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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

High Priest (2)

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HIGH PRIEST.—The terms ‘high priest’ and ‘chief priest’ in the NT represent the same original (ἀρχιερεύς), varied in translation to correspond with the uses of the term as explained below. The office of high priest in the Jewish nation can be traced back to the early years of post-exilic times. The priestly writings then adopted as authoritative assign its origin to the time of Moses, but the earlier writings contain no suggestion of the existence of the office, and cultural conditions before the Exile preclude an early date for its establishment. Immediately after the Return the office was a religious one, the secular power being in the hands of the ‘prince’; for, great as was the emphasis in the new community upon law and ceremony, there seems to have been an equal emphasis upon the hoped for restoration of the State to a dignified and independent position. It very soon became evident that this hope was impossible of fulfilment, and the secular functions, so far as they were exercised by the Jews, were merged in the duties of the high priest. At first the position was for life and hereditary. In practice the principle was often violated, the violations being occasioned not so much by deliberate purpose as by the turmoils of Greek and Roman times. Moreover, internal conditions in the Jewish community were of themselves sufficient to have unsettled the principle. At the time of the Hasmonaean uprising, the assumption of high priestly functions and title by this family was essential to the success of the revolt. Under the Roman supremacy, the fortunes of the political parties in Rome added to the tendencies that made for the disappearance of the last vestige of permanence in the high priestly office, and at the time of Christ we find it entirely at the will of Rome, both as to appointment and tenure. Under these conditions there had grown up a caste of high priestly families, descended from high priests and otherwise connected with them; these formed a high aristocracy in Judaism, which was possessed of considerable authority, however difficult it may be to define the limits and extent of that influence. Very naturally the selection of the high priest was made from these families. The numerous references in the Gospels are ordinarily to this high priestly class, and when the Greek is so used it is translated ‘chief priests’ (see art. Chief Priests).

As far as concerns the high priest proper, he occupied the position of chief political authority among the Jews, as head of the Sanhedrin. Josephus declares (Ant. xx. 10) that there were 28 high priests from the time of Herod to the destruction of Jerusalem. Of these, the Gospels mention the tenth, Annas, appointed by Quirinius (a.d. 6), and the fourteenth, Joseph, surnamed Caiaphas, who was in office at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus and presided over the Sanhedrin at His trial. Previous to this trial there was a preliminary trial or hearing, whether with or without legal right, before Annas, father-in-law of Caiaphas. The Gospel narrative of these events, so far from being confused or improbable, is confirmed as entirely consistent and probable by the records of Jewish practice of those days. Annas was a man of long continued influence among his people. No fewer than six of the high priests of the Herodian period are known to have been of his family. Other high priests after the end of their term of service are stated to have held high positions at home and abroad, and it is possible that some of the Gospel references to high or chief priests are to this group of ex-high priests together with the officiating priest.

The high priest was also at the head of the sacerdotal system, as the title, of course, implies. But although historically this was his chief claim to authority, his religious influence in the time of Christ was far less than his political power. The religion of the Jew was a matter quite distinct from the rites and ceremonies of the temple, though he might observe these with care. The very success of the high priests centuries before, in uniting the two offices of religious and secular ruler, had operated to foster the development of a religion of a different sort. It was now a religion of the scribes.

The high priest conducted the sacrifices only on special occasions. He was required to officiate on the yearly Day of Atonement; and on other festival days, such as New Moons and Sabbaths, he officiated at his pleasure. These distinctively priestly duties do not come into consideration in the Gospel narratives. The Epistle to the Hebrews, on the other hand, makes much mention of the office in order by that means to portray more clearly the work of Jesus in behalf of men; but one will be disappointed who goes to this Epistle to discover what were the high priestly functions at the time of Christ, or even to discover the theory of sacrifice and priesthood current in those days. The author does not describe the ceremonial as he and his readers knew it from daily observation or participation. He does not allude to it because it was something vital in the religious experience of the Jew. He describes it as he knew it out of the Jewish Scriptures, and he reflects upon it as dispassionately as a philosopher or a theologian. The OT priesthood and sacrifice did not really make atonement for sin; to the author they typified that atonement. In the real atonement Christ had a part similar to that played by the high priest in the sensuous, temporary, typical atonement of the earlier dispensation. He made reconciliation for the sins of the people (Hebrews 2:17); He was faithful, the recipient of a greater glory than Moses (Hebrews 3:1-6); sought not the office, but was chosen as was Aaron (Hebrews 5:4); He was of the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:10, Hebrews 6:20); was competent to sympathize with men (Hebrews 2:18, Hebrews 4:15). He possessed an unchanging priesthood, sacrificing once for all (7), and the sacrifice was Himself. He has passed through the heavens, through the veil (Hebrews 4:14), and serves in a perfect tabernacle. As the work wrought by Him for men surpassed that of the high priest, so the terminology of the older dispensation is insufficient, and breaks down under the burden of the description. Jesus is not only the Mediator of the new covenant, the High Priest, but He is also the sacrifice itself. The author will not say that the death on the cross fitted into the OT sacrificial system, any more than he brings Jesus into that system as priest. It was in the new order of things, in the spiritual atonement, which was the real one, with spiritual agencies and results, that His perfect humanity, His perfect obedience and sinlessness, found place. The temple is in the heavens whither He has gone to consummate the service of which His earthly career was an incident. See, further, art. Priest.

Literature.—Schürer, GJV [Note: JV Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] §§ 23, 24; Beyschlag, NT Theol. ii. 315–331; Westcott, Ep. to Hebrews; Briggs, Messiah of the Apostles, 242–283; Ménégoz, Théol. de l’Épitre aux Hébreux, 102 ff., 197 ff.

Owen H. Gates.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'High Priest (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/h/high-priest-2.html. 1906-1918.


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