Priesthood in the Bible
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
Priests – Heb. kohen; Gk. hiereus = “cultic officials who serve in temples, perform ritual functions, and offer sacrifices”
Some type of “priests” are found in almost all religions in the world, not just Judaism and Christianity.
Presbyters / Elders – Heb. zaqen; Gk. presbyteros = “older men, local community leaders”
Related words in English include
presider, to preside, president, etc.
Holy / Sacred – Heb. qadosh; Gk hagios = “set apart, dedicated to God”
Antonyms include secular, common, profane
Sacrifice – Heb. zebach; Gk. thusia = “something offered to God”
Animals are literally killed; grains, fruits, other produce is offered; later "spiritual sacrifices" include praise, thanksgiving, etc.
Eucharist – Gk. eucharistia = “thanksgiving”
(from the verb
eucharistein = “to give thanks”)
An early term for the Christian memorial meal, which is later interpreted more and more as a sacrificial ritual.
In the OT, “
elders” were senior tribal leaders, who ran local government and administered justice.
Their roles and historical significance is seen in
various texts: Exod 18:13-17; 24:1-11; Num 11:16-30; Judg 21:16-24; 1 Sam 8:1-9, etc.
In the NT, “
elders” first can refer either to Jewish leaders or to early Christian community leaders:
In the Gospels and the early parts of Acts, the Jewish "elders" are mostly opposed to Jesus (Mark 8:31; Matt 21:23; Luke 7:3; 22:26; Acts 4:5).
The later parts of Acts and the NT letters show various roles of the early Christian community elders (Acts 11:30; 15:2; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1).
In the OT, the roles and functions of “
priests” change and develop over the centuries:
In the patriarchal era, the heads of Israelite families offered sacrifices in many places (Gen 31:54),
while non-Israelite “priests” served in the established temples of other nations (Gen 41:45; 47:22; Exod 2:16; 18:1).
During the Exodus, a special priestly class developed from the sons of Aaron, in the tribe of Levi (see Exod 28ff; also Lev and Num);
they built and served in various shrines, esp. at Shiloh and Bethel.
All men of the tribe of Levi were priests, while no Israelite from the other eleven tribes could be;
over time, distinctions arise between the “priests” (sons of Aaron) and other “Levites” (assistants).
The Temple of Jerusalem is built under King Solomon in the 10th cent. BC (1 Kings 6),
but not until the 7th cent. is all worship is centralized there and other cultic sites destroyed (2 Kings 23).
After the first temple is destroyed in 587 BC (2 Kings 25), priests can no longer offer any sacrifices;
but during the Babylonian Exile, priestly writers are influential in compiling the Hebrew Bible.
After the exile, the temple is rebuilt, sacrifices resume, and priests become more numerous and powerful;
in much of the Hellenistic period, the Jerusalem “high priest” was the
de facto head of government. Throughout history, Israelite/Jewish priests were married and had families;
most also had other occupations,
serving in the temple for only short periods each year; only the “chief priests” served full-time.
In the NT, the word “
priests” refers mostly to Jewish priests (in the Jerusalem Temple)
No Christians are ever called “priests” in the entire NT; but many other titles are used for church leaders:
initially apostles, prophets, teachers, evangelists, etc. (1 Cor 12:28-30; Rom 12:6-8; Eph 2:20; 4:11-13);
later also bishops, deacons, presbyters, widows, etc. (Phil 1:1; 1Tim 3 & 5; Titus 1; 1 Peter 5).
Only in the
Epistle to the Hebrews is Jesus himself called the “great high priest,”
even though he is from the tribe of Judah, not the priestly tribe of Levi (
see the ). Twelve Tribes In the
First Epistle of Peter, priestly language is applied to the Christian community:
“like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be
a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ... you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:5, 9; cf. Exod 19:6). Only later (2nd cent.) is the term “priest” applied to
individual Christian leaders,
esp. as the Eucharist is not just a community meal (Acts 2:42-47), but considered more and more as a sacrifice (1 Cor 11:17-34).
For many centuries, most Christian leaders were married and worked in other occupations;
celibacy was encouraged (see 1 Cor 7) but optional (see 1 Tim 3; Titus 1), and was not required until the Second Lateran Council (1139);
only after the Council of Trent (1545-63) did a full-time priesthood become the norm.
Priesthood in the Church:
To properly understand priesthood today, one must apply the approach of theology: both/and
The Church values
the “priesthood of all people” both the “ministerial priesthood.” and The call to “be holy” applies
to ordained clergy both to all Catholic/Christian laity. and Ordained priests function
as “community elders” both as “sacrificial ministers.” and The Mass is
a “communal meal” (table, bread, wine, sharing) both a “ritual sacrifice” (altar, host, blood, offering). and
For Further Reading:
Murphy. Early Judaism: The Exile to the Time of Jesus . Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002. William R.
Millar. Priesthood in Ancient Israel . Chalice Press, 2001. James C.
VanderKam. An Introduction to Early Judaism . Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. Lester L.
Grabbe. Priests, Prophets, Diviners, Sages: A Socio-Historical Study of Religious Specialists in Ancient Israel . Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1995. See also books recommended for the
Epistle to the Hebrews
Witherup, et al. Ministerial Priesthood in the Third Millennium: Faithfulness of Christ, Faithfulness of Priests . Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2009. Mike
Aquilina. Sharing Christ's Priesthood: A Bible Study for Catholics . Our Sunday Visitor, 2009. Kenan B.
Osborne. Orders and Ministry: Leadership in the World Church . New York: Orbis, 2006. Paul J.
Philibert. The Priesthood of the Faithful: Key to a Living Church . Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2005. Stephen J.
Rossetti. The Joy of Priesthood . Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2005. Susan K.
Wood. Ordering the Baptismal Priesthood: Theologies of Lay and Ordained Ministry . Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003. Donald J.
Goergen and Ann Garrido, eds. The Theology of Priesthood . Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000. Robert M.
Schwartz. Servant Leaders of the People of God: An Ecclesial Spirituality for American Priests . New York: Paulist, 1989. Kenan B.
Osborne. Priesthood: A History of the Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church . New York: Paulist, 1988.
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