The figure of Aaron, his ancestry, and his rise to priestly prominence is treated rather tersely in the Bible. Though he stems from the lineage of Levi (Levi, Kohath, Amram, Aaron; Ex. 6.16–20), he must be distinguished from the secondary class of temple servants who also come from that tribe and more properly bear the name Levites. [See Levi.] The account of Aaron's elevation over his Levitical brothers is not recorded in the Bible, but we do have the Korah story, in which his prominent role amid the other Levites is contested (Nm. 16–17); his investiture as chief priest also is described (Ex. 29).

When we turn to the Second Temple sources found at Qumran we find a surprising dearth of interest in the figure of Aaron as a narrative character. Though the name Aaron occurs numerous times, it almost always refers to the category of Aaronic priests, rarely to the biblical person himself. Many of the more important references of this kind are to be found in the Rule of the Community from cave 1 (1QS). [See Rule of the Community.] Here we find the community itself broken down into two composite parts: the “Sons of Aaron” and the “majority of the members of the Community.” There is some variation here as to how the priestly element is named. Alongside the title “Sons of Aaron” (1QS v.21) one also can find “Sons of Zadok” (1QS v.2, v.9), and simply “the priests” (1QS vi.19). These different titles for the priestly element of the sect must be understood as synonymous. [See Zadok, Sons of.]

Interest in the role of the Aaronic priests also is prominent in the War Scroll (1QM vii.10, xvii.2); here the biblical role of Aaron in raising up the militia of Israel (Nm. 1ff.) is drawn upon. In Temple Scrolla (11Q19) there is frequent reference to Aaron as the person to whom Israel's sacrificial legislation was first entrusted (11Q19 xxii.5, xxxiv.13). [See Temple Scroll.] Finally, one must note the interest the scrolls show in a messianic figure from the line of Aaron, nearly always paired with a messianic figure from the line of David (e.g., Damascus Document, CD xix.11). [See Damascus Document; Messiahs.]

This lack of interest in Aaron's narrative character is counterbalanced by the very significant attention the figure of Levi receives in Second Temple sources (cf. Jub. 30–32; Testament of Levi; Aramaic Levi [1Q21], Aaronic Text A (bis) [4Q540], and Aaronic Text A [4Q541]; Heb. 7.9). [See Levi, Aramaic; Testaments.] Nearly all of Aaron's priestly attributes (and their anticipated return) are funneled into stories about Aaron's ancestor Levi. Indeed, in much of this literature the relationship envisioned for the restoration of a royal and priestly office is expressed through the figures of Judah and Levi.

Alongside the question of the restoration of an Aaronic messiah is the very complicated question of what constituted authentic Aaronic lineage. This question cannot be addressed without some consideration of the figure of Zadok. [See Zadok.] The biblical picture portrays Zadok as one of David's two leading priests (2 Sm. 8.17). Eventually Zadok emerged as the leading priest in Jerusalem, once the Temple was built. The foundation story of Zadok's elevation is to be found in 1 Samuel 2.27–36. Here the house of Eli, the other major priestly family in David's kingdom, is condemned to lose its priestly status. The historical origins of Zadok and his genealogical relationship to Aaron are contested issues in biblical scholarship. But however that historical problem is to be solved, the Bible's own solution is clear: Zadok is given an Aaronic ancestry (1 Chr. 5.27–34). The position of Zadok reaches extreme heights in the Book of Ezekiel (44.15–26). For this prophet claimed that, as a result of the priestly errors that led to the exile, only priests of Zadokite descent would be qualified for service at the altar.

The question of how these biblical categories of priestly superiority functioned in the Second Temple period is very complicated. On one level, the name of one particular priestly party was transformed into the title of a much broader political constituency in the affairs of this Second Commonwealth, that of the Sadducees (the Hebrew term for Sadducees is derived from the name Zadok). [See Sadducees.] Yet on another level, the figure of Zadok continued to serve as the person from whom all legitimate high priests would trace their ancestry. This is made quite clear by Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 11.347) when he notes that the ancestry of the Oniad family could be traced back to the last high priest mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, Jaddua (Neh. 12.22). Much of the political intrigue related to currying favor with the Seleucid rulers in Syria involved rival claims to priestly power. [See Seleucids.]

The Dead Sea Scrolls themselves make ample use of the polemical biblical texts about Aaron and Zadok. But frequently these allusions do not presume the specific polemical import of their biblical origins. Aaron and Zadok function as ciphers for the sect as a whole. For example, 2 Samuel 2.35, which points toward the rise of the house of Zadok and the “sure house” he would build for Israel, is alluded to in the Damascus Document (CD iii.19) when the writer describes the sect itself as the “sure house” God has built within Israel. In a more obvious fashion, the text of Ezekiel 44.15 is quoted verbatim just a few lines later in the Damascus Document (CD iii.21–iv.4). Here again the priestly titles “Levite,” “Sons of Aaron,” and “Sons of Zadok” are given metaphoric value. The Aaronic priests are the “penitents of Israel”; the Levites are those who “accompanied” (a wordplay on “Levi” in Hebrew) those “penitents” into exile; and the Zadokites are the “chosen ones of Israel.”

The ability to trace a clear and pure Aaronic pedigree back to the specific figure of Zadok was an especially important matter in the second century BCE. With the rise of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the large-scale persecution of those who desired to remain true to the demands of the Torah, there arose yearnings for a return to more ancient and customary forms of religious observance. [See Antiochus IV Epiphanes.] Among those desires was the restoration of the true Aaronic priests and their proper Zadokite leader. Hopes must have been raised quite high when the Maccabees appeared on the scene, restored a modicum of independence, and, most importantly, rededicated the Temple. Yet those hopes were quickly dashed when the first two Hasmonean rulers, Jonathan (152 bce) and Simon (143 bce), both laid claim to the office of the high priest (1 Mc. 14.41), a claim that could only be viewed as illegitimate by religious traditionalists. [See Jonathan; Simon.] Most likely it was the traditionalists of this stripe who formed the backbone of the group at Qumran; the history traced above accounts for the strong asseveration of the priestly role of Aaron and Zadok in the Qumran sect's documents of self-definition.


  • Collins, John J. The Scepter and the Star. New York, 1995.
    An excellent discussion of Aaron, his messianic role in the scrolls, and the relationship of this role to the testamentary literature of Levi
  • Licht, Jacob. Megillat ha-Serakhim. Jerusalem, 1965.
    The best commentary on the Rule of the Community ever produced. It contains several excellent summary discussions of Aaronic priesthood at Qumran
  • Schiffman, Lawrence H. The Halakhah at Qumran. Leiden, 1975.
    Fine discussion of the problem of Zadok
  • Schiffman, Lawrence H. Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls: The History of Judaism, the Background of Christianity, the Lost Library at Qumran. Philadelphia, 1994.
    Schiffman makes a strong argument for the relationship of Sadducees to the sect at Qumran
  • VanderKam, J. The Dead Sea Scrolls Today. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1994.
    Argues against Schiffman's claim of Sadducean origin and reasserts the classic Essene hypothesis

Gary A. Anderson