September 23, 2014

Was Zechariah, the Father of John the Baptist, a High Priest?

By John Sanidopoulos

According to the entire tradition of the Church, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was the High Priest who entered the Temple in Jerusalem on the Day of Atonement in September and received a revelation from an Angel of the Lord. St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite informs us that it is for this reason that the Church celebrates the conception of John the Baptist on September 23rd and his birth on June 24th, nine months after the conception. Since the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was conceived six months after John was conceived, the Church celebrates the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary on March 25th and the Birth of Christ nine months later on December 25th. Forty days later, on February 2nd, Jesus was presented to the Temple. Hence, according to St. Nikodemos, the immovable liturgical calendar of Despotic Feasts of the Orthodox Church revolves around the fact that Zechariah was the High Priest who entered the Temple on the Day of Atonement in September and received a revelation from an Angel of the Lord.

That Zechariah was a High Priest is testified to us not only by the early Protoevangelium of James, but also by many Church Fathers and writers, such as Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Ambrose, Theodoret, Dionysius the Areopagite, Venerable Bede and Theophylact among others, not to mention the hymnography, iconography and entire tradition of the Church. What took place annually on the Day of Atonement is described in Leviticus 16, while the Gospel of Luke only describes the parts mentioned in Leviticus 16:12, 13, and 17. According to Chrysostom, the fact that December 25th was chosen as the day for the Lord's Nativity to be celebrated was an ancient custom even for his time in the West and received by the East around the year 376, at which time it spread rapidly throughout the Church. Chrysostom says this date could be observed in the Roman archives from the time of the census of Emperor Augustus, which survived up until that time. If this is true, and Chrysostom is convinced it is, then it gives more reasons to believe that the conception of John occurred in late September during the time of Atonement. Also, Chrysostom states that Zechariah was High Priest based on the fact that he was in the Temple alone burning incense while the people were praying outside, which only took place on the Day of Atonement, as testified in Hebrews 9:1-7.

The objection arises that Luke merely says Zechariah was a "Priest" and not a High Priest. Yet it was common for the High Priest to only be referred to as a Priest. For example, Aaron who was High Priest is referred to as being a Priest numerous times in Numbers and also in Leviticus: "...they must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest" (Lev. 13:2). David prophecies of Christ the High Priest: "You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek" (Ps. 110:4). Even St. Paul calls Christ a Priest: "And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears" (Heb. 7:15). A few verses later Paul refers to Christ as "High Priest", indicating the interchangeability of the title. This is even carried down through the tradition of the Church, as we see in Gregory the Theologian's and John Chrysostom's writings on the Priesthood, where Priest is used in fact to describe the High Priest, or Bishop. Lastly, it is assumed by many that the Gospel of Luke was written to the High Priest Theophilus (37-41 A.D). If this is the case, that Luke refers to Zechariah as a Priest could merely mean a familiarity on the part of Theophilus as to who Zechariah truly was as well as his duties.

It is also argued that if the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the right of the Altar of Incense from where he proclaimed the good news to Zechariah, and this Altar was outside the Holy of Holies in the Holy Place, then Zechariah never entered the Holy of Holies as was customarily done on the Day of Atonement. However, both are true. It was part of the ritual for the Day of Atonement for the High Priest to cense within the Holy of Holies with a golden censer, and the vision of the Archangel Gabriel could very well have taken place after this censing was completed and he returned to the Holy Place where the Altar of Incense was located.

Another objection is that the Hebrew and Roman records do not mention Zechariah as being High Priest at this time, therefore there is no support to the assumption that Zechariah was High Priest. However, when we examine the list of High Priests under the Romans, when they were chosen annually according to Roman law, and perhaps by lot according to Jewish tradition, we know there is a gap between the High Priests from 3 B.C. to 6 A.D. when we cannot say for sure who served as High Priest during that time and for how long, keeping in mind also that Herod had killed High Priests and appointed his own. Similarly, we know Herod murdered thousands of innocent people, as Josephus mentions, and even though it is not mentioned that he killed the innocent children at the time of the birth of Jesus or Zechariah in the Temple for not divulging the whereabouts of his infant son John (Matt. 23:35), it is a safe assumption that he at least could have. Also, Josephus even mentions that during the High Priesthood of Matthias another High Priest was appointed for a day to celebrate the Day of Atonement, though his name is given as Joseph. This could indicate however the lack of information about the records of High Priests at this time and how they changed so frequently in the time of Herod. Besides, as St. Nikodemos mentions, under Emperor Titus the records of the Temple were destroyed, so any information we have from this time is scant or missing completely.

What about the fact that Zechariah was said to be a Priest in the division of Abijah (a descendent of Eleazar, the son of Aaron) and chosen by lot to burn incense in his appointed order, which according to II Chronicles was usually a service performed twice a year by Priests for a week at a time? This can be clarified by the fact that all this is indeed true, that Zechariah was indeed a Priest of the division of Abijah, but that he was chosen by lot could very well indicate that he was chosen by lot to be High Priest at some point in time, and that he was to burn incense is one of the primary duties for the Day of Atonement, which at this time could have been during his appointed order as a Priest, thus indicating the contextual reason as to why Zechariah is called a Priest by Luke.

It is important to note that Luke says that after performing his service and receiving the vision of the Angel, Zechariah exited the Holy Place to find the multitudes worried (1:21-23).

Consider one detail pertinent but lacking in this story: When the High Priest would offer incense in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, he would say a brief prayer before exiting. If the High Priest was to die inside, the other Priests on duty would have to retrieve his body without entering the Holy of Holies. Therefore, the prayer of the Priest needed to be brief, lest the people grow concerned about his predicament, since his body could not be retrieved from the Holy of Holies (unless they pulled him out by a rope attached to him) nor could they enter the Holy Place when the incense was offered. Two Jewish texts illustrate this:

Mishnah, Yoma 5.1: "He did not make the prayer long so as to frighten Israel."

Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 42c (regarding an incident that happened to a High Priest, Shim'on the Righteous who served as High Priest around 200 B.C.): "Once a certain high priest made a long prayer and [his fellow priests] decided to go in after him - they say this high priest was Shim'on the Righteous. They said to him: 'Why did you pray so long?' He said to them: 'I was praying that the temple of your God would not be destroyed.' They said to him: 'Even so, you should not have prayed so long.'"

So, when Zechariah exited the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place in late fashion, the people waiting outside would have naturally been worried. When the Angel of God appeared before Zechariah while he was offering the incense, he “was troubled when [Zechariah] saw [Gabriel], and fear fell upon [Zechariah]” (1:12). This was a natural reaction from Zechariah, as any activity out of the ordinary in the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place may have spelled death for the High Priest. But the Angel assured him to not be afraid, and that his prayer [according to Chrysostom, this prayer was for the remission of the sins of the people] had been answered (1:13) [it was answered with the birth of John who would be the prophet of the Messiah]. Luke does not say that Zechariah prayed. It is assumed by Luke that his reader, Theophilus, who was probably a High Priest, would have understood the procedure.

Lastly, there are three ancient accounts of divine visions that took place in the Temple of Jerusalem, and a close reading of all three show a common narrative (Ant. 11:326-328, Ant. 13:282-283, and Luke 1:5-23). The first two were written by Josephus in his Antiquities that refer to Jaddus the High Priest and Hyrcanus the High Priest, while the last refers to the story of Zechariah by Luke the Evangelist. There are sufficient differences between these three narratives to conclude that Luke is not directly dependent upon Josephus or vice-versa. Yet there are haunting similarities which suggest the possibility that both Josephus and the author of Luke-Acts may have known and used a common High Priestly narrative tradition. Among the similarities is that all three took place in the Temple after a sacrifice of some sort and bore a message of salvation for the people. In his excellent work on Hellenistic apologetic historiography Gregory Sterling observes the common intellectual heritage shared by Josephus and the author of Luke-Acts as Hellenistic Jewish apologists for their respective communities, Jewish and Christian. Now if this is true, then it would be safe to assume that since the other visions in the Temple were given to High Priests, why should not Zechariah be a High Priest as well.