The Bible and other Jewish sources are full of detais albout the priests and high priests, from the descriptions of their garments as described in the Book of Exodus, to the number of high priests who served in the First and Second Temples. Now archaeology is providing new evidence to show the institution indeed existed: a fragment from the lid of a sarcophagus, bearing the inscription “son of the high priest” in a Second Temple-era script.
The fragment was found north of Jerusalem, near Nebi Samuel, in a salvage excavation conducted by the Civil Administration to prepare for the separation fence. The fragment is 1,900 years old and predates the 70 C.E. destruction of the Second Temple by a few decades, archaeologists Naftali Aizik and Benyamin Hareven found.
The existence of a similar fragment, bearing the inscription, “the granddaughter of the High Priest Theopilus,” was made public about 15 years ago, but while it is believed to be authentic, its original location is unknown.
During the Second Temple period, the high priests rituals were an integral part of the Yom Kippur service. The Mishnah, in Tractate Yoma, describes the tremendous preparations that the high priest made, starting seven days before Yom Kippur. When the holy day arrived, he would enter the Holy of Holies (for the only time in the whole year), offer incense and pray for the forgiveness of the sins of the Jewish people. According to the description, this ritual was so dangerous that the high priest ran the risk of dying in the process.