Catholic Priesthood in the New Testament


When I read the Bible earlier, I found myself wondering about the concept of the Catholic priesthood in the New Testament. Specifically, I have problems with the usage of words in that regard. It appears there are two words in the New Testament that are translated “priest” in the Douay Rheims Bible.

The first one is hiereús which is used when the New Testament talks about Jewish priests, and it’s derivative archiereus for the Jewish high priest, and Jesus in the Epistle to the Hebrews. An example of this is St Matthew 8:4; 26:3 and for the reference to Christ Hebrews 7.

The second word used is presbyteros and is the word that the New Testament, and specifically Saint Paul, uses when referring to the ministry in the Church. Examples are 1 Tim 5:17-19, Titus 1:5 and James 5:14.

Now, I am confused. A priest is someone who offers sacrifice, and the Catholic understanding obviously agrees, since the Mass is a Sacrifice. Why when would Saint Paul use a word different from the one that literally means priest, with no ambiguity about it? Presbysteros is often translated “elder” in Protestant Bibles, and even the Douay Rheims Version translates it thus in Matthew 26:3 where it is opposed to the “high priest”, archiereus. Moreover, Revelation 1:6 and 5:10 use the term hiereús in reference to Christians.

The question could therefore be phrased this way: If the “presbyters” of the New Testaments were Catholic priests who offered the Mass, why didn’t Paul just write “priest” rather than a word that more likely means “elder”?

Is there perhaps something from the Church Fathers on this? :shrug:


That’s a good question, Cutler, and I’m sure there’s a lot of interesting academic material on it.

I haven’t studied the issue at all, but I would suspect Paul would have hesitated from using the ordinary term for priest because he wanted to differentiate the offering of the Christian sacrificial meal from Temple worship (for Jews) and pagan practices (for Jews and Gentiles). The Temple and priesthood of the Old Covenant were still active at the time Paul was writing, which would definitely have caused confusion if Paul spoke of Christian priests offering the Eucharist with the same terminology as Temple or pagan priests.

Moreover, the institution of the priesthood was still in a very embryonic stage and Paul might not have recognised its full significance or might not have wanted to emphasise it; after all, it was Christ’s high priestly ministry which (especially in Hebrews) is the focus.


The distinction between Christian bishops “elders”, and priests was not fully developed in Paul’s time. In the Church’s earliest days, each city had only one church, with a bishop and deacons to assist him. The concept of multiple parishes per city with different priests as pastors, but all under the same bishop, came later.


The term “presbyteros” in Greek has a more general meaning than the term “hiereus” and can include it within its range of meanings. Presbyteros, in the first century, referred to religious leaders in general; hiereus referred specifically to those who offer sacrifice. To call someone a presbyteros did not therefore automatically mean that they are not a hiereus; it meant they were a religious leader, of which one kind was the hiereus.

The Church has used the term “presbyteros” to refer to its leaders from the beginning, and in fact continues to do so. Whenever the Sacrament of Ordination is conferred, it is to one of three orders, the order of the episcopate, the order of the diaconate, or the order of the presbyterate. Those who are ordained to the presbyterate are the ones we call “priests” in English, and in fact our word “priest” is a contraction of presbyter, since that word came into the Germanic languages as prestar.

The real question is why the word “priest” became attached to the Greek word “hiereus” when it more properly belongs to the word “prebyteros.” The Wycliffe bible uses the word “priest” for both presbyteros and hiereus, even in editions from before its Catholic revisions. Perhaps English, in Wycliffe’s time, had no other word that meant hiereus, and so Wycliffe decided to use it for both words. But I think part of the explanation for this goes back to the medieval period, when Latin-speaking Christians began calling their priests “sacerdoti” more often than “presteri.” “Sacerdoti” was the term that was also used for the ancient Jewish priests, and Christians have compared the Christian “presteri” (Gk: “presbyteroi”) to the Jewish “sacerdoti” (Gk: “hiereis”) from the beginning – Romans 15:16 is an example of this.

Perhaps as a result of this change in usage, the Latin words presteri and sacerdoti came to be synonymous, and in early English, which had the word prestar as the equivalent for presteri but did not have an equivalent synonym for sacerdoti, they just used prestar for both words. Then, “prestar” became “priest” in pre-Reformation English, and the issue of what to do in Bible translation became an issue when the Protestant Reformation came along denying that Christianity had a ministry equivalent to the Jewish priesthood. We still have records of the scuffles over words that happened during this period; English-speaking Catholics wanted to continue using “priest” for both “hiereus” and “presbyteros,” and this attitude shows up in the Douay-Rheims Bible, but English-speaking Protestants wanted to identify “priest” with “hiereus” and use “elder” for “presbyteros,” and this attitude shows up in the Tyndale and KJV bibles. But I think “priest” should have been kept for presbyteros, and perhaps some other word, officiate maybe, should have been used for hiereus.

Anyway that’s my thinking on the matter, and I hope it’s got some merit. God bless!


Thanks. :slight_smile: But I am not quite sure I understand your comment about Romans 15:16. How is it comparing presteri and sacerdoti? The word for “minister” there is λειτουργὸν (leitourgon), in which I read something of liturgy.

That I should be the minister of Christ Jesus among the Gentiles; sanctifying the gospel of God, that the oblation of the Gentiles may be made acceptable and sanctified in the Holy Ghost.
Douay Rheims

“in making me a priest of Jesus Christ for the Gentiles, with God’s gospel for my priestly charge, to make the Gentiles an offering worthy of acceptance, consecrated by the Holy Spirit.”


The literal translation of the passage is, “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that [my] offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”

Not the word “minister,” but the phrase “ministering as a priest” has the Greek word for priest in it – hierourgounta is the word there, within which you can see a form of hiereus. Thus St. Paul says that he ministers as a priest (Gk: hiereus, Latin: sacerdote), and the later Latin-speaking Christians said the same thing: Christian “presbyters” are also “sacerdotes,” “hiereoi”. This can be seen in Tertullian, for example, and you can’t really get much earlier Latin writers than him. The Greek fathers used the word “hieroi” along with “presbyteroi” to describe Christian leaders, so they bear witness to the same thing. It goes back to the Bible, and only the weirdness of linguistic development has obscured this in modern translations.


Ah, very good. :slight_smile:


I think it is important to remember that, as other posters have pointed out, we still use “presbyter” as the formal title of the second degree of holy orders. Men are first ordained to the diaconate (deacons), then to the presbyterate (priests), and finally the episcopate (bishops). Technically, in Catholic theology, both presbyters and bishops are priests, in that they offer the holy sacrifice. The sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is testified to in several places in the New Testament, and we know that Christ gave His own authority to the Apostles to continue His ministry on earth - As the Father sent me, so I am sending you… (John 20:21).

Here is a thorough treatment on priestly / apostolic authority in the New Testament: and on the sacrifice of the Eucharist (which implies a priesthood):

St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was a disciple of the Apostle John, is perhaps our earliest explicit reference to the successors of the Apostles, the bishops, delegating the authority to offer the Eucharist to their assistants (presbyters / priests):

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. —Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Ch 8

Why did the early Church adopt the term “presbyter”? I think that they did in part wish to distinguish the Christian ministry from the Jewish and pagan ones, as another poster noted. But perhaps there was more to it than that. We sometimes forget that the Catholic bishop, who holds the fullness of the Christian priesthood as a successor of the Apostles, is not only a priest - he is also a king and a prophet. By virtue of holy orders, the Catholic bishop shares in the threefold ministry of Christ as King, Priest, and Prophet. Perhaps the early Church recognized that the apostles and their successors did act as priests when celebrating the Eucharist, but also acted as prophets when preaching the Gospel and as kings when ruling the Church and thus chose broader titles.

Ask yourself this - why in the 21st century, 2000 years later, do we refer to Bishops as Bishops and not as High Priests? Our faith tells us they are high priests. But they are not ONLY high priests.


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