Jewish Priesthood


Jerusalem Herodian Temple in Israel Museum without its Priestly Annex !!!In the age of the Patriarchs the offering of sacrifices was the function of the father or head of the family (cf. Gen., viii, 20; xii, 7, etc.; Job, i, 5). But, even before Moses, there were also regular priests, who were not fathers of family (cf. Ex., xix, 22 sqq.). Hummelauer’s hypothesis “Das vormosaische Priestertum in Israel”, Freiburg, 1899) that this pre-Mosaic priesthood was established by God Himself and made hereditary in the family of Manasses, but was subsequently abolished in punishment of the worship of the golden calf (cf. Ex., xxxii, 26 sqq.), can hardly be scientifically established (cf. Rev. bibl. internat., 1899, pp. 470 sqq.). In the Mosaic priesthood we must distinguish: priests, Levites, and high-priest.

A. Priests

It was only after the Sinaitical legislation that the Israelitic priesthood became a special class in the community. From the tribe of Levi Jahweh chose the house of Aaron to discharge permanently and exclusively all the religious functions; Aaron himself and later the first-born of his family was to stand at the head of this priesthood as high-priest, while the other Levites were to act, not as priests, but as assistants and servants. The solemn consecration of the Aaronites to the priesthood took place at the same time as the anointing of Aaron as high-priest and with almost the same ceremonial (Ex., xxix, 1-37; xl, 12 sqq.; Lev., viii, 1-36). This single consecration included that of all the future descendants of the priests, so that the priesthood was fixed in the house of Aaron by mere descent, and was thus hereditary. After the Babylonian Exile strict genealogical proof of priestly descent was even more rigidly demanded, and any failure to furnish the same meant exclusion from the priesthood (I Esd., ii, 61 sq.; II Esd., vii, 63 sq.). Certain bodily defects, of which the later Talmudists mention 142, were also a disqualification from the exercise of the priestly office (Lev., xxi, 17 sqq.). Age limits (twenty and fifty years) were also appointed (II Par., xxxi, 17); the priests were forbidden to take to wife a harlot or a divorced woman (Lev., xxi, 7); during the active discharge of the priesthood, marital intercourse was forbidden. In addition to an unblemished earlier life, levitical cleanness was also indispensable for the priesthood. Whoever performed a priestly function in levitical uncleanness was to be expelled like one who entered the sanctuary after partaking of wine or other intoxicating drinks (Lev., x, 9; xxii, 3). To incur an uncleanness “at the death of his citizens”, except in the case of immediate kin, was rigidly forbidden (Lev., xxi, 1 sqq.). In cases of mourning no outward signs of sorrow might be shown (e.g. by rending the garments). On entering into their office, the priests had first to take a bath of purification (Ex., xxix, 4; xl, 12), be sprinkled with oil (Ex., xxix, 21; Lev., viii, 30), and put on the vestments.

temple-capture-itemsThe priestly vestments consisted of breeches, tunic, girdle, and mitre. The breeches (feminalia linea) covered from the reins to the thighs (Ex., xxviii, 42). The tunic (tunica) was a kind of coat, woven in a special manner from one piece; it had narrow sleeves, extended from the throat to the ankles, and was brought together at the throat with bands (Ex., xxviii, 4). The girdle (balteus) was three or four fingers in breadth and (according to rabbinic tradition) thirty-two ells long; it had to be embroidered after the same pattern and to be of the same colour as the curtain of the forecourt and the tabernacle of the covenant (Ex., xxxix, 38). The official vestments were completed by the mitre (Ex., xxxix, 26), a species of cap of fine linen. As nothing is said of foot-covering, the priests must have performed the services barefooted as Jewish tradition indeed declares (cf. Ex., iii, 5). These vestments were prescribed for use only during the services; at other times they were kept in an appointed place in charge of a special custodian. For detailed information concerning the priestly vestments, see Josephus, “Antiq.”, III, vii, 1 sqq.

The official duties of the priests related partly to their main occupations, and partly to subsidiary services. To the former category belonged all functions connected with the public worship, e.g. the offering of incense twice daily (Ex., xxx, 7), the weekly renewal of the loaves of proposition on the golden table (Lev., xxiv, 9), the cleaning and filling of the oil-lamps on the golden candlestick (lev., xxiv, 1). All these services were performed in the sanctuary. There were in addition certain functions to be performed in the outer court — the maintenance of the sacred fire on the altar for burnt sacrifices (Lev., vi, 9 sqq.), the daily offering of the morning and evening sacrifices, especially of the lambs (Ex., xxix, 38 sqq.). As subsidiary services the priests had to present the cursed water to wives suspected of adultery (Num., v, 12 sqq.), sound the trumpets announcing the holy-days (Num., x, 1 sqq.), declare the lepers clean or unclean (Lev., xiii-xiv; Deut., xxiv, 8; cf. Matt., viii, 4), dispense from vows, appraise all objects vowed to the sanctuary (Lev., xxvii), and finally offer sacrifice for those who broke the law of the Nazarites, i.e. a vow to avoid all intoxicating drinks and every uncleanness (especially from contact with a corpse) and to let one’s hair grow long (Num., vi, 1-21). The priests furthermore were teachers and judges; not only were they to explain the law to the people (Lev., x, 11; Deut., xxxiii, 10) without remuneration (Mich., iii, 11) and to preserve carefully the Book of the Law, of which a copy was to be presented to the (future) king (Deut., xvii, 18), but they had also to settle difficult lawsuits among the people (Deut., xvii, 8; xix, 17; xxi, 5). In view of the complex nature of the liturgical service, David later divided the priesthood into twenty-four classes or courses, of which each in turn, with its eldest member at its head, had to perform the service from one Sabbath to the next (IV Kings, xi, 9; cf. Luke, i, 8). The order of the classes was determined by lot (I Par., xxiv, 7 sqq.).

The income of the priests was derived from the tithes and the firstlings of fruits and animals. To these were added as accidentals the remains of the food, and guilt-oblations, which were not entirely consumed by fire; also the hides of the animals sacrificed and the natural products and money vowed to God (Lev., xxvii; Num., viii, 14). With all these perquisites, the Jewish priests seem never to have been a wealthy class, owing partly to the increase in their numbers and partly to the large families which they reared. But their exalted office, their superior education, and their social position secured them great prestige among the people. In general, they fulfilled their high position worthily, even though they frequently merited the stern reproof of the Prophets (cf. Jer., v, 31; Ezech., xxii, 26; Os., vi, 9; Mich., iii, 11; Mal., i, 7). With the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in A.D. 70 the entire sacrificial service and with it the Jewish priesthood ceased. The later rabbis never represent themselves as priests, but merely as teachers of the law.

B. Levites in the Narrow Sense

It has been said above that the real priesthood was hereditary in the house of Aaron alone, and that to the other descendants of Levi was assigned a subordinate position as servants and assistants of the priests. The latter are the Levites in the narrow sense. They were divided into the families of the Gersonites, Caathites, and Merarites (Ex., vi, 16; Num., xxvi, 57), so named after Levi’s three sons, Gerson, Caath, and Merari (cf. Gen., xlvi, 11; I Par., vi, 1). As simple servants of the priests, the Levites might not enter the sanctuary, nor perform the real sacrificial act, especially the sprinkling of the blood (aspersio sanguinis). This was the privilege of the priests (Num., xviii, 3, 19 sqq.; xviii, 6). The Levites had however to assist the latter during the sacred services, prepare the different oblations and keep the sacred vessels in proper condition. Among their chief duties was the constant guarding of the tabernacle with the ark of the covenant; the Gersonites were encamped towards the west, the Caathites towards the south, the Merarites towards the north, while Moses and Aaron with their sons guarded the holy tabernacle towards the east (Num., iii, 23 sqq.). When the tabernacle had found a fixed home in Jerusalem, David created four classes of Levites: servants of the priests, officials and judges, porters, and finally musicians and singers (I Par., xxiii, 3 sqq.). After the building of the Temple by Solomon the Levites naturally became its guardians (I Par., xxvi, 12 sqq.). When the Temple was rebuilt Levites were established as guards in twenty-one places around (Talmud; Middoth, I, i). In common with the priests, the Levites were also bound to instruct the people in the Law (II Par., xvii, 8; II Esd., viii, 7), and they even possessed at times certain judicial powers (II Par., xix, 11).

They were initiated into office by a rite of consecration: sprinkling with the water of purification, shaving of the hair, washing of the garments, offering of sacrifices, imposition of the hands of the eldest (Num., viii, 5 sqq.). As to the age of service, thirty years was fixed for the time of entrance and fifty for retirement from office (Num., iv, 3; I Par., xxiii, 24; I Esd., iii, 8). No special vestments were prescribed for them in the Law; in the time of David and Solomon the bearers of the ark of the covenant and the singers wore garments of fine linen (I Par., xv, 27; II Par., v, 12). At the division of the Promised Land among the Twelve Tribes, the tribe of Levi was left without territory, since the Lord Himself was to be their portion and inheritance (cf. Num., xviii, 20; Deut., xii, 12; Jos., xiii, 14). In compensation, Jahweh ceded to the Levites and priests the gifts of natural products made by the people, and other revenues. The Levites first received the tithes of fruits and beasts of the field (Lev., xxvii, 30 sqq.; Num., xviii, 20 sq.), of which they had in turn to deliver the tenth part to the priests (Num., xviii, 26 sqq.). In addition, they had a share in the sacrificial banquets (Deut., xii, 18) and were, like the priests, exempt from taxes and military service. The question of residence was settled by ordering the tribes endowed with landed property to cede to the Levites forty-eight Levite towns, scattered over the land, with their precincts (Num., xxxv, 1 sqq.); of these, thirteen were assigned to the priests. After the division of the monarchy into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Juda, many Levites from the northern portion removed to the Kingdom of Juda, which remained true to the Law, and took up their abode in Jerusalem. After the Northern Kingdom had been chastised by the Assyrian deportation in 722 B.C., the Southern Kingdom was also overthrown by the Babylonians in 606 B.C., and numbers of the Jews, including many Levites, were hurried away into the “Babylonian exile”. Only a few Levites returned to their old home under Esdras in 450 (cf. I Esd., ii, 40 sqq.). With the destruction of the Herodian Temple in A.D. 70 the doom of the Levites was sealed.

C. The High-priest

At Jahweh’s command Moses consecrated his brother Aaron first high-priest, repeated the consecration on seven days, and on the eighth day solemnly introduced him into the tabernacle of the covenant. The consecration of Aaron consisted in washings, investment with costly vestments, anointing with holy oil, and the offerings of various sacrifices (Ex., xxix). As a sign that Aaron was endowed with the fullness of the priesthood, Moses poured over his head the oil of anointing (Lev., viii, 12), while the other Aaronites, as simple priests, had only their hands anointed (Ex., xxix, 7, 29). The high-priest was for the Jews the highest embodiment of theocracy, the monarch of the whole priesthood, the special mediator between God and the People of the Covenant, and the spiritual head of the synagogue. He was the priest par excellence, the “great priest” (Greek, archiereus), the “prince among the priests”, and, because of the anointing of his head, the “anointed priest”. To this exalted office corresponded his special and costly vestments, worn in addition to those of the simple priests (Ex., xxviii). A (probably sleeveless) purple-blue upper garment (tunica) fell to his knees, the lower seam being ornamented alternately with small golden bells and pomegranates of coloured thread. About the shoulders he also wore a garment called the ephod; this was made of costly material, and consisted of two portions about an ell long, which covered the back and breast, were held together above by two shoulderbands or epaulets, and terminated below with a magnificent girdle. Attached to the ephod in front was the shield (rationale), a square bag bearing on the outside the names of the twelve tribes engraved on precious stones (Ex., xxviii, 6), and containing within the celebrated Urim and Thummim (q.v.) as the means of obtaining Divine oracles and prophecies. The vestments of the high-priest were completed by a precious turban (tiara), bearing on a golden frontal plate the inscription: “Sacred to Jahweh”.

The high-priest had supreme supervision of the Ark of the Covenant (and of the Temple), of Divine service in general and of the whole personnel connected with public worship. He presided at the Sanhedrin. He alone could perform the liturgy on the Feast of Expiation, on which occasion he put on his costly vestments only after the sacrifices were completed. He alone might offer sacrifice for his own sins and those of the people (Lev., iv, 5), enter the holy of holies (sanctum sanctorum), and seek counsel of Jahweh on important occasions. The office of high-priest in the house of Aaron was at first hereditary in the line of his first-born son Eleazar, but in the period from Heli to Abiathar (1131 to 973 B.C.) it belonged, by right of primogeniture, to the line of Ithamar. Under the rule of the Seleucidæ (from about 175 B.C.) the office was sold for money to the highest bidder. At a later period it became hereditary in the family of the Hasmon. With the destruction of the central sanctuary by the Romans, the high-priesthood disappeared.

Against the foregoing account of the Mosaic priesthood, based on the Old Testament, the negative biblical critics of today make a determined stand. According to the hypothesis of Graf-Wellhausen, Moses (about 1250 B.C.) cannot be the author of the Pentateuch. He was not the Divinely appointed legislator, but simply the founder of Monolatry, for ethical Monotheism resulted from the efforts of much later Prophets. Deuteronomy D made its appearance in substance in 621 B.C., when the astute high-priest Helkias by a pious fraud palmed off on the god-fearing King Josias the recently composed “Book of the Laws” D as written by Moses (cf. IV Kings, xxii, 1 sqq.) When Esdras returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Exile about 450 B.C., he brought back the “Book of the Rutual” or the priest’s codex P, i.e., the middle portions between Genesis and Deuteronomy, composed by himself and his school in Babylon, although it was only in 444 B.C. that he dared to make it public. A clever editor now introduced the portions relating to public worship into the old, pre-Exilic historical books, and the entirely new idea of an Aaronic priesthood and of the centralization of the cult was projected back to the time of Moses. The story of the tabernacle of the covenant is thus a mere fiction, devised to represent the Temple at Jerusalem as established in fully developed form at the dawn of Israelitic history and to justify the unity of worship. Although this hypothesis does not contest the great antiquity of the Jewish priesthood, it maintains that the centralization of the cult, the essential difference between priests and Levites, the supreme authority of the priests of the Temple at Jerusalem as compared with the so-called hill-priests (cf. Ezech., xliv, 4 sqq.), must be referred to post-Exilic times.

Without entering upon a detailed criticism of these assertions of Wellhausen and the critical school (see PENTATEUCH), we may here remark in general that the conservative school also admits or can admit that only the original portion of the Pentateuch is to be accepted as Mosaic, that in the same text many repetitions seem to have been brought together from different sources, and finally that additions, extensions, and adaptations to new conditions by an inspired author of a later period are by no means excluded. It must also be admitted that, though one place of worship was appointed, sacrifices were offered even in early times by laymen and simple Levites away from the vicinity of the Ark of the Covenant, and that in restless and politically disturbed epochs the ordinance of Moses could not always be observed. In the gloomy periods marked by neglect of the Law, no attention was paid to the prohibition of hill-sacrifices, and the Prophets were often gratified to find that on the high places (bamoth) sacrifice was offered, not to pagan gods, but to Jahweh. However, the Pentateuch problem is one of the most difficult and intricate questions in Biblical criticism. The Wellhausen hypothesis with its bold assumptions of pious deceits and artificial projections is open to as great, if not greater, difficulties and mysteries as the traditional view, even though some of its contributions to literary criticism may stand examination. It cannot be denied that the critical structure has suffered a severe shock since the discovery of the Tell-el-Amarna letters dating from the fifteenth century B.C., and since the deciphering of the Hammurabi Code. The assumption that the oldest religion of Israel must have been identical with that of the primitive Semites (Polydæmonism, Animism, Fetishism, Ancestor-worship) has been proved false, since long before 2000 B.C. a kind of Henotheism, i.e., Polytheism with a monarchical head was the ruling religion in Babylon. The beginnings of the religions of all peoples are purer and more spiritual than many historians of religions have hitherto been willing to admit. One thing is certain: the final word has not yet been spoken as to the value of the Wellhausen hypothesis.   1914 Catholic Encyclopedia