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High Priest

HIGH PRIEST (Heb. הַ)כּהֵן הָדֹאשׁ ,הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל ,הַכֹּהֵן)), the priest at the head of the priestly affairs. In pre-Exilic times the common appellation for the chief priest of a community was "the priest" (Heb. ha-Kohen; e.g., I Sam. 14:19, 36; 21:2–10). The term "high priest" (Heb. ha-kohen ha-gadol) is used in reference to Aaron and his descendants who are anointed with holy oil (Lev. 21:10; Num. 35:25, 28; Josh. 20:6), and later to the chief priest of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem (II Kings 12:11; 22:4, 8; 23:4; Neh. 3:1, 20; 13:28). An early comparable title is Ugaritic rb khnm. The appellation "head priest" (Heb. kohen ha-rosh) is an alternative for "high priest" (II Kings 25:18; Jer. 52:24; II Chron. 19:11; 24:11; 26:20; Ezra 7:5) and may have coexisted with ha-kohen ha-gadol.

In the Second Temple Period

Although the term and office of high priest are infrequent in early biblical literature, and the Aaronide priesthood a late development, the existence of a high priesthood in the two pre-exilic Israelite kingdoms is more than likely. From the outset of the Second Temple period not only does the term "high priest" appear more frequently, but the responsibilities of the office were greatly enhanced. Beginning either under late Persian or early Hellenistic rule in Palestine, the high priest is not merely responsible for religious and spiritual life within the country, but is also chief administrator of internal secular policy, as well as the recognized representative of the Jewish community in all matters of external diplomacy. This development of high-priestly power reached its peak under the Hasmoneans, and thus, even when the latter were already designated as kings, it was considered essential to retain the title of "high priest" which, encompassing so many functions, was probably even more revered than the monarchy itself. This fact would tend to explain the famous objection of the Pharisees to the retaining of the high priesthood by the Hasmoneans, and the outright rejection of their claims by either John *Hyrcanus or Alexander *Yannai (Kid. 66a; Jos., Ant. 13:288ff.). It is also noteworthy that the Hebrew coins of the Hasmoneans designate these rulers solely as high priests, and that the political authority of the community, the *ḥever ha-Yehudim , appears on the coins accompanied only by the title high priest and may not have even recognized the monarchy (cf. A. Schalit, Hordos ha-Melekh (1960), 159–60, 561–2).

With the Roman conquest of Judea and subsequent Herodean rule, the office of high priest became a political tool in the hands of the administration, and until the destruction of the Temple was never to return to its earlier prominence. Herod, in an attempt to base his regime on new elements within Jewish society, completely disassociated himself from the Hasmonean dynasty, and thus the high priesthood passed into the hands of such houses as Phiabi and Boethus, both having been transplanted from the Jewish Diaspora (regarding this tendency under Herod, cf. M. Stern, in Tarbiz, 35 (1965–66), 245ff.). Although the high priests continued to serve as presidents of the *Sanhedrin , both their actual powers and measure of esteem among the people gradually deteriorated, and derision of the high priests during the late Second Temple period is commonly quoted in rabbinic literature (cf. Pes. 57a; Yoma 8b–9a). This negative attitude of the Pharisees was probably enhanced by the fact that high priests from the Hasmonean period onward were primarily Sadducees, and frequent quarrels erupted between the two factions (cf. Tosef., Yoma 1:8). By the end of the Second Temple period the high priest was considered no more than a religious functionary of the Roman administration, and thus even the garments of the high priest were entrusted at times to the hands of the local Roman procurator and handed over to the priests just prior to the various festivals. It is understandable, therefore, that with the zealots' seizure of Jerusalem one of their first acts was the appointment of a new high priest, as if thereby to display the establishment of a new Jewish government in Jerusalem (Jos., Wars 4:147ff.).


Jos, Ant., 20:224–51; Schuerer, Gesch, index, S.V. Hohepriester; idem, in: Theologische Studien und Kritiken, 45 (1872), 593–657; H. Graetz, in: MGWJ, 30 (1881), 49–64, 97–112; G. Hoelscher, Die Hohenpriesterliste bei Josephus… (1940); G. Allon, in: Tarbiz, 13 (1941–42), 1–24. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Cogan and H. Tadmor, II Kings (1988), 138; J. Vanderkam, From Joshua to Caiaphas: High Priests After the Exile (2004); L. Grabbe, A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period, vol. 1 (2004), 224–36; L. Fried, The Priest and the Great King (2004).

[Isaiah Gafni]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.