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Parsi Navjote ceremony of admission into the Zoroastrian faith.
Priestess of the Egyptian goddess Isis, a religious cult that survived until the 600s A.D., Roman statue of the second century A.D. in Museo Archaeologico Regionale, Palermo, Sicily

A priest or priestess is a person having the authority or power to administer religious rites; in particular, rites of sacrifice to, and propitiation of, a deity or deities. Their office or position is the priesthood, a term which may also apply to such persons collectively.

Priests and priestesses have been known since the earliest of times and in the simplest societies. They exist in all or some branches of Judaism, Christianity, Shintoism, Hinduism, and many other religions, as well, and are generally regarded as having good contact with the deity or deities of the religion to which they subscribe, often interpreting the meaning of events, performing the rituals of the religion, and to whom other believers often will turn for advice on spiritual matters.

In many religions, being a priest or priestess is a full-time job, ruling out any other career. In other cases it is a part-time role. For example in the early history of Iceland the chieftains were entitled goði, a word meaning "priest". But as seen in the saga of Hrafnkell Freysgoði, being a priest consisted merely of offering periodic sacrifices to the Norse gods and goddesses; it was not a full time job, nor did it involve ordination.

In some religions, being a priest is by human election or human choice. In others the priesthood is inherited in familial lines.



The English word priest is ultimately from Latin presbyter, the term for "elder", especially elders of Jewish or Christian communities in Late Antiquity. It is possible that the Latin word was loaned into Old English and only from Old English reached other Germanic languages, giving Old Icelandic prestr, Old Swedish präster, Old High German priast, via the Anglo-Saxon mission to the continent. However, Old High German also has the disyllabic priester, priestar, apparently derivied from Latin independently, via Old French presbtre. The Latin word is ultimately from Greek presbuteros. This word did not refer to a religious function, the word for "priest" being Latin sacerdos, Greek hiereus.

That English should have only the single term priest for both presbyter and sacerdos came to be seen as a problem in English Bible translations. The presbyter is the minister who presides and instructs a Christian congregation, while the sacerdos is the offerer of sacrifices, in a Christian context the eucharist, performing "mediatorial offices between God and man".[1]

The feminine noun priestess is a formation coined in the 17th century, referring to female priests of the pre-Christian religions of classical antiquity and in the 20th century also came to be used in the controversies surrounding the ordination of women. However, in the case of the ordination of women in the Anglican communion, it is more common to speak of "priests" regardless of gender.

Historical religions

In historical polytheism, a priest administers the sacrifice to a god, often in highly elaborate ritual. In the Ancient Near East, the priesthood also acted on behalf of the gods in managing their property.

Priestesses in antiquity often performed sacred prostitution, and in Ancient Greece, some priestesses such as Pythia, priestess of Apollo at Delphi, acted as oracles.

Abrahamic religions



The position of a Kohen's hands when he raises them to bless a Jewish congregation

In Judaism, the Kohanim (singular כּכהן kohen, plural ככּהנִים kohanim, whence the family names Cohen, Cahn, Kahn, Kohn, Kogan, etc.) are hereditary priests through paternal descent. These families are from the tribe of the Levi'im (Levites) (whence the family names Levy, Levi, Levin, Lewin, Lewis, etc.), and are traditionally accepted as the descendants of Aaron. In Exodus 30:22-25 God instructs Moses to make a Holy anointing oil to consecrate his priests for all generations to come. During the times of the two Jewish Temples in Jerusalem, they were responsible for daily and special Jewish holiday offerings and sacrifices within the temples known as the korbanot.

Since the demise of the Second Temple, and therefore the cessation of the daily and seasonal temple ceremonies and sacrifices, Kohanim in traditional Judaism (Orthodox Judaism and to some extent, Conservative Judaism) have continued to perform a number of priestly ceremonies and roles such as the Pidyon HaBen (redemption of a first-born son) ceremony and the Priestly Blessing, and have remained subject, particularly in Orthodox Judaism, to a number of special rules, including restrictions on marriage, ritual purity, and other requirements. Orthodox Judaism regards the Kohanim as being held in reserve for a future restored Temple. In all branches of Judaism, Rabbis do not perform such priestly roles as propitiation, sacrifice, or sacrament. Rather, a Rabbi's principal religious function is to serve as an authoritative judge and expositor of Jewish law. Rabbis have also generally come to perform clerical and social leadership roles such as congregational leadership and pastoral counseling. Judaism does not, however, reserve such roles to rabbis.


Two different Greek words have traditionally been translated into English as priest (Greek was the language in which the New Testament was composed, hence its importance in understanding early Christian practice). Both words occur in the New Testament, which draws a distinction not always observed in English. The first, presbyteros (Ancient Greek: πρεσβύτερος), Latinized as presbyter, is traditionally translated priest and the English word priest is indeed etymologically derived from this word; literally, however, this word means elder, and is used in neutral and non-religious contexts in Greek to refer to seniority or relative age. It is the term used in Anglicanism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy to refer to one given the sacrament of Holy Orders in that degree. Lutherans, notably in Europe and parts of Africa, refer to the clergy as deacon, priest or bishop.

The second word, hiereus (Ancient Greek: ἱερεύς), Latin sacerdos, refers to priests who offer sacrifice, such as the priesthood of the Jewish Temple, or the priests of pagan gods. The New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews draws a distinction between the Jewish priesthood and the High Priesthood of Christ; it teaches that the sacrificial atonement by Jesus Christ on Calvary has made the Jewish priesthood and its prescribed ritual sacrifices redundant. Thus, for Christians, Christ himself is the one hiereus, and Christian priests have no priesthood independent or distinct from that of Christ. As in the belief of most of Christianity (including the Anglican, Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches and Oriental Orthodoxy) the one sacrifice of Christ, which he offered "once for all" (Hebrews 10:10) on the Cross, is made present through the Eucharist,[2] so the one priesthood of Christ is made present through the ministerial priesthood of bishops and presbyters, who are therefore by analogy called priests, without diminishing the uniqueness of Christ's priesthood.[3]

Some clergy and religious, such as these, who are Canons Regular of the Order of the Holy Cross and live in the Netherlands, wear distinctive clothing which distinguishes them from other clergy, whether secular or religious

This analogous use of the word "priest" (ἱερεύς, sacerdos) for Christian ministers appears to have arisen only at the end of the second century, at first for bishops only; but by the time of Saint Cyprian, in the mid-third century, it was applied to presbyters also.[4]

The late first-century Epistle of Clement uses the terms ἐπίσκοπος (bishop) and πρεσβύτερος (presbyter) interchangeably for the clergy above the rank of deacon, but for Ignatius of Antioch, who died in the early years of the second century, bishops and presbyters were already quite distinct. Elsewhere, particularly in Egypt, the distinction seems to have become established only later. By the middle of that century all the leading Christian centres had bishops distinct from the presbyters.[5]

The word "bishop" is derived, through Latin episcopus, from the Greek word ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos), whose original meaning was "overseer" or "supervisor". Both English words "priest" and "presbyter" come from Greek πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros), originally meaning an elder, through Latin presbyter.

Catholic and Eastern Orthodox

A Catholic priest from Belgian Congo

The most significant liturgical acts reserved to priests in these traditions are the administration of the Sacraments (known as the "Sacred Mysteries" by Eastern Christians), including the celebration of the Mass or Divine Liturgy (the terms for the celebration of the Eucharist in the Western and Eastern traditions, respectively), and the Sacrament of Penance, also called Confession. The sacraments of Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction) and Confirmation or Chrismation are also administered by priests, though in the Western tradition Confirmation is most often celebrated by a bishop. In the East, Chrismation is performed by the priest immediately after Baptism, and Unction is normally performed by several priests (ideally seven), but may be done by one if necessary. In the West, Holy Baptism can be celebrated by anyone and Matrimony may be witnessed by a deacon, but most often these are also normally administered by a priest. In the East, Holy Baptism and Marriage (which is called "Crowning") may be performed only by a priest. If a person is baptized in extremis (i.e., when in fear of immediate death), only the actual threefold immersion together with the scriptural words (Matthew 28:19) may be done by a layperson or deacon. The remainder of the rite, and Chrismation, must still be done by a Priest, if the person survives. The only sacrament which may be celebrated only by a bishop is that of Ordination (cheirotonia, "Laying-on of Hands"), or Holy Orders.

In these traditions, only men who meet certain requirements may become priests. In Roman Catholicism the canonical minimum age is twenty-five. Bishops may dispense with this rule and ordain men up to one year younger. Dispensations of more than a year are reserved to the Holy See (Can. 1031 §§1, 4.) A Catholic priest must be incardinated by his bishop or his major religious superior in order to engage in public ministry. In Orthodoxy, the normal minimum age is thirty (Can. 9 of Neocaesarea) but a bishop may dispense with this if needed. In neither tradition may priests marry after ordination. In the Roman Catholic Church, priests in the Latin Rite, which covers the vast majority of Roman Catholicism, must be celibate except under special rules for married clergy converting from certain other Christian confessions.[6][7] Married men may become priests in Eastern Orthodoxy and the Eastern Catholic Churches but in neither case may they marry after ordination, even if they become widowed. It is also important to note that candidates for the episcopacy are only chosen from among the celibate.

Anglican or Episcopalian

An Anglican priest in choir dress.

The role of a priest in the Anglican Communion is largely the same as within the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Christianity, save that Canon Law in almost every Province of Anglicanism restricts the administration of confirmation to the bishop, just as with ordination. Whilst Anglican priests who are members of religious orders must remain celibate, the secular clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons who are not members of religious orders) are permitted to marry before or after ordination. The Anglican Church, unlike the Roman Catholic or Eastern Christian traditions, has allowed the ordination of women as priests in some provinces since the late 20th century. This practice remains controversial, however, and a number of provinces retain an all-male priesthood. As Anglicanism represents a broad range of theological opinion, its presbyterate includes priests who consider themselves no different in any respect from those of the Roman Catholic Church, and a minority who prefer to use the title presbyter in order to distance themselves from the more sacrificial theological implications which they associate with the word "priest". While priest is the official title of a member of the presbyterate in every Anglican province worldwide, the ordination rite of certain provinces (including the Church of England) recognizes the breadth of opinion by adopting the title The Ordination of Priests (also called Presbyters).


The general priesthood or the priesthood of all believers, is a Christian doctrine derived from several passages of the New Testament. It is a foundational concept of Protestantism.[8] It is this doctrine that Martin Luther adduces in his 1520 To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation in order to dismiss the medieval Christian belief that Christians were to be divided into two classes: "spiritual" and "temporal" or non-spiritual.

The conservative reforms of Lutherans are reflected in the theological and practical view of the ministry of the Church. Much of European Lutheranism follows the traditional catholic governance of deacon, priest and bishop. The Lutheran archbishops of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, etc. and Baltic countries are the historic national primates or See of the original Catholic Church and some ancient cathedrals and parishes in the Lutheran church were constructed many centuries before the Reformation. In-deed, ecumenical work within the Anglican communion and among Scandinavian Lutherans mutually recognize the historic apostolic legitimacy and full communion. Likewise in America, Lutherans have embraced the apostolic succession of bishops in the full communion with Episcopalians and most Lutheran ordinations are performed by a bishop. The Catholic Church, however, does not recognise Episcopalians or Lutherans as having legitimate apostolic succession.

Ordained Protestant clergy often have the title of pastor, minister, reverend, etc. In some Lutheran churches, ordained clergy are called priests, while in others the term pastor is preferred.


The term for "priest" in the sense of presbyter in Islam is imam. An imam leads prayer and acts as spiritual advisor. Islam does not have an office of priest in the sense of sacerdos, as the religion has no sacrificial rite comparable to the Christian Eucharist or the Jewish Korban. Ritual slaughter (dhabihah) may be performed by any sane adult Muslim[citation needed].

Eastern religions


The Hindu priest put clothes to the Murti (the statue of the God/Goddess) and gets the temple ready for worship. The priest performs the Arti ceremony, ringing a bell with one hand and at the same time making circles with an Arti lamp with his other hand. The priest is also in charge of bhajans and recitations.


In Zoroastrianism, the priesthood is mostly hereditary. The priests prepare a drink from a sacred plant, the Haoma ritual. They officiate the Yasna, pouring libations into the sacred fire to the accompaniment of ritual chants.


The priests act as interpreters of the principles of Yin-Yang 5 elements (fire, water, air, wood, and metal) school of ancient Chinese philosophy, as they relate to marriage, death, festival cycles, and so on. The Taoist priest seeks to share the benefits of meditation to his community through public ritual and liturgy.


The shinto priest is called a kannushi (神主?, lit. "Master of the kami"), originally pronounced kamunushi, sometimes referred to as a shinshoku (神職?). A Kannushi, traditionally male, is the person responsible for the maintenance of a Shinto shrine, or jinja, purificatory rites, and for leading worship and veneration of a certain kami. Additionally, priests are aided by miko (巫女?, "temple maidens") for many rites as a kind of shaman or medium. The maidens can either be family members in training, apprentices, or local volunteers.

Indigenous and ethnic religions


The Yoruba people of western Nigeria practice an indigenous religion with a religious hierarchy of priests and priestesses that dates to A.D. 800-1000.[citation needed] Ifá priests and priestesses bear the titles Babalowo for men and Iyanifa for females. Priests and priestess of the varied Orisha are titled Babalorisa for men and Iyalorisa for women. Initiates are also given an Orisa or Ifá name that signifies under which deity they are initiated. For example a Priestess of Oshun may be named Osunyemi and a Priest of Ifá may be named Ifáyemi. This ancient culture continues to this day as initiates from all around the world return to Nigeria for initiation into the traditional priesthood.


Dress worn by the Vestal Virgins of Ancient Rome

The dress of religious workers in ancient times may be demonstrated in frescoes and artifacts from the cultures. The dress is presumed to be related to the customary clothing of the culture, with some symbol of the deity worn on the head or held by the person. Sometimes special colors, materials, or patterns distinguish celebrants, as the white wool veil draped on the head of the Vestal Virgins.

Priestess officiating before an altar while nude to demonstrate purity, Attic red-figure kylix by Chairias, c. 510-500 BC, Ancient Agora Museum in Athens

Occasionally the celebrants at religious ceremonies shed all clothes in a symbolic gesture of purity. This was often the case in ancient times. An example of this is shown to the left on a Kylix dating from c. 500 BC where a priestess is featured. Modern religious groups tend to avoid such symbolism and some may be quite uncomfortable with the concept.

The retention of long skirts and vestments among many ranks of contemporary priests when they officiate may be interpreted to express the ancient traditions of the cultures from which their religious practices arose.

In most Christian traditions, priests wear clerical clothing, a distinctive form of street dress. Even within individual traditions it varies considerably in form, depending on the specific occasion. In Western Christianity, the stiff white clerical collar has become the nearly universal feature of priestly clerical clothing, worn either with a cassock or a clergy shirt. The collar may be either a full collar or a vestigial tab displayed through a square cutout in the shirt collar.

Eastern Christian priests mostly retain the traditional dress of two layers of differently cut cassock: the rasson (Greek) or podriasnik (Russian) beneath the outer exorasson (Greek) or riasa (Russian). If a pectoral cross has been awarded it is usually worn with street clothes in the Russian tradition, but not so often in the Greek tradition.

Hindu priest placing garlands on statue of Shiva's bull Nandi.

Distinctive clerical clothing is less often worn in modern times than formerly, and in many cases it is rare for a priest to wear it when not acting in a pastoral capacity, especially in countries that view themselves as largely secular in nature. There are frequent exceptions to this however, and many priests rarely if ever go out in public without it, especially in countries where their religion makes up a clear majority of the population. Pope John Paul II often instructed Catholic priests and religious to always wear their distinctive (clerical) clothing, unless wearing it would result in persecution or grave verbal attacks.

Christian traditions that retain the title of priest also retain the tradition of special liturgical vestments worn only during services. Vestments vary widely among the different Christian traditions.

Assistant priest

In many religions there are one or more layers of assistant priests.

In Ancient Judaism, the Priests (Kohanim) had a whole class of Levites as their assistants in making the sacrifices, in singing psalms and in maintaining the Temple. The Priests and the Levites were in turn served by servants called Nethinim These lowest level of servants were not priests.

An assistant priest is a priest in the Anglican and Episcopal churches who is not the senior member of clergy of the parish to which they are appointed, but is nonetheless in priests' orders; there is no difference in function or theology, merely in 'grade' or 'rank'. Some assistant priests have a "sector ministry", that is to say that they specialize in a certain area of ministry within the local church, for example youth work, hospital work, or ministry to local light industry. They may also hold some diocesan appointment part-time. In most (though not all) cases an assistant priest has the legal status of assistant curate, although it should also be noted that not all assistant curates are priests, as this legal status also applies to many deacons working as assistants in a parochial setting.

The corresponding term in the Catholic Church is "parochial vicar" - an ordained priest assigned to assist the pastor (Latin: parochus) of a parish in the pastoral care of parishioners. Normally, all pastors are also ordained priests although occasionally an auxiliary bishop will be assigned that role.

See also


Priestly offices of various religions and denominations




"Consulting the Oracle"
by John William Waterhouse, showing eight pagan priestesses in a temple of prophecy of the pagan Roman Empire.



  1. ^ Joseph B. Lightfoot, Epistle to the Philippians; a revised text, with introduction, etc., 2nd ed. 1869, p. 184 , cited after OED.
  2. ^ Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1362–1367
  3. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1545
  4. ^ Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church: article priest (Oxford University Press 2005 ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3)
  5. ^ Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church: article bishop (Oxford University Press 2005 ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3)
  6. ^ "1st Married Catholic Priest To Be Ordained Sunday". CBS Broadcasting Inc.. 2007-05-06. Retrieved 2008-05-17. 
  7. ^ Miller, Michael (May 17, 2008). "Peoria diocese ordains its first married priest". Peoria Journal Star: p. C8. Retrieved 2008-05-17. "About 100 Episcopal priests, many of them married, have become Catholic priests since a "pastoral provision" was created by Pope John Paul II in 1980, said [Doug] Grandon, director of catechetics for the diocese. [...] His family life will remain the same, he said. Contrary to popular misunderstandings, he won't have to be celibate." 
  8. ^ "Protestantism originated in the 16th-century Reformation, and its basic doctrines, in addition to those of the ancient Christian creeds, are justification by grace alone through faith, the priesthood of all believers, and the supremacy of Holy Scripture in matters of faith and order" ("The Protestant Heritage." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 20 September 2007 [1]

External links

Bible wiki

Up to date as of January 23, 2010
(Redirected to Priest article)

From BibleWiki

The Heb. kohen, Gr. hierus, Lat. sacerdos, always denote one who offers sacrifices.

At first every man was his own priest, and presented his own sacrifices before God. Afterwards that office devolved on the head of the family, as in the cases of Noah (Gen 8:20), Abraham (Gen 12:7; Gen 13:4), Isaac (Gen 26:25), Jacob (Gen 31:54), and Job (Job 1:5).

The name first occurs as applied to Melchizedek (Gen 14:18). Under the Levitical arrangements the office of the priesthood was limited to the tribe of Levi, and to only one family of that tribe, the family of Aaron. Certain laws respecting the qualifications of priests are given in Lev 21:16ff. There are ordinances also regarding the priests' dress (Ex 28:40ff) and the manner of their consecration to the office (29:1-37).

Their duties were manifold (Ex 27:20f; Ex 29:38ff; Lev 6:12; Lev 10:11; Lev 24:8; Num 10:1ff; Deut 17:8ff; Deut 33:10; Mal 2:7). They represented the people before God, and offered the various sacrifices prescribed in the law.

In the time of David the priests were divided into twenty-four courses or classes (1Chr 24:7ff). This number was retained after the Captivity (Ez 2:36ff; Neh 7:39ff).

"The priests were not distributed over the country, but lived together in certain cities (forty-eight in number, of which six were cities of refuge), which had been assigned to their use. From thence they went up by turns to minister in the temple at Jerusalem. Thus the religious instruction of the people in the country generally was left to the heads of families, until the establishment of synagogues, an event which did not take place till the return from the Captivity, and which was the main source of the freedom from idolatry that became as marked a feature of the Jewish people thenceforward as its practice had been hitherto their great national sin."

The whole priestly system of the Jews was typical. It was a shadow of which the body is Christ. The priests all prefigured the great Priest who offered "one sacrifice for sins" "once for all" (Heb 10:10ff). There is now no human priesthood.* (See Epistle to the Hebrews throughout.) The term "priest" is indeed applied to believers (1 Pet 2:9; Rev 1:6), but in these cases it implies no sacerdotal functions. All true believers are now "kings and priests unto God." As priests they have free access into the holiest of all, and offer up the sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and the sacrifices of grateful service from day to day.

*See however Kohane

This article needs to be merged with Kohane.
This article needs to be merged with PRIEST (Jewish Encyclopedia).
This article needs to be merged with Priest (Catholic Encyclopedia).
This entry includes text from Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897.

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