An official in the early Christian Church. This article treats of the use of this title, first as found in the Bible, then as employed in the early postapostolic Church.
In the Bible
After a consideration of the origin of the term, a brief description will be given of the nature of the office of the Christian presbyters as found in the New Testament.
Origin of the Term. The English word presbyter is derived, through the Latin, from the Greek word πρεσβύτερος, literally "older" (the comparative of πρεσβύτης, "old man"), but often with no comparative force, "elder." Although the English word priest is also derived from the same Greek term, in strict usage presbyter is not synonymous with priest.
The Septuagint sometimes uses the plural πρεσβύτεροι to translate the Hebrew word zeqēnîm (Ex 19.7; Nm 11.16, 24; Ru 4.2; etc.), the Old Testament elders who had authority in the Israelite community. In the New Testament this Greek word is used for the Jewish elders, the members of one of the groups in the Sanhedrin (Mt 16.21; 21.23; 26.3; etc.). Apparently it was by analogy with this Jewish usage in Palestine that the first Christians employed this term for the officials of their own community. The Hellenistic use of the term, however, for officials of certain pagan associations may also have had some influence on New Testament usage. Greekspeaking Jews of the Diaspora do not seem to have employed the term for officials of their communities before the Christian era.
Christian Presbyters in the New Testament. According to New Testament usage Christian presbyters were dignified, mature officials of the Church (1 Pt 5.1,5) who performed functions that would now be described as both episcopal and sacerdotal. The New Testament writers use the terms πρεσβύτερος and ἐπίσκοπος interchangeably (cf. Acts 20. 17 with v. 28; Tm 1.5 with v. 7; also the variant reading in 1 Pt 5.1–2: πρεσβυτέρους… ἐπισκοπο[symbol omitted]ντες). It was only in the postapostolic age that these terms took on the precise technical meanings of priest and bishop.
In an efficacious liturgical rite that included the imposition of hands (Acts 14.23; 1 Tm 4.14; 5.22; 2 Tm1.6), the candidate who satisfied the Church's moral and spiritual requirements (1 Tm 3.2–7; Ti 1.6–9) was raised to the presbyterate by Apostles, such as Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14.22), or by an episcopo-presbyter, such as Timothy (1 Tm 5.22) or Titus (Ti 1.5). The authority of the presbyter was not essentially dependent on a charismatic gift; it was mediated by ordination (2 Tm 1.6; see A. Farrer, 144–45). The sacerdotal aspect of his office was especially evident in the liturgical function he performed in the breaking of bread (see J. Colson, 42–43). The presbyter, by reason of his office, ruled and gave good example to his community (Acts 20.28; 1 Pt 5.1–3; Ti 1.5), corrected abuses (Ti 1.5), was vigilant against false teachers (Acts 20.31), anointed and prayed for the sick (Jas 5.14–15), presided at the celebration of the Eucharist (Acts 2.42; 1 Cor 10.16–21), and was an authoritative teacher and arbiter of doctrine, as seen especially in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15.2, 4, 6, 22, 23); if he was an episcopo-presbyter like Titus, he constituted and directed fellow presbyters (Ti 1.5–6).
See Also: bishop (in the bible).
Bibliography: a. farrer, "Ministry in the New Testament," The Apostolic Ministry, ed. k. e. kirk (London 1946) 115–82. c. spicq, Les Epîtres pastorales de Saint Paul (Études Bibliques ;1947) 84–97. a. ehrhardt, "Jewish and Christian Ordination," The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 5 (1954) 125–38. j. colson, La Fonction diaconale aux origines de l'Église (Bruges 1960) 41–49. e. schweizer, Church Order in the New Testament, tr. f. clark (Naperville, Ill. 1961).
[j. j. o'rourke]
In the Early Church
The term presbyter was used also to designate the "companions of the disciples of the Savior" who handed on the oral preaching of the Apostles (Papias of Hierapolis, quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.4), as also bishops such as Papias himself and poly-carp (Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 5.33.3). The precise meaning of the word or office it signified in the 1st and 2d centuries of the Church's existence has been the subject of considerable discussion.
From the End of the 1st to the Mid-2d Century.
In clement i's First Epistle to the Corinthians, c. a.d. 96, the term presbyter appears in the plural frequently. It has the meaning of "older men" to whom respect is due (1.3;21.6), but also of priests who had been "removed from the ministry [ λειτουργία] which they performed blamelessly" (44.5). Distinguishing clearly between the laity and the clergy, a reference is made to the malcontents "disloyal to the presbyters" (47.6); and they are cautioned to "submit to the presbyters" (57.1) and "be at peace with the presbyters set over the flock of Christ"(54.2). Describing the sources of authority in the Church, Clement says, "The Apostles received the Gospel from the Lord Jesus Christ … the Christ sent from God" and the Apostles "appointed their earliest converts [ἀπαρχαί] … to be bishops and deacons of the future believers" (42.1–43.1). He says the Apostles were given to understand by Christ "that the office of bishop would give rise to strife" (44.1); however, he calls those presbyters blessed "who have before now completed life's journey, and taken their departure in mature age," for they have "no fear of being dislodged from the place appointed to them" (44.5).
The lack of consistency in referring to the "bishops and deacons" appointed by the Apostles, and the presbyters charged with the ministry of the community, to whom obedience was due, renders it difficult to form a precise idea of the organization of the Church under Clement. It has been suggested that the terms bishop and presbyter here are interchangeable, and likewise that the Church of Rome was governed by a group or college of presbyters. This latter interpretation seems to go against the tradition registered for the Church at Rome in Irenaeus, Eusebius, and the early lists of the popes. It is certainly contrary to the organization evident in the letters of ignatius of antioch (d. before 117), in which a hierarchy is described as of "one bishop assisted by the presbytery and the deacons" (Ad Phil. 4), and "the bishop presides in the place of God while the presbyters function as the council of the Apostles" (Ad Magn. 6.1). The presbyters are subject to the bishop (Ad Ephes. 4.1, 3; Trall. 12.2); and are delegated by the bishop for the functions of celebrating the Eucharist, baptizing, and holding an agape (Smyrn. 8.1, 2).
Neither the didache nor the Shepherd of hermas employed the word presbyter. In the mid-2d century, Justin Martyr spoke of a president of the assembly and described his function in relation to religious cult and the life of the Christian society (Apol. 1.65), but did not use the word presbyter. However, Irenaeus of Lyons, before the turn of the same century, continued the post-apostolic usage and generally employed both bishop and presbyter indiscriminately, although he did distinguish at least once between bishops and priests in the Ignatian sense (Adversus haereses 3.3.3).
The evidence thus far available indicates that in the primitive Church the word presbyter was used generically to designate men invested with authority in the local Church, and that this authority was present through apostolic institution. Likewise, at the beginning of the 2d century there existed a monarchical type of episcopate to which the other grades, including that of the presbyter, were subordinate.
From Mid-2d to End of 3d Century. Beginning with the second half of the 2d century, the function of the presbyter in the ecclesiastical hierarchy is clear and in accord with the modern use of the word priest. While clement of alexandria did not speak of the hierarchy as such, he did distinguish the three grades of bishop, priest, and deacon (Paed. 3.11; Strom. 3.12; 6.13). origen did the same (In Ezech. 10.1; In Ps. 37, Hom. 2.6). Among the Latin Fathers, tertullian spoke in similar fashion of the priests and deacons, who came after the bishops (De Bapt. 17) and said that in the absence of the bishop, the priest presided over the assembly and distributed the Eucharist (De corona 3). Only after his defection to Montanism (after 196) did he agitate in favor of an ascendancy of the laity over the hierarchical priesthood (De exhort. cast. 7).
At the beginning of the 3d century, the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus described the organization of the Western Church in a precise fashion; and Cyprian of Carthage did the same. Cyprian described the priests as associated in the government of the diocese, which is the task of the bishop primarily; they formed his ordinary council (Epist. 14.4) and acted for him in cases of necessity in the administration of the Eucharist and Reconciliation (De lapsis 25; Epist. 18.1). In the East, the same hierarchical structure and function of the priest is described in the Didascalia, a document of the end of the 3d century (4.1;9.3), and in the Apostolic Constitutions, which are a reworking of the Didascalia some time later (50.2, 27).
Bibliography: k. bihlmeyer, ed., Die Apostolischen Väter (2d ed. Tübingen 1956–). j. a. kleist, ed. and tr., The Epistles of St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch (Ancient Christian Writers, ed. j. quasten et al Westminster, Md.-London 1946; The Didache … (ibid. 6; 1948). h. rahner, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 8:725–26. g. bardy, La Théologie de l'église dès saint Clément de Rome à saint Irénée (Unam Sanctam 13; Paris 1945) 40–41, 27–28, 109–11, 190–92. o. perler, in L'Épiscopat et l'église universelle, ed. y. m. j. congar and b. d. dupuy (ibid. 34;1962) 31–66. c. vogel, ibid. 591–636. j. colson, ibid. 135–69; L'Évêque dans les communautés primitives (Paris 1951) 18–21, 106–08, 117–22. w. jannasch, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 5:540–41. a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50) 11.2:1212–16, s.v. "Ordre."
pres·by·ter / ˈprezbitər; ˈpres-/ • n. hist. an elder or minister of the Christian Church. ∎ formal (in Presbyterian churches) an elder. ∎ formal (in Episcopal churches) a minister of the second order, under the authority of a bishop; a priest. DERIVATIVES: pres·byt·er·al / prezˈbitərəl; pres-/ adj. pres·byt·er·ate / prezˈbitəˌrāt; pres-/ n. pres·by·te·ri·al / ˌprezbiˈti(ə)rēəl; ˌpres-/ adj. pres·by·ter·ship / -ˌship/ n.
So presbyterate (-ATE1) office of presbyter, body of presbyters. XVII. — ecclL. presbyterātus. presbyterian pert. to government by presbyters or elders; also sb. XVII. f. ecclL. presbyterium. presbytery part of a church reserved for the clergy, sanctuary XV; body of presbyters or elders; presbyterianism XVI; priest's house XIX. — OF. presbiterie — ecclL. presbyterium — Gr. presbutérion; see -Y4.