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Priest of the Roman Catholic Church ( Rome , Italy 2005)

In most religions, a priest or a priestess is seen as an official who stands out from the general public and who, in his capacity as the head of cultic acts, assumes a mediator role between his or her deity (s) and humans. The word priest is derived from the ancient Greek presbyteros meaning " elder ", as are the corresponding terms in other European languages.

Definition of religious studies

In almost all religions there are people who, through special knowledge, skills, powers and divine powers, mediate a connection between the divine realm and the everyday world of people and thereby organize, heal or gain knowledge as divine representatives. From various necromancers in high cultures , usually around the temple, a priesthood with precisely regulated rights and duties has developed (see History of Religion ).

When classifying religious authorities in the religious studies type model, there are certain overlaps with other types for the priest, which, in addition to the general vagueness of the model, are primarily due to the difficulties that arise when the term priest is derived from the Mediterranean religions are transferred to completely differently structured religions (for example from the Far East or North America). The Jewish temple servants, the Kohanim ( singular : Kohen ), cannot be classified among the priests either: They are and were not mediators between humans and God and no divine powers work through them. This is in contrast to other religions, in which the priests' right to exist is derived precisely from such a sacred mediator role between God (or gods) and humans.

Relief at the Kalabsha temple: Horus and Thoth clean the Pharaoh

In societies in which the formation of a priesthood has not taken place, but also in those in which this step has been taken, there are certain “preliminary stages” to the priesthood. In many ethnic groups, the “housefather” ( pater familias ) or the head of a clan is entrusted with performing sacred functions. In archaic cultures, the exercise of priestly duties was originally reserved for the king , but with the increasing differentiation of religious cults, he delegated them to subordinate priests. Such a priesthood is first adopted for the Neolithic and the subsequent Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean. The divine kingdom of a pharaoh , son, messenger, mediator, and successor of the deities, is an example.

In cultures without writing, the type of priest is often not clearly distinguishable from necromancers - i.e. medicine people, magicians or shamans. In principle, however, necromancers characteristically have to do with impersonal powers or forces that they have to control instead of being in a personal relationship with a deity through a cult service (see: Delimitation problems ; example shamans and priests ) .

Even monks of different religions did not originally have the cultic mediator function of the priest, but they can, as for example in Buddhism , take on priestly functions and thus "grow into" a priesthood from their original function. This step is often viewed as the origin of the priesthood. Typologically, however, it is characteristic that the monk draws divine power or grace from his conduct of life and not like the priest, who receives it because of his office.

The tasks assigned to the priest differ according to religion. In principle, however, the priest always acts as a mediator between the divine and human beings. He is mutually entrusted with representing the deity vis-à-vis humans and human beings vis-à-vis the godhead: he manifests the divine will, preserves the sacred knowledge and mediates the divine graces. As a representative of the people he acts by leading sacrificial rituals and prayers to the deity (s).

As a cult servant, he usually performs cultic acts in a close spatial context with a temple , altar or natural shrine . There he makes sacrifices and leads the rites, reads the holy scriptures and protects the place of worship from intrusion by unauthorized persons.

In addition to these two areas, there are various other tasks that are not exclusively priestly: These include psychological and medical care of the faithful, the preaching of prophecies or - especially in ethnic religions - the invocation of the deity or other spiritual beings. In addition, the priests in missionary religions are teachers and missionaries at the same time and take on administrative tasks or the judiciary.

Priestess of the Egyptian goddess Isis with a bronze vessel. Museo Archaeologico Regionale, Palermo, Sicily.

The initiation of the priests takes place either through a physical or a spiritual sequence (succession). In both cases it is important that the choice is not made by human will, but by divine power. In the case of physical succession, the priesthood within a family is inherited and passed on from father to son. The father initiates the son into priestly knowledge and any secret teaching . The only difference in spiritual succession is that the priest is accepted into the priesthood not by birth, but by a special ordination and is therefore not in a physical line of ancestors, but rather in a spiritual line of ancestors through his “ordained father”. The potential applicants are specifically selected and educated with regard to their future tasks, possibly even in a specially created institution. The training extends primarily to the knowledge of the correct performance of the cult. The focus is on learning an ancient cult language , the correct sequence of the various rites and the often extensive prayer texts . In addition, the priesthood of a culture is often a first-rate bearer of culture and is additionally trained in many other areas. These include preferably astronomy ( priest astronomer ), mathematics , chronology , medicine , nursing , writing , cartography and historiography . Not infrequently in history, monks, abbots and priests have also been successful in technology and science; several important inventions and discoveries can be traced back to her, see for example Roger Bacon , Nikolaus von Kues , Christoph Scheiner , Nikolaus Kopernikus , Johann Adam Schall von Bell , Athanasius Kircher , Christophorus Clavius , Marin Mersenne , Caspar Schott , Claude Chappe , Gregor Mendel , Sebastian Kneipp and Georges Lemaître .

The location of the priesthood within society as a whole is characterized by a number of special positions. On the one hand, this can include taboo regulations such as certain dietary regulations , purity laws , sexual abstinence and generally adhering to a strict lifestyle. The regulations can be limited to a certain period before and during the cult act or they can be permanent. On the other hand, the priests usually enjoy certain privileges and often also have a special legal status, e.g. B. in tax exemption, non-participation in direct acts of war, or the immunity of the clergy , and outwardly ( official costume , tonsure or the like) stand out from the lay people.

From these special regulations for the priesthood, the priesthood in a society often developed into a closed caste , which closed down in a strictly hierarchical order: Within the priesthood, rank classes with graduated powers or knowledge are often formed and placed at the top of the entire priesthood a general high priest ( high priest ) with extensive authority. The most prominent examples of this are the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church or the Chinese Emperor.

Priesthood in Individual Religions

Pre-Christian Rome

In the ancient Roman Empire , the priesthood was heavily mixed with political activity. Many politicians used to consult a priest before making a decision.

The priests were popularly referred to as sacerdotes for short , and on official occasions as sacerdotes publici populi Romani Quiritium ("public priests of the Roman people of the Quirites "). They were subject to customary and sacred law in ancient Rome .

The Roman priesthood included the sodalities of the Fetiale , Salier , Arvalbrüder , Titii sodales and Luperci . The Arval brothers in particular practiced an imperial cult . The four highest colleges of priests were the Pontifices , the Augures , the Quindecimviri sacris faciundis and the Septemviri epulonum .


Since the destruction of its temple, Judaism no longer provides for a mediator between man and God (see Tisha beAv ) . In Judaism (and in Islam) there are therefore no priests in this sense. The Jewish synagogue servants are only theologically trained servants who perform certain tasks in the worship services.

The title of Kohen [ kohn ] ( Hebrew כהן) is a status of Judaism . Their status is based solely on the commandments of God. The Kohanim [ kohaˈnɪm ] ( Hebrew כהנים, plural of Kohen ) are a subgroup of the Levites , the priestly among the Twelve Tribes of Israel . They are considered direct descendants of Aaron , a brother of Moses . The Kohanim performed the temple service at the altar in the Jerusalem temple . The HaKohen HaGadol ( high priest , literally "great priest") was the highest religious authority in Judaism.

The Kohanim are not mediators between Jewish people and God or between humanity and God. This defines the difference to other religions that provide mediators between God (or gods) and humans. Every Jew is directly responsible to God. The temple cult had no mediating function and - with the exception of the possible atonement for an unintentionally committed sin - no sin-eradicating function through sacrifice and blood. The people of Israel - a kingdom of priests - has the task of keeping the covenant or "contract" made at Sinai. The well-being of every Jew or Israelite, the people of Israel, even that of humanity and the earth depends on it. In the third temple of Jerusalem , the Jewish Messiah will offer the cleansing offering or Atonement ( Chatat ) to redeem sins committed unintentionally.


Orthodox priest at the Divine Liturgy

In Christianity the priest is separated from the general public of the laity , permanently appointed by receiving the ordination . The decree Presbyterorum ordinis of Pope John Paul II states that the priests would be “appointed from among men to God” “to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins ”. The Christian denominations differ in their definition of priestly authority and duties. The theological profile of the priest largely coincides between the Roman Catholic, Old Catholic and Orthodox traditions .

The Protestant denominations of the Reformation have distanced themselves from the priesthood understanding of ministry and mostly do not use the term (compare: ordination ).

Starting with the Jewish early community of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem , Jewish Christianity did not yet have any special mediators between man and God. According to the New Testament , the Hellenistic pagan Christianity that resulted from it (from AD 49) and the early Church applies : “One is God, one also mediator between God and man: the man Christ Jesus” ( 1 Tim 2,5  EU ). Jesus Christ was both high priest and servant. With the growth of the Gentile mission and the Gentile Christian communities, the Christian liturgy came into being and the ecclesiastical offices gained in importance.

In the second century, a three-part hierarchical structure developed that is still widespread today: bishop , elder (presbyteros) and deacon , with today's priests being classified in the category of presbyters. After the Constantinian turn of 313, the bishops acquired a prominent role in the empire; thereby a demarcation from the priests was given, but this was not always precisely defined. Then there was the category of monks , who had often, but not always, been ordained priests. Bishops were usually called from among the priestly monks. In the Middle Ages, bishopric and priesthood differed in their competencies in the western church: only a bishop can give orders and normally confirmation , the priest can donate the other sacraments .


Like the Kohen in Judaism, the Islamic prayer leaders ( imams ) are not priests in this sense, but only theologically educated servants who perform certain tasks in the worship services. In Islam , the five daily worship services can be held in the mosque as well as alone and at home. A prayer leader is only necessary when several believers pray together (to synchronize the ritual, so to speak); he should have a minimum of theological skills.


Marie Laveau , a well-known voodoo priestess in New Orleans

In the syncretic voodoo religion, the priests are referred to as houngans and the priestesses as mambos ; both are equal. Their official symbol is the rattle called Asson , which is kept in the hounfour (temple). Voodoo priests who also or only deal with damage spells are known as bocore .

See also

  • Daoshi (a Daoist master, or priest and priestesses of Daoism)
  • Entu priestess (highest religious office in Sumer and later in Babylonia)

Web links

Commons : Priests (priests)  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Priest  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wikiquote: Priests  - Quotes

Individual evidence

  1. “(…) And you shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy people. These are the words that you should say to the children of Israel. And Moses came and called the elders of the people and laid before them all the words which the Lord had commanded him, and all the people answered with one accord and said, We will do everything the Lord says. And Moses brought the words of the people to the Lord (…) ”(Exodus 19: 5).
  2. ↑ It is literally stated in the Hebrew language that God “made” a covenant with Israel. Today the custom of ceremoniously cutting a ribbon, for example at the inauguration of a public building, is a reminder of the old Mesopotamian custom of the federal cut.
  3. W. Gunther Plaut (Ed.): Wajikra = Ṿa-yiḳra = Leviticus . 3. Edition. Gütersloher Verlagshaus, Gütersloh 2008, ISBN 978-3-579-05494-0 , p. 13 ff. And 50 ff . (1st edition of the special edition; with an introduction by Walter Homolka; authorized translation and editing by Annette Böckler).
  4. Decree Presbyterorum ordinis, on the service and life of priests , No. 3)
  5. ^ Church and church fellowship. Report of the International Roman-Catholic-Old Catholic Dialogue Commission, Bonifatius GmbH Druck Buch Verlag, Paderborn 2009, p. 13: The mutual recognition of offices was documented as early as 1968 in the so-called Zurich Nota, “as from the Roman Catholic side with a view to the Old Catholic Churches it was stated that in them 'true sacraments, especially by virtue of apostolic succession, the sacrament of ordination and the Eucharist have been preserved' ”.
  6. Heb 4: 14-5.6  EU
  7. ^ P. Fransen: Priesthood. In: Heinrich Fries (ed.): Handbook of theological basic concepts. Munich 1962, pp. 340-350, here p. 346.
  8. Milo Rigaud: Secrets of Voodoo. City Lights Books, San Franzisko 1969, ISBN 978-0-87286-171-8 , p. 36/37 (English; first published 1953; from the French by Robert B. Cross; side view in the Google book search).