High Priest

(ha-kohen, ho hiereus; ha-kohen ha-mashiach, ho hiereus ho christos; ha-kohen ha-gadhol, ho hiereus ho megas; kohen ha-ro’sh, ho hiereus hegoumenos; New Testament archiereus):


1. The Family

2. The Consecration

3. The Dress

4. The Duties of High-Priesthood

5. Special Regulations

6. The Emoluments

7. Importance of the Office


1. In the Old Testament

2. In the New Testament


I. Institution of the High-Priesthood.

Temples with an elaborate ritual, a priesthood and a high priest were familiar to Moses. For a millennium or two before his time these had flourished in Egypt. Each temple had its priest or priests, the larger temples and centers having a high priest. For centuries the high priest of Amon at Thebes stood next to the king in power and influence. Many other high-priesthoods of less importance existed. Moses’ father-in-law was priest of Midian, doubtless the chief or high priest. In founding a nation and establishing an ecclesiastical system, nothing would be more natural and proper for him than to institute a priestly system with a high priest at the head. The records give a fairly full account of the institution of the high-priesthood.

1. The Family:

2. The Consecration:

The ceremonies by which he was installed in his office are recorded in Ex 29:29 ff. Seven days of special solemnities were spent. The first consecration was by Moses; it is not said who performed the others. There was special washing and anointing with oil (Ps 133:2). Each new high priest must wear the holy garments, as well as be specially anointed (Le 21:10). Every day a bullock for a sin offering must be offered for atonement; the altar also must be cleansed, atoned for, and anointed, the high priest offering a sacrifice or minchah for himself (Le 6:24 ).

3. The Dress:

See Priest.

4. The Duties of the High-Priesthood:

5. Special Regulations:

See nodetitle; Priesthood.

6. The Emoluments:

The emoluments were not much greater than those of the priests in general. He received no more inheritance among the tribes than any other Levite, but he and his family were maintained upon certain fees, dues and perquisites which they enjoyed from the common fund. In Nu 18:28 the priests were to receive a tithe of the tithe paid in to the Levites. Josephus says this was a common fund (Ant., IV, iv, 4), but the high priest was probably charged with the duty of distributing it. In general the family of the high priest was well-to-do, and in the later period became very wealthy. The high priest and his family were among the richest people of the land in the time of Christ, making enormous profits out of the sacrifices and temple business.

7. Importance of the Office:

II. History of the High-Priesthood in Israel.

1. In the Old Testament:

He is distinctly known as high priest (ha-kohen ha-gadhol). He takes a leading part in establishing the ecclesiastico-civil system, particularly the building of the temple. In the vision of Zechariah (Zec 3:1-5) Satan accuses the high priest who is here the representative proper of the nation. The consummation of the Messianic age cannot be completed without the cooperation of the high priest who is crowned with Zerubbabel, and sits with him on the throne (Zec 6:13). The prophet also describes Joshua and his friends as "men of the sign," alluding to the coming Messiah under whom the sin of the land was to be taken away in one day (Zec 3:9 f). The promise is made to Joshua that if he will walk in Yahweh’s ways and keep His house, he shall judge Yahweh’s house, i.e. Israel, keep His court and have a place to walk among those who stand before Yahweh (Zec 3:7). He is anointed equally with the prince of the royal line, for the two sons of oil (Zec 4:14) almost certainly refer to the royal Zerubbabel and priestly Joshua who are to be joint inspirers of Israel in rebuilding the temple.

The line of Eleazar doubtless continued until the time of the Maccabees, when a decided change took place. The Syrian Antiochus deposed Onias III and put his brother Jason in his place (174 BC), who was soon displaced by Menelaus. About 153 BC Jonathan the Hasmonean was appointed by King Alexander, and thus the high-priesthood passed to the priestly family of Joiarib (1 Macc 10:18-21). Whether the family of Joiarib was a branch of the Zadokites or not cannot be determined. After the appointment of Jonathan, the office became hereditary in the Hasmonean line, and continued thus until the time of Herod the Great. The latter set up and deposed high priests at his pleasure. The Romans did the same, and changed so frequently that the position became almost an annual appointment. Though many changes were thus made, the high priest was always chosen from certain priestly families. From this group of deposed priests arose a class known as "chief priests." The anointing prescribed in the law of Moses was not always carried out in later times, and in fact was generally omitted. The Mishna speaks of high priests who were installed in office simply by clothing them with their special robes (Schurer, II, i, p. 217, note 24).

2. In the New Testament:

In New Testament times the high priest was the chief civil and ecclesiastical dignitary among the Jews. He was chairman of the Sanhedrin, and head of the political relations with the Roman government. It is not clear just how far he participated in the ceremonies of the temple. No doubt he alone entered the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement, and also offered the daily offerings during that week. What other part he took in the work was according to his pleasure. Josephus says that he officiated at the Sabbath, the New Moon and yearly festivals. The daily minchah (Le 6:12 ) which he was required to offer was not always offered by the high priest in person, but he was required to defray the expense of it. This was a duty which, according to Ezekiel’s vision, was to be performed by the prince. The Jews had many contentions with the Romans as to who should keep the garments of the high priest. When Jerusalem fell into the hands of the Romans, the robe of state also fell into their hands.

See Paul, the Apostle.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews the doctrine of the priesthood of Jesus is fully and carefully elaborated. Jesus is here called the great High Priest, as well as priest. The opening words of the Epistle contain the essential thought: "when he had made purification of sins" (1:3). The title of high priest is first introduced in 2:17, "a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God"; also in 3:1, "the Apostle and High Priest of our confession." Having thus fairly introduced his great theme, the writer strikes the keynote of his great argument: "Having then a great high priest," etc. (4:14,15). From 4:14 to 7:28 the argument deals with the high-priestly work of Jesus. His qualifications are not only those which distinguish all priesthood, but they are also unique. He is named after the order of Melchizedek. The general qualifications are:

(1) He is appointed by God to His office (5:1).

(2) He is well fitted for the office by His experiences and participation in human temptations (5:2-6; 2:18).

(3) He undergoes a divine preparation (5:8,9).

The special qualifications of His priesthood are: It is after the order of Melchiezedek (5:10). This is an eternal one (6:20); royal or kingly (7:1-3); independent of birth or family (7:3); it is timeless (7:8); superior to that of Levi (7:4-10); new and different from that of Aaron (7:11,12). It is also indissoluble (7:16); immutable (7:21); inviolable (7:24). Thus, with all these general and special qualifications, He is completely fitted for His work (7:26). That work consists in offering up Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the people (7:27); entering within the veil as a forerunner (6:20); presenting the sacrificial blood in heaven itself (8:3; 9:7,24); thus obtaining eternal redemption (9:12); ratifying the new covenant (9:15-22). The result of this high-priestly work is a cleansing from all sin (9:23); a possibility of full consecration to God and His service (10:10); an ultimate perfection (10:14); and full access to the throne of grace (10:21,22).

See Offices of Christ; nodetitle; PRIESTHOOD IN THE NEW TESTAMENT.


Articles on the priesthood in general, with references to the high priest in HDB, HCG, EB, Jew Encyclopedia, Kitto, Smith, Fallows, Schaff-Herzog, etc.; no article on "High Priest" only. For the history, Breasted, History of Egypt; Schurer, History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, II, i, 207-99; Josephus, Ant, XV, XVIII, XX. For works on the priesthood from the radical viewpoint, see Graf, S.I. Curtiss, Jost, Graetz, Kautzsch, Budde, Baentsch, Benzinger, Buchler, Meyer, Wellhausen. For a more moderate position see Baudissin, Die Geschichte des alttestamentlichen Priesterthums untersucht. For a more conservative position see A. Van Hoonacker, Le sacerdoce levitique dans la loi et dans l’histoire des Hebreux. On the high-priesthood subsequent to the return from Babylon, see B. Pick, Lutheran Church Review, 1898, I, 127-41; II, 370-74; III, 555-56; IV, 655-64; and the commentaries on the passages cited.

James Josiah Reeve

See also

  • Priest</li> <li>[[Priests and Levites