Ordination in the Ancient Church (1)


Vol. 4/No. 3

Ordination in the Ancient Church (1) Footnote

Everett Ferguson


      In this study attention will be given to the modes of selection and installation to office among the Romans, Greeks, and Jews. Later a detailed examination of the action and significance of ordination in the fourth century will be presented. Information concerning ordination will then be traced backwards so that the lines of evidence from the background and the foreground will be made to converge upon the New Testament. After an elucidation of the New Testament materials bearing on the subject the main themes of the study will be summarized and their relevance for today noted.

The Greco-Roman Background


      The features of selection and installation of important magistrates at Rome in the last century of the Republic were determinative for the provincial towns established by Rome. Footnote

      The chief magistrates were elected by the citizens; the voting was by the divisions of the citizenry known as centuries, with a majority in a century determining the vote of that century and a majority of the centuries determining the will of the assembly. Footnote

Entrance into office was conditioned on the designatio, an appointment to the office made by the presiding consul in the form of a renuntiatio, a proclamation of the outcome of the Election. Although bound by the outcome of the Election, he had great powers in accepting or rejecting candidates according to their qualifications. Extraordinary officers and lesser magistrates were appointed by a simple Naming to the function by the magistrate entitled to do so.

      The entrance day of the magistrate was January I, and the office was passed to the person on the stated day. Although he was a private person up to the entrance day, the designatus was treated already as an officer, for declining the office had the same legal status as abdication. Footnote

The selection was the decisive thing.

[118]   There followed on the gaining of the office a two-fold confirmatory act. A magistrate could legally take office only if the gods were consulted. Hence, the new consul, for example, took the auspices on the morning of his first day in office. The purpose was to receive a favorable sign for the assumption of the office, but the very performance of the Auspication was an indication that the person had assumed office. Secondly, the assembly passed the lexcuriatadeimperio by which the community bound itself to obey the authority of the new officer within his competence. The lexcuriata did not bestow the authority but rather set forth the same. Footnote

      A great amount of ceremony and formality marked the entrance (inire) into office. The office was not by them obtained, but rather was by them for the first time exercised, Usurpation (usurpatio) in the legal sense. After the first Auspication of the new consul, he put on the official dress and accompanied by lictors and friends went in solemn procession to the Capitol where he was seated in the curial chair (Solemn Seating). There he vowed to Jupiter that he had defended the state and offered sacrifice (Divine Invocation). The new consul then held a session of the Senate. Praetors, aediles, and quaestors similarly showed their entrance into office when they took their seat and first performed the function of office. Footnote

Within five days after assuming office the new magistrate had to present an Oath that he would observe the laws. The prevalence of the oath is seen in the fact that one was taken by the candidate when he announced his candidacy, when the proclamation of his election was made, and when he surrendered the office. Footnote

      Under the principate the power of the Emperor essentially limited the election-right even where the forms of Election were maintained. By the third century the manner in which emperors were in fact made became virtually a constitutional process. Following an Acclamation by the troops there was a proclamation and an Enthronement. Footnote

      In imperial times Porrection was known in appointment to office. A sword was given to the prefect to indicate his appointment. Footnote

The following features are prominent in the appointment of the important civil officials in the Roman world: Election by the qualified voters with the important role played by the official presiding; the Invocation of the gods on the day of assuming office; the installation by Usurpation; the prevalence of Oath-taking; and the steady movement toward autocracy.


      In the early Republican period the filling of all priestly colleges and sodalities was by Co-option. Footnote

However, certain lesser priests and religious functionaries were designated by the PontifexMaximus. The latter was an elected official, chosen by a special assembly of seventeen of the tribes after a Nomination from their own number by the principal priests (pontifices). Later the same elective act by part of the tribes was inserted between Nomination and Co-option of the members of the four great priestly colleges. Nominations to the assembly convened for sacerdotal business were made by the respective colleges, which after the Election went through the form of Co-option. The Emperor’s powers finally ended the independence of the priestly colleges although the old forms of Co-option remained.

      Whether chosen by the members of a college, elected first by an assembly of the people, or designated by the pontifexmaximus, the new priest had to be installed in his sacred function. The formal completion of Co-option came when the president of the college or sodality “called to sacred things” (adsacravocabat) the newly designated member, a constitutive Naming. Footnote

      Certain religious functionaries underwent an inauguratio (an Inauguration in the limited sense). The ceremony of Inauguration meant the declaration of the assent of the deity to the accomplished Election or Designation. In significance the inauguratio was the same as a magistrate’s first taking of the auspices, the only difference being that in the latter case the official performed the function himself and in the former it was done for him by an augur. There is no evidence that inauguratio, or any other rite performed on the new priest, involved a change of state. Footnote

      The distinctive feature provided by the Roman priesthoods was their practice of Co-option.


      The officers of the Roman clubs were elected in an ordinary meeting by the vote of the members. The terms of office, as for civil officials, was customarily for one year, and re-election was permitted. The only ceremony attested for the induction into office is Oath-taking. Footnote


      The Athenian constitution of the fourth centry B.C., for which the most evidence is available, may be taken as representative of Greek democracy. Footnote

      All important magistrates were selected either by Lot-taking (klerosis) or by Election (cheirotonia). The Lot was used for those positions the management of which every citizen possessed the ability, and the Lot-taking emphasized that aspect of democracy which provides every one with the right to be chosen. Cheirotonia was voting

by a show of hands, and the Election emphasized the right of every citizen to decide who was qualified to serve in certain specialized tasks.

      The Election of officials occurred in an ordinary meeting of the Assembly. The meeting would open with prayer and sacrifice. The ‘nary decision of the Council to place the Election on the agenda of the meeting of the Assembly would be presented. The

supervision of the Election was in the hands of the nine chairmen (proedroi) for the day. The list of candidates was supplied either by the Nomination of friends or by announcement. There might be a preliminary vote to decide to proceed with the Election. At the appropriate time the Herald called for a show of hands for the respective candidates. The votes were counted and the report of the results was given and these results were ratified as a legal vote. Both were the assignment of the nine proedroi.

      A distinctive feature of entrance into office in Athens was the Formal Scrutiny (dokimasia) which every official had to undergo at first of the civil year. The Scrutiny according to the law cove only the formal qualifications for the office, but in practice must have often covered the whole private and public life of the candidate. The Scrutiny was conducted by the presiding officer of the Assembly or of the law-court.

      Next came the Oath-taking (horkos) by which the newly selected magistrate bound himself to rule according to the laws and to the best of his ability. Footnote

      Upon entrance into office Entrance-sacrifices were brought. Footnote

The details of the performance are obscure, but the idea seems to have [121] been that one did not begin an important task without recourse to the gods, Divine Invocation. Footnote

      Greece differed from Rome in the extensive use of the Lot in filling magistracies. When Election was performed in Greece, the basic voting unit was the individual, and not a group. The Formal Scrutiny had a distinctive role in the Greek appointive process. Although Greece too had its sacrificial Invocation of the gods and Oath-taking, the ceremonies lack the elaboration and legal precision characteristic of Rome.


      In reference to the method of their selection Greek priesthoods may be placed in three categories: those following the civil analogy and filled by Election or Lot-taking, those closely connected with a given family and acquired by Inheritance, and those purchased. Footnote

      The ordinary civic priests were chosen by Election or by Lot-taking and served for one year. The use of lots was more common and could be interpreted as permitting the deity to choose his own minister. Footnote

The methods of voting and taking lots could be combined the field being narrowed by one means and the actual choice made by the other. Footnote

      Any number of circumstances may have brought a given family into especially close relationship with a given deity so that the service of that deity was reserved to members of the family; this was true even of civic cults. The rule of succession varied from family to family.

      During the Hellenistic period in Asia Minor and the Islands there was a strong development of the practice of the purchase of priesthoods. Footnote

Purchase was sometimes combined with other methods of selection. The vendor was always the State.

      The entrance into the functions of office by a newly chosen priest would be marked in some way with a certain ceremony, but “in classical antiquity most priesthoods did not, it seems, involve any solemn [122] ordination or investiture.” Footnote

Some Attic inscriptions mention Entrance-sacrifices. Priests of certain cults were also admitted by a form of initiation. At such a time the priest may have assumed any insignia of his office. The very paucity of the evidence is perhaps an indication that nothing unusual attached to the assumption of a priestly position in Greek religion.


      A special mode of appointment met with in the private associations of the Greeks is the Designation of an official hy another, but this usually occurred only in the appointment of a lesser functionary by a higher officer. More common were appointments by Lot or by Election. Footnote

“The statutes of Greek guilds in Egypt during the imperial period open with an account of the Election of a president whose term was to run for a single year. Footnote
(Apparently Roman imperialism had not submerged local democratic traditions.) About the manner of Election by the members little information occurs, but the indications are that it was commonly by a show of hands. Footnote

      The installation of officers is spoken of in wholly general phrases in the overwhelming majority of cases. An Oath was taken in Attic colleges at the entrance into the association or into one of its offices. Sacrifices accompanied the entrance into office in some cases, as they did the laying down of office and all other important occasions. Footnote

The Oath-taking and Entrance-sacrifices are features that other phases of Greek life would lead us to expect, but the evidence is not sufficient to permit a generalization.

The Jewish Background


      The account of the installation of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood in Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8 gives the fullest description of installation to the priestly office. The seven-day ceremony, in the presence of the people, included the following elements: ceremonial washing, Investiture with the garments of the priesthood, Chrismation, and the performance of certain sacrifices which were accompanied by the placing of blood on the right ear, thumb, and the [123] great toe and by the sprinkling of blood and oil on the person and garments of the new priest. There are several indications that the Investiture and the Chrismation were the basic elements in the ceremony (Ex. 29:9c,29; 40:14f; Num. 20:26-28).

      One set of passages suggests that all priests were anointed, whereas another set implies that Chrismation was limited to the high priest. That all priests received the oil is indicated by Exodus 28: 40f; 30:30; 40:14f (but, do the latter two passages refer to the sons of Aaron as successors in the high priesthood?) ; Lev. 7:36; 10:7; and Num. 3:3. Nevertheless, the term the “anointed priest” seems to be a special term for the high priest (but this interpretation is not necessarily demanded in Lev. 4), and anointing is given as the mark of Aaron’s successor in Lev. 6:22. Footnote

Apparently all priests could be spoken of as “anointed,” but the “anointed priest” parexcellence was the high priest. The account of the consecration of Aaron and his sons in Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8 does in fact make a distinction in the manner of the application of the oil. It is only sprinkled on Aaron’s sons (and also on Aaron himself), whereas it is poured on Aaron’s head (cf. Lev. 21:10; Ps. 133:2).

      Several Pentateuchal statements indicate that Chrismation was to be used in the appointment of each new priest (Ex. 29:29f; 40:14f). The virtual silence of sources outside the Old Testament leaves the question of what ceremony if any was in use in later times uncertain. Furthermore, it would appear that in the latter days of the Temple the high priest was no longer (or not always) anointed, for the Mishnah knows of high priests introduced to their office through the ceremony of Investiture. Footnote

The continuation of Chrismation into Hellenistic times is indicated by Daniel 9:26 and 2 Maccabees 1:10. The Hasmonaean priest-kings, precisely because of the question of their legitimacy, would hardly have omitted the rite. Rather any abolition of Chrismation would have come in Herodian-Roman times. Footnote

[124]   Christianity’s break with the priestly traditions of the Old Testament is well symbolized by the absence of Chrismation in ordination until well into the Middle ages. Footnote

      The accounts of Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8 use words from the root male’ (“to fill” or “to appoint”) in reference to the installation of Aaron and his sons. The full form of the expression, “to fill the hand,” (Judg. 17:5,12) seems to have been the literal terminology for the installation of a priest. What was the hand filled with? The most attractive explanation, based on the “fill offering” of the Exodus and Leviticus texts, is that there was a handing over of sacrificial portions (Porrection) to the new priest. Consecration was meant thus to express that the priest was empowered to lay these pieces upon the altar, or, as the case may be, to take them for himself from the sacrifice as perquisites. Footnote

Leviticus 8:27 would lend support to this view. In most Old Testament passages, however, the word has lost any specific sense and means only “appoint.”


      Some data on the installation of kings is preserved in the stories of Saul and David in the books of Samuel. First, Saul was appointed privately by Samuel as an expression of the divine choice (I Sam. 10:1). The public selection took place by Lot in an assembly of the people (I Sam. 10:20f). David, also, was designated to the kingship by Chrismation, and in this case the act was connected with the coming of the Spirit upon him (I Sam. 16:13f). Chrismation is mentioned in later cases of disputed succession.

      Coronation is mentioned (2 Kings 11:12), but Chrismation seems to have been the rite with comparable significance to the coronations of pagan kings.


      By the nature of the prophetic office a regular mode of appointment would not be expected. As endowed with the Spirit of God, prophets could be spoken of as “anointed,” but there is some question whether this was ever literally done. Footnote

In the Elijah-Elisha stories the mantle of the master was passed on to his successor (I Kings 19:19; 2 Kings 2:6-15). Footnote

[125] Elders,Judges,andRabbisOldTestamentPrecedents

      Gaster, in speaking of Jewish ordination, has observed that behind this institution lies a chapter of Jewish history which has not yet been elucidated—the appointment of judges. Footnote

The Old Testament passages speaking of the appointment of “judges and officers” in the land Footnote
give no indication of a mode of installation. The same applies to the elders, whose status appears to go back to the early tribal days of the Hebrews. The selection of seventy out of the elders to assist Moses is related in Num. ll:16ff, a number which apparently was older in usage (Ex. 24:1). The Sanhedrin of New Testament times was regarded as patterned on the institution of the seventy elders around Mo s es. Footnote

      The judges and the elders of Israel contributed to the picture of the rabbis in normative Judaism. The absence of a method of ordination in the texts relating to these people was supplied from the story of the appointment of Joshua in Numbers 27:15ff. Footnote

Deuteronomy 34:9 seems to look back to this incident, but the point immediately leaps to view that in Numbers Moses imposes hands on Joshua because he is a man “in whom is spirit” whereas in Deuteronomy Joshua has the “spirit of wisdom” because Moses has imposed his hands on him. Jewish commentators have seen no incongruity in the passages and have taken the “spirit of wisdom” (i.e. wisdom) as an added gift distinct from the “spirit” Joshua already possessed. Footnote
Co-[126]inciding with this view is the added consideration that the “because” in Deuteronomy 34:9 may be regarded as stating the evidence for and not the means of Joshua’s wisdom.

      The central feature of the Moses-Joshua episode is the Imposition of hands. The word used for the action of Moses is samakh, “to lean (one’s hands) upon somebody or something.” This word is to be distinguished from sim, and shith, “to place (one’s hands),” which are the words used where a benediction is concerned (as notably in Gen. 48:14ff). The Septuagint has translated both samakh and sim by epitithenai (used for all types of Impositions of hands in the New Testament also) and shith by epiballein.Footnote

The placing of one’s hands on another in benediction was accompanied by the spoken word usually in the form of prayer. Footnote
Samakh was a different act, meaning to lean so as to exert pressure. Footnote

      Samakh is used of witnesses laying their hands on the blasphemer who is to be stoned (Lev. 24:14; cf. Susannah 34), of the person who brings an animal for sacrifice leaning upon it (Lev. passim), and of the people consecrating the Levites (Num. 8:10).

      Although not significant in Jewish ordination, the consecration of the Levites was important as a precedent in early Christianity. Since the Levites replaced the first-born, the narrative speaks of their setting apart in sacrificial terms. All of the Israelites (or the elders as representatives?) laid hands on the Levites. Since this was the exclusion of a whole tribe, it was a non-repeatable act.

      Efforts to find a common significance behind these usages of the act have not been notably successful. Elderenbosch has emphasized the ideas of solidarity and community, the giving of oneself so as to establish an identity, in the imposition of hands in the Old Testament. Footnote

This approach sounds good, but on application to the specific instances suffers the limitation of not being able to make a contribution to their understanding except in generalities. The interpretation in terms of “transference” Footnote
has the same defect. It is easy to set up a general category, but a generalization does not aid in interpreting specific passages from which the generalization is drawn. If such diverse qualities as one’s sins and one’s gratitude could be transferred to the sin and peace offerings respectively, the act was hardly ambiguous. Moreover, there was no obvious transfer [127] in the dedication of the Levites. Daube concludes that by pressing upon a person or animal one poured his personality into him or it, making a substitute. Footnote
But the case of the witnesses does not fit this frame of thinking, nor does the offering of a sacrifice. If the animal was a substitute, it represented the offerer in only one aspect (his sins or his feeling of gratitude) ; therefore, the distinction with sim breaks down, for this word is said by Daube to indicate the transference of something other than or less than the whole personality.

      Lohse is probably right in concluding that there is no unified explanation for the Old Testament impositions of hands. Footnote

Indeed there is no necessity that there should be. Perhaps originally the act had a common root, but it could very easily acquire various connotations in different contexts. Furthermore, there is no basis for Behm’s contention that a gesture must be unambiguous and have a definite meaning in a religion. Footnote
The history of religions is replete with actions that continue with a changed interpretation, or indeed with no significance save the sacredness which age imparts.

      There is some confusion whether one or both hands were ordinarily employed in the rite. In the case of sacrificial animals where the subject is singular the singular “hand” is always used except in Leviticus 16:21 (where the consonantal text is singular but the context demands the plural). The rabbis, however, always spoke of the action in the plural, “hands.” The evidence is more confused where persons are concerned. In Numbers 27 God tells Moses to impose his “hand” on Joshua; Moses is said to have imposed his “hands” on him. In the New Testament the plural is used in the great majority of cases, even of the action of one person. It would seem that no distinction was made, and in later times the practice gravitated toward the use of both hands. Footnote


      The Babylonian Talmud uses words from the samakh root for ordination, whereas the Palestinian Talmud uses minnuy, a general word for any kind of installation into an office. We are warranted in taking both terms as having the same meaning. Footnote

Lohse suggests [128] that because semikah can have more than one usage semikuth came to be used exclusively for ordination, Footnote
but this is not certain. Semikuth is brought into conjunction with the semikahzekenim in three passages. Although Strack-Billerbeck take the latter to refer to “ordination to be elders,” Footnote
it seems better to take the phrase as equivalent to the imposition of the elders’ hands in connection with a sacrifice for the sins of the community (Lev. 4:15). Footnote

      The halakic midrash to Numbers understands the installation of Joshua as an example of Rabbinic ordination:


God said to Moses: Give Joshua an interpreter (i.e. make Joshua a lecturing teacher at whose side an interpreter stands), so that he questions, and lectures, and makes decisions as long as you still live; if you depart from the world, the Israelites may not say: During the life of his teacher (Moses) he gave no decisions, and now he does. Moses had Joshua to stand up from the ground (on which he had sat before him up to that time as his student) and he set him before himself on the seat (as enjoying equal privileges) . . . . Footnote

      A passage from the Palestinian Talmud describing the changes in the ordaining authority provides a good framework for the history of Jewish ordination during the early centuries of the Christian era:


Originally, every one (i.e. every teacher) ordained his own pupils, thus R. Johanan b. Zakkai ordained R. Eliezer and R. Joshua, R. Joshua ordained R. Akiba, R. Akiba ordained R. Meir and R. Simeon. They were anxious to honor this house (the house of the Nasi) and declared that if the Beth Din ordained without the approval of the Nasi the ordination was not valid, but if a Nasi ordained without the knowledge of the Beth Din the Semikah was valid; then again they made a regulation that ordination should be performed with the mutual approval of the Beth Din and the Nasi. Footnote

      With the mention of R. Johanan b. Zakkai (d. about A.D. 80) this passage gives the first case of ordination in which names are recorded. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a story of a scholar ordaining his students during the war under Hadrian. Footnote

      The Palestinian Talmud is probably right in saying that the change from an individual teacher to the Nasi (“Patriarch” or “President”) was made to do honor to his house. Most scholars ascribe this change to the time after the Hadrianic war, presumably under R. Gamaliel II, by A.D. 140. This centralization may have been part of the re-organization in those troubled times. The limitation of Nasi’s authority so that the approval of the council was required is [129] usually ascribed to the third century at the time of R. Judah II. Footnote

      The essential part of early Rabbinic ordinations appears to have been the Imposition of hands. However, Rabbinic literature preserves no express mention of this rite in ordination earlier than about A.D. 380, and here in a context denying its necessity but apparently indicating that it was formerly so regarded. Footnote

The evidences adduced in Strack-Billerbeck seem conclusive that the Imposition of hands was performed and was the center of the rite of ordination: the name itself which is based on the Old Testament word used in the imposition of hands; the explanations of Moses’ installation of Joshua which is interpreted according to the views held of a scholar’s ordination; and the later denials of the necessity of this act, implying a previous practice. Footnote
We may add another argument: the connection made by the rabbis between ordination and the imposition of hands in sacrifice.

      Verbal Naming later replaced the practice of Imposition of hands. As Newman argues, the question of why a change was made points to the time when the change was made. The Imposition of hands was dropped in the time of Hadrian when ordination was restricted to the Nasi. Ordination was no longer an individual but a communal affair. Footnote

The new circumstances and the new ceremony called for a new name, and thus minnuy became the usual term in Palestine.

      While ordination was performed by Imposition of hands, the act would have involved leaning upon the ordained so as to exert pressure. Footnote

When appointment by Naming came into use, the essential feature was the giving of the title “Rabbi.” The sources also suggest an Investiture and Inaugural Usurpation such as giving a public discourse. Footnote

      There was a requirement that three ordained men be present for conferring ordination on another, but the rule itself puzzled the Talmudic interpreters. Footnote

The accounts of ordination make it clear that only one was the principal, so the other two must have been assistants or witnesses.

      What was the meaning attached to ordination in Judaism? The leadership and authority of the rabbis were especially associated [130] with judicial questions arising from the Law. This association points to the origin of rabbinic ordinations in the judges and in the greater and lesser Sanhedrins of pre-Christian times. Newman devotes a whole chapter to the “exclusive jurisdiction of the ordained.” Footnote

An examination of this list of prerogatives of the ordained scholar in Judaism is instructive: They settled financial disputes, inflicted fines, established the calendar, released the first-born animal for profane use by reason of disqualifying blemishes, annulled vows, and originally inflicted corporal and capital punishment.

      The impression of the ordained rabbi as a religious judge is strengthened by two further considerations. First, there is the principle, “There is no ordination outside Palestine,” meaning that ordination could not be conferred outside the holy land. Footnote

The very existence of such a regulation indicates that ordination was rooted in the juridical life of the Jewish people in their homeland and was not a spiritual principle necessary to the religious life of the Diaspora. That the Babylonian exilarch (reshgalutha) granted authorizations, sometimes called “ordinations,” does not change the principle, rather it speaks of the legal status attained by Jewry in that region. The terminology for ordination was never changed in Babylonia because ordination never had its full meaning there. The second consideration is the granting of part and conditional ordinations. Footnote
Ordinarily, ordination conferred an equal status, and when a teacher ordained his student, this would have been the case. Footnote
But authorizations to decide ritual questions or act as a judge can be limited to certain cases or certain times. In cases of full ordination the ordination was apparently considered irrevocable. Footnote

      Other concepts besides the juridical one were associated with the rabbinate, but we have dwelt on the legal aspect because it indicates clearly the difference between Christian and Jewish ordination. Christian ordination had no comparable legal or juridical purpose. Ehrhardt calls attention to two subsidiary differences between Rabbinic and Christian ordination. The former required the presence of three, and this is a later feature of Christian ordination for which there is no early evidence. Moreover, Rabbinic ordination conferred an equal status, something not true of all Christian ordinations. A related problem to the latter would be the renewed laying on of hands in episcopal consecration of one already a presbyter—this would have been contrary to a Jewish rule against repeating the act. Footnote

      Ehrhardt claims that in early Judaism the transference of the [131] Spirit was admitted and was connected with the Imposition of hands. Footnote

This is far from a general opinion among scholars. Davies states as follows: “It is precarious also to assume that Rabbinic ordination by the laying on of hands in the first century was meant to signify the transmission of the Holy Spirit.” Footnote
Daube also declares that the imparting of the Spirit was not Rabbinic ordination. Footnote
The Rabbinic comments on Numbers 27:18 and Deuteronomy 34:9 would appear to be conclusive evidence for the negative. The only passage this writer has found which would connect the Imposition of hands with the giving of the Spirit is a quite late homiletic midrash on Num. 27. Footnote
Otherwise, Jewish writers stress that in Numbers II God made the transfer. Footnote
Numbers 27 has no transfer of the Spirit, and in the interpretations the emphasis is on the “honor” Joshua received in being designated Moses’ successor. Footnote
Significantly, little is made of the Deuteronomy passage which does make a connection between spirit and the Imposition of hands. What little is said stresses that Joshua had, not Spirit, but wisdom from Moses. The “spirit of wisdom” passed down among Jewish scholars was that which a student learned from his teacher.

      It has been noted above that at ordination the title of “rabbi” was given. There is evidence to suggest that originally “elder” (zaqen) was the status conferred in ordination. Lauterbach asserts that persons ordained to the Sanhedrin bore the title of zaqen, and he gives as evidence a passage in bSanhedrin 14a where this word is referred to the ordained. Footnote

Furthermore, the Talmudic statements which link the laying on of the hands of the elders in a communal sacrifice with ordination imply that “elders” are involved in both cases. The comments on Numbers II make the transition from the “elders” of the text to ordained teachers directly. Footnote
One of the texts denying ordination “outside the Land” speaks of it as ordination of [132] elders. Footnote
Two passages referring to the later ordination by Naming speak of this as “appointment to be elders.” Footnote
The term “elder” (indicating dignity more than age) forges another link between ordination and the judicial aspects of Jewish life, for the term was the designation for the members of the councils in each community. It would appear to have been an early title for the ordained that enjoyed a revival in later times. The term, “rabbi,” on the other hand, is first used as a title in reference to the disciples of Johanan ben Zakkai. Footnote
The Gospels show “rabbi” as a respectful form of address to a teacher, but are an evidence against its usage at that time for ordained teachers. “Rabbi” apparently acquired official connotations only at the time we also hear of the first ordinations performed by individual teachers.

      Can Rabbinic ordination be traced to the time before A.D. 70? There is point in Newman’s observation that the Talmud would not have tolerated any innovations such as R. Ashi’s decision that laying on of hands by the qualifier was not necessary, or the introduction of part-ordination, if the Old Testament story of Moses and Joshua had been considered binding in all its details. Footnote

His doubts raise the more important question whether ordination by a scholar through the Imposition of hands would, or could, have been abandoned if it was an institution of long standing. Footnote
Moreover, there seems no roason why individual ordination could not have spread outside Palestine, and, if it was an old institution, the probability is that it would have done so.

      In the face of these presumptions an effort has been made to break through the wall in our evidence raised at the time of the Jewish revolt, A.D. 66-70. Lohse has made the most persistent effort of recent times, Footnote

but his evidence has been answered by Ehrhardt. Footnote
We are left with no clear evidence for Rabbinic ordination before 70 and a presumption against it.


      The term “elder” offers the one solid indication of ordination in earlier times. Ehrhardt has advanced a thesis which we would like to elaborate further. The main points of this thesis are as follows: ordination before 70 was the solemn ritual of admission to the Jerusalem Sanhedrin; in the time of Jesus the main rite in Jewish ordi-[133]nation was not the Imposition of hands but a Solemn Seating; the Imposition of hands rose to prominence in the troubled times, 70-135, when the precedent of Numbers 27 had to be stressed against Numbers II in the need for private ordination. Footnote

Although evidence is lacking for ordination of rabbis by Imposition of hands before 70, the same is not true for ordination to the Sanhedrin by Solemn Seating.

      It is surprising that earlier investigators have not been impressed that all of the earliest descriptions of ordination make the key feature of the Seating of the ordinand on the teaching chair. The Sifre to Numbers 27, Footnote

which was quoted earlier, says nothing about the Imposition of hands except as it appears in the citation of the Biblical text. The central feature of the description is Moses raising Joshua up and Seating him on a chair. The same description holds true for the passage cited by Lohse Footnote
for support of Jewish ordination going back to pre-Christian times, Assumption of Moses xii.2. Discussing the appointment of Joshua, the text says, “And Moses took his hands and raised him into the seat before him. Footnote
Ehrhardt also finds support for Solemn Seating being the central concept of Jewish ordination in the words of Jesus about the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:2, they “sit in Moses’ seat.” Footnote
Lohse also cites texts from the Sifre on Deuteronomy where yashabh (in the form “cause to be seated”) is used of ordination. Footnote

      Probably the most significant passage on Jewish ordination is a statement from the Mishnah which should serve to certify the rest of the evidence. Footnote


The Sanhedrin was arranged like the half of a round threshing-floor so that they all might see one another. Before them stood the two scribes of the judges. . . .

Before them sat three rows of disciples of the Sages, and each knew his proper place. If they needed to appoint another as judge, they appointed him from the first row, and one from the second row came into the first row, and one from the third [134] row came into the second; and they chose yet another from the congregation and set him in the third row. He did not sit in the place of the former, but he sat in the place that was proper for him. Footnote

       Samakh is the verb translated “appoint,” and it is distinguished in the passage from “chose.” The technical meaning “ordain” would seem to be definite. This word may further suggest a laying on of hands; what is significant is that taking the appropriate seat on the Sanhedrin represented one’s admission to that body.

      Apparently the same procedure was employed for the lesser Sanhedrins, or councils of judges. In the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 17b) the number one hundred twenty is given as the minimum population of a city in order that it may qualify for a Sanhedrin. In arriving at this number the commentator first counts the twenty-three members of a minor Sanhedrin, and then lists three rows of twenty-three who must sit before the council. There is no need to carry the arithmetic further; this much shows that the major Sanhedrin was the pattern for the lesser ones and presumably vacancies would be filled by both bodies in the same way as outlined in the Mishnah.

      It may well be that Imposition of hands was part of the ceremony of ordination to a Sanhedrin. It may even have been that rabbis used the rite in the private “graduation exercises” of their pupils before A.O. 70. The evidence, however, is lacking. Ehrhardt’s statement that “private ordination was, at any rate, not officially recognized before A.D. 70, but was a transient phase in the troubled times between A.D. 70 and 135, and not the true origin of rabbinical ordination,” is correct. The juridical nature of Rabbinic ordination is explained by its intention to continue the Sanhedrin. The Jewish background gives prominence to an act often overlooked in discussions of ordination—Solemn Seating.


      The liturgical functions of the Jewish synagogue, at home and abroad, were in the hands of a “chief of the synagogue” (rosh hakeneseth, archisynagogos) and a “servant” of the synagogue (chazan,hyperetes). No information exists in regard to their selection and installation. Footnote

      Distinct from these cult officials were the community rulers. At the legal head of Palestinian communities were local sanhedrins whose members were ordained and wore the title zaqen. Although a certain variety appears, non-Palestinian Jewish communities also had a collegiate body in charge of their administrative affairs. Inscriptions from the diaspora show a multiplicity of functionaries patterned after the officials of the Greek associations but keeping within the framework of Palestinian models. Jewry in Rome may be taken as [135] representative inasmuch as there is more evidence from Rome and we have the benefit of the studies of J. B. Frey for the city. Footnote

      Each Jewish community at Rome was governed by a council of elders, Footnote

the gerousia, presided over by the gerousiarch.Presbyteroi do not appear to be mentioned in Rome, Footnote
so the idea has been presented that each member of the gerousia was called archon. Footnote
Frey, however, argues that archons were the executive committee of the gerousia. Footnote

      No installation ceremony is known for any officials of the Jewish communities. The only means of selection which is attested is that of Election by the community. The Jewish archons were elected for a year by all the community in the month of September at the Feast of Tabernacles. Footnote

      The later patriarchs sought to maintain some control over Jewish communities through their apostles (sheluchim). Their introduction into discussions about the ministry of the church necessitate a word here. Footnote

There is no evidence for Jewish apostles of the patriarchs before the second century; neither is there evidence that they were ordained nor any reason to suppose they would be. Footnote
There was no place for a laying on of hands in the sending out of the shaliach. Footnote


      Although study is producing a fair clear picture of the organiza-[136]tion of the Qumran community, Footnote

only hints exist in regard to the subject under consideration. The emphasis on an orderly structure of the community may be seen in the following passages from the Manual of Discipline:


This is the regulation for the session of the Many: each member (shall sit) in his definite seat. The priests shall sit in the first seats, the elders in the next seats, and the rest of all the people shall sit, each in his definite seat. (vi. 8ff)

They shall examine their spiritual qualities and their actions year after year, promoting one according to his insight and his perfect ways, and setting back another according to his perverseness. (v. 23f) Footnote

      These texts reflect in a new situation the same cycle of ideas about seating as the Mishnah Sanhedrin iv.4.

      The idea of divine choice is strong in reference to the priests Footnote

and may have had a basis in the fact that the priests were the descendants of Aaron and thus divinely appointed. At any rate, the priests held a special position at Qumran simply by virtue of heredity. It is assumed that each priest was anointed. Footnote

      Despite the hierarchical structure there was a strong “democratic” element in the role played by the assembly in making decisions. The voice of the “Many’‘ was especially heard in the selection of leaders. When judges (ten) were chosen for a special occasion, the whole congregation appears to have made the choice. Footnote

A common phrase, “the lot shall go out” (ys’hgwrl), was used figuratively for all decisions in which the whole body had a part. Footnote
In one passage it has definite reference to the selection of the leaders of the community, perhaps by an Election of the members. Footnote

[137]                                                          GLOSSARY

Capitalization indicates words given a special technical meaning in the paper. The use of the small case in the text indicates either a non-technical meaning or the action in a non-ordinal context. The capitalization is not extended to verb forms and derivative words, but as much as possible these other forms of the word are used only when referring to the technical action.

Acclamation—A spontaneous, unanimous Election or Ratification; in the cry, “Axios”(=Dignus), an Acclamation became part of the liturgy.

appointment—A general word covering selection and/or installation without reference to the manner in which accomplished.

Auspication—The divination or augury performed by the new Roman office-holder in order to determine the divine attitude toward his magistracy.

Benediction—The pronouncing of a personal blessing at an ordination with a view toward dedicating the person receiving the Benediction to the service of God.

Chrismation—Anointing with oil.

Co-optionElection by members of a collegiate body to replace vacancies in their numbers, thus providing for a self-perpetuating membership.

Designation—A selection for an office made or announced by a person in authority (preserving the meaning of designatio).

DivineInvocation—An appeal to the gods or God for favor in an enterprise, particularly an official undertaking.

Election—A selection made by voting, particularly by the whole assembly.

Enthronement—A special form of Solemn Seating, with the chair on a raised platform and containing the ornate trappings of royalty.

EpiscopalElection—A choice made by one bishop, especially of a successor.

FormalScrutiny—Examination of the qualifications of a candidate in public and according to a set form.

ImperialNomination—Presentation of a candidate by the emperor for Election.

Impositionofhands—Laying of hands, or a hand, on the head of the ordinand, either with or without the exertion of pressure.

InauguralUsurpation—Assuming an office by performing its duties for the first time.

Inauguration—An auspication performed by an auger in inducting a person into office (Latin inauguratio).

Inheritance—Qualifying for an office through birth.

InspiredDesignation—Selection of a person for religious work by a spokesman of the divine will, especially a prophet.


installation—Induction into office, however performed.

Investiture—Putting on the garments pertaining to an office and worn in its exercise.

Lot-taking—Selection by chance.

Naming—Bestowing an office by giving the name of the office, or the title carried by its holder, in a verbal proclamation.

Nomination—Proposing a name for Election.

Oath-taking—A solemn promise, supported by an appeal to the divine, marking one’s entrance into office.

ordination—A general word for selection and installation, but particularly the latter, ceremonially accomplished.

Ordination—The developed sacrament of orders in Catholic Churches.

ParochialElection—An Election by all the people of a Christian community.

Porrection—Bestowal of the instruments signifying an office and/or used in its performance.

Prayer—The ordination prayer.

PresbyteralElection—Election by the presbyters of a church.

Ratification—Approval by one party to the constitutive selection performed by another.

selection—A general word for choice without reference to the manner of choosing.

SolemnSeating—The taking a seat in the chair of office.

SynodalElection—An Election by a specially assembled synod of bishops.

Vision in Action

Watch the video above to witness the future of Abilene Christian University taking shape.

Learn more 

Connect with ACU