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PRESBYTER:

From the time of Moses down to the Talmudic period the "zeḳenim" (elders) are mentioned as constituting a regular communal organization, occasionally under the Greek name Gerusia. But the term "presbyter" (πρεσβύτερος) is found nowhere before the beginnings of Christianity, though it must have been current before that time, for the Christian institution of the presbyters was undoubtedly taken directly from Judaism (Grätz, "Gesch." 3d ed., iv. 80). In a list of officials of a Jewish community in Cilicia, archisynagogues, priests (ἱερεύς = "kohen"), presbyters ("zeḳenim"), and "azanites" ("ḥazzanim") are mentioned, and if the source (Epiphanius, "Hæres." xxx. 4) gives the sequence correctly, the presbyters were actually officials, like the azanites, and did not hold merely honorary offices in the community.

Their status, therefore, would correspond approximately to the position which presbyters occupy in the Christian Church. It may be assumed, however, that they stood in rank next to the archisynagogues, with whom elsewhere they are actually identified ("Codex Theodosianus," xvi. 8, 14—"archisynagogi sive presbyteri Judæorum"). In another passage (ib. xvi. 8, 2) they are identified with the patriarchs; in another (ib. xvi. 8, 13) the following sequence occurs: archisynagogue, patriarch, presbyter; finally ("Justiniani Novellæ," cxlvi., § 1), they are ranked with the "archipherecites" and teachers. "Presbyter" corresponds to the Latin "seniores" ("Codex Justiniani," i. 9, 15). Thus it appears that there is no uniformity even in the official designations.

The title of "presbyter" occurs frequently on Jewish tombstones of the Hellenistic diaspora—for instance, at Smyrna ("C. I. G." No. 9897), Corycus ("R. E. J." x. 76), Bithynia (ib. xxvi. 167), and in the catacombs of Venosa (Ascoli, p. 60); three times it was given to women (Ascoli, p. 49). The word has become in many European languages a general designation for "priest"; and in this sense it is also found in Jewish works of the Middle Ages (e.g., = "Prester John").

Bibliography:
  • Fabricius, Bibliographia Antiquaria, pp. 447-457, Hamburg, 1713;
  • Schürer, Gesch. 3d ed., ii. 177.
G. S. Kr.
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