Why Does the New Testament Use the Word Presbyter or Elder for Priests?
Protestants often note that the NT usually refers to clergy as “presbyteroi” which means “elders,” and not as priests. Why does the New Testament use the word Presbyter or Elder for Priests?
One confusion centers on the word “priest.” The English word “priest” comes directly from the Greek word “presbyteros.” This is examined in detail in my book The Catholic Perspective on Paul.
Presbyteros > Presbyter > Prester > Priest
Here is an example of how presbyter is used in the New Testament:
“The elders therefore that are among you, I beseech who am myself also an elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as also a partaker of that glory which is to be revealed in time to come.” (1 Peter 5:1)
“Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests (presbyterous) of the church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:14, D-R)
The Greek word for sacrificial, Old Testament priest is “hiereus.”
One key verse is in the third chapter of Hebrews, where Saint Paul writes:
“WHEREFORE, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly vocation consider the apostle and high priest of our confession, Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1, D-R)
Here the apostleship is paired with high priesthood. Christ is THE Apostle and High Priest. His New Testament ministers participate in this office. Hence, an apostle is a high priest. Apostolic succession transmits this apostolic priesthood.
The use of presbyteros instead of hiereus in the NT is for two reasons:
1) The word hiereus (priest) is related to hieron (temple). Now the temple in Jerusalem was still standing. Hence, in Hebrews and other epistles, hiereus is avoided since the temple stands.
This, by the way, relates to a previous blog post about the different spellings of Jerusalem based on it being an earthly “temple city” or heavenly.
2) The NT priesthood is a return to the ancient primogeniture priesthood prior to Moses. This “priesthood of the firstborn” (father to son; Noah to Shem; Abraham to Isaac) is a reflection of the relationship between God the Father to God the Son. The Levitical priesthood was a temporary TRIBAL solution to gold-calf worship. Originally, God planned for a “first born priesthood.” Saint Thomas speaks of the “first born priesthood” as pertaining to natural law prior to Moses.
This is why priests are always called “Father” since they represent the Father.
The argument of Hebrews is that Christ, as the “Firstborn Son of God,” not only supercedes but precedes the Mosaic Levitical arrangement.
Priests are called “presbyteros” for this very reason. They are representative “fathers” or “old men” within the assembly. The NT priesthood is a primogeniture priesthood in Christ – extended not by Levitical natural generation but by supernatural generation in the Spirit.
This is why priests are celibate (the Father-Son dynamic is a non-nuptial generation), why priests should wear the tonsure (bald old fathers), why they are called presbyteros (old men), and why they are called “father” (old men). Presbyteros is the title Saint Peter prefers. See the Si dilgis Mass epistle.
The identity as “father figure” or “older man” or “patriarch” is more noble and excels the Levitical temple title “hiereus” or “priest.”
For all these reasons, Saint Paul is hesitant to use “hiereus” for the NT ministry. However, he does do so in Greek in Rom 15:16 (regretfully the Douay gets this verse wrong in English).
Short answer: presbyteros hearkens back to the primogeniture priesthood of natural law (which is purer than Old Law). Christ’s priesthood is the eternal primogeniture priesthood.
ad Jesum per Mariam,
PS: If you are interested in this subject, please visit Paul is Catholic.com