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The word priest (Germ. Priester ; Fr. prêtre ; Ital. prete ) is derived from the Greek presbyteros (the elder, as distinguished from neoteros , the younger), and is, in the hieratical sense, equivalent to the Latin sacerdos , the Greek iereus , and the Hebrew kahane . By the term is meant a (male) person called to the immediate service of the Deity and authorized to hold public worship, especially to offer sacrifice. In many instances the priest is the religious mediator between God (gods) and man and the appointed teacher of religious truths, especially when these include esoteric doctrines. To apply the word priest to the magicians, prophets, and medicine-men of the religions of primitive peoples is a misuse of the term. The essential correlative of priesthood is sacrifice, consequently, mere leaders in the public prayers or guardians of shrines have no claim to the title priest.

Our subject may be conveniently treated under four heads: I. The Pagan Priesthood; II. The Jewish Priesthood; III. The Christian Priesthood; IV. The Blessings arising from the Catholic Priesthood.


A. Historically the oldest of pagan religions, the most fully developed, and the most deeply marked by vicissitude is that of India. Four divisions, distinct in history and nature, are recognizable: Vedism, Brahminism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Even in the ancient Vedic hymns a special priesthood is distinguishable, for although originally the father of the family was also the offerer of sacrifice, he usually sought the co-operation of a Brahmin. From the essential functions of praying and singing during the sacrifice arose in Vedism the three classes of sacrificing ( adhvariu ), singing ( udgâtar ), and praying priests ( hotar ). The four categories of soldier, priest, artisan or farmer, and slave developed formally in later Brahminism into the four rigidly distinguished castes (Dahlmann), the Brahmins meanwhile forging ahead of the soldiers to the position of chief importance. The Brahmins alone understood the intricate and difficult sacrificial ceremonial; thanks to their great knowledge and sacrifices, they exercised an irresistible influence over the gods; a pantheistic explanation of the god Brahma invested them with a divine character. The Brahmin was thus a sacred and inviolable person, and to murder him the greatest sin. Brahminism has wrongly been compared with medieval Christianity (cf. Teichmüller, "Religionsphilosophie", Leipzig, 1886, p. 528). In the Middle Ages there was indeed a priviliged priesthood, but not an hereditary priestly caste; then as now the lowest classes could attain to the highest ecclesiastical offices. Still less justified, in view of the pantheistic character of the Brahminic religion, are all attempts to trace a genetic connection between the Catholic and Indian priesthoods, since the monotheistic spirit of Catholicism and the characteristic organization of its clergy are irreconcilable with a pantheistic conception of the Deity and the unsocial temper of a caste system.

The same remarks apply with even greater force to Buddhism which, through the reform introduced by King Asoka (239-23 B.C.), forced Brahminism into the background. As this reform inaugurated the reign of Agnosticism, Illusionism, and a one-sided morality, the Brahminic priesthood, with the decay of the ancient sacrificial services, lost its raison d'être. If there be no eternal substance, no Ego, no immortal soul, no life beyond, the idea of a God, of a Redeemer, of a priesthood forthwith disappears. The Buddhist redemption is merely an ascetical self-redemption wrought by sinking into the abyss of nothingness (Nirvana). The bonzes are not priests in the strict sense; nor has Buddhist monasticism anything beyond the name in common with Christian monasticism. Modern zealots for Buddhism declare with increasing boldness since Schopenhauer, that what they chiefly desire is a religion without dogma and without an alien redeemer, a service without a priesthood. It will therefore perhaps appear all the more extraordinary that Buddhism, in consequence of the efforts of the reformer Thong-Kaba, has developed in Tibet a formal hierarchy and hierocracy in Lamaism (Lama=Brahma).

The monasticism and the religious services of Lamaism also present so striking a similarity with Catholic institutions that non-Catholic investigators have unhesitatingly spoken of a "Buddhist Catholicism " in Tibet. Pope and dalai-lama, Rome and the city of Lhasa are counterparts; Lamaism has its monasteries, bells, processions, litanies, relics, images of saints, holy water , rosary-beads, biship's mitre, crosier, vestments, copes, baptism, confession, mass, sacrifice for the dead. Nevertheless, since it is the interior spirit that gives a religion its characteristic stamp, we can recognize in these externals, not a true copy of Catholicism, but only a wretched caricature. And, since this religious compound undoubtedly came into existence only in the fourteenth century, it is evident that the remarkable parallelism is the result of Catholic influence on Lamaism, not vice versa. We can only suppose that the founder Thong-Kaba was educated by a Catholic missionary. Of modern Hinduism, Schanz draws a gloomy picture: "In addition to Vishnu and Siva, spirits and demons are worshiped and feared. The River Ganges is held in special veneration. The temples are often built near lakes because to all who bathe there Brahma promises forgiveness of sin. Beasts (cows), especially snakes, trees, and lifeless objects, serve as fetishes. Their offerings consist of flowers, oil, incense, and food. To Siva and his spouse bloody sacrifices are also offered. Nor are idolatry and prostitution wanting" ("Apologie d. Christentums", Freiburg, 1905, II, 84 sq.).

B. In the kindred but ethically superior religion of the Iranians (Parseeism, Zoroastrianism, Mazdeism), which unfortunately never overcame the theological dualism between the good god ( Ormuzd=Athura-Mazda ) and the wicked anti-god ( Ahriman=Angrô-Mainyu ), there existed from the beginning a special priestly caste, which in the Avesta was divided into six classes. The general name for priest was âthravan (man of fire), and the chief duty of the priesthood was the fire-service, fire being the special symbol of Ormuzd, the god of light. After the destruction of the Persian monarchy only two categories of priests remained: the officiating ( zoatar, jôtî ) and the ministering ( rathwi ). Both were later succeeded by the Median magicians ( magus ), called in modern Parseeism mobed (from mogh-pati , magic-father). In addition to the maintenance of the sacred fire, the duties of the priests were the offering of sacrifices (flesh, bread, flowers, fruit), the performance of purifications, prayers, and hymns, and instructing in the holy law. Sacrificial animals were placed on a bundle of twigs in the open air, lest the pure earth should be defiled with blood. The human sacrifices, customary from time immemorial, were abolished by Zoroaster (Zarathustra). In ancient times the fire-altars were placed in the open air, and preferably on the mountains, but the modern Parsees have special fire-temples. The haoma , as the oldest sacrifice, calls for particular mention; manufactured out of the narcotic juice of a certain plant and used as a drink-offering, it was identified with the Deity Himself and given to the faithful as a means of procuring immortality. This Iranian haoma is doubtlessly identical with the Indian soma , the intoxicating juice of which ( asclepias acida or sacrostemma acidum ) was supposed to restore to man the immortality lost in Paradise (see EUCHARIST). When, during the reign of the Sassanides, Mithras the sun-god -- according to the later Avesta, high-priest and mediator between god and man -- had gradually supplanted the creative god Ormuzd, Persian Mithra-worship held the field almost unopposed; and under the Roman Empire it exerted an irresistible influence on the West (see MASS).

C. To turn to classical antiquity, Greece never possessed an exclusive priestly caste, although from the Dorian-Ionian period the public priesthood was regarded as the privilege of the nobility. In Homer the kings also offer sacrifices to the gods. Public worship was in general undertaken by the State, and the priests were state officials, assigned as a rule to the service of special temples. The importance of the priesthood grew with the extension of the mysteries, which were embodied especially in the Orphic and Eleusinian cults. Sacrifices were always accompanied with prayers, for which as the expression of their religious sentiments the Greeks showed a special preference.

But among no people in the world were religion, sacrifice, and the priesthood to such an extent the business of the State as among the ancient Romans. At the dawn of their history, their legendary kings (e.g. Numa) are themselves the sacrificial priests. Under the Republic, the priestly office was open only to the patricians until the Lex Ogulina (about 300 B.C.) admitted also the plebeians. As the special object of Roman sacrifice was to avert misfortune and win the favour of the gods, divination played in it from the earliest times an important role. Hence the importance of the various classes of priests, who interpreted the will of the gods from the flight of birds or the entrails of the beasts of sacrifice ( augures, haruspices ). There were many other categories: pontifices, flamines, fetiales, luperci , etc. During imperial times the emperor was the high-priest ( pontifex maximus ).

D. According to Tacitus, the religion of the ancient Germans was a simple worship of the gods, without images; their services took place, not in temples, but in sacred groves. The priests, if one may call them such, were highly respected, and possessed judicial powers, as the Old High German word for priest, êwarte (guardians of justice ), shows. But a far greater influence among the people was exercised by the Celtic priests or druids (Old Irish, drui , magician). Their real home was Ireland and Britain, whence they were transplanted to Gaul in the third century before Christ. Here they appear as a priestly caste, exempt from taxes and military service; they constitute with the nobility the ruling class, and by their activity as teachers, judges, and physicians become the representatives of a higher religious, moral, and intellectual culture. The druids taught the existence of Divine providence, the immortality of the soul, and transmigration. They appear to have had images of the gods and to have offered human sacrifices -- the latter practice may have come down from a much earlier period. Their religious services were usually held on heights and in oak-groves. After the conquest of Gaul the druids declined in popular esteem.

E. The oldest religion of the Chinese is Sinism, which may be characterized as "the most perfect, spiritualistic, and moral Monotheism known to antiquity outside of Judea " (Schanz). It possessed no distinct priesthood, the sacrifices (animals, fruits, and incense ) being offered by state officials in the name of the ruler. In this respect no alteration was made by the reformer Confucius (sixth century B.C.), although he debased the concept of religion and made the almost deified emperor "the Son of Heaven " and the organ of the cosmic intellect. In direct contrast to this priestless system Laotse (b. 604 B.C.), the founder of Taoism ( tao , reason ), introduced both monasticism and a regular priesthood with a high-priest at its head. From the first century before Christ, these two religions found a strong rival in Buddhism, although Confucianism remains even today the official religion of China.

The original national religion of the Japanese was Shintoism, a strange compound of nature-, ancestor-, and hero-worship. It is a religion without dogmas, without a moral code, without sacred writings. The Mikado is a son of the Deity, and as such also high-priest; his palace is the temple -- it was only in much later times that the Temple of Ise was built. About A.D. 280 Confucianism made its way into Japan from China, and tried to coalesce with the kindred Shintoism. The greatest blow to Shintoism, however, was struck by Buddhism, which entered Japan in A.D. 552, and, by an extraordinary process of amalgamation, united with the old national religion to form a third. This fusion is known as Rio-bu-Shinto. In the Revolution of 1868, this composite religion was set aside, and pure Shintoism declared the religion of the State. In 1877 the law establishing this situation was repealed, and in 1889 general religious freedom was granted. The various orders of rank among priests had been abolished in 1879.

F. With the ancient religion of the Egyptians the idea of the priesthood was inseparably bound up for many thousand years. Though the ruler for the time being was nominally the only priest, there had developed even in the ancient kingdom (from about 3400 B.C.) a special priestly caste, which in the middle kingdom (from about 2000 B.C.), and still more in the late kingdom (from about 1090 B.C.), became the ruling class. The great attempt at reform by King Amenhotep IV (died 1374 B.C.), who tried to banish all gods except the sun-god from the Egyptian religion and to make sun-worship the religion of the State, was thwarted by the opposition of the priests. The whole twenty-first dynasty was a family of priest-kings. Although Moses, learned as he was in the wisdom of the Egyptians, may have been indebted to an Egyptian model for one or two external features in his organization of Divine worship, he was, thanks to the Divine inspiration , entirely original in the establishment of the Jewish priesthood, which is based on the unique idea of Jahweh's covenant with the Chosen People (cf. "Realencyklopädie für protest. Theologie", XVI, Leipzig, 1905, 33). Still less warranted is the attempt of some writers on the comparative history of religions to trace the origin of the Catholic priesthood to the Egyptian priestly castes. For at the very time when this borrowing might have taken place, Egyptian idolatry had degenerated into such loathsome animal-worship, that not only the Christians, but the pagans themselves turned away from it in disgust (cf. Aristides, "Apol.", xii; Clement of Alexandria , "Cohortatio", ii).

G. In the religion of the Semites, we meet first the Babylonian-Assyrian priests, who, under the name "Chaldeans", practiced the interpretation of dreams and the reading of the stars and conducted special schools for priests, besides performing their functions in connection with the sacrifices. Hence their division into various classes: sacrificers ( nisakku ), seers ( bârû ), exorcist ( asipu ) etc. Glorious temples with idols of human and hybrid form arose in Assyria, and (apart from the obligatory cult of the stars) served for astrological and astronomical purposes. Among the Syrians the cruel, voluptuous cult of Moloch and Astarte found its special home, Astarte especially (Babylonian, Ishtar) being known to the ancients simply as the "Syrian Goddess" ( Dea Syria ). Likewise among the semitized Phoenicians, Amonites, and Philistines these ominous deities found special veneration. Howling and dancing priests sought to appease the bloodthirsty Moloch by sacrifices of children and self-mutilation, as the analogous Galh strove to pacify the Phrygian goddess Cybele. The notorious priests of Baal of the Chanaanites were for the Jews as strong an incentive to idolatry as the cult of Astarte was a temptation to immorality. The south-Semitic religion of the ancient pagan Arabians was a plain religion of the desert without a distinct priesthood: modern Islam or Mohammedanism has a clergy (muezzin, announcer of the hours of prayer ; imâm, leader of the prayers ; khâtib , preacher), but no real priesthood. The west-Semitic branch of the Hebrews is treated in the next section.


In the age of the Patriarchs the offering of sacrifices was the function of the father or head of the family (cf. Genesis 8:20 ; 12:7 , etc.; Job 1:5 ). But, even before Moses, there were also regular priests, who were not fathers of family (cf. Exodus 19:22 sqq. ). Hummelauer's hypothesis "Das vormosaische Priestertum in Israel", Freiburg, 1899) that this pre-Mosaic priesthood was established by God Himself and made hereditary in the family of Manasses, but was subsequently abolished in punishment of the worship of the golden calf (cf. Exodus 32:26 sqq. ), can hardly be scientifically established (cf. Rev. bibl. internat., 1899, pp. 470 sqq.). In the Mosaic priesthood we must distinguish: priests, Levites, and high-priest.

A. Priests

It was only after the Sinaitical legislation that the Israelitic priesthood became a special class in the community. From the tribe of Levi Jahweh chose the house of Aaron to discharge permanently and exclusively all the religious functions; Aaron himself and later the first-born of his family was to stand at the head of this priesthood as high-priest, while the other Levites were to act, not as priests, but as assistants and servants. The solemn consecration of the Aaronites to the priesthood took place at the same time as the anointing of Aaron as high-priest and with almost the same ceremonial ( Exodus 29:1-37 ; 40:12 sqq. ; Leviticus 8:1-36 ). This single consecration included that of all the future descendants of the priests, so that the priesthood was fixed in the house of Aaron by mere descent, and was thus hereditary. After the Babylonian Exile strict genealogical proof of priestly descent was even more rigidly demanded, and any failure to furnish the same meant exclusion from the priesthood ( Ezra 2:61 sq. ; Nehemiah 7:63 sq. ). Certain bodily defects, of which the later Talmudists mention 142, were also a disqualification from the exercise of the priestly office ( Leviticus 21:17 sqq. ). Age limits (twenty and fifty years) were also appointed ( 2 Chronicles 31:17 ); the priests were forbidden to take to wife a harlot or a divorced woman ( Leviticus 21:7 ); during the active discharge of the priesthood, marital intercourse was forbidden. In addition to an unblemished earlier life, levitical cleanness was also indispensable for the priesthood. Whoever performed a priestly function in levitical uncleanness was to be expelled like one who entered the sanctuary after partaking of wine or other intoxicating drinks ( Leviticus 10:9 ; 22:3 ). To incur an uncleanness "at the death of his citizens", except in the case of immediate kin, was rigidly forbidden ( Leviticus 21:1 sqq. ). In cases of mourning no outward signs of sorrow might be shown (e.g. by rending the garments). On entering into their office, the priests had first to take a bath of purification ( Exodus 29:4 ; 40:12 ), be sprinkled with oil ( Exodus 29:21 ; Leviticus 8:30 ), and put on the vestments.

The priestly vestments consisted of breeches, tunic, girdle, and mitre. The breeches ( feminalia linea ) covered from the reins to the thighs ( Exodus 28:42 ). The tunic ( tunica ) was a kind of coat, woven in a special manner from one piece; it had narrow sleeves, extended from the throat to the ankles, and was brought together at the throat with bands ( Exodus 28:4 ). The girdle ( balteus ) was three or four fingers in breadth and (according to rabbinic tradition) thirty-two ells long; it had to be embroidered after the same pattern and to be of the same colour as the curtain of the forecourt and the tabernacle of the covenant ( Exodus 39:38 ). The official vestments were completed by the mitre ( Exodus 39:26 ), a species of cap of fine linen. As nothing is said of foot-covering, the priests must have performed the services barefooted as Jewish tradition indeed declares (cf. Exodus 3:5 ). These vestments were prescribed for use only during the services; at other times they were kept in an appointed place in charge of a special custodian. For detailed information concerning the priestly vestments, see Josephus, "Antiq.", III, vii, 1 sqq.

The official duties of the priests related partly to their main occupations, and partly to subsidiary services. To the former category belonged all functions connected with the public worship, e.g. the offering of incense twice daily ( Exodus 30:7 ), the weekly renewal of the loaves of proposition on the golden table ( Leviticus 24:9 ), the cleaning and filling of the oil-lamps on the golden candlestick (lev., xxiv, 1). All these services were performed in the sanctuary. There were in addition certain functions to be performed in the outer court -- the maintenance of the sacred fire on the altar for burnt sacrifices ( Leviticus 6:9 sqq. ), the daily offering of the morning and evening sacrifices, especially of the lambs ( Exodus 29:38 sqq. ). As subsidiary services the priests had to present the cursed water to wives suspected of adultery ( Numbers 5:12 sqq. ), sound the trumpets announcing the holy-days ( Numbers 10:1 sqq. ), declare the lepers clean or unclean ( Leviticus 13 - 14 ; Deuteronomy 24:8 ; cf. Matthew 8:4 ), dispense from vows, appraise all objects vowed to the sanctuary (Lev., xxvii), and finally offer sacrifice for those who broke the law of the Nazarites, i.e. a vow to avoid all intoxicating drinks and every uncleanness (especially from contact with a corpse) and to let one's hair grow long ( Numbers 6:1-21 ). The priests furthermore were teachers and judges; not only were they to explain the law to the people ( Leviticus 10:11 ; Deuteronomy 33:10 ) without remuneration ( Micah 3:11 ) and to preserve carefully the Book of the Law, of which a copy was to be presented to the (future) king ( Deuteronomy 17:18 ), but they had also to settle difficult lawsuits among the people ( Deuteronomy 17:8 ; 19:17 ; 21:5 ). In view of the complex nature of the liturgical service, David later divided the priesthood into twenty-four classes or courses, of which each in turn, with its eldest member at its head, had to perform the service from one Sabbath to the next ( 2 Kings 11:9 ; cf. Luke 1:8 ). The order of the classes was determined by lot ( 1 Chronicles 24:7 sqq. ).

The income of the priests was derived from the tithes and the firstlings of fruits and animals. To these were added as accidentals the remains of the food, and guilt-oblations, which were not entirely consumed by fire; also the hides of the animals sacrificed and the natural products and money vowed to God ( Leviticus 27 ; Numbers 8:14 ). With all these perquisites, the Jewish priests seem never to have been a wealthy class, owing partly to the increase in their numbers and partly to the large families which they reared. But their exalted office, their superior education, and their social position secured them great prestige among the people. In general, they fulfilled their high position worthily, even though they frequently merited the stern reproof of the Prophets (cf. Jeremiah 5:31 ; Ezekiel 22:26 ; Hosea 6:9 ; Micah 3:11 ; Malachi 1:7 ). With the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in A.D. 70 the entire sacrificial service and with it the Jewish priesthood ceased. The later rabbis never represent themselves as priests, but merely as teachers of the law.

B. Levites in the Narrow Sense

It has been said above that the real priesthood was hereditary in the house of Aaron alone, and that to the other descendants of Levi was assigned a subordinate position as servants and assistants of the priests. The latter are the Levites in the narrow sense. They were divided into the families of the Gersonites, Caathites, and Merarites ( Exodus 6:16 ; Numbers 26:57 ), so named after Levi's three sons, Gerson, Caath, and Merari (cf. Genesis 46:11 ; 1 Chronicles 6:1 ). As simple servants of the priests, the Levites might not enter the sanctuary, nor perform the real sacrificial act, especially the sprinkling of the blood ( aspersio sanguinis ). This was the privilege of the priests ( Numbers 18:3, 19 sqq. ; 18:6 ). The Levites had however to assist the latter during the sacred services, prepare the different oblations and keep the sacred vessels in proper condition. Among their chief duties was the constant guarding of the tabernacle with the ark of the covenant ; the Gersonites were encamped towards the west, the Caathites towards the south, the Merarites towards the north, while Moses and Aaron with their sons guarded the holy tabernacle towards the east ( Numbers 3:23 sqq. ). When the tabernacle had found a fixed home in Jerusalem, David created four classes of Levites : servants of the priests, officials and judges, porters, and finally musicians and singers ( 1 Chronicles 23:3 sqq. ). After the building of the Temple by Solomon the Levites naturally became its guardians ( 1 Chronicles 26:12 sqq. ). When the Temple was rebuilt Levites were established as guards in twenty-one places around (Talmud; Middoth, I, i). In common with the priests, the Levites were also bound to instruct the people in the Law ( 2 Chronicles 17:8 ; Nehemiah 8:7 ), and they even possessed at times certain judicial powers ( 2 Chronicles 19:11 ).

They were initiated into office by a rite of consecration : sprinkling with the water of purification, shaving of the hair, washing of the garments, offering of sacrifices, imposition of the hands of the eldest ( Numbers 8:5 sqq. ). As to the age of service, thirty years was fixed for the time of entrance and fifty for retirement from office ( Numbers 4:3 ; 1 Chronicles 23:24 ; Ezra 3:8 ). No special vestments were prescribed for them in the Law; in the time of David and Solomon the bearers of the ark of the covenant and the singers wore garments of fine linen ( 1 Chronicles 15:27 ; 2 Chronicles 5:12 ). At the division of the Promised Land among the Twelve Tribes, the tribe of Levi was left without territory, since the Lord Himself was to be their portion and inheritance (cf. Numbers 18:20 ; Deuteronomy 12:12 ; Joshua 13:14 ). In compensation, Jahweh ceded to the Levites and priests the gifts of natural products made by the people, and other revenues. The Levites first received the tithes of fruits and beasts of the field ( Leviticus 27:30 sqq. ; Numbers 18:20 sq. ), of which they had in turn to deliver the tenth part to the priests ( Numbers 18:26 sqq. ). In addition, they had a share in the sacrificial banquets ( Deuteronomy 12:18 ) and were, like the priests, exempt from taxes and military service. The question of residence was settled by ordering the tribes endowed with landed property to cede to the Levites forty-eight Levite towns, scattered over the land, with their precincts ( Numbers 35:1 sqq. ); of these, thirteen were assigned to the priests. After the division of the monarchy into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Juda, many Levites from the northern portion removed to the Kingdom of Juda, which remained true to the Law, and took up their abode in Jerusalem. After the Northern Kingdom had been chastised by the Assyrian deportation in 722 B.C., the Southern Kingdom was also overthrown by the Babylonians in 606 B.C., and numbers of the Jews, including many Levites, were hurried away into the "Babylonian exile". Only a few Levites returned to their old home under Esdras in 450 (cf. Ezra 2:40 sqq. ). With the destruction of the Herodian Temple in A.D. 70 the doom of the Levites was sealed.

C. The High-priest

At Jahweh's command Moses consecrated his brother Aaron first high-priest, repeated the consecration on seven days, and on the eighth day solemnly introduced him into the tabernacle of the covenant. The consecration of Aaron consisted in washings, investment with costly vestments, anointing with holy oil, and the offerings of various sacrifices ( Exodus 29 ). As a sign that Aaron was endowed with the fullness of the priesthood, Moses poured over his head the oil of anointing ( Leviticus 8:12 ), while the other Aaronites, as simple priests, had only their hands anointed ( Exodus 29:7, 29 ). The high-priest was for the Jews the highest embodiment of theocracy, the monarch of the whole priesthood, the special mediator between God and the People of the Covenant, and the spiritual head of the synagogue. He was the priest par excellence , the "great priest " (Greek, archiereus ), the "prince among the priests ", and, because of the anointing of his head, the "anointed priest ". To this exalted office corresponded his special and costly vestments, worn in addition to those of the simple priests ( Exodus 28 ). A (probably sleeveless) purple-blue upper garment ( tunica ) fell to his knees, the lower seam being ornamented alternately with small golden bells and pomegranates of coloured thread. About the shoulders he also wore a garment called the ephod ; this was made of costly material, and consisted of two portions about an ell long, which covered the back and breast, were held together above by two shoulderbands or epaulets, and terminated below with a magnificent girdle. Attached to the ephod in front was the shield ( rationale ), a square bag bearing on the outside the names of the twelve tribes engraved on precious stones ( Exodus 28:6 ), and containing within the celebrated Urim and Thummim as the means of obtaining Divine oracles and prophecies. The vestments of the high-priest were completed by a precious turban (tiara), bearing on a golden frontal plate the inscription: "Sacred to Jahweh".

The high-priest had supreme supervision of the Ark of the Covenant (and of the Temple ), of Divine service in general and of the whole personnel connected with public worship. He presided at the Sanhedrin. He alone could perform the liturgy on the Feast of Expiation, on which occasion he put on his costly vestments only after the sacrifices were completed. He alone might offer sacrifice for his own sins and those of the people ( Leviticus 4:5 ), enter the holy of holies ( sanctum sanctorum ), and seek counsel of Jahweh on important occasions. The office of high-priest in the house of Aaron was at first hereditary in the line of his first-born son Eleazar, but in the period from Heli to Abiathar (1131 to 973 B.C.) it belonged, by right of primogeniture, to the line of Ithamar. Under the rule of the Seleucidæ (from about 175 B.C.) the office was sold for money to the highest bidder. At a later period it became hereditary in the family of the Hasmon. With the destruction of the central sanctuary by the Romans, the high-priesthood disappeared.

Against the foregoing account of the Mosaic priesthood, based on the Old Testament, the negative biblical critics of today make a determined stand. According to the hypothesis of Graf-Wellhausen, Moses (about 1250 B.C.) cannot be the author of the Pentateuch. He was not the Divinely appointed legislator, but simply the founder of Monolatry, for ethical Monotheism resulted from the efforts of much later Prophets. Deuteronomy D made its appearance in substance in 621 B.C., when the astute high-priest Helkias by a pious fraud palmed off on the god-fearing King Josias the recently composed "Book of the Laws" D as written by Moses (cf. 2 Kings 22:1 sqq. ) When Esdras returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Exile about 450 B.C., he brought back the "Book of the Rutual" or the priest's codex P, i.e., the middle portions between Genesis and Deuteronomy, composed by himself and his school in Babylon, although it was only in 444 B.C. that he dared to make it public. A clever editor now introduced the portions relating to public worship into the old, pre-Exilic historical books, and the entirely new idea of an Aaronic priesthood and of the centralization of the cult was projected back to the time of Moses. The story of the tabernacle of the covenant is thus a mere fiction, devised to represent the Temple at Jerusalem as established in fully developed form at the dawn of Israelitic history and to justify the unity of worship. Although this hypothesis does not contest the great antiquity of the Jewish priesthood, it maintains that the centralization of the cult, the essential difference between priests and Levites, the supreme authority of the priests of the Temple at Jerusalem as compared with the so-called hill-priests (cf. Ezekiel 44:4 sqq. ), must be referred to post-Exilic times.

Without entering upon a detailed criticism of these assertions of Wellhausen and the critical school (see PENTATEUCH), we may here remark in general that the conservative school also admits or can admit that only the original portion of the Pentateuch is to be accepted as Mosaic, that in the same text many repetitions seem to have been brought together from different sources, and finally that additions, extensions, and adaptations to new conditions by an inspired author of a later period are by no means excluded. It must also be admitted that, though one place of worship was appointed, sacrifices were offered even in early times by laymen and simple Levites away from the vicinity of the Ark of the Covenant, and that in restless and politically disturbed epochs the ordinance of Moses could not always be observed. In the gloomy periods marked by neglect of the Law, no attention was paid to the prohibition of hill-sacrifices, and the Prophets were often gratified to find that on the high places ( bamoth ) sacrifice was offered, not to pagan gods, but to Jahweh. However, the Pentateuch problem is one of the most difficult and intricate questions in Biblical criticism. The Wellhausen hypothesis with its bold assumptions of pious deceits and artificial projections is open to as great, if not greater, difficulties and mysteries as the traditional view, even though some of its contributions to literary criticism may stand examination. It cannot be denied that the critical structure has suffered a severe shock since the discovery of the Tell-el-Amarna letters dating from the fifteenth century B.C., and since the deciphering of the Hammurabi Code. The assumption that the oldest religion of Israel must have been identical with that of the primitive Semites (Polydæ monism, Animism, Fetishism, Ancestor-worship) has been proved false, since long before 2000 B.C. a kind of Henotheism, i.e., Polytheism with a monarchical head was the ruling religion in Babylon. The beginnings of the religions of all peoples are purer and more spiritual than many historians of religions have hitherto been willing to admit. One thing is certain: the final word has not yet been spoken as to the value of the Wellhausen hypothesis.


In the New Testament bishops and priests are, according to Catholic teaching, the sole bearers of the priesthood, the former enjoying the fullness of the priesthood ( summus sacerdos s. primi ordinis ), while the presbyters are simple priests ( simplex sacerdos s. secundi ordinis ). The deacon, on the other hand, is a mere attendant of the priest, with no priestly powers. Omitting all special treatment of the bishop and the deacon, we here confine our attention primarily to the presbyterate, since the term " priest " without qualification is now taken to signify the presbyter.

A. The Divine Institution of the Priesthood

According to the Protestant view, there was in the primitive Christian Church no essential distinction between laity and clergy, no hierarchical differentiation of the orders ( bishop, priest, deacon ), no recognition of pope and bishops as the possessors of the highest power of jurisdiction over the Universal Church or over its several territorial divisions. On the contrary, the Church had at first a democratic constitution, in virtue of which the local churches selected their own heads and ministers, and imparted to these their inherent spiritual authority, just as in the modern republic the "sovereign people" confers upon its elected president and his officials administrative authority. The deeper foundation for this transmission of power is to be sought in the primitive Christian idea of the universal priesthood, which excludes the recognition of a special priesthood. Christ is the sole high-priest of the New Testament, just as His bloody death on the Cross is the sole sacrifice of Christianity. If all Christians without exception are

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