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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia


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In primitive times age was a necessary condition of authority. Not only among the ancient Jews, but also among other nations of antiquity, the elders of the nation or of the clan constituted the official class. The institution of elders existed among the Egyptians (Gen. 1. 7), among the Midianites (Numbers 22:7), and later among the Greeks (γέροντοες or πρεσβντεροι) and Romans ("patres" or "senatus"). Although the Talmud (Yoma 28b) points to the existence of such an institution in the time of Abraham, no distinct mention is made of it in the Bible until the period of the Exodus. Moses is commanded to assemble the elders of the people, and to assure them of a speedy redemption from Egyptian bondage (Exodus 3:16,18). Afterward the elders occupied an important position in the communal as well as in the political affairs of the Jewish people. It is not certain that they were elected by the people, although they were considered their representatives, and were frequently identified with the "'am" (people) itself in the Bible (Exodus 4:29; 19:7,8; 24:1; Joshua 23:2 et al.).

The position and function of the elder are nowhere clearly defined. "What there was of permanent official authority lay in the hands of the elders and heads of the houses; in times of war they commanded each his own household, and in peace they dispensed justice each within his own circle" (Wellhausen). They were the defenders of the interests of their constituents, and were especially powerful in local or municipal affairs (Deuteronomy 19:12, 21:2, 22:15, 25:7: Joshua 20:4; Ruth 4:2). Together with the priests, they sometimes participated in certain sacrificial rites (Leviticus 4:15, 9:1). In national affairs they held a very important position. It was at the request of the elders that Samuel consented to a monarchical form of government in Israel (1 Samuel 8:4). It was through their intervention that Abner succeeded in appointing David king over Israel (2 Samuel 3:17). The elders were accomplices in the conspiracy of Absalom (2 Samuel 17:4); to them Rehoboam first turned for advice (1 Kings 12:6), and they were also a prominent factor in the proceedings brought against Naboth by Jezebel (1 Kings 21:8-13).

It is not known whether all the officers of the commonwealth were chosen from the body of elders (compare Exodus 18:25 and Numbers 11:16). As judges, however, and as the chief representatives of the people, the elders enjoyed their authority for a long period. The Mishnah speaks of the elders as the recipients of the oral law from Joshua (Abot 1:1), and as the forerunners of the Sanhedrin (Sanh. 2a). The institution of elders flourished during the period of the Babylonian Exile (Ezekiel 8:1, 14:1, 20:1), and continued in Palestine during the Persian and Greek periods (Ezra 5:5,9; 6:7,14; 10:8; 1 Macc. 7:31; 12:6,35; 13:36; Judith 6:21, 7:23, 8:33, 10:6; and in Susanna). See JUDGE; PATRIARCHAL FAMILY AND AUTHORITY; and especially SANHEDRIN (2).

  • Hastings, Diet. Bible;
  • Hamburger, R. B. T.
  • Wellhausen, I. J. G.;
  • Driver, Deuteronomy, pp. 199, 233, New York, 1895;
  • Saalschütz, Das Mosaische Recht, chap. , Berlin, 1853;
  • Ewald, The Antiquities of Israel, Index, Boston, 1876;
  • McCurdy, History, Prophecy, and the Monuments, Index, New York, 1894;
  • Amram, Zeḳenim, in Jour. Bib. Lit., June, 1900;
  • Reifmann, Sanhedrin (in Hebrew), Berdychev, 1888:
  • A. Büchler, Das Syedrion in Jerusalem, pp. 163, 168, Vienna, 1902.
S. S.
J. H. G.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Elder'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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