Priesthood: An Overview

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Cross-cultural use of the terms priest and priesthood is an example of a familiar pattern in modern description of religion. Frequently, terms with European meanings and linguistic derivations are pressed into service for the description of a range of phenomena worldwide. If we pay attention to this fact, we can often enhance our appreciation not only of the terminology itself but of the material to which it is applied.

Usage in the West

In the case of priest, we can discern a "core" meaning in the Western use of the term. At this core, one may argue, are two identifying factors. The priest, first, performs a sacrificial ritual, usually at a fixed location such as an altar. Second, the priest does so as a specialist on behalf of a community or congregation. When both of these factors are present, we have priesthood in a strict or narrow sense.

In fact, the strict sense of the meaning of priest prevailed prior to modern times, while looser and more inclusive applications of the term have come into use more recently. This development has to do with religious and conceptual horizons of the Christian West, in which the vocabulary of Latin and its derivatives has been dominant. In the traditions of the Judeo-Christian West, our point will become clear when we consider circumstances in which the term priest has not been used. The two principal cases are the Jewish and the Protestant.

For Judaism, priesthood is a well-defined and central role in the biblical tradition. The performance of sacrifices was one of its essential characteristics. The priests carried out the sacrificial ritual at altars, and from the seventh century bce onward such ceremony was centralized at the temple in Jerusalem. When, however, the Jerusalem temple was destroyed, the sacrificial practices lapsed, and there were no longer active priests, even if there were hereditary priestly families. Religious leadership in the synagogue, which replaced the temple, passed to the rabbis in their role as teachers. The only continuation of ancient Israel's animal sacrifice is among the small community of the Samaritans, whose officiants to this day are referred to as priests. As far as the Hebraic context is concerned, the terms we translate by priest regularly imply the performance of sacrifice, and in the absence of the sacrifice the concept has been considered inapplicable.

Protestants do not generally refer to their clergy as "priests" either. (In this context, the Anglican communion's usage is closer to a Roman Catholic than to a Protestant understanding of things.) But Protestants do have a conception of priesthood, referred to as "the priesthood of all believers." Each member of the community, in this view, is his or her own priest, with direct access to God. The salient feature of priesthood which this Protestant understanding illustrates, then, has not so much to do with sacrifice as such but with the priest's role as an officiating intermediary. In avoiding the term priest as a designation of their own clergy, most Protestants have implied a repudiation of the notion that priestly ordination should elevate any man above his fellow human beings or confer on him any access to the divine that is denied others. Protestants did differ from Rome on the senses in which the Lord's Supper, the eucharistic meal of the Mass, might be considered in itself a sacrifice, for they held that Jesus' self-sacrifice was commemorated rather than repeated. But the truly sore point was the privileged, controlling status enjoyed by the officiating Roman clergy. In the Reformation context, then, an essential characteristic of priesthood was its privileged role of mediating benefits and requests between the divine and the human community.

Before we leave the historical meanings of priesthood we may take note of the derivation of the term priest itself. Etymologically, the word in English comes from the French prêtre and ultimately from the Greek presbutēs. In Greek, however, that term means "elder"; hence in the course of Christian usage the semantics of the term shifted from the ordained person's place in ecclesiastical polity to his role as a cultic celebrant. Semantically, on the other hand, the chief words whose meaning corresponds to "priest" are hiereus in Greek, sacerdos in Latin, and kohen in Hebrew.

Description of Priesthood in Non-Western Religion

A great many other activities and attributes of priests in the European Christian tradition have built up a range of connotations of the term and role extending far beyond the two critical factors we have reviewed so far. Priests in the West generally wear ceremonial robes while officiating and have distinctive details of street clothing; hence, Western visitors to Japan, for instance, termed the robed personnel of temples "priests," whether Shintō or Buddhist. Priests in the Latin Christian tradition are unmarried; hence the disposition of visitors to Sri Lanka, Burma, or Thailand sometimes to refer to Buddhist monks as "priests," even if the status of their ritual as a sacrifice is debatable. Priests are inducted into their office through ordination; hence the tendency to view tribal societies' ritually initiated specialists in divination, exorcism, healing, and the like as priests. Priests deliver sermons and moral injuctions; hence, presumably, occasional references to the ʿulamā˒, or religious scholars of traditional Islamic lands, as priests, despite the fact that they are neither ordained nor do they perform ritual sacrifice.

In the extended, cross-cultural uses of the term priest, then, a priest is any religious specialist acting ritually for or on behalf of a community. With a term used in so broad and flexible a general sense, one excludes little from the category. Ritual activities as such, however, do not make the laypeople who perform them priests; a priest, in any useful sense of the term, is characteristically an intermediary set apart by a recognized induction into office and functioning on behalf of others. Nor does religious specialization or professionalism on behalf of a lay clientele necessarily constitute someone as a priest; there are healers, teachers, and the like who function as professionals but whose activity is not tied to the ritual of a sanctuary.

Eligibility for Priesthood

The world's priests in various traditions can be divided into what one might term hereditary priesthoods and vocational priesthoods. In the first case, the priestly prerogatives and duties are the special heritage of particular family or tribal lineages. The ancient Hebrew priesthood, for example, was reserved to the Levites, or descendants of Levi. Levi does not figure in the list of Israelite tribes in Numbers 1 (where Ephraim and Manasseh as sons of Joseph each have a place on the list of twelve), but the Levites appear to have gained tribal status in the tradition of Genesis 49 (also a list of twelve, including Levi and Joseph but not Ephraim or Manasseh).

Similarly, hereditary is the priesthood in Zoroastrianism, the national religion of pre-Islamic Iran, which today still claims a hundred thousand Iranian and Indian adherents. Traditionally, fathers who were practicing priests trained their sons in the proper recitation of the prayers. More recently, madrasah s (schools) for the training of priests have been established. A priest's son may exercise the option to become a priest, and even if he does not do so, the grandson may; but after two or three generations of inactivity the eligibility of the line lapses.

The brahman class of India constitutes another important example of priests whose eligibility is hereditary. The traditional Indian social scale known as the caste system places the priests in the highest rank in terms of prestige and respect, ahead of the warrior-rulers. Not surprisingly, the warrior class had already gained greater practical power by the time documented by extant historical records. The other strata continued nonetheless to behave in the apparent confidence that their own positions might be legitimated, confirmed, or blessed by the brahmans, however impoverished the brahmans might become.

It is generally expected that the clergy in hereditary priesthoods will marry, so that the line may be perpetuated. Indeed, the genealogical awareness of hereditary priesthoods is often as carefully documented as is that of royalty, and for similar reasons. Families claiming the right to officiate in a particular location are known to record their descent back a number of centuries in order to substantiate their legitimacy. Hereditary control of certain temples, whether in Japan or India or elsewhere, can imply some financial advantage, such as access to housing on the premises or to the temple's revenues as income.

Many professions and lines of work are reflected in people's surnames, and a family association with priesthood is no exception. The Jewish surname Cohen is an example, as is also Katz (an acronym for "righteous priest"), even though the temple sacrifice has not been performed for nineteen centuries. Among Lebanese and other Arabic-speaking Christians a common surname is Khoury, an Arabic word for "priest," and another is Kissis. Common among the Parsis, the Zoroastrian community of India, is the family name Dastur, meaning "high priest."

What one may call a vocational priesthood, on the other hand, recruits its members from the pool of promising young people in the community. It has the potential advantage of selectivity for devotional, intellectual, or moral qualities. All branches of Christianity recruit their personnel on a vocational basis, often promising challenge rather than comfort as the reward of the priestly life. Celibacy is something that a tradition of vocational priesthood can require, as does the Roman Catholic Church, but many vocational priesthoods still permit marriage, such as those of the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and other Eastern Christian churches.

Even in the case of vocational priesthoods, the notion of lineage is not absent, but it is expressed in terms of the transmission of legitimacy from teacher to pupil or from ordaining authority to ordained, as, for example, in Tibetan Buddhist lineages or the Christian notion of apostolic suc-cession.

In the vast majority of the world's religious traditions, eligibility for priesthood has been restricted to males. The Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, Zoroastrian, and Christian traditions have had exclusively male clergy until modern times. Judaism likewise restricted the rabbinate (its equivalent to the more inclusive current sense of the term priest ) to males. In today's world various branches of both Christianity and Judaism have begun to ordain women to serve as the ritual and spiritual leaders of congregations. To the extent that Islam has leadership analogous to priests, it too has been exclusively male. Only in some "primitive" tribal traditions such as in Africa and some "archaic" traditions such as Shintō and the religions of ancient Greece, Rome, and pagan northern Europe do we find much evidence of priestesses. In most of the world religions there are analogous but supporting roles for women as nuns, deacons, or other assistants. Contemporary initiatives calling for equality for women have raised serious questions concerning the subordination that these roles imply.

Another feature of eligibility for priesthood is a sound physical and mental condition. Apart from practical considerations of community leadership, this requirement is frequently supported by a notion of perfection as appropriate to the sacrificial ritual. Just as a sacrificial animal is expected to be whole and without blemish, so should the sacrificer himself be. Traditional Roman Catholic custom has required in particular that the hands of a priest, which perform the sacrament, be without deformity.

Training and Ordination

A wide variety of instruction, training, and initiation for work as a priest exists among the world's religious traditions. The content of the training is generally a blend of three components that one could term the practical, the theoretical, and the disciplinary.

The practical side of a priest's training includes most saliently the skills the community expects for correct performance of ritual. In a great many traditional settings the efficacy of a prayer or incantation has been held to depend on the acoustic correctness of its utterance. To tap divine power, the formula may need to be invoked in the right language, in the right words, with the right pronunciation, and even with a precise musical intonation. The Hindu concept of mantra as a verbal formula entails such training on the part of those who will pronounce mantra s, and in the view of many Zoroastrians the exactness of the priests' pronunciation of the liturgical prayers in the Avestan language is what makes the prayers effective.

Consequently the appropriate priestly training amounts to rote memorization of the text of the Vedas in the Hindu case and of the Avesta in the Zoroastrian. This may be begun at a quite early age, and the course is sometimes completed before the candidate reaches puberty. It is knowledge of the text, rather than understanding, that is cultivated. Achievements of memorization in premodern societies can be quite impressive; the Hindu surname Trivedi, for example, etymologically means "one who has committed to memory three of the Vedas."

Besides the formulas of the ritual text itself there is much else for a priest to learn: where the ceremonial objects and the officiant should be placed; how the right time for an observance is to be determined; and so on. Where the celebration of a ritual has depended for its timing on direct observation of the sun, moon, or stars, the training of a priest has necessitated mastering a certain amount of practical astronomy. Where the means of divination have included the bones or entrails of animals, the priest has of necessity had to be a practical veterinary surgeon. Indeed, it is instructive to observe in the history of cultures that many professions that became independent specializations have had their origin as branches of priestly learning. But this should not distract us from the fact that priestly training that is merely rote in nature, and oriented only toward ritual performance, may not be sufficient for the demands of the modern world.

What can be termed theoretical training stands at the other end of the spectrum. The world's major religious traditions have all at one time or another undergone challenges of critical inquiry, often philosophical in character. Their scholars have wrestled with the epistemological and metaphysical implications of religious cosmologies, and the ethical and psychological assumptions entailed by religious views of human nature and personality. Some of these traditions have come to expect of their officiating clergy that they not only perform rituals but also minister to the intellectual life of their congregations. Training for priesthood thus may contain a substantial component of historical and philosophical study, in which the prospective congregational leader is given at least a rudimentary exposure to the results of scriptural and doctrinal scholarship.

The perceived need for competence in theoretical matters has generally led religious communities to develop courses of formal academic instruction for their priests (or comparable personnel) in theological studies. Throughout the Islamic world, religious scholarship flourished in a type of school known as a madrasah, meaning etymologically "place of study." In small towns these institutions might be modest, but many of the madrasah s in the chief cities of medieval Islam were substantially endowed, and to this day certain of their buildings are numbered among the finest monuments of traditional Islamic architecture. In medieval Europe, the origin of universities as institutions was frequently closely tied to the need to educate the Christian clergy, and in a number of northern European countries since the Protestant Reformation both Protestant and Roman Catholic theological faculties have continued to be integral parts of the older universities.

In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, the founding of many of the older colleges and universities was based on a similar desire to insure that there would be an educated clergy. The American principle of separation of church and state, however, contributed to the emergence, in the state universities, of curricula in which Christian theology played no part. Religious denominations trained their clergy in separate seminaries, but mainline Protestant bodies by the late nineteenth century were presuming a university bachelor's degree as a prerequisite for entry into them. The normal ordination course emerged as three years following the B.A., roughly from the age of twenty-one to twenty-four. The development of comparable three-year post-B.A. rabbinical curricula from the late nineteenth century onward is one of the marks of Jewish acculturation to the American environment. And the entry of Roman Catholic institutions into close ecumenical cooperation from the 1960s onward made the three-year post-B.A. theology degree standard for Catholic priests as well. The creation of cluster arrangements among Protestant and Catholic theological seminaries has resulted in a significant sharing of resources and experiences in the educational preparation of Christian clergy.

Under the heading of "discipline" can be considered a third kind of preparation for priesthood. In various cultures, from tribal to modern, the priest-to-be is expected to undertake regimes of physical or spiritual self-cultivationthe better to be worthy of, or effective in, the practice of his role.

The concept of purity seems to be associated with a great number of these disciplinary practices and is expressed in a variety of forms. Bodily cleanliness is a frequent requirement, so that the candidate before ordination, or the celebrant before a ritual, may need to undergo a bath in water, or the ablution of some parts of the body, to remove any polluting substances of a physical nature. Or the washing of the body may be a symbolic act, in which magical, mental, or spiritual pollutants are contained or eliminated. Among some peoples, semen, as a product of sexual desire or activity, is held to be polluting. For instance, a certain preparation of a Zoroastrian priest for the conduct of cermonies involves a ritual extending over several days, which is invalidated and must be started over if the candidate shows signs of sexual excitement.

Celibacy for priests is a discipline for which a number of rationales have been offered. There is, of course, the just-mentioned notion of sexual activity as a physical pollution. Beyond this may lie a cosmological or metaphysical view most characteristic of Gnostic and Manichaean thinking, that the very perpetuation of physical existence in this world hinders the eventual release of pure spirit from its imprisonment in inherently evil matter. The early Christian rejection of Gnostic teachings made procreation a positive good and an obligationbut for the laity. Other rationales for priestly celibacy have had to do with eliminating contenders for one's allegiance: the celibate priest, it is held, can give all his time to his ecclesiastical duties, can move whenever and wherever the need arises, and can take personal risks in the cause of his community which a husband or parent might feel constrained to avoid. Finally there is the justification of discipline for discipline's sake: the very confronting of a challenge, even if that challenge itself be arbitrary, makes one a stronger or more worthy individual who can hope to be found worthy and acceptable by God.

The most nearly universal discipline among the world's priesthoods is probably the discipline of meditation. To speak of this, we must deal with the question of whether a common "core" or set of identifiable characteristics of meditation exists such that we can speak of it cross-culturally. Leading candidates for such characteristics are three: some formal physical posture (such as sitting or kneeling), a suspension of conversation with other individuals (though one may be expected to chant or pray aloud), and a concentration of the awareness on divine or transcendent power (sometimes aided by facing an image or symbol). The priest in his exercise of his role may be expected to lead others in meditation; in his training, he is prepared by its practice. A general feeling of well-being or decisiveness can be a personal benefit of meditation to those who practice it; but as a spiritual discipline, meditation needs to serve an unselfish goal, the control of the self and dedication of the priest's personal identity to a power or cause beyond himself.

Upon completion of his training, the priest is ceremonially inducted into the exercise of his role, a process to which Westerners often apply the Christian term ordination. Essential here is an ordaining authority such as a senior priest or a religious council. What results over time is a succession of priests, transmitting the role from generation to generation and basing its authority on the legitimacy of the founder of the line. Thus, among Christians, the notion of "apostolic succession" implies that each priest has a pedigree of ordination going back to the apostles, the first generation of Jesus' followers. Buddhist lineages are similar in that monks or pupils trace their ordination back for centuries to earlier teachers.

The process of ordination generally involves some sort of examination or ritual test to ascertain that the candidate is properly prepared. Where formal schools and curricula exist, it is seldom the diploma of the school as such that certifies the candidate, for the school may be distant or its curriculum or methods the subject of dispute. Rather, the local religious jurisdiction conducts its own examination, satisfying itself as to the candidate's dedication and competency.

The actual ceremony of ordination may involve the first wearing of clothing or an ornament or emblem which sets priests apart from others in the society. It generally includes some symbolization of the transfer of power; notable in Christian ordination is "the laying on of hands," in which clergy place their hands on the head of the new ordinand. Another common feature of the ordination process is the ordinand's first performance of a ritual act reserved to priests, such as celebrating a sacrifice or invoking divine pardon or blessing on the worshipers.

Priesthood and the State

Any consideration of the relationship of priesthood to the political governance of society must encompass a diversity of cultures. In this context, variation from one time and place to another is so great that the distinctiveness of individual cases probably outweighs in importance the generalizations that can be ventured. Nonetheless, certain types of patterns can be observed that are reflected in more than one historical and social context. For schematic purposes, we shall designate them as follows: the priest as chaplain, the king as priest, the priest as king, and the priest as critic.

By "the priest as chaplain" we mean the many cases in which the priest is a functionary attached to the ruling circles. In tribal societies this may take the form of the frequent presence or attendance of the sacrificer, dancer, diviner, or healer at the hut of the tribal chieftain. In such situations, the priest is on call in supporting roles in the conduct of the affairs of the tribe, and he receives contributions in return from the chieftain or from the tribe as a whole. Essentially the same professionalization is manifested in many of the great ancient empires. Priests were kept as part of the palace retinue, serving both to maintain the ritual worship attended by the court personnel and to deliver omens or otherwise to pronounce auspicious the acts of the royal house. Royal patronage could establish one religious tradition in preference to another, as in the case of Iran in the third century ce, when an ambitious Zoroastrian high priest, Karter, eliminated rivals such as the Manichaeans. Established religion implies a subsidized priesthood, as is evident in the chapels of European palaces and castles dating from medieval to modern times. It suggests a divine sanctioning of a nation's institutions, even in relatively secularized contexts. Although the Christian tradition maintains a theoretical distinction between what one is to render to God and what to Caesar, Christian priests have frequently asked God to bless the Caesar of the day. An instructive contemporary example is found in the prayers of invocation offered by clergy on behalf of religiously diverse public constituenciesstate functions such as the opening of a legislative session or the graduation ceremonies of a tax-supported university.

Under the heading "the king as priest" may be grouped those situations in which the chief ruler himself performs ceremonial acts of a religious nature. Some of these may be directed toward his own benefit as an individual, but in far more cases the purpose of the ritual is the welfare of the community as a whole. When this is so, the king's priestly role is demonstrably that of a cultic intermediary between the divine and the community. The New Year observances in ancient Babylonia are an example. In them, the king participated in an annual reenactment of the divine creation of the world, recalling the narrative in which the chief god slays the primordial watery chaos-monster and, by splitting its carcass, structures the world into water-surrounded heavens above and water-surrounded earth below. The drama served as a charter of rights and responsibilities for the king as the god's representative or intermediary, maintaining an order in society consonant with the divinely established order of the physical universe. Not very different in its function was the ritual practiced in ancient China, at the sanctuary in Beijing known as the Temple of Heaven. In this, the king performed the annual sacrifices on an open-air altar, symbolically mediating the unity of the cosmic order with that of society.

There are few instances of "the priest as king" that are not in some way debatable. In some cases, leaders have come to political power through having gained a spiritual following first. Muammad's career as a prophet is one example; but his leadership as an intertribal negotiator or as a military commander can hardly be called priestly. The American black civil rights movement of the 1960s and the Iranian revolution of 1979 offer two cases in which the professional religious leaders were the principal leadership possessed by people who were excluded from the ruling establishment; but once having gained power, each of these movements relied on other bases than the cultus for its maintenance and extension. Among the Jews in the Hellenistic era, the Hasmoneans were kings from a priestly lineage; but as a dynasty, they behaved as kings rather than as priests. On the whole, indeed, priests in the exercise of their cultic role seem to have become chaplains more often than kings, losing real political power and economic status rather than gaining it, as in the case of the brahmans of India. Perhaps the notion that priests might gain power to become kings is an elusive dream of priestly writers in much the way that the ideal of the philosopher-king is the philosopher's wishful thinking.

To speak of "the priest as critic" is to locate situations in which the priest's voice is one calling for penance or reform. To consider reform part of the vocation of a priest is in keeping with much current Christian discussion. It does, however, raise a semantic issue that calls for a historical answer. For were not the ancient Hebrew reformist critics characteristically referred to as prophets, while the priests were more the cultic chaplains of the establishment? This is indeed true for the period of Israel's religion before the sixth-century bce Babylonian exile. Thereafter, however, prophecy tended to lapse as an institution, and it consequently became the mandate of others, particularly the clergy, to be "prophetic" in the moral sense. However much prophets and priests may have had clearly differentiated functions in antiquity, the role of the prophet as the voice of conscience in the community has become part of the portfolio of the priest in the centuries since. Struggles for justice and protests for peace throughout the Christian world today bring us constant reports of priests who summon up the courage to defy the current regime, as part of their calling as priests. Activist priests in other communities, such as the Buddhist, have sometimes made a similar contribution.

The Future of Priesthood

The challenge of maintaining an ancient ritual tradition in a modern secular and technological age is a major one. In most of the modern world's religious communities, recruitment of priests is a pressing problem. The celibate life, for instance, surely deters many Roman Catholic males from opting for a priestly vocation, and the desire to marry is clearly a major impetus in the case of many who leave the priesthood. Economic considerations are also a factor: the offerings of the faithful sometimes no longer support a priest in the comfort, compared with other lines of work, that they once afforded. Priests have been reduced to mendicant roles even in those communities which have not characteristically expected priests to be poor. Among the Zoroastrian Parsis of India, most priests are paid on a piecework basis for prayers said, as opposed to being salaried; this fact has contributed to a certain distaste for priests as peddlers of their ritual services, though the community has left them little alternative.

Even more serious than this is a widespread decline in intellectual respect for priests throughout the contemporary world. The factors operative here are probably both philosophical and sociological. Philosophically, modern secularist criticism of traditional religous affirmations has to a certain extent called the content of the priest's affirmations into question, and the response from the pulpit has unfortunately sometimes been pietistic obscurantism. But at least as important has been the sociological fact of the growth of other skills and professions around the world. Formerly, priests often enjoyed status as the only educated, or the most educated, persons in small communities. Formerly, as we have suggested, skills and institutions associated with priesthood were the basis from which other professions and institutions were launched. Today, however, it is not unusual for the spiritual leader of a congregation to count among his flock scientists, engineers, or other professionals whose training is much more highly focused than his own. Some commentators suggest that priesthood as a vocation is in a vicious circle of decline in status, in that the caliber of personnel now being attracted is hardly such as to serve as models for recruiting the best minds of the next generation to a priestly vocation. The challenge of life's ultimate questions, however, persists. Priesthood will probably attract able personnel in significant and perhaps sufficient numbers for many generations to come.

See Also

Ministry; Ordination; Spiritual Discipline; Vocation.


General studies of priesthood are relatively few. Two that can be recommended are E. O. James's The Nature and Function of Priesthood (London, 1955) and Leopold Sabourin's Priesthood: A Comparative Study (Leiden, 1973).

Willard G. Oxtoby (1987)