Priesthood: Jewish Priesthood

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[This article discusses the nature of ancient Israelite priesthood.]

The most common biblical term for "priest" is the Hebrew word kohen (pl., kohanim ). It is a West Semitic term known in other ancient societies, and although it is a primitive noun, not derived from any verbal root, its meaning can be established from context. The term levi (pl., leviyyim ), on the other hand, often used to designate certain types of priests, has eluded precise definition, but is translated as "Levite." It seems to be a North Israelite term for "priest" in its earliest biblical occurrences.

The problem that has faced historians in reconstructing the history of Israelite priesthood is the character of the biblical literary evidence, itself, which confronts us with two alternative traditions of Israelite history. In the first, that of the Torah in general, and the Priestly tradition in particular, priests are the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, descended from and named after one of Jacob's twelve sons, though usually represented as being different from the other tribes in certain respects. The Levites had no territory of their own, were counted separately in the census, and relied on cultic emoluments, most notably the tithe, for their support. According to some biblical traditions, the Levites became collectively consecrated, or were collectively chosen for sacred tasks because of their loyalty to the God of Israel when others were wayward. In this set of traditions, the Levites were at one point demoted, relegated to maintenance functions and the like. Only one family of prieststhe Zadokites according to Ezekiel 44, and the Aaronites according to Leviticus 810 and other priestly textswere retained as proper priests, fit to officiate in the cult. Another set of biblical traditions, less systematically presented but apparently authentic, portrays priestly groups as professional associations in their initial stages, which became consolidated along family and clan lines through the usual tendency of families to inhabit the same towns and locales and to transmit esoteric skills within the family or clan. Clans, however, were not exclusively ancestral; they admitted outsiders to the study of their skills and eventually to full membership. These processes eventually led to the emergence of identifiable priestly, or Levitical, families, inhabiting towns throughout the land. Biblical writers could thus speak of "Levites" as a tribe, albeit a tribe different from other tribes.

Throughout the period of the northern Israelite and southern Judahite monarchies and even prior to that time, priests were appointed by heads of families, military commanders, kings, and other leaders, and served in their employ. During the period of the Second Temple, when Judaea and Jerusalem were under the domination of foreign empires, the priesthood of Jerusalem played an important political role, the priests serving also as leaders of the Jewish communities.

This is one dimension of priestly status. In religious terms, priests were consecrated persons, subject to laws of purity and restricted in all matters, including marriage and the performance of funerary functions. Priests also wore distinctive vestments.

Common to both dimensions is the factor of skilled training. Priests were taught from torot (sg., torah ), "instruction" manuals for cultic officiation, instruction of the people, adjudication, and oracular and therapeutic functions. Priests also administered temple business and maintained temple facilities. In the postexilic period of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, after the status of the city had changed from a national capital ruled by native kings to a temple city under foreign imperial domination, the priests of Jerusalem assumed quasi-political functions as well. They managed community affairs, while leading priests represented the Judean community to the imperial authorities, first Persian, then Ptolemaic and Seleucid.

Preexilic biblical sources refer to chief priests (sg., kohen ha-roʾsh, Jer. 52:24) and their deputies (sg., kohen ha-mishneh, 2 Kgs. 23:4), whereas the Priestly tradition provides the title "the high priest" (ha-kohen ha-gadol, Lv. 21:10) which was more widely used in the postexilic period. The internal organization of the priesthood is gleaned from later biblical literature and from the writings of Josephus Flavius (fl. first century ce), as well as from the Mishnah (second-third centuries ce). Priests were assigned to tours of duty called mishmarot, "watches," usually of one week's duration, during which they lived in the Temple complex. The Mishnah mentions priestly officials, such as ha-segan ("the director") and ha-memunneh ("the priest designate"), who were in charge of specific temple functions in offices of the day.

Priests were supported by levies and donations to the Temple (or temples, in the earlier period) and were required to partake of sacred meals within the Temple precincts. There are indications that, especially in the postexilic period, but perhaps earlier as well, priestly families amassed independent wealth and owned large estates.

Priestly functions may be summarized in the following five categories: (1) cultic functions, (2) oracular functions, (3) therapeutic functions, (4) instructional and juridical functions, and (5) administrative and political functions.


Cultic functions. The indispensable role of the priest was to officiate in the public sacrificial cult, a role for which only priests were fit. In addition to officiating, priests were involved in the preparation of sacrificial materials and the examination of sacrificial animals and their assignment to specific rites.


Oracular functions. Both early sources on priestly activity and the subsequent Priestly codification of priestly functions lend prominence to oracular inquiry. The only permitted type of divination was by means of casting lots to secure a binary, or yes or no, response. Often mentioned in this connection is the efod, a finely embroidered vestment with a pouch in which the two stones called Urim and Tummim were most likely kept (Ex. 28:6, Lv. 8:7). Although it is the general view that such oracular inquiry was more characteristic of the earlier periods, their inclusion in the Priestly codes of law, and in certain postexilic references to priestly activity suggests that their utilization persisted (Ezr. 2:63). The Urim and Tummim could determine innocence or guilt, and lots are recorded in the Priestly tradition as the means for assigning territories to the tribes.


Therapeutic functions. Leviticus 1315 prescribes a quasi-medical role for the Israelite priest relevant to the treatment of certain skin diseases, which also appeared as blight on leather and cloth and on plaster-covered building stones. The purificatory priest combined medical procedures such as symptomatic diagnosis, quarantine, and observation, with magical and sacrificial rites dealing with the threat of these afflictions. Although nothing is said of this role elsewhere in the Bible, comparative evidence of similar functions in Mesopotamia and Egypt suggests that this was a realistic function of priests.


Instructional and juridical functions. The priest was brought into contact with the people through his role as one who taught the people the torah ("instruction"), the correct procedures in religious and legal matters. Priests usually served as judges, and the high courts were traditionally located in the Temple complex of Jerusalem at certain periods. This was true of the Sanhedrin of Hellenistic and Roman times. The key verb often used in characterizing this priestly activity is the Hebrew horah ("to teach").


Administrative and political functions. Priests managed the business of the Temple, which involved accounting, assessing the value of donations in various forms, maintaining the Temple plant, and carrying out periodic inspections and purifications. At times, especially in the postexilic period, but perhaps earlier as well, priests did double duty as tax collectors in royal outposts and later as traveling collectors.

In the postexilic period Levites, as distinct from priests, performed nonsacral tasks in maintaining the Temple, and the later biblical books speak of them as gatekeepers and temple singers or musicians (e.g., Neh. 7:1). This latter role is also suggested by the captions attached to many psalms, attributing them to Levitical clans.

The various biblical traditions, including the Priestly traditions themselves, agree on the view that not ritual but rather obedience to God's command in all things, especially in relations "between man and man," is the ultimate goal of religious life. And yet it was the priesthood that made it possible for the individual Israelite and the community as a whole to experience the nearness and presence of God.

See Also

Levites; Rabbinate.


Cody, Aelred. A History of Old Testament Priesthood. Rome, 1969.

Gray, G. B. Sacrifice in the Old Testament. Reissued with an introduction by Baruch A. Levine. New York, 1971. See pages 179270.

Kaufman, Yehezkel. The Religion of Israel. Translated and abridged by Moshe Greenberg. Chicago, 1956.

McCross, Frank, Jr. "A Reconstruction of the Judean Restoration." Journal of Biblical Literature 94 (1975): 418.

Milgrom, Jacob. Studies in Levitical Terminology I. Los Angeles, 1970.

Milgrom, Jacob. Studies in Levitical Terminology II. Berkeley, Calif., 1974.

New Sources

Bamberger, Henry. "Aaron: Changing Perceptions." Judaism 42 (1993): 199213.

Fleming, Daniel E. "The Biblical Tradition of Anointing Priests." JBL 117 (1998): 401414.

Leithart, Peter J. "Attendants of Yahweh's House: Priesthood in the Old Testament." JSOT 85 (1999): 324.

Nurmela, Risto. The Levites: Their Emergence as a Second-class Priesthood. South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism, no. 193. Atlanta, 1998.

Rooke, Deborah W. Zadok's Heirs: The Role and Development of the High Priesthood in Ancient Israel. Oxford and New York, 2000.

Baruch A. Levine (1987)

Revised Bibliography