The Pharisees banded themselves together in local fellowships or brotherhoods. Josephus estimates their numbers at about 6,000. Many no doubt followed their direction who did not belong to any Pharisaic fellowship. Moreover, many, if not most, of the scribes, the professional students and teachers of the scriptures, belonged to one or another of the Pharisaic schools and popularized their interpretations. But not all the scribes were “scribes of the Pharisees” (Mark 2:16; cf. Acts 23:9); there were others who expounded the law in accordance with Sadducean tenets, ignoring the “tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3-5).
The “tradition of the elders” was largely designed to mitigate the rigours which a literal application of the written law would impose on people living under conditions widely different from those which obtained when the law was first promulgated. For example, the law of Exodus 16:29, “let no man go out of his place on the seventh day”, would, if literally interpreted, have prevented almost any movement outside one’s home on the Sabbath, had “his place” not been interpreted in the light of Num. 35:5 to include a distance of 2.000 cubits from one’s home, or whatever place a man might decide to nominate as his home for this purpose—the “limit of the Sabbath” or a “Sabbath day’s journey” (cf. Acts 1:12).
Sometimes, indeed, the interpretation was stretched so far as in practice to nullify the original wording of the commandment, or neutralize the force of a more fundamental commandment. This criticism was leveled by Jesus against a scribal interpretation which in effect enabled a man to evade giving material help to his parents by representing that the money which he might have used for that purpose was already devoted to God (corban). Such an interpretation, said Jesus, overrode the spirit of the Fifth Commandment, which enjoined reverence to parents (Mark 7:9-13). This interpretation of the law concerning vows (Deut. 23:21) was a specific application of the general principle that money vowed to sacral purposes must not be diverted to other uses. However, before the end of the first century A.D. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus expressed the judgement that when a vow adversely affected relations between parents and children the door was open for its annulment, and he secured the assent of his colleagues (Mishnah, Nedarim 9:1). …
Of the two dominant schools in New Testament times, the school of Shammai was credited with a stricter interpretation of the law and the school of Hillel with a milder. It is probable that the lawyers in the Gospel record, who “load men with burdens hard to bear” but do not themselves lift a finger to ease their weight (Luke 11:46), are Shammaites. But in the reconstruction of national life that followed the war of A.D. 66-73 it was the school of Hillel, under Yohanan ben Zakkai and his associates, that became dominant. The extreme Shammaite position which insisted on the fulfillment of every jot and tittle and is reflected in James 2:10 (“whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it”) is a far cry from the teaching of Rabbi Aquiba (c. A.D. 100) that “the world is judged in mercy, and all is according to the amount of the work”—that is, according to the preponderance of good or bad in human acts. This must be borne in mind when the contrast is marked between the picture of the Pharisees given in the Gospels and that found in the later rabbinical records. (F.F. Bruce, “New Testament History” (New York: Doubleday, © 1969, pg. 78-80).
“Elders in Every City” (Acts 14:23)
Roger Beckwith, in this work, focuses exclusively on [from the back cover] “the emergence and function of the ordained ministry against the background of First Century Judaism, and draws out important lessons for today’s church.” The work follows through with “chapters on the original Presbyter-Bishop, the development from Jewish Presbyter to Christian Presbyter-Bishop, the emergence of the episcopacy, the ordained ministry, and the sacraments.”
It used to be thought that the synagogue was wholly controlled by Pharisaic scribes, but it is now realized that it originally had much independence. The synagogue belonged to the townsfolk themselves (Mishnah, Nedarim 5:5; Tosephta Baba Metzia 11:23), and before the destruction of the Temple in AD70 the Pharisees were simply the most influential school of religious thought among the Jews, not the only one, and the other schools of thought also had their scribes or elders (Acts 4:5; 23:6-9). Synagogue practices, decorations and targums could diverge widely from rabbinical norms, and when, after AD 70, the beth ha-midrash, in which the rabbis expounded, became a separate place from the synagogue, a certain coolness could grow up between them. It would be a mistake, however, to draw extreme conclusions from these facts. The Pharisaic elders needed the synagogue, and the synagogue needed the Pharisaic elders, and the relationship between them was bound, on the whole, to be close.I’m continuing to provide large sections of these two works (Bruce and Beckwith); Reformed readers will find the similarities to some modern terminology to be striking (and I’m sure that the terminology is not accidental). All of this is helpful historical information in dealing with Roman Catholic arguments such as those provided by the folks at Called to Communion. I believe this information undermines the notion that there was anything at all like an “ordained priesthood” from New Testament times; such things were later developments, and thus have no “binding force” in the way that Roman Catholics claim that they do. And as such, the Reformers were warranted and justified in rejecting the “authority” of the church at the time.
As a result of these developments, “elder” becomes a word with various nuances, between which it easily moves. Basically (i) it still means an old(er) man; but it can also (ii) mean a man selected from the other elders (or even from outside their number) as a ruler or judge, because of his character and abilities; and thirdly (iii) it can mean a man specially qualified to be a judge, and also a teacher, because of his special study of the Mosaic Law. Each possesses seniority, and therefore honour, but for different reasons. Nor do these exhaust the meanings of the word. Other extensions of the first meaning are (iv) an older believer, especially one who could remember the great events of the Exodus (Josh. 24:31; Judges 2:7; Mishnah, Aboth 1:1) and (v) a man of old time (Heb 11:2; cp Matt 15:2”the tradition of the elders”, though here there is also a hint of the third meaning; and perhaps Rev 4:4 etc.).
At Jerusalem, the ancient link between elders and priests continued (Lam 1:19; 4:16; 1 Macc. 7:33; 11:23) and it is prominent in the New Testament (Matt 21:23; 26;3; 47; 27:1, 3, 12, 20; 28:11f; Acts 4:23; 23:14; 25:15). Out of the link has now grown the Sanhedrin, which is the ruling council of the nation and its supreme court of justice, presided over by the high priest. Elders and chief priests are included among its seventy-one members (Matt 27:1; Mk 8:31; 14:53; 15:1; Luke 22:66; Acts 4:5, 8, 23; 22:5), along with “scribes” and “rulers”, and these are terms which, as we have seen, probably have very similar meanings to the other two.
In rabbinical literature, the primary duty of the third class of elder (the teaching elder) is still to be a judge, and this is doubtless why we read in the New Testament of excommunications form the synagogue (Jn 9:22; 12:42; 16:2), and of punishments being inflicted in the synagogue (Matt 23:34; Mk 13:9; Acts 22:19; 26:11). The normal number of judges for a case, according to the Mishnah, was three, with greater numbers for more serious offences or more eminent offenders (Sanhedrin 1), and these judges were doubtless sleected from among the local community rulers and teaching elders. A baraita, or ancient quotation, of Mishnaic date, in the Talmud states that, while the Temple still stood, documents were sent from the Sanhedrin appointing men of wisdom and humility, who were esteemed by their fellow men, as local judges (Bab. Sanhedrin 88b). This looks like the confirmation of a local choice. The baraita also states that, from the local courts, judges were promoted to the higher courts.
In addition to the rulers of the local community, the archons, the synagogue had its own synagogue-ruler, the archisunagogos, or archon tes sunagogues, or sometimes more than one, responsible for keeping order in the synagogue (Luke 13:1;4) and for acting as a sort of master of ceremonies, by choosing who should preach (Acts 13:15), read the lessons or lead the prayers at a particular service. Since the form of the synagogue service depended simply on tradition, and not, like the Temple service, on Scripture, it was desirable to have someone responsible for seeing that it adhered to the accepted pattern, and the synagogue-ruler fulfilled this role. It is important to realize that he was not normally a teaching elder.
He might be a founder or benefactor of the synagogue, and he would certainly be its general administrator, if it was used for other purposes than worship, as it often was. But worship remained its main purpose, as is shown by its alternative name proseuche, place of prayer (favoured by Josephus and Philo), by its occasional name sabbateion, building for use on the Sabbath, and by the explicit statement in the Theodotus inscription that he “built the synagogue for the reading of the Law and for the teaching of the Commandments”. This being so, the main responsibilities of the synagogue-ruler would be his liturgical responsibilities, as the organizer of worship. The synagogue service was very much a lay activity. Any adult male Jew, who was capable of it, might be called up on to read the Hebrew Scriptures, supply the Aramaic translation or recite the standard prayers, though a teaching elder, if present, would normally be called upon to expound what had been read. The synagogue-ruler would, in each case, decide whom to ask.
(Roger Beckwith, “Elders in Every City: The Origin and Role of the Ordained Ministry” Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press ©2003, pgs 32-35.