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Madonna as Sedes Sapientiae, middle Italy 1199, poplarwood, original colours, inscription: Anno Domini 1199, in the month of January. On the mother's bosom shines the wisdom of the father. This wonderful work was made in the times of the abbot Petrus, thanks to the work in dedicated love of the presbyter Martinus, from the Camaldolese abbey in Borgo San Sepolcro near Arezzo


Presbyter in the New Testament refers to a leader in local Christian congregations, then a synonym of episkopos (which has now come to mean bishop). In modern usage, it is distinct from bishop and synonymous with priest, pastor, elder, or minister in various Christian denominations.

Contents

Etymology

The word presbyter derives from Greek πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros), the comparative form of πρέσβυς (presbus), "elder"[1].

History

The earliest organization of the Christian churches in Judea was similar to that of Jewish synagogues, which were governed by a council of elders (presbyteroi). In Acts 11:30 and 15:22, we see this collegiate system of government in Jerusalem, and, in Acts 14:23, the Apostle Paul ordains elders in the churches he founded.

Some modern comentators believe that these presbyters may have been identical to the overseers (episkopoi, i.e., bishops) and cite such passages as Acts 20:17, Titus 1:5,7 and 1 Peter 5:1 to support this claim.[2][3] The earliest post-apostolic writings, the Didache and Clement for example, show the church recognized two local church offices—elders (interchangeable term with overseer) and deacon.

The beginnings of a single ruling bishop can perhaps be traced to the offices occupied by Timothy and Titus in the New Testament. We are told that Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus and Titus in Crete to oversee the local church (1 Tim. 1:3 and Titus 1:5). Paul commands them to ordain presybters/bishops and to exercise general oversight, telling Titus to "rebuke with all authority" (Titus 2:15). It is certain that the office of bishop and presbyter were clearly distinguished by the second century, as the church was facing the dual pressures of persecution and internal schism, resulting in three distinct local offices: bishop, elder (presbyter) and deacon. This is best seen in the 2nd century writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch.

The bishop was understood mainly as the president of the council of presbyters, and so the bishop came to be 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 church had its own bishop and his presence was necessary to consecrate any gathering of the church.

Eventually, as the Church grew, individual congregations no longer were served directly by a bishop. The bishop in a large city would appoint a presbyter to pastor the flock in each congregation, acting as his delegate.

In Presbyterian churches, the office of bishop was abolished in the 16th-17th centuries, the heads of local congregations using the name minister. In this arrangement, the ministers' leadership is shared with presbyters (also called elders, usually elected by the local congregations), who help them shepherd the church while keeping their secular professions. In these traditions, the term presbyter is generally restricted to the Presbyterian churches, while other Reformed churches tend to use the term elder.

Modern usage

See also Priesthood, Presbyterianism, Methodism, Holy Orders

The Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Anglican Communion and other groups often 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 some Protestant Christians as stripping the laity of its rightful priestly status, while those who use the term defend its usage by saying that, while they do believe in the priesthood 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 Anglican Diocese of Sydney has abolished the use of the word "priest" for those ordained as such. They are now referred to as "presbyters".

The term father for presbyters is generally restricted to Catholic and Orthodox usage, though many Anglicans and even some Lutherans will use the term, as well. It is not generally thought of as a title, however, but simply as an affectionate term of address for the presbyter.

See also

References

  1. ^ Presbus, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "A Greek-English Lexicon", at Perseus
  2. ^ 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 ..."
  3. ^ 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."

Sources

  • 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
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From the time of Moses down to the Talmudic period the "zeḳenim" (elders) are mentioned as constituting a regular communal organization, occasionally under the Greek name Gerusia. But the term "presbyter" (πρεσβύτερος) is found nowhere before the beginnings of Christianity, though it must have been current before that time, for the Christian institution of the presbyters was undoubtedly taken directly from Judaism (Grätz, "Gesch." 3d ed., iv. 80). In a list of officials of a Jewish community in Cilicia, archisynagogues, priests (ἱερεύς = "kohen"), presbyters ("zeḳenim"), and "azanites" ("ḥazzanim") are mentioned, and if the source (Epiphanius, "Hæres." xxx. 4) gives the sequence correctly, the presbyters were actually officials, like the azanites, and did not hold merely honorary offices in the community.

Their status, therefore, would correspond approximately to the position which presbyters occupy in the Christian Church. It may be assumed, however, that they stood in rank next to the archisynagogues, with whom elsewhere they are actually identified ("Codex Theodosianus," xvi. 8, 14—"archisynagogi sive presbyteri Judæorum"). In another passage (ib. xvi. 8, 2) they are identified with the patriarchs; in another (ib. xvi. 8, 13) the following sequence occurs: archisynagogue, patriarch, presbyter; finally ("Justiniani Novellæ," cxlvi., § 1), they are ranked with the "archipherecites" and teachers. "Presbyter" corresponds to the Latin "seniores" ("Codex Justiniani," i. 9, 15). Thus it appears that there is no uniformity even in the official designations.

The title of "presbyter" occurs frequently on Jewish tombstones of the Hellenistic diaspora &emdash; for instance, at Smyrna ("C. I. G." No. 9897), Corycus ("R. E. J." x. 76), Bithynia (ib. xxvi. 167), and in the catacombs of Venosa (Ascoli, p. 60); three times it was given to women (Ascoli, p. 49). The word has become in many European languages a general designation for "priest"; and in this sense it is also found in Jewish works of the Middle Ages (e.g., (missing hebrew text) = "Prester John").

Bibliography: Fabricius, Bibliographia Antiquaria, pp. 447-457, Hamburg, 1713; Schürer, Gesch. 3d ed., ii. 177.

This entry includes text from the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.

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