encyclopedia , Kitto, Smith, Fallows, Schaff-Herzog, etc.; no article on "High Priest" only. For the history, Breasted, History of Egypt  ; Schurer, History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ , II, i, 207-99; Josephus, Ant. , XV, Xviii , XX. For works on the priesthood from the radical viewpoint, see Graf, S.I. Curtiss, Jost, Graetz, Kautzsch, Budde, Baentsch, Benzinger, Buchler, Meyer, Wellhausen. For a more moderate position see Baudissin, Die Geschichte des alttestamentlichen Priesterthums untersucht . For a more conservative position see A. Van Hoonacker, Le sacerdoce levitique dans la loi et dans l'histoire des Hebreux . On the high-priesthood subsequent to the return from Babylon, see B. Pick, Lutheran Church Review , 1898, I, 127-41; II, 370-74; III, 555-56; IV, 655-64; and the commentaries on the passages cited.