Recently, a good friend asked on social media for comments about the basis of “a priestly class” in the Abrahamic religions. I told him I would take a stab at it, given my background. I am not yet an expert in Christian theology or history; I do have the Master of Divinity from Trinity College, Toronto (an Anglican seminary). I am pursuing a call to Anglican priesthood (the Holy Spirit seems to have a sense of humour); in the meantime, I am also working on a PhD in Theology and Religion focusing on dialogue about queerness within the Christian churches. I am quite willing to be corrected about anything I say here, especially from the perspectives of Jewish tradition; I am also fairly confident that I have a basic grasp of a good answer. What is the Scriptural basis for the emergence of a priestly class in Christianity? Not as much as some would like to think, I suspect.
In the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, it is very clear that there is a group specifically called to be priests: the tribe of Levi. They do not inherit any land, but are supported by the people. The line of Aaron, Moses’ brother, inherits the priesthood from generation to generation, in order to offer animal (blood) sacrifices (and other offerings) and eventually to maintain the Temple and its worship. In the Greek translation of the OT called the Septuagint, the word “priest” is translated “sacerdos.”
In the New Testament, to me it is very unclear why there is justification for a priestly class. First, the word “priest” (sacerdos) only occurs once in Hebrews (chapter 7, I believe) and refers to Jesus Christ himself as the final sacrifice and therefore the final priest that needs to offer blood sacrifices. When the word “priesthood” is used in the NT, it appears to me to apply to all Christians as followers of Jesus, who offer “spiritual sacrifices of thanksgiving.” Christians are, in fact, a “Kingdom of priests.” (To my ear, this means that “priest” was originally, for Christians, a democratic term.)
So how did the catholic traditions develop a “priesthood”? The original friends of Jesus who spent time with him were called apostles, “sent ones.” When there was an early conflict about food distribution and racism in the community, the apostles laid hands on seven Greek (minority) men to become “deacons” – those who took care of practical needs to that the apostles could focus primarily on teaching ministry. But even there, it’s still not the same as a priesthood (though the Catholic traditions often say that the ordination of the deacons in Acts was the first instance of ‘apostolic succession’).
In the letters written earlier in the NT, though prophets and apostles, teachers etc are recognized (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12-14), there is no clear sense of hierarchy: everyone is gifted by the Spirit, so keep good order and everyone will have a chance to minister in his or her place. In the late letters, especially the Pastorals (1/2 Timothy, Titus) we have the emergence of three terms: deacon, presbyter (presbyteros), and overseer (episkopos). Still, it is agreed by many scholars of early Christianity that the terms presbyter and overseer probably meant the same thing in their original settings. In the second century CE, some church leaders began to make the distinction between presbyter and overseer, so that there emerged three orders with specific tasks, and overseers became known as bishops; this distinction was deemed useful to the Church’s work of spreading the Good News of Jesus.
As the Jesus-movement grew, up to and even after the Roman Empire made Christianity the state religion, it became important to have some sort of quality control mechanism, especially when teachings deemed inaccurate or deviant (heresies) were attempted to gain a wide hearing among catholic Christians. By restricting the teaching of Scripture and the Great Thanksgiving (Eucharist) to priests and bishops, catholic Christians still hope to safeguard the integrity of the teaching of Jesus. The three orders of ministry became the primary means of demonstrating the unity of Christians throughout the world, and the Latin translation of “presbyter” eventually leads us to the English word, “priest.” (Subsequent Christian history messes up this lovely theory rather decisively, but it’s a pretty theory, isn’t it?)
Of course, this post-canonical history demonstrates a seriously conservative institutional tendency that can only be maintained if Christians ignore or devalue passages throughout the Scriptures that speak of the Spirit as belonging to all people, regardless of class, gender, or other human distinctions. It also leads to forms of clericalism that often absolve church leaders from empowering their lay people or lay people of taking responsibility for developing their own understandings of the faith. This is still something that the broadly catholic churches are coming to terms with in the early 21st Century, especially since Roman Catholic lay Christians have only recently been encouraged to read the New Testament–since Vatican II!
I haven’t even mentioned other issues regarding the “spiritual gifts” allegedly given to the priestly class: for example, the ability to absolve people of sin, to pronounce God’s blessing on people and objects, and to consecrate the Eucharist and spaces used for worship. Those three things, it seems to me, are only derived from Tradition, and not from airtight arguments made from the multiple strands of Biblical thought. The “priestly class” is part of the sandbox I play in as an Anglican, but I do not believe that its existence is ontologically necessary for the integrity or functioning of the Christian faith. The power of these roles might not have to do with God mysteriously changing anything, but rather with the People of God recognizing that this person is fit for ministry and blessed by God. In other words, the priestly class is a strong form of social construction that God in God’s mercy deigns to use. (This belief is what makes me a “bad Anglican.”)
I do think it is important to recognize and designate leaders and those who have the time and patience to dig into the resources of Christian faith on behalf of those who have questions. But do I think recognizing the proficiency and calling of these people needs to create a “priestly class” that becomes distinct from the rest of the people (laos/laity)? No. The justification for this class is primarily not in the Bible itself, but rather in the subsequent development of the Christian tradition. Whether a “priestly class” is necessary or useful to the 21st Century churches should, I think, be a matter of discussion–whether it will become so is anyone’s guess.