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Bible Dictionaries

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary


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A person set apart for the performance of sacrifice, and other offices and ceremonies of religion. Before the promulgation of the law of Moses, the first-born of every family, the fathers, the princes, and the kings, were priests. Thus Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Melchizedec, Job, Isaac, and Jacob, offered themselves their own sacrifices. Among the Israelites, after their departure from Egypt, the priesthood was confined to one tribe, and it consisted of three orders, the high-priest, priests, and Levites. The priesthood was made hereditary in the family of Aaron; and the first-born of the oldest branch of that family, if he had no legal blemish, was always the high-priest. This divine appointment was observed with considerable accuracy till the Jews fell under the dominion of the Romans, and had their faith corrupted by a false philosophy. Then, indeed, the high-priesthood was sometimes set up to sale, and, instead of continuing for life, as it ought to have done, it seems, from some passages in the New Testament, to have been nothing more than an annual office.

There is sufficient reason, however, to believe, that it was never disposed of but to some descendant of Aaron capable of filling it, had the older branches been extinct. (For the consecration and offices of the Jewish priesthood, we refer our readers to the books of Moses.) In the time of David, the inferior priests were divided into twenty-four companies, who were to serve in rotation, each company by itself, for a week. The order in which the several courses were to serve was determined by lot; and each course was, in all succeeding ages, called by the name of its original chief. It has been much disputed, whether in the Christian church there be any such officer as a priest, in the proper sense of the word. If the word priest be taken to denote a person commissioned by divine authority to offer up a real sacrifice to God, we may justly deny that there is a priest upon earth. Under the Gospel, there is but one priest, which is Christ: and but one sacrifice, that of the cross. The church of Rome, however, erroneously believe their priests to be empowered to offer up to the Divine Majesty a real proper sacrifice, as were the priests under the Old Testament. Ecclesiastical history informs us that, in the second century, some time after the feign of the emperor Adrian, when the Jews, by the second destruction of Jerusalem, were bereaved of all hopes of the restoration of their government to its former lustre, the notion that the ministers of the Christian church succeeded to the character and prerogatives of the Jewish priesthood, was industriously propagated by the Christian doctors; and that, in consequence, the bishops claimed a rank and character similar to that of the Jewish high-priest; the presbyters to that of the priests; and the deacons to that of the Levites.

One of the pernicious effects of this groundless comparison and pretension seems to have been, the introduction of the idea of a real sacrifice in the Christian church, and of sacrificing priests. In the church of England, the word priest is retained to denote the second order in her hierarchy, but we believe with very different significations, according to the different opinions entertained of the Lord's supper. Some few of her divines, of great learning, and of undoubted protestantism, maintain that the Lord's supper is a commemorative and eucharistical sacrifice. These consider all who are authorized to administer that sacrament as in the strictest sense priests. Others hold the Lord's supper to be a feast upon the one sacrifice, once offered on the cross; and these, too, must consider themselves as clothed with some kind of priesthood. Great numbers, however, of the English clergy, perhaps the majority, agree with the church of Scotland, in maintaining that the Lord's supper is a rite of no other moral import than the mere commemoration of the death of Christ. These cannot consider themselves as priests in the rigid sense of the word, but only as presbyters, of which the word priest is a contraction of the same import with elder.


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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Priest'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. 1802.

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