Priests versus “a”/”the” high priest in the first half of the Book of Mormon

The shift in Alma 13:14-20 (to talking about how a high priest and an entire people relate to each other) led me to think about how the Book of Mormon talks about priests before this point. Were they talked about as high priests over a specific people, or just teachers generally?

I did a quick search in the Book of Mormon, and up to Alma the elder there isn’t any mention of “a” high priest over the land. There are always “priests” consecrated to teach groups of church members, but Alma is the first one to be called “the” or “a” high priest. I suspect then that this has something to do with the formation of a Church. So were these other priests of a different sort than Alma? Were they still high priests? Were they of the Melchizedek priesthood? I don’t see any details to help us out.

When we get to Alma 13, I at first thought we were talking about the same sort of priests: those called to teach, just like the others mentioned thus far. But now I wonder if Alma trying to explain a different sort of priest? Alma is the high priest, and perhaps in part he is trying to explain to the people here why he is a different sort of priest than the others teaching throughout the land. Remember their criticism early on: “Behold, we know that thou art Alma; and we know that thou art high priest over the church which thou hast established in many parts of the land, according to your tradition; and we are not of thy church, and we do not believe in such foolish traditions.” Since priests were set up over groups of the church, they seem to be responding to him as such: we’re not in the group you’re over, sorry Alma. But Alma has been the chief judge and the high priest for a time, making him almost a Melchizedek figure. I had never caught that part of the significance of making the chief judge and the high priest the same guy was that now the high priest has jurisdiction over everyone, member or not. (We could of course think of them as already having some stewardship over everyone anyway, like we talk about the Bishop being over everyone in his ward boundaries, member or not.) But as chief judge, they have a recognized, official position over the people, and oh, they are the high priest too. 🙂 It’s almost a sneaky way to put them in a position like Melchizedek or Enoch.

So, all of that is to say, that the Melchizedek portion of this chapter alerted me to the idea that perhaps Alma really is trying to explain a certain sort of priest. Perhaps he is saying something like, “Even though I am not the official chief judge anymore, I still retain my spiritual authority over the whole people (church member or not), just as other high priests have done.”

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