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  • The History and Linguistic Background of Two Hebrew Titles for the High Priest
  • Noam Mizrahi

Biblical Hebrew knows several terms denoting levels of priestly hierarchy in general, and the senior office of the high priest in particular. Most notable are the compound terms הכהן הגדול ("the great priest") and כהן הראש ("the head priest").1 The relationship between these terms is not always clear; some scholars implicitly consider them to be mere synonyms,2 while others take them to reflect historical and theological developments that took place during the First and/or Second Temple periods.3 A correct understanding of the potential historical importance of the cultic and religious institution of the high priesthood depends to some extent on the linguistic and philological clarification of these terms, both in themselves and in their mutual relationship. Surprisingly, however, no systematic linguistic analysis of this kind has been performed, and its absence has led a number of scholars to employ argumentation that is incompatible with the linguistic evidence, and [End Page 687] even to create untenable historical reconstructions. The purpose of the present study is to review the available evidence in Biblical Hebrew and present the most plausible conclusions that can be safely drawn from this type of evidence. However, at some points the available evidence is too scanty to allow for a certain solution, and a full understanding of at least one important terminological development—namely, the origin of the term כהן הראש—cannot be reached without some measure of hypothesis.4

I. The Diachronic Relationship between כהן הראש and הכהן הגדול

We begin with two terms that, at first glance, complement each other as a pair denoting the high priest and his deputy, כהן הראש and כהן המשנה. But despite the seemingly perfect terminological match between them, they probably do not belong to the same linguistic phase: כהן המשנה occurs in CBH, while כהן הראש is mostly attested in LBH and in any case does not appear before the transition period from CH to LH.

This state of affairs is indicated by the distribution of these two terms: המשנה כהן is attested in the book of Kings, in a passage that tells about the days of Josiah (2 Kgs 23:4). By contrast, כהן הראש is common in the historical books of the Persian period (2 Chr 19:11; 24:11; 26:20; 31:10; Ezra 7:5),5 while it is practically absent from both the Pentateuch and the older historical works describing the pre-exilic period.6 Admittedly, the two terms appear together in a passage describing the [End Page 688] days of Zedekiah, found at the end of the books of Kings and Jeremiah (2 Kgs 25:18 Jer 52:24); but since these chapters tell about the fall of Jerusalem, they obviously must have been written only after this event took place, that is, in the exilic period at the earliest.7

The lateness of a certain linguistic element cannot be determined based on distribution alone, since this might be a product of chance. In order to make sure that the statistics are indeed meaningful, one needs to demonstrate a linguistic contrast between the element suspected of being late and an equivalent element in CH that is used in the same way.8 This procedure can indeed be applied in our case as well, since the office of the high priest is denoted in the classical literature by an alternative title. The term כהן הראש appears in a context that has a literal parallel in an earlier part of the book of Kings (2 Kgs 23:4), yet this parallel passage uses the alternative term הכהן הגדול:9

2 Kgs 25:18 II Jer 52:24    vs.     2 Kgs 23:4
ויקח רב טבחים את שריה כהן הראש
ואת צפניה(ו) כהן (ה)משנה
ואת שלשת שמרי הסף
And the captain of the executioners took Seraiah the chief priest, and Zephaniah(u) the deputy priest, and the three guardians of the threshold.
ויצו המלך את חלקיהו הכהן הגדול
ואת כהני המשנה
[...] ואת שמרי הסף
And the king ordered Hilkiahu the high priest, and the deputy priests, and the guardians of the threshold [...] [End Page 689]

Similar phraseological preference is reflected in the book of Chronicles, in which the term הכהן הגדול—found in the older text of Kings—is either omitted (2 Kgs 22:8 2 Chr 34:15)10 or replaced by כהן הראש (2 Kgs 12:11 2 Chr 24:11):11

2 Kgs 22:8    vs.     2 Chr 34:15
ויאמר חלקיהו הכהן הגדול על שפן
הספר ספר התורה מצאתי בבית יהוה
[...] ויתן חלקיה את הספר אל שפן
And Hilqiahu...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-3876
Print ISSN
0021-9231
Pages
pp. 687-705
Launched on MUSE
2012-02-04
Open Access
No
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