Partner with as God uses us to make a difference for those displaced by Russia's war on Ukraine.
Click to donate today!

Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

High Priest

Additional Links
Priest in charge of the Temple (or tabernacle) worship. A number of terms are used to refer to the high priest: the priest ( Exodus 31:10 ); the anointed priest (Leviticus 4:3 ); the priest who is chief among his brethren (Leviticus 21:10 ); chief priest (2 Chronicles 26:20 ); and high priest (2 Kings 12:10 ).

Responsibilities and Privileges The high priesthood was a hereditary office based on descent from Aaron (Exodus 29:29-30; Leviticus 16:32 ). Normally, the high priest served for life (Numbers 18:7; Numbers 25:11-13; Numbers 35:25 ,Numbers 35:25,35:28; Nehemiah 12:10-11 ), though as early as Solomon's reign a high priest was dismissed for political reasons (1 Kings 2:27 ).

A special degree of holiness was required of the high priest (Leviticus 10:6 ,Leviticus 10:6,10:9; Leviticus 21:10-15 ). This meant he had to avoid defilement by contact with the dead, even in the case of his own parents and was forbidden to show any outward sign of mourning. He could not leave the sanctuary precincts. Such legislation identified the high priest as one totally dedicated to the Lord, always ritually pure and ready to serve the Lord.

If the high priest sinned, he brought guilt upon the whole people (Leviticus 4:3 ). The sin offering for the high priest (Leviticus 4:3-12 ) was identical to that required “if the whole congregation of Israel commits a sin” (Leviticus 4:13-21 ).

The consecration of the high priest was an elaborate seven-day ritual involving special baths, putting on special garments, and anointing with oil and with blood (Exodus 29:1-37; Leviticus 6:19-22; Leviticus 8:5-35 ). The special garments of the high priest included (1) a blue robe with an ornate hem decorated with gold bells and embroidered pomegranates, (2) an ephod of fine linen with colorful embroidered work and shoulder straps bearing stones engraved with the names of the twelve tribes, (3) a breastplate with twelve precious stones engraved with the names of the twelve tribes, and (4) a linen turban with a gold plate inscribed “Holy to Yahweh” (Exodus 28:4-39; Exodus 39:1-31; Leviticus 8:7-9 ). The engraved plate and the stones engraved with the tribal names highlight the role of the high priest as the holy representative of all Israel before the Lord (Exodus 28:12 ,Exodus 28:12,28:29 ). In his “breastplate of judgment,” the high priest kept the sacred lots, the Urim and Thummim, which were used to inquire of the Lord (Exodus 28:29-30; Numbers 27:21 ). See Breastplate; Ephod; Lots; Urim and Thummim .

The high priest shared in general priestly duties. Only the high priest, however, was allowed to enter the holy of holies and then only on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1-25; for the details of the ritual, see Day of Atonement ).

The death of the high priest marked the end of an epoch. One guilty of involuntary manslaughter was required to remain in a city of refuge until the death of the high priest (Numbers 35:25 , Numbers 35:28 ,Numbers 35:28,35:32; Joshua 20:6 ). The expiatory death of the high priest removed blood guilt that would pollute the land (compare Numbers 35:33 ).

History of the Office Some argue that the developed priesthood characterized by three divisions (high priest, priests, and Levites) was a late, possibly postexilic, development in the history of Israel's worship. Others take the Biblical texts at face value and accept Mosaic institution of the fully developed priesthood.

The term high priest occurs in only one brief passage in the Pentateuch (Numbers 35:25 ,Numbers 35:25,35:28 ,Numbers 35:28,35:32 ), once in Joshua (Joshua 20:6 where the legislation of Numbers 35:1 is enacted), and never in the Book of Judges. Aaron, Eliezar, and Phineas are typically called the priest. Neither Eli, Ahimelech, Abiathar, nor Zadok are called high or chief priest, though all four headed priestly families and are mentioned in connection with items usually associated with the high priest (the ark, the ephod, the Urim and Thummim: 1 Samuel 3:3; 1 Samuel 4:4-11; 1 Samuel 21:6 , 1 Samuel 21:9; 2 Samuel 15:24-29 ).

Eleazar was charged with supervision of the Levites (Numbers 3:32; compare 1 Chronicles 9:20 ) and of the sanctuary apparatus (Numbers 4:16 ). He figures in the narrative of Numbers 16:1 where the offering of incense is affirmed as the exclusive prerogative of the priests and in the red heifer ceremony ( Numbers 19:1 ). The account of Eleazar's donning Aaron's priestly robe (Numbers 20:25-28; compare Deuteronomy 10:6 ) provides Scripture's best report of high priestly succession. As chief priest Eleazar assisted Moses with the census (Numbers 26:1 ). Eleazar served as an advisor to Moses (Numbers 27:1 ) and to Joshua, consulting the Lord by means of the sacred lots. Such counsel formed the basis for the apportionment of the Promised Land among the tribes (Numbers 34:17; Joshua 14:1; Joshua 17:4; Joshua 19:51; Joshua 21:1 ). One indication of the significance of Eleazar is that the Book of Joshua concludes with the death of this chief priest (Joshua 24:33 ).

Phinehas, son of Eleazar, is best known for his zealous opposition to intermarriage with the Moabites and the concomitant idolatry (Numbers 25:6-13 ). For his zeal Phinehas was granted a covenant of perpetual priesthood (Numbers 25:13 ) and was reckoned as righteous (Psalm 106:30 ). Phinehas accompanied the sanctuary vessels in holy war (Numbers 31:6 ). Part of his ministry before the ark involved consulting the Lord for battle counsel (Judges 20:27-28 ). Phinehas served as the major figure in the resolution of the conflict over the “commemorative” altar the tribes east of the Jordan built (Joshua 22:13 ,Joshua 22:13,22:31-32 ).

Aaron, Eleazar, and Phinehas appear in Biblical history as distinct personalities. Until Eli's appearance at end of the period of the judges, a puzzling silence surrounds the high priesthood. 1 Chronicles 6:1-15 offers a (partial?) list of seven high priests between Phinehas and Zadok, a contemporary of David and Solomon. Of these nothing is known except their names. Nor is Eli included among this list, though he functioned as the chief priest of the Shiloh sanctuary.

Eli is best known for his rearing of Samuel (1 Samuel 1:25-28; 1 Samuel 3:1 ) and for his inability to control his own sons (1Samuel 2:12-17,1 Samuel 2:22-25; 1 Samuel 3:13 ), which, in time, resulted in the forfeiture of the high priesthood by his line (1 Samuel 2:27-35 ). Following the death of Eli, the Shiloh priesthood apparently relocated to Nob. Saul suspected the priesthood of conspiracy with David and exterminated the priestly family of Ahimelech (1 Samuel 22:9-19 ). Only Abiathar escaped (1 Samuel 22:20 ). When David moved the ark to Jerusalem, Abiathar and Zadok apparently officiated jointly as chief priests (2Samuel 8:17;2Samuel 15:24-29,2 Samuel 15:35; 2 Samuel 19:11 ), though Zadok already appears as the dominant figure in 2Samuel. Solomon suspected Abiathar of conspiracy with his brother Adonijah and exiled him to his ancestral home (1 Kings 2:26-27 ). The high priesthood remained in the family of Zadok from the beginning of Solomon's reign (about 964 B.C.) until Menelaus bought the high priesthood (171 B.C.) in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes.

Azariah, the son of Zadok, was the first individual to be explicitly identified as the “high priest” (1 Kings 4:2 ). At times during the monarchy, individual high priests exercised major roles in the life of Judah. Jehoshabeath, wife of the high priest Jehoida (2 Chronicles 22:11 ), saved the infant Joash from the murderous Athaliah. Six years later, Jehoida was the mastermind of the coup de'etat in which Joash was crowned king (2 Kings 11:4-17 ). A second Azariah was known for opposing King Uzziah's attempt to usurp the priests' right to offer incense (2 Chronicles 26:17-18 ). The high priest Hilkiah discovered the “Book of the Law,” perhaps the Book of Deuteronomy, which provided the incentive for King Josiah's reforms (2 Kings 22:8 ). Hilkiah removed all traces of Baal worship from the Jerusalem Temple (2 Kings 23:4 ).

In the early postexilic period, the high priest Joshua is presented as the equal of the Davidic governor Zerubabbel (Haggai 1:1 ,Haggai 1:1,1:12 ,Haggai 1:12,1:14; Haggai 2:2 ,Haggai 2:2,2:4 ). Both high priest and governor shared in the rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 3:1; Ezra 6:9-15; Haggai 1-2 ). Both are recognized as anointed leaders (Zechariah 4:14; Zechariah 6:9-15 ). A further indication of the heightened importance of the high priesthood in the postexilic period is the interest in succession lists of high priests (1Chronicles 6:1-15,1 Chronicles 6:50-53; 1 Chronicles 9:11; Ezra 7:1-5; Nehemiah 12:10-11 ), a new development in biblical literature.

In the period before the Maccabean revolt the high priesthood became increasingly political. Jason, a Hellenistic sympathizer, ousted his more conservative brother Onias III (2Maccabees 4:7-10,2 Maccabees 4:18-20 ). Jason was, in turn, ousted by the more radically Hellenistic Menelaus who offered the Seleucid rulers an even larger bribe to secure the office (2 Maccabees 4:23-26 ). With Menelaus the high priesthood passed out of the legitimate Zadokite line.

The Maccabees combined the office of high priest with that of military commander or political leader. Alexander Balas, a contender for the Seleucid throne, appointed Jonathan Maccabee “high priest” and “king's friend” (1 Maccabees 10:20 ). Simon Maccabee was, likewise, confirmed in his high priesthood and made a “friend” of the Seleucid King Demetrius II (1 Maccabees 14:38 ). Temple and state were combined in the person of Simon who was both high priest and ethnarch (1 Maccabees 15:1-2 ).

The Romans continued the practice of rewarding the high priesthood to political favorites. During the Roman period, Annas (high priest A.D. 6 to 15) was clearly the most powerful priestly figure. Even when deposed by the Romans, Annas succeeded in having five of his sons and a son-in-law, Joseph Caiaphas (high priest A.D. 18 to 36/37) appointed high priests. Some confusion has resulted from New Testament references to the joint high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (Luke 3:2 ). The passage is perhaps best understood as an acknowledgment of Annas as the power behind his immediate successors. Another possibility is that Annas retained the title of respect on the grounds that the high priesthood was for life. Ananias, one of Annas' sons, was the high priest to whom Paul was brought in Acts 23:2; Acts 24:1 .

High Priest and Chief Priests The ordination rite for the high priest included the consecration of his sons as well (Exodus 29:8-9 ,Exodus 29:8-9,29:20-21 ). A number of terms refer to leading priests other than the high priest: anointed priests (2 Maccabees 1:10 ); chief priests (Ezra 8:29; Ezra 10:5; Nehemiah 12:7 ); senior priests (2 Kings 19:2; Isaiah 37:2; Jeremiah 19:1 ). More specific titles are also found. Zephaniah was described as the “second priest” (2 Kings 25:18; Jeremiah 52:24 ). Pashur was the “chief officer in the house of the Lord” (Jeremiah 20:1 ).

Table of High Priests

Aaron (Exodus 28-29 )

Eleazer (Numbers 2:25-28; Deuteronomy 10:6 )

Phinehas (Joshua 22:13-32; Judges 20:28 )

Eli (1 Samuel 1:9; 1 Samuel 2:11 )

Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:1-2; 1 Samuel 22:11 )

Abiathar (2 Samuel 20:25; 1 Kings 2:26-27 )

Zadok (1 Kings 2:35; 1 Chronicles 29:22 )

Azariah (1 Kings 4:2 )

Amariah (2 Chronicles 19:11 )

Jehoiada (2Kings 11:9-10,2 Kings 11:15; 2Kings 12:7,2 Kings 12:9-10 )

Azariah (2 Chronicles 26:20 )

Urijah (2 Kings 16:10-16 )

Hilkiah (2Kings 22:10,2Kings 22:12,2 Kings 22:14; 2Kings 22:4,2 Kings 22:8; 2 Kings 23:4 )

Seraiah (2 Kings 25:18 )

Joshua (Haggai 1:1 ,Haggai 1:1,1:12 ,Haggai 1:12,1:14; Haggai 2:2 ,Haggai 2:2,2:4; Ezra 3:1; Zechariah 3:6-7; Zechariah 4:14; Zechariah 6:9-15 )

Eliashib (Nehemiah 3:1 ,Nehemiah 3:1,3:20 )

Simon the Just (Sirach 50:1-21 )

Onias III (1 Maccabees 12:7; 2 Maccabees 3:1 )

Jason (2Maccabees 4:7-10,2 Maccabees 4:18-20; 4 Maccabees 4:16 )

Menelaus (2 Maccabees 4:23-26 )

Alcimus (1 Maccabees 7:9 )

Jonathan Maccabee (1 Maccabees 10:20; 1 Maccabees 14:30 )

Simon Maccabee (1Maccabees 14:20,1 Maccabees 14:23 )

John Hyrcanus (1 Maccabees 16:23-24 )

Annas (Luke 3:2; John 18:14; Acts 4:6 )

(Joseph) Caiaphas (Matthew 26:57; John 18:13 )

Ananias (Acts 23:2; Acts 24:1 )

Chris Church

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'High Priest'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
High Place
Next Entry