I am somewhat interested in joining the Roman Catholic Church, but there are some things that I've had to further investigate, one of which is the role of "elder" and "priest" in the Roman Catholic Church.


Here is my understanding thus far regarding the word "priest."

  • In the Old Testament, כֹהֵן = ἱερεὺς = "priest" (Masoretic = LXX = KJV)
  • In the New Testament, ἱερεὺς = "priest."

For example: Gen. 14:18 in the OT, and Matt. 8:4 in the NT. In summary, ἱερεὺς is used in the LXX and the Greek NT, and in both, it is translated consistently into English as "priest."


Here is my understanding thus far regarding the word "elder."

  • In the Old Testament, זָקֵן = πρεσβύτερος = “elder.” (Masoretic = LXX = KJV)
  • In the New Testament, πρεσβύτερος = “elder.”

For example: Num. 11:25 in the OT, and Acts 11:30 in the NT. In summary, πρεσβύτερος is used in the LXX and the Greek NT, and in both, it is generally translated into English as "elder" and seldomly "presbyter," but never as "priest."

The Catholic Encyclopedia's entry on the English word "priest" states,

The Christian law also has necessarily its priesthood to carry out the Divine service, the principal act of which is the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the figure and renewal of that of Calvary. This priesthood has two degrees: the first, total and complete, the second an incomplete participation of the first. The first belongs to the bishop. The bishop is truly a priest (sacerdos), and even a high-priest; he has chief control of the Divine worship (sacrorum antistes), is the president of liturgical meetings; he has the fullness of the priesthood, and administers all the sacraments. The second degree belongs to the priest (presbyter), who is also a sacerdos, but of the second rank ("secundi sacerdotes" Innocent I ad Eugub.); by his priestly ordination he receives the power to offer sacrifice (i.e. to celebrate the Eucharist), to forgive sins, to bless, to preach, to sanctify, and in a word to fulfil the non-reserved liturgical duties or priestly functions.

Notice how it equates "priest" and "presbyter." ("Presbyter" is simply a loan-word derived from the Greek word πρεσβύτερος. Loan words are essentially loose transliterations, but not translations. The translation of πρεσβύτερος would be "elder.")

I understand "priest" is etymologically derived from πρεσβύτερος, but πρεσβύτερος is consistently translated into English as "elder," not "priest." We consistently see the Greek word ἱερεὺς translated into English as "priest" instead.

So the question: where in the OT or NT did the "elder" - which is the actual meaning of πρεσβύτερος - function also as a "priest" (ἱερεὺς), that is, one who was mainly tasked with offering sacrifices in a Temple? Why does the Roman Catholic Church equate the two terms?

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    This is important to me because it seems that every Christian now functions as a ἱερεὺς or priest (1 Pet. 2:9, etc.), fulfilling God's original mandate for His people (cp. Exo. 19:6). But, by insisting that only one person be called "priest" during Mass --- like the person presiding over the Eucharist --- it strips the laity of their own priestly status conferred by Christ himself.
    – user900
    Dec 14, 2014 at 7:13
  • Darn good question. One I can't answer, unfortunately. Maybe @AthanasiusOfAlex could. Dec 14, 2014 at 14:33
  • Do answers need to answer "Why does the Roman Catholic Church equate the two terms?" from a Catholic perspective, or is it also acceptable to answer "Does Catholicism confound the role of 'elder' and 'priest'?" from a Protestant and/or scholarly perspective? Feb 9, 2015 at 17:22

5 Answers 5


The Catholic understanding is that the word πρεσβύτερος means priest subordinate to a hierarch, one ordained to offer sacrifice under the direction of a chief priest. It does not mean layman governor of the church, like a Protestant elder. This is consistent with NT usage, where "chief priests and elders=πρεσβύτερος" (Matt 21:23 KJV) refers to two levels of ordained hierarchy in the Jewish religion, both of whom are involved in the sacrificial temple worship. It is Protestantism, not Catholicism that has become confused by eliminating sacrifice from their religious practice, thus reducing their πρεσβύτερος to mere advisors and teachers.

NT and modern usage are correctly explained in the wikipedia article for Presbyter. I disagree with the quote from the ISV website at the bottom of the article saying that the zaqen were not priests. That appears to be an assumption on their part. Several usages in the synoptic gospels pairs presbyters with chief priests, which appears to put them in the priestly class. In one instance in each gospel (Matt 26:59, Mark 15:1, and Luke 22:66) it is clear that they are talking about members of the Sanhedrin that are not the chief priests.

The Catholic Church derived its terminology in the Greek language from the Septuagint and koine usage in NT times, not modern Protestant usage, and not pure etymology. We need to look not just at the etymology of the terms, but also how they were actually used in NT times. In this case, it's clear that the Jewish "presbyters" were members of the Sanhedrin and thus quite high in the Jewish hierarchy. It's also clear that the term was applied by the primitive Christian church to those men who were chosen by the bishops (overseers) to assist them by administering the sacraments to congregations where they could not be physically present each week. Thus, this is strong evidence that by NT times, presbyter had a sacerdotal connotation. The primary work of the primitive Christian church at this time was not judging the people (resolving disputes or administering law) but rather conducting sacramental rites.

There is also one relevant OT citation:

Exodus 18:21-22 (KJV): 21 Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens:

22 And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee.

Note that this passage says "out of all the people able men", indicating that Levites were not excluded.

So why, I can hear you asking, doesn't the NT use ἱερεὺς instead of πρεσβύτερος? It does use it (in the plural form ἱεράτευμα), but it uses it for the priesthood of all believers in 1 Peter 2:5 and 1 Peter 2:9. Clearly the NT is making a distinction between the priesthood of all believers and the presiders at the sacraments.

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    You might be right, but a corroborating source would greatly increase the validity of your answer.
    – user3961
    Mar 13, 2015 at 20:16

The three New Testament offices were πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros), ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos), διάκονος (diakonos) - see, e.g., Acts 6:1-6, 14:23, 20:28; 1 Timothy 3:1-13.

In the Greek (Orthodox) Church to this day, these are the names still used for the three offices that are translated "priest", "bishop" and "deacon".

Depending on the version/lexicon, the words are variously translated:

  • πρεσβύτερος - elder
  • ἐπίσκοπος - overseer (ESV, NASB, YLT); bishop (KJV, RSV, NKJV, NRSV)
  • διάκονος - deacon (KJV, ESV, RSV, NASB, NKJV, NRSV); ministrant (YLT)

In the first century the offices of πρεσβύτερος and ἐπίσκοπος overlapped and the terms were sometimes used interchangeably, but by the 2nd they were distinct (see, e.g. Ignatius of Antioch Letter to the Magnesians 6:1; Irenaeus of Lyons Against Heresies III.3).

The origin of the word and office of priest is πρεσβύτερος, not ἱερεὺς. The word comes from the Old English proester, which was a saxonization of the Greek presbyteros (via the Latin presbyter), which is also the origin of the English word presbyter, which came into the language by a more direct route.

Similarly bishop derives from the Old English biscop, which is a similar corruption of the Greek episkopos (via Latin episcopus).

For whatever reason, the word priest has not been employed to translate πρεσβύτερος in the Bible in the way bishop has for ἐπίσκοπος, despite the obvious etymological link. It has instead been applied to ἱερεύς (hiereus) - as you indicate - and to the Hebrew word כֹּהֵן (kohen). The first usage seems to have been in the Wycliffe Bible, which was completed in the 1380s, e.g.

And the preestis stieden in to the hil bi comaundement of the Lord, and the Lord yaf a siyt to hem (Exodus 19:22)


Haven't looked in the Catechism, but you probably know as well as I do that Elder isn't a designation given in the Catholic Church as it is in certain protestant denomination.

Perhaps we don't really need them because we believe that all the Bishops are successors to the Apostles. Or perhaps we don't designate them as such because we've got similar designations within the ranks of Bishops already (I.e. Cardinals).

Lots of the Cardinals are given elder oriented roles and they're usually elderly to begin with. Saint John Paul noted this at a 1998 consistatory

I make my own the words of the Apostle Peter in addressing you, venerable and beloved Brothers whom I have had the joy of making members of the College of Cardinals. These words recall that as “elders” we are fundamentally rooted in the mystery of Christ, the Head and Shepherd

and he even uses quotes around elders so as not to mistake the term for an office perhaps, but that's essentially what they are. They're the ones who practice the cardinal virtues to the fullest and can spread wisdom with prudence, justice fortitude and temperance.

Sorry this isn't a word study, but it might be the answer since I'm pretty sure the literal office of elder doesn't exist (at least it doesn't exist any more than the literal office of apostle).

The footnotes of the New American Bible state for Acts 11:30. That even though the word presbyter is used here its translated elder elsewhere, and I know you're not interested in the English, but the reason may be telling. It is done so in reference to the Jewish community. If they were Jews they'd be presbyters (in this case) and if they were Greek they'd be elders. Sounds counterintuitive to me, but if you can offer a better explanation of the footnote, I would like to hear it

If it helps, see the Catechism reference for the Priesthood of all Believers its a belief that we share in Christ's priesthood by way of baptism.

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    I'm not so much concerned with English translations, as both the RCC and the NT pre-date the English language. My concern is with the words πρεσβύτερος and ἱερεὺς, two words which occur both in the LXX and NT. The RCC calls the one who presides over the mass, πρεσβύτερος, does it not? But in the NT, the πρεσβύτερος isn't responsible for sacrifices or offerings, so why would it be responsible for the Mass, which is certainly an offering or sacrifice?
    – user900
    Dec 15, 2014 at 6:16
  • @h3b until recently Cardinals didn't have to be Bishops and even St. Nicholas was a Bishop without ever being a priest. St. Thomas Beckett was a bishop elevated (under strange circumstances) from sub deacon. So if I'm right about elders and cardinals, there might be something to go on, i don't suppose either of those word have their roots in the word for "hinge"?
    – Peter Turner
    Dec 15, 2014 at 6:22
  • FYI, I didn't downvote you.
    – user900
    Dec 15, 2014 at 20:27
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    So the Catholic church says there's no office of 'elder' despite Titus 1:5ff but it has an office of 'priest' despite there being no NT indication of a office called that?
    – curiousdannii
    Dec 16, 2014 at 2:33
  • @cur, I probably should use the word order instead of office I think. I really don't know the difference, I think an office is what you're appointed to and an order is who you are and it's pretty clear there is an order of bishops presbyter and deacons in the NT. And priests in the OT. So what if a priest is a priest and a presbyter and er call him a priest and a bishop is a priest and an episcopos and we call him a bishop - so long as we don't call deacons priests.
    – Peter Turner
    Dec 16, 2014 at 12:05

From Priest | New Advent

This word (etymologically "elder", from presbyteros, presbyter) [...]


priest (n.) | Online Etymology Dictionary

Old English preost ... all from Vulgar Latin *prester "priest," from Late Latin presbyter "presbyter, elder," from Greek presbyteros[.]


CCC 1541 The liturgy of the Church, however, sees in the priesthood of Aaron and the service of the Levites, as in the institution of the seventy elders, [...]

Elder (especially as understood in the New Testament e.g. in Titus and in James) = Priest in the Catholic Church.

Not sure I could term this (nor do I see this as) 'a confounding of terms'.


Episcopus, Presbyter, and Diaconus are best understood as offices. The meaning of the underlying word is helpful, but does not fully convey the roles of the office. The distinctions between the offices might not be perfectly clear from the NT, but the NT isn't an instruction manual. As noted, Priest comes from Presbyter. Rather than thinking about whether a Presbyter does what a Priest does realize that what a Priest does a Presbyter does.

I believe what happened is in time in English countries the word for one who offers a sacrifice became Priest because it was understood that the Presbyter offered a sacrifice. As paganism disappeared in Christendom a common word for one who offers pagan sacrifice might have been lost because there was no need for it. Thus when it came time to translate one who offered sacrifice but was not offering the Christian sacrifice there was no such word. They had to use the same word used to describe the one offering the Christian sacrifice. When it came time to translate Sacred Scripture into English the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was so much a part of the culture they had no other word for one who offers sacrifice.

  • Welcome to the site. We are glad you decided to participate. Please see What this site is about and How this site is different to help you learn how the site works. Also see the help center and take the tour to learn the site functions. I hope to see you post again soon.
    – user3961
    Feb 1, 2015 at 23:02
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    Is this based on speculation or investigation? Feb 1, 2015 at 23:33
  • Not academic study. But Joseph Lightfoot's 1888 "Saint Paul's Epistle to the Philippians" says as much. On page 186 he reflects on the lack of any word but priest for sacerdos: Convenience will justify its restriction to this secondary and imported sense, since the English langauge supplies no other rendering of sacerdos or hierus." Confirmed in the Wycliffe Bible (1395) which translates 1 Samuel 21:5 as 'And Dauid answeride to the preest'. Also, showing that the languages deriving from German lack a word for sacerdos or hierus we have Luther's rendering 'David antwortete dem Priester'.
    – exnihilo
    Feb 3, 2015 at 16:57

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