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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

Elder in the Old Testament

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el´dẽr , (זקן , zāḳēn ): Among primitive peoples authority seems naturally to be invested in those who by virtue of greater age and, consequently, experience are best fitted to govern Thus Iliad iii.149. Later the idea of age became merged in that of dignity (Il. ii.404, ii.570; Odyssey ii.14). In like manner the word patres came to be used among the Romans (Cic. Rep . 2, 8, 14). So also among the Germans authority was entrusted to those who were older; compare Tacitus Agricola . The same is true among the Arabians to the present day, the sheik being always a man of age as well as of authority.

From the first the Hebrews held this view of government, although the term "elder" came later to be used of the idea of the authority for which, at first, age was regarded necessary. Thus the office appears in both the Jahwist, J (9th century bc) (Exodus 3:16 ; Exodus 12:21 ; Exodus 24:1 , of the elders of the Hebrews; and of the Egyptians, Genesis 50:7 ); and Elohist (E) (8th century bc) (Exodus 17:5 ; Exodus 18:12 ; Exodus 19:7 (the second Deuteronomist (D2)); Joshua 24:31 , elders of Israel, or of the people. Compare the principle of selection of heads of tens, fifties, etc., Exodus 18:13 , seventy being selected from a previous body of elders); compare Jahwist(J)-Elohist(E) (Numbers 11:16 , Numbers 11:24 ). Seventy are also mentioned in Exodus 24:1 , while in Judges 8:14 seventy-seven are mentioned, although this might be taken to include seven princes. Probably the number was not uniform.

Elder as a title continues to have place down through the times of the Judges (Judges 8:16 ; Judges 2:7 (D); compare Rth 4:2) into the kingdom. Saul asked to be honored before the elders (1 Samuel 15:30 ); the elders of Bethlehem appeared before Samuel (1 Samuel 16:4 ); the elders appeared before David in Hebron (2 Samuel 17:15 ; 1 Chronicles 11:3 ); elders took part in the temple procession of Solomon (1 Kings 8:3 ; 2 Chronicles 5:4 ). They continued through the Persian period (Ezra 5:5 , Ezra 5:9 ; Ezra 6:7 , Ezra 6:14 ; Ezra 10:8 , Ezra 10:14 ; Joel 1:14 margin) and the Maccabean period (Judith 6:16; 7:23; 8:10; 10:6; 13:12; 1 Macc 12:35), while the New Testament ( πρεσβύτερος , presbúteros , Matthew 16:21 ; Matthew 26:47 , Matthew 26:57 ; Mark 8:31 ; Luke 9:22 ; Acts 4:5 , Acts 4:23 ) makes frequent mention of the office.

The elders served as local magistrates, in bringing murderers to trial (Deuteronomy 19:12 ; Deuteronomy 21:1 ; Joshua 20:4 ), punishing a disobedient son (Deuteronomy 21:19 ), inflicting penalty for slander (Deuteronomy 22:15 ), for noncompliance with the Levirate marriage law (Deuteronomy 25:7 ), enforcing the Law (Deuteronomy 27:1 ), conducting the service in expiation of unwitting violation of the Law (Leviticus 4:13 ).

In certain passages different classes of officers are mentioned as "judges and officers" (Deuteronomy 16:18 ), "elders" and "officers" (Deuteronomy 31:28 ), "heads, tribes, elders officers" (Deuteronomy 29:10 (Hebrew 9)). It is probable that both classes were selected from among the elders, and that to one class was assigned the work of judging, and that the "officers" exercised executive functions (Schürer). In entirely Jewish communities the same men would be both officers of the community and elders of the synagogue. In this case the same men would have jurisdiction over civil and religious matters.


Schürer, GJV 3, section 23, especially 175ff (Eng. edition, II, i, 149ff; Benzinger, H A 2, 51; Deissmann, Bibelstudien , 153ff (s.v. πρεσβύτερος ); BDB , 278 (זקן ); Preuschen, Griechisch-Deutsches Handwörterbuch , under the word, 958 f.

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Elder in the Old Testament'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 1915.

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