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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 (
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 theonce a year to offer sacrifice on the . 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.
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,
For the rest of the year these priests lived at home (cf.
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 (
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 (
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 (
Thus priests, because of their sinfulness, are subject to death; they come and go (
He is the ultimate priest because by His death He ratified a new covenant (
Furthermore, Jesus is a priest “for ever” in contrast to the Aaronic priests, who “were prevented by death from continuing in office” (
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 (
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 (
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” (
Although the believer’s direct access to God through Christ is indicated throughout the NT (cf.
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 ,” PTR, V (1907), 423-447, 579-604; J. Moffatt, ICC (1924), xxx-lv; G. Schrenk, op. cit.; W. F. M. Scott, “Priesthood in the ,” 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, “ . 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.