Or, The Imprecise Use of “Elders” in the New Testament and the Presbyterai of 1 Timothy 5:12

The imprecise use of "elders" in the New Testament

In my previous post, I stated that women elders are mentioned in 1 Timothy and I suggested the likelihood that Priscilla was one of them. In this longer post, I look at verses in 1 Timothy where the Greek word for “elder/s” occurs, and I compare 1 Timothy 5:1-2 with verses found in 1 Peter, in 1 Clement, in Acts, and in Titus. This gives us a better understanding of the context and meaning of “elders” in 1 Timothy 5:1-2. I also look briefly at elders, both men and women, in early Judaism. There are two aims in this article: (1) to show that “elders” was an imprecise term in the first century, and (2) to show that some elders were women.

Presbyteroi in the New Testament

The Greek word used for “elders” in the New Testament is the adjective presbyteroi.[1] This word is used many times in the New Testament for Jewish elders (especially those in Jerusalem), about a dozen times for church elders, and a few times for “older” people. Then there are the elders mentioned in the book of Revelation which  I won’t be discussing in this article. In all, presbyteroi occurs sixty-six times in the New Testament and frequently occurs as a collective term and in the plural. (The masculine singular is presbyteros.)

In First Timothy, presbyteroi occurs only in the fifth chapter (1 Tim. 5:1, 2, 17, and 19). A feminine form referring to women, presbyterai, occurs in verse 2. Masculine (plural and singular) forms occur in verses 1, 17 and 19.

It’s important to note that masculine Greek words which describe people do not necessarily exclude women. For example, the Greek adjective leproi (“lepers”) is masculine; context tells us whether the lepers mentioned in a given text are men only (e.g., Luke 17:12) or both men and women (e.g., Luke 4:27).[2] On the other hand, feminine adjectives which describe people, especially substantive adjectives (which act as nouns), describe women only.

Presbyteroi in 1 Timothy 5:1-2

First Timothy is a letter addressed to Timothy who was ministering in Ephesus, a city on the West Coast of Asia Minor. In the opening verses of chapter 5, Paul tells Timothy:

Do not sharply rebuke an older man (or elder) (presbyteros), but encourage him as you would your father; treat younger men like your brothers; treat older women (or women elders) (presbyterai) as you would your mother; treat younger women like your sisters with purity (1 Tim. 5:1-2).

At first glance, it seems that Paul is simply categorising the congregation into four groups based on age and sex, and that elders as church leaders or ministers is not the sense intended.

Nevertheless, some older translations of 1 Timothy 5:1 use the word “elder”. For example, the KJV has “Rebuke not an elder”. Some older translations of 1 Timothy 5:2 use the words “elder women”. We need to recognise, however, that “elder” is a synonym for “older”. Presbyteroi in its most basic sense simply refers to older adults. This basic sense of old age underlies all occurrences of presbyteroi in the New Testament.

The masculine and feminine words presbyteros and presbyterai in 1 Timothy 5:1-2 appear to be an indication of age rather than ministry. But this may not be the case. The presbyterai in 1 Timothy 5:2 may well have been more than simply “older women”. This becomes apparent when we realise that the juxtaposing of elders with young adults happens in other passages where elders are mentioned in the context of ministry and leadership.

Presbyteroi in 1 Peter 5:1-5 

First Peter is a letter addressed to Christians living in various regions of Asia Minor (1 Pet. 1:1). In the first few verses of chapter 5 of this letter, Peter identifies himself as a “fellow-elder” and he gives instructions to presbyteroi, that is, elders.[3] He tells them to act as shepherds, or pastors: to watch over and care for the flock and be examples (1 Pet. 5:1-4; cf. Acts 20:28).

While it is not apparent in some English translations, this passage in the Greek gives no indication that the elders are only men.

As soon as Peter finishes giving instructions to the elders, he instructs the young adults (1 Pet. 1:5). These two groups are not categorised according to gender, and there is no alternative group addressed here (other than elders and young people) so women may be included in both groups.

Like 1 Timothy 5:1-2, there are only two age groups addressed in 1 Peter 5:1-5. This is because, at that time, the adult population was predominantly made up of only two generations.[4] Roughly speaking, an older adult was over 35-40 years of age, a young adult was under 35-40.

In 1 Peter 5, prebyteroi are older adults charged with pastoral responsibilities. This may have been the case for the elders in 1 Clement, also.

Prebyteroi in 1 Clement

1 Clement is a work written around 100 AD and included in a collection of Christian writings known as the Apostolic Fathers. It was written by the Roman church to the Corinthian church when the Romans learned that some of the younger Corinthians had deposed the leadership made up of older men. Because of this situation, the juxtaposing of older and younger adults makes good sense.

I’ve included the three verses in 1 Clement where presbyteroi and young adults (neoi) occur side by side (along with brief comments) in endnote 5 below.[5] In two of these verses, elders are also mentioned alongside leaders (hegoumenoi). At least some of these elders would have been leaders, but all elders were to be honoured (cf. 1 Tim. 5:1-2).

Unlike, 1 Timothy 5:1-2 and 1 Peter 5:1-5, it is reasonably clear that women were not included among these elders in Corinth. Rather, women are mentioned in a distinct group; women are “others” in 1 Clement.

Presbyteroi in Acts 2:17

Presbyteroi are mentioned several times in the book of Acts, including Acts 2:17b. In this verse young and old are also mentioned side by side: “And your young people will see visions and your presbyteroi will dream dreams.” This statement does not specify gender, but it is sandwiched between other statements that do specify gender: “. . . I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy” (Acts 2:17a). And: “Even upon both my male servants and female servants, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy (Acts 2:18). The structure of the passage indicates that presbyteroi in verse 17 are not meant to be understood as only being men.

Acts 2:17-18 is an “inclusive” passage. Unlike other passages that make a distinction between elders and young adults, Acts 2:17b minimises a distinction based on age difference (cf. 1 Tim. 4:12). And Acts 2:17-18 makes no distinction on the basis of sex whatsoever. Rather, these verses, and others in the New Testament, show that the Holy Spirit empowers men and women, young and old, to minister, to prophecy, to instruct, and to lead (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:11; 14:26). Every New Testament verse about ministry gifts is gender-inclusive.[6]

Elders have the advantage of experience and maturity. It is this maturity which makes some elders suitable to lead congregations. A person’s gender, however, neither qualifies nor disqualifies someone to minister and lead in the body of Christ.

Presbyteroi in 1 Timothy 5:17-19 and Titus 1:5

We now come back to 1 Timothy 5. After mentioning male and female presbyteroi in the opening verses of chapter 5, Paul refers to them again in verses 17 and 19.

Elders (presbyteroi) who lead[7] well should be paid double, especially those who work with public speaking and teaching. . . .  Don’t accept an accusation made against an elder (presbyteros) unless it is confirmed by two or three witnesses. 1 Timothy 5:17, 19 CEB (Words in brackets added.)

The elders in verse 17 are specifically identified as those who lead. This indicates that not all elders were leaders (or, that not all elders lead well) and that only some were speakers and teachers. These presbyteroi are a subset of those mentioned previously in 1 Timothy 5:1-2.

Verse 19 is reminiscent of 1 Timothy 5:1-2 in that elders should be treated with honour and dignity. Furthermore, verse 19 possibly refers to all older members of the church at Ephesus and not just the elders who lead.[8]

As well as occurring four times in 1 Timothy, presbyteroi occurs once in Titus, in Titus 1:5. These elders of the church in Crete were undoubtedly appointed leaders (Tit. 1:5; cf. Acts 14:23).[9] The Greek text of the moral qualifications for these elders does not indicate that they must be men. Furthermore, nowhere in the Greek New Testament is there a verse which states that elders must be men only.

The word presbyteroi does not occur at all in any of the earlier (undisputed) letters of Paul, not once. It was not a word the apostle usually used for church leaders or ministers. As I stated in the previous article, the ministry terms Paul used most often were co-worker, apostle and minister/deacon, descriptions he used for both his male and female ministry colleagues. These terms denote function rather than an official position or an ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Almost all the first converts to Christianity were Jews or Jewish proselytes who belonged to synagogues. And some synagogues practices carried over into church life. Perhaps Paul, with his inclusive views on ministry and his aversion to Judaisers, avoided the word presbyteroi because of the way it was used in Judaism.

Presbyteroi in Early Judaism

In the New Testament, presbyteroi is an imprecise term. It is believed the church adopted it from Judaism, but in ancient Judaism it was also an imprecise term with a combined general sense of both seniority and leadership.

R. Alistair Campbell writes,

Jewish writers of the Second Temple period (including New Testament writers when they refer to the Jewish leaders) display a notable lack of precision in the use of the term ‘elders’, usually linking it with other terms [such as chief priests and scribes (e.g., Mark 14:53)] to reinforce the impression that the whole leadership was involved. Elders, we may say, are those who have presbeion [seniority], rather than the holders of an office of eldership at either national or local level.[10]

And,

It is possible to say that while [Jewish] congregations gave precedence to persons of seniority, and used the term ‘the elders’ to refer to them, there does not seem to have been an office of elder as such to which a person might be appointed and with clearly defined functions. . . . An elder did not hold an office in the way that the archisynagōgos [ruler of the synagogue] did.[11]

Jewish elders were people with seniority, and the Jewish elders in the New Testament, those mentioned in the Gospels and Acts, were all men. Most of the church elders mentioned in Acts, particularly those in Jerusalem, would have been all men too.

. . . the formation of a body of [church] elders first after the synagogue model, then probably in connection with the decree [of Acts 15] with the same claim as the Sanhedrin, belongs only to the period of increasing Judaising of the primitive community under James, after the departure of Peter. There is a very clear picture of [the council of elders in Jerusalem] in Acts 21:17-26.[12]

The Jewish elders and the church elders based in Jerusalem were men.[13] (It is also likely that James had male elders in mind when he mentioned them in James 5:14.) However, outside of Jerusalem things were different, especially in parts of Asia Minor.

Presbyterai (Women Elders) in Early Judaism

Ancient inscriptions have survived which mention Jewish women in prominent roles in synagogues. Presently, seven epitaphs of women elders and four epitaphs of women synagogue leaders have been discovered. Several more epitaphs exist of Jewish women with other leadership titles.[14] One woman, Sophia of Gortyn, whose inscription was found in Crete, was both an elder (presbytera) and a leader of a synagogue (archisynagōgissa).[15]

These inscriptions are sometimes interpreted as referring to wives of elders or of synagogue leaders, that is, that they are honorary rather than functional titles. Paul Trebilco and others, however, argue that many of the twenty-one Jewish women commemorated in the various inscriptions were actual elders and leaders of synagogues.

Trebilco has written about the prominence of women in the synagogues of Asia Minor and notes that they had “a significant degree of involvement and leadership in synagogue life. . .”[16]  (As well as inscriptions which mention women leaders, inscriptions reveal that about 36 percent of donations to synagogue buildings were made by wealthy female patrons.)[17] Trebilco further notes that the phenomenon of female leadership “is most noticeable on the West Coast, especially in Caria and Ionia . . . . In these two regions . . .  women’s leadership in the city was the most noticeable and the most widespread.”[18]

EldersIn parts of the Roman world, such as Asia Minor, Jewish and Christian women were prominent in their synagogues and churches, especially in the regions of Ionia and Caria in Asia Minor. The synagogues and churches of Ephesus and Smyrna were located in Ionia.[19] And we know that women, such as Priscilla, were ministering in these churches.[20] (A discussion on the ministries of Alke and Gavia of Smyrna is here.)

1 Timothy 4:14 tells us that the presbyterion (“council, or group, of elders”) had laid hands on young Timothy. Does this refer to the elders in Jerusalem? Or does it refer to the elders in the Ephesian church, those mentioned in 1 Timothy 5? Were Priscilla and Aquila two of the elders who had laid hands on Timothy?

Since there seemed to have been no problem with Priscilla and Aquila correcting the teacher Apollos when he was in Ephesus (surely a role of elders), and since Priscilla and Aquila were house church leaders in Ephesus, I see no reason why someone like Priscilla, if not Priscilla herself, should not belong to the group of elders in the Ephesian church. The fact remains, however, that we do not know the names of any elders in the New Testament church apart from Peter and John.[21]

Conclusion

This article and the preceding one were inspired by questions and statements regarding elders. Behind these questions and statements are the ideas that women were not elders in New Testament times and so they shouldn’t be elders in churches today, even though church life today is vastly different to that of the first century.

The fact is that the feminine of presbyteroi (“elders”) does occur in the New Testament, and it occurs in other ancient Jewish and Christian writings and inscriptions where it refers to woman elders. (An article about Christian women elders in inscriptions is planned.)

Using New Testament elders as a precedent for either allowing or disallowing women to be elders today is fraught with difficulties, as “in the Jewish and Christian sphere it is often hard to distinguish between the designation of age and the title of an office,”[22] assuming there were even church offices before the end of the first century. [23] We must keep in mind that presbyteroi (“elders”) was a general and “vague” term in the first century.[24] With this in mind, I maintain that there were presbyterai (“women elders”) in New Testament churches. 1 Timothy 5:2 tells us this was the case.


Endnotes

[1] Presbyteroi (presbyteros is the nominative singular form) is a comparative adjective; it literally refers to people who are old-er. While presbyteroi is technically an adjective, it functions as a substantive, that is, it functions as a noun.

[2] Similarly, the noun adelphoi is masculine but in New Testament verses that refer to both men and women adelphoi is rendered “brothers and sisters” in modern translations.

[3] A definite article is not used, in the Greek, with presbyteroi in 1 Peter 5:1 or 5:5. So a defined group of official elders may not be the case here. A definite article is also not used with the comparative adjective neōteroi (“younger adults”) in 1 Peter 5:5.
Definite articles are used with every occurrence of presbyteroi in 1 Clement 1:3; 3:3; 21:6: 44:5; 54:2; 57:1. However, neoi also occurs with a definite article in 3:3 and 21:6. Nevertheless, context unambiguously shows that “the elders” mentioned in 1 Clement 44:5: 54:2 and 57:1 are appointed office bearers, even if those, or some of those, in previous chapters are not.
Both presbyteroi and neaniskoi in Acts 2:17 occur with a definite article.
Definite articles are not used with presbyteros and prebyterai in 1 Timothy 5:1-2 and 5:19, but prebyteroi (“the elders”) in 5:17 does have a definite article. The comparative adjectives translated as “younger men” and “younger women” in 1 Timothy 5:1-2 likewise occur without a definite article.

[4] See John M. G. Barclay, “There Is Neither Old nor Young? Early Christianity and Ancient Ideologies of Age,” New Testament Studies 53.2 (2007), 225-241.

[5] 1 Clement 1:3: “For you did everything without partiality . . . submitting yourselves to your leaders (hegoumenoi) and giving to the presbyteroi among you the honour due to them. You instructed the young people to think temperate and proper thoughts . . .” The presbyteroi may refer to leaders and not just older people here. Women (or wives) are not included among the presbyteroi as they are mentioned next in 1 Clement 1:3 without reference to age.
1 Clement 3:3: “So people were stirred up: those without honour against the honoured, those of no repute against the highly reputed, the foolish against the wise, the young against the prebyteroi.” By implication, the presbyteroi are the honoured, the highly reputed and the wise.
1 Clement 21:6: “Let us respect our leaders (hegoumenoi); let us honour the presbyteroi; let us instruct the young . . .” As in 1 Clement 1:3, women, and then children, are mentioned next, and are not included among the presbyteroi. Frederick Danker suggests a double meaning of leader and older adult in these three verses from 1 Clement, but that the concept of being old is the dominant meaning in 1 Clement 3:3 and 21:6.
Walter Bauer, “πρεσβύτερος, α, ον”, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. Frederick W. Danker. 3rd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 862.
The English translations of 1 Clement 1:6; 3:3; and 21:6 are adapted from Michael Holmes’ translation in The Apostolic Father: Greek Texts and English Translations (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2007)

[6] Every New Testament verse which speaks of spiritual gifts, manifestations, or ministries is completely free of any gender bias in the Greek (Acts 2:17-18; Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:7-11 & 27-28; 1 Cor. 14:26-33; Eph. 4:11-12; Heb. 2:4; 1 Pet. 4:9-11).

[7] Some translations have “rule” instead of “lead”. The Greek participle here is from the verb proistēmi , a word which occurs eight times in the New Testament. Proistēmi in the New Testament “seems to have the sense a. ‘to lead’ but the context shows in each case that one must also take into account sense b. ‘to take care of’. This is explained by the fact that caring was an obligation of leading members of the infant Church.”
Bo Reike, “Proistēmi ”, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), Vol. 6, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, transl. and ed. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 701-703, 701.
Phoebe of Cenchrea is referred to with the cognate noun of proistēmi in Romans 16:2: she was a patron and protector of many in the church, including Paul.

[8] The letters of 1 Clement and 1 Timothy reveal a similar tension, namely hubris among the young. (In 1 Timothy this quarrelsome arrogance is also evident among the rich.)

[9] Also in Titus are words which some have suggested refer to official church elders (Tit. 2:2 & 3). These words, the plural of the nouns presbytēs (masculine) (cf. Luke 1:18: Philem. 1:9) and presbytis (feminine), however, are slightly different to the comparative adjective presbyteroi.  The actual forms in Titus 2:2-3 are: presbytas (accusative masculine plural) meaning “old men”, and presbytidas (accusative feminine plural) meaning “old women”.
At this time, these words were not usually used for Jewish or church elders. Furthermore, the instructions that the old women were to give to the young wives of Crete was typical of the advice Greco-Roman women gave to younger women, whether Christian or pagan. There is nothing especially “Christian” in the instructions in Titus 2:4-5. (Compare Titus 2:4-5 with, for example, the letters of Theano II to three young women.) (More about Titus 2:4-5 and women’s roles, here.)

The fact that Paul used less technical Greek words for male and female “old people” in Titus 2:2-3 makes his use of male and female “elders” more marked in 1 Timothy 5:1-2. Unfortunately, this difference in language is undetectable and therefore unmarked in many English translations of these verses.

[10] R. Alistair Campbell, The Elders: Seniority within Earliest Christianity (London: T&T Clark 1994, 2004), 238.

[11] Campbell, The Elders, 238-239.

[12] Gunther Bornkamm, “Presbys, Prebyteros . . .” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), Vol. 6, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, transl. and ed. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 663.

[13] The council of church elders in Jerusalem only lasted a generation. It ceased to exist when Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70 AD, if not before.

[14] Note that these inscriptions date to around the second century BC to the sixth century AD. Sophia of Gortyn’s inscription dates to the fifth century AD.

[15] The information in this paragraph was sourced from Ross Shepard Kraemer, Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 251-255.

[16] Paul Trebilco, Jewish Communities in Asia Minor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, 2006), 111. See especially chapter 5, “The Prominence of Women in Asia Minor”, 104-125.

[17] Trebilco, Jewish Communities, 112.

[18] Trebilco, Jewish Communities, 124-125.

[19] A second-century CE inscription from Smyrna mentions a woman named Rufina who was synagogue ruler. The inscription reads: “Rufina, a Jewess synagogue ruler [archisynagōgos], built this tomb for her freed slaves and the slaves raised in her household. No one else has a right to bury anyone here.” (CII 741; IGR IV. 1452)
See Bernadette J. Brooten, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background. Brown Judaic Studies, 36. (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982).

[20] The city of Philadelphia is also located in Ionia. A famous Christian prophetess named Ammia lived in Philadelphia (circa 100 AD) and is mentioned in the Church History of Eusebius  (5.17.3)

[21] It is disputed that the author of 2 and 3 John was an official elder. For example, Gunther Bornkamm asserts, “the title presbyteros in 2 John 1 and 3 John 1 can be integrated into neither an episcopal nor presbyterian form of government. The elder . . . works outside any ecclesiastical constitution.” “presbys, presbyteros . . .” (TDNT, Vol. 6), 671.
“He probably describes himself as elder because of his special position as bearer of the apostolic tradition.” Gunther Bornkamm, “presbys, presbyteros . . .”, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT, Abridged) Gerhard Kittle and Gerhard Friedrich (eds), abridged by Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1985), 931—935, 933.

[22] Gunther Bornkamm, “presbys, presbyteros . . .”, (TDNT, Abridged), 932.

[23] Ignatius presumes that the churches he writes to use a hierarchical governmental structure, with one bishop (episkopos), at least two elders (presbyteroi), and at least one deacon. This tiered structure, however, is not apparent in the second-century church in Corinth (as per 1 Clement and the Apocryphal Corinthian Correspondence) or in the church at Smyrna (as per Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians). Polycarp, leader of the church at Smyrna, identifies himself as being among the elders, and mentions elders and deacons in the church at Philippi, but not bishops (episkopoi) (contra. Phil. 1:1).

[24] G. W. H. Lampe states that early Christian writers “most often used presbyteros in a vague sense” and that the word “may be applied to an apostle, a member of the college of episkopoi, a ‘monarchical’ bishop, a teacher, an early Christian witness to tradition, or any respected member of the Church; it is difficult to distinguish between this general use of presbyteros and its more technical use to denote a member of a particular ministerial order . . .” A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961, 1968), 1129-1130.


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