Re-presenting the Sacrifice of Christ: The Fundamental Doctrines of the Eucharist and the Presbyterate in Scripture

The Sacrifices of Melchizedek, Abel, and Abraham. Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

The Sacrifices of Melchizedek, Abel, and Abraham. Mosaic from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna.

We have examined how the word “priest” in English is actually a translation of the New Testament Greek word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] (“elder”), etymologically distinct from the concept of a ἱερεύς [hiereus] or sacerdos, the sacrificing minister of the Old Testament; and thus “priest” is an appropriate title for the office of Christian ministry. We have shown how Jesus, in instituting a New Covenant, appointed the Apostles ministers of His New Covenant, and they in turn ordained bishops, priests, and deacons to continue in their ministry. We have examined how these early ministers understood themselves to be ministers of the New Covenant in some sense analogous to the priests (sacerdotes) of the Old Covenant, and how even the Old Testament prophets foretold that the coming New Covenant of the Messiah would be served by priests.

Priests making sacrifice

But another, crucial aspect of the term priest (Latin sacerdos or Greek ἱερεύς [hiereus] or Hebrew כֹּהֵן [cohen]), essential to the understanding of that office in both Judaism and in every other ancient culture to which the term was applied, is that a priest makes sacrifices. In the tradition of the Church, some early authors came eventually to refer to presbyters synonymously as sacerdotes or ἱερεῖς [hiereis].* In asking whether it is appropriate to call Christian ministers priests, it is thus important to ask whether they make sacrifices, and whether the earliest Christians understood their office as such.

* I’m still working on this research, which is complicated by the fact that I don’t have very easy access to the source languages, and that at a certain point in even the Protestant-edited Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Schaff and Wace), the words presbyter, sacerdos, and ἱερεύς all begin being translated as “priest” without qualification. So far I’ve found that Tertullian makes reference to the Christian ministry as sacerdotalia munera (“priestly services”) (De praescriptione hereticorum XLI, c. A.D. 200). Cyprian very frequently refers to Christian ministers as sacerdotes (c. A.D. 250) who make sacrifices. Augustine casually refers to a sacerdotem tuum, quendam episcopum nutritum in ecclesia, “a priest [of God], a certain bishop brought up in the Church” (Confessions 3.12). In the East, Basil the Great calls the Christian minister a ἱερεύς, to be distinguished from a layman (λαϊκὸς) (Letter XLIV, c. A.D. 370). I will continue to work on this.

But an important preliminary to this question is whether the idea of sacrifice is even present in the New Testament.. The answer will hopefully seem obvious to most Christians: The idea of sacrifice, and sacrificial language, in fact pervades the New Testament.

A. Sacrifice in the New Testament

1. A Sacrifice of Praise

As our critics have thus far noted in response to previous posts, the New Testament presents that all the Christian faithful, the whole people of God, are called to make spiritual sacrifices. Thus Paul urges:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)

And Peter calls:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … [For] you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:4–5,9)

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews likewise presents Christian worship and even the Christian life as sacrifice to God:

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:15–16, cf. Hebrews 12:28-29)

The language of offering and sacrifice in fact does pervade the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul (e.g. Philippians 2:17, 4:18, Romans 15:16. This is understandable and fitting given the Jewish foundations of the Christian faith, its roots in the Old Testament, and the Pharisaical education of Paul. Most of all, it is fitting given the example of the Author and Perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ.

2. Jesus’s Sacrifice

Grunewald, Crucifixion, Tauberbischofsheim altarpiece

Matthias Grunewald, Crucifixion, from Grunewald, Crucifixion, from Tauberbischofsheim altarpiece, c. A.D. 1524.

The New Testament is also clear in presenting the death of Jesus on the Cross as a sacrifice for our redemption, the gift of Himself out of love for us.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:2)

The Epistle to the Hebrews elaborates on this understanding throughout the letter:

[Jesus] has no need, like those high priests [of the Old Covenant], to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself. (Hebrews 7:27)

Paul in particular explicitly presents Christ as our paschal lamb, the fulfillment of the Jewish Passover, a new sacrifice to institute a new covenant:

Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:7)

Zurbaran, Agnus Dei

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei (A.D. 1635-40).

And the Evangelists — especially John — shared this understanding. John presents John the Baptist’s exclamation at Jesus’s approach:

The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

Peter shares this understanding (1 Peter 1:19) as does John the Revelator (Revelation 5:6, etc.). It appears that the Synoptic Gospels might also allude to it:

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the passover for us, that we may eat it.” (Luke 22:7–8, cf. Mark 14:12)

The mention of the lamb and eating it is curious: for the lamb is not mentioned again. And in fact this was the day on which Jesus, the Passover lamb, had to be sacrificed.

B. The Eucharist as Sacrifice

1. The Connection between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena, c. A.D. 1562 (Wikipedia).

Many tomes have been written on the theology of the Eucharist; I cannot but begin to nick the surface here. But this seems to be the very burning heart of the disagreement between traditional Christians and Protestants regarding the priesthood: All seem to agree that Jesus gave Himself up as a sacrifice for us; but what is the relationship of His sacrifice on the Cross to His presentation of the Lord’s Supper? What is the meaning of His commandment to do this in memory of Him? What is the role of Christian ministers in this ritual?

Scripture itself presents that there is an essential connection between the Lord’s offering of bread and wine at supper that night and His Crucifixion the next day. It is clear, first of all, that the Lord’s Last Supper was the Passover meal (Matthew 26:17-19, Mark 14:12-16, Luke 22:7-13, John 13:1-2ff.). Jesus alluded, more clearly than He had up to that point, to His impending death (Matthew 26:2, etc.). At supper, he called out the one who was to betray him (Luke 22:21–22, etc.). After the meal, the drama of His Passion played out in His agony in the garden (Matthew 26:30–46). All of this, it might be argued, is simply foreshadowing, allusion to what is about to happen. But the meat of the matter — the subject of so much disagreement and debate and controversy — are His words and actions at the meal itself:

And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:22–25)

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:26–29)

And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:14–20)

Ugolino di Nerio, The Last Supper

Ugolino di Nerio, The Last Supper (A.D. 1324) (Wikimedia).

Discussions about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist tend to hinge, often fruitlessly, on the word is: “This is my body.” But I would like to draw attention to the tense of this verb, and to the tenses of His surrounding statements: He declares that the bread which He presents is His body, present tense, which is given, present tense, for us. Regardless of disagreements about what the bread and wine are — whether they are His Body and Blood as he said, or mere symbols or representations — His words indicate that what He was giving was being given in that instant. This was not “My Body, which I will give for you when I suffer,” or “My Blood, which will be poured out for you this day”: For Jesus, speaking at the Last Supper, the moment of His suffering had come. Even as most Passion plays present it, the events of the Cenacle to the Cross to the Tomb can be understood as one continuous movement.

Protestant opponents to the traditional understanding of the Eucharist (as our commenter) tend to get hung up on temporal and chronological aspects — calling it “science fiction” to suggest that Jesus could give His body up for us “before going to Calvary.” But this view seems to ignore the plainly sacrificial language of what Jesus was doing. Jesus did, Scripture insists, offer Himself up as a sacrifice for us. And in His own words at the Last Supper, he then and there gave Himself for us: “This is my body which is given for you.”

Jesus’s words consciously echo the words of institution of the Mosaic covenant:

And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant (διαθήκη) in my blood.” (Luke 22:20)

And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant (Septuagint διαθήκη) which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:8)

Even the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews explicitly acknowledges and relates this essential connection between the Lord’s sacrifice and His words of institution at the Last Supper:

When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. … Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant (διαθήκη), so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant (διαθήκη). For where a will (διαθήκη) is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will (διαθήκη) takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. Hence even the first covenant (διαθήκη) was not ratified without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant (διαθήκη) which God commanded you.” (Hebrews 9:11–12,15-20)

Our commenter attempted to make an argument that Christ’s words of institution at the Last Supper must have been only symbolic and not essentially connected to the Crucifixion at all, since His words are here presented as a will or testament, and no death had yet occurred at the Last Supper, etc. But this is clearly wrongheaded, for the passage itself declares that the New Covenant is in effect, since a death has occurred which redeems us.

Moses concludes his covenant

The author of Hebrews thus presents Christ’s words of institution (His own declaration that His blood was a New Covenant) and His sacrificial death as essentially the same act: the declaration of the covenant and its ratification by blood. Just so, Moses’s institution of the Old Covenant in Exodus involved separate elements of the same act of institution: offering blood, words of institution (Exodus 24:8), and a meal between the parties of the covenant (Exodus 24:11). Such is the protocol of covenant in the ancient world: and it was played out again by Jesus in the Last Supper and the Crucifixion as a single act.

The chronology of these acts is thus irrelevant: Jesus’s institution of the covenant at the Last Supper was the presentation of His death as a sacrifice, using explicitly sacrificial and covenantal language. Jesus Himself told us that in the death of His body, He was offering Himself as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins; that in His blood, He was instituting a New Covenant for us. He offered the sacrifice of His body at the Passover supper, and gave it to his disciples to eat as the new Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). The very idea that Jesus was our paschal lamb as Paul expresses depends on the understanding that Jesus was sacrificed and presented in place of the lamb at the Passover meal. Scripture is thus clear in this understanding.

Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

Dr. Brant Pitre’s study of the Jewish roots and context of the Eucharist casts a brilliant light on this reality. A valuable outline is available online: “The Fourth Cup and the New Passover.” Even more fruitful is his book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. A quote in summary from the outline:

1. By vowing not to drink the final cup of the Last Supper (Luke 22:18), Jesus extended his last Passover meal to include his own suffering and death.

2. By praying three times in Gethsemane for the “cup” to be taken from him (Matthew 26:36-46), Jesus revealed that he understood his own death in terms of the Passover sacrifice.

3. Jesus also transformed the Passover sacrifice. In the old Passover, the sacrifice of the lamb would come first, and then the eating of its flesh. But in this case, because Jesus had to institute the new Passover before his death, he pre-enacted it, as both host of the meal and sacrifice.

4. Most important of all, by waiting to drink the fourth cup of the Passover until the very moment of his death (John 19:28-29), Jesus united the Last Supper to his death on the cross. By refusing to drink of the fruit of the vine until he gave up his final breath, he joined the offering of himself under the form of bread and wine to the offering of himself on Calvary. Both actions said the same thing: “This is my body, given for you” (Luke 22:19). In short, by means of the Last Supper, Jesus transformed the Cross into a Passover, and by means of the Cross, he transformed the Last Supper into a sacrifice.

2. “Do This In Memory of Me”

Tintoretto, The Last Supper  (1592-1594)

Tintoretto, The Last Supper, A.D. 1592-1594 (Wikipedia).

So Scripture is clear that at the Last Supper, Jesus presented His Body and Blood as a sacrifice. But what did He mean when He commanded His Apostles to “Do this in remembrance of me”? Do what, exactly? To whom was this command addressed? And if Jesus’s presentation was a sacrifice, what would be the character of others’ doing it in His memory?

Doing this was important enough to St. Paul to quote in full the words of institution and give specific instruction about what was to be done and why:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23–26)

Thus it is clear that the Apostles understood Jesus meant specifically to do this: to reenact the offering of Himself at the Last Supper, and to give the Christian faithful this food to eat (John 6:34). If the Lord’s presentation of Himself at the Last Supper was a sacrifice, then the re-presentation — which He commanded His Apostles to do — is the re-presentation of a sacrifice.

That Paul understood the re-presentation of the Eucharist to also be a sacrifice is also evident — for he explicitly compares the Eucharistic table to an altar of sacrifice, and opposes the food of the Eucharistic table to food offered in sacrifice to idols:

Therefore, my beloved, shun the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Corinthians 10:14–21)

Paul thus implies that if pagans offer their sacrifices to demons and not to God, and in eating of the sacrifices become partners with demons, Christians do make their sacrifices to God, and in eating of them, have participation (Greek κοινωνία [koinōnia], literally “communion”) in the Body and Blood of Christ.

3. Testimony from Tradition

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

Scripture is thus clear in understanding the re-presentation of the Eucharist as a sacrifice in some sense: a re-presentation of Christ’s own sacrifice. That this is the correct interpretation of Scripture can be verified in the earliest understandings of the Church after Scripture. Our commenter accuses that we must “go outside Scripture” to support the view that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, but on the contrary, all the support that is necessary is already evident in Scripture; looking beyond Scripture only further confirms the truth we find in Scripture. We read in the Didache, which many scholars reasonably date to circa A.D. 70, within the Apostolic age itself:

And on the Lord’s day of the Lord assemble yourselves together and break bread (Revelation 1:10); and give thanks (Greek εὐχαριστήσατε [eucharistēsate]) after having confessed also your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. And let not any man that is at variance with his fellow come together with you until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice be not polluted. For this [sacrifice] is that which was spoken of by the Lord: In every place and time offer unto me a pure sacrifice (Malachi 1:11), for I am a great King, saith the Lord; and My Name is wonderful among the Gentiles. (Didache XIV, from G. C. Allen, trans., The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles [London: The Astolat Press, 1903])

The value of this testimony is not that our understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrifice depends on it (in fact, I wasn’t even aware of these passages before I wrote the above sections of the article), but that it demonstrates that the earliest Christians, taught by the Apostles themselves, shared the same understanding we now derive from Scripture. It also directly refutes the arguments our commenter has already advanced, that the Council of Trent innovated the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist as sacrifice, that “no Christian in the 1,600 years prior to Trent” held such an understanding. Not only is the understanding of the Eucharist as sacrifice expressed in Scripture, but the earliest Christians, taught by the oral teaching of the Apostles, held and expressed this same understanding.

Opposition from Hebrews?

As clear as Christ’s command to re-present His sacrifice, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews makes just as clear that Christ’s sacrifice was made once for all; that Christ, our High Priest, has no need to offer repeated sacrifices; that He does not suffer repeatedly (Hebrews 7:27, 9:26). We know that Scripture cannot contradict itself. Thus it is clear that the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice which He commanded cannot be a repetition of His sacrifice, or a re-sacrificing of Christ; rather it must be a presenting again of the same once and for all sacrifice.

Rather than an argument against the Eucharist, as Protestant opponents insist to read it, Hebrews thus becomes a treatise on the Eucharist, an explanation to especially Jews that Jesus’s one sacrifice, and the sacrifices which Christians make in memory of Him, were not the kind of repeated and inefficacious sacrifices presented again and again in the Old Testament, but indeed one final, once and for all sacrifice for our redemption and salvation. Nothing about the argument of Hebrews nullifies or eliminates Christ’s command to do this in memory of Him; rather, it is only with His command in mind, and the understanding that this was practiced regularly as the central element of Christian worship (Acts 2:42,46), that the Book of Hebrews can be read with benefit in its proper context.

C. Ministers of the New Covenant

1. Office and Authority

Pope John Paul II New Orleans 1987

St. John Paul II celebrating Mass, New Orleans, 1987. (CatholicVote.org).

So, then, as Scripture teaches, Jesus, through the sacrifice of His Body and Blood on Calvary, presented at the Last Supper, Jesus instituted a new covenant. The Book of Hebrews especially elaborates on this idea of the new covenant. Paul too understands this idea, identifying himself and his associates in ministry as “ministers of the New Covenant” (2 Corinthians 3:4–6).

Scripture is not explicit in declaring that the ministers of the New Covenant make sacrifices, and it intentionally shies away from calling them ἱερεῖς [hiereis] or sacerdotes. But the implications of Scripture are clear: Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice for us, becoming our High Priest (ἀρχιερεύς [archiereus]); he presented this sacrifice through the signs of bread and wine at the Last Supper; he commanded His Apostles to “do this in memory of me” — to re-present the sacrifice He had presented. What would they then be presenting, if not a sacrifice?

Indeed, as shown above, and as is evident throughout the literature of the Early Church, the earliest Christians did understand the presentation of the Eucharist to be a sacrifice. Once again, this testimony is offered in verification of the truths already revealed in Scripture:

Being vehemently inflamed by the word of His calling, we are the true high priestly race of God, as even God Himself bears witness, saying that in every place among the Gentiles sacrifices are presented to Him well-pleasing and pure (Malachi 1:11). Now God receives sacrifices from no one, except through His priests. Accordingly, God, anticipating all the sacrifices which we offer through this name, and which Jesus the Christ enjoined us to offer, i.e., in the Eucharist of the bread and the cup, and which are presented by Christians in all places throughout the world, bears witness that they are well-pleasing to Him. (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 116–117, c. A.D. 160)

Justin here makes reference to God’s priests, especially in juxtaposition to the Jewish priests of the Old Covenant, whom he says God now rejects. Justin thus seems to understand that even though all Christians are the “high priestly race of God,” there are nonetheless some who offer the sacrifices.

Who is it, then, who offers the sacrifices? To whom was Jesus giving the commandment when he said to “Do this in memory of Him”? As an Evangelical, I would have answered “to all Christians,” and this seems to be a common response (as there is a tendency in especially Evangelicalism to read all Scripture as if every statement were a direct address to the individual Christian). But most obvious to me now, the closed group to whom Jesus was actually speaking was His Twelve Apostles.

There are practical reasons to think that Jesus was offering a charge to His ministers and not to all Christians, as are played out in even Protestant churches. Just as Jesus presided over the Last Supper, the re-presentation of such must also be presided over: there must be someone to speak and offer the sacrifice, someone to operate in the place of Christ. By their very position, this role usually falls to pastors.

But in traditional Christianity, the charges of Jesus to His Apostles, not only in the ministry of the Eucharist but in the very roles of teaching and pastoring, are understood not just in terms of practicality but of office and authority. As we have already discussed, Jesus did appoint His Apostles to an office of ministry. In His charges to speak in His name and carry His message throughout the world — and to do “Do this in memory of Him” — He authorized them to carry out this ministry; to be His representatives (Matthew 10:40, Luke 10:16), His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20).

2. Apostolic Succession

Paul ordaining Timothy.

Paul ordaining Timothy.

As we have discussed, Jesus appointed the Apostles to an ordained office of ministry, with specific duties and authorities (Mark 3:13-18, Matthew 10, Luke 9:1-6, John 20:19-23, etc.). The Apostles then appointed presbyters and bishops to continue in their ministry after them:

And when they had appointed presbyters for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed. (Acts 14:23)

This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint presbyters in every town as I directed you. (Titus 1:5)

That this office and charge was only committed to another by the Apostles themselves or others in the order of presbyters is also evident:

Command and teach these things. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of presbyters (πρεσβυτέριον [presbyterion]) laid their hands upon you. Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:11–16)

Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands. (2 Timothy 1:6)

Likewise Paul warned Timothy to take care with whom he ordained to the ministry:

Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man’s sins; keep yourself pure. (1 Timothy 5:22)

But nonetheless Timothy was charged to ordain others to continue in his own ministry:

What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2)

Clement of Rome

Clement of Rome.

Thus Scripture presents the fundamental idea of apostolic succession: that the Apostles appointed ministers to continue after them, who likewise should appoint ministers to continue after them. And thus it was understood by the Early Church, as the earliest testimony of those who came after the Apostles bears:

[The Apostles] preached from district to district, and from city to city, and they appointed their first converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of the future believers. … Our Apostles also knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the title of bishop. For this cause, therefore, since they had received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have been already mentioned, and afterwards added the codicil that if they should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. We consider therefore that it is not just to remove from their ministry those who were appointed by them, or later on by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and have ministered to the flock of Christ without blame, humbly, peaceably, and disinterestedly, and for many years have received a universally favourable testimony. For our sin is not small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily offered its sacrifices. (Clement of Rome, 1 Clement XLII, XLIV, c. A.D. 70s; from The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Kirsopp Lake, vol. 1, The Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge MA; London: Harvard University Press, 1912–1913])

Clement thus testifies to the earliest Church’s understanding of apostolic succession — and also, to add to our discussion here, confirms that offering sacrifices was part of the office of the episcopate (i.e. the office of bishop).

Ignatius of Antioch likewise confers, clarifying that offering the Eucharist was the express authority of the bishop and of presbyters he might appoint:

See that you all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as if it were the Apostles. And reverence the deacons as the command of God. Let no one do any of the things appertaining to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful either to baptise or to hold an “agapé” without the bishop; but whatever he approve, this is also pleasing to God, that everything which you do may be secure and valid. (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans VIII, c. A.D. 107; from The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Lake)

Thus if we accept that specific duties of ministry were the charge of the offices of ministry to which Jesus appointed the Apostles and to which they appointed other faithful men, then it follows that offering the sacrifice of the Eucharist — which Scripture presents as a central element of Christian ministry and worship — would have been a key component of those offices, and not a casual celebration which any believer could conjure at his whim. The earliest testimony of the Apostolic Fathers confirms that this was the case, as it has been understood throughout Christian history and tradition.

Conclusion

Priests, Westminster

This is the outline of the doctrine presented by Scripture: Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice to God for our redemption (Ephesians 5:2, etc.); He presented this sacrifice at the Last Supper (Luke 22:19, etc.) and perfected it on the Cross (John 19:30, etc.). He commanded His Apostles to “Do this in memory of Him” (Luke 22:19) — that is, to re-present the sacrifice which He had presented. This office was carried forth by those Apostles and by others whom they appointed to their ministry. That these were the doctrines which Christ taught, which the Apostles communicated, and which they committed to Scripture, is confirmed by the fact that this is the way the earliest Christians received and understood such teaching.

Thus we have an order of ministers, called by God and ordained to an office, to serve the New Covenant of God (2 Corinthians 3:4–6). Thus even the Apostle Paul saw this ministry to be analogous to the priesthood of the Old Covenant (Romans 15:16). The prophets of the Old Testament foresaw that God would call a new order of priests in service of His New Covenant, to offer sacrifices forever (Isaiah 61:6, 66:18, 20–21; Jeremiah 33:17–18, 22). Jesus commanded His ministers to re-present His sacrifice — and in so doing what they presented was a sacrifice. The order of Christian ministers in service of Christ’s New Covenant thus do make sacrifices, in some mysterious sense that does not call into question the oneness or finality of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice. Christian ministers can thus rightly be called sacerdotes — priests — in the service of Christ.

Over the generations to come, through prayerful reflection and close study of the Scriptures, the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist, the Sacraments, and the priesthood deepened and expanded. Priests, teachers, and theologians would explore the mystery of faith, the sacrifice of the Eucharist, to attempt to understand and explain its beauty, majesty, and truth. Church Fathers such as Cyril, Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine offered forth elaborate theological treatises, practical instructions, and glorious panegyrics in praise of the Eucharist — but these were only the flowering forth of the core truths of the faith, which had been present, in Scripture and Tradition, from the beginning. Our recent commenters here have raged against the “nonsense” they can cite from the Council of Trent and other late promulgations of doctrine, arguing that such elaborations of doctrine were nowhere found in Scripture — but attacking a mere flourish is as ineffective in refuting the core truths of traditional Christianity as plucking leaves from a tree. The outline, the seed, is here, presented in Scripture and verified by the testimony to Tradition.

Ministers of the New Covenant: Why Christian Ministers Are Priests

Ordination of priests

Why do Catholics call their ministers priests? Is this concept of priests as ministers of the New Covenant of Christ valid and scripturally sound? In my last post, I demonstrated that the English word “priest” derives etymologically from, and was originally a translation of, the Greek word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros]), attested in the New Testament Scriptures (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1:5,7) and translated in Latin as presbyter, and is thus an appropriate term for the Christian ministry. That the ministers of the Old Testament are also called “priests” in English is mostly the result of a linguistic accident: originally כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] in Hebrew, and translated in Greek as ἱερεῖς [hiereis] and Latin as sacerdotes, at some point in the history of transmission these terms became synonymous with Christian priests. The terms became synonymous, apparently, because Christians saw the offices to be synonymous, or at least analogous to one another.

Ministers of the New Covenant

Fr. Charles Merrill, Ash Wednesday 2014

Fr. Charles Merrill, at Ash Wednesday 2014, Annunciation of the Lord Church, Decatur, Alabama. (The Decatur Daily)

The New Testament does not refer to Christian ministers as ἱερεῖς or sacerdotes. It is evident that Jesus did not explicitly institute a formal, liturgical priesthood akin to the Aaronic priesthood: He did not command the Apostles to don ephods or breastplates or robes (or albs or chasubles or stoles, as the case may be); He did not formally anoint them as a new priesthood as Aaron and his sons were anointed (Exodus 28). Yet nonetheless, Jesus did appoint the Twelve to have special roles in His ministry, and invested them with His authority, to preach with His voice, to cast out demons, to heal the sick, to forgive sins (Mark 3:13-18, Matthew 10, Luke 9:1-6, John 20:19-23). This was more than just a casual charge to all Christians, but a formal office for which the Apostles were selected and which they saw the need to fill in replacement of Judas (Acts 1:15-26). These Apostles did appoint elders (presbyters) in every church they founded, to carry on their ministry after they departed (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5). We see the outlines of this ministry in the offices of bishop, priest (presbyter), and deacon, with their roles, duties, and requirements (1 Timothy 3). Thus Scripture demonstrates that Christ did institute, and the Apostles did perpetuate, a new order of ordained Christian ministry, ministers of Christ’s New Covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6).

A “Priesthood of All Believers”

Bishop, priest, and deacon

Bishop, priest, and deacon.

To answer a common charge of Protestants, a distinction should be made between the universal priesthood in which every believer is called to participate (e.g. 1 Peter 2:5,9, Revelation 1:6), and the ministerial priesthood, the official roles and offices of Christian ministry and service to which individual believers are specially called. St. Paul is clear that not every believer is called to the same ministry, function, or role (1 Corinthians 12:27-30, Ephesians 4:11-12), but that every member in every role is essential to the working of the body and none essentially “higher” or “better” than any other (1 Corinthians 12:4-26). While the New Testament people of God are a “royal priesthood,” called to exercise Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king (CCC 1546-1547), this does not detract from the necessity that not all are called to serve in ministerial roles. An analogy is made to the Old Testament people of God, who were likewise called “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), but who nonetheless had an order of men specially called to serve as priests.

Priests by Analogy

Pompeo Batoni, St. Paul (c. 1740)

Pompeo Batoni, St. Paul (c. 1741). (the-athenaeum.org)

But if the New Testament does not call Christian ministers sacerdotes (or ἱερεῖς in Greek) — in fact, it seems to make efforts not to equate them with the old order of sacerdotes — why should they come to be referred to as such? — and why should calling them thus be accepted as scripturally sound? Given the evidence that God constituted an order of priests (sacerdotes) for the Jews in service of His Old Covenant, and that Jesus appointed a new order of ministers in service of His New Covenant, it seems natural that Christians should see their ministry as being in some sense analogous to the priestly ministry of the Old Testament. In fact, St. Paul applied this analogy explicitly even within Scripture:

Because of the grace given me by God, [I am] a minister (λειτουργός, [leitourgos]) of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service (ἱερουργοῦντα [hierourgounta], literally serving as a priest, i.e. sacerdos) of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:16).

Thus, in explicit language, Paul relates his ministry as an Apostle of Christ to the ministry of a priest (sacerdos), one who aids the Gentiles in making an offering of themselves to the Lord.

That he sees himself as a member of an order of ministers is also evident:

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:4–6).

That Paul is speaking with reference to himself and his apostolic associates, and not to all believers, is also evident from the context. Writing to the Corinthian Church, he makes plain distinction between the first person “we” and the second person “you,” asking, “Do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you?” To this he answers to the Corinthians that You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2–3).

Contradictions?

Our recent commenter complained that the idea of there being a new order of “priests” in the New Testament is contradictory to Scripture, especially to the Epistle to the Hebrews. Is this true? Hebrews does argue that Jesus as our high priest supersedes the old order of Aaronic priests, and with His once and for all atoning sacrifice on Calvary, makes their repeated sacrifices obsolete and unnecessary (Hebrews 7:27, 8:6–8, 13, etc.). But is this relevant?

I have not yet approached the question of the ministerial priesthood’s role in the Christian Sacraments, especially in the Eucharist, the presentation of the Lord’s Supper. This is directly relevant to the Book of Hebrews and will have to be addressed. But this post is already long, and I will have to save the sacramental element of the priesthood for another post or posts. Suffice it to say, by way of preview, that the Eucharist is a sacrifice: not a repetition or a continuation of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice at every Mass, as Protestant critics allege, but a re-presentation of that one sacrifice, a making present for all time, just as Jesus Himself commanded his ministers to re-present it: “Do this in memory of me.”

For the aspects of the priesthood discussed here — the fact that priests are ministers of Christ’s New Covenant, appointed to carry out roles of ministry in the Church — the passages in Hebrews are not relevant at all. The Old Covenant is obsolete and passing away, superseded by a New Covenant; but nothing about this understanding would exclude the idea that the New Covenant should have its own ministers. In fact, such an understanding would contradict the scriptural passages already discussed above.

Priests by Prophecy

Prophet Isaiah (Bible card)

The Prophet Isaiah, from a Bible card, c. 1904. (Wikipedia)

Not only did the ministers of the New Covenant see their roles in ministry as analogous to the priests (sacerdotes) of the Old Covenant, but the Old Testament prophets prophesied that with the coming of the Messiah, a new order of priests would be ministers of God and shepherds of His people. The prophet Isaiah foretold that in the coming of the Messiah, an order of priests would serve him:

You shall be called the priests of the LORD,
men shall speak of you as the ministers of our God.
(Isaiah 61:6)

For I know their works and their thoughts, and I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory. … And they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring their cereal offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites,” says the LORD. (Isaiah 66:18, 20–21)

The prophet Jeremiah prophesied that just as the royal throne of David would never be empty, the Lord God would be perpetually served by priests making sacrifices:

For thus says the LORD: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn cereal offerings, and to make sacrifices for ever. … As the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the descendants of David my servant, and the Levitical priests who minister to me. (Jeremiah 33:17–18, 22)

Jeremiah also foretold that the Lord would give His people shepherds:

And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. (Jeremiah 3:15)

I will set shepherds over [my people] who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the LORD. Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. (Jeremiah 23:4–5)

Jeremiah clearly associates these shepherds with the coming of the Messiah also; and also with the former leaders of Israel who have led the Lord’s flock astray (Jeremiah 23:1-2), especially with priests and prophets (Jeremiah 23:9-11, 33, etc.). Therefore the new shepherds of the Lord’s flock will take the place of these.

It is understandable, then, that Christian exegetes reading these texts, understanding Christ and the Church to be the fulfillment of these prophecies, should understand that their ministers, ministering to the Lord and shepherding His people, were analogous to priests.

Conclusion

We have discussed how the New Testament itself presents that Christ appointed His Apostles to specific roles within His ministry, as ministers of His New Covenant, and how they ordained other ministers to carry on their ministry; and how these ministers of the New Covenant saw themselves to be in some sense analogous to the priests (sacerdotes) of the Old Covenant. We have explored how the prophets of the Old Testament perceived that God would institute a New Covenant, and employ a new order of priests and shepherds in service of that covenant and His people, and that Christ and His Church are understood to be the fulfillment of these prophecies. Now we must return to a third and perhaps most crucial aspect of whether the ministers of the New Covenant should be considered priests: Do these ministers make sacrifices? And if, in the Christian understanding, they do make sacrifices, is this not contradictory to the teachings of the scriptural Epistle to the Hebrews, which declares that Jesus, our High Priest, has made a final, once and for all sacrifice and thus made obsolete the repeated sacrifices of the Old Covenant? Next, I will examine these questions, and show how the idea of the Eucharist as a sacrifice is presented by Scripture and received by tradition.

How Both New Testament “Presbyters” and Old Testament “Cohenim” Became “Priests” in English

Marc Chagall. Aaron and the Seven-Branched Candlestick from Exodus (1966).

Marc Chagall, Aaron and the Seven-Branched Candlestick from Exodus (1966).

A recent commenter complained, as Protestants often do, that there is “no biblical basis” for the New Testament priesthood. My immediate response: Of course there is. There is ample demonstration throughout the New Testament of ministers — deacons, presbyters, and bishops — who are called to serve the Lord and the Church in a special way and appointed to that purpose. The Greek word presbyter (πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros]), even, is the root of our English word priest. Even saying it, though, it struck me as odd: If the New Testament Greek word presbyteros is the origin of the English word “priest,” why is it that the Old Testament priesthood is translated with that word in English today, and not the New Testament?

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

If fact, the word priest is the word applied in English to any religious minister in any religion, especially to one who makes sacrifices. But the word for those ministers in each of the various source languages is not priest or anything related to it. So what happened? How did a Christian minister come to be called a “priest” at all? How did this word that originally referred to the New Testament Christian minister come also to be applied to a Jewish minister of the Old Covenant, and in fact to any religious minister? And how is it that, in English today, this word “priest” no longer refers strictly to Christian ministers at all, such that modern Bible translations use the word in the Old Testament (in which it has no historical or etymological root) but not the New Testament (from which it actually derives) — and Protestant Christians are left to question why the New Testament ministry is even called a “priesthood”?

In answering these questions, I embarked on a fascinating journey through language, etymology, and Bible translation, uncovering surprising accidents of translation, usage, and reaction.

Catholic priest

The complaint of some Protestants that the “priesthood” of the Catholic Church has no biblical basis has two separate fronts: a linguistic one, opposed to the use of the word “priest,” and a theological one, opposed to the idea that the New Covenant of Christ has any need of a “priesthood” akin to that of the Old Covenant. Regarding the first point, I will show that the use of the word “priest” in English to describe the ministers of the Christian New Covenant is entirely appropriate, and the use of that same word to also describe ministers of the Jewish Old Covenant is mostly the result of a linguistic accident. I will address the second point in another post.

I. The Words of Scripture

A. “Presbyters”

Eugene and Macarius, presbyters and martyrs

From an icon of Eugene and Macarius, presbyters and martyrs at Antioch (Wikimedia).

As any student of the New Testament knows, St. Paul instructs us in Scripture, according to most modern Bible translations in English, about the ministry of elders and overseers. There is no mention at all in many recent translations of “priests” or “bishops” — leading Protestant readers especially to presume that the Catholic priesthood has no basis in Scripture, and stems only from “traditions of men.” In this case, though, the titles used in English in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches are primarily an etymological tradition (handed down by language and words) that does have a very firm basis in Scripture.

Modern Bible translations are correct in their translations of the original meanings of the Greek words used in the New Testament. The Greek word translated “elder” is πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], and in Classical Greek, it literally refers to an elder or older man. Likewise, the word translated “overseer” is ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos], meaning literally one who sees (skopos = Latin scopus) over (epi) others. These two offices were apparently more or less equivalent in practical biblical usage (cf. e.g. Titus 1:3, 5).

St. Timothy.

St. Timothy.

But almost immediately upon their introduction, these terms came to have meanings apart from their literal senses and apart from the literal interpretation of Scripture, referring specifically to the offices which they named in the developing Christian Church. Timothy, the recipient of Paul’s epistles, by all appearances was an elder or overseer, exercising the duties appointed to those offices (e.g. 1 Timothy 1:11-16, 4:17) and having the authority to appoint both (1 Timothy 3) — and yet Timothy was not an “older man” at all, but one to whom Paul exhorted, “Let no one despise you because of your youth” (1 Timothy 4:12). Ignatius of Antioch, writing in circa A.D. 107, commended an overseer who was likewise not an “older man” (Epistle to the Magnesians III). The office of presbyter, then, was not exclusively limited to “older men,” and came to mean more than the literal meaning of the Greek; and that word continued to be used, even when a younger man held the office.

The fact that the Christian office took on a different meaning than its literal Greek etymology is also evident in the fact that when the New Testament was translated into Latin, and when early Christian writers of the West wrote of Christian ministers, the Greek word πρεσβύτεροι [presbyteroi] was transliterated, copied directly into the Latin as presbyter, and not translated: “older men” in Latin would have been seniores (the word used in other locations of the New Testament where an older man is clearly meant, e.g. Matthew 27:1).

B. “Cohenim,” “Hiereis,” and “Sacerdotes”

cohen

We now turn to those Jewish religious officials in the Bible who are today generally translated into English as “priests.” The Old Testament Hebrew word for the ministers of the Old Covenant is כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [kō·hēn·īm or cohenim], singular כֹּהֵן [kō·hēn or cohen]. Despite the fact that the word “priest” originates from the New Testament presbyter, and that that word has no immediate, etymological connection to the ministry of the Old Covenant — these Hebrew ministers came to be called “priests” in English, and in fact there is no other word in English that can adequately be applied to them or what they did.

The same Hebrew word cohenim was used to describe Egyptian religious ministers (Genesis 41:45) and ministers of Baal (2 Kings 10:19), Chemosh (Jeremiah 48:7), and others. So it appears that even in Hebrew the word was a generic term for what a minister did, his role and relationship to a divine cult, and not anything specific to the Hebrew God or covenant. It is fitting, then, that when the Hebrew ministers were described in other languages, they were likewise described with those languages’ words for a sacrificing religious minister.

James Tissot, The Chief Priests Take Counsel Together

James Tissot, The Chief Priests Take Counsel Together (c. 1890) (Wikimedia).

In the Greek New Testament, when the Jewish religious officials are described in the Gospels, or when Jesus is called our “high priest,” the Greek word used is ἱερεύς [hiereus], plural ἱερεῖς [hiereis], from ἱερός [hieros], hallowed or holy [cf. English hieroglyphics, “holy symbols”]: meaning a minister in the cult of a god, especially a minister who makes sacrifices. It is the same word used in Greek for the ministers of the pagan Greek religion. In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, the cohenim of the Old Covenant were likewise translated as hiereis.

Likewise, when the Christian Bible was translated into Latin, and when the Old Testament was described by the Latin Fathers of the Church, the ministers of the Old Covenant (Hebrew cohenim or Greek hiereis) were translated as sacerdotes [singular sacerdos], literally those who make holy gifts [sacer (holy or sacred) + dos (gift)]. It is the word used in Latin for the ministers of the Roman religion as well as the Greek religion and other similar religious officials.

So in the earliest writings of the Hebrews, the ministers of the Old Covenant did not have a distinct, unique word applied to them. The Hebrew word כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] was a generic word for a sacrificing religious minister to any god. Accordingly, this word was translated into Greek and Latin with those languages’ words for sacrificing religious ministers, ἱερεῖς [hiereis] in Greek and sacerdotes in Latin. These words cohenim, hiereis, and sacerdotes have no essential connection to the Greek word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], originally denoting an older man but in Christian usage coming to refer to the office of presbyter, a presiding elder at a local church.

II. Words in Time

A. “Priests”

The Venerable Bede translating John

The Venerable Bede translating John. Bede was contemporary with these linguistic developments in English.

How, then, did presbyters come to be known as “priests” in English? It is important to note that the English language first developed (as Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons) in the Christian era, only after the Anglo-Saxons had been Christianized in the seventh century A.D. That being the case, our historical evidence of the English language has no surviving indigenous terms (that I’ve been able to discover) for religious ministers.

Thus from the very beginning in English, Christian ministers — the presbyters of the New Testament — became known as prēostas (priests) — the term simply being adopted from Latin biblical and ecclesiastical language. The term bisceop (bishop) was likewise simply adopted from the Latin episcopus (Greek ἐπίσκοπος). On the other hand, Old English adopted the word sacerd (plural sacerdas), from Latin sacerdos, to refer to the priests of the Old Covenant, and in fact as a generic word for any priest (as sacerdos is in Latin). Jewish and pagan ministers were also sometimes called bisceopas (bishops) in Old English. Only Christian ministers were thus originally known as priests in English, and Jewish and other ministers called something different. From the very earliest English manuscripts, there was some overlap in the use of the word bishop.

By the Middle English period (post-Norman conquest), however, the word sacerd had fallen into disuse, and prēost became the generic term for any religious minister. This is the term that came to be used to describe Christian ministers, pre-Christian pagan ministers, Jewish ministers, and Greek and Roman ministers, and any other religious office. Because ministers in their adopted Christian religion were called “presbyters,” it is from this term that the Anglo-Saxon people eventually adopted the word for all religious ministers. Historical linguists are uncertain how exactly the Greek and Latin word presbyter phonologically evolved into the Anglo-Saxon prēost. Perhaps, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, a late Latin form of presbyter was prebester, leading to prēost and similar developments in other Germanic languages. It is also uncertain why the generic term sacerd was lost.

So rather than the Catholic Church “inventing” the idea that New Testament Christian ministers were priests in analogue to the Old Testament priesthood, quite the opposite happened: The English language, developing around the Christian religion, called Christian ministers priests first. The cohenim, the priests of the Old Covenant, came also to be called priests only after the Christian ministers, because they were seen to be analogous to Christian priests, not the other way around.

So we find, for example, that when John Wycliffe made the first complete translation of the whole Bible into English, in the late 14th century, he translated the ministers of both the New Testament and the Old Testament as priests:

For cause of this thing Y lefte thee at Crete, that thou amende tho thingis that failen, and ordeyne preestis bi citees, as also Y disposide to thee. (Titus 1:5)

And the preest schal brenne tho on the auter, in to the fedyng of fier, and of the offryng to the Lord. (Leviticus 3:11)

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe.

Even Wycliffe, a proto-Protestant, understood the ministers of the New Testament to be rightly called priests, and the Latin word presbyter he was translating to be the root of the English word priest. Wycliffe, too, translated the ministers of the Old Testament — sacerdotes in the Latin — as priests in English. As tempting as it is to pin this coincidence on Wycliffe, it is unclear how much influence Wycliffe’s translation had on later translators. His translation choices probably reflected the common usage of his day: the ministers of both the Old and New Testaments were called priests. (Wycliffe also retained the traditional English translation of bishop for episcopus.)

The original meaning of the Greek πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] as “elder” had thus been lost in translation: but then again, the identity of the Christian presbyter as an “older man” had ceased to be essential to the office almost as soon as it originated (see I.A.3 above). Early English speakers, and the earliest translators of Scripture into English, likewise saw the office of “priest” as distinct from its etymology.

B. “Elders”

With the coming of the Renaissance and eventually the Protestant Reformation, there was a renewed interest in the original texts and languages of the Scriptures. In the early sixteenth century, the first polyglot editions of the Scriptures, including the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts, were printed. This paved the way for the work of William Tyndale and other Englishmen who translated the Scriptures directly from their original languages into English.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale.

Tyndale, translating the New Testament into English from the original Greek, translated πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] according to the literal meaning of the Greek: he translated it elder. But not even Tyndale objected to calling these Christian officers priests. Tyndale, in fact, makes an essential connection between the elders of the Old Covenant and the elders (presbyters) of the New Covenant:

In the Old Testament the temporal heads and rulers of the Jews which had the governance over the lay or common people are called elders, as ye may see in the four evangelists. Out of which custom Paul in his pistel and also Peter, call the prelates and spiritual governors which are bishops and priests, elders. Now whether ye call them elders or priests, it is to me all one: so that ye understand that they be officers and servants of the word of God, unto the which all men both high and low that will not rebel against Christ, must obey as long as they preach and rule truly and no longer. (“W.T. unto the Reader,” preface to 1534 edition of New Testament)

The fact that ministers in the Anglican Church continued to be called priests indicates that English-speakers at the time of the English Reformation saw no disconnect between the words presbyter and priest — in fact probably recognizing their essential and etymological connection.

In the Old Testament, Tyndale likewise translated the word כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] as priest. By the 1530s, there was simply no other word in English to capture the meaning. As the English language developed, priest had become the word for any religious minister, especially one who sacrifices, thus becoming synonymous with the Latin sacerdos.

(Tyndale, on the other hand, retained the traditional English translation of bishop for ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos], as does the King James Bible — leading to a generally greater acceptance of that term among Protestants.)

The heirs to Tyndale’s translation, including the King James Bible and every major English translation since (including most Catholic ones) have translated the word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] as elder. There is certainly a element of reaction and even rebellion in some Protestant translations, particularly in more recent ones: a conscious rejection of the idea of a New Testament ministerial priesthood. It is worth noting that they translate the words πρεσβύτερος and ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos] according to their literal, primitive meanings as elder and overseer, but not the word διάκονος [diaokonos], which is rendered not by its literal meaning of servant but by the traditional deacon in most English translations. This acknowledges that the word diakonos here has taken on an additional and traditional meaning, referring to the Christian office, more than its literal meaning of servant. Why not, then, leave the other offices to their traditional renderings as priest and bishop — which likewise have taken on additional, traditional meanings more than elder and overseer? The reaction seems particularly pronounced for the word priest, given that the same word is now applied to the Old Testament priesthood, and there is an understandable effort to make a distinction between the two.

Over time, as the English language continued to evolve, the etymological connection between presbyter and priest was lost and forgotten — such that I was taken aback to learn of it as I was becoming Catholic, just as many others are.

Conclusion

Pope Francis at Mass

Pope Francis at Mass.

The premise — which I myself held once — that to call the Christian ministers of the New Testament “priests” is an innovation not supported by Scripture — is false on its face. Stemming directly from the word in the original Greek, πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] or presbyter, the word “priest” was the original term for Christian ministers in English and a perfectly appropriate one. The ministers of the Old Testament — כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] in Hebrew — were originally called sacerdas (after Latin sacerdos) in Old English, and only in time, as an analogy to Christian priests, came to be called priests in English also.

It should be noted, too, that equating the priests of the Old and New Covenants with a single word is not endemic to Catholicism but only to English and other Germanic languages (though French, with Germanic influence, seems to do the same). In several of the Romance languages (Spanish and Italian notably), the words for priest used in Catholic teaching are still more obvious cognates to presbyter (presbítero and presbitero respectively) — while those languages still refer to priests of the Old Covenant as sacerdotes and sacerdoti. In those languages, Christian priests can also be called sacerdotes in analogue to priests of the Old Covenant.

This reflects another development that took place long before even the development of the English language, that no doubt contributed to the ministers of both the Old and New Covenants being called priests in English: Even in Greek and Latin, Christian ministers came sometimes to be referred to as ἱερεῖς [hiereis] or sacerdotes. This appellation, which can be found in some of the very earliest Christian writers such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Cyril, was primarily by analogy: Christian priests were like the cohenim of the Old Testament in their ministry toward God and His people, adminstering Jesus’s work as our high priest (ἀρχιερεύς [archiereus]) to the Christian flock. In this sense, priests became synonymous with sacerdotes first in Greek and Latin — paving the way for them to become synonymous in English.

And this begs the question, and the second point of the Protestant charge: Is there any analogue between the priests of the New Covenant and the cohenim of the Old Covenant? Is the priesthood of the Church a sacrificing priesthood, as the Old Testament priesthood certainly was and as the Greek term ἱερεῖς [hiereis] and Latin term sacerdotes understand? Were the Church Fathers correct in applying this analogy, and is there any merit to referring to the priests of the Old and New Covenants by the same term, as we do in English? Or were the Protestants correct to stress the distinction between the two orders? How did the early presbyteri of the Church themselves understand their role? I will strive to address these questions in my next post, so don’t go away!