“presbyteros”

Quick Facts

  • Pronunciationpres-bü’-te-ros
  • Appears 72 times in 66 verses in the Greek concordance of the
  • Common translations:
    • “elder(s)” (60x)
    • “men of old”, “old men”, “older”, “older man”,”older ones”,”older women”, “women” (1x each)
  • Strong’s Concordance: #G4245
    1. elder, of age,
      1. the elder of two people
      2. advanced in life, an elder, a senior
        1. forefathers
      3. a term of rank or office
        1. among the Jews
          1. members of the great council or Sanhedrin (because in early times the rulers of the people, judges, etc., were selected from elderly men)
          2. of those who in separate cities managed public affairs and administered justice
      4. among the Christians, those who presided over the assemblies (or churches) The NT uses the term bishop, elders, and presbyters interchangeably
    1. the twenty four members of the heavenly Sanhedrin or court seated on thrones around the throne of God

How and where presbyteros is used in the New Testament

  1. Matthew 15:2  – “”Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.””

  2. Matthew 16:21  – “From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.”

  3. Matthew 21:23  – “When He entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him while He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?””

  4. Matthew 26:3, 47, 57  – “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people were gathered together in the court of the high priest, named Caiaphas; … While He was still speaking, behold, Judas, one of the twelve, came up accompanied by a large crowd with swords and clubs, who came from the chief priests and elders of the people. … Those who had seized Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas, the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were gathered together.”

  5. Matthew 27:1, 3, 12, 20, 41  – “Now when morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus to put Him to death; … Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, … And while He was being accused by the chief priests and elders, He did not answer. … But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death. … In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him and saying,…”

  6. Matthew 28:12  – “And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers,”

  7. Mark 7:3, 5  – “(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; … The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?””

  8. Mark 8:31  – “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

  9. Mark 11:27  – “They came again to Jerusalem. And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to Him,”

  10. Mark 14:43, 53  – “Immediately while He was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, came up accompanied by a crowd with swords and clubs, who were from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. … They led Jesus away to the high priest; and all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes gathered together.”

  11. Mark 15:1  – “Early in the morning the chief priests with the elders and scribes and the whole Council, immediately held a consultation; and binding Jesus, they led Him away and delivered Him to Pilate.”

  12. Luke 7:3  – “When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders asking Him to come and save the life of his slave.”

  13. Luke 9:22  – “saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day.””

  14. Luke 15:25  – “”Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.”

  15. Luke 20:1  – “On one of the days while He was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders confronted Him,”

  16. Luke 22:52  – “Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders who had come against Him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as you would against a robber?”

  17. John 8:9  – “When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.”

  18. Acts 2:17  – “‘AND IT SHALL BE IN THE LAST DAYS,’ God says, ‘THAT I WILL POUR FORTH OF MY SPIRIT ON ALL MANKIND; AND YOUR SONS AND YOUR DAUGHTERS SHALL PROPHESY, AND YOUR YOUNG MEN SHALL SEE VISIONS, AND YOUR OLD MEN SHALL DREAM DREAMS;”

  19. Acts 4:5, 8, 23  – “On the next day, their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem; … Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people, … When they had been released, they went to their own companions and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them.”

  20. Acts 6:12  – “And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came up to him and dragged him away and brought him before the Council.”

  21. Acts 11:30  – “And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders.”

  22. Acts 14:23  – “When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”

  23. Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22-23  – “And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. … When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. … The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. … Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas–Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, and they sent this letter by them, “The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings.”

  24. Acts 16:4  – “Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe.”

  25. Acts 20:17  – “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.”

  26. Acts 21:18  – “And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.”

  27. Acts 23:14  – “They came to the chief priests and the elders and said, “We have bound ourselves under a solemn oath to taste nothing until we have killed Paul.”

  28. Acts 24:1  – “After five days the high priest Ananias came down with some elders, with an attorney named Tertullus, and they brought charges to the governor against Paul.”

  29. Acts 25:15  – “and when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews brought charges against him, asking for a sentence of condemnation against him.”

  30. 1 Timothy 5:1-2, 17, 19  – “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity. … The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. … Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.”

  31. Titus 1:5  – “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you,”

  32. Hebrews 11:2  – “For by it the men of old gained approval.”

  33. James 5:14  – “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord;”

My Perspectives

In many of the places presbyteros is used, it is referring to contexts having nothing to do with the local church, but to local Jewish leaders or older men. This is almost universally true in the gospels and much of Acts. There are a few exceptions where the word is used to referred to an older person.

Interestingly, many of the references in the gospels refer to leaders who were steadfastly against Jesus and even part of persecuting him – obviously not a local church context.

One reference in Acts is to older men, not those specifically in a church leadership role – as elder is sometimes considered to mean. Also present in Acts are references to elders in regard to churches in a given region.

In Acts 15, we see some interesting things take place… let this unfold a bit…

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and began to teach that circumcision was necessary in order to be saved. Paul and Barnabas greatly disagreed with them and debated them. Something interesting happens next. The scripture says that the brethren in Antioch determined that Paul, and Barnabas and some others should go to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders there for their input into the matter.

Did you catch that? The brethren determined. It doesn’t say that the leaders or elders determined, but the brethren. The saints. The common folk.

The church at Jerusalem then goes on to discuss the matter and crafts a letter to send back to the church at Antioch. They (the church – the brethren) then select two men to accompany the letter back to Antioch to verbally communicate their response as well. This demonstrates a cooperative effort among all, not select few making the important decisions or leading others.

In Acts 15:22-23, some minor details are also intriguing.

“Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas—Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren and they sent this letter by them, “The apostles and the brethren who are elders, to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles, greetings.” – Acts 15:22-23

This would be very easy to miss and a shame too, because here, in one verse we have the word elder and also leading men among the brethren

Here’s the Strong’s Dictionary explanation of the word hēgeomai, which is the Greek word for leading men among the brethren:

  1. to lead
    1. to go before
    2. to be a leader
      1. to rule, command
      2. to have authority over
    3. a prince, of regal power, governor, viceroy, chief, leading as respects influence, controlling in counsel, overseers or leaders of the churches
    4. used of any kind of leader, chief, commander
    5. the leader in speech, chief, spokesman
  1. to consider, deem, account, think

It would appear then that the at least the church at Jerusalem made a distinction between an elder and those that were highly esteemed or regarded, or leaders. The apostles and elders at Jerusalem sent two of these men. They didn’t identify them as elders but leading men. This supports the idea that those referred to as elders were not necessarily governing or ruling, but simply the sages among the saints.

In 1 Timothy we see Paul use presbyteros to describe older men. It is translated in the NASB as both “older men” and “elder”.

Many see this verse and conclude that church leaders can govern over others within the institution.

The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. – 1 Timothy 5:17

While technically fine to translate proïstēmi  here as ‘rule’ the word is that of maintaing and to be a protector or guardian and give aid, to give care and attention. This is overseeing.

In this use, the audience is Hellenized people. We must bear in mind that this instruction is given to help people not naturally acquainted with being or being lead by elders.

Of the 72 instances where presbyteros is translated as elder, there is one case where elders are shown to be “appointed” (Acts 14:23).  This is the first appearance of the word presbyteros referring to Gentile church leaders.

The context is Paul and Barnabas returning to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch – places where they had previously preached the gospel and established churches. Their visit was encourage the disciples of Jesus that they had made during earlier visits. Antioch was a major Hellenistic metropolis.

We don’t know what appointing entailed, but we can surmise from Paul’s letter to Timothy. We don’t know if it was just Paul and Barnabas appointing, or if it involved the rest of the local church to some extent.

If one considers Acts 6 and how the church was asked to consider whom should oversee them, and other cases in Acts where the church came together with elders and apostles to decide on matters, one could conclude that the local church may have also had a hand in the appointment of these elders.

In Acts 20:28, Paul refers to those the Holy Spirit made overseers. Perhaps these were some similar to those appointed in Acts 14:23?

To make this easier to understand for an American reader – Consider early America. Native Americans were present and had a culture with tribal elders and chiefs. The European settlers were unacquainted with such things and organized in more formal civic government. Europeans would never organize themselves with elders. Gangs –  perhaps. Elders – never. Not unless they were anabaptists – the non-conformists of those days and since.

Without intervention and teaching, the Greeks/Gentiles would have done according to their customs of organizing in power structures, not in village/community structures – as church history has proven over 2,000 plus years. No doubt to our peril.

What was natural to see in a Jewish community was unnatural in Gentile communities and so it seems to have required the Apostles attention as is seen in the book of Acts and 1 Timothy. We know that this task required not only their prayers, but their fasting and committing the outcome to God’s care. Likewise, perhaps this is why Paul needed to leave Timothy with some instructions on how to carry on a similar practice of identifying overseers?

If this is the case, hopefully you can see that what we read about in Timothy has a very specific context. That of dealing with the attempts to see faith communities that cared for one another established among Hellenistic peoples. Paul may have been writing to Timothy – a young man – himself having a Greek father and Jewish mother. Timothy was left behind by Paul to establish the local churches the Gentile cities. Paul leaves him with guidance in doing so.

Seeing the local churches function as family-like villages was apparently important to the Apostles. Enough to leave a man behind for that purpose!

What does that mean for us? Should all local churches follow that example? What are the unique challenges of our day?

We cannot know these things with certainty. All we can include is this: if the God wanted us to glean more about a process or position, or practice, there would be more details. As such, there isn’t. Therefore, we don’t have a strong foundation for any dogma on these matters.

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