Glossary of Terms



Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

priest. All ancient nations and their gods had priests, usually stationed at the santuaries. Among O.T. Israelites in early times, the functions of the priest were to take care of the sanctuary, to inquire of God, to teach, and to take part in sacrifice. In later times the teaching responsibility passed to the prophets and, after the exile, to the scribes. Toward the end of O.T. times, when most descriptioins in the Bible were written, the priests had a chiefly sacrificial office. In his sacrificial duties the priest represented God to the people and was the representative of the people before God. Such things as special vestments and anointing had been taken over from the customs having to do with earlier kings. Gen. 14:18; Ex. 2:16; 19:6; 1 Sam. 1:9; 5:5; 21:1; 1 Chron. 15:14; 2:Chron. 34:14; John 1:19; Acts 4:1; Heb. 7:23-24; 1 Peter 2:9.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

priests, the specially designated officials who served in the Temple performing ritual functions and conducting the sacrificial services. The Hebrew word kohen, also attested in Phoenician, Punic, Ugaritic, Arabic, and Aramaic, designates not only Jewish priests but also those who served in temples dedicated to other gods. Melchizedek, the king of Salem, was also a Canaanite priest (Gen. 14:18); Asenath, the wife of Joseph, was the daughter of an Egyptian priest (Gen. 41:45); Jehu assembled the priests of Baal (2 Kings 10:19-20), and the like. A term that appears only three times in the Bible, kemarim, always designates idolatrous priests such as those who worshiped the gods of the Canaanites, Ammonites, and Assyrians (Zeph. 1:4). There is no feminine form of kohen. Bat kohen (daughter of a priest) refers to a woman of a priestly family.

Identity: The priesthood was limited by Pentateuchal law to the Levites, that is, members of the family of Levi, the son of Jacob. According to Deuteronomy, all the levitical families had a right to the priesthood since they did not receive an inheritance of land like the other tribes (Deut. 10:8-9). Aaron and his sons exclusively received the anointing oil and were attired in special clothing of the priesthood (Exod. 28-29). The families of Eli at the temple of Shiloh (1 Sam. 14:3), Zadok in Jerusalem (Ezek. 40:46), and Amaziah at Bethel (Amos 7:10-17) were not specified as Aaronides but were of levitical descent.

History: In the patriarchal period (ca. 2000-1700 b.c.) there was no official priesthood. The head of the family performed sacrifices in various holy places (Gen. 31:54). The only priests mentioned at this time are of nations that were not nomadic and had fixed sanctuaries (e.g., Gen. 41:50; Exod. 3:1). As the Israelites developed a more structured society, a special class came to preside over the more and more complex rituals that their religion entailed.

After the conquest of Canaan (probably late thirteenth to early twelfth centuries), ordinary Israelites often sacrificed at altars (Judg. 13:19-20) or high places (Heb. bamot; 1 Kings 3:3-4), but in the temples, the ‘houses of God,’ only priests of levitical lineage were allowed to perform the rites. These temples were constructed from Dan to Beer-sheba. The Ark of the desert period (ca. 1300-1250 b.c.), under the care of the family of Aaron, came to rest at Shiloh, and the Aaronides then became the officiators at this temple. In the time of Josiah (ca. 639-609 b.c.; 2 Kings 23:8), all the priests were brought to serve in the Jerusalem Temple, and the outlying temples and cult sites were abolished. This centralization gave control of the entire cult to the priests serving in the Jerusalem Temple.

Ezekiel typifies the desire of the Israelites in the Babylonian exile (after 586 b.c.) to reconstitute the priesthood in all its glory. The building of the Second Temple (begun late sixth century b.c.) allowed the priests to return to duty. The actual cultic functions were discharged by the descendants of Aaron, while the other Levites held subsidiary roles. The Second Temple did not, however, match the glory of its predecessor. One of the most significant things missing was the Ark itself; the anointing oil was no longer in use, and other customs of the First Temple were not practiced. At this time, the ranks of the priesthood swelled, and the Temple dues were not sufficient to support them. Many priests, therefore, turned to agriculture. Nehemiah often chastises the people for not bringing their obligations (Neh. 12:44-47), and the priests for deserting the house of God (13:10-11). According to many scholars, it was decided at this time that the priests would be called upon to officiate for only a short period of time each. The various duties were divided to give all the households an opportunity to serve while none were completely dependent on Temple duties for their livelihoods. The first-century historian Josephus knew of these priestly divisions in his day (see also Luke 1:8-9).

During the Hellenistic period (ca. 333 b.c.-a.d. 70), the priesthood dominated the nation. The priests were many in number and had a great deal of prestige. The head of the Temple, the high priest, was de facto the head of government of Judea. He represented Judea in dealing with the ruling powers, collected taxes, and was responsible for the spiritual welfare of the people. A large number of aristocrats were of priestly lineage. Many priests were scattered throughout the country and came to Jerusalem only to officiate during their terms of Temple service. Until the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (175-163 b.c.), the high priest held his position for life.

The priestly households attained their greatest power during the Hasmonean period (ca. 165-63 b.c.), although there was often conflict between them regarding the extent to which they would become hellenized. The priests were leaders of the Sadducees and the Sanhedrin. At this time, the Pharisees began to loosen the hold of the priests on the spiritual leadership of the people. When Herod became king (37 b.c.), the rule of the nation shifted from the priests to the secular monarchy. He appointed a high priest, not necessarily from any particular family, reduced him to a ceremonial role, and deprived the office of its political powers.

In other sects, such as the one at Qumran near the Dead Sea, the Zadokite priests were accorded an extra measure of respect, such as being the first to bless the food and receive a portion. It was anticipated that a priestly messiah would take an exalted role in the reestablished independent state, alongside the Davidic messiah.

Christians transferred the role of the priest as mediator between God and humans onto Jesus whom they saw as both God and man. He became eternal High Priest by God’s appointment (Heb. 5:1-6) and supplanted the ancient sacrificial system by his own sacrifice (Heb. 7:27-28; 9:23-26).

The Roman procurators (a.d. 6-41, 44-66) appointed the high priests, many of whom bought the office through their great wealth. These wealthy families created an oligarchy of power and prestige and were regarded by the Pharisees as tyrannical to the peasants and sympathizers with the Romans. This aristocracy came to an end with the destruction of the Temple and the ascendancy of the Pharisees.

After the destruction of the Temple in a.d. 70, the priestly descendants of Aaron continued to maintain certain privileges, such as the recitation of the priestly benediction. Certain restrictions remained in force, such as the prohibitions of contact with the dead and marriage with a divorced or widowed woman.

Functions: The concept of the service of the priest in the ancient Near East was that he ministered to the god by fulfilling all his needs and worshiping in the house wherein his presence dwelt. In Israelite religion, these images eventually became relegated to technical or literary language. Thus, in Ezekiel, the service of God is expressed in terms of taking care of his needs, feeding him from the sacrifices upon his altar (table). The tribe of Levi is enjoined to ‘come near to me to minister to me; and they shall attend on me to offer me the fat and the blood, says the Lord God; they shall enter my sanctuary and they shall approach my table, to minister to me…’ (Ezek. 44:15-16).

Chief among the duties of the priests was the performance of sacrifices. Only they were allowed to approach the altar, and then only within the context of a complex series of rituals and while wearing specific vestments that symbolized their holiness. The blood of an animal was often sprinkled, and certain portions of meat were burnt, depending upon the type of sacrifice. While ordinary priests performed these daily functions, the high priest was entrusted with the sin offerings, especially that of the Day of Atonement. Priests also pronounced the priestly blessing (Num. 6:22-26) over the people, blew trumpets on festive occasions such as holidays and new moons, and blew the shophar (trumpet made from a ram’s horn) on the Day of Atonement to announce the Sabbatical Year (Lev. 25:9). The Levites who worked in the Temple alongside the Aaronide priests were the musicians, gatekeepers, singers, and the like.

In addition to preparing the sacrifices, the priests also were in charge of the maintenance of the Temple. They conducted routine inspections of the Temple grounds, noting what had to be repaired, and they solicited funds to carry out the work. In connection with donations to the Temple, they were often called upon to evaluate property and fix the type of sacrifice permitted to those of limited means by evaluating the ability of a worshiper to pay for a sacrifice (Lev. 12:6-8; cf. Luke 2:22-24). The collection of tithes and other obligatory Temple donations was administered by the priests, who were expected to eat their emoluments in a state of ritual purity.

When a person suffered a disease or physical sign of impurity, the purification rites were performed by a priest. The methods of purification included things like waiting a specific amount of time, bathing, washing one’s clothes, being sprinkled with water by the priest, and bringing a sacrifice the blood of which would be sprinkled on one’s behalf by the priest. The priests were charged with diagnosing the disease tsaraat (usually translated ‘leprosy,’ it was used to designate a number of disorders of the skin; cf. Lev. 13-14) as well as purifying the persons or objects affected by it (Lev. 14; see Mark 1:44). Contact with the dead (Num. 19:11-19), emissions (Lev. 15), the carcass of an unclean animal (Lev. 11:24-40), even contact with the red heifer, the means by which impurity of the dead was removed (Num. 19:1-10), required these rites of purification.

In First Temple times (ca. 950-586 b.c.) the high priest had the Urim and Thummim attached to his breastplate which he consulted for a divine reply to an inquiry (Num. 27:21). Lots were often cast, as was the case in the division of the land among the tribes (Num. 26:55-56) and the choosing of Saul as king (1 Sam. 10:20-21).

Among the functions of the priests was that of judging (Deut. 17:9; 12; Ezek. 15:1, 24). The priests administered the ordeal of the suspected adulteress (Num. 5:11-31). In the blessing of Moses before his death, Levi is charged with teaching the law to the people of Israel as well as offering incense and sacrifices upon the altar (Deut. 33:10).

As a prestigious, elite class the priests were also expected to preserve the holiness of the sanctuary and the uniqueness of the people of Israel. Therefore, they were subject to added restrictions not incumbent upon the average Israelite. A priest was forbidden to officiate if he had a physical defect (Lev. 21:17-24), was ritually impure, was under the influence of alcohol, or had married a woman forbidden to a priest. A priest was allowed to marry only a virgin of Israel, not a divorcee, prostitute, convert, or, in the case of the high priest, a widow (Lev. 21:14). Ezekiel makes an exception of the widow of a priest (Ezek. 44:22).

A priest could not defile himself by attending the cemetery except for the burial of a close relative (parent, sibling, child, or wife; Lev. 21:1-3). The high priest could not have contact with the dead even if they were his parents (Lev. 21:11). Upon the death of Aaron’s sons, Moses forbade Aaron and his remaining sons to manifest the signs of mourning during the week of their consecration (Lev. 10:6). Although Israel is said to be ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exod. 19:6), it was the priesthood that embodied the highest levels of sanctity in ancient Israel.

Bibliography Cody, A. A History of the Old Testament Priesthood. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1969. de Vaux, R. Ancient Israel. New York, Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1965. Vol. 2, pp. 345-405. Gray, G. B. Sacrifice in the Old Testament. With a Prolegomenon by B. A. Levine. New York: Ktav Publishing, 1971. Pp. 179-270.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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