A name frequently used in the Old Testament as denoting a person clothed with authority, and entitled to respect and reverence (Genesis 50:7). It also denoted a political office (Numbers 22:7). The "elders of Israel" held a rank among the people indicative of authority. Moses opened his commission to them (Exodus 3:16). They attended Moses on all important occasions. Seventy of them attended on him at the giving of the law (Exodus 24:1). Seventy also were selected from the whole number to bear with Moses the burden of the people (Numbers 11:16,17). The "elder" is the keystone of the social and political fabric wherever the patriarchal system exists. At the present day this is the case among the Arabs, where the sheik (i.e., "the old man") is the highest authority in the tribe. The body of the "elders" of Israel were the representatives of the people from the very first, and were recognized as such by Moses. All down through the history of the Jews we find mention made of the elders as exercising authority among the people. They appear as governors (Deuteronomy 31:28), as local magistrates (16:18), administering justice (19:12). They were men of extensive influence (1 Samuel 30:26-31). In New Testament times they also appear taking an active part in public affairs (Matthew 16:21; 21:23; 26:59).
The Jewish eldership was transferred from the old dispensation to the new. "The creation of the office of elder is nowhere recorded in the New Testament, as in the case of deacons and apostles, because the latter offices were created to meet new and special emergencies, while the former was transmitted from the earlies times. In other words, the office of elder was the only permanent essential office of the church under either dispensation."
The "elders" of the New Testament church were the "pastors" (Ephesians 4:11), "bishops or overseers" (Acts 20:28), "leaders" and "rulers" (Hebrews 13:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:12) of the flock. Everywhere in the New Testament bishop and presbyter are titles given to one and the same officer of the Christian church. He who is called presbyter or elder on account of his age or gravity is also called bishop or overseer with reference to the duty that lay upon him (Titus 1:5-7; Acts 20:17-28; Phil 1:1).
The term elder, or old man as the Hebrew literally imports, was one of extensive use, as an official title, among the Hebrews and the surrounding nations, because the heads of tribes and the leading people who had acquired influence were naturally the older people of the nation. It had reference to various offices. (Genesis 24:2; 50:7; 2 Samuel 12:17; Ezekiel 27:9). As betokening a political office, it applied not only to the Hebrews, but also to the Egyptians, (Genesis 50:7) the Moabites and the Midianites. (Numbers 22:7) The earliest notice of the elders acting in concert as a political body is at the time of the Exodus. They were the representatives of the people, so much so that elders and people are occasionally used as equivalent terms; comp. (Joshua 24:1) with (Joshua 24:2, 19,21) and (1 Samuel 8:4) with (1 Samuel 8:7,10,19) Their authority was undefined, and extended to all matters concerning the public weal. Their number and influence may be inferred from (1 Samuel 30:26 and following). They retained their position under all the political changes which the Jews underwent. The seventy elders mentioned in Exodus and Numbers were a sort of governing body, a parliament, and the origin of the tribunal of seventy elders called the Sanhedrin or Council. In the New Testament Church the elders or presbyters were the same as the bishops. It was an office derived from the Jewish usage of elders or rulers of the synagogues.
ELDER IN THE OLD TESTAMENT (ISBE)
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) (Exodus 3:16; 12:21; 24:1, of the elders of the Hebrews; and of the Egyptians, Genesis 50:7); and Elohist (E) (8th century BC) (Exodus 17:5; 18:12; 19:7 (the second Deuteronomist (D2)); Joshua 24:31, elders of Israel, or of the people. Compare the principle of selection of heads of tens, fifties, etc., Exodus 18:13, seventy being selected from a previous body of elders); compare Jahwist(J)-Elohist(E) (Numbers 11:16, 24). Seventy are also mentioned in Exodus 24:1, while in Judges 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 (Judges 8:16; 2:7); compare Ruth 4:2 into the kingdom. Saul asked to be honored before the elders (1 Samuel 15:30); the elders of Bethlehem appeared before Samuel (1 Samuel 16:4); the elders appeared before David in Hebron (2 Samuel 17:15; 1 Chronicles 11:3); elders took part in the temple procession of Solomon (1 Kings 8:3; 2 Chronicles 5:4). They continued through the Persian period Ezra 5:5,9; 6:7, 14; 10:8, 14; Joel 1:14 margin and the Maccabean period APC Judith 6:16; 7:23; 8:10; 10:6; 13:12; 1Macc 12:35, while the New Testament presbuteros, Matthew 16:21; 26:47, 57; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; Acts 4:5, 23 makes frequent mention of the office.
The elders served as local magistrates, in bringing murderers to trial (Deuteronomy 19:12; 21:1; Joshua 20:4), punishing a disobedient son (Deuteronomy 21:19), inflicting penalty for slander (Deuteronomy 22:15), for noncompliance with the Levirate marriage law (Deuteronomy 25:7), enforcing the Law (Deuteronomy 27:1), conducting the service in expiation of unwitting violation of the Law (Leviticus 4:13).
In certain passages different classes of officers are mentioned as "judges and officers" (Deuteronomy 16:18), "elders" and "officers" (Deuteronomy 31:28), "heads, tribes, elders officers" (Deuteronomy 29:10; Hebrews 9). 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.
ELDER IN THE NEW TESTAMENT (ISBE)