From its incunabular hour as a nascent nation, the Jewish people was commanded to sanctify the divine in this world. Aaron and his descendants were specifically tasked with this sacred charge as priests (kohanim), among whom were the supreme high priests (a.k.a. head priests) beginning with Aaron himself.
Under the high priest’s supervision, the priests offered sacrifices and performed sacred rites and rituals on the nation’s behalf as prescribed in the Torah, first within the Tabernacle (a.k.a. Tent of Meeting, Sanctuary) in the wilderness and variously in the Land of Israel (Gilgal, Shiloh, Nob, Givon), then within the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. In addition to serving as sacerdotal officiants of the people, the high priests were charged with important pedagogical and judicial roles (largely appropriated by the Sages during the Persian or Hellenistic eras).
The high priest was anointed with oil and initially appointed for life. The age of eligibility is believed to have been 20. A high priest was only permitted to marry Israelite maidens, and expressly forbidden from marrying widows, divorcees, or harlots (regular priests were permitted to marry widows, but not divorcees or harlots). In contrast with regular priests who were prohibited from having contact with the deceased except for parents, brothers, unmarried sisters, spouses, and children, the high priest was proscribed from all contact with the deceased, including his parents, with the sole exception (according to the Talmud) being a meit mitzvah (burial of a corpse by the wayside when none else in the vicinity is available to inter it). Like regular priests, a high priest could not sacrifice offerings made by fire if he possessed certain physical defects (blindness, lameness, facial mutilation, elongated limbs, broken arms or feet, a hunched back, stunted growth, eye cataracts, festering or running sores, or damaged testicles).
The high priest’s unique raiment consisted of: a purple robe fringed with golden bells and colored pomegranates; the Ephod apron with engraved onyx shoulder pieces; the girdle; the breastplate with 12 engraved gemstones; a pouch for the Urim and Thummim; a mitre; and a gold tiara engraved with the phrase “Holy unto God”. On Yom Kippur the high priest exchanged his costly vestments for white linen garments and entered the Holy of Holies to atone for the nation.
In his later years, King David, aided by the high priest Zadok ben Ahituv and the priest Ahimelekh ben Avyatar (or else the high priest Avyatar himself), organized the 24 families descended from Aaron’s sons Eleazar and Itamar into 24 priestly courses/divisions, named after the contemporary familial heads, that would take weekly turns (rotating each Sabbath) officiating in the imminent Temple: Yehoyariv, Yedayah, Harim, Se’orim, Malkiyah, Miyamin, Hakotz, Aviyah, Yeshua, Shikanyahu, Elyashiv, Yakim, Hupah, Yeshebav, Bilgah, Immer, Hezir, Hapitzetz, Petahiah, Yehezkel, Yakhin, Gamul, Dilayahu, Ma’azyahu. The heads of priestly families in each generation were known as chiefs of the priests, who attended the high priest. King Solomon instituted his father’s innovations after the completion of the Temple and the royal residences.
During the First Temple era, monarchs ruled in Israel and Judah, and the high priest’s ambit was restricted to the Temple. During the Second Temple era, the high priest’s purview was expanded to include administrative and diplomatic duties. Under Roman rule, the high priesthood became a political office whose incumbent proved expedient to the occupying power and its prefects and procurators, who were at times entrusted with the high priest’s garments until required for celebrating the Jewish festivals.
Biblical sources for the high priests include Exodus, Leviticus, I Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, and later sources include Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish War, the Talmud, the Gospels, and Seder Olam Zuta (an early medieval work compiled in Babylonia during the Geonic era).
From the Tabernacle to the First Temple (c. 1250 BCE–c. 955 BCE)
- Aaron – Elder son of Amram and Yokheved. He was the older brother of Moses and first high priest. When the tribe of Levi was designated to perform the sacerdotal service, Aaron was anointed and attired in the priestly robes, and instructed in its myriad duties. The Tabernacle and its Tent of Meeting were erected during his tenure. Not only was the priesthood the special prerogative of the tribe of Levi, but Aaron and his line in perpetuity was formally distinguished among the Levites as having the sacred charge of the Tabernacle and the sacrificial altar. He was the father of Eleazar, Itamar, and the ill-fated Nadav and Avihu. Aaron died in the wilderness and was buried on Mount Hor.
- Eleazar – Aaron’s third son who was anointed high priest following the tragic deaths of his brothers Nadav and Avihu. Eleazar held the office under the leadership of Moses then Joshua, and participated in the conquest of Canaan. He was buried on Mount Ephraim.
- Pinhas – Son of Eleazar, whose religious zeal spared the children of Israel from the divine wrath. He killed the Shimonite prince Zimri ben Salu and his Midianite harlot Cozbi while they were in the throes of their passion. Moses sent him with an armed force to combat the Midianites. He also went with 10 tribal princes of Israel to rebuke members of Reuven, Gad, and Menasheh for having erected an altar on the Gilad-Canaan border.
- Avishua – The first high priest anointed in the Land of Israel. The Samaritans know him as Avisha, and claim he authored an abbreviated Torah scroll preserved in Shechem, which he is believed to have written 13 years after the Israelites settled in the land.
- Bukki – The second high priest anointed in the Land of Israel, Bukki was a great-grandson of Aaron.
- Uzzi – The last of the high priests from Eleazar’s lineage to serve in the Tabernacle. After Uzzi, the high priesthood was transferred to Itamar’s line and did not revert for almost two centuries until Zadok was anointed high priest during King Solomon’s reign.
- Eli – Itamar’s son, who officiated in the Tabernacle at Shiloh and also served Israel as a Judge for 40 years. His sons Hofni and Pinhas became corrupt. When the aged Eli learned that the Ark of the Testimony had been captured by the Philistines in the battle at Afek, he fell from his seat and died.
- Ahitov – Son of Eli’s wayward son, Pinhas, Ahitov is believed to have escaped from the destruction of Shiloh and to have ministered as high priest during Samuel’s lifetime. He settled in Nob and established it as a priestly town.
- Ahijah – Son of Ahitov, and high priest during the reign of Israel’s first monarch, Saul. He wore the ephod in Saul’s camp during the latter’s Michmash wars.
- Ahimelekh – Son of Ahitov, and brother of Ahijah. He served as high priest in the Tabernacle erected at Nob during King Saul’s reign and supervised 85 priests of Eli’s family who wore linen ephods. Ahimelekh was deceived into giving the fugitive David some showbread for victuals, as well as Goliath’s sword. A ruthless Saul ordered Doeg the Edomite to kill Ahimelekh and his kin; the sole survivor was Ahimelekh’s son Avyatar, who fled to David with the high priest’s ephod.
- Avyatar – Son of Ahimelekh and sole survivor of King Saul’s purge of Nob’s priests. Avyatar served David as priest throughout the latter’s wanderings, and on David’s behalf consulted the Urim & Thummim set in the ephod with which he had absconded from Nob. Either Avyatar or possibly a son of his named Ahimelekh, along with Zadok ben Ahituv, aided David in arranging the 24 priestly courses/divisions. After King David’s death, Avyatar supported Adonijah’s claim to the throne, for which Solomon banished him to Anatot. The line of high priests descending from Itamar ended with Avyatar, as did the era of high priests officiating in the Tabernacle.
From the First Temple to the Fall of Jerusalem (c. 955 BCE–586 BCE)
- Zadok – Son of Ahituv. A priestly colleague of Avyatar, Zadok endorsed Solomon as royal heir and abetted his ascent to the throne. With the high priesthood reverting back to the line of Eleazar, Zadok became the first high priest to minister in the Temple that King Solomon built in Jerusalem.
- Ahimaaz – Son of Zadok, Ahimaaz officiated during King Rehoboam’s reign.
- Azariah – Son of Ahimaaz (or else Zadok), Azariah served during the reign of King Abijah, son of Rehoboam.
- Johanan – Son of Azariah, and high priest during the reign of King Asa. He is probably identical with the Jehoahaz/Jehoash referred to in Seder Olam Zuta.
- Azariah II – Son of Johanan, and high priest during the reign of King Asa.
- Amariah – Son of Azariah II, and high priest during the reign of King Jehoshaphat. Amariah was appointed to oversee the judges in Jerusalem who dealt with religious law. After Amariah, the high priesthood again shifted away from the line of Eleazar, Aaron’s son.
- Jehoiada – High priest during the reign of Queen Ataliah, his mother-in-law, Jehoiada preserved the royal infant Joash from his murderous grandmother who had the rest of the royal family slain. Jehoiada ensured that Joash attained the throne in Judah, personally proclaiming the youth king in a coronation ceremony in the Temple.
- Azariah III – High priest during the reign of King Uzziah. Azariah remonstrated with his sovereign when Uzziah had arrogated the duty of offering incense on the altar in the Temple. With incense censer in hand, Uzziah grew angry and was soon punished with an outbreak of leprosy on his forehead.
- Uriah – High priest during the reign of King Ahaz. Ahaz went to Damascus and was enamored of the altar he saw there, so he sent its detailed specifications to Uriah, who dutifully built a replica according to the royal instructions.
- Shallum (Meshullam) – With Shallum the high priesthood reverted back to the line of Eleazar and Zadok. He officiated during the short-lived reign of King Amon.
- Hilkiah – Son of Shallum, and high priest during the reign of King Josiah. Hilkiah recovered the lost scroll of the Torah (believed to have been Deuteronomy) during repairs to the Temple in Josiah’s 18th regnal year. Shaphan the scribe read the scroll to Josiah, who rent his garments in dismay and ordered Hilkiah and the priests to remove at once from the Temple all of the idolatrous vessels, which were burnt in the Kidron Valley. On Josiah’s instructions, Hilkiah consulted Huldah the prophetess regarding the contents of the scroll and the nation’s destiny.
- Azariah IV – Son of Hilkiah, and high priest during the reign of King Jehoiakim.
- Seraiah – High priest during the reign of King Zedekiah and the fall of Jerusalem, Seraiah and his deputy Zephaniah met a tragic fate when they were brought by Babylonian general Nebuzaradan to Emperor Nebuchadrezzar at Riblah, where both priests were put to death.
- Jehozadak – Son of Seraiah, and the last high priest of the First Temple era. He was carried away into the Babylonian Captivity with the rest of Judah and Jerusalem.
From the Return from Captivity to the Herodian Era (538 BCE–35 BCE)
- Jeshua – Son of Jehozadak, and high priest for 25 years. Jeshua was born in exile during the Babylonian Captivity. Along with Zerubbabel, he helped organize the return of 42,360 Jews to Judah, then helped rebuild Zion. He started with erecting the altar of burnt offerings, assigning Levitical duties, and overseeing the laying of the Second Temple’s foundations in Jerusalem. He was key to reestablishing the order of sacrifices and planning the construction of the Second Temple, which was completed in 516. He served as the first high priest in the Second Temple, and opposed the Samaritans’ frequent interference. The prophet Haggai’s utterances sometimes addressed Jeshua. The prophet Zechariah featured Jeshua in his early visions and referred to him as “a brand plucked out of the fire”, and Jeshua and Zerubbabel are also called “two sons of pure oil, who stand by the Lord of all the earth”. Zechariah was instructed to fashion a crown of silver and gold for Jeshua.
- Joiakim – Son of Jeshua, and high priest for 20 years. Notably, Joiakim is not listed among the sons and nephews of Jeshua who had intermarried with foreign women.
- Elyashiv – Son of Joiakim, and high priest for 37 years. He and his priests built the sheep gate through which small cattle were led into Jerusalem for sacrificing. He was criticized by Nehemiah for allying with his enemy Tovia, and for preparing for the latter a chamber of household vessels in the Temple courts. Nehemiah reversed this accommodation upon his return to Judah from Persia after an absence of 12 years.
- Joiada – Son of Elyashiv, and high priest for 23 years. One of his sons (according to Nehemiah) or grandsons (according to Josephus) became a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite, an implacable adversary to the Judahites, and so was expelled by Nehemiah.
- Johanan – Son of Joiada, and high priest for 39 years. He served after the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah, and is mentioned in an Elephantine papyrus in connection with his opposition to the Elephantine temple erected by the Jews and his neglecting to correspond with them on the subject. His younger brother Jeshua was supported by the Persian general Bagoas (Bagoses), and provoked Johanan in the Temple. Following a quarrel, Johanan slew Jeshua. In consequence, Bagoas violated the Temple’s sanctity by entering it and punished the Judahites for seven years. Josephus refers to the murder as “so great a crime, and so much the more horrible, that there never was so cruel and impious a thing done, neither by the Greeks nor Barbarians.”
- Jaddua – Son of Johanan, and high priest for 51 years. Upon reaching Syria, Alexander the Great dispatched envoys to Jaddua to obtain Judah’s allegiance. Jaddua refused to offer his loyalty on account of his oath of fealty to Darius III of Persia. The Macedonian conqueror was enraged, and proceeded to conquer Gaza and threaten Jerusalem. According to Josephus, Jaddua made sacrificial offerings then received a divine warning in a dream to adorn the city, open the gates, and dress in his priestly attire while the Jerusalemites dressed in white garments. Jaddua and the people greeted Alexander, who recognized Jaddua from a dream he had had back in Macedonia in which Jaddua had exhorted him to venture against the Persians. Alexander bowed down to the God that Jaddua represented, astonishing his army. Jaddua directed Alexander in sacrificing offerings in the Temple, and obtained from Alexander assurances that the Jews (including those outside of Judah and any who joined the Macedonian army) would be permitted to follow their ancestral way of life and pay no tribute in the sabbatical year (shmittah).
- Honya (Onias) – Son of Jaddua, and high priest for 40 years. According to I Maccabees, King Arius of Sparta corresponded with Honya regarding their fraternal bond as descendants of Abraham, for which reason they should share possessions and tidings of one another. Josephus confuses the recipient as Honya (Onias) III, and cites the contents as stating: “We will also do the same thing, and esteem your concerns as our own, and will look upon our concerns as in common with yours. Demoteles, who brings you this letter, will bring your answer back to us. This letter is four-square, and the seal is an eagle with a dragon in his claws.”
- Shimon – Son of Honya, and high priest for 40 years. Josephus identifies this Shimon as the legendary figure of Shimon the Just, although Ben Sira, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), and the Talmud suggest it was Shimon II.
- Eleazar – Son of Honya, brother of Shimon, and high priest for 15 years. He assumed the office when his brother died and was survived by a minor, Honya II. He received an epistle from Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, stating: “I have determined to procure an interpretation of your law, and to have it translated from Hebrew into Greek, and to deposit it in my library.” Eleazar replied and sent the requested 72 elders (six from each Israelite tribe) to Ptolemy with a loaned copy of the Tanakh for translation.
- Menasheh – Son of Jaddua, and high priest for five years. He officiated during the interval between his nephew Eleazar and grandnephew Honya II. He is sometimes conflated with his uncle Menasheh, who was the brother of Jaddua and husband of Sanballat’s daughter, Nicaso, and who became the first priest of the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim.
- Honya (Onias) II – Son of Shimon, and high priest for 22 years. Josephus depicts him as a covetous man who provoked Ptolemy III Euergetes of Egypt to anger by withholding 20 silver talents. Ptolemy threatened to seize the land and settle soldiers there. Honya II’s nephew, Joseph, appeased Ptolemy and became his new tax collector, slaying leading men from those cities that refused to pay their taxes. Honya II may have withheld the taxes in order to resist the yoke of Ptolemaic Egypt and strengthen Ptolemy’s rivals.
- Shimon HaTzaddik (Shimon II the Just) – Son of Honya II, and high priest for 33 years. Shimon was known for his piety toward God and benevolence towards his fellows. He was among the remnants of the Knesset HaGedolah (Great Assembly), precursor of the Gerousia and Sanhedrin. According to Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus/Sirach), which features a glowing eulogy for him, Shimon repaired the damaged Temple and rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls, which had been razed by Ptolemy I Soter. He oversaw the digging of a reservoir and fortified the city against siege warfare. He is also known for his adage recorded in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “The world exists through three things: the Torah, service, and acts of loving-kindness.” His tomb lies north of the Old City in Jerusalem and is a site of pilgrimage to this day.
- Honya (Onias) III– Son of Shimon II, and high priest for 10 years. He quarreled with a certain Shimon the Benjamite who was chief administrator in the Temple. The slighted Shimon informed the Seleucids of vast treasures stored in the Temple, which they unsuccessfully attempted to plunder. Due to the corruption and Hellenizing extremes of his successors Jason and Menelaus, Honya fled for safety to a temple in Daphne, Syria, near Antioch. He was murdered at Menelaus’ instigation by Andronicus, a Seleucid high official, who was soon thereafter put to death for the crime. Remarkably, according to II Maccabees, “King Antiochus was deeply grieved and was so filled with sorrow that he was moved to tears when he recalled the wisdom and self-control that Honya had shown throughout his life.” It is believed that Daniel 9:26 is an allusion to the tragic downfall of Honya III.
- Jason (Joshua) – Brother of Honya III, and high priest for three years. It is notable that a son of Shimon HaTzaddik could have turned out to be so irreligious and corrupt (and it serves perhaps as a belated argument in favor of Shimon I’s identification as Shimon the Just). Still, Jewish history is replete with wayward sons of righteous fathers. In any event, when Antiochus IV Epiphanes assumed the Seleucid throne, the Hellenizing and ambitious Jason successfully bribed the new ruler for the high priesthood, and began turning Jerusalem into a Greek polis with a gymnasium and ephebeum. Jason was in turn unseated by the aforementioned Shimon the Benjamite’s brother, Menelaus, who offered an even larger bribe for the office. According to II Maccabees, “Jason did not realize that success against one’s own people is the worst kind of failure. He even considered his success a victory over enemies, rather than a defeat of his own people.” Jason unsuccessfully attempted to seize control again of Jerusalem, and after fomenting a massacre of its residents he was forced to flee to Ammon, where he was briefly imprisoned by the Arab ruler Aretas I of Nabatea, then wandered from country to country, dying a fugitive in a foreign land.
- Menelaus – A Benjamite, and high priest for 10 years. Sent by Jason to pay the annual tribute to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Menelaus returned to Jerusalem with the high priesthood secured for himself. He never paid the promised bribes to the Seleucids, but sold gold objects from the Temple to Tyre and other cities and presented them to Andronicus, a Seleucid high official, who murdered Honya III at Menelaus’ behest. Following another Temple robbery by his brother Lysimachus, who was slain by a mob, Menelaus was put on trial for his misconduct but again bribed his way to success and was acquitted. When Antiochus attacked Jerusalem, Menelaus guided him into the Temple to plunder its riches. According to II Maccabees, “he had the temper of a cruel tyrant and could be as fierce as a wild animal…. He grew more evil every day and became the worst enemy of his own people.” He was at last put to death by Antiochus V Eupator in Berea, where he was hurled to his death inside a tower with a floor of ashes.
- Alcimus (Eliakim) – A Hellenist priest and enemy of Judah Maccabee, and high priest for three years. He was appointed by Demetrius I Soter and installed into office by Seleucid general Bacchides, who supplied him with a garrison before returning to Syria. Alcimus pledged peace to the pious Hassideans who solicited him, but betrayed his word and arrested and had crucified 60 rabbis on the same day (including his uncle and the nasi of the Sanhedrin, Yose ben Yoezer). The Maccabees grew too powerful for Alcimus to maintain his office, so another general, Nicanor, was dispatched from Syria to aid him, but Nicanor died in battle against Judah. Bacchides then returned and defeated Judah at Elasa. Alcimus ordered the Temple’s inner court wall torn down, but just as the work began he suffered a paralyzing stroke and soon died in great torment. After Alcimus’ death the office of the high priesthood was vacant for seven years.
- Jonathan (Apphus) Maccabee – Son of Matityahu, and high priest for 10 years. Jonathan succeeded his brother Judah as leader of the Maccabean Rebellion. Alexander Balas, a pretender to the Seleucid throne, granted Jonathan the high priesthood in 153. Jonathan was later confirmed in the role by Demetrius II Nicator. Although the Maccabee brothers were from a priestly family, they did not descend from high-priestly lines, and so Jonathan’s appointment as high priest was seen as illegitimate by the people. He was betrayed and murdered by Seleucid general Diodotus Tryphon at Baskama. He was buried in the Hasmonean family tomb in Modi’in, and left no male heirs. Josephus claims descent from his daughter.
- Shimon (Thassi) Maccabee – Son of Matityahu, and high priest for eight years. A wise leader and successful soldier, Shimon was the last surviving Maccabee brother of the original five. With alacrity he avenged his slain brother Jonathan and assumed command of Judea and the rebellion against the Seleucids. He was finally able to capture the Akra citadel in Jerusalem, which had for decades plagued the Maccabees. He was confirmed as high priest by Demetrius II Nicator and ratified as high priest and ruler by all the Judeans including the priesthood, who pledged to follow him “until a true prophet appears.” Shimon Maccabee was cruelly betrayed and murdered, along with two of his sons, by his son-in-law Ptolemy during a banquet at the fortress of Dok near Jericho.
- Johanan Hyrcanus – Son of Shimon Maccabee, and high priest for 30 years. Johanan fled his father’s assassins and was welcomed in Jerusalem by the people as successor and ruler of Judea (though he never arrogated to himself the title of king). He fought the Samaritans and destroyed their temple on Mount Gerizim around 120. He then subdued the Idumeans (Edomites), whom he conquered and forced to convert to Judaism, the first instance of forcible conversion in Jewish history. This proved a mistake on several levels, particularly since the Herodians were patrilineally Idumeans, and they would go on to usurp the Hasmoneans. Johanan refortified Jerusalem’s walls and secured Judea’s independence. During Johanan’s tenure the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes became firmly established religious parties in Judea. Johanan was initially a tutee of the Pharisees, but when he withdrew religious authority from the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees challenged his right to the high priesthood, whereupon he switched his allegiance to the Sadducees (Zadokites).
- Judah Aristobulus – Son of Johanan Hyrcanus, and high priest for a year. According to his father’s will, he was intended for the high priesthood while his mother was to receive the throne. Yet this arrangement did not satisfy Judah, who placed his mother in prison, where she starved to death. He also incarcerated his brothers aside from Antigonus, whom he preferred. When allegations of Antigonus’ plotting against Judah emerged, Judah unwittingly put him to death. Judah is said to have assumed the title of king, though his extant coins show only that of high priest. He waged war on the Itureans in Lebanon and captured territory. It was said that Judah was so stricken with contrition over the deaths of his brother and mother at his hands that he died of grief. He was married to Shlomtzion (Salome Alexandra), who later married his younger brother Yannai Alexander, and who ruled in her own right for almost a decade.
- Yannai Alexander (Alexander Jannaeus/Alexander Jonathan) – Son of Johanan Hyrcanus and brother of Judah Aristobulus, and high priest for 27 years. Yannai was the third son of Johanan Hyrcanus, by his second wife, and was imprisoned by his older half-brother Judah Aristobulus until the latter’s death, when the widowed and childless Shlomtzion (Salome Alexandra) freed Yannai then married him, though she was 13 years his senior. Yannai openly used the title of king, and undertook a series of military expeditions, with mixed results. The Pharisees, representatives of popular sentiment, opposed his warlike policies as well as his kingship since he was not from the House of David. When as high priest Yannai offered the prescribed water libation during Sukkot, he let the water run on his feet, incensing the Pharisees, who pelted him with etrog citrons and vitriol in contempt. Yannai let loose his mercenaries upon the Pharisees and 6,000 were slaughtered; six years of civil war ensued, amid which the Pharisees invited the Seleucid ruler Demetrius III Eucaerus to war against Yannai, who was defeated. Yannai recuperated and had 800 Pharisees crucified in Jerusalem. By the cessation of hostilities, 50,000 Jewish lives had been lost and the Pharisees, including their leaders, had been scattered among foreign lands. Yannai died while besieging the fortress of Regev in Gilad. Josephus claims that Yannai, on his deathbed, urged his wife to make peace with the Pharisees so that she would be able to govern without internal turmoil. He was buried in Jerusalem. The Qumranic composition Pesher Nahum refers to Yannai as a “lion of wrath”.
- Hyrcanus II – Son of Yannai Alexander, and high priest for 33 years. His mother Shlomtzion (Salome Alexandra) named him as her successor to the throne, but his brother Aristobulus II rose in rebellion against him early in his reign and civil war plagued Judea, eventually costing it its independence. Hyrcanus’ soldiers defected to Aristobulus in battle at Jericho; Hyrcanus retreated to Jerusalem but was compelled to surrender when Aristobulus captured the Temple. Aristobulus deprived Hyrcanus of the throne and high priesthood alike, but peace had been made, though it was short-lived. The wily Antipater, a seditious Idumean and father of Herod the Great, convinced Hyrcanus to seek refuge in Petra with Aretas III of Nabatea, who was persuaded and bribed to also wage war against Aristobulus. Aretas defeated Aristobulus in battle, and this time most Judeans defected to Hyrcanus, except for the Sadducees. Aretas besieged Aristobulus and his priestly loyalists in Jerusalem with an army of 50,000. During the siege, Hyrcanus’ Judean partisans were responsible for stoning to death the beloved miracle worker Honi HaMe’agel, who refused to imprecate Aristobulus and his party because they, too, were Judeans. Soon Pompey’s general Scaurus invaded Judea, where he was solicited by ambassadors from both Hasmonean brothers and offered bribes. Scaurus sided with Aristobulus, and forced Aretas to lift the siege and retreat. Aristobulus then took an army against Hyrcanus and Aretas and defeated them at Papyron, slaying 6,000. Hyrcanus was re-appointed high priest and even regained his political authority under Julius Caesar. Mark Antony later stripped Hyrcanus of his political power and bestowed it upon Herod the Great. In 40, Hyrcanus was seized by the Parthians and exiled to Babylonia, after being made permanently ineligible for the office of high priest by the mutilation of his ears. In 36, Herod invited Hyrcanus to return to Judea, which the latter did despite warnings. In 30, Herod had Hyrcanus condemned and executed for purportedly plotting against him.
- Aristobulus II – Son of Yannai Alexander, and high priest for three years. Impetuous and ambitious, Aristobulus rebelled against his older brother Hyrcanus II. Aristobulus was warlike while Hyrcanus was a weakling; the former felt more qualified to rule and officiate then the latter, and thus believed his rebellion just. Aristobulus positioned himself as the champion of the Sadducees, and gained control of the fortresses his mother had placed at their disposal as protection from the Pharisees. He defeated Hyrcanus at Jericho and proclaimed himself high priest and king, permitting Hyrcanus to retain revenues. He was compelled to withdraw to Temple Mount when besieged by Aretas III of Nabatea and Hyrcanus, but successfully bribed Pompey the Great’s general Scaurus who ordered the siege lifted. When Pompey himself arrived on the scene, however, not even the gift of a golden vine could win him over to Aristobulus. Pompey received envoys from both hostile brothers, as well as a delegacy from the Judeans seeking to abolish the Hasmonean dynasty altogether, but he prevaricated. Aristobulus fled from Pompey to the fortress of Alexandrion, then to Jerusalem, but Pompey followed him in lockstep. Finally Aristobulus lost his nerve and went over to Pompey’s camp, where he was imprisoned. Pompey invaded Jerusalem, besieged and overran the Temple, and slew 12,000 Judeans. Like Bagoas before him (and Titus after him), Pompey entered the sacred Temple precincts with his retinue, though he did not plunder its riches. He reappointed Hyrcanus as high priest and sent Aristobulus and his children to Rome as hostages. In 57/56, Aristobulus escaped to Judea where he fomented revolt. He was recaptured and returned to Rome. In 49, Aristobulus was released by Julius Caesar and sent at the head of two legions against Pompey in Syria, but was poisoned en route by Pompey’s supporters. The civil war between Aristobulus and Hyrcanus inadvertently invited the Roman subjugation of Judea.
- Mattathias Antigonus – Son of Aristobulus II, and high priest for three years. Ambitious like his father, and carried off to Rome with him as a hostage in 63, Mattathias escaped Rome with his father in 57/56 and returned to Judea. He recognized his uncle Hyrcanus II as the indolent puppet of Antipater the Idumean, and thus visited Julius Caesar in Syria in 47 to assert his rights. Although his father Aristobulus II and his older brother Alexander had died in Caesar’s cause, Caesar rejected Mattathias’ claim. As a result, Mattathias turned to Rome’s rivals, the Parthians, who sought control of Syria and Judea. He used the murder of Antipater in 43 as the impetus for one last attempt to wrest control of Judea. He rebelled against Rome but was defeated in 42 by Antipater’s son, Herod the Great. The Parthians then invaded Syria, crowned Mattathias king and high priest of Judea, and conquered Jerusalem for him in 40. Hyrcanus II was once again deposed as high priest, and Herod’s brother Phasael was held hostage. Herod fled and rallied his Roman allies: Marc Antony defeated the Parthians, and Herod besieged Jerusalem and captured Mattathias in 37. He delivered him to the Romans at Antioch, Syria, where they beheaded the last Hasmonean king of Judea—the first known instance of the Romans putting to death a defeated monarch.
- Hananel (Hanameel/Ananelus) – An Egyptian according to the Mishnah, and a Babylonian according to Josephus, Hananel was high priest (on and off) for seven years. Herod the Great first appointed him to the high priesthood so as to sideline his own brother-in-law Aristobulus III, a popular Hasmonean whom he feared. Herod, however, was compelled to remove Hanamel from office in favor of Aristobulus, but Hananel was reinstated after Herod instigated Aristobulus’ murder.
- Aristobulus III (Jonathan) – Grandson of Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, and high priest for less than a year. Aristobulus was the son of first cousins Alexander (son of Aristobulus II) and Alexandra (daughter of Hyrcanus II), and his sister Miriam the Hasmonean was wife to Herod the Great. At first Herod appointed to the high priesthood an obscure priest, Hananel, who was not from a high-priestly family, but soon replaced him with Aristobulus. He was admired for his noble lineage and handsome appearance, and Judeans greeted him with joy when he appeared in full garb before them during the festival of Sukkot in 36. Herod felt threatened by his brother-in-law’s popularity and had his soldiers drown him in the baths at Jericho in 35. Aristobulus III died at the age of 18, and was the last Hasmonean high priest.
From the Herodian Era to the Fall of Jerusalem (35 BCE–70 CE)
- Joshua ben Phabi (Jesus ben Phabet) – High priest for seven years. He was appointed and deposed by Herod the Great, who replaced him with his new father-in-law, Shimon ben Boethus, when he desired to marry the beautiful Mariamne II. It is believed that Joshua was Egyptian, and two other members of his family, both named Ishmael, also became high priests after him.
- Shimon ben Boethus – An Alexandrian, father-in-law of Herod the Great, and high priest for 18 years. He was the first of several Boethusians to occupy the high priesthood, and this Sadducean family became despised by the Pharisees for its wickedness. He was appointed by Herod, who deposed him when he divorced Shimon’s daughter Mariamne II (who was accused of involvement in a plot against Herod’s life), and replaced him with Matthias ben Theophilus.
- Matt(at)hias ben Theophilus – A Jerusalemite, and high priest for a year. On the eve of Yom Kippur, he made himself ritually unclean by dreaming of his wife, and so had to be replaced in the office for a day by a certain Joseph ben Ellem. Herod had appointed him to the office, but deposed him after he was implicated in an act of sedition when the golden eagle was pulled down from the Temple gate. Herod appointed Matthias’ brother-in-law Joazar ben Boethus in his stead. A descendant of his bearing the same name was later high priest when the Great Revolt broke out against the Romans.
- Joazar ben Boethus – Brother-in-law of Matthias ben Theophilus, and high priest (on and off) for about four years. His sister was Mariamne II, Herod the Great’s ex-wife. He was appointed by Herod the Great shortly before the latter’s death, and deposed by Herod’s son Archelaus for sedition and (temporarily) replaced by his brother Eleazar. Joazar was later re-appointed by popular acclamation. He persuaded the Judaeans to submit to the census of Quirinius (Cyrenius), Roman governor of Syria, in 6 CE. Quirinius later showed no gratitude for Joazar’s efforts when he deposed him in favor of Hanan ben Seth.
- Eleazar ben Boethus – Brother of Joazar ben Boethus, and high priest for a year. He was appointed and deposed by Archelaus, who replaced him with Joshua ben Seth.
- Joshua ben Seth (Jesus ben Sie) – High priest for up to nine years. He was appointed by Archelaus, and may have been deposed following the latter’s death in 6 CE, when Joazar ben Boethus was reinstated at the behest of the multitude. Joshua’s successor, Hanan ben Seth, was probably of the same family.
- Hanan (Ananus/Annas) ben Seth – High priest for nine years. Hanan was appointed by Quirinius (Cyrenius), Roman governor of Syria, and deposed by Valerius Gratus, Roman prefect of Judaea, who replaced him with Ishmael ben Phabi. Hanan was likely a relative of Joshua ben Seth, and was the father of later high priests Eleazar ben Hanan, Jonathan ben Hanan, Theophilus ben Hanan, Mattathias ben Hanan, and Hanan ben Hanan, as well as to a daughter who married Joseph Caiaphas. The Gospel of John relates that Jesus of Nazareth appeared before Hanan for an initial hearing before being sent to Caiaphas.
- Ishmael ben Phabi – A relative of Joshua ben Phabi, and high priest for a year. He was appointed and deposed by the Roman prefect Valerius Gratus, who replaced him with Eleazar ben Hanan, whose father he had previously deposed.
- Eleazar ben Hanan – Son of Hanan ben Seth, and high priest for a year. He was appointed and deposed by the Roman prefect Valerius Gratus, who replaced him with Shimon ben Kimhit (Camithus).
- Shimon ben Kimhit (Kamhit/Camithus) – High priest for a year. He was appointed and deposed by the Roman prefect Valerius Gratus, who replaced him with Joseph Caiaphas. He may have been the father of later high priest Joseph ben Camydus.
- Joseph Caiaphas (Kayafa) – Son-in-law of Hanan ben Seth, and high priest for 18 years. He was appointed by the Roman prefect Valerius Gratus, the fourth and last appointee made by the latter before he left Judaea for Rome, having been prefect for 11 years, and having been replaced by Pontius Pilate. Caiaphas was the brother-in-law of his predecessor Eleazar ben Hanan, and of his successors Jonathan ben Hanan, Theophilus ben Hanan, Mattathias ben Hanan, and Hanan ben Hanan. He is depicted in the Gospels as an unsympathetic antagonist of Jesus of Nazareth, in whose crucifixion Caiaphas was implicated. He was deposed by the Roman governor of Syria, Lucius Vitellius, who replaced him with his brother-in-law Jonathan.
- Jonathan ben Hanan – Son of Hanan ben Seth, and high priest for a year. He was appointed and deposed by the Roman governor of Syria, Lucius Vitellius, who replaced him with his brother Theophilus. Jonathan was known as an upright and humble figure. The Roman procurator Marcus Antonius Felix, tired of Jonathan’s admonitions to govern Judaea in better fashion, bribed a friend of Jonathan’s to arrange for Sicarii terrorists to murder him, which they did in Jerusalem in 58.
- Theophilus ben Hanan – Son of Hanan ben Seth, and high priest for four years. He was appointed by the Roman governor of Syria, Lucius Vitellius, and deposed by King Agrippa I of Judaea. He was likely the father of later high priest Mattathias ben Theophilus II.
- Shimon Cantheras ben Boethus – High priest for two years. He was appointed and deposed by King Agrippa I of Judaea, who replaced him with Mattathias ben Hanan after Jonathan ben Hanan graciously refused a reappointment. He was father to later high priests Elioneus ben Shimon Cantheras and (probably) Joseph Cabi ben Shimon.
- Mattathias ben Hanan – Son of Hanan ben Seth, and high priest for less than a year. According to Josephus, his brother Jonathan ben Hanan described him as “a person more worthy than myself…. I have a brother that is pure from all sin against God, and of all offenses against you; I recommend him to you as someone who is fit for this dignity.” He was appointed and deposed by King Agrippa I of Judaea, who replaced him with Elioneus ben Shimon Cantheras. According to Josephus, four of Mattathias’ sons fled for safety to the Romans during the Great Revolt.
- Elioneus ben Shimon Cantheras – Son of Shimon Cantheras ben Boethus, and high priest for a year. He was appointed by King Agrippa I of Judaea. The Mishnah mentions him as a son of Caiaphas, whereas Josephus mentions him as a son of Cantheras.
- Joseph ben Camydus (Cantos) – Probably the son of Shimon ben Kimhit, and high priest for two years. He was appointed and deposed by Herod of Chalcis, who replaced him with Hananiah ben Nedebaios.
- Hananiah ben Nedebaios (Nebedeus) – High priest for 12 years. He was appointed by Herod of Chalcis and deposed by King Agrippa II of Judaea. Hananiah was sent to Rome in bonds by the Roman governor of Syria, Ummidius Quadratus, to account for his conduct after the turmoil between the Judaeans and Samaritans from 50-52. Agrippa II helped exonerate Hananiah, who returned to Judaea to officiate as high priest. Josephus describes him as a money hoarder with wicked servants who violently beat, and stole tithes from, the regular priests. In Acts, Paul depicts Hananiah ordering his servants to strike Paul in the mouth, prompting Paul to curse and protest. Hananiah later went to Caesarea (Caesarea Maritima) with a lawyer to level charges before the Roman procurator Marcus Antonius Felix against Paul, who was imprisoned. Hananiah’s friendship with the Roman procurator Lucceius Albinus garnered the enmity of the Sicarii terrorists. When the Great Revolt broke out, the Sicarii set Hananiah’s manse on fire and later murdered Hananiah and his brother Hezekiah when they were discovered hiding in an aqueduct.
- Ishmael ben Phabi II – High priest for four years. He was appointed and deposed by King Agrippa II, who replaced him with Joseph Cabi ben Shimon. Ishmael was wealthy and enjoyed popular appeal. According to Josephus, however, “such was the impudence and boldness that had seized on the high priests, that they had the hardiness to send their servants into the threshing-floors, to take away those tithes that were due to the priests, insomuch that the poorest sort of the priests died for want.” He permitted the ritual of burning the red heifer to be conducted according to the Pharisees’ prescription. As part of a group of 10 ambassadors, Ishmael was sent on an embassy to Emperor Nero to petition for permission to retain a wall erected in the Temple to obscure outside views. Nero acceded to the request, although Ishmael and another were held hostage by Empress Poppaea at Rome. When Agrippa II heard the news, he installed Ishmael’s successor. Ultimately, Ishmael was beheaded in Cyrene following Jerusalem’s destruction. Josephus relates that three of his sons fled for safety to the Romans during the Great Revolt. The Mishnah eulogizes Ishmael with approbation.
- Joseph Cabi ben Shimon – Probable son of Shimon Cantheras ben Boethus, and high priest for a year. He was appointed and deposed by King Agrippa II, who replaced him with Hanan ben Hanan. According to Josephus, Joseph fled for safety to the Romans during the Great Revolt.
- Hanan ben Hanan (Ananus ben Ananus) – Son of Hanan ben Seth, and high priest for three months. Hanan was the last of five sons of Hanan ben Seth to become high priest. Josephus describes him as a bold and insolent man who assembled the Sanhedrin to have James the brother of Jesus of Nazareth condemned and stoned to death. He was appointed and deposed by King Agrippa II, who replaced him with Joshua ben Damnai. Along with Joshua ben Gamla, Hanan tried to rouse the Judaeans against the Zealots, but was executed by the Zealots’ allies, the Idumaeans, as a purported traitor to the country.
- Joshua ben Damnai (Damneus) – High priest for less than a year. He was appointed and deposed by King Agrippa II, who replaced him with Joshua ben Gamla. Strife broke out between these Joshuas, who publicly hurled slurs and stones at each other. According to Josephus, Joshua fled for safety to the Romans during the Great Revolt.
- Joshua ben Gamla (Gamliel) – High priest for a year. Joshua married the rich widow Martha of the high-priestly Boethus family (in a rare instance of a priest being betrothed to a widow before his elevation to the high priesthood, who was nonetheless permitted to marry her afterward). According to the Talmud, Martha bribed King Agrippa II to secure the office for Joshua. He instituted a universal education system by arranging for schools in every Judaean town (and not just Jerusalem) for children at least five years old and outlined sound pedagogical principles, garnering the Sages’ praise: “Truly, the name of that man is blessed…since but for him the Torah would have been forgotten in Israel.” He also replaced the boxwood casket from which lots were used for the scapegoat on Yom Kippur with a gold casket, “and his memory was therefore kept in honor”. Joshua contended with his ci-devant and prevailed, though not for long. He was appointed and deposed by Agrippa II, who replaced him with Mattathias ben Theophilus. Like other grandees, Joshua unsuccessfully opposed the appointment of later high priest Pinhas ben Samuel, and also strove in vain to keep out the Idumaeans from Jerusalem. Along with Hanan ben Hanan, he tried to rouse the Judaeans against the Zealots, but was executed by the Zealots’ allies, the Idumaeans, as a purported traitor to the country. Josephus describes Joshua as a close friend who “stood far above the rest”.
- Mattathias ben Theophilus II – Son of Theophilus ben Hanan, and high priest for a year. He was appointed by King Agrippa II, and deposed by the Zealots for being a member of the peace party. One of his sons sought refuge among the Romans. He was put to death by the revolutionary Shimon bar Giora, whom he had invited into Jerusalem to subdue the Zealots. He may have been the high priest referred to in the Talmud as the one who lingered in the Temple on Yom Kippur to pray on its behalf when it was endangered by the Zealots.
- Pinhas (Phinehas/Phannias) ben Samuel – From the priestly family of Eliakim/Jakim/Jachin (called Eniachim by Josephus) and the village of Habta (Aphtha), and high priest for three years. A prodigious ignoramus, Pinhas was appointed via the casting of lots, and without his consent, by the Zealots, who had arrogated to themselves the authority to do so, making a mockery of the holy office. According to Josephus, Pinhas was “a man not only unworthy of the high priesthood, but one who hardly knew what the high priesthood was, such a mere rustic was he!” The Zealots clothed Pinhas in the sacerdotal raiment and had to instruct him in all of his duties. Unsurprisingly, the Zealots and their creature were ardently opposed both by Pharisee leaders including Shimon ben Gamliel I and Gorion ben Joseph, and by Sadducees and former high priests Joshua ben Gamla and Hanan ben Hanan. The Tosefta, however, mentions Pinhas as a son-in-law of the nasi’s house, perhaps challenging the portrayal of him as wholly unworthy and unlearned in priestly affairs. Pinhas ben Samuel was the last high priest of the Jews.
Dominated by several high-priestly dynasties (Phabi, Boethus/Theophilus/Cantheras, Seth/Hanan, Camithus/Camydus) during the Roman era, the high priesthood became the object of rivalrous families and a sinecure casually passed around by Roman overlords—or their Judaean client kings—in large part so as to limit the influence of any single incumbent and in order to make it abundantly clear to all who it was holding the reins of power in Judaea. The period under the Hasmoneans in which the kingship and high priesthood were conferred upon the same individual was thereby obsoleted.
Commencing with Aaron and concluding with Pinhas ben Samuel, the high priesthood suffered a ludicrous descent from the exalted to the farcical. This bathetic decline abruptly ended during the Great Revolt with the fall of Jerusalem and Titus’ destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. With their center of power gone, the priestly Sadducees ceded all influence to the popular Pharisees.
In the absence of the Temple, the high priesthood as an institution went into abeyance and the regular priesthood became a nominal office whose members nonetheless retain certain privileges and responsibilities in modern Jewish tradition. Priests are the first to be called up for an aliyah to the Torah when it is read in synagogues; they officiate in the redemption of the firstborn (pidyon ha-ben) ceremony; they pronounce the priestly blessing upon the congregation during synagogue services; and they uphold the purity laws by avoiding contact with the deceased and refraining from marrying divorcees or prostitutes.