Listening to a talk given by Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed repose a few days ago he mentioned how in the Orthodox Church the clergy are called presbyters which translated means elders, and not priests. The use of the word priest comes later. I think he mentioned the 4th century but not sure. Anyway, here is an interesting article on the topic from Just Genesis (here)
Is a Presbyter a Priest?
Alice C. Linsley
Before reading this article, I recommend that this article be read first: What is a Priest?
In the New Testament the word “presbyter” is used to designate the one who presided when the body gathered for worship. This probably didn’t mean a priest, as only men born in the priestly lines would be considered priests and among these only some would have been sacrificing priests. So the terms “presbyter” and “priest” do not represent the same concept.
Some of the Apostles were likely born of the priestly lines, but that hardly matters since the Church’s High Priest is Jesus and he was born of the priestly lines on his mother’s side and Joseph’s side. Mary and Joseph were of priestly lines and cousins. Mary’s father was the shepherd priest Joachim, and Joseph was of the priestly line of Mattai.
Ken Collins writes: “In the New Testament, the Temple has hierarchs and the church has presbyters. Most translate hierarch as priest, which is really incorrect, because priest is just an English contraction of the word presbyter. But if the translators put down priest for presbyter, it looks like they are discrediting churches that do not call their clergy priests. But if they put down presbyter, which is the untranslated Greek word, or elder, which is the word’s meaning, they discredit the churches that are so old that the word presbyter turned into priest as the language of their members changed.”
When did this morphing happen in history? Where do we find this expressed in Scripture? Clearly, there was a disjunction when the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. thus bringing the sacrificial system to an end. However St. Paul and St. John clearly believe that there is an eternal priesthood (in the Platonic sense) that nothing can destroy. They see it as a fixed ordinance in the Kingdom of God, derived from the one True Priest, Jesus Christ. In other words, the priesthood lives in Jesus Christ, the Sacrifice once offered who is to be the focus of every gathering.
HE is the continuation of the only priesthood that the Apostles knew, a priesthood that maintained itself through a particular kinship pattern among Abraham’ s Horite caste. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born of Abraham’s ruler-priest bloodline.
Collins is right that many churches don’t have priests. These are churches removed from the Holy Tradition concerning the Christ received by the Apostles. Most are products of the Reformation and the many subsequent divisions that characterize churches that don’t hold to the sacramental center of the faith symbolized by the priesthood.
Now to Collins’ most provocative suggestion: that the oldest churches somehow morphed the word “presbyter” into “priest” over time. This is simply not the case. Presbyter refers to elders, not priests. There is no need to substitute priest for presbyter. The early church had gatherings which were not presided over by priests. No surprise there. Many of the priests were hostile to Christians. Yet some of those ruler-priests, men such as Nicodemus, came to believe and through them the Church recieved its priests after the order of Melchizedek, the prefigurement of Jesus Christ.
The true meaning of priest is defined by the Son of God whose Blood was shed for the life of the World. This Jesus was born to a long line of ruler-priests who are identified with the “order of Melchizedek” as an eternal priesthood. Presbyter means elder and not all elders are priests. But this is no reason to insist that the ancient churches which have priests have got it all wrong.