There has been much debate between Christian denominations on whether or not there is a special priesthood rooted in apostolic succession. I do not mean to disturb this debate with my question, but I would like some clarification.

Are there any early Christian sources that demonstrate that they recognized a difference between a "presbyter" and a "priest"? By early Christian, I mean ~2nd to 4th century.

For example, if there were a document where an early Christian distinguishes between presbyters and priests, that would be highly relevant here. Or if there were a document where an early Christian completely conflates presbyters and priests, that would also be highly relevant here.

If there are some who distinguish and some who conflate the terms, please cite both.

2 Answers 2


I don't have any documents to show you, but I do want to point out some linguistic aspects to this question that can lead to confusion.

In English, the word priest comes from a contraction of the word presbyter. In other languages, the word used for Catholic priests today is the word presbyter, so this question as worded doesn't really work in an early Church context that predates the English language.

However, in Greek, there is the word hieros, which fits the Old Testament concept of a priest in the Temple. The meaning of hieros is one who offers sacrifices. It also refers to one who represents God to man and man to God, performing an intermediary and intercessory role. However, the meaning of presbyteros is really just an older man who is a leader and does not have as much of a religious connotation.

I think the question you would be interested in would be to know if the words hieros and presbyteros were used to refer to the same person in the early Church. I remember hearing that they were because they refer to different aspects of the same role, with hieros referring to their intercessory role and presbyteros referring to their leadership role.

By the way, hieros is where we get the word "hierarchy" (literally rule by priests) referring to the leadership of the Church.

  • 1
    Very helpful answer, thank you! And I think my question would have to be reformulated before there could be an answer to what I'm looking for. Apr 24, 2018 at 19:49
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    On your comment that hieros and presbyteros may refer to the same person, but different roles, that would actually be bishop (overseer, episkopos) and elder (presbuteros). See Vines Expository Dictionary for example on this. The early church recognized elder/bishop and deacon, but not the OT type priest hieros.
    – SLM
    Apr 24, 2018 at 23:27
  • I agree that in the beginning, at least with St. Paul, bishop (overseer, episkopos) and elder (presbuteros) appear to have referred to the same person, but very quickly, by the late 1st century, the convention is that the local church is ruled by a single episkopos assisted by a body of presbuteroi (see Ignatius of Antioch). However, I don't think that gets to the core of the question, which has to do with the special priestly nature of the episkopos and presbuteros, as is recognized by the Catholic, Orthodox, and some Anglican churches. Dec 3, 2018 at 15:22

My best friend has preached and wrote about this. The equation of priest and presbyter is something that comes from the development of English (alongside traditional Sacramental Christianity). Basically alongside the use of Presbyter (as an elder, and someone that celebrates the Eucharist), there was an English corruption of it as "Prester" (I think that a medieval or Renaissance corruption). And of course because of Sacramental Christianity, and the Eucharist where the person presiding was sometimes referred to as "priest" figuratively speaking. But basically the terms became conflated with each other because of sounding similar, but also do to the Eucharistic theology of Christianity before the Reformation.

I found an online Encyclopedia article that somewhat supports my friend's thesis, but talks about in terms of German Saxon and Latin.


Here is another example of the use of Prester. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prester_John

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