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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Elder (2)

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ELDER.—In the Gospels the term ‘elder’ (πρεσβύτερος) does not occur in the later Christian sense, denoting an officer of the Church (as in Acts 14:23; Acts 20:17, Titus 1:5, James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1). In the Gospel of St. John the word occurs only once, and that in the doubtful passage concerning the adulteress (John 8:9), where it has not any official sense, but simply means older in years. In the Synoptics there is more frequent use, mostly in the official sense. The few cases of unofficial meaning of the term are: Luke 15:25, where it describes the ‘elder brother’ in the parable of the Prodigal; and Matthew 15:2, Mark 7:3; Mark 7:5, where it means ‘the elders’ of a former age, the men of old from whom customs and maxims are handed down. In all the other passages (Matthew 16:21; Matthew 21:28; Matthew 26:3; Matthew 26:47; Matthew 26:57; Matthew 26:59; Matthew 27:1; Matthew 27:3; Matthew 27:12; Matthew 27:20; Matthew 27:41, Mark 8:31; Mark 11:27; Mark 14:43; Mark 14:53, Luke 9:22; Luke 20:1; Luke 22:52) the term ‘elders’—invariably plural—bears the official meaning current among the Jews of our Lord’s time. What is that meaning?

In the OT and Apocr. [Note: Apocrypha, Apocryphal.] there is frequent mention of ‘elders’ in the official sense (see, e.g., Genesis 50:7, Exodus 3:18; Exodus 3:18, Leviticus 4:15, Numbers 11:25, Deuteronomy 31:28, Joshua 20:4, Judges 8:18, 1 Samuel 16:4, 2 Samuel 5:3, 1 Kings 20:7, Ezra 5:5, Ezekiel 8:1, Judith 6:21, 1 Maccabees 7:33; 1 Maccabees 11:23, Sus 8, 18 etc.). From a study of these and similar passages it appears that in all the history of Israel, from the Egyptian bondage down to the time of Christ, ‘elders’ appear as an official class; but the descriptions and statements are not explicit enough to give a definite idea of how they were appointed to office, or of their exact functions. It is not improbable that they were chosen as representatives of the people; and the duties of the office appear to have been threefold—advisory, executive, judicial. Further, there is a distinction between local ‘elders’ (those of a city) and ‘the elders of Israel,’ ‘elders of the congregation,’ ‘elders of the people,’ as they are variously called. We are now to inquire how far this OT use of the word is illustrated in that of the Gospels.

One passage only (Luke 7:3) seems to indicate the local ‘elders’—those of Capernaum, the scene of the event described; and even here the turn of the expression, ‘elders of the Jews,’ might possibly point to national ‘elders’ present or resident at Capernaum. But on the whole it seems more natural to take the term here in its local sense. In all the remaining passages cited above, the reference is to the national ‘elders.’ From Vitringa (de Synag. Vet. iii. i. 1) downwards, NT scholars have held with apparent unanimity that the term designates the members of the Sanhedrin (wh. see). This view is sustained by the connexion and association of the term,—usually with ‘scribes’ and ‘chief priests,’—and by Luke 22:66, where the Sanhedrin is called ‘the presbytery,’ or assembly of ‘elders’ (πρεσβυτέριον, cf. Acts 22:5). There are various forms of expression: sometimes ‘elders’ simply, and sometimes ‘elders of the people,’ commonly associated with ‘chief priests and scribes.’ This is held by some to indicate that there were three orders or grades in the Sanhedrin, the ‘elders’ being the lay element, or representatives of the people. This may be the case, but is at best only an inference, neither contradicted nor supported.

Literature.—Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, art. ‘Elder,’ and the lit. there mentioned; Jewish Encyc. and lit.; Grimm-Thayer, Lexicon of the NT; Cremer, Biblico-Theol. Lex.; Vitringa, de Syn. Vet.; Schurer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ; Morrison, The Jews under Roman Rule; Weiss, Life of Christ; Edersheim, Life and Times.

E. C. Dargan.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Elder (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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