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The term "high priest" may refer to an individual who holds the office of ruler-priest, or may refer to the head of a religious caste.

  • In ancient Egypt, a high priest was the chief priest of any of the many gods revered by the Egyptians.
  • In Ancient Greek, Archiereus is one of several titles for high priests, in Greek an/or rendered in Greek, which literally translates as 'Arch-hierarch', i.e. head of the (priestly) hierarchy. The term Hierophant comes from the Greek for one who reveals holy mysteries, or a head of a church often synonymous with modern Popes. In ancient Greece the hierophant was the title of the chief priest of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
  • In Hawaii, the high priest is called Kahuna Nui and presides over the temple or heiau. Below the Kahuna Nui are various types and ranks of priests.
  • In Judaism and Samaritanism, a high priest is called a Kohen Gadol (כהן גדול), literally "Grand Priest". The office is no longer filled in mainstream Judaism while there is no functioning Temple, thus only the Samaritans have a High Priest {According to Samaritan sources a civil War broke out between the Sons of Itamar {Eli (Bible)} and the Sons of Phineas-which resulted in the division of those who followed Eli and those who followed High Priest Uzzi ben Bukki at Mount Gerizim Bethel {A third group followed neither}. Likewise according to Samaritan sources the high Priests line of the sons of Phineas died out in 1624 C.E. with the death of the 112th High Priest Shlomyah ben Pinhas when the priesthood was transferred to the sons of Itamar; see article Samaritan for list of High Priests from 1613 to 2004-the 131st High priest of the Samaritans is Elazar ben Tsedaka ben Yitzhaq}
  • In ancient Rome, the high priest was known as "Pontifex Maximus" (Great Bridge-Builder). The office was usually filled by a leading politician, rather than by a full-time priest. Pontifex Maximus continues to be one of the titles of the Popes.
  • In Christianity a high priest could sometimes be compared with the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church, a Patriarch in an Eastern Orthodox Church, or a Primate in an Anglican or Episcopal church; but it is traditional to refer only to Jesus as the one high priest of Christianity. In all episcopal bodies, except in the Anglican Communion and the superintended Lutheran churches, bishops are also referred to as high priests, as they are believed to share in, that is: are considered earthly instruments of, the high priesthood of Jesus Christ.
  • In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other Latter Day Saint sects, High Priest is also a priesthood office in the Melchizedek Priesthood.
  • In Shinto, a high priest, called a Guji, is usually the highest ranking priest (Kannushi) in a shrine.
  • In Ásatrú, the high priest is called a goði (or gyða) and is the leader of a small group of practitioners collectively referred to as a Kindred. The goði are collectively known as the goðar.
  • In Santeria, a high priest is called a Babalao. The term comes from the supreme priest of Santería, a protege of Orula. The term means wise man.
  • In Wicca a High Priest and High Priestess are able to lead a coven and initiate others.
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Aaron was the first who was solemnly set apart to this office (Ex 29:7; 30:23; Lev 8:12). He wore a peculiar dress, which on his death passed to his successor in office (Ex 29:29, 30). Besides those garments which he wore in common with all priests, there were four that were peculiar to himself as high priest:

  1. The "robe" of the ephod, all of blue, of "woven work," worn immediately under the ephod. It was without seam or sleeves. The hem or skirt was ornamented with pomegranates and golden bells, seventy-two of each in alternate order. The sounding of the bells intimated to the people in the outer court the time when the high priest entered into the holy place to burn incense before the Lord (Ex. 28).
  2. The "ephod" consisted of two parts, one of which covered the back and the other the breast, which were united by the "curious girdle." It was made of fine twined linen, and ornamented with gold and purple. Each of the shoulder-straps was adorned with a precious stone, on which the names of the twelve tribes were engraved. This was the high priest's distinctive vestment (1Sam 2:28; 14:3; 21:9; 23:6, 9; 30:7).
  3. The "breastplate of judgment" (Ex 28:6-12, 25-28; 39:2-7) of "cunning work." It was a piece of cloth doubled, of one span square. It bore twelve precious stones, set in four rows of three in a row, which constituted the Urim and Thummim (q.v.). These stones had the names of the twelve tribes engraved on them. When the high priest, clothed with the ephod and the breastplate, inquired of the Lord, answers were given in some mysterious way by the Urim and Thummim (1Sam 14:3, 18, 19; 23:2, 4, 9, 11,12; 28:6; 2 Sam 5:23).
  4. The "mitre," or upper turban, a twisted band of eight yards of fine linen coiled into a cap, with a gold plate in front, engraved with "Holiness to the Lord," fastened to it by a ribbon of blue.

To the high priest alone it was permitted to enter the holy of holies, which he did only once a year, on the great Day of Atonement, for "the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest" (Heb. 9; 10). Wearing his gorgeous priestly vestments, he entered the temple before all the people, and then, laying them aside and assuming only his linen garments in secret, he entered the holy of holies alone, and made expiation, sprinkling the blood of the sin offering on the mercy seat, and offering up incense. Then resuming his splendid robes, he reappeared before the people (Lev. 16). Thus the wearing of these robes came to be identified with the Day of Atonement.

The office, dress, and ministration of the high priest were typical of the priesthood of our Lord (Heb 4:14; 7:25; 9:12, etc.).

It is supposed that there were in all eighty-three high priests, beginning with Aaron (B.C. 1657) and ending with Phannias (A.D. 70). At its first institution the office of high priest was held for life (but comp. 1 Kg 2:27), and was hereditary in the family of Aaron (Num 3:10). The office continued in the line of Eleazar, Aaron's eldest son, for two hundred and ninety-six years, when it passed to Eli, the first of the line of Ithamar, who was the fourth son of Aaron. In this line it continued to Abiathar, whom Solomon deposed, and appointed Zadok, of the family of Eleazar, in his stead (1 Kg 2:35), in which it remained till the time of the Captivity. After the Return, Joshua, the son of Josedek, of the family of Eleazar, was appointed to this office. After him the succession was changed from time to time under priestly or political influences.

This entry includes text from Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897.

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