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In the New Testament, a presbyter (Greek πρεσβύτερος: "elder") is a leader of a local Christian congregation. The word derives from the Greek presbyteros, which means elder or senior. The Greek word episkopos literally means overseer; it refers exclusively to the office of bishop. Many understand presbyteros to refer to the bishop functioning as overseer. In modern Catholic and Orthodox usage, presbyter is distinct from bishop and synonymous with priest. In predominant Protestant usage, presbyter does not refer to a member of a distinctive priesthood called priests, but rather to a minister, pastor, or elder.
The word presbyter etymologically derives from Greek πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros), the comparative form of πρέσβυς (presbys), "old man". However, while the English word priest has presbyter as the etymological origin, the distinctive Greek word (Greek ἱερεύς hiereus) for "priest" is never used for presbyteros/episkopos in the New Testament, except as being part of the general priesthood of all believers, with the first Christians making a distinction between sacerdotal Jewish and pagan priests and New Testament pastors.
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The earliest organization of the Church in Jerusalem was according to most scholars similar to that of Jewish synagogues, but it had a council or college of ordained presbyters (Greek: πρεσβύτεροι elders). In Acts 11:30 and Acts 15:22, we see a collegiate system of government in Jerusalem though headed by James, according to tradition the first bishop of the city. In Acts 14:23, the Apostle Paul ordains presbyters in the churches he founded.
The term presbyter was often not yet clearly distinguished from the term overseer (ἐπίσκοποι episkopoi, later exclusively used as meaning bishop), as in Acts 20:17, Titus 1:5–7 and 1 Peter 5:1. The earliest writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the Didache and the First Epistle of Clement for example, show the church used two terms for local church offices—presbyters (seen by many as an interchangeable term with episcopos or overseer) and deacon.
In Timothy and Titus in the New Testament a more clearly defined episcopate can be seen. We are told that Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus and Titus in Crete to oversee the local church (1Tim 1:3 and Titus 1:5). Paul commands them to ordain presbyters/bishops and to exercise general oversight, telling Titus to "rebuke with all authority" (Titus 2:15).
Early sources are not clear, but various groups of Christian communities would have had a group of college or presbyter-overseers functioning as leaders of the local churches. Eventually, the head or "monarchic" bishop came to rule more clearly, and all local churches would eventually follow the example of the other churches and structure themselves after the model of the others with the one bishop in clearer charge, though the role of the body of priests remained important.
From the 2nd century, it is certain that the offices of bishop and presbyter were clearly distinguished, the bishop was understood as the president of the council of presbyters, and so the bishop was distinguished both in honor and in prerogative from the presbyters, who were seen as deriving their authority by means of delegation from the bishop. Each Episcopal see had its own bishop and his presence was necessary to consecrate any gathering of the church.
Eventually, as Christendom grew, individual congregations were no longer directly served by a bishop. The bishop in a large city (the Metropolitan bishop) would appoint a priest to pastor the flock in each congregation, acting as his delegate.
The fourth century scholar Jerome (347–420) stated,
"Therefore a presbyter is the same as a bishop is, and before that by the instigation of the devil emulations in respect to religion arose, and people began to say: I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, the churches were governed by the common counsel of the presbyters. But, after that each one was accustomed to regard those whom he had baptized as his own disciples and not of Christ, it was decreed in the whole world that one chosen from among the presbyters should be placed over the others...Therefore, as presbyters may know that by the custom of the church they are subject to the one who has been placed over them; so also bishops may understand that they are greater than presbyters more by custom than by the veritable ordinance of the Lord." Slightly different other versions (quoting John Calvin) express the same.
A Catholic explanation suggests that the delegates were bishops in the actual sense of the term but that they neither possessed fixed sees nor had a special title. Since they were essentially itinerant, they confided the fixed necessary functions relating to the daily life of the community to the care of some of the better-educated and highly respected converts.
Along with this was the title "priest" being distinctively ascribed to presbyters/bishops. Catholic writer Greg Dues, author of Catholic Customs & Traditions, explains that "Priesthood as we know it in the Catholic church was unheard of during the first generation of Christianity, because at that time priesthood was still associated with animal sacrifices in both the Jewish and pagan religions." "When the Eucharist came to be regarded as a sacrifice [after Rome's theology], the role of the bishop took on a priestly dimension. By the third century bishops were considered priests. Presbyters or elders sometimes substituted for the bishop at the Eucharist. By the end of the third century people all over were using the title 'priest' (hierus in Greek and sacerdos in Latin) for whoever presided at the Eucharist."
The Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the non-Chalcedonian churches, and similar groups typically refer to presbyters in English as priests (priest is etymologically derived from the Greek presbyteros via the Latin presbyter). Collectively, however, their "college" is referred to as the "presbyterium", "presbytery", or "presbyterate".
This usage is seen by most Protestant Christians as stripping the laity of its priestly status, while those who use the term defend its usage by saying that, while they do believe in the priesthood (Greek ἱερεύς hiereus – a different word altogether, used in Rev 1:6, 1 Pet 2:9) of all believers, they do not believe in the eldership of all believers. This is generally true of United Methodists, who ordain elders as clergy (pastors) while affirming the priesthood of all believers. The evangelical (or ultra low-church) Anglican Diocese of Sydney has abolished the use of the word "priest" for those ordained as such. They are now referred to as "presbyters". Presbyterians sometimes refer to their ruling elders and teaching elders (ministers) as presbyters.
No Greek lexicons or other scholarly sources suggest that "presbyteros" means "priest" instead of "elder". The Greek word is equivalent to the Hebrew zaqen, which means "elder", and not priest. You can see the zaqenim described in Exodus 18:21–22 using some of the same equivalent Hebrew terms as Paul uses in the GK of 1&2 Timothy and Titus. Note that the zaqenim are not priests (i.e., from the tribe of Levi) but are rather men of distinctive maturity that qualifies them for ministerial roles among the people.
Therefore, the NT equivalent of the zaqenim cannot be the Levitical priests. The Greek presbyteros (literally, the comparative of the Greek word for "old" and therefore translated as "one who is older") thus describes the character qualities of the episkopos. The term "elder" would therefore appear to describe the character, while the term "overseer" (for that is the literal rendering of episkopos) connotes the job description.
- Cottrell, Jack (2002). The Faith Once for All: Bible Doctrine for Today. Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. p. 419. ISBN 0899009050.
- Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (1979). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 1 (Fully rev. ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans. p. 516. ISBN 978-0802837813.
- "Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, πρέσβυ^ς". tufts.edu. Retrieved 31 August 2015.
- Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition, The World Publishing Company, Cleveland OH, s.v. "priest"
- Buchanan, Colin (Oct 22, 2015). Historical Dictionary of Anglicanism (Second ed.). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 483. ISBN 978-1442250154.
- Knox, Ronald A. (2003). The hidden stream. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. p. 181. ISBN 978-0898708639.
- "presbuteros". Bible Hub. Retrieved 21 February 2016.
- Acts 11:30
- Titus 1:5–7
- 1Peter 5:1
- Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1997 edition revised 2005, page 211: "It seems that at first the terms 'episcopos' and 'presbyter' were used interchangeably ..."
- Cambridge History of Christianity, volume 1, 2006, "The general consensus among scholars has been that, at the turn of the first and second centuries, local congregations were led by bishops and presbyters whose offices were overlapping or indistinguishable."
- O'Grady, John. The Roman Catholic church: its origins and nature. p. 140.
- Van Hove, A. (1913). "Bishop". In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- Catholic World, Volume 32. Paulist Fathers. 1881. pp. 73, 74.
- Hall, Edwin (1846). The Puritans and Their Principles. New York: Baker and Scribner. pp. 345, 346.
- Bailey Adger, John (1899). My life and times. The Presbyterian Committee of Publication. p. 247. ISBN 978-1344733878. Retrieved 21 February 2016.
- Harrison, John (1867). Whose are the Fathers?: Or, the Teaching of Certain Anglo-Catholics. Longmans, Green,. p. 488. ISBN 9785878932493.
- Dues, Greg (1992). Catholic customs & traditions : a popular guide (Rev. and expanded. ed.). Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications. p. 166. ISBN 978-0896225152.
- "Elders". Archived from the original on November 5, 2011. Retrieved January 6, 2013.
- Liddell & Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, pp. 301, 668
- The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, p. 2297
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed.), p. 1322