There have, of course, been other studies of the origin of the episcopacy since Lightfoot and Kirk, but they all build upon the same scanty New Testament and patristic evidence, and therefore reach equally disputable conclusions. It does not seem to the present writer that any improvement in the situation can be expected until the available evidence is increased, by taking account of the Jewish evidence as well. This is in fact more ample than is usually supposed. Both Lightfoot and Kirk [who have differing opinions of the development of the episcopacy], and most other writers also, recognize that Christian presbyters or elders were modeled on the elders of the synagogue. But, having recognized this fact, they fail to build upon it to any effect, and what they do say cannot be relied upon. We will now attempt to make a start in remedying this defect (pgs 26-27).
The Jewish Presbyter or Elder
The term “elder”, both in Hebrew and Greek, has the basic sense of “old(er) man”, in which sense the Hebrew zaken is used in Genesis 25:8; 1 Kings 12:8; Psalm 148:12; Proverbs 17:16; Jeremiah 31:12, etc., and the Greek presbuteros [“presbyter”] in Acts 2:17; 1 Timothy 5:1. This suggests that originally elders were men of advancing years; and that the same still tended to be the case in New Testament times is shown by the Mishnah, which says that “at sixty, one is fit to be an elder” (aboth 5:21), and by 1 Peter 5:1-5, which says, “the elders therefore among you I exhort … Tend the flock of God, exercising oversight … Likewise, ye younger, be subject to the elder”.
Throughout the Bible, seniority entitles peole to respect (Lev 19:32; 1 Tim 5:1; 1 Pet 5:5)) and age is thought of as bringing experience and therefore wisdom (1 Kings 12:6-15; Prov 4:1; 5:1). Consequently, the leading men of Israel, right through its Old Testament history, are the elders of the nation (Ex. 3:16, 18; Lev 4:15; Jdg. 21:16; 1 Sam 4:3; 2 Sam 3:17; 1 Kings 8:1, 3; 2 Kings 23:1; 1 Chron 11:3; Ezra 5:5 9; Jer 26:17; Ezk 8:1 etc). Along with the priests, they are entrusted with the written Law, and charged to read it to the peole (Deut 31:9-13). When the people settle in the promised land, and are dispersed throughout its cities, the elders of the cities act as judges there (Deut 19:12; 21:19f; 22:15-18; Josh 20:4; Ruth 4:2, 4, 9, 11; 1 Kings 21:8, 11; 2 Kings 10:1, 5), thus continuing the practice of having lay judges for lesser questions, which began in the wilderness (Ex. 18:13-26; Deut 1:9-18). The appeal judges a Jerusalem, however, are partly lay, partly priestly (Deut. 17:8-13; 2 Chron 19:8-11). [Footnote: for the Old Testament period, the Old Testament itself is our only authority. This is borne out by Hanoch Reviv’s rather opaque sociological account, The Elders in Ancient Israel: a Study of a Biblical Institution (Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1989). Neighbouring nations also had elders, as the Old Testament itself witnesses (Gen 50:7; Num 22:4, 7).]
The lay judges in Exodus 18 and Deuteronomy 1 are selected for their wisdom, piety and integrity. Similarly, the choice made among the elders in Numbers 11:16-30, so that seventy of them may share the burden of ruling with Moses, probably reflects a recognition that age does not bring wisdom invariably. Indeed, a wise youth is better than a foolish old king (Eccles 4:13). And one who studies and obeys God’s Law has more understanding than the aged (Ps 119:100). This recognition continues in the intertestamental literature. Wisdom befits the aged, and elders ought to be wise (Ecclus. 6:34; 8:8f; 15:3f), but even the young are honoured if wise (Wisdom 4:8fl, 13; 8:10) and are treated as elders (Susanna 45, 50). Judges are men specially selected from among the elders (Susanna 5f; 41), and so too are rulers in 1 Maccabees 12:35, the elders of the people who consult together with Jonathan Maccabeaus are clearly a chosen ruling council of the nation. This council comes to be called the gerousia, eldership (Judith 4:8; 1 Macc 12:6; 2 Macc 1:10; Acts 5:21; also Antiochus III in Josephus, Antiquities12:3:3 or 12:138). In Judith 6:14-16; 8:10f; 10:6, the three named rulers of the city are themselves elders, but on occasion they call together the whole body of the elders. In the view of Josephus, a city should have seven rulers or judges, assisted by two officers from the tribe of Levi (Antiquities 4:7:14, 38, or 4:214, 287; War 2:20:5, or 2:570f), the latter perhaps to provide that expert knowledge of the Law of Moses which the Old Testament expects the priests and Levites to possess.
The choosing of rulers and judges from among the elders, according to their wisdom and probity, and the treating of even the young as elders if they possessed the same qualities, led in the intertestamental period to a situation where eldership was a seniority acquired as much in other ways as it was by years. Thus, the elders said to have been chosen from each tribe to translate the Pentateuch into Greek are marked not so much by age (Letter of Aristeas 122, 318) as by virtuous life and by knowledge and understanding of the Law of Moses (32, 121f, 321). They now include both laymen and priest (184, 310), but now with a large lay majority – a fact which calls for a word of explanation.
After the return from the exile, the work of Ezra the Scribe had placed the Pentateuch at the centre of national life, with much less of the previous distractions of syncretism. The study of the Pentateuch became the primary qualification of the new succession of “scribes” (or Scripture-scholars) which Ezra inaugurated. Ezra was himself a priest, which was appropriate, because the priests and Levites had a special duty to teach the Law of Moses (Lev 10:10f; Deut 33:10; Mal 2:6f, etc.), as well as to judge cases by it. However, for reasons of which we cannot be sure, but probably because the priests and Levites chose to concentrate on their ceremonial duties, in the following centuries the study and teaching of Scripture was taken over almost entirely by laymen, who came to be known as elders. In the early second century BC, Ben Sira speaks of wise “scribes” (Ecclus. 38:24 – 39:11), wise “elders” (Ecclus. 6:34; 8:8f; 25:3-6) and “wise men (Ecclus 3:29; 18:27-9; 27:11f; 37:22-6) without any apparent distinction.
In the Alexandria of the first century AD we still find priest as well as elders teaching on occasion, by expounding the Scriptures to the people in the synagogue on the Sabbath (Philo, Hypothetica 7:13), but in Palestine the task of teaching seems to have passed over entirely to the elders, who are called by this name in Luk3 7:3, in a Jerusalem synagogue inscription of the period (the famous Theodotus inscription), and regularly in the rabbinical literature, but in the New Testament are usually called “scribes”, “teachers of the Law” or “lawyers”. They are addressed by the title “rabbi”. The fact that the people were used to being taught by the scribes or elders is reflected in Matthew 7:29, where we are told that Jesus taught the people as one having authority, and “not as their scribes”. Though their work is voluntary, they have achieved a recognized position in society almost equal to that of the priesthood.
The elders teach on occasion in the Temple (Luke 2:4-6) but have their great centre of influence in the local synagogues (Matt 23:6; Mk 1:21f; Luke 5:17; 6:6f; 7:3-5; Jn 12:42), where they could reach people much more readily. By the first century, as literary and archaeological evidence shows, there were synagogues virtually everywhere in the Roman world where any substantial number of Jews were living, and services were held there every Sabbath day (cp. Acts 13:14-44; 15:21). The fact that few synagogues dating from the first century have been excavated perhaps means that (like the oldest Christian churches) they tended at first to be built of less durable materials than stone. Nevertheless, putting archaeological and literary evidence together, in almost a score of places in Judaea synagogues dating from the first century have been identified, and in the Dispersion many more, dating from even earlier times (Beckwith, pgs 28-32).
Just as a side note, I think that the Bible reference tagging functionality that James has incorporated in this site is working fabulously well, especially for a posting with a lot of Scripture references, such as this one. Simply hovering over the highlighted verse will bring up the citation.