Is Ministerial Priesthood Scriptural?

by Wibisono Hartono

While priests are familiar figures to all Catholics, not many Catholics are aware that the priesthood is one issue that divides Catholics and Protestants & "Bible only" Christians.  The English word “priest” is derived from the Greek “presbuteros", which means elder or presbyter.  Thus, priests in the Catholic Church are actually presbyters.  The (Greek) New Testament has another word, “hiereus”, which is also translated into priest in English.  Other than to Jewish priests (cf. Luke 17:14) and to the priests of Zeus (Acts 14:13), hiereus is applied to Jesus (Hebrews 4:14) and to all believers (1 Peter 2:5,9, Revelation 1:6).  Priest (hiereus) refers to a person appointed on behalf of others or mediator to offer gifts and sacrifices to God.  It is not unique to Christianity and Judaism but it can be found in many other religions and beliefs.  The equivalent word in Hebrews is “kohen” and in Old Testament it is applied to Jewish priests as well as to the pagan priests of Egypt (Genesis 41:45, 46:20, 47:26), of the Philistine (1 Samuel 5:5, 6:2), of Baal (2 Kings 10:19) and of Chemosh (Jeremiah 48:7). 

Based on the New Testament, together with all Christians, Catholics accept the priesthood of Jesus and of all believers.

Christ, high priest and unique mediator, has made of the Church’s kingdom, priests for his God and Father.  The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly.  The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation, each according to his own vocation, in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet and king.  Through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the faithful are consecrated to be … a holy priesthood.

CCC # 1546 (emphasis added)

The Catholic Church as well as the Eastern, Oriental and Assyrian Orthodox Churches also recognise another priesthood, which belongs to a group of ordained men: bishops (Greek “episcopos”) and presbyters (the word later evolved into priests).  The Catechism of the Catholic Church (# 1547) defines this priesthood as the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood to distinguish it from the common (or universal) priesthood of all believers.  Protestants and "Bible only" Christians reject the ministerial priesthood because the New Testament does not apply the title priest to bishops and presbyters.  Their position can be summarised in what the late Reformed polemicist Lorraine Boettner wrote:

Thus the New Testament sets forth a new and different kind of priesthood: first, Christ, the true High Priest, who is in heaven, and second, the universal priesthood of believers, through which they offer the "spiritual" sacrifices of praise, of gifts, and of themselves in Christian service.  It thereby repudiates the pretentious claims of the Roman priesthood, which would perpetuate the Jewish priesthood and limit it to a few chosen men who are set apart from the laity, who profess to offer literal sacrifices in the mass, and who supposedly are nearer to God than are other men.

Boetnerr, Roman Catholicism, page 46


There is probably no other doctrine revealed in Scripture that the Roman Church has so obviously turned upside down as that of the priesthood.  The function of no New Testament minister or official resembled that of a priest of the Roman Church.

ibid, page 52

As a person appointed on behalf of others to offer gifts and sacrifices to God, the duty of a priest is offering sacrifice.  In fact, there is no priesthood without sacrifice.  A sacrifice or offering (Greek "thusia") is the principal act of a religious worship.  In the Old Testament sacrifice is an offering to God in the form of animal or product of the soil.  It may involve the shedding of blood, for example, in the case of atonement sacrifice (Leviticus 4:1-12).  The relation between priesthood and sacrifice leads to another reason why Protestants and Bible Only Christians do not accept the ministerial priesthood: their rejection of the Eucharist as a sacrifice to which the ministerial priesthood is closely related.

Since the New Testament gives no instructions at all about the continuation of the Old Testament sacrifices, it was necessary for the Roman priesthood to invent a new kind of sacrifice.  This they did by making a frivolous distinction between the "bloody" sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the "unbloody" sacrifice, which they pretend to offer in the mass.  A priest, of course, must have a sacrifice, for that is the distinguishing mark of his profession.  A priest without sacrifice is simply no priest at all.

Boettner, Roman Catholicism, page 172 (emphasis added)

On the other hand, the Catholic Church (CCC #1541) states that the ministerial priesthood is modelled after the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament.  In the Old Testament, the whole Israelites are kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6), which prefigures the common priesthood of the New Testament (1 Peter 2:5,9, Revelation 1:6).  However, God also established a special priesthood from one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the Levi.  From this tribe God chose Aaron and his sons and their male descendants to be His priests (Number 18: 1) while the Levites (Number 3:5-10) were the males of the rest of the tribe.  Thus, the Old Testament's priests are the Levites who belong to the house (or clan) of Aaron, the brother of Moses.  Both priests and Levites in the Old Testament are hereditary, i.e. they were born as priests or Levites.

Before and even after God established the Levitical priesthood, there were priests among the Israelites.  For example, Noah (Genesis 8:20), Abraham (Genesis 12:7), Jacob (Genesis 31:54, 46:1) and Jethro (Exodus 18:12) offered sacrifice.  Exodus 19:22 mentions priests and in Exodus 24:4-5 Moses and some young men offered sacrifices before the establishment of the Levitical priesthood.  God established the Levitical priesthood for the service in the sanctuary. The sanctuary is the place where God was present with the Israelites (Exodus 25:8).  During the Exodus the sanctuary was a moveable tent or Tabernacle, built according to God's instruction (Exodus 26).  Later Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem to house the sanctuary (1 Kings 6:5).  The New Testament (Hebrews 8:5, 9:24) testifies that this man-made sanctuary is a copy of the heavenly sanctuary.  After the establishment of the Levitical priesthood, there were other Israelites who offered sacrifice or became priests.  Micah consecrated one of his sons to be his priest (Judges 17:5), although later he took a Levite to be his priest (Judges 17:11-12).  Gideon offered sacrifice (Judges 6:20-28) and so did David (2 Samuel 6:13), Manoah (Judges 13:15-23) and the prophet Elijah the Tishbite (1 Kings 18:30-38).  David's sons were priests in 2 Samuel 8:18 (but parallel verse 1 Chronicles 18:17 named them as chief officials in the service of the king) and so was Ira the Jairite (2 Samuel 20:26).  King Solomon offered sacrifice when he dedicated the temple (1 Kings 8:5, 62).  Yet ,most likely he only presided at the ritual while the (Levitical) priests actually performed the sacrifice.  As far as offering sacrifices in the sanctuary, therefore, the honour is reserved only to the male descendants of Aaron.

Among the priests, one will be selected to become the High Priest. The first High Priest was Aaron and the next ones were his (male) descendants through his third son, Eleazar (Number 3:32) because his first born and second son died (Leviticus 10:1-2).  The Old Testament High Priest represents the whole Israel through his breastplate bearing the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (Exodus 28:29).  He alone can enter the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the sanctuary and only once a year (Exodus 30:10, Hebrews 9:7) on the Atonement day (Yom Kippur) to make atonement for the sins of the people.  In the New Testament, the High Priest is Jesus Christ (Hebrews 7:26). Jesus belongs to the tribe of Judah, so strictly speaking He cannot become even a priest, let alone High Priest (Hebrews 7:14).  Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the writer of Hebrews stated that Jesus is the High Priest according to the order Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:17, Psalm 110:4).  Melchizedek is the priest and king of Jerusalem who blessed and received tithes from Abraham, the forefather of all Israelites (Genesis 14:18-20).  In other words, Christ's Priesthood is superior to that of the Levi’s (Hebrews 7:1-10).  Similar to the High Priest of the Old Testament, Jesus also offers atonement for sins. However, unlike the Old Testament High Priest who offers blood of animal as sacrifice, Jesus offers Himself (the Lamb of God, John 1:19) as Sacrifice.  He is both the Priest and the Victim (Hebrews 9:12).  Furthermore, because Jesus offers His Sacrifice in a sanctuary in heaven (Hebrews 9:24) He needs to do it only once, not every year as the Old Testament High Priest does (Hebrews 9:26).  Had he not offered His sacrifice in sanctuary in heaven, then He would have to do it yearly not from the year He was crucified (c. 30 AD) but from the foundation (beginning) of the world (Hebrews 9:26).  Other verses also testify that Jesus is the Lamb who was slain from the foundation (beginning) of the world (Revelation 13:8, 1 Peter 1:19-20).  His single sacrifice is therefore eternally present, which Catholics believe is made present (not repeated) in the Eucharistic celebration (Holy Mass).  Furthermore, while the Old Testament High Priest only atones for the sins of the Israelites, Jesus atones the sins of all men.  The Catholic Church echoes this biblical truth in her teaching that Jesus is the only High and True Priest who offers Himself as sacrifice on the cross, once for all (CCC #1544).

The Old Testament priests are Aaron's sons and their male descendants (Exodus 28:1, Number 18:1, 1 Chronicles 24:1-19).  They are in charge of sacrificial duty, thus only priests can offer sacrifice in the sanctuary (Number 3:10, 18:1,5,7). They also give instructions from God and are His messenger (Malachi 2:7), they act as judges (Deuteronomy 17:8-9, 2 Chronicles 19:8-11, Ezekiel 44:24) and they can bless in the name of God (Number 6:22-27). On the other hand, the Levites are in charge of lower duties in the sanctuary (Number 3:28,32, 8:15, 31:40,47), assist the priests (Number 3:6,8, 16:9, 18:2), take care the temple and service (1 Chronicles 23:28-32), and even act as chorister and musician (Ezra 3:10, Nehemiah 12:27). They also can give instruction and teaching together with the priests (Nehemiah 8:7-9, 2 Chronicles 17:7-9). Yet they are not supposed to perform priestly function in the sanctuary, which is reserved only for Aaron and his male descendants (Number 3:10, 18:7). Those who disobeyed like Korah (a Levite) and Dathan were doomed (Number 16).  The Old Testament also mentions the institution of elders or presbyters (Number 11:16). They served as leaders (Joshua 24:31, Judges 2:7), as judges (Deuteronomy 22:15-19, 25:7-9), as representatives of the people (2 Samuel 8:4-5, 5:3) and they participated in the sacrifice (Leviticus 4:15). In the New Testament, bishops and elders are interchangeable (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5,7) and even the apostle Peter claimed to be an elder (1 Peter 5:1).

The Catholic Church believes that the priesthood of Aaron and his sons (Number 18:1) prefigures the bishops; the institution of seventy elders (Num 11:16) prefigures the presbyters (this word later evolved into priest) while the Levites prefigure the deacons.  Deacon (cf. Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:12) or in Greek "diakonos" literally means "one who serves" and is sometimes translated as slave or minister (cf. Matthew 20:26, Ephesians 3:7, Colossians 1:7, 23).  While bishops, presbytersand deacons are all ordained through the Sacrament of Holy Orders (CCC # 1554), they belong to three different degrees, the episcopacy (for bishops), the presbyterate (for presbyters) and the diaconate (for deacons).  The title sacerdos (Latin for Greek hiereus), however, can be applied only to bishops and presbyters because they have ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ.  The deacons (like the Levites in the Old Testament) are intended to help and serve them.

Whilst the existence of the Levitical priesthood is clearly stated in the Old Testament, Protestants and "Bible Only"Christians believe that it was abolished with the coming of Jesus, the High Priest of the New Testament.

Christ alone has become our true High Priest, the human priesthood as a distinct and separate order of men has fulfilled its function and has been abolished.

Boettner, Roman Catholicism, page 44

With the coming of Christ and the accomplishment of redemption through His work, the entire Old Testament legalistic and ritualistic system which had prefigured it became obsolete and passed away as a unit.  It is very inconsistent for the Roman Church to retain the priesthood while discarding the other elements of that system.

ibid, page 47

The Catholic Church believes that the Ministerial priesthood replaces the Old Testament’s Levitical priesthood.  Thus, bishops (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:2) and presbyters (interchangeable terms according to Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5,7) and deacons (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:12) are the New Testament’s priests and Levites, while the Old Testament Levitical priesthood isno longer functional.  In fact, after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD (and never rebuilt to this day), the sacrificial system of the Judaism came to end [1].  However the Old Testament has a prophecy saying that Levitical priests will never cease offering sacrifice.

For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn cereal offerings, and to make sacrifices forever.  The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: Thus says the Lord: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers.  As the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the descendants of David my servant, and the Levitical priests who minister to me.

Jeremiah 33: 17-22 (emphasis added)

Thus, the Levitical priesthood of Judaism cannot fulfill this prophecy.  Furthermore the Old Testament also prophesies that God had intention to extend the Levitical priesthood to include non-Jewish people.  Isaiah chapter 66 describes the prophecy that God will gather all nations and tongues to see His glory (Isaiah 66:18) and then it goes saying

And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.

Isaiah 66:21 (emphasis added)

Thus priests and Levites would be no longer hereditary.  In relation to this prophecy Malachi 1:11 also prophesies that in every place offering (Greek "thusia") will be offered to God because His Name is great among the nations.  Catholics believe that the prophecies in Jeremiah 33:17-22 and Isaiah 66:21 find its fulfilment in the ministerial priesthood where bishops and presbyters are the priests and the deacons are the Levites.  Note that the Isaiah 66:21 says that only “some” will become priests and Levites, thus it is cannot be a prophecy of universal priesthood of all believers.  Furthermore, in the Bible the phrase “priests and Levites” always refers to Levitical priests and Levites (cf. 1 Chronicles 13:2, 24:6,31; 2 Chronicles 8:14, 31:2; Ezra 3:8, 7:7; Nehemiah 12:1 and John 1:19) and never refers to universal priesthood, which is not something introduced in the New Testament but also existed in the Old Testament (cf. Exodus 19:6).  While the New Testament does not apply the title "priest" to bishops and presbyters and the application of the title to them was a later development, a prophecy of the Old Testament might find its fulfilment after the New Testament time.  The Bible nowhere says that all its prophecies had to be fulfilled before its last book was written.  Another reason why the New Testament never applies the title "priest" to Christian ministers is because Christianity in the New Testament times was still a movement within Judaism (Acts 22:19 and 26:11).  The first followers of Jesus both attended Jewish temple (Acts 2:46) and broke bread (Acts 2:46 and 20:7).  Breaking bread is the other name of Eucharistic celebration (Luke 22:19 and 24:30).  Peter and John went to temple to pray (Acts 3:1) and so did Paul and others in Acts 21:26 to give offering and to announce the days of purification after performing the ritual.  To the Christians in the New Testament times, "priests" were exclusively known as the Levitical priests in the Judeo-Christian world..  Only after the destruction of the temple (c. 70 AD) Christianity's break-away away from Judaism, did we have attestation of "priests" among the Christians as testified by the writings of the Church Fathers.  The earliest reference to three-level of priesthood (High priest, priests and Levites) among Christians was recorded in the 1 Clement (written c. 96 AD). 

Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not.  For his peculiar are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites.  The layman is bound only by the laws that pertain to laymen.

1 Clement Chapter 40

We also have the testimony of the early Christians that the ministerial priesthood already existed in the early Church.  Ignatius (died c. 107 AD), bishop of Antioch, wrote that the celebrant of the Eucharist must be a bishop or one he has entrusted [2] and that a bishop ministered as a priest to God [3]Irenĉus (c. 115 to 202), bishop of Lyon wrote that all apostles of Jesus were priests who served God and the altar continually [4].  Polycrates (late 2nd century), bishop of Ephesus, also wrote that the apostle John was a priest [5].  Tertullian (c. 160 to 230), bishop of Carthage, referred to bishops as "chief priests" or Latin “summus sacerdos" [6] and wrote that those chosen for sacerdotal (priestly) order must be men of one marriage [7].  His successor Cyprian (died c. 258), wrote that a bishop is Christ's priest and that presbyters are associated with the bishop in priestly honour [8].  He also wrote that priests (bishops and presbyters) offer the same sacrifice Jesus offered to God the Father [9].  Thus, the title "priest" was first applied to the apostles and then to bishops who were their successors and later was also applied to presbyters.

Protestants and "Bible Only" Christians usually quote from Hebrews to reject the Catholic’s ministerial priesthood.  First, they argue that the Old Testament priests were mortals and so are the Catholic bishops and presbyters, while Christ remains forever

The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but He holds his priesthood permanently, because He continues forever.  Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.

Hebrews 7:23-25 (emphasis added)

Secondly, the sacrifice offered by the (Levitical) priests never takes away sins.

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until His enemies should be made a stool for his feet.  For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

Hebrews 10:11-14 (emphasis added)

Noting that some Catholic bishops and presbyters do not lead a holy life, they might also quote from the following verse:

The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is his delight.

Proverbs 15:8 (emphasis added)

The Catholic Church does teach that Jesus is the only true priest who offered Himself as sacrifice once for all.  Those bishops and presbyters are His ministers and they do not offer their own sacrifices.  In the Mass they act on Christ's behalf (in the person of Christ) to make present the same sacrifice He offered on the cross.  Their priesthood also makes present the unique priesthood of Christ.

Everything that the priesthood of the Old Covenant prefigured finds its fulfilment in Christ Jesus, the "one mediator between God and men."  The Christian tradition considers Melchizedek, "priest of God Most High," as a prefiguration of the priesthood of Christ, the unique "high priest after the order of Melchizedek"; "holy, blameless, unstained," " by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified," that is, by the unique sacrifice of the cross.

The redemptive sacrifice of Christ is unique, accomplished once for all; yet it is made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Church.  The same is true of the one priesthood of Christ; it is made present through the ministerial priesthood without diminishing the uniqueness of Christ's priesthood: "Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only His ministers."

CCC #1544-5 (emphasis added)

What is Jesus's attitude to the Old Testament Levitical priests?  In His famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), a priest and a Levite were shown as persons who did not show love. Yet, here Jesus wanted to draw a contrast between a Samaritan (whom the Jews despised) and a priest and a Levite (who had special position and were supposed to give good examples).  Jesus is not against the Levitical priesthood; He recognized their position and duty (Mark 1:44 and Luke 17:14).

Wibisono Hartono
Catholic Legate
November 17, 2002


  1. Brown, R.E.: Priest and Bishop, Biblical Reflections, Paulist Press, 1970.
  2. Brown, R.E.: An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, New York, USA, 1997.
  3. Buttrick, G.A. (Editor): The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Abingdon Press, New York, 1962.
  4. Ferguson. E. (Editor): Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York, second edition, 1998.
  5. Herbermann, C.G. (Editor in Chief), The Catholic Encyclopaedia, online version.

[1] The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, page 767; Encyclopaedia Judaica Vol. 14 page 612

[2] English translation is from Anti Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1.

Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.

Ignatius, Epistle to Smyrnaeans 8

[3] English translation is from Anti Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1  (emphasis added):

Nor is there any one in the Church greater than the bishop, who ministers as a priest to God for the salvation of the whole world. Nor, again, is there any one among rulers to be compared with the king, who secures peace and good order to those over whom he rules. He who honours the bishop shall be honoured by God, even as he that dishonours him shall be punished by God. For if he that rises up against kings is justly held worthy of punishment, inasmuch as he dissolves public order, of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who presumes to do anything without the bishop, thus both destroying the [Church's] unity, and throwing its order into confusion? For the priesthood is the very highest point of all good things among men, against which whosoever is mad enough to strive, dishonours not man, but God, and Christ Jesus, the First-born, and the only High Priest, by nature, of the Father. Let all things therefore be done by you with good order in Christ. Let the laity be subject to the deacons; the deacons to the presbyters; the presbyters to the bishop; the bishop to Christ, even as He is to the Father.

Ignatius, Epistle to Smyrnaeans 9

[4] English translation is from Anti Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1.

  And all the apostles of the Lord are priests, who do inherit here neither lands nor houses, but serve God and the altar continually.

Irenĉus, Against Heresies 4.8.3

Compare with the tribe of Levi who also do not inherit any land (Deuteronomy 13:14).

[5] English translation is from Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. 1 (emphasis added).

But the bishops of Asia, led by Polycrates, decided to hold to the old custom handed down to them.  He himself, in a letter which he addressed to Victor and the church of Rome, set forth in the following words the tradition which had come down to him: "We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord's coming, when he shall come with glory from heaven, and shall seek out all the saints. Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who fell asleep in Hierapolis; and his two aged virgin daughters, and another daughter, who lived in the Holy Spirit and now rests at Ephesus; and, moreover, John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate.

Quoted in Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical (Church) History 5:24

[6] English translation is from Anti Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3 (emphasis added).

For concluding our brief subject,  it remains to put you in mind also of the due observance of giving and receiving baptism. Of giving it, the chief priest (who is the bishop) has the right: in the next place, the presbyters and deacons, yet not without the bishop's authority, on account of the honour of the Church, which being preserved, peace is preserved.

Tertullian, On Baptism 17

[7] English translation is from Anti Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4.

Thence, therefore, among us the prescript is more fully and more carefully laid down, that they who are chosen into the sacerdotal order must be men of one marriage;

Tertullian, On Exhortation to Chastity 7

[8] English translation is from Anti Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5 (emphasis added).

We understand, dearest brother, and we perceive with the whole light of our heart, the salutary and holy plans of the divine majesty, whence the sudden persecution lately arose there-whence the secular power suddenly broke forth against the Church of Christ and the bishop Cornelius, the blessed martyr, and all of you; so that, for the confusion and beating down of heretics, the Lord might show which was the Church-which is its one bishop chosen by divine appointment-which presbyters are associated with the bishop in priestly honour-which is the united and true people of Christ, linked together in the love of the Lord's flock-who they were whom the enemy would harass; whom, on the other hand, the devil would spare as being his own.

Cyprian, Epistle 57 to Lucius, bishop of Rome 3

[9] English translation is from Anti Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5 (emphasis added).

  For if Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, is Himself the chief priest of God the Father, and has first offered Himself a sacrifice to the Father, and has commanded this to be done in commemoration of Himself, certainly that priest truly discharges the office of Christ, who imitates that which Christ did; and he then offers a true and full sacrifice in the Church to God the Father, when he proceeds to offer it according to what he sees Christ Himself to have offered.

Cyprian, Epistle 62 On the Sacrament of the Cup of the Lord 14