Bible Question:

What is the difference between chief priests and high priests?

Bible Answer:

The terms chief priests and high priests only appear together in the New Testament. Some have stated the two terms are used interchangeably, but that statement is wrong because both terms appear in two verses together. In addition, If they had the same meaning why would they both appear in a verse? Here are the only two passages in Scripture that contain both terms together.

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people were gathered together in the court of the high priest, named Caiaphas; and they plotted together to seize Jesus by stealth and kill Him. Matthew 26:3-4 (NASB)

They led Jesus away to the high priest; and all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes gathered together. Mark 14:43 (NASB)

In addition, J. Jeremias has convincingly proven that the titles chief priests and high priests were not interchangeable.[1] The purpose of this discussion is to explain the meaning of chief priests and high priests.

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Meaning of High Priest

The title “high priest” appears twenty times in the Old Testament and fifty-four times in the New Testament gospels, and in the books of Acts and Hebrews. In the New Testament the Greek word for “high priest” is archiereus. The word literally has the sense of “beginning priest.” That is, the word has the sense that the priesthood starts here. Exodus 28:1 records the establishment of the priesthood for Israel.

Then bring near to yourself Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the sons of Israel, to minister as priest to Me — Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons. Exodus 28:1 (NASB)

This verse reveals that both Aaron and his sons were priests for Israel, but Exodus 31:10 reveals that it was understood that Aaron was the priest or the high priest. Notice in this verse that Aaron is called the priest.

. . . the woven garments as well, and the holy garments for Aaron the priest, and the garments of his sons, with which to carry on their priesthood . . . Exodus 31:10 (NASB)

The term the priest or the high priest refers to the priest who had the highest position among the priests. The term high priest first appears in Numbers 35:25.

Character of the High Priest

Exodus 28:1-29:46 provides more details about the establishment of the priesthood in Israel. The high priest’s garments (blue robe, ephod, breastplate and turban with “Holy to Yahweh” ungraded on a good plate) were unique and symbolized his unique position as the spiritual (Exodus 29:1-37; Leviticus 6:19-22; Zechariah 3:4-5). The breastplate symbolized righteous judgment (Exodus 28:29-30) and the Urim and Thummin were used to determine God’s will (Exodus 28:29-30). The high priest was required to be a man of exceptional holiness. If he sinned, he brought sin upon the nation of Israel (Leviticus 4:3-12).

Function of the High Priest

The high priest was the mediator between God and man. Only he could enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement to make atonement for the sins of the nation of Israel. He was a type of Christ.  Hebrews 9:15 and 12:24 tell us that Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant (Hebrews 8:6).

Leviticus 23:26-32 establishes the seventh day of the tenth month as the permanent Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16:6-34 describes the events of the Day of Atonement. This is important since Leviticus 16:6 tells us that Aaron would perform the act of worship. This was the function of the high priest.

In the time of Christ, the high priest’s responsibility included the following: making atonement for the nation of Israel on the Day of Atonement[2], participating in the sacrifices when he desired[3], functioning as the president of the Sanhedrin Council[4], performing a variety of ceremonial duties,[5] providing oversight of the temple, the priests, the levitical priests and the regulations[6] and teaching the people (Malachi 2:1-9).

Meaning of Chief Priests

The term chief priests never appears in the Old Testament. They are unique to the New Testament. Consequently, their function is not described in the Old Testament. The term “chief priests” was created by the religious leaders and is not interchangeable with high priest. G. D. Fee states the following about the title chief priests,

From the time of E. Shürer, most scholars have considered this term to refer either to the high priest and ex-high priests in particular, or in general to “the members of those privileged families for which the high priests were taken.” (Shürer, II, I, 202-206). However, J. Jeremias has shown persuasively that it more likely refers to the specific group of Temple officers that included not only the high priest and captain of theTemple, but also the Temple overseers . . . and treasurers . . .listed twice in the Talmud (Tosephta Shekalim ii, 14, 177; Mishnah Shekalim v. 1-2).[7]

J. Jeremias documents the high priest had a higher rank than the chief priests who had the day-to-day responsibilities for the temple. The chief priests in Christ’s time included the following in order of rank:

The Captain of the Temple
The Director of the weekly course
The Director of the daily course
The Temple Overseer
The Treasurer[8]

The highest ranking chief priest was the Captain of the Temple. He assisted the high priest and was usually the successor to the high priest.[9] The Director of the weekly course scheduled ordinary priests for the twenty-four courses.  The Director of the daily course scheduled ordinary priests for the 156 daily courses[10] The Temple overseers provided supervisor of the temple. The temple treasurer handled the finances of the temple.[12] Matthew 26:3-4 helps us understand that these top officials were members of the Sanhedrin Council.


Now we can understand from Matthew 26:3-4 that the high priest was the lead ordained priest among all the priests and the chief priests were his support staff.

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people were gathered together in the court of the high priest, named Caiaphas; and they plotted together to seize Jesus by stealth and kill Him. Matthew 26:3-4 (NASB)

Before we conclude we must ask, “What is your function in the church, or have you given yourself to serving the Lord in some way?” These men were to be holy men who were committed to serving the Lord from their hearts. Does that describe you? Are you of support in your church or a critic? We encourage you to visit the study, “It All Comes Down To Your Heart.”



1.  G. D. Gee. Priest In The New Testament. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Zondervan Publishing House. 1977. vol. 4, pp. 849-850.

2. Joachim Jeremias. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Fortress Press. 1969. p. 149.

3. Ibid., p. 150.

4. Ibid., p. 151.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., pp. 152-160.

7. Ibid., G. D. Fee.

8. Ibid., Joachim Jeremias., p. 160.

9. Ibid., p. 160-161.

10. Ibid., p. 163.

11. Ibid., p. 166.

12. Ibid.

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