Priests and Levites in the First Century C.E. by Jonathan Stökl

Most people in ancient Judea saw the world differently than we do. To them—and in particular, to the priests—the temple and the continuing worship that took place there ensured God’s presence in the temple and God’s blessing of the land with protection and good conditions for farming. It was the priests’ duty to carry out the temple service correctly to maintain this abundance and security. To achieve this purpose, priests had to fulfill strict purity regulations; otherwise, their worship might not “count” and the divine blessings might not come.

Priests occupied an important and mostly well-regarded position in ancient Jewish society: they were trained not only in religious matters but also in Jewish law, literature, and tradition. Criticism against the high priest and the leaders of the priesthood may have been fairly common, but that should not lead us to think that priests in general were not well regarded. The fact that priests identified as priests long after the second temple was destroyed (70 C.E.) shows that descendants of priests were proud to be priests even when a different group, the rabbis, had taken control of what was to become rabbinic Judaism.

Levites were similar to priests in that they were a patrilineal, hereditary order and they worked in the temple. Their purity was important, too, but the rules regulating them were not as strict. Levites were not regarded as highly as priests for most of the Second Temple period (539 B.C.E.–70 C.E.); they are often described as a lower-level priesthood. They manned the temple gates, cleaned the temple, slaughtered some of the sacrificial animals, and performed the music during temple worship (1Chr 23-25).

In order to become a priest, one had to be the son of a priest and be pure in mind and body. (And according to the Pentateuch, priests were also said to be from the tribe of Levi.) It is likely, based on both biblical and Mesopotamian texts on priesthood, that every time a priest came to the temple to carry out his service there, his purity would have been tested by a group of priests and Levites who would probably have physically examined him (for skin diseases or broken bones) and made sure that there were no allegations of misconduct.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), a priest and a Levite pass by a badly injured person. Why might they have done this? The priest did so because Num 19 states that he must avoid corpse impurity. Touching a dead or dying body, even holding a hand over it, would render the priest ritually impure and put his temple service at risk. It is less clear why the Levite avoids the wounded man, as the Levite is not commanded to avoid corpse impurity in the same exclusive way.

For a modern analogy, imagine a scientist who runs a nuclear power station. He or she must ensure that employees follow strict rules to prevent radiation contamination and to ensure the safety of the entire community. In the same way, priests and Levites had to be careful about whether they brought something impure into the temple (or took something holy out of the temple; see Ezek 42:13-14), so as not to put the well-being of their community at risk.

Jonathan Stökl, "Priests and Levites in the First Century C.E.", n.p. [cited 30 Nov 2022]. Online:


Jonathan Stökl

Jonathan Stökl
Lecturer, King’s College

Jonathan Stökl is lecturer in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at King’s College London. His research focuses on prophets and priests in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near East. His first book, Prophecy in the Ancient Near East: A Philological and Sociological Comparison, was published by Brill in 2012.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

Contaminated as a result of certain physical or moral situations, and therefore prohibited from contact with holy things. (See also: "purity" (HCBD).)

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy or what later became the larger province under imperial control

religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E.

Relating to the system of ritual slaughter and offering to a deity, often performed on an altar in a temple.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

The historical period during which the second temple was standing in Jerusalem, from its dedication around 516 B.C.E. until its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E.

1Chr 23-25

Families of the Levites and Their Functions
1When David was old and full of days, he made his son Solomon king over Israel.2David assembled all the leaders of I ... View more

Luke 10:29-37

29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the h ... View more

Num 19

Ceremony of the Red Heifer
1The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:2This is a statute of the law that the Lord has commanded: Tell the Israelites to bring yo ... View more

Ezek 42:13-14

13Then he said to me, “The north chambers and the south chambers opposite the vacant area are the holy chambers, where the priests who approach the Lord shall e ... View more

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