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In Titus 1:5, Paul writes that he left Titus in Crete to appoint πρεσβυτέρους (commonly translated 'elders') in every town:

"This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you" (Titus 1:5 ESV)

In Titus 2:2, he goes on to explain how Titus should teach the πρεσβύτας, and then also the πρεσβύτιδας in 2:3.

"But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good..." (Titus 2:1-3 ESV)


Reflection

I understand that πρεσβύτερος is the common word used for 'elder' throughout the New Testament, and seems to have an occasional gender ambiguity built into it (Heb 11:2, also LXX Gen 18:11 for Abraham and Sarah), similarly to how ανθρωπος may mean man or woman. We know that the 4th Century Council of Laodicea wrote an article pertaining to 'women elders' (πρεσβύτιδας), but I'm unsure whether this kind of use of language was around in the first century or was just a later innovation.


Question

Given the similarity of these three words in Titus, is there a clear distinction between the three as being referenced as different groups of people, or is it at all likely that the first term (1:5) simply a catch-all for both genders and then the next two (2:2,3) are then gender-specific?

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In Titus 1:5, the apostle Paul uses the word πρεσβυτέρους, which is declined in the accusative case, plural number, from the lemma πρεσβύτερος. In Titus 2:2, he uses the word πρεσβύτας, which is declined in the accusative case, plural number, from the lemma πρεσβύτης. In Titus 2:3, he uses the word πρεσβύτιδας, which is declined in the accusative case, plural number, from the lemma πρεσβῦτις.

Thus, we have three distinct words:

  1. πρεσβύτερος ► πρεσβυτέρους
  2. πρεσβύτης ► πρεσβύτας
  3. πρεσβῦτις ► πρεσβύτιδας

In Titus 1:5, πρεσβύτερος refers to the ecclesiastical office (typically held by one who was πρεσβύτης, i.e., an older man), while πρεσβύτης and πρεσβῦτις refer to the old age of men and women, respectively.1 In the Old Testament, Moses appointed seventy men as elders (זְקֵנִים) of Israel.2 This office of leadership continued in the Church established by the Lord Jesus Christ. That the apostle Paul is not simply referring to old men in general, but a particular office, is evident from the fact that he commands Titus to appoint them. Old men are old already; they do not have to be appointed to be old men. But, if the word πρεσβύτερος refers to an office of leadership, then it makes sense that Titus would need to appoint qualified men to that office in each city.

Regarding the verb καθίστημι (from which καταστήσῃς is conjugated), LSJ notes,

  1. ordain, appoint, “κατέστησε τύραννον εἶναι παῖδα τὸν ἑωυτοῦ” Hdt.5.94, cf. 25: usu. without the inf., “κ. τινὰ ὕπαρχον” Id.7.105; ἄλλον [ἄρχοντα] “ἀντὶ αὐτοῦ” X.Cyr.3.1.12, etc.; “βασιλέα ἐπί τινας” LXX 1 Ki.8.5, al.; “τινὰ ἐς μοναρχίαν” E.Supp. 352; “ἐπὶ τὰς ἀρχάς” Isoc.12.132; “τινὰ τύραννον” Ar.Av.1672; “κ. ἐγγυητάς” Hdt.1.196, Ar.Ec.1064; δικαστάς, ἐπιμελητάς, νομοθέτας, Id.Pl. 917, X.Cyr.8.1.9, D.3.10 (sed leg. καθίσατε, cf. “καθίζω” 1.4); of games, etc., γυμνικοὺς ἀγῶνας κ. Isoc.4.1: rarely c. inf., “οἱ καθιστάντες μουσικῇ . . παιδεύειν” Pl.R.410b:—so in Pass., “κυβερνᾶν κατασταθείς” X. Mem.1.7.3: aor. Med., appoint for oneself, “τύραννον καταστησάμενοι παρὰ. σφίσι αὐτοῖσι” Hdt.5.92.á; “ἄρχοντας” X.An.3.1.39, etc.

References

Huther, Johann Eduard; Lünemann, Georg Konrad Gottlieb. Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, and to the Epistle to the Hebrews. Trans. Hunter, David; Evans, Maurice J. New York: Funk, 1885.

Footnotes

1 p. 296
2 Exo. 24:1; Num. 11:6

  • 1
    Isn't it problematic to consider πρεσβύτερος as being understood by recipients in 'reference to the ecclesiastical office', when the majority of its uses in the NT are in terms of Jewish elders or otherwise 'older' people, inferring a wider range of meaning? (e.g. 'older' son in Lk 15:25, 'old men' in Acts 2:17, 'elder women' in 1 Tim 5:2, also the LXX ref mentioned above) – Steve Taylor Jan 19 '17 at 9:58
  • @SteveTaylor—(1) The Jewish elders were also a special class of seventy men originally appointed by Moses. (2) Titus 1:5 (in the very book we are discussing) tells us that Titus was to appoint these πρεσβυτέρους in every city. Logically, if πρεσβυτέρους simply referred to old people, why would they need to be appointed as old people, when that is what they already were? The fact that they were to be appointed means it was to a particular office of leadership. I certainly am not saying that the meaning of πρεσβύτερος is monolithic; it can certainly refer to an old man or old woman elsewhere. – user862 Jan 19 '17 at 15:45
  • Right - I'm in total agreement with you there. What I'm saying is that if we begin our interpretation with "it means X ecclesiastical office", that immediately begins with a risk of imposing our understanding of said 'office' onto the text. If we begin with "this is its natural range of meaning", we then go on to "what does this range tell us about this office in the text?" I'm curious about this structural feature of Titus where we see πρεσβυτέρους at first, then πρεσβύτας and πρεσβύτιδας immediately thereafter - might we not be reading the former word too narrowly? – Steve Taylor Jan 19 '17 at 16:43
  • (+1) for adding significantly to the resolution of the linguistic issues. I do take exception to the idea that "elder" is an "office" per se which I might address in an answer myself. – user10231 Jan 20 '17 at 14:54
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πρεσβύτεροι were an appointed ministry in the early Church, as seen in Titus 1:5 as well as in Acts (14:23):

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.

The Greek-speaking Church today continues to use the same description (πρεσβύτερος) for what have been come to be known as "priests" in English, although the office is also commonly referred to as "presbyter" in the English-speaking Orthodox Church.

As you point out, however, the word also has a non-clerical meaning in which it could refer to elderly men and women together. Genesis 18:11 LXX, which you cite, is one example. Another is Zechariah 8:4 LXX - Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women [πρεσβύτεροι] shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem.

I do not think that it is inclusive in the sense you suggest in the singular - the examples above are all instances of the plural.

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