In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Priest/Priesthood

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman World
  • Histories of the Priests and Levites
  • Before the Monarchy
  • The Monarchy

Biblical Studies Priest/Priesthood
Robert Kugler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0146


The topic of priests and priesthood in ancient Israel and early Judaism focuses the concentration of biblical scholars like few others, for to say anything sensible about the matter requires taking a stand on the related, contested issues of what can be known of ancient Israel’s and early Judaism’s history and the date and purpose of key literary traditions in the Hebrew Bible. Thus there are few points of consensus among those studying Israel’s priesthood, and virtually every general treatment of it showcases the author’s broader views on Israel’s and early Judaism’s history and literature. Yet there is one point of broad agreement (with some significant exceptions). Dating the so-called Priestly Work (parts of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers concerned especially with priestly, purity, and cultic matters) to the Persian period, many scholars take its portrait of the hierarchy of the priesthood in the days of wandering between Egypt and the land of Canaan as a reflection of the actual order under Achaemenid (Persian) rule. The Aaronites, descendants of Levi, were at the pinnacle of priestly power, providing the ruling high priest and altar priests, while their Levite brethren who could not trace their lineage back to Levi through Aaron only assisted the Aaronites in temple service in subservient and largely menial roles. Most scholars also credit Levites in this period with performing as judges and scribes. Beyond this narrow consensus, however, there are few agreements, leaving the history of the priesthood prior to and after the early Persian period a matter of debate. This is especially the case with respect to the centuries leading up to Persian rule. Making any attempt to reconstruct this period in the priesthood’s history is difficult because of the concomitant uncertainty among scholars regarding the historical reliability of the biblical text, which is the main evidence for Israel’s history before the Persian period. The lack of consensus for the following periods, the Hellenistic and Roman eras, has mostly to do with the fact that the office was so contested by vying claimants to it; indeed, the literature addressing it is tendentious in the extreme. To give readers bibliographic access to these debates, this article covers general surveys, the priesthood in cross-cultural perspective in Antiquity, and general histories of the priesthood. It continues with period-specific bibliographies of works addressing the history of the office with a focus on the texts that provide the most substantial evidence for the priesthood in each period.

General Overviews

Encyclopedia articles and several book-length treatments provide a good entrée to the general topic of the priesthood in ancient Israel and early Judaism. Although dated, Abba 1962 remains useful (but see also the update provided by Levine 1976). Rehm 1992 offers the next stage among the encyclopedia entries, and Kugler 2009 has the most recent word in the genre. An article-length general overview is provided in Geller 2012. Monographs that offer substantial general discussions of the priesthood include Vaux 1997 and Blenkinsopp 1995. Nelson 1993 is a brief, full-length book treatment.

  • Abba, Raymond. “Priests and Levites.” In The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 3. Edited by George Arthur Buttrick, 876–889. Nashville: Abingdon, 1962.

    A straightforward, text-based discussion of the priests and Levites in Israel.

  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Sage, Priest, Prophet: Religious and Intellectual Leadership in Ancient Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995.

    A rather overlooked resource, Blenkinsopp’s focus on primary texts and sensible observations prior to devoting attention to the debates in the secondary literature makes his treatment a reliable way for the uninitiated to make their way into the thicket of texts and ideas related to Israel’s priesthood. See pp. 66–114.

  • Vaux, Roland de. Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions. Biblical Resource Series. Translated by John McHugh. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1997.

    First published in French in 1961, this remains a reliable survey that treats the “priests” and “Levites” in separate chapters on the basis of the biblical evidence, and then offers a history of the office in two parts: before the exile, under the monarchy; and after the exile. See pp. 345–405.

  • Geller, Stephen A. “Priests and Levites in the Hebrew Bible.” In The Wiley-Blackwell History of Jews and Judaism. Edited by Alan T. Levenson, 35–52. Chichester, UK, and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118232897

    A brief survey that addresses terms, the sources in the Hebrew Bible, and a short history of the office. A good overview for the beginner.

  • Kugler, Robert. “Priests and Levites.” In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 4. Edited by Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, 596–613. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

    A survey article that builds its history of the priesthood on the Wellhausenian view of the Persian-period stasis, but that also assumes a later date for the pre-P material, and therefore that little may be said with confidence about the office’s career before the exile.

  • Levine, B. A. “Priestly Writers.” In The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume. Edited by Keith Crim, 683–687. Nashville: Abingdon, 1976.

    A significant update to Abba 1962; the two should be read together.

  • Nelson, Richard D. Raising Up a Faithful Priest: Community and Priesthood in Biblical Theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993.

    A theologically oriented treatment of the history of the priesthood that updates important earlier works in this vein by Baudissin 1889 and van Hoonacker 1899 (both cited under Histories of the Priests and Levites) from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  • Rehm, Merlin D. “Levites and Priests.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 4. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 297–310. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1992.

    A discussion dependent on the chief elements of F. M. Cross’s theory regarding the origins of the priests and Levites.

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