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See also Elder
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, “