high priest

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The High Priest was the head of the priestly hierarchy in postexilic Israel who exercised supreme authority over the Temple, worship, and Temple personnel at Jerusalem. He was the mediator par excellence between God and the people, and the most important of his duties was the carrying out of the expiation rites on the Day of Atonement (Lv 16.134); he also shared in the general duties of the priesthood in the Temple. Because of his liturgical position, a more than customary ritual purity was demanded of him (see Lv 21.123), and he was expected to remain as close as possible to the Temple; this is probably why his residence was in the Temple area (Neh3.20). Descriptions of the vestments of the high priest are given in Ex 29.59, 39.131; Lv 8.79; and Sir 45.813. Most of this information comes from the postexilic descriptions of "the sons of aaron" in the Priestly Code (see priestly writers, pentateuchal).

In preexilic Israel there was a priest at the head of the Jerusalem clergy, but he was apparently referred to simply as "the priest" (e.g., 1 Kgs 4.2; 2 Kgs 11.9), "head priest" (2 Kgs 25.18), or "the priest, the head of the house of Zadoc" (2 Chr 31.10); cf. the similar terms, "the great one of the priests" and "the head of the priests" in texts from Ras Shamra and in Phoenician inscriptions. The term high priest (Heb. hakkōhēn haggādôl ) is found four times in preexilic material (2 Kgs 12.11; 22.4, 8; 23.4); but these occurrences seem to be later modifications of the text (cf. the Septuagint and the parallel texts in Chronicles), and the title high priest appears to be postexilic, being used at first only rarely but coming into common usage in the Greek period. The preexilic head of the priesthood did not have the importance or rank that the high priest had after the exile. The former had control over the clergy of Jerusalem only and was himself responsible to the king (2 Kgs 12.7; 16.10), who had supreme control over the Temple and its clergy.

Immediately after the exile the high priest jeshua, son of jozadak, was in charge of the religious affairs of the Jerusalem community; and the Davidic governor Zerubbabel, whom the Persians had appointed, was in charge of temporal affairs. Later the Persians deprived Zerubbabel and his descendants of temporal power at Jerusalem and let the high priest alone administer both religious and temporal matters. From then on into the Greek period the high priest became increasingly a secular prince, regarded as the head of the nation and its representative before God, as the king had been in days gone by. During the period of the hasmonaeans the high priest even took the title of king. With the end of the Hasmonaean dynasty and the advent of Herod the Great (374 b.c.), the office of high priest was at the disposal of the sovereign, who appointed and dismissed nominees at his own caprice. There were no less than 28 high priests between 37 b.c. and a.d. 70, and these and their families formed a priestly aristocracy, the group of chief priests that is referred to so often in the NT.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek, 100205. r. abba, g. a. buttrick, ed., The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, 4 v. (Nashville 1962) 3:878, 886887. l. grollenberg, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed., j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (Freiburg 195765) 5:437438. r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mc hugh (New York 1961) 378, 397403. t. j. meek, "Aaronites and Zadokites," American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 45 (192829) 149166.

[a. g. wright]

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HIGH PRIEST (Heb. הַ)כּהֵן הָדֹאשׁ ,הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל ,הַכֹּהֵן)), the priest at the head of the priestly affairs. In pre-Exilic times the common appellation for the chief priest of a community was "the priest" (Heb. ha-Kohen; e.g., i Sam. 14:19, 36; 21:2–10). The term "high priest" (Heb. ha-kohen ha-gadol) is used in reference to Aaron and his descendants who are anointed with holy oil (Lev. 21:10; Num. 35:25, 28; Josh. 20:6), and later to the chief priest of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem (ii Kings 12:11; 22:4, 8; 23:4; Neh. 3:1, 20; 13:28). An early comparable title is Ugaritic rb khnm. The appellation "head priest" (Heb. kohen ha-rosh) is an alternative for "high priest" (ii Kings 25:18; Jer. 52:24; ii Chron. 19:11; 24:11; 26:20; Ezra 7:5) and may have coexisted with ha-kohen ha-gadol.

In the Second Temple Period

Although the term and office of high priest are infrequent in early biblical literature, and the Aaronide priesthood a late development, the existence of a high priesthood in the two pre-exilic Israelite kingdoms is more than likely. From the outset of the Second Temple period not only does the term "high priest" appear more frequently, but the responsibilities of the office were greatly enhanced. Beginning either under late Persian or early Hellenistic rule in Palestine, the high priest is not merely responsible for religious and spiritual life within the country, but is also chief administrator of internal secular policy, as well as the recognized representative of the Jewish community in all matters of external diplomacy. This development of high-priestly power reached its peak under the Hasmoneans, and thus, even when the latter were already designated as kings, it was considered essential to retain the title of "high priest" which, encompassing so many functions, was probably even more revered than the monarchy itself. This fact would tend to explain the famous objection of the Pharisees to the retaining of the high priesthood by the Hasmoneans, and the outright rejection of their claims by either John *Hyrcanus or Alexander *Yannai (Kid. 66a; Jos., Ant. 13:288ff.). It is also noteworthy that the Hebrew coins of the Hasmoneans designate these rulers solely as high priests, and that the political authority of the community, the *ḥever ha-Yehudim, appears on the coins accompanied only by the title high priest and may not have even recognized the monarchy (cf. A. Schalit, Hordos ha-Melekh (1960), 159–60, 561–2).

With the Roman conquest of Judea and subsequent Herodean rule, the office of high priest became a political tool in the hands of the administration, and until the destruction of the Temple was never to return to its earlier prominence. Herod, in an attempt to base his regime on new elements within Jewish society, completely disassociated himself from the Hasmonean dynasty, and thus the high priesthood passed into the hands of such houses as Phiabi and Boethus, both having been transplanted from the Jewish Diaspora (regarding this tendency under Herod, cf. M. Stern, in Tarbiz, 35 (1965–66), 245ff.). Although the high priests continued to serve as presidents of the *Sanhedrin, both their actual powers and measure of esteem among the people gradually deteriorated, and derision of the high priests during the late Second Temple period is commonly quoted in rabbinic literature (cf. Pes. 57a; Yoma 8b–9a). This negative attitude of the Pharisees was probably enhanced by the fact that high priests from the Hasmonean period onward were primarily Sadducees, and frequent quarrels erupted between the two factions (cf. Tosef., Yoma 1:8). By the end of the Second Temple period the high priest was considered no more than a religious functionary of the Roman administration, and thus even the garments of the high priest were entrusted at times to the hands of the local Roman procurator and handed over to the priests just prior to the various festivals. It is understandable, therefore, that with the zealots' seizure of Jerusalem one of their first acts was the appointment of a new high priest, as if thereby to display the establishment of a new Jewish government in Jerusalem (Jos., Wars 4:147ff.).


Jos, Ant., 20:224–51; Schuerer, Gesch, index, s.v.Hohepriester; idem, in: Theologische Studien und Kritiken, 45 (1872), 593–657; H. Graetz, in: mgwj, 30 (1881), 49–64, 97–112; G. Hoelscher, Die Hohenpriesterliste bei Josephus… (1940); G. Allon, in: Tarbiz, 13 (1941–42), 1–24. add. bibliography: M. Cogan and H. Tadmor, ii Kings (1988), 138; J. Vanderkam, From Joshua to Caiaphas: High Priests After the Exile (2004); L. Grabbe, A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period, vol. 1 (2004), 224–36; L. Fried, The Priest and the Great King (2004).

[Isaiah Gafni]

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High priest. The chief priest (Heb., kohen gadol) of the Jerusalem Temple. By the end of the second Temple period, when the land was under Roman rule, the high priest was often considered merely an arm of the secular administration and was under constant criticism from the Pharisees and Zealots. Once the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE the office lapsed.

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high priest • n. a chief priest of a non-Christian religion, in particular: ∎  the chief priest of the historic Jewish religion. ∎  the head of a religious cult or similar group. ∎ fig. a chief advocate of a belief or practice: the high priest of the drug culture.