Elder in the Old Testament

el'-der, (zaqen): Among primitive peoples authority seems naturally to be invested in those who by virtue of greater age and, consequently, experience are best fitted to govern thus Iliad iii.149. Later the idea of age became merged in that of dignity (Il. ii.404, ii.570; Odyssey ii.14). In like manner the word patres came to be used among the Romans (Cic. Rep. 2,8,14). So also among the Germans authority was entrusted to those who were older; compare Tacitus Agricola. The same is true among the Arabians to the present day, the sheik being always a man of age as well as of authority.

From the first the Hebrews held this view of government, although the term "elder" came later to be used of the idea of the authority for which, at first, age was regarded necessary. Thus the office appears in both the Jahwist, J (9th century BC) (Ex 3:16; 12:21; 24:1, of the elders of the Hebrews; and of the Egyptians, Ge 50:7); and Elohist (E) (8th century BC) (Ex 17:5; 18:12; 19:7 (the second Deuteronomist (D2)); Jos 24:31, elders of Israel, or of the people. Compare the principle of selection of heads of tens, fifties, etc., Ex 18:13 ff, seventy being selected from a previous body of elders); compare Jahwist(J)-Elohist(E) (Nu 11:16,24). Seventy are also mentioned in Ex 24:1, while in Jg 8:14 seventy-seven are mentioned, although this might be taken to include seven princes. Probably the number was not uniform.

Elder as a title continues to have place down through the times of the Judges (Jg 8:16; 2:7(D); compare Ru 4:2 ff) into the kingdom. Saul asked to be honored before the elders (1Sa 15:30); the elders of Bethlehem appeared before Samuel (1Sa 16:4); the elders appeared before David in Hebron (2Sa 17:15; 1Ch 11:3); elders took part in the temple procession of Solomon (1Ki 8:3; 2Ch 5:4). They continued through the Persian period (Ezr 5:5,9; 6:7,14; 10:8,14; Joe 1:14 margin) and the Maccabean period (Judith 6:16; 7:23; 8:10; 10:6; 13:12; 1 Macc 12:35), while the New Testament (presbuteros, Mt 16:21; 26:47,57; Mr 8:31; Lu 9:22; Ac 4:5,23) makes frequent mention of the office.

The elders served as local magistrates, in bringing murderers to trial (De 19:12; 21:1 ff; Jos 20:4), punishing a disobedient son (De 21:19), inflicting penalty for slander (De 22:15), for noncompliance with the Levirate marriage law (De 25:7 ff), enforcing the Law (De 27:1), conducting the service in expiation of unwitting violation of the Law (Le 4:13 ff).

In certain passages different classes of officers are mentioned as "judges and officers" (De 16:18), "elders" and "officers" (De 31:28), "heads, tribes, elders officers" (De 29:10 (Heb 9:1-28)). It is probable that both classes were selected from among the elders, and that to one class was assigned the work of judging, and that the "officers" exercised executive functions (Schurer). In entirely Jewish communities the same men would be both officers of the community and elders of the synagogue. In this case the same men would have jurisdiction over civil and religious matters.


Schurer, GJV3, section 23, especially 175 ff (Eng. edition, II, i, 149 ff; Benzinger, H A2, 51; Deissmann, Bibelstudien, 153 ff (s.v. ...); BDB, 278 (...); Preuschen, Griechisch-Deutsches Handworterbuch, under the word, 958 f.

W. N. Stearns

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