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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.



Priesthood, Temple(s), and Sacrifice

Robert Hayward

Introduction

Not long after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, Josephus wrote defending his nation against anti-Jewish slanders in the following terms:

We have but one temple for the one God (for like ever loveth like), common to all as God is common to all. The priests are continually engaged in His worship, under the leadership of him who for the time is head of the line. With his colleagues he will sacrifice to God, safeguard the laws, adjudicate in cases of dispute, punish those convicted of crime. Any who disobey him will pay the penalty as for impiety towards God Himself. (Ap. ii. 193–4, trans. Thackeray)

Himself of priestly descent (Ap. i. 54; Vit. 1–6), belonging to the first of the twenty-four courses into which the priests of his day were divided, Josephus had explained that the constitution of the Jewish state placed sovereignty in the hands of God (Ap. ii. 165), and thus granted to the priests, under the supervision of the high priest, the administration and guardianship of its affairs in accordance with the Torah (Ap. ii. 185). His description of the priests as responsible for the service of the Temple and for the administration of civil and criminal law under the auspices of a high priest recalls Ben Sira's praise of Aaron, according to biblical tradition the first high priest. Writing around 180 BCE, Ben Sira related how God had chosen Aaron of the tribe of Levi.

To bring near whole offering and fat portionsAnd to offer in sacrifice a sweet-smelling savour and a memorial portion,And to make atonement on behalf of the sons of Israel.And He gave him authority in decree and statute.That he might teach his people the decreeAnd the sons of Israel the statute.(Hebrew Ben Sira 45:16–17 MSB)

In his eulogy of the high priest, Simon son of Johanan, Ben Sira expresses the harmony between Simon and the other priests, ‘the sons of Aaron’ (Ben Sira 50:13, 16) as the Temple service proceeds. Here we are presented with an ideal order of things, the priestly service in the Temple involving ‘the people’ (50: 5), ‘the whole congregation of the sons of Israel’ (50: 20), carried out in absolute accordance with the Torah (50: 19), issuing in a twofold blessing (50: 20–1) for a people safe and secure in a city strengthened and rebuilt by the high priest himself (50: 1–4). The service includes singers, who make sweet melody as the sacrifice is consumed (50: 18): these Ben Sira had noted earlier (47: 9) as set before the altar by order of king David. They are not priests: Josephus would later speak of them as Levites (AJ viii. 176; xx. 216), although Ben Sira does not use this term to describe them. Josephus also ascribed to the Levites the duty of guarding the Temple enclosure (AJ ix. 155), and named them along with gate-keepers and Temple servants in his list of those who returned to Jerusalem after the exile in Babylon (AJ xi. 70). They too, he tells us, had been divided by King David into twenty-four divisions in a manner reflecting the twenty-four course divisions of the priests, each division, priestly and Levitical, serving in the Temple for one week in due order (AJ vii. 365–7).

Israel's constitution as a people under divine governance set forth in the Torah, itself guarded and administered by a high priest and his fellow priests who are responsible for the sacrificial service of the Temple, themselves assisted by Levites who act principally as Temple singers, yet whose numbers may include door-keepers and other kinds of Temple servant, is broadly in accord with the account of matters given by the author-compiler of 1 and 2 Chronicles. In particular, the ascription to King David of the organization of both priests and Levites into twenty-four divisions; the notes that the same king had a particular hand in the singing arrangements of the Levites; the importance of the high priest; and the central role played by priests in the teaching and dissemination of knowledge of the Torah, are matters of great concern to the Chronicler, who must be numbered among the latest of the biblical writers. His treatment of the priests and the Levites, their genealogy, functions, and history, is one of the most fully developed of all biblical accounts of these things, and its influence on later writers like Ben Sira and Josephus we have briefly noted. Most importantly, it represents an ‘end-point’ in the course of biblical tradition, being the latest extended discussion of priesthood available to us from those writings included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. As such, it marks a convenient starting-point for this essay, since almost every aspect of the Chronicler's discussion of priests raises questions of his relationship to earlier sources, with which it is evident that he was well acquainted.

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