Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

The high-priest in the Old Testament is called by various names:

In the Old Testament ho hiereus ( Numbers 3:6 ); hiereus ho protos ( 2 Kings 25:18 ); ho hiereus ho megas ( Leviticus 21:10 ), are the common forms. A coadjutor or second priest was mentioned in 2 Kings 25:18 .

Aaron and his sons were chosen by God to be priests, Aaron being the first high-priest and Eleazar his successor; so that, though the Scripture does not say so explicitly, the succession of the eldest son to the office of high-priest became a law. The consecration of Aaron and his sons during seven days and their vestments are described in Ex., xxviii, xxix (cf. Leviticus 8:12 ; Sirach 45:7 sqq. ). Aaron was anointed with oil poured on his head ( Leviticus 8:12 ); hence he is called "the priest that is anointed" ( Leviticus 4:3 ). Some texts seem to require anointing for all ( Exodus 30:30 ; Leviticus 10:7 ; Numbers 3:3 ), but Aaron was anointed with oil in great profusion, even on the head ( Exodus 29:7 ), to which reference is made in Ps. cxxxii, 2, where it is said that the precious ointment ran down upon his beard and "to the skirt of his garment". The ointment was made of myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, cassia, and olive oil, compounded by the perfumer or apothecary (Ex., xxx, 23-25; Josephus, "Ant.", III, viii, 3), and not to be imitated nor applied to profane uses ( Exodus 30:31-33 ).

After the Exile anointing was not in use: both high-priests and priests were consecrated by simple investiture. The rabbis held that even before the Exile the high-priest alone was anointed by pouring the sacred oil "over him" and applying it to his forehead over the eyes "after the form of the Greek X" (Edersheim, "The Temple, Its Ministry and Service at the Time of Jesus Christ", 71). No age is specified, and thus youth was no impediment to the appointment by Herod of Aristobulus to the high-priesthood, though the latter was in his seventeenth year (Josephus, "Antiq.", XV, iii, 3). Josephus gives a list of eighty-three high-priests from Aaron to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans (Ant., XX, x). They were in the beginning chosen for life, but later removed at will by the secular power (Jos., "Ant.", XV, iii, 1; XX, x), so that "the numbers of the high-priests from the days of Herod until the day when Titus took the Temple and the city, and burnt them, were in all twenty-eight; the time also that belonged to them was one hundred and seven years" (Jos., "Ant.", XX, x). Thus one-third of the high-priests of fifteen centuries lived within the last century of their history: they had become the puppets of the temporal rulers. The frequency of change in the office is hinted at by St. John (xi, 51), where he says that Caiphas was "the high-priest of that year ". Solomon deposed Abiathar for having supported the cause of Adonias, and gave the high-priesthood to Sadoc ( 1 Kings 2:27, 35 ): then the last of Heli's family was cast out, as the Lord had declared to Heli long before ( 1 Samuel 2:32 ). It seems strange, therefore, that Josephus (Ant., XV, iii, 1) states that Antiochus Epiphanes was the first to depose a high-priest. It may be that he regarded Abiathar and Sadoc as holding the office conjointly, since Abiathar "the priest " and Sadoc "the priest " were both very prominent in David's reign ( 1 Kings 1:34 ; 1 Chronicles 16:39, 40 ). Josephus may have considered the act of Solomon the means of a return to unity; moreover, in the same section where he mentions the change, he says that Sadoc was high-priest in David's reign (Ant., VIII, i, 3), and adds "the king [ Solomon ] also made Zadok to be alone the high-priest" (Ant., VIII, i, 4). Shortly before the destruction of the Temple by the Romans the zealots chose by lot a mere rustic named Phannias as the last high-priest: thus the high-priesthood, the city and the Temple passed away together (Josephus, "Bell. Jud.", IV, iii, 8).

The prominence of Solomon at the dedication of the Temple need not lead to the conclusion that the king officiated also as priest on the occasion. Smith ("Ency. Bib.", s. v. Priest ) maintains this, and that the kings of Juda offered sacrifice down to the Exile, alleging in proof such passages as 1 Kings 9:25 ; but since priests are mentioned in this same book, for instance, 8:10-11 , such inference is not reasonable. As Van Hoonacker shows, the prominence of the secular power in the early history of the people and the apparent absence of even the high-priest during the most sacred functions, as well as the great authority possessed by him after the Exile, do not warrant the conclusion of Wellhausen that the high-priesthood was known only in post-Exilic times. That such a change could have taken place and could have been introduced into the life of the nation and so easily accepted as a Divine institution is hardly probable. We have, however, undoubted references to the high-priest in pre-Exilic texts ( 2 Kings 11 ; 12 ; 16:10 ; 22 ; 23 ; etc.) which Buhl ("The New Schaff-Herzog Ency. of Religious Knowledge", s. v. High Priest ) admits as genuine, not interpolations, as some think, by which the "later office may have had a historic foreshadowing". We see in them proofs of the existence of the high-priesthood, not merely its "foreshadowing". Then too the title "the second priest " in Jer., lii, 24, where the high-priest also is mentioned, is a twofold witness to the same truth ; so that though, as Josephus tells us (Ant., XX, x), in the latter years of the nation's history "the high-priests were entrusted with a dominion over the nation" and thus became, as in the days of the sacerdotal Machabees, more conspicuous than in early times, yet this was only an accidental lustre added to an ancient and sacred office.

In the New Testament ( Matthew 2:4 ; Mark 14:1 , etc.) where reference is made to chief priests, some think that these all had been high-priests, who having been deposed constituted a distinct class and had great influence in the Sanhedrin. It is clear from John, xviii, 13, that Annas, even when deprived of the pontificate, took a leading part in the deliberations of that tribunal. Schürer holds that the chief priests in the New Testament were ex-high-priests and also those who sat in the council as members and representatives of the privileged families from whom the high-priests were chosen (The Jewish People, Div. II, V. i, 204-7), and Maldonatus, in Matt., ii, 6, cites II Par., xxxvi, 14, showing that those who sat in the Sanhedrin as heads of priestly families were so styled.

The high-priest alone might enter the Holy of Holies on the day of atonement, and even he but once a year, to sprinkle the blood of the sin-offering and offer incense : he prayed and sacrificed for himself as well as for the people ( Leviticus 16 ). He likewise officiated "on the seventh days and new moons" and annual festivals (Jos., "Bell. Jud.", V, v, 7). He might marry only a virgin "of his own people", though other priests were allowed to marry a widow ; neither was it lawful for him to rend his garments nor to come near the dead even if closely related (Lev., xxi, 10-14; cf. Josephus, "Ant.", III, xii, 2). It belonged to him also to manifest the Divine will made known to him by means of the urim and thummim, a method of consulting the Lord about which we have very little knowledge. Since the death of the high-priest marked an epoch in the history of Israel, the homicides were then allowed to return home from the city where they had found a refuge from vengeance ( Numbers 35:25, 28 ).

The typical character of the high-priest is explained by St. Paul ( Hebrews 9 ), where the Apostle shows that while the high-priest entered the "Holy of Holies" once a year with the blood of victims, Christ, the great high-priest, offered up His own blood and entered into Heaven itself, where He "also maketh intercession for us" ( Romans 8:34 ; see Piconio, "Trip. Expos. in Heb.", 9).

In addition to what other priests wore while exercising their sacred functions the high-priest put on special golden robes, so called from the rich material of which they were made. They are described in Ex., xxviii, and each high-priest left them to his successor. Over the tunic he put a one piece violet robe, trimmed with tassels of violet, purple, and scarlet (Joseph., III, vii, 4), between the two tassels were bells which rang as he went to and from the sanctuary. Their mitres differed from the turbans of the ordinary priests, and had in front a golden plate inscribed "Holy to the Lord" ( Exodus 28:36 ). Josephus describes the mitre as having a triple crown of gold, and adds that the plate with the name of God which Moses had written in sacred characters "hath remained to this very day" (Ant., VIII, iii, 8; III, vii, 6). In a note to Whiston's Josephus (Ant., III, vii, 6) the later history of the plate is given, but what became of it finally is not known. The precious vestments of the high-priest were kept by Herod and by the Romans, but seven days before a festival they were given back and purified before use in any sacred function (Jos., "Ant.", XVIII, iv, 3). On the day of atonement, according to Lev., xvi, 4, the high-priest wore pure linen, but Josephus says he wore his golden vestments (Bell. Jud., V, v, 7), and to reconcile the two Edersheim thinks that the rich robes were used at the beginning of the ceremony and changed for the linen vestments before the high-priest entered the Holy of Holies (The Temple, p.270). For additional information concerning the vestments and ornaments of the high-priest see EPHOD, ORACLE, PECTORAL, URIM AND THUMMIM.


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Ephesians 3:14-21
14 This, then, is what I pray, kneeling before the ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 33:1-2, 4-5, 11-12, 18-19
1 Shout for joy, you upright; praise comes well from ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 12:49-53
49 'I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 23rd, 2014 Image

St. John of Capistrano
October 23: St. John was born at Capistrano, Italy in 1385, the son of a ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter