Chief Priests, Priests, and Levites


The office of high priest carried with it a number of unique privileges and responsibilities. He alone was permitted to enter the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement to atone for the sins of the entire nation. As head of the Sanhedrin or Jewish supreme court, he presided over the nation's highest administrative and judicial body. His daily life was governed by the strictest rules of ceremonial purity. His death was viewed as an act of atonement and was marked by the release of a condemned murderer. Even if he retired from office he continued to wield great influence.


The high priest stood at the apex of an elaborate hierarchy of temple personnel. Directly beneath him in rank were the chief priests, an exclusive group of about 200 highborn Jews. The most important of them was the captain of the temple, second only in rank and power to the high priest. His duties included supervision of the whole body of priests and of all temple activities. Other chief priests had charge of the daily and weekly temple services, the temple treasury and the maintenance of the sacred vessels.


Below the chief priests were the ordinary priests of the temple. There were probably about 7,200 of them in Jesus' time. They formed an exclusive hereditary community of men who could trace their descent back to Aaron, Moses' brother and the first high priest. Unlike the chief priests, most of them lived outside Jerusalem in the towns and villages of Judea and Galilee. They were divided into 24 priestly clans, each of which served a week at a time at the temple. Their duties included lighting the altar fires, attending to the offerings of incense and unleavened bread and killing the sacrificial animals.


The lowest-ranking temple officials were the Levites. These men were descendants of Levi, the father of the priestly tribe. Aaron and all Israel's priests had been members of this tribe. There were some 9600 Levites in the first century BC. Like the majority of priests, they comprised 24 families or courses, each course serving one week at a time as guards, policemen, doorkeepers, singers, musicians and servants of the temple. They were forbidden, resulting in death, to enter the holy sanctuary or approach the altar of sacrifice. The daily temple ritual required the services of nearly 1,000 chief priests, priests and Levites. On feast days all 24 courses were required to come to Jerusalem to participate in the elaborate ceremonies and sacrificial rites. This meant that there were nearly 18,000 temple personnel on hand during each of the three great pilgrim festivals: Passover, Weeks and Booths.