The principal one who represented the people before God. He was also charged with supervision of all the other priests.
The Bible uses various terms to designate the high priest, namely, “the high [literally, great] priest” (Nu 35:25, 28; Jos 20:6, ftn), “the priest, the anointed one” (Le 4:3), “the chief [or, high; literally, head] priest” (2Ch 26:20, ftn; 2Ki 25:18, ftn), “the head” (2Ch 24:6), or simply, “the priest” (2Ch 26:17). In the latter case the context often makes clear that the high priest is meant. In the Christian Greek Scriptures, “chief priests” is evidently used to denote the principal men of the priesthood. This included any ex-high priests who had been deposed and possibly the adult men of the high priests’ families and the heads of the 24 priestly divisions.—Mt 2:4; Mr 8:31.
The appointment of Aaron, Israel’s first high priest, was from God. (Heb 5:4) The high priesthood of Israel was inaugurated in Aaron and passed down from father to oldest son, unless that son died or was disqualified, as in the case of Aaron’s two oldest sons, who sinned against Jehovah and died. (Le 10:1, 2) King Solomon deposed a high priest in fulfillment of divine prophecy and put another qualified man of the line of Aaron in his place. (1Ki 2:26, 27, 35) Later on, when the nation was under Gentile rule, those Gentile rulers removed and appointed high priests according to their will. It seems, nonetheless, that the line of Aaron was quite well adhered to throughout the entire history of the nation down till Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 C.E., although there may have been exceptions, such as Menelaus, also called Onias (Jewish Antiquities, XII, 238, 239 [v, 1]), whom 2 Maccabees 3:4, 5 and 4:23 indicates was a Benjamite.
Qualifications and Requirements for Office. In harmony with the dignity of the office, the high priest’s closeness to Jehovah in representing the nation before Him, and also the typical significance of the office, the requirements were rigid.
A list of disqualifying physical blemishes for all priests is set forth at Leviticus 21:16-23. Additional restrictions were placed on the high priest: He was to marry none other than a virgin of Israel; he was not to marry a widow. (Le 21:13-15) Furthermore, he was not allowed to defile himself for the dead, that is, he could not touch any human corpse, even that of his father or his mother, because that would make him unclean. He was neither to let his hair go ungroomed nor tear his garments for the dead.—Le 21:10-12.
The Bible does not specifically state the age of eligibility for high priest. While it gives a retirement age of 50 years for Levites, it does not mention any retirement for priests, and its record indicates that the high priest’s appointment was for his lifetime. (Nu 8:24, 25) Aaron was 83 years old when he went with Moses before Pharaoh. His anointing as high priest apparently took place in the following year. (Ex 7:7) He was 123 years of age at the time of his death. During all this time he served, with no retirement. (Nu 20:28; 33:39) The provision of the cities of refuge takes note of the lifetime tenure of the high priest, in requiring that the unintentional manslayer remain in the city until the death of the high priest.—Nu 35:25.
Installation. Some indication of the office Jehovah had in mind for Aaron is seen in privileges given him soon after the Exodus from Egypt. In the wilderness on the way to Sinai, Aaron was the one commanded to take a jar of manna and to deposit it before the Testimony as something to be kept. This was before the tent of meeting or the ark of the covenant was yet in existence. (Ex 16:33, 34, ftn) Later, Aaron came to be the one in full charge of the sacred tent and its Ark. Aaron and two of his sons, with 70 of the older men of Israel, were specifically named as privileged to go partway up Mount Horeb, where they saw a vision of God.—Ex 24:1-11.
But Jehovah made his first actual statement of his purpose to separate Aaron and his sons for the priesthood when giving Moses instructions for making the priestly garments. (Ex 28) After these instructions were given, God outlined to Moses the procedure for installing the priesthood and then definitely made it known: “The priesthood must become theirs as a statute to time indefinite.”—Ex 29:9.
In keeping with Jehovah’s majesty and cleanness, Aaron and his sons could not perform priestly duties until they were sanctified and empowered by the installation service. (Ex 29) Moses, as mediator of the Law covenant, performed the installation. A sanctification ceremony, occupying the seven days of Nisan 1 to 7, 1512 B.C.E., saw the priesthood fully installed, their hands filled with power to act as priests. (Le 8) The next day, Nisan 8, an initial atonement service was performed for the nation (very much like the regular Day of Atonement services that were decreed to be celebrated annually on Tishri 10; this first performance of the priesthood is described in Leviticus 9). It was appropriate and necessary, for the people of Israel were in need of cleansing from their sins, including their recent transgression in connection with the golden calf.—Ex 32.
In installing the high priest, one of the significant acts Moses had to perform was the anointing of Aaron by pouring upon Aaron’s head the sacred anointing oil specially compounded according to God’s directions. (Le 8:1, 2, 12; Ex 30:22-25, 30-33; Ps 133:2) The later high priests, successors of Aaron, are spoken of as “anointed.” While the Bible does not record an instance of their actual anointing with literal oil, it does set forth this law: “And the holy garments that are Aaron’s will serve for his sons after him to anoint them in them and to fill their hand with power in them. Seven days the priest who succeeds him from among his sons and who comes into the tent of meeting to minister in the holy place will wear them.”—Ex 29:29, 30.
Garments of Office. Besides wearing linen garments similar to those of the underpriests in his usual activities, the high priest wore special garments of glory and beauty on certain occasions. Exodus chapters 28 and 39 describe both the design and the making of these garments under the direction of Moses as commanded by God. The innermost garment (except for the linen drawers reaching “from the hips and to the thighs,” worn by all the priests “to cover the naked flesh”; Ex 28:42) was the robe (Heb., kut·toʹneth), made of fine (probably white) linen of checkerwork weave. This robe apparently had long sleeves and reached down to the ankles. It was likely woven in one piece. A sash of fine twisted linen woven with blue, reddish purple, and coccus scarlet thread went around the body, probably above the waist.—Ex 28:39; 39:29.
The turban, evidently different from the headdress of the underpriests, was also of fine linen. (Ex 28:39) Fastened to the forefront of the turban was a shining plate of pure gold with the words “Holiness belongs to Jehovah” engraved on it. (Ex 28:36) This plate was called “the holy sign of dedication.”—Ex 29:6; 39:30.
Over the linen robe was the blue sleeveless coat (Heb., meʽilʹ). It was also probably woven in one piece, with a strong border around the opening at the top to prevent tearing. The blue sleeveless coat was put on by slipping it over the head. This garment was shorter than the linen robe, and around its bottom hem were alternate golden bells and pomegranates made of blue, reddish-purple, and scarlet thread. The bells would be heard as the high priest went about his work in the sanctuary.—Ex 28:31-35.
The ephod, an apronlike garment made with front and back parts and reaching a short distance below the waist, was worn by all the priests and sometimes by persons not in the priesthood. (1Sa 2:18; 2Sa 6:14) But the ephod of the high priests’ apparel of beauty was of special embroidered work. It was of fine twisted linen with wool dyed reddish purple, coccus scarlet material, and gold thread made from gold beaten into thin plates, then cut into threads. (Ex 39:2, 3) Shoulder pieces possibly extended down on each side from the shoulders to the girdle. On top of the shoulder pieces were two gold settings, each with an onyx stone, and each stone having engraved on it six of the names of the sons of Israel (Jacob) in order of their birth. A girdle of the same material bound the ephod around the waist, the girdle being “upon” the ephod, possibly being fastened to the ephod as a part of it.—Ex 28:6-14.
The breastpiece of judgment was undoubtedly the most costly and glorious part of the high priest’s dress. It was made of the same material as the ephod, was rectangular in shape, the length being twice the width, but was doubled so that it formed a square about 22 cm (9 in.) on a side. The doubling made a sort of pocket or pouch. (See BREASTPIECE.) The breastpiece was adorned with 12 precious stones set in gold, each engraved with the name of one of the sons of Israel. These stones, of ruby, topaz, emerald, and other gems, were arranged in four rows. Two chains of gold, wreathed in a ropework pattern, were made on the breastpiece, and rings of gold were set in the corners; the top rings were fastened to the ephod’s shoulder pieces by the gold chains. The two bottom rings were attached with blue strings to the shoulder pieces of the ephod, just above the girdle.—Ex 28:15-28.
The Urim and the Thummim were put by Moses “in the breastpiece.” (Le 8:8) It is not known just what the Urim and the Thummim were. Some scholars consider them to have been lots that were cast or drawn from the breastpiece, by Jehovah’s direction, giving, basically, a “yes” or “no” answer to a question. If so, they may have been placed in the “pouch” of the breastpiece. (Ex 28:30, AT; Mo) This is perhaps indicated in the text at 1 Samuel 14:41, 42. Yet others hold that the Urim and Thummim had to do with the stones in the breastpiece in some way, but this view seems less likely. Other references to the Urim and the Thummim are found at Numbers 27:21; Deuteronomy 33:8; 1 Samuel 28:6; Ezra 2:63; and Nehemiah 7:65.—See URIM AND THUMMIM.
These beautiful garments were worn by the high priest when he approached Jehovah with an inquiry on an important matter. (Nu 27:21; Jg 1:1; 20:18, 27, 28) Also, on the Day of Atonement, after the sin offerings were completed, he changed from the white linen garments to his garments of glory and beauty. (Le 16:23, 24) He apparently wore the latter on other occasions as well.
The instructions regarding Atonement Day, at Leviticus chapter 16, do not state specifically that the high priest, after putting on his glorious apparel, was to lift his hands and bless the people. However, in the record of the atonement service held on the day after the priesthood’s installation, which follows closely the Atonement Day procedure, we read: “Then Aaron raised his hands toward the people and blessed them.” (Le 9:22) Jehovah had shown what the blessing should be when he commanded Moses: “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the way you should bless the sons of Israel, saying to them: “May Jehovah bless you and keep you. May Jehovah make his face shine toward you, and may he favor you. May Jehovah lift up his face toward you and assign peace to you.”’”—Nu 6:23-27.
Responsibility and Duties. The dignity, seriousness, and responsibility of the high priest’s office is emphasized by the fact that sins on his part could bring guiltiness upon the people. (Le 4:3) The high priest alone was to go into the Most Holy compartment of the sanctuary, and only on one day of the year, the Day of Atonement. (Le 16:2) When he went into the tent of meeting on that day, no other priest was allowed in the tent. (Le 16:17) He officiated over all the Atonement Day services. He made atonement for his house and for the people on special occasions (Le 9:7) and intervened before Jehovah in behalf of the people when Jehovah’s anger blazed against them. (Nu 15:25, 26; 16:43-50) When questions of national importance arose, he was the one to approach Jehovah with Urim and Thummim. (Nu 27:21) He officiated at the slaughter and burning of the red cow, the ashes of which were used in the water for cleansing.—Nu 19:1-5, 9.
Evidently the high priest was able, as he desired, to take part in any priestly duty or ceremony. By King David’s time the priesthood had grown large in number. So that all could serve, David arranged the priests in 24 divisions. (1Ch 24:1-18) This system continued for the duration of the priesthood’s existence. However, the high priest was not restricted to certain times for service at the sanctuary, as were the underpriests, but could take part at any time. (The underpriests could assist at any time, but certain duties were reserved as the privilege of the priests of the particular division then on duty.) As was true with the underpriests, the festival seasons were the high priest’s busiest periods.
The sanctuary, its service, and treasury were under the high priest’s supervision. (2Ki 12:7-16; 22:4) In this responsibility, it appears that there was a secondary priest who was his chief assistant. (2Ki 25:18) In later times, this assistant, called the Sagan, would officiate for the high priest when for some reason the high priest was incapacitated. (The Temple, by A. Edersheim, 1874, p. 75) Eleazar, Aaron’s son, had a special oversight assigned to him.—Nu 4:16.
He and the secular rulers (Joshua, the Judges, and, under the monarchy, the king) were the high courts of the nation. (De 17:9, 12; 2Ch 19:10, 11) After the Sanhedrin was formed (in later times), the high priest presided over that body. (Some traditions say that he did not preside in every case—only as he willed.) (Mt 26:57; Ac 5:21) High Priest Eleazar participated with Joshua in dividing the land among the 12 tribes.—Jos 14:1; 21:1-3.
The high priest’s death had to be announced to the cities of refuge throughout the land; it meant the release of all persons who were confined to the boundaries of the cities of refuge for the guilt of accidental manslaughter.—Nu 35:25-29.
The High-Priestly Line. For the line of descent of the high priest and the names of those who actually served in this office, please see the accompanying chart. The Bible specifically names only a few as serving in that capacity, but it gives us genealogical records of Aaron’s line. No doubt a good number of those listed in the genealogical tables served as high priests, even though the Bible does not have occasion to relate an account of their acts nor name them definitely as holding the office. The few it actually names as such are hardly enough to fill in the lapse of time, particularly between the priesthood’s beginning in 1512 B.C.E. and Jerusalem’s destruction in 607 B.C.E. Also, often there are names passed over in the genealogical tables, so unnamed ones may also have served in the office. The chart, therefore, is not intended to give a wholly complete and accurate list but may help the reader to obtain a better picture of the high-priestly line.
Melchizedek’s Priesthood. The first priest mentioned in the Bible is Melchizedek, who was “priest of the Most High God” as well as king of Salem (Jerusalem). Abraham met this priest-king when he returned from defeating the three kings in league with Elamite King Chedorlaomer. Abraham showed he recognized the divine source of Melchizedek’s authority by giving him a tenth of the fruits of his victory and by receiving Melchizedek’s blessing. The Bible does not give the record of Melchizedek’s ancestry, his birth, or his death. He had no predecessors or successors.—Ge 14:17-24; see MELCHIZEDEK.
The High Priesthood of Jesus Christ. The Bible book of Hebrews points out that Jesus Christ, since his resurrection and entry into heaven, is “a high priest according to the manner of Melchizedek forever.” (Heb 6:20; 7:17, 21) To describe the greatness of Christ’s priesthood and its superiority over the Aaronic priesthood, the writer shows that Melchizedek was both a king and a priest by designation of the Most High God, and not by inheritance. Christ Jesus, not of the tribe of Levi, but of Judah and of the line of David, did not inherit his office by descent from Aaron, but obtained it by direct appointment of God, as did Melchizedek. (Heb 5:10) In addition to the promise recorded at Psalm 110:4: “Jehovah has sworn (and he will feel no regret): ‘You are a priest to time indefinite according to the manner of Melchizedek!’” which appointment makes him a heavenly King-Priest, Christ also possesses Kingdom authority by reason of his descent from David. In the latter case, he becomes the heir of the kingship promised in the Davidic covenant. (2Sa 7:11-16) He therefore holds in combination the offices of kingship and priesthood, as did Melchizedek.
In another way the surpassing excellence of Christ’s high priesthood is shown, namely, in that Levi, the progenitor of the Jewish priesthood, in effect, gave tithes to Melchizedek, for Levi was still in the loins of Abraham when the patriarch gave a tenth to Salem’s priest-king. Moreover, in that sense Levi was also blessed by Melchizedek, and the rule is that the lesser is blessed by the greater. (Heb 7:4-10) The apostle also calls attention to Melchizedek’s being “fatherless, motherless, without genealogy, having neither a beginning of days nor an end of life” as being representative of the everlasting priesthood of Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected to “an indestructible life.”—Heb 7:3, 15-17.
Nevertheless, although Christ does not get his priesthood from fleshly descent through Aaron, nor does he have a predecessor or successor in his office, he fulfills the things typified by the Aaronic high priest. The apostle makes this perfectly clear when he shows that the tentlike tabernacle constructed in the wilderness was a pattern of “the true tent, which Jehovah put up, and not man” and that the Levitical priests rendered “sacred service in a typical representation and a shadow of the heavenly things.” (Heb 8:1-6; 9:11) He relates that Jesus Christ, who had, not animal sacrifices, but his own perfect body to offer, did away with the validity or need for animal sacrifices; Jesus then “passed through the heavens,” “not with the blood of goats and of young bulls, but with his own blood, once for all time into the holy place and obtained an everlasting deliverance for us.” (Heb 4:14; 9:12; 10:5, 6, 9) He went into the holy place typified by the Most Holy into which Aaron entered, namely, “heaven itself, now to appear before the person of God for us.”—Heb 9:24.
The sacrifice of Jesus as the antitypical High Priest did not need to be repeated as did those of the Aaronic priests, because his sacrifice actually removed sin. (Heb 9:13, 14, 25, 26) Moreover, in the type, or shadow, no priest of the Aaronic priesthood could live long enough to save completely or bring to complete salvation and perfection all those to whom he ministered, but Christ “is able also to save completely those who are approaching God through him, because he is always alive to plead for them.”—Heb 7:23-25.
In addition to making sacrifices, the high priest in Israel blessed the people and was their chief instructor in God’s righteous laws. The same is true of Jesus Christ. On appearing before his Father in the heavens, he “offered one sacrifice for sins perpetually and sat down at the right hand of God, from then on awaiting until his enemies should be placed as a stool for his feet.” (Heb 10:12, 13; 8:1) Therefore, “the second time that he appears it will be apart from sin and to those earnestly looking for him for their salvation.”—Heb 9:28.
Jesus Christ’s superiority as High Priest is seen in another sense also. Becoming a man of blood and flesh like his “brothers” (Heb 2:14-17), he was thoroughly tested; he suffered all manner of opposition, persecution, and finally, an ignominious death. As it is stated: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered; and after he had been made perfect he became responsible for everlasting salvation to all those obeying him.” (Heb 5:8, 9) Paul explains benefits we can receive from his being thus tested: “For in that he himself has suffered when being put to the test, he is able to come to the aid of those who are being put to the test.” (Heb 2:18) Those in need of help are assured of his merciful and sympathetic consideration. “For,” says Paul, “we have as high priest, not one who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested in all respects like ourselves, but without sin.”—Heb 4:15, 16.
Christian Underpriests. Jesus Christ is the only priest “according to the manner of Melchizedek” (Heb 7:17), but like Aaron the high priest of Israel, Jesus Christ has a body of underpriests provided for him by his Father, Jehovah. These are promised joint heirship with him in the heavens, where they will also share as associate kings in his Kingdom. (Ro 8:17) They are known as “a royal priesthood.” (1Pe 2:9) They are shown in the vision of the Bible book of Revelation singing a new song in which they say that Christ bought them with his blood and “made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God, and [that] they are to rule as kings over the earth.” (Re 5:9, 10) Later in the vision these are shown to number 144,000. They also are described as having “been bought from the earth,” as followers of the Lamb, “bought from among mankind as firstfruits to God and to the Lamb.” (Re 14:1-4; compare Jas 1:18.) In this chapter of Revelation (14), warning is given with regard to the mark of the beast, showing that avoidance of this mark “means endurance for the holy ones.” (Re 14:9-12) These 144,000 bought ones are the ones who endure faithfully, who come to life and rule as kings with Christ, and who “will be priests of God and of the Christ, and will rule as kings with him for the thousand years.” (Re 20:4, 6) Jesus’ high-priestly services bring them into this glorious position.
Beneficiaries of the Heavenly Priesthood. The vision of the New Jerusalem recorded in Revelation gives an indication of who will receive the ministrations of the great High Priest and those associated with him as heavenly underpriests. Aaron and his family, together with the priestly tribe of Levi, ministered to the people of the 12 tribes in the land of Palestine. As for the New Jerusalem, “the nations will walk by means of its light.”—Re 21:2, 22-24.
See also PRIEST.