From: Eddie Chumney
Subject: Duties of the Priesthood

                       The Temple: Its Ministry and Services
                                    Alfred Edersheim

                                         Chapter 4
                               The Officiating Priesthood

     'And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering
     oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away
     sins.'--Hebrews 10:11

The Priesthood

Among the most interesting glimpses of early life in the church is
that afforded by a small piece of rapidly-drawn scenery which presents
to our view 'a great company of the priests,' 'obedient to the faith'
(Acts 6:7). We seem to be carried back in imagination to the time when
Levi remained faithful amidst the general spiritual defection (Exo
32:26), and then through the long vista of devout ministering priests
to reach the fulfilment of this saying of Malachi--part admonition,
and part prophecy: 'For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and
they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the
Lord of hosts' (Mal 2:7). We can picture to ourselves how they who
ministered in holy things would at eventide, when the Temple was
deserted of its worshippers, gather to speak of the spiritual meaning
of the services, and to consider the wonderful things which had taken
place in Jerusalem, as some alleged, in fulfilment of those very types
that formed the essence of their office and ministry. 'For this thing
was not done in a corner.' The trial of Jesus, His condemnation by the
Sanhedrim, and His being delivered up to the Gentiles, must have
formed the theme of frequent and anxious discussion in the Temple.
Were not their own chief priests implicated in the matter? Did not
Judas on that fatal day rush into the Temple, and wildly cast the
'price of blood' into the 'treasury'? On the other hand, was not one
of the principal priests and a member of the priestly council, Joseph
of Arimathea, an adherent of Christ? Did not the Sanhedrist Nicodemus
adopt the same views, and even Gamaliel advise caution? Besides, in
the 'porches' of the Temple, especially in that of Solomon, 'a notable
miracle' had been done in 'that Name,' and there also its
all-prevailing power was daily proclaimed. It specially behoved the
priesthood to inquire well into the matter; and the Temple seemed the
most appropriate place for its discussion.

The Number of Priests

The number of priests to be found at all times in Jerusalem must have
been very great, and Ophel a densely inhabited quarter. According to
Jewish tradition, half of each of the twenty-four 'courses,' into
which the priesthood were divided, were permanently resident in
Jerusalem; the rest scattered over the land. It is added, that about
one half of the latter had settled in Jericho, and were in the habit
of supplying the needful support to their brethren while officiating
in Jerusalem. Of course such statements must not be taken literally,
though no doubt they are substantially correct. When a 'course' was on
duty, all its members were bound to appear in the Temple. Those who
stayed away, with such 'representatives of the people' (or 'stationary
men') as, like them, had been prevented from 'going up' to Jerusalem
in their turn, had to meet in the synagogues of their district to pray
and to fast each day of their week of service, except on the sixth,
the seventh, and the first--that is, neither on the Sabbath, nor on
the days preceding and succeeding it, as the 'joy' attaching to the
Sabbath rendered a fast immediately before or after it inappropriate.

Symbolism of the Priesthood/Mediation

It need scarcely be said, that everything connected with the
priesthood was intended to be symbolical and typical--the office
itself, its functions, even its dress and outward support. The
fundamental design of Israel itself was to be unto Jehovah 'a kingdom
of priests and an holy nation' (Exo 19:5,6). This, however, could only
be realised in 'the fulness of time.' At the very outset there was the
barrier of sin; and in order to gain admittance to the ranks of
Israel, when 'the sum of the children of Israel was taken after their
number,' every man had to give the half-shekel, which in after times
became the regular Temple contribution, as 'a ransom (covering) for
his soul unto Jehovah' (Exo 30:12,13). But even so Israel was sinful,
and could only approach Jehovah in the way which Himself opened, and
in the manner which He appointed. Direct choice and appointment by God
were the conditions alike of the priesthood, of sacrifices, feasts,
and of every detail of service. The fundamental ideas which underlay
all and connected it into a harmonious whole, were reconciliation and
mediation: the one expressed by typically atoning sacrifices, the
other by a typically intervening priesthood. Even the Hebrew term for
priest (Cohen) denotes in its root-meaning 'one who stands up for
another, and mediates in his cause.' *

     * This root-meaning (through the Arabic) of the Hebrew word for
     priest, as one intervening, explains its occasional though very
     rare application to others than priests, as, for example, to the
     sons of David (2 Sam 8:18), a mode of expression which is thus
     correctly paraphrased in 1 Chronicles 18:17: 'And the sons of
     David were at the hand of the king.'

For this purpose God chose the tribe of Levi, and out of it again the
family of Aaron, on whom He bestowed the 'priest's office as a gift'
(Num 18:7). But the whole characteristics and the functions of the
priesthood centred in the person of the high-priest. In accordance
with their Divine 'calling' (Heb 5:4) was the special and exceptional
provision made for the support of the priesthood. Its principle was
thus expressed: 'I am thy part and thine inheritance among the
children of Israel'; and its joyousness, when realised in its full
meaning and application, found vent in such words as Psalm 16:5, 6:
'Jehovah is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: Thou
maintainest my lot. The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places;
yea, I have a goodly heritage.'


But there was yet another idea to be expressed by the priesthood. The
object of reconciliation was holiness. Israel was to be 'a holy
nation'--reconciled through the 'sprinkling of blood'; brought near
to, and kept in fellowship with God by that means. The priesthood, as
the representative offerers of that blood and mediators of the people,
were also to show forth the 'holiness' of Israel. Every one knows how
this was symbolised by the gold-plate which the high-priest wore on
his forehead, and which bore the words: 'Holiness unto Jehovah.' But
though the high-priest in this, as in every other respect, was the
fullest embodiment of the functions and object of the priesthood, the
same truth was also otherwise shown forth. The bodily qualifications
required in the priesthood, the kind of defilements which would
temporarily or wholly interrupt their functions, their mode of
ordination, and even every portion, material, and colour of their
distinctive dress were all intended to express in a symbolical manner
this characteristic of holiness. In all these respects there was a
difference between Israel and the tribe of Levi; between the tribe of
Levi and the family of Aaron; and, finally, between an ordinary priest
and the high-priest, who most fully typified our Great High-priest, in
whom all these symbols have found their reality.

The Twenty-four Courses

This much it seemed necessary to state for the general understanding
of the matter. Full details belong to the exposition of the meaning
and object of the Levitical priesthood, as instituted by God, while
our present task rather is to trace its further development to what it
was at the time when Jesus was in the Temple. The first peculiarity of
post-Mosaic times which we here meet, is the arrangement of the
priesthood into 'twenty-four courses,' which undoubtedly dates from
the times of David. But Jewish tradition would make it even much
older. For, according to the Talmud, it should be traced up to Moses,
who is variously supposed to have arranged the sons of Aaron into
either or else sixteen courses (four, or else eight, of Eleazar; and
the other four, or else eight, of Ithamar), to which, on the one
supposition, Samuel and David each added other eight 'courses,' or, on
the other, Samuel and David, in conjunction, the eight needed to make
up the twenty-four mentioned in 1 Chronicles 24. It need scarcely be
told that, like many similar statements, this also is simply an
attempt to trace up every arrangement to the fountain-head of Jewish
history, in order to establish its absolute authority. *

     * Curiously enough, here also the analogy between Rabbinism and
     Roman Catholicism holds good. Each claims for its teaching and
     practices the so-called principle of catholicity--'semper,
     ubique, ab omnibus' ('always, everywhere, by all'), and each
     invents the most curious historical fables in support of it!

The Courses After the Captivity

The institution of David and of Solomon continued till the Babylonish
captivity. Thence, however, only four out of the twenty-four 'courses'
returned: those of Jedaiah, Immer, Pashur, and Harim (Ezra 2:36-39),
the course of 'Jedaiah' being placed first because it was of the
high-priest's family, 'of the house of Jeshua,' 'the son of Jozadak'
(Ezra 3:2; Hagg 1:1; 1 Chron 6:15). To restore the original number,
each of these four families was directed to draw five lots for those
which had not returned, so as to form once more twenty-four courses,
which were to bear the ancient names. Thus, for example, Zacharias,
the father of John the Baptist, did not really belong to the family of
Abijah (1 Chron 24:10), which had not returned from Babylon, but to
the 'course of Abia,' which had been formed out of some other family,
and only bore the ancient name (Luke 1:5). Like the priests, the
Levites had at the time of King David been arranged into twenty-four
'courses,' which were to act as 'priests' assistance' (1 Chron
23:4,28), as 'singers and musicians' (1 Chron 25:6), as 'gate-keepers
and guards' (1 Chron 26:6 and following), and as 'officers and
judges.' Of these various classes, that of the 'priests' assistants'
was by far the most numerous, * and to them the charge of the Temple
had been committed in subordination to the priests.

     * Apparently it numbered 24,000, out of a total of 38,000

It had been their duty to look after the sacred vestments and vessels;
the store-houses and their contents; and the preparation of the
shewbread, of the meat-offerings, of the spices, etc. They were also
generally to assist the priests in their work, to see to the cleaning
of the sanctuary, and to take charge of the treasuries (1 Chron

In the Temple of Herod

Of course these services, as also those of the singers and musicians,
and of the porters and guards, were retained in the Temple of Herod.
But for the employment of Levites as 'officers and judges' there was
no further room, not only because such judicial functions as still
remained to the Jews were in the hands of the Sanhedrim and its
subordinate authorities, but also because in general the ranks of the
Levites were so thinned. In point of fact, while no less than 4,289
priests had returned from Babylon, the number of Levites was under 400
(Ezra 2:40-42; Neh 7:43-45), of whom only 74 were 'priests'
assistants.' To this the next immigration, under Ezra, added only 38,
and that though the Levites had been specially searched for (Ezra
8:15,18,19). According to tradition, Ezra punished them by depriving
them of their tithes. The gap in their number was filled up by 220
Nethinim (Ezra 8:20), literally, 'given ones,' probably originally
strangers and captives, * as in all likelihood the Gibeonites had been
the first 'Nethinim' (Josh 9:21,23,27).

     * This is also confirmed by their foreign names (Ezra 2:43-58).
     The total number of Nethinim who returned from Babylon was
     612--392 with Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:58; Neh 7:60), and 220 with Ezra
     (Ezra 8:20).

Though the Nethinim, like the Levites and priests, were freed from all
taxation (Ezra 7:24), and perhaps also from military service (Jos.
Anti. iii. 12; iv. 4, 3.), the Rabbinists held them in the lowest
repute--beneath a bastard, though above a proselyte--forbade their
intermarrying with Israelites, and declared them incapable of proper
membership in the congregation.

Duties of Priests and Levites

The duties of priests and Levites in the Temple may be gathered from
Scripture, and will be further explained in the course of our
inquiries. Generally, it may here be stated that on the Levites
devolved the Temple-police, the guard of the gates, and the duty of
keeping everything about the sanctuary clean and bright. But as at
night the priests kept watch about the innermost places of the Temple,
so they also opened and closed all the inner gates, while the Levites
discharged this duty in reference to the outer gates, which led upon
the Temple Mount (or Court of the Gentiles), and to the 'Beautiful
Gate,' which formed the principal entrance into the Court of the
Women. The laws of Levitical cleanness, as explained by the Rabbis,
were most rigidly enforced upon worshippers and priests. If a leper,
or any other who was 'defiled,' had ventured into the sanctuary
itself, or any priest officiated in a state of 'uncleanness,' he
would, if discovered, be dragged out and killed, without form of
process, by 'the rebels' beating.' Minor punishments were awarded to
those guilty of smaller offences of the same kind. The Sabbath-rest
was strictly enforced, so far as consistent with the necessary duties
of the Temple service. But the latter superseded the Sabbath law (Matt
12:5) and defilement on account of death. If the time for offering a
sacrifice was not fixed, so that it might be brought on one day as
well as another, then the service did not supersede either the Sabbath
or defilement on account of death. But where the time was unalterably
fixed, there the higher duty of obedience to a direct command came in
to supersede alike the Sabbath and this one (but only this one) ground
of defilement. The same principle applied to worshippers as well as

The Week's Service

Each 'course' of priests and of Levites (as has already been stated)
came on duty for a week, from one Sabbath to another. The service of
the week was subdivided among the various families which constituted a
'course'; so that if it consisted of five 'houses of fathers,' three
served each one day, and two each two days; if of six families, five
served each one day, and one two days; if of eight families, six
served each one day, and the other two in conjunction on one day; or,
lastly, if of nine families, five served each one day, and the other
four took it two in conjunction for two days. These divisions and
arrangements were made by 'the chiefs' or 'heads of the houses of
their fathers.' On Sabbaths the whole 'course' was on duty; on
feast-days any priest might come up and join in the ministrations of
the sanctuary; and at the Feast of Tabernacles all the twenty-four
courses were bound to be present and officiate. While actually engaged
on service in the Temple, the priests were not allowed to drink wine,
either by day or by night. The other 'families' or 'houses' also of
the 'course' who were in attendance at Jerusalem, though not on actual
duty, were, during their week of ministry, prohibited the use of wine,
except at night, because they might have to be called in to assist
their brethren of the officiating 'family,' which they could not do if
they had partaken of strong drink. The law even made (a somewhat
curious) provision to secure that the priests should come up to
Jerusalem properly trimmed, washed, and attired, so as to secure the
decorum of the service.

These Functions Not Sacerdotal

It would be difficult to conceive arrangements more thoroughly or
consistently opposed to what are commonly called 'priestly
pretensions,' than those of the Old Testament. The fundamental
principle, laid down at the outset, that all Israel were 'a kingdom of
priests' (Exo 19:5,6), made the priesthood only representatives of the
people. Their income, which even under the most favourable
circumstances must have been moderate, was, as we have seen, dependent
on the varying religious state of the nation, since no law existed by
which either the payment of tithes or any other offerings could be
enforced. How little power or influence, comparatively speaking, the
priesthood wielded, is sufficiently known from Jewish history. Out of
actual service neither the priests nor even the high-priest wore a
distinctive dress (comp. Acts 23:5; see also chapter 7), and though a
number of civil restrictions were laid on priests, there were few
corresponding advantages. It is indeed true that alliances with
distinguished priestly families were eagerly sought, and that during
the troubled period of Syrian domination the high-priest for a time
held civil as well as religious rule. But the latter advantage was
dearly bought, both as regarded the priests and the nation.

Nor must we forget the powerful controlling influence which Rabbinism
exercised. Its tendency, which must never be lost sight of in the
study of the state of Palestine at the time of our Lord, was steadily
against all privileges other than those gained by traditionary
learning and theological ingenuity. The Pharisee, or, rather, the man
learned in the traditional law, was everything both before God and
before man; 'but this people, who knoweth not the law,' were 'cursed,'
plebeians, country people, unworthy of any regard or attention.
Rabbinism applied these principles even in reference to the
priesthood. It divided all priests into 'learned' and 'unlettered,'
and excluded the latter from some of the privileges of their own
order. Thus there were certain priestly dues which the people might at
will give to any priest they chose. But from some of them the
'unlettered' priests were debarred, on the ostensible ground that in
their ignorance they might have partaken of them in a state of
Levitical uncleanness, and so committed mortal sin.

Training of Priests

In general, the priests had to undergo a course of instruction, and
were examined before being allowed to officiate. Similarly, they were
subject to the ordinary tribunals, composed of men learned in the law,
without regard to their descent from one or another tribe. The
ordained 'rulers' of the synagogues, the teachers of the people, the
leaders of their devotions, and all other officials were not
necessarily 'priests,' but simply chosen for their learning and
fitness. Any one whom the 'elders' or 'rulers' deemed qualified for it
might, at their request, address to the people on the Sabbath a 'word
of exhortation.' Even the high-priest himself was answerable to the
Sanhedrim. It is distinctly stated, that 'if he committed an offence
which by the law deserved whipping, the Great Sanhedrim whipt him, and
then had him restored again to his office.' Every year a kind of
ecclesiastical council was appointed to instruct him in his duties for
the Day of Atonement, 'in case he were not learned,' or, at any rate,
to see to it that he knew and remembered them. Nay, the principle was
broadly laid down--that 'a scholar, though he were a bastard, was of
far higher value than an unlearned high-priest.' If, besides all this,
it is remembered how the political influence of the high-priest had
decayed in the days of Herod, and how frequently the occupants of that
office changed, through the caprice of the rulers or through bribery,
the state of public feeling will be readily understood.

At the same time, it must be admitted, that generally speaking the
high-priest would, of necessity, wield very considerable influence,
and that, ordinarily, those who held the sacred office were not only
'lettered,' but members of the Sanhedrim. According to Jewish
tradition, the high-priest ought, in every respect, to excel all other
priests, and if he were poor, the rest were to contribute, so as to
secure him an independent fortune. Certain marks of outward respect
were also shown him. When he entered the Temple he was accompanied by
three persons--one walking at each side, the third behind him. He
might, without being appointed to it, officiate in any part of the
Temple services; he had certain exceptional rights; and he possessed a
house in the Temple, where he lived by day, retiring only at night to
his own home, which must be within Jerusalem, and to which he was
escorted by the people after the solemnities of the Day of Atonement,
which devolved almost exclusively upon him.

Office Hereditary

Originally the office of high-priest was regarded as being held for
life and hereditary; * but the troubles of later times made it a
matter of cabal, crime, or bribery.

     * According to the Rabbis, he was appointed by the Sanhedrim.

Without here entering into the complicated question of the succession
to the high-priesthood, the following may be quoted from the Talmud
(Talmud Jer. Ioma, I.), without, of course, guaranteeing its absolute
accuracy: 'In the first Temple, the high-priests served, the son
succeeding the father, and they were eighteen in number. But in the
second Temple they got the high-priesthood for money; and there are
who say they destroyed each other by witchcraft, so that some reckon
80 high-priests during that period, others 81, others 82, 83, 84, and
even 85.' The Rabbis enumerate 18 high-priests during the first
Temple; Lightfoot counts 53 from the return from Babylon to Matthias,
when the last war of the Jews began; while Relandius reckons 57. But
there is both difficulty and confusion amid the constant changes at
the last.

There was not any fixed age for entering on the office of high-priest,
any more than on that of an ordinary priest. The Talmudists put it
down at twenty years. But the unhappy descendant of the Maccabees,
Aristobulus, was only sixteen years of age when his beauty, as he
officiated as high-priest in the Temple, roused the jealousy of Herod,
and procured his death. The entrance of the Levites is fixed, in the
sacred text, at thirty during the wilderness period, and after that,
when the work would require less bodily strength, but a larger number
of ministers, at twenty-five years of age. *

     * It is thus we reconcile Numbers 4:3 with 8:24, 25. In point of
     fact, these two reasons are expressly mentioned in 1 Chronicles
     23:24-27, as influencing David still further to lower the age of
     entrance to twenty.

Disqualifications for the Priesthood

No special disqualifications for the Levitical office existed, though
the Rabbis insist that a good voice was absolutely necessary. It was
otherwise with the priest's office. The first inquiry instituted by
the Sanhedrim, who for the purpose sat daily in 'the Hall of Polished
Stones,' was into the genealogy of a candidate. Certain genealogies
were deemed authoritative. Thus, 'if his father's name were inscribed
in the archives of Jeshana at Zipporim, no further inquiry was made.'
If he failed to satisfy the court about his perfect legitimacy, the
candidate was dressed and veiled in black, and permanently removed. If
he passed that ordeal, inquiry was next made as to any physical
defects, of which Maimonides enumerates a hundred and forty that
permanently, and twenty-two which temporarily disqualified for the
exercise of the priestly office. Persons so disqualified were,
however, admitted to menial offices, such as in the wood-chamber, and
entitled to Temple support. Those who had stood the twofold test were
dressed in white raiment, and their names properly inscribed. To this
pointed allusion is made in Revelation 3:5, 'He that overcometh, the
same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his
name out of the book of life.'

The Investiture

Thus received, and afterwards instructed in his duties, the formal
admission alike of the priest and of the high-priest was not, as of
old, by anointing, but simply by investiture. For even the composition
of the sacred oil was no longer known in the second Temple. They were
called 'high-priests by investiture,' and regarded as of inferior rank
to those 'by anointing.' As for the common priests, the Rabbis held
that they were not anointed even in the first Temple, the rite which
was applied to the sons of Aaron being valid also for their
descendants. It was otherwise in the case of the high-priest. His
investiture was continued during seven days. In olden days, when he
was anointed, the sacred oil was not only 'poured over him,' but also
applied to his forehead, over the eyes, as tradition has it, after the
form of the Greek letter X. The coincidence is certainly curious. This
sacred oil was besides only used for anointing such kings as were of
the family of David, not other Jewish monarchs, and if their
succession had been called in question. Otherwise the royal dignity
went, as a matter of course, by inheritance from father to son.

The Dress of the High-priest

The high-priests 'by investiture' had not any more the real Urim and
Thummim (their meaning even being unknown), though a breast-plate,
with twelve stones, was made and worn, in order to complete the eight
sacred vestments. This was just double the number of those worn by an
ordinary priest, viz. the linen breeches, the coat, the girdle, and
the bonnet. To these the high-priest added other four distinctive
articles of dress, called 'golden vestments,' because, unlike the
robes of the ordinary priests, gold, the symbol of splendour, appeard
in them. They were the Meil, or robe of the ephod, wholly of 'woven
work,' of dark blue colour, descending to the knees, and adorned at
the hem by alternate blossoms of the pomegranate in blue, purple, and
scarlet, and golden bells, the latter, according to tradition,
seventy-two in number; the Ephod with the breast-plate, the former of
the four colours of the sanctuary (white, blue, purple, and scarlet),
and inwrought with threads of gold; the Mitre; and, lastly, the Ziz,
or golden frontlet. If either a priest or the high-priest officiated
without wearing the full number of his vestments, his service would be
invalid, as also if anything, however trifling (such, for instance, as
a plaster), had intervened between the body and the dress of the
priest. The material of which the four vestments of the ordinary
priest were made was 'linen,' or, more accurately, 'byssus,' the white
shining cotton-stuff of Egypt. These two qualities of the byssus are
specially marked as characteristic (Rev 15:6, 'clothed in pure and
shining linen.'), and on them part of the symbolic meaning depended.
Hence we read in Revelation 19:8, 'And to her'--the wife of the Lamb
made ready--'was granted that she should be arrayed in byssus
vestments, shining and pure; for the byssus vestment is the
righteousness of the saints.'

Allusions to the Dress in the New Testament

We add some further particulars, chiefly in illustration of allusions
in the New Testament. The priest's 'coat' was woven of one piece, like
the seamless robe of the Saviour (John 19:23). As it was
close-fitting, the girdle could not, strictly speaking, have been
necessary. Besides, although the account of the Rabbis, that the
priest's girdle was three fingers broad and sixteen yards long (!), is
exaggerated, no doubt it really reached beyond the feet, and required
to be thrown over the shoulder during ministration. Hence its object
must chiefly have been symbolical. In point of fact, it may be
regarded as the most distinctive priestly vestment, since it was only
put on during actual ministration, and put off immediately afterwards.
Accordingly, when in Revelation 1:13, the Saviour is seen 'in the
midst of the candlesticks,' 'girt about the paps with a golden
girdle,' we are to understand by it that our heavenly High-Priest is
there engaged in actual ministry for us. Similarly, the girdle is
described as 'about the paps,' or (as in Rev 15:6) about the
'breasts,' as both the girdle of the ordinary priest and that on the
ephod which the high-priest wore were girded there, and not round the
loins (compare Eze 44:18). Lastly, the expression 'golden girdle' may
bear reference to the circumstance that the dress peculiar of the
high-priest was called his 'golden vestments,' in contradistinction to
the 'linen vestments,' which he wore on the Day of Atonement.


To educate, train and equip for study both the Jew and
Non-Jew in the Rich Hebraic Heritage of our Faith.

Please visit the Hebraic Roots Global Network
Web Site located at:

                          HEBRAIC ROOTS SEMINAR

Hebraic Heritage Ministries is having a Hebraic roots seminar in
Houston, Texas,  September 11-13, 1998. For more info, see the

Eddie Chumney
Hebraic Heritage Ministries Int'l