All the services that were talked about in the last text, the singers and musicians, and the porters and guards were retained in the Temple of Herod. The jobs of the Levites as ‘officers and judges’ had changed, though, because the duties that they had previously had now belonged to the Sanhedrin, but more than that because there were only 400 of them that had returned from captivity in Babylon. There were 4,289 priests that had returned. Of the 400 Levites, there were only 74 who had been ‘priests’ assistants’.
According to tradition, Ezra tried very hard to get them to come back to Jerusalem, even by punishing them in certain ways. He ended up getting 220 Nethinim, “given ones”, which were probably originally strangers and captives and not descendants of any of the original tribes. They were treated like the priests and freed from all taxation and military service, but the true Rabbis held them in very low esteem and there was much friction between them.
Generally it could be stated that the Levites held the jobs of Temple-police, guard of the gates, and the duty of keeping everything about the sanctuary clean and bright. The priests themselves kept watch about the innermost places of the Temple, so they were in charge of all the inner gates. This left the outer gates to the Levites, such as the Beautiful Gate which was the main entrance to the Court of Women.
The laws of Levitical cleanness were most rigidly enforced upon worshippers and priests. If a leper, or any other who was ‘defiled’ had happened to venture into the sanctuary itself, or any priest officiated in a state of ‘uncleanness’, if they were discovered would be dragged out and killed without any form of court system at all. If they were guilty of a smaller offense, they were awarded minor punishments.
As talked about in the last month’s text, each ‘course’ of priests and Levites came on duty for a week, from one Sabbath to another. The service of the week was subdivided among the various families which constituted a ‘course’; so that it consisted of five ‘houses of fathers’, three served each one day, and two each two days; if of six families, five served each one day, and one two days; if of eight families, six served each one day, and the other two in conjunction on one day; or, lastly, if of nine families, five served each one day, and the other four took it two in conjunction for two days. These divisions and arrangements were made by ‘the chiefs or heads of the houses of their fathers.’ On Sabbaths the whole ‘course’ was on duty. On feast days any priest might come up and join in the ministrations of the sanctuary, and at the Feast of Tabernacles all the twenty-four courses were bound to be present and officiate.
While they were engaged in service in the Temple, the priests were not allowed to drink wine at any time. The other families of the ‘course’ who were in attendance in Jerusalem, even though they were not on actual duty, could only drink wine at night in case they might be called in to assist because the workload was heavy. They couldn’t help if they had partaken of strong drink. The law even made a provision to secure that the priests should come up to Jerusalem properly trimmed, washed, and attired so that they could properly participate in the services.
Their income must have been moderate even under the most favorable of circumstances, as it was dependent on the varying religious state of the nation. There was no law that existed by which either the payment of tithes or any other offerings could be enforced. How little power or influence the priesthood wielded is sufficiently known from Jewish history. Out of actual service neither the priests nor even the high-priest wore a distinctive dress at this time in history, as compared with how Aaron had sons had dressed to do their duties in the Tabernacle. Though a number of civil restrictions were laid on priests, there were few corresponding advantages. it is indeed true that alliances with distinguished priestly families were eagerly sought, and that during the troubled period of Syrian domination the high-priest for a time held civil as well as religious rule. But for the most part things at this time were like the picture that was painted above.
In general, the priests had to undergo a course of instruction, and were examined before being allowed to officiate. They were subject to know the basic laws for sacrifices and everything that went along with being a priest. the ordained ‘rulers’ of the Synagogues, the teachers of the people, the leaders of their devotions, and all other officials were not necessarily priests, but simply chosen for their learning and fitness. Anyone whom the elders or rulers deemed qualified for it could teach the people on the Sabbath or any other time. Even the high priest himself had to answer to the Sanhedrin. In antiquities it was stated that “if he committed an offense which by the law deserved whipping, the Great Sanhedrin whipt him, and then had him restored again to his office.” Every year a kind of ecclesiastical council was appointed to instruct him in his duties for the Day of Atonement just in case he was not clear on what to do. Since they thought people who were scholars could do a better job than just an unlearned high priest, this role had decayed mightily in the days of Herod. Because they had no special allegiance to the position, it frequently changed occupants through bribery, or just finding a better position. There was not an allegiance to the position as there had been in the days of old when Zacharias had been a priest.
Even though the position had decayed in the past years, generally speaking the high priest could still wield considerable influence. Generally speaking, though, instead of coming from the line of Aaron as God has said, any person who held the sacred office was not only very learned, but a member of the Sanhedrin. According to the Jewish tradition, the high priest ought, in every respect, to excel all other priests, and if he were poor, the rest were to contribute, so as to secure him an independent fortune. Certain marks of outward respect were also shown him. When he entered the Temple he was accompanied by three persons – one walking at each side, and the third behind him. He might, without being appointed to it, officiate in any part of the Temple services; he had certain exceptional rights; and he possessed a house in the Temple, where he lived by day, retiring only at night to his own home, which must be within Jerusalem, and to which he was escorted by the people after the solemnities of the Day of Atonement, which relied almost exclusively upon him.
Originally the office of high priest was regarded as being held of life and was hereditary, but the troubles of later times made it a matter of crime, bribery, or whoever could maneuver their way into the position. There is a passage written in the Talmud about this: ‘In the first Temple, the high priests served, the son succeeding the father, and they were eighteen in number. But in the second Temple they got the high-priesthood for money; and there are those who say they destroyed each other by witchcraft, so that some reckon 80 high-priests during that period, others 81, 82, 83, 84, and even 85.’ The Rabbis enumerate 18 high priests during the first Temple’ Lightfoot counts 53 from the return from babylon to Matthias, when the last war of the Jews began. There is both difficulty and confusion with these numbers, but even at this you can see that the second high priest was nothing at all like the first one.
There was no fixed age for entering the office of high priest or for ordinary priest. The Talmud puts it down as 20 years, but Aristobulus was only 16 years of age when his beauty roused the jealousy of Herod and he had him put to death. Aristobulus was officiating as high priest at the time he was killed. The entrance of the Levites was fixed at 30 years during the wilderness period, but after that time it was 25 years because the work would require less bodily strength, but a larger number of ministers.
There was really nothing that would disqualify one for the Levitical office, though the Rabbis insisted that a good voice was absolutely necessary. It was not the same with the priest’s office. The Sanhedrin first looked into the genealogy of any candidate. Certain genealogies were deemed OK from the start. According to antiquity “if his father’s name were inscribed in the archives of Jeshana at Zipporim, no further inquiry was made.” If the candidate failed to satisfy the court about his perfect legitimacy, he was dressed and veiled in black and permanently removed. If he passed the first ordeal, inquiry was next made as to any physical defects, of which there were 140 that could permanently, and 22 that could temporarily disqualify any candidate. If a person was disqualified, he could be admitted to menial offices such as in the wood chamber that got ready the wood for the sacrifices, or could somehow work behind the scenes in supporting the duties that had to be done to make everything work smoothly for the sacrifices. The ones who had passed both tests were dressed in white raiment, and their names properly inscribed showing that they were priests.
After the person had been received and instructed in his duties, he was subjected to a formal admission not by anointing as in the days of old, but simply by investiture. The composition of the sacred oil that was used for anointing was not known in the second Temple. So the person was simply placed in the role that he was supposed to do. This was always regarded as being inferior to those priests that were anointed for the job in earlier times. They were called “high-priests by investiture”, and this was continued during seven days. In the olden days, when the person was anointed, the sacred oil was not only ‘poured over him’ but also applied to his forehead in the shape of the Greek letter X. This sacred oil was only used to anoint such kings as were in the family of David and other people whom God himself had anointed for any of these positions. None of this happened in the second Temple, though, and they just placed a person who met their conditions in that office with probably much pomp and ceremony.
In the next text, we will learn about how the high priest was dressed in the Temple of Herod, since they didn’t have many of the things carried down from the first Temple.