In the Bible, the role of a priest or priestess was to serve God and act as a mediator between God and His people. The priesthood was restricted to men in ancient Israel, so there were no actual priestesses mentioned in the Bible. However, some pagan religions surrounding Israel did have priestesses, which were forbidden and condemned in biblical law. Overall, the concept of a priestess conflicts with the patriarchal society and male-only priesthood established in the Old Testament.
- In ancient Israel, the priesthood was exclusively male and hereditary, traced back to Aaron and his sons. No women served as priests.
- Pagan religions surrounding Israel had priestesses, who were forbidden by biblical law. God condemned any form of pagan worship.
- New Testament affirms distinctions between men’s and women’s roles in the church. The male-only priesthood continued in the early church.
- Ideas of egalitarianism and female priests developed much later in church history, conflicting with biblical precedent.
- Debate continues today about women’s roles in church leadership and the possibility of female priests or pastors.
The Male Israelite Priesthood
In the Old Testament, God established a hereditary priesthood starting with Aaron, the brother of Moses:
“Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests.” (Exodus 28:1, NKJV)
God specifically chose Aaron and his sons to be set apart for the priesthood. Their descendants would carry on these priestly duties for generations to come. The priesthood remained exclusively male and passed down from father to son.
When making offerings or performing other priestly duties, God continually emphasized that only Aaron and his sons were permitted to serve in this role:
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to Aaron and his sons, that they separate themselves from the holy things of the children of Israel, and that they do not profane My holy name by what they dedicate to Me: I am the Lord. Say to them: ‘Whoever of all your descendants throughout your generations, who goes near the holy things which the children of Israel dedicate to the Lord, while he has uncleanness upon him, that person shall be cut off from My presence: I am the Lord.'” (Leviticus 22:1-3, NKJV)
There are no examples of women serving as priests or taking on formal priestly duties within the worship of Yahweh in Israel. The priesthood was restricted to Aaron’s male descendants. Other men from the tribe of Levi assisted the priests, but they could not perform sacrifices or enter the Holy of Holies.
Pagan Priestesses vs. Biblical Law
Although there were no sanctioned priestesses in Israelite religion, priestesses did exist in some of the pagan religions surrounding cultures. For example, women served as priests and priestesses in Ancient Canaanite religion. Part of their duties including performing rituals in temples and shrines and facilitating sacred sex rites.
Other Ancient Near Eastern religions had priestesses serving their gods and goddesses in temples. The priestesses participated in offerings, rituals, celebrations, music, and prophecy for deities such as Ishtar, Inanna, Asherah, and Astarte.
However, the Bible expressly forbids following the religious practices of pagan cultures or worshiping their gods and goddesses:
“When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 18:9-12, NKJV)
The pagan religions with priestesses are described as “detestable” and forbidden. God commands the Israelites not to imitation them or follow their practices.
The only priesthood permitted is the male Levitical priesthood dedicated to Yahweh worship. Women could not serve as priestesses in official worship, which was limited to the tabernacle/temple. Any form of pagan worship or predominance of women in religious rituals went directly against God’s commands.
Women’s Roles Affirmed in the New Testament
Looking at the New Testament, evidence continues to uphold distinctive roles for men and women in church leadership. Jesus himself only chose male apostles. The apostle Paul affirms male spiritual headship and authority:
He explains that women should learn quietly and submit, not teach or have authority over men. This upholds a patriarchal leadership structure tracing back to the creation story, with Adam being formed first.
Paul also teaches about worship and head coverings:
“Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.” (1 Corinthians 11:4-5, NKJV)
He indicates distinctions between the sexes and symbolic reasons for women to cover their heads. The principle remains that men and women have differing roles, particularly in the context of church worship.
In the early church, leadership positions were reserved for men based on this biblical precedent. There is no evidence of female priests or priestesses conducting communion, baptisms, or other religious sacraments during gatherings of the first Christians.
The model followed that of the male Jewish priesthood, with male apostles and church elders providing oversight. Women were honored and participated actively in the body of Christ, but not in formal clergy roles. This tradition continued for centuries, with an exclusively male priesthood.
Modern Church Divisions Over Women’s Roles
In more recent centuries, some denominations have permitted the ordination of female deacons, elders, and priests or pastors. This reflects growing western cultural values of gender equality.
However, these practices directly contradict 2,000 years of church tradition established in the Bible. They go against the example of Jesus only choosing male apostles and Paul’s instructions about male spiritual headship.
Many evangelical and Charismatic Christians today believe women can serve in ministry, but not in senior pastor or elder roles. This reserves the highest offices for qualified men, while allowing women to teach, provide pastoral care, lead worship, serve communion, evangelize, and more. Women can actively use their spiritual gifts, while respecting the principle of male spiritual covering and headship.
Other denominations like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy still forbid the ordination of female priests or bishops. This upholds the tradition of a male-only priesthood reaching back to Jesus and the apostles.
Conclusion: Priestesses Conflict With Biblical Tradition
In summary, the concept of a priestess does not fit within biblical tradition. God established a hereditary, all-male priesthood in the Old Testament starting with Aaron and his sons. Pagan religions had priestesses, but these were forbidden and condemned according to biblical law commanding exclusive devotion to Yahweh.
The New Testament affirms distinctions between male and female roles, forbidding women from exercising spiritual authority over men. There is no evidence of female priests, pastors, or clergy in the apostolic church. An all-male priesthood was the norm throughout church history until modern liberalizing tendencies began ordaining women.
For evangelical and Charismatic Christians seeking to follow biblical models, the idea of female priests or pastors remains highly problematic. While women have many opportunities to serve in churches today, the traditional restrictions on senior pastoral oversight provide continuity with biblical tradition. The modern concept of a Christian priestess clashes directly with biblical precedent and historic church practice.