The priesthood does not play a part in Avot’s succession list
Unlike the role of the priesthood in I Clement, the priesthood does not play a part in Avot’s succession list. The elders, the prophets, and the men of the Great Assembly are all explicitly denoted in Avot and thereby assume a role in Avot’s list. The Second Temple Leaders, the House of Gamaliel, and the tannaim also feature in Avot’s list since the members of these groups are listed together and in succession. In contrast, priests (like shoemakers (4:11)) only appear as individuals, and the priesthood as a result is omitted from Avot’s chain of transmission. As M.D. Herr has shown, however, priests were important teachers and officials during Temple times and therefore their omission from Avot requires an explanation. Consequently, scholars like Herr, who attribute the early portion of Avot to the Pharisees, hypothesize that the Pharisees omitted the priests from their chain of transmission sometime during the late Second Temple period in order to undermine other sects, such as the Sadducees, for whom the priesthood (so it is alleged) was a central element (see Finkelstein, Introduction, 9-11; M.D. Herr, ‘Continuum in the Chain of Torah Transmission’, Zion 44 (1979) [Hebrew], 44-56). It is questionable, however, whether the Pharisees actually viewed the priesthood as a vehicle for the Sadducees (see also above, Ch. 6 n. 36)). According to this hypothesis, one might suggest that Clement, unlike the Pharisees, was free to envision the Christian leadership as the heirs of the priests because he was not threatened by priesthood-oriented Jewish sects. It is questionable, however, whether this hypothesis (even if correct) can explain how the omission of the priests in the final edition of Avot was understood in the third century. Perhaps this omission was not understood polemically but as a natural derivative of rabbinic legal theory. As expressed in Avot 4:13, certain tannaim assumed that the Jewish polity was ruled by the crowns of Torah, of priesthood, and of kingship. These three crowns, moreover, were ‘the governmental extensions’ of the pillars of Avot 1:1: Torah, temple service, and correct civil behaviour (see Cohen, The Three Crowns, 19). Thus, according to this theory of the division of powers found in Avot, the priests did not belong in the chain of Torah transmission because their responsibilities were limited to officiating in the temple. Perhaps both priests and kings were omitted from Avot because the editor wanted to stress that only the rabbis were the true Torah authorities. In contrast, the Christian penchant for allegorizing and spiritualizing possibly led Christian authors such as Clement of Rome and Cyprian to view the Christian leadership as the spiritual counterpart to the Jewish priesthood of old (see E.W. Benson, Cyprian: His Life, His Times, His Work (London and New York, 1897), 31-34).
Amram Tropper, Wisdom, Politics, and Historiography: Tractate Avot in the Context of the Graeco-Roman Near East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 213-214, n. 11.