What is a Priest?
A priest is a religious leader who conducts formal worship, especially the offering of sacrifices. In the earliest and most simple societies such functions were generally carried out by the father of the family and the shaman, or religious and often political leader of the community. Gradually, as such societies as the Hindu, Mesopotamian, Jewish, Egyptian, and Maya became settled and more complex, they developed organized religions led by priests. Priests acted as intermediaries between the gods, considered mighty, and man, considered weak. The priests formed a distinct social class that was often hereditary. They were set apart from laymen by years of religious study in special schools, a ceremony of ordination or induction, distinctive clothing, and sometimes special living quarters. Their chief work was sacrifice by burning animals and agricultural products or by pouring libations of wine, all to the accompaniment of elaborate hymns and prayers. In addition, priests often made charms, presided at such rites of passage as marriages and funerals, taught priestly candidates, and foretold the future. Hindu priests also taught religious truths to laymen, as they have continued to do. Ancient Hebrew priests also taught laymen and kept historical records. However, since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the 1st century b.c. and the end of sacrifices, Jewish religious leaders have been rabbis, or teachers, rather than priests. They still perform some priestly functions.
Early Christian priests modified ancient forms and concepts of sacrifice into those now followed by the Roman Catholic, Orthodox Eastern, and Anglican churches. They hold that Christ is the one true priest, who sacrificed Himself for man's sake. Other priests derive from Him their power to repeat that sacrifice, in a symbolic way, in the Eucharist. Because Protestants do not regard the Eucharist as a sacrifice, they call their religious leaders pastors or ministers, rather than priests. All Christian religious leaders, however, may conduct worship, preach, teach, and counsel.
Buddhist religious leaders are properly called monks, but they may perform the same functions as a priest, except for sacrifices. Islam has no sacrifices and therefore no priests. Prayers are led by an imam, and the Friday sermon is given by a khatib. Both are laymen.
More by this Author
Karma Marga, in Hinduism the way to Self-realisation through selfless action. The disciple surrenders his life to brahman (also called God), the Source of the manifest world; he acts in the consciousness that God is the...
The origin of religion has been a primary concern of the following sciences; comparative philology, sociology, and psychology. Each of these disciplines has developed its own theories, and within each discipline...