Jewish Spiritual Leaders
The Priests and Scribes.
As in ancient times, the high priest was the head of the priesthood. After the time of Herod the Great the high priest was no longer the political leader of the people. However, he did remain president of the Sanhedrin. This function, and the fact that the high priest was always chosen from one of the leading aristocratic families in Jerusalem, meant that he still had some influence in the political sphere. As had been customary from Persian times, the high priest was nominated by the foreign power in control, in this period the Romans. The most well-known high priest in the time of Jesus was Joseph surnamed Caiaphas, who held this office from about 18 to 37 A.D.
The high priest was supported by the priests who from Persian times had been divided up into twenty-four courses. Each of these courses served in the temple for one week (from Sabbath to Sabbath). Thus Zachariah belonged to the course of Abijah (Luke 1.5; cf. I Chron.24.10). Each of the courses was in turn divided into ‘father's houses’, each of which did service in the temple on a particular day. The leadership of these courses and ‘father’s houses' was in the hands of some prominent families in Jerusalem. Members of these priestly families benefited greatly from the offerings brought to the temple. The priests of a lower grade usually lived in the country and had to earn a living, generally by working some kind of a craft.
The main task of the priests was to offer sacrifices in the temple. They were helped by the Levites, who apparently also served as singers and musicians in the temple.
One important group at this time was that of the sopherim. The sopher (originally scribe) was the man of the book, the scholar whose task it was to expound and study the message of God. The scribes are mentioned in an earlier period (cf. Neh.8.2; Sirach 38.24-39.14), but only in the first century A.D. do they come into prominence especially after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
In the time of Jesus the scribes still formed a group distinct from the Pharisees, though there was a great kinship between the two. Many scribes were also Pharisees, but not all of them. After 70 A.D. the scribes and the Pharisees formed the group of rabbis.
In the period before 70 A.D. most of the training was centered in the ‘schools' of Shammai and Hillel. After 70 A.D. that of Hillel had a dominant position.
Shammai is usually thought to have been more conservative and Hillel more liberal. Hillel came from Babylon to Jerusalem as an adult, while Shammai spent his whole life in Judea. Otherwise very little is known about them and their work. Many of their apparent views come from accounts by their followers from the time after 70 A.D. and it is far from certain that these are always authentic. In Pirqe Aboth (m.Aboth I,II) Shammai and Hillel are the fifth and most famous pair of those who handed down oral teaching from the time of Moses to their own day.