New Testament Religious Groups
The High Priest - Priests

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The High Priest is considered the highest religious position of all those who served at the temple. Aaron, the brother of Moses, was appointed as the first one by God. They were the head of the twenty-four courses that rotated serving in Jerusalem's temple. The division into courses occurred during the reign of King David. This office, filled by those of the tribe of Levi who were descendants of Aaron, represented the people before God.

For many years after the time of Moses the office of high priest was held based on heredity. It was considered a lifelong position. The Great Sanhedrin alone had the right to appoint, or confirm their appointment. In later times, however, civil authorities appropriated the right of appointment and filled the position based on their own religious and political considerations. For example, King Herod the Great (reigned 37 to 4 B.C.) appointed at least six of them, a frequent turnover that the New Testament may have hinted at (John 11:51).

There were qualifications for becoming High Priest other than heredity. The age of eligibility for the office is not fixed in the Bible, however, according to rabbinical tradition it was twenty years old (2Chronicles 31:17). Aristobulus III however, appointed by Herod the Great, was only 17 years old when he took the office. The man considered for the office must also be married, with his wife being an Israelite maiden (Leviticus 21:13 - 14). He was expected to be superior to all others in physique, in wisdom, in dignity, and in material wealth. In fact, if the High Priest was poor it was considered the duty of others who served in the temple to contribute enough money to make him rich!

Was Melchizedek a priest?
List of Israel's High Priests
Interior design of Jerusalem's temple

The High Priest was considered the presiding officer of the Sanhedrin (supreme council of the Jews who met in Jerusalem). He was also the only one allowed to enter the Holy of Holies inside Jerusalem's temple, and that once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur - Leviticus 16). He was not permitted to come in contact with the bodies of the dead, not even of his own parents. He was not permitted, as a sign of mourning, to leave his hair disheveled, to expose it, or to rend his garments (see Leviticus 21, etc.).

Priests, in general, were responsible for the temple and its sacrifices, and thus were some of the religious and social leaders of the Jewish people. They also took care of the ritual concerns of the temple. Others of the tribe of Levi also took part in the operation and maintenance of the temple. Those who did or would soon serve in the temple lived near it.

"on the Levites devolved the Temple-police, the guard of the gates, and the duty of keeping everything about the sanctuary clean . . . at night the priests kept watch . . . half of each of the twenty-four 'courses' . . . were permanently resident in Jerusalem" (Temple at the Time of Jesus, Chapter 4)

The Gospels inform us that temple priests were instrumental in not only having Jesus arrested but also killed. Jesus knew in advance that he would suffer and be put to death by them (Matthew 16:21, Mark 8:31, Luke 9:22). They were among other leaders who challenged Jesus' authority just days before the crucifixion (Matthew 21:23, Luke 20:1 - 2). They and other religious leaders met just a few days before the Passover to plot the murder of Jesus (Matthew 26:3 - 5). It would be these same men who would soon hear Jesus' testimony after his arrest and condemned him to die (Matthew 26:57, 59, 66).

It was elders and other religious leaders who bribed Judas with 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus (Matthew 26:14 - 16). After his arrest, Jesus was taken to an assembly where many of them were gathered in order to judge him. The conclusion of the mock trial was that Jesus was (falsely) accused of blasphemy and given a death sentence by all those gathered (Mark 14:61 - 64, Matthew 26:62 - 66).

Even though most of them were against Jesus and what he taught, a great number of priests (although not the High Priest) were converted and became Christians after his resurrection (Acts 6:7).

Additional Study Materials
Why did apostle Paul curse the High Priest?
Why are there only FOUR gospels?
Who ruled over Judea during Jesus' time?
First Century Religious Groups
EldersHigh PriestSanhedrin
Essenes PhariseesScribes

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