1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Priest

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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 22
Priest
See also Priest on Wikipedia; and our 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica disclaimer. Text for the first two footnotes was not present.

PRIEST (Ger. Priester, Fr. prêtre), the contracted form of “presbyter” (πρεσβύτερος, “elder”; see Presbyter), a name of office in the early Christian Church, already mentioned in the New Testament. But in the English Bible the presbyters of the New Testament are called “elders,” not “priests”; the latter name is reserved for ministers of pre-Christian religions, the Semitic כֹּהֲנִים‎ (kōhănīm, sing. kōhēn) and כְּמָרִים‎ (kemārīm), or the Greek ἱερεῖς. The reason of this will appear more clearly in the sequel; it is enough to observe at present that, before our English word was formed, the original idea of a presbyter had been overlaid with others derived from pre-Christian priesthoods, so that it is from these and not from the etymological force of the word that we must start in considering historically what a priest is. The theologians of the Greek and Latin churches expressly found the conception of a Christian priesthood on the hierarchy of the Jewish temple, while the names by which the sacerdotal character is expressed — ἱερεύς, sacerdos — originally designated the ministers of sacred things in Greek and Roman heathenism, and then came to be used as translations into Greek and Latin of the Hebrew kōhēn. Kōhēn, ἱερεύς, sacerdos, are, in fact, fair translations of one another; they all denote a minister whose stated business was to perform, on behalf of the community, certain public ritual acts, particularly sacrifices, directed godwards. Such ministers or priests existed in all the great religions of ancient civilization. The term “priest” is sometimes taken to include “sorcerer,” but this use is open to criticism and may produce confusion.

The close inter-relation which existed in primitive society between magic, priesthood and kingship has been indicated by Frazer in his Early History of the Kingship. His remarks throw some light on the early character of priesthood as well as kingship. “When once a special class of sorcerers has been segregated from the community and entrusted by it with the discharge of duties on which the public safety and welfare are believed to depend, these men gradually rise to wealth and power till their leaders blossom out into sacred kings.” According to Frazer's view, “as time goes on the fallacy of magic becomes more and more apparent and is slowly displaced by religion; in other words the magician gives way to the priest. Hence the king starting as a magician tends gradually to exchange the practice of magic for the functions of prayer and sacrifice.” We are not concerned here with the debatable question whether magic preceded religion. Probably magic was always accompanied by some primitive form of animism whether the Melanesian mana or fetishism (see Dr Haddon's Magic and Fetishism, pp. 58-62, 64-90).

The investigations which have been carried on in recent years by King, Tallquist and Zimmern, as well as by Brünnow and Craig, on the magic and ritual of Babylonia and Assyria have been fruitful of results. The question, however, remains to be settled how far the officials and their functions, which in the much more highly developed civilization of Babylonia came to be differentiated and specialized, can be strictly included under the functions of priesthood. The answer to this question will be in many cases negative or affirmative according to our strict adherence or the reverse to the definition of the priest set forth above as “a minister whose stated business it was to perform on behalf of the community certain ritual acts, in some cases sacrifices (or the recitation of prayers), directed Godwards.” On the other hand the seer, diviner and prophet is a minister whose function it is to communicate God's will or word to man. This is not a distinction which governs Zimmern and other writers. Our chief source of information is Zimmern's Beiträge zur Kenntniss der Babylon: Religion, pp. 81-95, from which Lagrange in his Études sur les religions sémitiques[1] has chiefly derived his materials (ch. vi. p. 222 sqq.) respecting Babylonia and Assyria. Zimmern's results are summarized in K.A.T[2]. p. 589 sqq. Here we find magic and soothsaying closely intertwined with priestly functions as, we shall see, was the case in early Hebrew pre-exilian days with the Kōhēn. It must be borne in mind that primitive humanity is not governed by logical distinctions. Among the Babylonians and Assyrians the barû (from barû to see, inspect) was a soothsaying priest who was consulted whenever any important undertaking was proposed, and addressed his inquiries to Samaš the sun god (or Adad) as bêl biri or lord of the oracle (accompanied by the sacrifice of lambs). The signs were usually obtained from the inspection of the liver (according to Johns, that of the lamb that was sacrificed); or it took place through birds; hence the name in this case given to the barû of dagil iṣṣurê “bird inspector.” Johns, however, is disposed to regard him as a distinct functionary. Sometimes divination took place through vessels filled with water and oil (see Omen and Divination).

As contrasted with the barû or soothsaying priest, as he is called by Zimmern, we have the ašipu, who was the priest-magician who dealt in conjurations (šiptu), whereby diseases were removed, spells broken, or in expiations whereby sins were expiated. Tallquist's edition of the Maklû series of incantations and his explanations of the ritual, and also the publications by Zimmern of the Surpu series of tablets in his Beiträge have rendered us familiar with the functions of the ašipu. See article “Magic” in Hastings's Dict. Bible, where examples are given of incantations with magical by-play. Also compare Jastrow's Religion of Babylonia (1898), ch. xvi., “The Magical Texts,” where a fuller treatment will be found. Now, as the conjurations were addressed to the deity, ašipu, according to the definition given above, comes more reasonably under the category of priest. But the priest belongs to the realm of religion proper, which involves a relation of dependence on the superior power, whereas the ašipu belongs to the realm of magic, which is coercive and seeks “to constrain the hostile power to give way” (Lagrange).

There was also a third kind of priest called the zammaru, whose function it was to sing hymns.

In the earlier period of the Assyrian monarchy we find the king holding the office of pa-te-si or išakku or (more definitely) the šangu, i.e. priest of Asur, the patron-deity of Assyria. This high-priestly office towards the tutelary deity of the nation appears to have belonged to the king by virtue of his royal rank. In Babylonia under the last empire (except in the case of Nebuchadrezzar, who calls himself palesi ṣîri, “exalted priest,” K.I.B. iii. p. 60) no such high-priestly function attached to the king, for in Babylonia the priesthoods were endowed with great wealth and power, and even the king stood in awe of them (see Johns, Babylonian and Assyrian Laws, Contracts and Letters, p. 212 sqq). These powerfully-organized priesthoods, as well as the elaborate nature of their ritual and apparatus of worship, must have deeply and permanently impressed the exiled Jewish community. Thus arose the more developed system of Ezekiel's scheme (xl.-xlviii.) and of the Priestercodex and the high dignity which became attached to the person of the High Priest (reflected in the narrative of Uzziah's leprosy in 2 Chron. xxvi. 16-20). Other parallels to the sacerdotal system of the Priestercodex may here be noted, (1) According to Zimmern the barû and the ašipu formed close gilds and the office passed from father to son. This is certainly true of the šangûtu or priesthood, which was connected with a special family attached to a particular temple and its worship. (2) Johns also points out the existence of the rab-barû, chief soothsayer, and the rab-mašmašu or chief magician. (3) Bodily defects (as squinting, lack of teeth, maimed finger) was disqualifications for priesthood (cf. Lev. xxi. 17 sqq.). (4) In the ritual tablets for the ašipu published in Zimmern's Beiträge, No. 26, col. iii. 19 sqq., we read “that the mašmašu (priest's magician) is to pass forth to the gateway, sacrifice a sheep in the palace portal, and to smear the threshold and posts of the palace gateway right and left with the blood of the lamb.” We are reminded of Exod. xii. 7 (P). (5) The Babylonian term kuppuru (infin. Pael) is used of the magician-priest or ašipu and means “wipe out.” This confirms the view that the Hebrew kipper, which appears to be a late word (specially employed in Ezek, and P.), originally had the meaning which belongs to the Aramaic viz. “wipe off” and not “cover” as in Arabic. Zimmern thinks that the meaning “atone” “expiate,” which belongs to the Pael form of the root k-p-r in both Aramaic and Arabic was borrowed from the Babylonian (cf. Driver's note in “Deuteronomy,” Int. Commentary, p. 425 sqq, and especially his article “Propitiation” in Hastings's Dict. Bible).

The Rev. C. H. W. Johns, to whom reference has already been made, demurs (in a communication to the writer) to the fusion of the priest and the magician, and to the custom of “calling every unknown official a priest or a eunuch.” “If a Babylonian said šangu he meant one thing, by iššipu another, and by ramku another. I do not deny that the same man might unite all three functions in one person. Thus a šangu had a definite share in the offerings, a mašmašu a different share. It seems to me that the priests belonged to the old families who were descended from the original tribe or clan, &c., that founded the city, and they could not admit outsiders save by adoption into the family. If a new god had a temple set up he had a new set of priests, but this priesthood descended in its line, e.g. a Samaš priest did not beget a man who became a priest of Nabû. Further “priest’ implied a peculiar relation to the god. A soothsayer was a general practitioner in his art, not attached to any one god or temple. Anyone could be a ramku who actually poured out libations; that a priest usually did it was no exception to that rule. The priest was only a sort of specialist in the practice. The priest also offered prayer, interceded, &c. I cannot see that he taught. An oracle of the god came through him. If the modus operandi was akin to soothsaying it was only because that special form of soothsaying was peculiar to the particular cult of that god, and even this as a secondary development. I do not think that early priests received oracles save in dreams, &c. That magic early invaded religion is possible, but there are many traces of its being a foreign element. This is not usually pointed out.”

Among the ancient Egyptians the local god was the protector and lord of the district. Consequently it was the interest and duty of the inhabitants to maintain the cultus of the patron-deity of their city who dwelt in their midst. Moreover, in the earlier times we find the prince of the nome acting as the High Priest of the local god, but in course of time the state, represented by the king, began to an ever-increasing degree to take oversight over the more important local cults. Thus we find that the Egyptian monarch was empowered to exercise priestly functions before all the gods. We constantly see him in the wall-paintings portrayed as a priest in the conventional attitudes before the images of the gods. In the chief sanctuaries the chief priests possessed special privileges, and it is probable that those in the immediate entourage of the king were elected to these positions. The highest nobility in the nome sought the honour of priesthood in the service of the local deity. One special class called kher heb were charged with reciting the divine formulae, which were popularly held to possess magical virtue. In the middle empire (VIIth to XIIth Dynasties) the lay element maintains its position in religious cultus despite its complexity. But under the new empire (Dynasties XVIIIth and following) the professional priest had attained to ominous power. The temples possessed larger estates and became more wealthy. Priests increased in number and were divided into ranks, and we find them occupying state offices, just as in Babylonia the priest acts as judge or inspector of canals (Johns, Babyl. and Assyr. Laws, &c., p. 213).

We now turn to the priesthood as we find it in ancient Greece and Italy. Homer knows special priests who preside over ritual acts in the temples to which they are attached; but his kings also do sacrifice on behalf of their people. The king, in fact, both in Greece and in Rome, was the acting head of the state religion, and when the regal power came to an end his sacred functions were not transferred to the ordinary priests, but either they were distributed among high officers of state, as archons and prytanes, or the title of “king” was still preserved as that of a religious functionary, as in the case of the rex sacrorum at Rome and the archon basileus at Athens. In the domestic circle the union of priesthood and natural headship was never disturbed; the Roman paterfamilias sacrificed for the whole family. On the other hand, gentes and phratriae, which had no natural head, had special priests chosen from their members; for every circle of ancient society, from the family up to the state, was a religious as well as a civil unity, and had its own gods and sacred rites. The lines of religious and civil society were identical, and, so long as they remained so, no antagonism could arise between the spiritual and the temporal power. In point of fact, in Greece and Rome the priest never attained to any considerable independent importance; we cannot speak of priestly power and hardly even of a distinct priestly class. In Greece the priest, so far as he is an independent functionary and not one of the magistrates, is simply the elected or hereditary minister of a temple charged with “those things which are ordained to be done towards the gods” (see Aristotle, Pol. vi. 8), and remunerated from the revenues of the temple, or by the gifts of worshippers and sacrificial dues. The position was often lucrative and always honourable, and the priests were under the special protection of the gods they served. But their purely ritual functions gave them no means of establishing a considerable influence on the minds of men, and the technical knowledge which they possessed as to the way in which the gods could be acceptably approached was neither so intricate nor so mysterious as to give the class a special importance. The funds of the temples were not in their control, but were treated as public moneys. Above all, where, as at Athens, the decision of questions of sacred law fell not to the priests but to the college of ἐξηγηταί, one great source of priestly power was wholly lacking. There remains, indeed, one other sacred function of great importance in the ancient world in which the Greek priests had a share. As man approached the gods in sacrifice and prayers, so too the gods declared themselves to men by divers signs and tokens, which it was possible to read by the art of Divination (q.v.). In many nations divination and priesthood have always gone hand in hand; at Rome, for example, the augurs and the XV viri sacrorum, who interpreted the Sibylline books, were priestly colleges. In Greece, on the other hand, divination was not generally a priestly function, but it did belong to the priests of the Oracles (see Oracle) . The great oracles, however, were of Panhellenic celebrity and did not serve each a particular state, and so in this direction also the risk of an independent priestly power within the state was avoided.[3]

In Rome, again, where the functions of the priesthood were politically much more weighty, where the technicalities of religion were more complicated, where priests interpreted the will of the gods, and where the pontiffs had a most important jurisdiction in sacred things, the state was much too strong to suffer these powers to escape from its own immediate control: the old monarchy of the king in sacred things descended to the inheritors of his temporal power; the highest civil and religious functions met in the same persons (cf. Cic. De dom. i. 1); and every priest was subject to the state exactly as the magistrates were, referring all weighty matters to state decision and then executing what the one supreme power decreed. And it is instructive to observe that when the plebeians extorted their full share of political power they also demanded and obtained admission to every priestly college of political importance, to those, namely, of the pontiffs, the augurs, and the XV viri sacrorum. The Romans, it need hardly be said, had no hereditary priests.[4]

We can only glance briefly at the ancient religions of India (Aryan). “In historical times the priesthood is rigidly confined to members of the Brahman caste, who are regarded as the representatives of God on earth. But there are indications that at an earlier date the Kshatriya or warrior caste often became priests. The power of the priesthood began with the delegation by the king of his sacrificial duties to a ‘president’ (purohita). This power grew with the growing importance of the sacrifice and the complication of its ceremonial. In the post-Vedic period ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ simply means the exact performance or the neglect, whether intentional or unintentional — of all the details of a prescribed ritual, the centre of which was the sacrifice. At this period the priestly caste gained its unbounded power over the minds of men” (Professor Rapson). For further details as to the development of the priestly caste and wisdom in India the reader must refer to Brahminism; here it is enough to observe that among a religious people a priesthood which forms a close and still more an hereditary corporation, and the assistance of which is indispensable in all religious acts, must rise to practical supremacy in society except under the strongest form of despotism, where the sovereign is head of the Church as well as of the state.

Among the Zoroastrian Iranians, as among the Indian Aryans, the aid of a priest to recite the sacrificial liturgy was necessary at every offering (Herod, i. 132), and the Iranian priests (âthravans, later Magi) claimed, like the Brahmans, to be the highest order of society; but a variety of conditions were lacking to give them the full place of their Indian brethren. Zoroastrianism is not a nature religion, but the result of a reform which never, under the old empire, thoroughly penetrated the masses; and the priesthood, as it was not based on family tradition, did not form a strict hereditary caste. It was open to any one to obtain entrance into the priesthood, while on the other hand it was only as a priest that he could exercise sacerdotal functions, for these were strictly reserved to priests. Accordingly the clergy formed a compact hierarchy not inferior in influence to the clergy of the Christian middle ages, had great power in the state, and were often irksome even to the great king. But the best established hierarchy is not so powerful as a caste, and the monarchs had one strong hold on the clergy by retaining the patronage of great ecclesiastical places, and another in the fact that the Semitic provinces on the Tigris, where the capital lay, were mainly inhabited by men of other faith.[5]

The duties of the priests were not restricted to the services of the temple, but they also took part in the household cults. The ritual had a mechanical character and was by no means attractive. It is impossible to enter into the manifold details of the fire cultus which forms the main part of the worship in the Avesta. They belong to an earlier period than the Zoroastrian, nor was this fire cultus restricted to the temples. Portable fire altars were carried about and the worship could be celebrated in any spot. It may be noted that in all the ceremonies in the religion of the Avesta, incantations, prayers and confessions play a very large part. The prevailing element in the incantations consists in the exorcism of devils. In fact, the Persian religion throughout all its multitude of purifications, observances and expiations was a constant warfare against impurity, death and the devil. Amid all the ceremonialism of its priesthood there were also high ideals set forth in Zoroastrian religion of what a priest should be. Thus we read in Vendidad xviii., “Many there be, noble Zarathustra, who bear the mouth bandage, who have yet not girded their loins with the law. If such a one says ‘I am an Athravan’ he lies, call him not Athravan, noble Zarathustra, said Ahura Mazda, but thou shouldst call him priest, noble Zarathustra, who sits awake the whole night through and yearns for holy wisdom that enables man to stand on death's bridge fearless and with happy heart, the wisdom whereby he attains the holy and glorious world of paradise.”

In this rapid glance at some of the chief priesthoods of antiquity we have hitherto passed over the pure Semites, whose priesthoods call for closer examination because of the profound influence which one of them — that of the Jews — has exercised on Christianity, and so on the whole history of the modern world. But before we proceed to this it may be well to note one or two things that come out by comparison of the systems already before us. Priestly acts — that is, acts done by one and accepted by the gods on behalf of many — are common to all antique religions, and cannot be lacking where the primary subject of religion is not the individual but the natural community. But the origin of a separate priestly class, distinct from the natural heads of the community, cannot be explained by any such broad general principle; in some cases, as in Greece, it is little more than a matter of convenience that part of the religious duties of the state should be confided to special ministers charged with the care of particular temples, while in others the intervention of a special priesthood is indispensable to the validity of every religious act, so that the priest ultimately becomes a mediator and the vehicle of all divine grace. This position, we see, can be reached by various paths: the priest may become indispensable through the growth of ritual observances and precautions too complicated for a layman to master, or he may lay claim to special nearness to the gods on the ground, it may be, of his race, or, it may be, of habitual practices of purity and asceticism which cannot be combined with the duties of ordinary life, as, for example, celibacy was required of priestesses of Vesta at Rome. But the highest developments of priestly influence are hardly separable from something of magical superstition, the opus operatum of the priest has the power of a sorcerer's spell. The strength of the priesthood in Chaldaea and in Egypt stands plainly in the closest connexion with the survival of a magical element in the state religion, and Rome, in like manner, is more priestly than Greece, because it is more superstitious. In most cases, however, where an ancient civilization shows us a strong priestly system we are unable to make out in any detail the steps by which that system was elaborated; the clearest case perhaps is the priesthood of the Jews, which is not less interesting from its origin and growth than from the influence exerted by the system long after the priests were dispersed and their sanctuary laid in ruins.

Among the nomadic Semites, to whom the Hebrews belonged before they settled in Canaan, there has never been any developed priesthood. The acts of religion partake of the general simplicity of desert life; apart from the private worship of household gods and the oblations and salutations offered at the graves of departed kinsmen, the ritual observances of the ancient Arabs were visits to the tribal sanctuary to salute the god with a gift of milk, first-fruits or the like, the sacrifice of firstlings and vows (see Nazarite and Passover), and an occasional pilgrimage to discharge a vow at the annual feast and fair of one of the more distant holy places (see Mecca). These acts required no priestly aid; each man slew his own victim and divided the sacrifice in his own circle; the share of the god was the blood which was smeared upon or poured out beside stone (noṣb, ghabghab) set up as an altar or perhaps as a symbol of the deity. It does not appear that any portion of the sacrifice was burned on the altar, or that any part of the victim was the due of the sanctuary. We find therefore no trace of a sacrificial priesthood, but each temple had one or more doorkeepers (sādin, ḥājib), whose office was usually hereditary in a certain family and who had the charge of the temple and its treasures. The sacrifices and offerings were acknowledgments of divine bounty and means used to insure its continuance; the Arab was the “slave” of his god and paid him tribute, as slaves used to do to their masters, or subjects to their lords; and the free Bedouin, trained in the solitude of the desert to habits of absolute self-reliance, knew no master except his god, and acknowledged no other will before which his own should bend. The voice of the god might be uttered in omens which the skilled could read, or conveyed in the inspired rhymes of soothsayers, but frequently it was sought in the oracle of the sanctuary, where the sacred lot was administered for a fee by the sādin. The sanctuary thus became a seat of judgment, and here, too, compacts were sealed by oaths and sacrificial ceremonies. These institutions, though known to us only from sources belonging to an age when the old faith was falling to pieces, are certainly very ancient. The fundamental type of the Arabic sanctuary can be traced through all the Semitic lands, and so appears to be older than the Semitic dispersion; even the technical terms are mainly the same, so that we may justly assume that the more developed ritual and priesthoods of the settled Semites sprang from a state of things not very remote from what we find among the heathen Arabs. Now among the Arabs, as we have seen, ritual service is the affair of the individual, or of a mass of individuals gathered in a great feast, but still doing worship each for himself and his own private circle; the only public aspect of religion is found in connexion with divination and the oracle to which the affairs of the community are submitted. In Greece and Rome the public sacrifices were the chief function of religion, and in them the priesthood represented the ancient kings. But in the desert there is no king and no sovereignty save that of the divine oracle, and therefore it is from the soothsayers or ministers of the oracle that a public ministry of religion can most naturally spring. With the beginning of a settled state the sanctuaries must rise in importance and all the functions of revelation will gather round them. A sacrificial priesthood will arise as the worship becomes more complex (especially as sacrifice in antiquity is a common preliminary to the consultation of an oracle), but the public ritual will still remain closely associated with oracle or divination, and the priest will still be, above all things, a revealer. That this was what actually happened may be inferred from the fact that the Canaanite and Phoenician name for a priest (kōhēn) is identical with the Arabic kāhin, a “soothsayer.” Soothsaying was no modern importation in Arabia; its characteristic form a monotonous croon of short rhyming clauses is the same as was practised by the Hebrew “wizards who peeped and muttered” in the days of Isaiah, and that this form was native in Arabia is clear from its having a technical name (saj‘), which in Hebrew survives only in derivative words with modified sense.[6] The kāhin, therefore, is not a degraded priest but such a soothsayer as is found in most primitive societies, and the Canaanite priests grew out of these early revealers. In point of fact some form of revelation or oracle appears to have existed in every great shrine of Canaan and Syria,[7] and the importance of this element in the cultus may be measured from the fact that at Hierapolis it was the charge of the chief priest, just as in the Levitical legislation. But the use of “kāhin” for “priest” in the Canaanite area points to more than this: it is connected with the orgiastic character of Canaanite religion. The soothsayer differs from the priest of an oracle by giving his revelation under excitement and often in a frenzy allied to madness. In natural soothsaying this frenzy is the necessary physical accompaniment of an afflatus which, though it seems supernatural to a rude people, is really akin to poetic inspiration. But it is soon learned that a similar physical state can be produced artificially, and at the Canaanite sanctuaries this was done on a large scale. We see from 1 Kings xviii., 2 Kings x., that great Baal temples had two classes of ministers, kōhănīm and nĕbhīīm, “priests” and “prophets,” and as the former bear a name which primarily denotes a soothsayer, so the latter are also a kind of priests who do sacrificial service with a wild ritual of their own. How deeply the orgiastic character was stamped on the priesthoods of north Semitic nature-worship is clear from Greek and Roman accounts, such as that of Appuleius (Metam. bk. viii.).

The Hebrews, who made the language of Canaan their own, took also the Canaanite name for a priest. But the earliest forms of Hebrew priesthood are not Canaanite in character; the priest, as he appears in the older records of the time of the Judges, Eli at Shiloh, Jonathan in the private temple of Micah and at Dan, is much liker the sādin than the kāhin.[8] The whole structure of Hebrew society at the time of the conquest was almost precisely that of a federation of Arab tribes, and the religious ordinances are scarcely distinguishable from those of Arabia, save only that the great deliverance of the Exodus and the period when Moses, sitting in judgment at the sanctuary of Kadesh, had for a whole generation impressed the sovereignty of Jehovah on all the tribes, had created an idea of unity between the scattered settlements in Canaan such as the Arabs before Mahomet never had. But neither in civil nor in religious life was this ideal unity expressed in fixed institutions, the old individualism of the Semitic nomad still held its ground. Thus the firstlings, first-fruits and vows are still the free gift of the individual which no human authority exacts, and which every householder presents and consumes with his circle in a sacrificial feast without priestly aid. As in Arabia, the ordinary sanctuary is still a sacred stone (מַצֵּבָה‎ = noşb) set up under the open heaven, and here the blood of the victim is poured out as an offering to God (see especially 1 Sam. xiv. 34, and cf. 2 Sam. xxiii. 16, 17). The priest has no place in this ritual; he is not the minister of an altar,[9] but the guardian of a temple, such as was already found here and there in the land for the custody of sacred images and palladia or other consecrated things (the ark at Shiloh, 1 Sam. iii. 3; images in Micah's temple, Judges xvii. 5.; Goliath's sword lying behind the “ephod” or plated image at Nob, 1 Sam. xxi. 9; no doubt also money, a sin the Canaanite temple at Shechem, Judges ix. 4). Such treasures required a guardian; but, above all, wherever there was a temple there was an oracle, a kind of sacred lot, just as in Arabia (1 Sam. xiv. 41, Sept.), which could only be drawn where there was an “ephod” and a priest (1 Sam. xiv. 18, Sept., and xxiii. 6 seq.). The Hebrews had already possessed a tent-temple and oracle of this kind in the wilderness (Exod. xxxiii. 7 seq.), of which Moses was the priest and Joshua the aedituus, and ever since that time the judgment of God through the priest at the sanctuary had a greater weight than the word of a seer, and was the ultimate solution of every controversy and claim (1 Sam. ii. 25; Exod. xxi. 6, xxii. 8, 9, where for “judge,” “judges,” of A.V. read “God” with R.V.). The temple at Shiloh, where the ark was preserved, was the lineal descendant of the Mosaic sanctuary — for it was not the place but the palladium and its oracle that were the essential thing — and its priests claimed kin with Moses himself. In the divided state of the nation, indeed, this sanctuary was hardly visited from beyond Mt Ephraim; and every man or tribe that cared to provide the necessary apparatus (ephod, teraphim, &c.) and hire a priest might have a temple and oracle of his own at which to consult Jehovah (Judges xvii., xviii.); but there was hardly another sanctuary of equal dignity. The priest of Shiloh is a much greater person than Micah's priest Jonathan; at the great feasts he sits enthroned by the doorway, preserving decorum among the worshippers; he has certain legal dues, and, if he is disposed to exact more, no one ventures to resist (1 Sam. ii. 12 seq., where the text needs a slight correction). The priestly position of the family survived the fall of Shiloh and the capture of the ark, and it was members of this house who consulted Jehovah for the early kings until Solomon deposed Abiathar. Indeed, though priesthood was not yet tied to one family, so that Micah's son, or Eleazar of Kirjath-jearim (1 Sam. vii. i), or David's sons (2 Sam. viii. 18) could all be priests, a Levite — that is, a man of Moses' tribe — was already preferred for the office elsewhere than at Shiloh (Judges xvii. 13), and such a priest naturally handed down his place to his posterity (Judges xviii. 30).

Ultimately, indeed, as sanctuaries were multiplied and the priests all over the land came to form one well-marked class, “Levite” and legitimate priest became equivalent expressions, as is explained in the article Levites. But between the priesthood of Eli at Shiloh or of Jonathan at Dan and the priesthood of the Levites as described in Deut. xxxiii. 8 seq. there lies a period of the inner history of which we know almost nothing. It is plain that the various priestly colleges regarded themselves as one order, that they had common traditions of law and ritual which were traced back to Moses, and common interests which had not been vindicated without a struggle (Deut., ut supra). The kingship had not deprived them of their functions as fountains of divine judgment (cf. Deut. xvii. 8 seq.); on the contrary, the decisions of the sanctuary had grown up into a body of sacred law, which the priests administered according to a traditional precedent. According to Semitic ideas the declaration of law is quite a distinct function from the enforcing of it, and the royal executive came into no collision with the purely declaratory functions of the priests. The latter, on the contrary, must have grown in importance with the unification and progress of the nation, and in all probability the consolidation of the priesthood into one class went hand in hand with a consolidation of legal tradition. And this work must have been well done, for, though the general corruption of society at the beginning of the Assyrian period was nowhere more conspicuous than at the sanctuaries and among the priesthood, the invective of Hos. iv. equally with the eulogium of Deut. xxxiii. proves that the position which the later priests abused had been won by ancestors who earned the respect of the nation as worthy representatives of a divine Torah.

The ritual functions of the priesthood still appear in Deut. xxxiii. as secondary to that of declaring the sentence of God, but they were no longer insignificant. With the prosperity of the nation, and especially through the absorption of the Canaanites and of their holy places, ritual had become much more elaborate, and in royal sanctuaries at least there were regular public offerings maintained by the king and presented by the priests (cf. 2 Kings xvi. 15). Private sacrifices, too, could hardly be offered without some priestly aid now that ritual was more complex; the provision of Deut. xviii. as to the priestly dues is certainly ancient, and shows that besides the tribute of first-fruits and the like the priests had a fee in kind for each sacrifice, as we find to have been the case among the Phoenicians according to the sacrificial tablet of Marseilles. Their judicial functions also brought profit to the priests, fines being exacted for certain offences and paid to them (2 Kings xii. 16; Hos. iv. 8; Amos ii. 8). The greater priestly offices were therefore in every respect very important places, and the priests of the royal sanctuaries were among the grandees of the realm (2 Sam. viii. 18; 2 Kings x. 11, xii. 2); minor offices in the sanctuaries were in the patronage of the great priests and were often miserable enough,[10] the petty priest depending largely on what “customers” he could find (2 Kings xii. 7 [8]; Deut. xviii. 8). That at least the greater offices were hereditary — as in the case of the sons of Zadok, who succeeded to the royal priesthood in Jerusalem after the fall of Abiathar — was almost a matter of course as society was then constituted, but there is not the slightest trace of an hereditary hierarchy officiating by divine right, such as existed after the exile. The sons of Zadok, the priests of the royal chapel, were the king's servants as absolutely as any other great officers of state; they owed their place to the fiat of King Solomon, and the royal will was supreme in all matters of cultus (2 Kings xii., xvi. 10 seq.); indeed the monarchs of Judah, like those of other nations, did sacrifice in perfon when they chose down to the time of the captivity (1 Kings ix. 25; 2 Kings xvi. 12 seq.; Jer. xxx. 21). And as the sons of Zadok had no divine right as against the kings, so too they had no claim to be more legitimate than the priests of the local sanctuaries, who also were reckoned to the tribe which in the 7th century B.C. was recognized as having been divinely set apart as Jehovah's ministers in the days of Moses (Deut. x. 8, xviii. 1 seq.).

The steps which prepared the way for the post-exile hierarchy, the destruction of the northern sanctuaries and priesthoods by the Assyrians, the polemic of the spiritual prophets against the corruptions of popular worship, which issued in the reformation of Josiah, the suppression of the provincial shrines of Judah and the transference of their ministers to Jerusalem, the successful resistance of the sons of Zadok to the proposal to share the sanctuary on equal terms with these new-comers, and the theoretical justification of the degradation of the latter to the position of mere servants in the Temple supplied by Ezekiel soon after the captivity, need not here be dealt with. Further details respecting priestly offices and hereditary priesthoods and the relation of Aaronids to Zadokids will be found briefly discussed in Ency. Bib. vol. iii. cols. 3843-3845. Cf . Hastings's Dict. Bible, iv. 72-75; Camb. Bib. Essays (1909), pp. 100 seq., 112 seq.

It is instructive to observe how differently the prophets of the 8th century speak of the judicial or “teaching” functions of the priests and of the ritual of the great sanctuaries. For the latter they have nothing but condemnation, but the former they acknowledge as part of the divine order of the state, while they complain that the priests have prostituted their office for lucre. In point of fact the one rested on old Hebrew tradition, the other had taken shape mainly under Canaanite influence, and in most of its features was little more than the crassest nature-worship. In this respect there was no distinction between the Temple of Zion and other shrines, or rather it was just in the greatest sanctuary with the most stately ritual that foreign influences had most play, as we see alike in the original institutions of Solomon and in the innovations of Ahaz (2 Kings xvi. 10 seq., xxiii. 11 seq.). The Canaanite influence on the later organization of the Temple is clearly seen in the association of Temple prophets with the Temple priests under the control of the chief priest, which is often referred to by Jeremiah; even the viler ministers of sensual worship, the male and female prostitutes of the Phoenician temples, had found a place on Mt Zion and were only removed by Josiah's reformation.[11] All this necessarily tended to make the ritual ministry of the priests more important than it had been in old times; but it was in the reign of Manasseh, when the sense of divine wrath lay heavy on the people, when the old ways of seeking Jehovah's favour had failed and new and more powerful means of atonement were eagerly sought for (Micah vi. 6 seq.; 2 Kings xxi.; and cf. Moloch), that sacrificial functions reached their full importance. In the time of Josiah altar service and not the function of “teaching” has become the essential thing in priesthood (Deut. x. 8, xviii. 7); the latter, indeed, is not forgotten (Jer. ii. 8, xviii. 18), but by the time of Ezekiel it also has mainly to do with ritual, with the distinction between holy and profane, clean and unclean, with the statutory observances at festivals and the like (Ezek. xliv. 23 seq.). What the priestly Torah was at the time of the exile can be seen from the collection of laws in Lev. xvii.-xxvi., which includes many moral precepts, but regards them equally with ritual precepts from the point of view of the maintenance of national holiness. The holiness of Israel centres in the sanctuary, and round the sanctuary stand the priests, who alone can approach the most holy things without profanation, and who are the guardians of Israel's sanctity, partly by protecting the one meeting-place of God and man from profane contact, and partly as the mediators of the continual atoning rites by which breaches of holiness are expiated.

The bases of priestly power under this system are the unity of the altar, its inaccessibility to laymen and to the inferior ministers of the sanctuary, and the specific atoning functions of the blood of priestly sacrifices. All these things were unknown in old Israel. So fundamental a change as lies between Hosea and the Priestly Code was only possible in the general dissolution of the old life of Israel produced by the Assyrians and by the prophets; and indeed the new order did not take shape as a system till the exile had made a great change in old institutions. It was meant also to give expression to the demands of the prophets for spiritual service and national holiness, but this it did not accomplish so successfully; the ideas of the prophets could not be realized under any ritual system, but only in a new dispensation (Jer. xxxi. 31 seq.), when priestly Torah and priestly atonement should be no longer required. Nevertheless, the concentration of all ritual at a single point, and the practical exclusion of laymen from active participation in it — for the old sacrificial feast had now shrunk into entire insignificance in comparison with the stated priestly holocausts and atoning rites[12] — lent powerful assistance to the growth of a new and higher type of personal religion, the religion which found its social expression not in material acts of oblation, but in the language of the Psalms. In the best times of the old kingdom the priests had shared the place of the prophets as the religious leaders of the nation; under the second Temple they represented the unprogressive traditional side of religion, and the leaders of thought were the psalmists and the scribes, who spoke much more directly to the piety of the nation.

But, on the other hand, the material influence of the priests was greater than it had ever been before; the Temple was the only visible centre of national life in the ages of servitude to foreign power, and the priests were the only great national functionaries, who drew to themselves all the sacred dues as a matter of right and even appropriated the tithes paid of old to the king. When the High Priest stood at the altar in all his princely state, when he poured out the libation amidst the blare of trumpets, and the singers lifted up their voice and all the people fell prostrate in prayer till he descended and raised his hands in blessing, the slaves of the Greek or the Persian forgot for a moment their bondage and knew that the day of their redemption was near (Ecclus. 1.). The High Priest at such a moment seemed to embody all the glory of the nation, as the kings had done of old, and when the time came to strike a successful blow for freedom it was a priestly house that led the nation to the victory which united in one person the functions of High Priest and prince. From the foundation of the Hasmonean state to the time of Herod the history of the high-priesthood merges in the political history of the nation; from Herod onward the priestly aristocracy of the Sadducees lost its chief hold over the nation and expired in vain controversy with the Pharisees.

The influence of the Hebrew priesthood on the thought and organization of Christendom was the influence not of a living institution, for it hardly began till after the fall of the Temple, but of the theory embodied in the later parts of the Pentateuch. Two points in this theory were laid hold of — the doctrine of priestly mediation and the system of priestly hierarchy. The first forms the text of the principal argument in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in which the author easily demonstrates the inadequacy of the mediation and atoning rites of the Old Testament, and builds upon this demonstration the doctrine of the effectual high-priesthood of Christ, who, in his sacrifice of himself, truly “led His people to God,” not leaving them outside as He entered the heavenly sanctuary, but taking them with Him into spiritual nearness to the throne of grace. This argument leaves no room for a special priesthood in the Christian Church, and in fact nothing of the kind is found in the oldest organization of the new communities of faith. The idea that presbyters and bishops are priests and the successors of the Old Testament priesthood first appears in full force in the writings of Cyprian, and here it is not the notion of priestly mediation but that of priestly power which is insisted on. Church office is a copy of the old hierarchy. Now among the Jews, as we have seen, the hierarchy proper has for its necessary condition the destruction of the state and the bondage of Israel to a foreign prince, so that spiritual power is the only basis left for a national aristocracy. The same conditions have produced similar spiritual aristocracies again and again in the East in more modern times, and even in antiquity more than one Oriental priesthood took a line of development similar to that which we have traced in Judaea. Thus the hereditary priests of Ḳozaḥ (Κοζέ) were the chief dignitaries in Idumaea at the time of the Jewish conquest of the country (Jos. Ant. xv. 7, 9), and the High Priest of Hierapolis wore the princely purple and crown like the High Priest of the Jews (De dea syria, 42). The kingly insignia of the High Priest of the sun at Emesa are described by Herodian (v. 3, 3), in connexion with the history of Elagabalus, whose elevation to the Roman purple was mainly due to the extraordinary local influence of his sacerdotal place. Other examples of priestly princes are given by Strabo in speaking of Pessinus (p. 567) and Olbe (p. 672). As no such hierarchy existed in the West, it is plain that if the idea of Christian priesthood was influenced by living institutions as well as by the Old Testament that influence must be sought in the East (cf. Lightfoot, Philippians, p. 261). The further development of the notion of Christian priesthood was connected with the view that the Eucharist (q.v.) is a propitiatory sacrifice which only a consecrated priest can perform. It is sufficient to remark here that the presentation of the sacrifice of the mass came to be viewed as the essential priestly office, so that the Christian presbyter really was a sacerdos in the antique sense. Protestants, in rejecting the sacrifice of the mass, deny also that there is a Christian priesthood “like the Levitical,” and have either dropped the name of “priest” or use it in a quite emasculated sense. For further details as to the history and doctrine of priesthood in Christendom the reader is referred to the article, “Priestertum: Priesterweihe in der Christlichen Kirche,” in P.R.E., 3rd ed., Bd. xvi. p. 47 sqq.

There is probably no nature religion among races above mere savagery which has not had a priesthood; but an examination of other examples would scarcely bring out any important feature that has not been already illustrated. Among higher religions orthodox Islam has never had real priests, doing religious acts on behalf of others, though it has, like Protestant churches, leaders of public devotion (imāms) and an important class of privileged religious teachers (‘ulemā). But a distinction of grades of holiness gained by ascetic life has never been entirely foreign to the Eastern mind, and in the popular faith of Mahommedan peoples something very like priesthood has crept in by this channel. For where holiness is associated with ascetic practices the masses can never attain to a perfect life, and naturally tend to lean on the professors of special sanctity as the mediators of their religious welfare. The best example, however, of a full-blown priestly system with a monastic hierarchy grafted in this way on a religion originally not priestly is found in Tibetan Buddhism (see Lamaism), and similar causes undoubtedly had their share in the development of sacerdotalism in the Christian Church. The idea of priestly asceticism expressed in the celibacy of the clergy belongs also to certain types of heathen and especially Semitic priesthood, to those above all in which the priestly service is held to have a magical or theurgic quality.

(W. R. S.; O. C. W.)


  1. For the Greek priests, see, besides Schömann and other works on Greek antiquities, Newton, Essays on Art and Archaeology, p. 136 seq. (from epigraphic material). See also for Greek as well as Roman priest, art. “Sacerdos” (Sacerdotium) in Warre Cornish's Concise Dict. of Greek and Roman Antiquities.
  2. On the Roman priests, see in general Marquardt, Römische Staatsverwaltung, vol. iii., and for the pontiffs in particular the art. “Sacerdos” in Warre Cornish's Concise Dict., also Pontifex.
  3. Cf. especially Nöldeke's Tabari, p. 450 seq.
  4. Mĕshuggā&lsquo, 2 Kings ix. 11, Jer. xxix. 26 — a term of contempt applied to prophets. (See Hebrew Religion.)
  5. For examples, see Palmyra and Philistines; see further, Lucian, De dea syria, 36, for Hierapolis; Zosimus i. 58, for Aphaea; Pliny, H. N. xxxvii. 58 (compared with Lucian, ut supra, and Movers, Phoenizier, i. 655), for the temple of Melkart at Tyre.
  6. This appears even in the words used as synonyms for “priest” שמר הסף ,משרת‎, which exactly corresponds to sādin and ḥājib. That the name of כהן‎ was borrowed from the Canaanites appears certain, for that out of the multiplicity of words for soothsayers and the like common to Hebrew and Arabic (either formed from a common root or expressing exactly the same idea — יִדְעֹנִי‎, ‘arrāf; חֹבֵר‎, ḥabīr; חֹזֶה‎, רֹאֶה‎, ḥāzi; קֹסֵם‎, cf. istiķsām) the two nations should have chosen the same one independently to mean a priest is, in view of the great difference in character between old Hebrew and Canaanite priesthoods, inconceivable. Besides כהן‎ Hebrew has the word כמר‎ (pl. כמרים‎), which, however, is not applied to priests of the national religion. This, in fact, is the old Aramaic word for a priest (with suffixed article, kumrā). Its origin is obscure. In the Aramaic papyri discovered near Assouan (Syene) כמר‎ is priest of the gods (Cowley and Sayce, Pap. E. line 15), presumably Khnum and Set; and in Sachau's Pap. I. line 5, כמריא‎ definitely mean the priests of the god Ḥnûb. This coincides with the Hebrew use of the term as idolatrous priests, Hos. x. 5; Zeph. i. 4 ; 2 Kings xxiii. 5.
  7. It is not clear from 1 Sam. ii. 15 whether even at Shiloh the priest had anything to do with sacrifice, whether those who burned the fat were the worshippers themselves or some subordinate ministers of the Temple. Certainly it was not the “priest” who did so, for he in this narrative is always in the singular. Hophni and Phinehas are not called priests, though they bore the ark and so were priests in the sense of Josh. iii.
  8. See 1 Sam. ii. 36, a passage written after the hereditary dignity of the sons of Zadok at Jerusalem was well established.
  9. 2 Kings xxiii. 7; cf. Deut. xxiii. 18, where “dogs” = the later Galli; cf. Corp. insc. sem. i. 93 seq.
  10. Cf. the impression which the ritual produced on the Greeks, Bernays's Theophrastus, pp. 85, in seq.