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Priest in the New Testament

PRIEST IN THE NEW TESTAMENT (ἱερεύς, G2636, priest; ἀρχιερεύς, G797, high priest; ἱεράτευμα, G2633, priesthood). The NT usage of the terms “priest” and “high priest,” with but one exception (Acts 14:13), reflects OT antecedents, esp. the ministers of the Temple cultus. In the gospels and Acts, the usage is restricted to the Jewish caste who continued to minister in the Temple. Elsewhere the terms are used only in Hebrews, to refer to Jesus in a theological understanding of His ministry, and in the Revelation, where the Christian community is referred to as “priests to God,” reflecting Exodus 19:6. First Peter also cites the Exodus passage, calling the Christian community a “royal priesthood.”

The priestly caste.

For the most part the high priest and priests in the NT are extensions of what one finds in the OT. However, the Maccabean revolt and the subsequent Hasmonean dynasty of priest-kings, followed by Rom. rule—first under Herod and finally by procurator—have left their indelible imprints, and certain inevitable changes resulted.

The high priest.

Primacy of position in the priestly hierarchy during NT times continued to belong to the high priest. His leading position was based chiefly on the cultic character of his office. What distinguished him from all other men was his unique privilege to enter the Holy of Holies once a year to offer sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. Moreover, he had the privilege of taking part in any sacrifice at any time he chose. Ritual and marriage regulations were esp. strict for him in comparison with others.

During NT times, the high priesthood had lost its OT hereditary character. Herod the Great had begun the practice of dismissing and appointing the high priest, a practice continued under Rom. rule. The effect was wholly deleterious. Not only did the office cease to be lifelong and hereditary, but it also became wholly dependent on political authority, with resulting cases of simony and nepotism.

(For the list of high priests from 200 b.c. to a.d. 70, see Jeremias, 377-378.)

The captain of the Temple.

Next in importance to the high priest was the captain of the Temple (στρατηγὸς του̂ ἱερου̂). His chief ritual duties were to assist the high priest during the performance of his sacrifices and to substitute for the high priest in case of defilement. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, and also served as chief of police in the Temple area; as such he had power of arrest (cf. Acts 4:1; 5:24, 26). Because he was next in rank to the high priest, he usually was next in line for that office. He prob. was chosen from the near relatives of the high priest or in the time of Christ from one of the four leading families (cf. Acts 4:6).

The chief priests.

At least sixty-four times in the NT and often in Josephus and the Talmud, the term “high priest” occurs in the pl. (ἀρχιερει̂ς, chief priests). From the time of E. Schürer, most scholars have considered this term to refer either to the high priest and exhigh priests in particular, or in general to “the members of those privileged families from which the high priests were taken” (Schürer, II, I, 202-206). However, J. Jeremias has shown persuasively that it more likely refers to the specific group of Temple officers that included not only the high priest and the captain of the Temple, but also the Temple overseers (אֲמַרְכְּלִים, ’ammarklim) and treasurers (גִּזְבָּרִים), listed twice in the Talmud (Tosephta Shekalim ii, 14, 177; Mishnah Shekalim v. 1-2). These priests had various administrative duties, esp. over offerings and the treasury. They also had seats on the Sanhedrin. Hence their implication in the opposition to Jesus and the Early Church, esp. after Jesus “cleansed” the Temple.

The ordinary priests.

Over against the priestly aristocracy were the vast majority of ordinary priests, who Jeremias estimates numbered approximately 18,000 in the time of Jesus. They were divided into twenty-four divisions (or courses; ἐφημερίας, Luke 1:5) each of which performed the daily Temple sacrifices for a week, twice a year. Besides these two weeks they also traveled to Jerusalem for the three annual pilgrimage festivals. It was during the weekly course of Abia (eighth in order) that Zechariah had been chosen by lot to offer incense in the Holy Place, prob. at the evening sacrifice, when he had his encounter with the angel (Luke 1:8-23).

For the rest of the year these priests lived at home (cf. Luke 1:23, 57ff.) with a few priestly functions to perform, such as declaring a leper clean after his healing (Mark 1:44 and parallels, Luke 5:14; 17:14). For subsistence the majority of them also had another occupation. It is prob. from this group of priests that “a great many...were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

The Levites.

Jesus and the priests.

On the surface, Jesus’ relationship to the priestly caste appears somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, He accepted the Mosaic regulation about healed lepers (Mark 1:44 and parallels; Luke 5:14; 17:14), so that the priest, too, must by endorsement share in the testimony to His mighty works. He did not openly condemn the priestly caste, as did the prophets and as He did the Pharisees. Even in the Good Samaritan parable (Luke 10:25-37), it is likely that the priest and Levite are singled out chiefly for effect (the lawyer who asked the question prob. expected such callousness in priests, but surely next would come a member of the Pharisaic party!).

Nevertheless Jesus stood quite apart from the priestly tradition. There is scarcely any sacerdotal language in His teaching. He Himself is not called a priest, nor are priestly functions even remotely attributed to His followers. Any allusions to His “fulfillment” of the priesthood or priestly functions are distant at best (Matt 12:6 “Something greater than the temple is here”; cf. John 2:19-22. Vos and Cullmann both see in Matt 26:64 an allusion to the priestly Messiah of Psalm 110). The involvement of the priesthood in Jesus’ death, therefore, prob. was less from open encounters, such as the Temple cleansing, than from fear of His threat to the entire system—both political and religious.

Because of this stance on the part of Jesus, one is not surprised either that there is no priesthood in the Early Church or that the early Christians abandoned the sacrificial elements of the Temple (Acts 3:1) and soon the Temple altogether (Stephen’s speech in Acts 7).

Jesus as High Priest.

Thus priests, because of their sinfulness, are subject to death; they come and go (7:23). Their sacrifices are repeated daily and annually; but man is not perfected (9:9, 10). Therefore, the old is only a type (a shadow) of the real who was to come (9:23, 24; 10:1). In this frame of reference the author views the genuine, but sinless, humanity of Christ in light of His exaltation, and in an argument at once deeply perceptive and richly varied sees Him as both the ultimate priest and the end of the priestly system.

He is the ultimate priest because by His death He ratified a new covenant (9:15-22), toward which the OT itself had looked (8:8-13). Moreover, God had promised that the Messianic king would also be “a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4). Such a promise indicates the imperfection of the old Aaronic order (Heb 7:11-14). It is Jesus who perfectly “fulfills” this promise. Melchizedek appeared and disappeared in the OT without “beginning of days nor end of life,” thus prefiguring the eternal Son of God (7:3). Melchizedek’s “order” is also superior to Aaron’s because according to the Jewish theory of ancestry, Levi was in Abraham’s loins when Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek—and the lesser always pays tithes to the greater (7:4-10).

Furthermore, Jesus is a priest “for ever” in contrast to the Aaronic priests, who “were prevented by death from continuing in office” (7:23). This is the author’s main interest in Jesus’ humanity. Other priests could not continue because of sin; but Jesus, though “made like his brethren in every respect” (2:17), was sinless; therefore He is a perfect and eternal high priest (4:15; 5:7-10; 7:23-28; 9:14). This genuine humanity also makes Him a perfect priest in that He can fully “sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15; cf. 2:14-18).

Jesus is the ultimate priest also because He offers the perfect sacrifice—Himself. The clearest evidence that the blood of goats and calves was inadequate was that such offerings were continually repeated (10:1-4). By offering Himself, Jesus offered a perfect sacrifice “once for all,” one that need not be repeated (9:23-28). Furthermore, He offered it in the eternal Holy Place, having entered “into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (9:24).

The end result, therefore, of Jesus’ priestly ministry is death to the old system, because He now indeed “brings men to God.” Not only are sins done away, but an “eternal redemption” is secured whereby one has continual and confident access to God (4:16; 6:19, 20; 7:25; 10:19-22).

The priesthood of the Church.

Because of Jesus’ own stance on the priesthood and because of the “once-for-all-ness” of His own mediatorial work, the NT gives no hint of a priesthood among its ministers. Paul does call his ministry among the Gentiles a “priestly service” (Rom 15:16), but this prob. means that he understood himself as a “mediator” of the Gospel to the Gentiles. Although the very early Didachē says of the prophets that “they are your high priests” (13:3), reluctance to use sacerdotal terminology for the Christian ministry continued through the 2nd cent. It was not until baptism and the Lord's Supper|Lord’s Supper were regularly reflected on sacramentally that the Church’s ministers began to be called priests. The first Christian writers to do so were both from the W, at the beginning of the 3rd cent.: Tertullian (On Baptism 17) and Hippolytus (Preface to Refutation of All Heresies).

Although the believer’s direct access to God through Christ is indicated throughout the NT (cf. Rom 5:1-5; 1 Tim 2:5, 6; Heb 4:14-16), there is considerable doubt, on the basis of contextual exegesis, whether this is the meaning either in 1 Peter or the Revelation. Much more likely the intent is that the Christian community is to be seen as the true “continuation and consummation of the Chosen People of God” (Elliott, The Elect and the Holy, 197), and therefore, Peter ascribes to them the honorary titles first given to Israel. The import of such language, both in Exodus and in the NT, is prob. missionary and witnessed to the responsibility of their “priesthood” toward the world. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation...that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9, 10).

Therefore, in the language of the NT itself there would seem to be little to support either a priesthood among the ministry or a general priesthood of believers. Rather, the whole Church has been brought to God through the high priestly ministry of Christ; and the “royal priesthood” of the Church is the high privilege of mediating Christ to the world.


Priestly caste. E. Schürer, “Die ἀρχιερει̂ς im Neuen Testamente,” Theologische Studien und Kritiken, XLIV (1872), 593-657; Id. A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, II (1890), I, 195-305; G. Schrenk, “ἱερεύς, ἀρχιερεύς,” TDNT, III (1965, Ger. orig. 1938), 257-283; J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (1969, from 3rd Ger. ed. 1962 with revisions to 1967), 147-221, the most definitive work available. Jesus as High Priest. J. Denney, “Priest in NT,” HDB, IV (1902), 97-100; G. Vos, “The Priesthood of Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews,” PTR, V (1907), 423-447, 579-604; J. Moffatt, ICC (1924), xxx-lv; G. Schrenk, op. cit.; W. F. M. Scott, “Priesthood in the New Testament,” Scottish Journal of Theology, X (1957), 399-415; O. Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament (Ger. orig. 1957; 2nd Eng. ed. 1963), 83-107; M. H. Shepherd, “Priests in the NT,” IDB, III (1962), 889-891; F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (1964); A. Vanhoye, “Le Christ, grand-prêtre selon Héb. 2, 17-18,” Nouvelle Révue Théologique, XCI (1969), 449-474. The priesthood of the Church. The lit. here is extensive. An excellent discussion and rather full bibliography may be found in J. H. Elliott, The Elect and the Holy (1966). The following items may be singled out as having some importance: J. B. Lightfoot, “The Christian Ministry,” St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (1898), 244-269; G. Schrenk, “ἱεράτευμα, G2633,” TDNT, III (1965; Ger. orig. 1938), 249-251; P. Dabin, Le sacerdoce royal des fideles dans les livres saints (1941); K. E. Kirk, “The Apostolic Ministry,” The Apostolic Ministry, Essays on the History and Doctrine of Episcopacy, ed. K. E. Kirk (1946); P. Ketter, “Das allgemeine Priestertum der Gläubigen nach dem I. Petrusbrief,” Trier Theologische Zeitschrift, LVI (1947), 43-51; W. Arndt, “A Royal Priesthood,” Concordia Theological Monthly, XIX (1948), 241-249; J. Blinzler, “IEPATEYMA. Zur Exegese von I Petr. 2, 5 u. 9,” Faulhaber-Festschrift (1949), 49-65; T. F. Torrance, Royal Priesthood (1955); T. W. Manson, Ministry and Priesthood: Christ’s and Ours (1959); E. Best, “Spiritual Sacrifice. General Priesthood in the New Testament,” INT, XIV (1960), 273-299; C. Eastwood, The Priesthood of All Believers (1960); W. L. Moran, “A Kingdom of Priests,” The Bible in Current Catholic Thought, ed. J. L. McKenzie (1962), 7-20; C. Eastwood, The Royal Priesthood of the Faithful (1963); J. B. Whelan, “The Priesthood of the Laity,” Doctrine and Life, XV (1965), 539-546; M. M. Bourke, “The Catholic Priest: Man of God for Others,” Worship, XLIII (1969), 68-81; H. Schlier, “Grundelemente des priesterlichen Amtes im Neuen Testament,” Theologie und Philosophie, XLIV (1969), 161-180.