ELDER (Heb. zāqēn, Gr. presbyteros). In ancient times the older men of a community were known as the elders. They governed the community and made all major decisions. Moses called the elders of Israel together to announce that the Lord had heard their cries for help and had appointed him to lead them out of Egypt (
Opinions vary regarding the twenty-four elders in heaven around the throne of God (as depicted in the); probably they represent the heavenly priesthood of the church associated with Christ, the Great .
Bibliography: Leon Morris, Ministers of God, 1964; G. Berghoef and L. DeKoster, The Elder’s Handbook, 1979; G. Bornkamm, TDNT, vol. 6, pp. 651-83.——CEH
ELDER IN THE NT (πρεσβύτερος, G4565, lit. older person or old man; sometimes transliterated presbyter). This term designated three different groups in the NT: (a) older individuals comparatively speaking; (b) the religious-political leaders of Jewry and (c) the early leaders of the apostolic church.
Background: OT, Rabbinic Judaism and the Qumran community.
In the first cent. a.d., the office of elder was a regular position in the Jewish synagogue. In the tractate Sanhedrin of the Mishna, the duties of this office are clearly outlined. The council of elders was responsible for the government of the Jewish community. In Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, a council composed of seventy-one elders, acted as the supreme court for all Judaism. (Cf. Berakhoth 4:7; Nedharim 5:5; Meghillah 3:1; Edhuyoth 5:6; Ta’anith 3:8; Middoth 2:2;
The discoveries at Qumran have revealed a covenant community in which the office of elder also functioned in much the same sense as that office in Judaism, and there is general agreement that the Qumran community did have rather significant connections with early Christianity. This is not to suggest that the Early Church adopted its ecclesiastical structure from the Qumran community. The Manual of Discipline (1QS VI) speaks of the elder (mebaqqer) as being second in rank behind the priests.
NT meaning and significance for the Church.
In the Lukan apostolic history, the office appears without explanation as to its origin for the first time in
Two questions are raised by the NT evidence. First, what is the significance of the plurality of elders in the NT Church? Second, what is the relationship of bishop or pastor to the office of elder?
In regard to the first question, it should be observed that two possible explanations are available. On the one hand, the existing structure of the synagogue with its plurality of elders is paralleled by the NT church organization. It should be pointed out here that even in the synagogue there was a “head of the synagogue” known as the רֹאשׁ הַכְּנֶסֶת or ἀρχισυνάγωγος, G801. The plurality in this case would not forbid the predominant leadership of one elder, perhaps referred to as a “ruling elder” (
As to the latter question, it already has been noted that by the time the pastoral epistles were written, the terms “bishop” and “elder” were used interchangeably (cf.
H. B. Swete, ed., Essays on The Early History of the Church and the Ministry (1921); K. E. Kirk, ed., The Apostolic Ministry (1946); E. Schweizer, Das Leben des Herrn in her Gemeinde und ihren Diensten (1946); W. Michaelis, Das Ältestenamt der christlichen Gemeinde im Lichte der Heiligen Schrift (1953); R. Reicke, “The Constitution of the Primitive Church in the Light of Jewish Documents,” The Scrolls and the ἐπίσκοπος, G2176,” TDNT, II (1964), 608-622; G. Bornkamm, “πρεσβύτερος, G4565,” TDNT, VI (1968), 651-681.ed. by K. Stendahl (1957), 143-156; G. H. Davies, “Elder in the OT,” IDB, II (1962), 72, 73; M. H. Shepherd, Jr., “Elder in the NT,” IDB, II (1962), 73-75; I. Sonne, “Synagogue,” IDB, III (1962), 477-491; H. W. Beyer, “
The elders seemed to occupy a continuing place of importance throughout the history of Israel, from their sojourn in Egypt to the postexilic period when mention was made that they gave orders to assemble the people to deal with the question of foreign marriages (
Nothing is said about the organization of the councils of the elders of the tribes. Their number prob. depended on the size of the local community; there were seventy-seven at Succoth (
In the Mari archives of the 18th cent. b.c. down to the royal correspondence of the Sargon dynasty in the 8th, the elders appear as representatives of the people and defenders of their interests, but without administrative functions. In the Hitt. empire, the elders did control municipal affairs and settled local disputes in co-operation with the commander of the garrison. The Phoen. towns had their elders also, as non-Biblical documents attest for Byblos and Tyre.
It is difficult to determine if the officials, שָׂרִ֖ים, are equivalent to the elders. In
J. Pedersen, Israel, I-II (1926), see “elders” in Index; C. A. Simpson, The Early Traditions of Israel (1948), 227, 629, 630; M. Noth, The(1960), 108, 226; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1961).