The Old Testament Priesthood
The first mention of a priestly figure in the Old Testament was that of Melchizedek the king of Salem (Jerusalem), a Canaanite and a priest of the God Most High. He met Abraham with bread and wine and a blessing to celebrate the rescue of Lot (Gen,14:18-20). Abraham acknowledged this by giving him a tenth (tithe) of the booty.
There was no formal priesthood during the patriarchical era. Noah was the first to offer up sacrifice (Gen. 8:20-22).
Later the head of the clan performed sacrifices at various holy places (Gen. 22:1-14; 26:25; 31:54).
After the Israelites developed a more structured society and dedicated certain permanent sites as sanctuaries, a sacerdotal class became necessary. The priesthood was limited to the Levites by Mosaic law and later they served in the temple performing ritual functions and offering up sacrifice at the altar (Deut.10:8-9; Ex.28-29).
During the Mosaic era the ark, the sign of God’s presence, was given to the care of the family of Aaron and eventually was housed at the sanctuary at Shiloh where Samuel was a priest (1 Sam.4:4ff). David brought the ark to Jerusalem (2 Sam.6:1ff) and Solomon placed it in the Holy of Holies in the temple as the sign of the real presence of Yahweh (1 Kgs.8:6).
In the period after the Maccabean Wars and up to the temple’s destruction (70 AD) the priesthood dominated the nation. The high priest was the de facto head of the Judean government. Priests lived throughout the country and came to Jerusalem for their term of service. It is possible that Zachariah the father of John the baptizer, lived at an outlying point from Jerusalem (Lk.1:8,23).
Priesthood in the New Testament
Christianity took its form in the womb of Judaism. The birth pangs are recorded in the book of Acts. Sometime after 85 AD the two were totally separated when the Jesus movement was condemned by official Judaism.
One of the key teachings in the apostolic preaching was the role of Christ who was seen as both God and man. He became both the priest and mediator between God and humankind. In fact he was the high priest by God’s appointment (Heb.5:1-6) and replaced the OT sacrifice with his own sacrifice (Heb.7:27-28;9:23-26), thus nullifying the need for the OT priesthood.
The word priest to describe an ecclesial office does not appear in the NT other than above. There it presents Christ’s work as the replacement for the cultic order and the sacrifices of the old covenant. “He entered not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood and achieved redemption” (Heb.9:12).
The term “holy and royal priesthood”(1 Pt.2:5,9-10; Rev.1:6; 5:10; 20:6) referring to the people of God is not used in an ecclesial sense but we like Jesus are to offer up our lives in faith and love to God as a sacrifice (Rom.12:1, Eph.5:2; Phil. 4:18).
The Early Church
The call and ministry of the “Twelve” is an important theme of the four gospels. They are special witnesses “of his baptism to the day he was taken up” (Acts 1:22; Jn.15:27). “He gave them authority to expel demons and cure sickness” (Mt.10:1). Jesus said, “He who welcomes you, welcomes me”(Mt.10:41); “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then he gave them the power to forgive sins (Jn. 20:21-23). They were given authority to expel dissenters (Mt. 18:15-18).
There is no doubt that Peter is singled out for leadership of the “Twelve” despite his human failings. He is easily first and there is no second among them. “You are the rock and on this rock I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18). “You in turn must strengthen your brothers” (Lk. 22:32). Jesus is the shepherd in John’s Gospel (10:1ff). That role was clearly transferred to Peter (21:15-19). He is presented as the leading figure in the emerging Church (Acts 1-10).
When Paul, a convert went up to Jerusalem the first time, to present “his credentials”, he writes that he visited Cephas (Peter) for fifteen days. He mentions James the brother of the Lord in passing (Gal. 1:18). After Peter leaves Jerusalem and goes to Rome, later historians name James as the first bishop of Jerusalem.
The Emergence of a Hierarchy
The Jerusalem church had a poor fund. Paul, when on his mission journeys, always took up a collection to bring back to add to that fund (1 Cor.16:1-4). Apparently the widows and orphans of the Greek speaking believers (Hellenists) were being neglected. Hellenists as helpers of the apostles were appointed to correct this problem (Acts 6:5). This later evolves into the diaconate. Out of necessity there is a hierarchical structure evolving.
In the earliest NT writing Paul warns the Christians “to respect those who are over you in the Lord” (1 Thess.5:12). It is clear that there was no egalitarian arrangement in which everybody had the same roles. By AD 65 Peter, James and John had died as martyrs. In the last third of the first century with no records of who the leaders were, the authority assumed was seen as apostolic sanctioned.
For example Colossians, Ephesians and the pastoral letters were written after Paul’s death. Yet the writer who was pseudonymous continued to speak in the name of Paul. The Gospels were pseudonymously written under apostolic names.
The pastoral letters represent a point where official authority is permanently transmitted to individuals. A rite of ordination appears that implies a cultic and sacramental “gift” (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim.1:6). There are three clearly defined offices: bishops (1 Tim.3:11-7), deacons (1 Tim. 3:8-10; Acts 6:1-6), and presbyters (1 Tim. 5:17-22; Titus1:5-9).
Ignatius (AD 110) warns to “submit to the bishop, be subject also to the presbytery”, and reminds that deacons are the “servants of God”. Tertullian notes that the heretics make frivolous appointments to these three offices (AD 200). Hippolytus of Rome describes the ordination rites of deacons and presbyters and their relationship to bishops who are seen as successors to the apostles (AD 215). In AD 251 the Roman church had 1 bishop, 46 presbyters and 7 deacons.
Why Are Presbyters Called Priests?
Clement, Peter’s third successor as bishop of Rome, compares the high priest, priest, and Levites to Christ; the bishop and deacon. The theology of Jesus as the high priest and the Eucharist as a sacrifice reflects on the role of the celebrant. He is doing what Jesus the high priest did at the last supper. The Eucharist is also seen as the substitute for the sacrifices of Israel because Jesus is now the Lamb of God (Jn. 1:29; 1 Pt. 1:19). The presbyter is called priest for these reasons.
The Eucharist has become the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi: “For from the rising of the sun even to its setting…they bring sacrifice to my name and a pure offering” (1:11).
Vatican II states that the “fullness of orders” is found in the episcopacy (bishop). Following the precedent of Peter, the Bishop of Rome is the bishop of bishops. The diaconate which had become a step to the priesthood was restored as the permanent diaconate (non-celibate). The clergy are human and subject to sin. Remember to pray for them as Jesus did for Peter! (Lk. 22:32).