Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, as high priest

Steven Avery


Was Zechariah, the Father of John the Baptist, a High Priest?
John Sanidopoulous
September 23, 2014


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.


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.



Patristics for Protestants

I was watching a documentary and in it a professor from the University of Oxford named Dr. Philipp E. Nothaft says that early Christians thought Zacharias, John the Baptist's father, was the high priest which is mentioned in the 2nd century text Protoevangelium of James. Also Dr. Nothaft says that early Christians possibly as early as the 2nd century believed that when Zacharias received the news from the angel that his wife was going to be pregnant that the event was on the Day of Atonement also known as Yom Kippur during the month of September. Does anyone know any early Christians texts that describe this event being on the Day of Atonement or at least allude to the event happening on the Day of Atonement before the 4th century or some other secondary sources that I have not mentioned below?

Here are some primary sources that I’ve read but they are from the 4th century:

John Chrysostom, Homily on the Day of the Birth of Our Savior Jesus Christ 4–5

On the Solstices and Equinoxes

Ambrose of Milan, Exposition on the Gospel According to Luke 1.22

Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on the Diatessaron 1.29

Secondary sources I’ve read which argue that the story of St. John the Baptist’s conception happening on Yom Kippur dates to at least the 2nd century CE:

Stökl Ben Ezra, Daniel. “The Impact of Yom Kippur on Early Christianity: The Day of Atonement from Second Temple Judaism to the Fifth Century.” (Germany: Isd, 2003.) Pg. 250-255

Nothaft, Philipp E. “Early Christian Chronology and the Origins of the Christmas Date: A Defense of the ‘Calculation Theory’,” in Questions Liturgiques 94 (2013) Pg. 258-261


The Confusing Case of Zacharias
Lynne Hilton Wilson


The Impact of Yom Kippur on Early Christianity: The Day of Atonement from Second Temple Judaism to the Fifth Century (2003)
Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra

p. 249-253 not available

P. 254-255 has some material
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Steven Avery

High Priests: John the Baptist and Jesus Christ

In Luke 1:5, we are told that, “in the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a Priest…” Although it may seem an insignificant fact, the priesthood of Zechariah is very important information. John was to be sent as the forerunner or messenger of God to proclaim that the Messiah had arrived. If God is looking for a messenger, someone to speak his word, to prepare the way, to announce what God is doing, to be a “go-between” for the people of God, who would he choose? If you simply follow the pattern given us in the Old Testament, that “go-between” would fulfill one of two offices: he would either be a “Priest,” or a “prophet.” I don’t know what the Jewish equivalent names are, but God didn’t just pick any “Tom, Dick or Harry” to go out as his messengers. He always spoke through a Priest for a prophet. Many times the Priest was also a prophet, such as Zechariah, Ezekiel, or Jeremiah. These men were both Priests and prophets. In the Old Testament, if someone spoke on behalf of God, he was always either a Priest or a prophet. So, when the Lord promised that a forerunner of his Messiah would come, we must expect that he would be either a Priest, or a prophet, or both. In Luke 1:5, we learn that our assumption is correct.

The Priest, introduced in verse 5, is a man named Zacharias, and he is serving in the division of Abijah. If you’re reading the first chapter of Luke, you may be thinking, “Luke, you’re awfully detailed. Just give me the big picture!” But Luke is consistently saying, “I want to give you the details, and I believe the details matter.” So, Zechariah is of the division of Abijah. For this to be true, Zechariah was not only a Levite, but also a descendent of Aaron. This made Zechariah an Aaronic Priest. Luke also declares that Zechariah, “had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” So, not only is John’s dad a descendent of Aaron, but his mother is also in the Aaronic family. This makes John the Baptist full-blooded Aaronic, doesn’t it!

In Luke 1:6-8, we learn that Zechariah the Priest is carrying out his Priestly duty in the order of his division. By the time of Jesus’ birth, the High Priest had become a political appointment. (Heaven forbid when the day comes to the American church that the government appoints the preacher then instructs what he will say and what to do.) In the days of John and Jesus, Annas and Caiaphas served as High Priest. These men held the duty by political appointment, so there is a legitimate High Priest somewhere, doing something. He’s not serving in his God-given role because of the politically-appointed High Priest who stands in the way. Not only were there 24 divisions of the Priesthood, but the honor of going into the holy place was selected “by lot.” Zechariah was chosen by the invisible hand of God on that particular day because, it seems, God wanted a particular man to work in the Temple and do the work of the High Priest. When God’s chosen man entered into the holy place to carry out his duty, Zacharias was troubled when an angel appeared to him, and fear gripped him. The Angel instructed Zechariah that his petition had been heard, that his wife would bear a son, and he was to name him John. And, just as promised, Zechariah the Priest and his wife Elizabeth were blessed by God with a son, and they named him John.

Is Luke revealing to us that God is rejecting the man that the Caesar had chosen as High Priest, and He, himself, is choosing Zechariah, a man without a child, fulfilling – even if for a day – his rightful role as High Priest? If so, this would mean we have come to the end of the line in the Aaronic Priesthood, unless Zechariah has a son. But God selects this man, in his old age, to have a child, that is, to produce one last Priest. Luke 1:15 says, “He will be great in the sight of the Lord. And he will drink no wine or liquor. And he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, while yet in his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before him.” Many understand these to be a Nazarite vow, but it is more likely the description of a Priest carrying out his God-given duty under the law. It appears that God has decided that what appeared to be the end of the line would not be the end of the line, after all. God was going to give a son to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and he would be the last of the High Priests of the order of Aaron.

In Malachi 3:1 God tells us that he will send a “messenger” to prepare the way of the Lord. In the context of Malachi, the messenger is always a Priest. God, through Malachi, is speaking to a group of Priests with whom he is sorely dissatisfied. God promises to these messengers that he is going to send, “my messenger” who will be a “messenger of the covenant.” Is God saying that since the Priests of the order of Aaron are not doing their work, he is going to send his own Priest? That is, a Priest after the order of Melchizedek? And, when John the Baptist arrives, what does he do? He is most known for baptizing. And when Jesus wanted to be baptized, John, at first, refused. He refused on the basis of his unworthiness, that he was baptizing a baptism of repentance, and Jesus had nothing of which he needed to repent. Jesus, however, said “for righteousness, let it be done.” What righteousness is he talking about?

When Aaron was ordained to be the Priest, the ordination service included the “washing” of Aaron, and his sons. The particular Hebrew word for wash that is used in the ordination of the Priest is not a word for rinse, or for sprinkling, or for pouring, but it’s a word that means to get all the way into the water. In Judaism, the Mikva served as the baptistery. A Jew would go into the Mikva and be completely submerged into the water. When the law says that the Priest was to be washed when he was ordained, it is likely referring to a Mikva experience; that is, a baptism by immersion. And when Jesus was ready to begin his ministry, he said, “Let it be, this is for righteousness sake.” I believe that John, the last of the High Priest, according to the order of Aaron, is baptizing Jesus, the High Priest according to the order of Melchisadek! In other words, John is transferring authority to the new order of the Priesthood; the old order of Aaron is passing away, and now is transferred to Jesus, who is our Priest according to the Priestly order of Melchizedek.

If this is true, then who besides John could have been chosen for this task? John had to be chosen, because he was the end of the line for the Aaronic Priesthood legitimately passing authority to the new Priesthood, forever held in Jesus Christ!