Do we call our priests "PRIESTS" because of their priestly ministry--or because of the English translation of "Presbyter"?

Catholics understand ordained ministers to participate in a special ministerial priesthood that is distinct from the priesthood of all believers. This is because ordained ministers since earliest times have been charged with presiding over the Eucharist, which is sacrificial in nature. In addition, ordained ministers are charged with reconciliation of believers to God (John 20:21-23, Matthew 18:15-18, 2 Corinthians and the “ministry of reconciliation,” etc.)

However, I have heard/read many times that the English term “priest” actually comes from the Greek word for presbyter. After all, the word “priest” in the sacrificial sense (like Jewish or Pagan priests) was not used in the New Testament for Christian ministers. Rather, presbyters/elders/bishops.

So, which came first: the chicken or the egg? In English, do we identify ordained ministers as priests because of translation (of presbyter, a New Testament term for minister)? Or do we for developed theological reasons?

NOTE: Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters are confused by Catholic (and Orthodox) use of “priest” for Christian ministers, for they do not find this term in the New Testament; in addition, they misunderstand what it means for a christian minister to be a mediator. So I wonder if this term in English was a wise choice for a Catholic presbyter. Why not just say “Catholic elder” or “Catholic presbyter” etc.

Of course we call them “priests” because that’s the transliteration of the Latin word “presbyter,” which comes from the Greek word “presbyteros.”

In Middle English, it was “prester”, “preest,” “preist,” or “prest,” depending on the time and region. In Old English, it was “preost.”

In Latin, the Biblical word for Jewish or pagan priests is “sacerdos,” from which we get the English word “sacerdote.”

In Greek, the Biblical word for Jewish or pagan priests is “hiereus.”

In Hebrew, it’s “kohen,” as you probably already knew.

In Latin, the Biblical word for a Jewish high priest is “pontifex.”

In Greek, it’s “archiereus,” logically enough.

Hope this helps.

Then why, I wonder, don’t Protestants call their ministers “priests”?

The etymology and the function got mixed together along the line, such that by the Reformation, “priest” had a meaning that Protestants didn’t think appropriate for Christian leaders.

“Priest” in English is derived from “presbyter,” and is therefore quite proper as a title for Christian holders of that office. But over time, the word became associated with the general function of offering sacrifice and standing between God and the people, so that English “priest” (and, I presume, related words in other languages) was applied by extension to those Jewish and pagan religious leaders who performed those functions, even though the words being translated as “priest” in those cases were not the same.

Many Protestants reject the idea that Christian ministers perform the priestly functions mentioned above, so even though the word “priest” descends from a perfectly Biblical title for Christian leaders, they do not use it because of its association with those functions. Since Catholics believe that Christian presbyters do perform those functions, we are okay with the term in all its connotations.

The English language is a comparatively modern invention.

So, you need to go back to the origins of the men who were authorized to perform the act of Consecration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

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!

As FYI - Anglicans (who are Protestants) call their priests “priest” in English

Also Lutherans call theirs “pastor” in English, but in Scandinavia they use the Scandinavian equivalents for “priest.”

English is language with lots of bad translations in general (not just from Christianity, but other words too).

Other examples of bad english translations for Christianity are:

“Holy Ghost”

In Latin, they are "Pascha " and “Spiritus Sanctus” (there are other forms depending on how The Holy Spirit is mentioned in a sentence)

The more literal translation is “Holy Spirit” which is why we use that today. Easter is not a direct / literal translation from Pascha. However, neither are wrong, because we know what is meant in English by the selection of those words.

That’s why it’s always good to not just go back to the Greek, but also go back to the Latin and understand how the word moved from the Latin to English.

God Bless

As with much of the Catholic faith this is a both/and because both reasons apply.

As for why so many n-Cs won’t use the term, I think that St. Augustine sort of had a good insight when he said…

[FONT=Georgia]“All heretics wish to be styled Catholic, yet if anyone asks them where is the Catholic place of worship none would venture to point out his own.” [/FONT]

Well, this is all very interesting. I have a line of reasoning to offer, but I’m afraid it is incomplete as an exercise in apologetics due to lack of citations. However, there’s a beneficial adjustment to be made.

This threw me a little, but helped clarify what was bothering me. Why did it throw me? Because offering sacrifice is what is essential to priesthood itself, both the priesthood of the Old Testament and the New. So this was not some enhancement over time, as though sacrifice only emerged gradually as germaine to priesthood.

What was at the heart of the Old Testament priesthood was the bloody sacrifice. It was required by God, for the salvation of the people, and could only be offered by a priest at the altar, acting on the behalf of the people. There is no sacrifice without the priest, and sacrifice, the OT teaches, is what God demands for salvation.

The priesthood of the New Testament, because it is the fulfillment of the priesthood of the Old Testament, continues essentially sacrificial. The sacrifice is now unbloody, it is once and for all, and it is effective rather than symbolic. It is eternally offered by the Perfect Victim, the Lamb, Himself, once and for all, on the altar of Calvary, for forgiveness of the sins of the people. His earthly priest, standing in His place at the altar, on behalf of the people, offers that Sacrifice in time.

The other functions of the new priesthood are also participations in Christ’s Sacrifice. So priests extend the forgiveness of sins He accomplished on the cross. Full priests (bishops) use their apostolic succession to pass on the power to offer the Sacrifice.

After all, the word “priest” in the sacrificial sense (like Jewish or Pagan priests) was not used in the New Testament for Christian ministers. Rather, presbyters/elders/bishops.

Yes, but the idea of Sacrificer On Behalf of the People was integral in the NT to whatever word (presbyteros) they used for their annointed leaders. For we know that the New Sacrifice was offered continuously from the moment it replaced the Old.

I would think that the new Christians didn’t use the old word for priest because at the cultural moment of transition it was appropriate to emphasize the difference between the Old and New Sacrifices.

It was not to de-emphasize sacrifice itself, for sacrifice itself was taken for granted in that context.

But the bloodiness, the purely symbolic character of the old sacrifices: these aspects, believed so integral to proper sacrifice before God, had to be relinquished, in fact untaught.

Instead, the true nature of Sacrifice was revealed; and the unbloodiness and lived humility of the Real Sacrifice was underlined. So you use a different word, presbyter, to highlight the important difference when in so doing you risk no confusion as to what is essential.

What is essential is at risk now, as the sacrificial essence of priesthood is minimized, and the lay priesthood is elevated.

Soft pedalling Sacrifice as the kernel of priestness confuses what is Catholic. All the rest of a priest’s ministry is but various extensions from that kernel; just as all of Christian belief is but the living out of Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross.

The priesthood of the laity is what we all can do, without being annointed priests–and we can do it all but the Sacrifice (and the sin-forgiving and the passing on of received priesting power). That’s why anybody in Protestantism can achieve priestliness, because there is the priesthood of the laity, which is what all the unordained have. (Protestantism uses the word ordination without having the thing ordination.)

Hope this is a clarification for the thread, rather than a distraction… Thanks for the topic.

*Romans 15:16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in performing the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering up of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the holy Spirit.

[FONT=Georgia]This shows that even Paul was a functioning priest in the New Testament so that is what I meant by it’s a both/and. :slight_smile: [/FONT]**

***This might also help… Bishop, Priest, and Deacon

[quote=Church Militant]]Romans 15:16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in performing the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering up of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the holy Spirit.

This shows that even Paul was a functioning priest in the New Testament so that is what I meant by it’s a both/and. :slight_smile:

Very nice. I think the same verse from the DR translation helpfully emphasizes the Catholic understanding that priesting is about sacrificing:

16 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. (my underlining)

There are two Latin word for priest- presbyter, and sacerdos. The second term, includes both Bishops and Priest, while presbyter is more specific to what we call in English a ‘priest’.

Yes, the English word ‘priest’ comes from the Latin word ‘presbyter’. In fact, ‘presbyter’ is also used as an English word (although not commonly used, except among seminarians and clergy!).

It is good to make a point of never calling a Protestant minister a ‘priest’, even if they call themselves ‘priests’ (like some Anglicans do).

As for the original meaning of the word, (the Latin word comes from the Greek), it is something like ‘elder’, but that sheds no particular light on the Christian (i.e. Catholic) conception of priesthood, which is unique to itself.

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