The Jewish priesthood and religions of life in first century A.D. (Luke 18)

According to Biblical tradition the priesthood was entrusted to the hereditary, Levitical descendants of Aaron. During the Solomonic age the high priesthood belonged to the family of Zadok (2 Samuel 15:24), which, together with the other anointed offices of prophet and king, exercised leadership over the nation. In the Persian period Judea was reconstituted as a temple-state under the exclusive political and religious hegemony of the high priests, who were themselves subordinate only to the king of Persia. The house of Zadok, from which the name Sadducees probably derived, controlled the office until 174 B.C., when Jason effectively purchased the high priesthood from the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who at that time controlled Judea. This accomplished a fundamental shift away from hereditary succession to the unprecedented situation of having a pagan ruler appoint the high priest in Israel, usually in return for pledges of loyalty and outright payment of money.

As a result of the Maccabean success against the Seleucid dynasty, the Hasmonean family established itself as a clan of priest-kings, even though they were descendants of neither the Zadokite family nor the royal line of David. Their questionable status produced tremendous strife among certain factions within Judaism, especially the Pharisees, who appealed for them to relinquish the high priesthood and to be content with governing the people. The Romans eventually prohibited the Hasmonean leaders from using the title of king and restricted their influence to political control of Judea and religious authority over all Jews everywhere.

In 37 B.C. Herod the Great received Judea as a client kingdom from Caesar Augustus. He promptly murdered Aristobulus, the last  Hasmonean high priest, and transferred the office to the family of Boethus. From the inauguration of Herod’s reign to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, 28 different high priests were appointed. The only one to serve for any length of time was Joseph Caiphas (A.D. 18-36), who is known from the Gospel accounts (Matthew 26:57, Luke 3:2, John 11:49, 18:13).

Despite considerable fluctuations in the priesthood during the Second Temple period, the office continued to enjoy tremendous prestige and influence. The high priest served as the supreme religious functionary in the temple liturgy, and he alone was granted access to the Most Holy Place on the annual Day of Atonement. He also presided as the president of the supreme judiciary council, the Sanhedrin, comprised of members of the leading aristocratic members of society (cf. Exodus 24:1, Matthew 5:22, Mark 14:55, Luke 22:66, John 11:47, Acts 4:15, 5:21, 6:12, 22:30).

Under the direct authority of the high priest were the chief priests, temple treasurer and the remainder of the common priests and Levites. During the first century A.D. there were approximately 7,200 common priests, divided into 24 courses or divisions. Members of each course were called from their homes to serve in the Jerusalem temple for one week at a time (Luke 1:8, Josephus Antiquities 7.14.7).

The religious life of first century Jews was oriented around the temple, which was admired by pagans and a source of pride for Jews (Luke 21:5). While the great pilgrimage festivals demarcated the liturgical year, individual piety was both cultivated and demonstrated through daily observances, such as morning and evening prayers, tithing, participation in public and private fasts, study and the keeping of the Sabbath. Jews maintained their unique identity through circumcision, dietary laws and an abiding determination to avoid mixed marriages. Synagogues also served as centres for communal prayer, study and the rehearsal of Jewish lifestyle obligations. Although their importance expanded after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, their origin dates from a much earlier period. Jesus spoke frequently in synagogues (Matthew 4:23, 9:35, John 18:20), as did Paul (Acts 9:20, 17:10, 19:8). According to the Talmud there were some 480 synagogues in Jerusalem prior to the temple’s destruction.

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