The major cultic persons in Israel. Through the centuries documented in the Bible, priestly duties and activities varied somewhat, but primary in the early period, and always basic, was the idea that a priest is a person attached to the service of God in a sanctuary, God's house. The original concept of the priest as server or minister of God in the sanctuary was analogous to that of a king's minister in the palace. As ministers in a palace set food on the table of an earthly king, early Israelite priests set holy bread on a table before God (1 Sam. 21.4–6), a practice that underlay the provisions for the bread of the presence (see Showbread). As ministers of a king served as intermediaries for citizens wishing to ask the king what course of action to take, or what the king's mind might be, early Israelite priests, using the Urim and Thummim in the ephod, asked God the same sorts of questions for others, including the leaders of the people (Judg. 18.5; 1 Sam. 14.3, 36–42; 22.9–10, 13, 15, 18; 23.9–12; 30.7–8), a practice which evolved into the priestly giving of tôrâ, or law, as manifestation of the divine mind. It was as intermediary between God in his holy place and the people outside that a priest communicated God's blessing to the people (Num. 6.22–27; Deut. 10.8; 21.5).

Priests and Sacrifice.

In early narratives, including J and E, it was perfectly right for someone who was not a priest to offer a sacrifice on an altar not attached to a sanctuary, without any priestly intervention. When sacrifice was offered at a sanctuary, however, the priests of that sanctuary were involved in it already in the premonarchic period (1 Sam. 2.12–17), and their sacrificial prerogatives increased during the monarchic period. In Deuteronomy 33.10, bringing incense and burnt offerings before God is mentioned among the activities characteristic of priests, but it is in last place. In Ezekiel's prescriptions for priests as they are to function after the exile (Ezek. 44.15–31), their sacrificial activity is in first place (44.15–16), and in Jeremiah 33.18, within a postexilic addition to the book, priests are characterized entirely in terms of sacrificial work. This extension of the sacrificial role of priests can be correlated with an extension of the high degree of holiness proper to the interior of the sanctuary, the place where God's presence was focused, to the open‐air altar in the courtyard in front of the sanctuary. The prerogatives of priests to perform all acts inside the house of God was extended to include any act entailing contact with the altar of sacrifice in the courtyard outside. In all of this the fundamental principle remained that the highest degree of holiness among human beings was that of priests, and that only they could rightly enter the spaces whose degree of spatial holiness was the highest.

Priests and the Divine Will.

In early texts a priest is characterized not as a person engaged in sacrifice but as one who carries the oracular ephod (1 Sam. 22.18) containing the Urim and Thummim, which were manipulated in order to provide an expression of God's mind or will in answer to a question put to him. In the oldest part of the blessing of Moses for Levi, the Urim and Thummim are still characteristic of a priest (Deut. 33.8), but in 33.10, generally taken as part of a later expansion of the blessing for Levi added toward the middle of the monarchic period, God's ordinances and God's law (Hebr. tôrâ) are the primary objects of priestly responsibility, mentioned before incense and burnt offering. The word tôrâ may originally have been the word designating the divine response, communicated through a priest with his Urim and Thummim, to a question put to him; the Akkadian word têrtu, akin to Hebrew tôrâ, signified the response procured in certain types of Mesopotamian divination. If so, Israelite tôrâ evolved from a simple manifestation of God's will in the form of an answer “Yes” or “No” (through the Urim and Thummim) into a more complex pronouncement expressing the divine will in cultic matters based on such questions as the distinction of the holy from the profane, the pure from the impure (see the tôrâ described in Hag. 2.10–14), and in ethical matters too, because of the divine requirement of right behavior on the part of persons approaching what is holy, or, more profoundly, persons divinely expected to be holy (Ps. 15.2, 5; Lev. 19.2). By the end of the monarchic period the meaning of tôrâ had been extended to include all divinely sanctioned law, of the types codified in the Pentateuch, and it was then as typically associated with a priest as the word of God was with a prophet (Jer. 18.18). In this expanded sense of “law,” sacred because it was an expression of the divine will, tôrâ, something in which priests had always been the rightful experts, became something in which they were competent for deciding questions and settling disputes. Ultimately they became responsible not only for upholding all divine law but also for all casuistry and jurisprudence based on it (Lev. 10.10–11; Deut. 17.8–13; 21.5; Ezek. 44.24). This is not to say that priests became teachers or preachers, unless by that, one has in mind their communicating law and legal decisions to the people. In the postexilic centuries priestly involvement with law weakened in the general consciousness, and priests increasingly came to be associated with sacrifice. The traditional idea of priests as persons making statutes and legal judgments known to the people (i.e., as persons with judiciary duties) was alive in the second century BCE (Sir. 45.14–17), but as jurists learned in the law they were by then being supplanted by the scribes (Sir. 39.1–11). Membership of priests in commissions having judicial duties as well as administrative ones in the Roman period may have been due in large part to their social and political connections. (see Law; Torah.)

Historical Evolution of Priesthood.

The historical roots of early Israelite priesthood probably lie, culturally, in the cultic systems of the Canaanites and other Northwest Semitic peoples, whose usual word for priest is essentially the same as the Hebrew word. Israelite settlements in Palestine had their Yahwist sanctuaries, and throughout the land there continued to be a multitude of such sanctuaries, each with one or more priests, until the ultimate suppression of all but the Temple in Jerusalem in the reign of Josiah left Jerusalem the only place where anyone could actually function as a priest (2 Kings 23.5, 8–9, 15–20). In the period of the judges and in the early monarchic period one could be a priest without being a member of the tribe of Levi (Judg. 17.5; 1 Sam. 7.1; 2 Sam. 8.18; 20.26; 1 Kings 12.31), and yet a Levite was particularly desirable as a priest (Judg. 17–18). If the unnamed ancestor of Eli in 1 Sam. 2.27–28 is Levi, as the context strongly suggests, then the priests of the sanctuary of the ark at Shiloh were Levites. Of the personal origins of Zadok, the founding head of the priesthood of Jerusalem (1 Kings 2.35; 4.2), nothing at all is said in the narratives in which he appears, or in any preexilic text. In some scholarly hypotheses concerning his undocumented origins he is held to have been a Levite, in others not.

By the time of Josiah's abolition of all sanctuaries except that of Jerusalem three centuries later, there was no longer any question of anyone's functioning as a priest unless he was a Levite, and the Levitical quality of the Jerusalemite “sons of Zadok” seems at that time not to have been called into question. Later still, when all priests were considered “sons of Aaron,” the postexilic Chronicler arranged things by presenting Zadok as an aide to an Aaronite commander in David's time (1 Chron. 12.27–29), and by giving Zadok himself an Aaronite genealogy (1 Chron. 24.1–6); the purpose of this is clearly that of giving the priests of Jerusalem Aaronite legitimacy, and its historicity is dubious. In any case, while any Levite, according to Deuteronomy, might in principle function as a priest if he were admitted to do so at the sole remaining sanctuary, in Ezekiel 40–48 only members of traditionally priestly families of Jerusalem (the “sons of Zadok”) are admitted to the exclusively priestly service of the altar; all other Levites are relegated to a lower status with functions of Temple service that, except in 40.45, were not reckoned as priestly. The distinction between priests and subordinated Levites was firmly established in the postexilic restoration, but the fact that in P the priests are not called sons of the clearly Jerusalemite Zadok but “sons of Aaron” may indicate that some members of Levitical families not originally of Jerusalem, but of other cities in the south, were admitted to priestly service together with the “sons of Zadok” after the exile, as they had perhaps been admitted before the exile, before or after Josiah's reform. All of the cities assigned to the sons of Aaron in the final form of the lists of Levitical cities (Josh. 21.9–19; 1 Chron. 6.54–60) are indeed in the south.

In the actual division of duties between priests and Levites prescribed by P, the priests did everything that entailed contact with the altars and with the offerings after they had contracted holiness (Lev. 1–7; 10.16–20; 16; 17). They were responsible for rites of purification, because of the sacrifices and sacrificial blood involved (Lev. 11–16; Num. 19). In the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods each priest did his Temple service as a member of one of twenty‐four divisions (1 Chron. 24.7–19), each division functioning only during a short period of the year (see Luke 1.5, 8). When leadership in matters of piety passed largely to the Pharisees around the second century BCE, priests retained respected and in many cases high social status. Some ordinary priests, in order to make ends meet, engaged in secular occupations, and many lived outside Jerusalem.

The High Priest.

Priesthood in Jerusalem in the days of the monarchy had been hierarchically structured, under a head, usually called simply “the priest” (1 Kings 4.2; 2 Kings 11.9–11; 12.8; 16.10–12; 22.12, 14; Isa. 8.2), or, if he needed to be distinguished from the “second priest,” he might be called the “chief priest” (2 Kings 25.18). The head of the priesthood of Jerusalem had always held a high place in the kingdom's administrative circles, but after the exile the high priest quickly became the head of the Jewish nation, both civilly and religiously. The presence of a Jewish civil administrator appointed by the Persian imperial government at certain times (ca. 520 BCE, and during the last half of the fifth century) did little to alter the high priest's position as far as the nation itself was concerned. Although Hasmonean rulers of the second and first centuries BCE assumed the title “king,” they retained the high priesthood and its title, which was more important within the Jewish community itself. From this time on, the high priests and those close to them, rather worldly in their interests, were of the aristocratic party of the Sadducees. With Herod the Great (37–4 BCE) ruling power in Judah passed completely out of priestly families, life tenure in high priesthood was abolished, and each appointment to the office of high priest was thereafter made by the Herodian ruler or, between 6–41 CE, by the Roman procurator. In the New Testament the plural “the high priests” refers to high priestly families as a group, or at times (e.g., Acts 9.14) to the Sanhedrin or some other group possessing official jurisdiction under the leadership or presidency of the high priest.

In the distribution of ritual responsibilities codified in P, on the basis of degrees of holiness, only the high priest, whose degree of holiness as a person was supreme, could enter the holy of holies, the innermost part of the Temple building and the place whose degree of spatial holiness was the highest, for the rites to be performed there on the annual Day of Atonement (Lev. 16.2–3, 15, 32–34; see Sir. 50.5–21; Heb. 9.6–7).

Aelred Cody, O.S.B.