OT Levites & Priests: Closer to Sola Scriptura or Catholicism?

OT Levites & Priests: Closer to Sola Scriptura or Catholicism? November 15, 2017




The original 2006 version of this material was a very lengthy dialogue with a Lutheran professor of history, in five parts. It’s available on Internet Archive (allow time to upload): parts one / two / three / four / five. The first, basic part of that, summarizing relevant biblical passages, is also available on this website, by itself. For those interested in going much more in-depth regarding this issue, read on:


In looking for some [Protestant] scholarly material on the teaching function of priests, Levites, and prophets in the OT, I found the following:

The Jewish people had opportunity to receive religious education from priests and Levites (Leviticus 10:10-11). The priests and Levites were to be supported by the offerings of the people and were to be the religious teachers of the nation. Apparently the educational function of their work was not well maintained. During the revival under King Jehoshaphat, the teaching function of Priests and Levites was resumed and the people were taught the ordinances of the Law. (2 Chronicles 17:7-9).

The ineffective work of the priests was supplemented by the teaching of the prophets. The first of these prophets, Samuel, attempted to make his reform permanent by instituting a school of the prophets in Ramah (1 Samuel 19:19-20). Later other schools of the prophets were begun at other places. The main study at these centers was the Law and its interpretation. Not all of the students of these schools had predictive gifts nor were all the prophets students in such schools. Amos is a notable example of a prophet who was not educated in one of these schools (Amos 7:14-15). (Holman Bible Dictionary“Education in Bible Times”)

The educational work which the Levites received for their peculiar duties, no less than their connection, more or less intimate, with the schools of the prophets, would tend to make them the teachers of the others, the transcribers and interpreters of the law, the chroniclers of the times in which they lived. (Thus they became to the Israelites what ministers and teachers are to the people now, and this teaching and training the people in morality and religion was no doubt one of the chief reasons why they were set apart by God from the people, and yet among the people. (Smith’s Bible Dictionary, “Musical Levites”)


Ezekiel 44:23 (RSV) They shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean. (cf. 44:15)

6. Illumination:

zahar, “to shine”:

This verbal root signifies “to shine,” and when applied to the intellectual sphere indicates the function of teaching to be one of illumination. Ignorance is darkness, knowledge is light. Moses was to teach the people statutes and laws, or to enlighten them on the principles and precepts of God’s revelation (Exodus 18:20). The service rendered by the teachers-priests, Levites and fathers-sent forth by Jehoshaphat, was one of illumination in the twofold sense of instruction and admonition (2 Chronicles 19:8-10).

7. Vision:

ra’-ah, “to see”:

The literal meaning of this verb is “to see,” and the nominal form is the ancient name for prophet or authoritative teacher who was expected to have a clear vision of spiritual realities, the will of God, the need of man and the way of life (1 Samuel 9:9; 1 Chronicles 9:22; 2 Chronicles 16:7; Isaiah 30:10). (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [ISBE]: “Teach; Teacher; Teaching”)

2 Chronicles 19:8-11 Moreover in Jerusalem Jehosh’aphat appointed certain Levites and priests and heads of families of Israel, to give judgment for the LORD and to decide disputed cases. They had their seat at Jerusalem. And he charged them: “Thus you shall do in the fear of the LORD, in faithfulness, and with your whole heart: whenever a case comes to you from your brethren who live in their cities, concerning bloodshed, law or commandment, statutes or ordinances, then you shall instruct them, that they may not incur guilt before the LORD and wrath may not come upon you and your brethren. Thus you shall do, and you will not incur guilt. And behold, Amari’ah the chief priest is over you in all matters of the LORD; and Zebadi’ah the son of Ish’mael, the governor of the house of Judah, in all the king’s matters; and the Levites will serve you as officers. Deal courageously, and may the LORD be with the upright!” (cf. Ezra 7:6, 10, 25-26)

The interpretation of Scripture, usually in the synagogues, is a key feature of the missions of the prophets Paul and Barnabas, Paul and Silas, as well as of Peter and other Christian leaders. (18) This manner of teaching is elaborated in Acts 13:16-41 in the form of a synagogue homily. It may or may not be significant that the “prophets” in question also are “teachers”. (The exposition of Scripture is ascribed to Barnabas [Acts 13:5; 14:1] but not to Silas.) Also this activity in Acts is not described as “prophecy” nor limited to “prophets”. In what degree then can it be regarded as “prophetic” activity?

The interpretation of Scripture as an activity of a prophet was not unknown in the first century since it was explicitly ascribed to Daniel (9:2, 24). It may be inferred also from other Old Testament texts in which the prophet uses and reapplies older biblical phraseology and ideas. (19) These phenomena support the views of S. Krauss and others who connect the prophets with the origins of the synagogue and regard them as the first to dispense religious teachings in such assemblies. (20) The rabbinic tradition, reflects a similar picture. According to the Targum to judges 5:9, Deborah, under prophetic inspiration, “did not cease to give exposition of the Torah.” (21) The rabbis, moreover, regarded themselves, as the teachers of Israel, to be the successors of the prophets: they sat “in Moses’ seat”. (22)

With respect to the interpretation of Scripture, then, there was not a sharp division between the prophet and the teacher. This is perhaps to be most clearly observed in the Qumran community’s “teacher” (moreh) and the wider number functioning as “instructors” (maskilim). In a perceptive essay Professor Bruce has compared the wisdom possessed by “Daniel the prophet” (23) and by the “wise” (maskilim) in Daniel 11, 12 with that of the “wise” at Qumran. “The maskil here, as in Daniel, is one who, having received from God understanding in his hidden purpose, is thus in a position to impart that understanding to others”. (24) Without identifying themselves as prophets, the teachers at Qumran engage in an interpretation of Scripture that has as its model the activity of Daniel the prophet. This becomes more significant for the present essay when one observes the similarities between the method of biblical interpretation at Qumran and that in Acts 13:16-41. (25) In Acts, however, the interpreter is given the title “prophet” as well as “teacher”.

Both terms also are applied to Jesus. It is clear from Luke 7:39 f. that they are not mutually exclusive: the one who is addressed as teacher may also be (the eschatological) prophet.

. . . The foregoing discussion enables us to return to the question raised earlier and to answer it with some measure of confidence. The interpretation of Scripture was indeed regarded, under certain conditions, as prophetic activity. (44) And it is likely that Luke does so regard it, even in such persons as Peter and Stephen . . .

. . . But as the above discussion has shown, there is no clear division in Judaism or the primitive church between the teaching of a prophet and of a teacher. Likewise, the false prophets in the church teach (1 Jn. 2:22, 26 f.; 4:1 ff.), and the false teachers in the church correspond to the false prophets of the Old Covenant (2 Pet. 2:1).

Selective Footnotes:

(18) E.g., Acts 2:14-36; 3:12-26; 4:8-12 (Peter); 6:9-11; 7:2-53 (Stephen); 8:30-35 (Philip); 9:20-22; 13:5, 16-41; 17:2, 10 f., 17 (22-31); 18:4; 19:8; 26:22 f.; 28:23 (Paul); 18:24-28 (Apollos).

(19) For example, cf. Jer. 48:45 with Num. 21:28; 24:17; Jer. 50-51 with Isa. 13-14; Zeph. 2:15 . . . with Isa. 47:8. On Dan. 11:30 as a reinterpretation of Num. 24:24 see F. F. Bruce, “The Book of Daniel and the Qumran Community”, . . .

(20) Cf. L. Zunz, Die gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden (Hildesheim, 1966 [1892]), pp. 37 f.: Already in the Old Testament period older Scriptures were interpreted and in a certain sense changed. Ezra and the Levites appear as interpreters of the laws; the Chronicler makes use of midrash; Daniel is the interpreter of Jeremiah. The schools of the prophets become assemblies of the wise. . . .

(21) SB 4, p. 116. Cf. R. Meyer, TDNT 6 (1959-1969), p. 817: According to the rabbis the prophets are “the oldest expositors of the Law…”

(22) Matt. 23:2; R. Meyer, op. cit., 6, pp. 818 f. “Since the temple was destroyed prophecy has been taken from the prophets and given to the wise” (Baba Bathra 12a). Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi were viewed as the first members of the chain of rabbinic tradition (Krauss, op. cit., pp. 47 f.). “Moses received… and delivered to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the great synagogue” (Aboth 1:1). See also J. Jeremias (Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, London, 1969), pp. 233-245.

(23) So identified in 4Qflor 2:3. Cf. Dan. 9:22, 25.

(24) Bruce, “Daniel and Qumran”, pp. 228 f. Cf. 1QS 9:17-19: the maskil is to conceal the teaching of the Law from the men of falsehood but to instruct the Community “in the mysteries (razey) of wonder and truth”; 1QH 12:11 f.: “as a maskil have I come to know thee, my God, through the spirit that thou hast given me, and by thy Holy Spirit I have faithfully listened to thy marvellous secret counsel (sodh).” Similarly, of the Teacher of Righteousness, “to whom God made known all the mysteries (razey) of the words of his servants the prophets” (1Qp Hab. 7:4 f.).

(25) Cf. E. E. Ellis, “Midrashic Features in the Speeches of Acts,” Hommage au Professeur B. Rigaux (Gembloux, 1970), pp. 306 f.

(E. Earle Ellis, “The Role of the Christian Prophet in Acts,” W. Ward Gasque & Ralph P. Martin, editors, Apostolic History and the Gospel. Biblical and Historical Essays Presented to F.F. Bruce. Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1970. Hbk. ISBN: 085364098X. pp.55-67)

For an interesting article by a rabbi on the Torah and Oral Law (with lots of OT texts), see: “Obedience to the Oral Law is a Commandment,” by Rabbi Avraham Feld.

Per all the above, priests, Levites, and prophets had strong teaching and interpretive authority. OT authority was not strictly infallible: that extraordinary gift needed the express guidance and indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a way that was not possible till Jesus opened up the way by His redemptive sacrifice on our behalf. But it was quite authoritative in a way that Protestant church authority (insofar as it exists at all) is not. It conforms to the Catholic model.

Orthopraxy is absolutely central in both ancient and current-day Judaism , but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that doctrine was nonexistent. The Law certainly contains doctrines. In any event, teachers were still needed to authoritatively interpret the Law, so the analogy is to Catholicism, not the sola Scriptura rule of faith.

I ‘m not arguing the analogy to the Catholic magisterium in the sense of unbroken succession. Obviously that did not occur in the OT. But then again, that was earlier in salvation history, so we would expect it. Doctrine was much less developed. They didn’t have the Holy Spirit as we do, or the full revelation of the New Testament and the gospel. Therefore, apostolic succession and the protections of infallibility are now possible and thinkable and believable.

The New Covenant was a major increase of certainty and ability to ascertain spiritual truth in all things. That’s how I would account for any real differences in the analogy I am drawing, while also continuing to maintain that the notions of authority were present in the Old Covenant, notwithstanding sinners and corruption (as always; nothing new there).

Protestants can talk about sin and corruption (in the OT priesthood) all they like, but that doesn’t wipe out the necessity of authoritative teachers, or the fact that this is the norm prescribed by this same Bible that they want to make the sole final authority in the usual distorted Protestant manner. They can’t appeal, on the one hand, to the Josian and Hezekian reformations on the ground that they established Scripture front and center in Jewish life (because they could again read it and apply it), yet fail to apply what that same Scripture says to the issues at hand.

They had to see what Scripture said; so do we. Nothing has changed in that regard. I look in it and see that it teaches the necessity and normative nature of a strong teaching authority. The Scripture alone does not teach Scripture Alone. Protestants have reversed biblical authority: now the congregations can tell the pastors what is right and wrong? The sheep become the shepherds? What if they disagree? This is always the Protestant dilemma. It sounds wonderful in theory but it ain’t biblical and it doesn’t work.

Whatever the amount of historical corruption in the ranks of the priests, kings, prophets, it doesn’t follow that there can never be a teaching class. The OT clearly teaches that there was one. The system was there, but obviously it was not always functional or trustworthy. Corruption is the most obvious thing in the world and never proves anything in relation to true and false theology or exegesis.

It is pointed out that the Josian and Hezekian reformations were undertaken by virtue of royal authority. But this doesn’t prove anything, any more than Constantine’s actions, giving Christians freedom and the Church institutional respectability proves that he therefore became an authoritative teacher. Holy Roman emperors acted in similar ways at times; doesn’t make them teachers. Sometimes monarchs are in a position to do great good, because they have the power to implement laws and practices. This was one such case in the Bible. The monarchy wasn’t even God’s will for Israel, so certainly the king couldn’t be the primary teacher of the country. Granted, David and Solomon came close, but it wasn’t the normative situation. In the Mosaic Law the Levites had that responsibility. And David was a special case: being more than a mere king. God made a covenant with him that was unique and not applicable to other Hebrew kings.

[My Lutheran friend argued: “In 2 Kings 22-23, the high priest Hilkiah goes to the king to ask him what to do with the book found in the temple. Josiah orders the priest to go to the prophetess Huldah, she tells him to do what it says, and then Josiah calls all the kingdom, including the priests and high priest together, and orders them to begin the iconoclasm and desecrating the Yahwist high places. In Hezekiah’s time it’s less detailed but the king is in command.”]

The dispute at hand involves teaching authority, not civil authority. What does the king do as soon as the Torah is found? He gets the priest. The priest goes to the prophetess. Here are the two teaching authorities. It matters not a hill of beans whether the king commands the teachers to teach and interpret. That is their function! It doesn’t cease because a king commands them to do it. And that is our question at hand. Who had authoritative teaching authority? The king followed the advice of his advisers, just as Saul ignored Samuel, to his peril (but should have followed his sage advice), and David eventually heeded Nathan’s advice (but tragically too late to avoid the civil war led by his son).

Nor does the fact that the Law as a whole needed interpretation rule out the possibility that certain parts of it were clear and apparent without the need for much interpretation (just as with the Bible as a whole). Catholicism does not require a totally obscure Bible at all. This is a myth. I would argue that the portions that Josiah chiefly acted upon were of such a nature. How hard is it to understand that idols were contrary to the Law? That’s a no-brainer, so he could see that right away, because it was repeated so often. There is some monstrosity up on a hill that some folks are using in connection with worship. Knock it down; it is an idol. How hard was it to figure out that Passover should be observed? Etc., etc.

Does it thereby follow that the entire Law and Bible could be understood without the need of authoritative teachers? No. And that is rather obvious to this day. Protestants continue to absurdly claim that the Bible is perspicuous, yet fail to agree amongst themselves. And their reasons for why this is (stupidity or sin on the other guy’s part) is as absurd and silly as the original false premise.

As for false priests and prophets: Jesus issued just as devastating criticisms of the Pharisees, yet He commanded His followers to abide by their teaching. So He must have been teaching some notion that the truth could be passed down despite the corruption, not that it was impossible because of the corruption, as Protestants often contend. St. Paul approaches the same dilemma rather differently. As I wrote in my book, The Catholic Verses (p. 50):

Paul shows the high priest, Ananias, respect, even when the latter had him struck on the mouth, and was not dealing with matters strictly of the Old Testament and the Law, but with the question of whether Paul was teaching wrongly and should be stopped (Acts 23:1-5). A few verses later Paul states, “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (23:6) and it is noted that the Pharisees and Sadducees in the assembly were divided and that the Sadducees “say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all” (23:7-8). Some Pharisees defended Paul (23:9).

So we see that Paul accepts (at least to some tangible degree) the authority of the corrupt priests, just as Jesus accepted the authority (and taught others to do so) of the very Pharisees that He elsewhere excoriated. In fact, right after He says to “practice and observe whatever they tell you” (Matthew 23:3), He launches into His famous denunciations [for hypocrisy] for the rest of the chapter. Jesus and Paul see nothing improper at all in the concept of a corrupt teacher preserving true teaching. They don’t think that the corrupt teacher loses all authority. So once again we have the biblical teaching, the Protestant teaching, which contradicts it, and the Catholic teaching which is harmonious with it.

As to Jeremiah 14:14 and 23:16: the authoritative words of a true prophet about the foibles and wickedness of false prophets, supposedly proves that prophets have no teaching authority? Or that there were enough false prophets that one couldn’t know when they found a true one? The prophet’s word had to be proven by future events. If what they said did not come to pass, and they claimed to have received a word from the Lord, then they were to be stoned as false prophets. But there was always a true prophet, despite all the false ones (the “remnant” motif in the OT).

Protestants often highlight the wicked guys. But Israel had Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Isaiah and all the rest to tell them the truth. Many did not heed that truth or accept their authority. What else is new? That’s the same as always. Not all (not even a majority) listened to John the Baptist or Jesus Himself, either. And what does that prove? Exactly nothing, as to whether they possessed authority to teach or not, to bind others to their teaching.

Protestants look at the corruption and all the nonsense that went on in ancient Israel, conclude that authoritative teachers are not to be had, and say that therefore, the chaos in Protestantism is justified because that is how it has always been. And so the individual is thrown upon himself as his own authority: a spectacle every bit as horrifying — if not more so — as having to weed through 17 false prophets to get to a true one.

It’s as if there is no Holy Spirit, no further guidance, no death of Jesus on the cross (in terms of making a difference as to men’s ascertaining of truth). There is no apostolic deposit that we can know and identify, and no succession so that folks could identify the one Church with the one faith. We don’t say that the age of the Church is no more advanced than all the tragic Jewish history which was corrupt far more than it was righteous and the way God intended it to be.

No; the Christian has faith that because Jesus died and made it possible to obtain the graces of baptism and the Eucharist, and to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit, that now we can know what Christian truth is. Paul certainly presupposes this in his writing, constantly referring nonchalantly (as if it were self-evident) to the one true tradition, received, and passed along. Yet Protestants want to live in the relative uncertainty of the OT times? I find it amazing. But what else can a Protestant do, after all? They are bound by their own self-defeating, endlessly self-contradictory system(s).

We don’t have apostolic succession in the OT, but I have argued that it doesn’t affect the analogy of Catholicism to the OT system, precisely because we would expect this, based on the Holy Spirit not yet being given to the Church, to guide her.

A book (assuming it is copied accurately) is not subject to the corruptions and vicissitudes of human nature. It is what it is. So the books sat there and King Josiah found them and God’s Law was again known because it could be read. This doesn’t prove sola Scriptura. All it proves is that Israel wasn’t faithful to God and His Law, which we all knew, as this is the overwhelming theme of the entire OT. The Torah was ineffective when the priests and Levites were lax in their duty to properly teach and interpret it.

Priests, Levites, and prophets exercised something between binding teaching authority and infallibility. This is no different, analogously, than popes, councils, and bishops in the Catholic Church. Popes can be infallible, and so can councils in agreement with the pope. It’s true that there is not one, absolute figure like the pope, but when one is in the presence of an Ezra or Jeremiah or Samuel, does it really make any practical difference? Prophets routinely speak what purports to be the word of God, which is a much higher claim than papal infallibility (primarily a preventive, or “negative” guarantee, not positive inspiration or “revelation on the spot”). So one could easily argue that the infallibility (or the charism) was even greater, at least in the case of prophets.

It was even said of the Levites in Malachi 2:4-8: “True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.” This is quite strong and has all the hallmarks of infallibility. All the essentials are there.

We can’t argue that “the OT-period Jews were polytheist idolaters” because there were perhaps (for all we know) more periods and total years of corruption when they forsook Yahweh, than periods of monotheistic faithfulness. But if we are talking about Torah, Temple Judaism as a religion (or its successor, rabbinic Judaism), of course it is monotheistic. Likewise, the normative teaching apparatus was the priests and Levites and prophets. Sometimes that broke down and kings exercised the function.


Photo credit: Josiah hearing the book of the law (1873), from The story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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