A few weeks back a Greek newspaper ran a spectacular pictorial of a priestly ordination, where four deacons were ordained to the priesthood in the Greek Orthodox Church. The pictorial and the imagery brought into focus some continuity between Greek Orthodox liturgical practice and the testimony of Paul’s letters.
One question commonly raised in the seminary is the matter of evidence of the existence of the Sacrament of Holy Orders in the New Testament. It is a demanding question, requiring some knowledge of systematic theology, sacred scripture, ecclesial Greek, and sacramental theology. One reason students are not always satisfied with their inquiries on this matter is precisely because the question of Holy Orders in sacred scripture is an interdisciplinary matter. It is categorically not the exclusive domain of say, the biblical studies department, or the sacramental theology department.
Because the theology of Holy Orders has evolved and developed, and because so much recent inquiry into the matter has been published, we sometimes forget to ask and then answer the question as to where Priestly Orders are referenced in the New Testament. This line of inquiry has, over the past five hundred years, become obfuscated as a result of the division between hierarchal and non-hierarchal Christian denominations in the West. Some biblical scholarship, which posits that the “elders” and “overseers,” referenced in Acts and the pastoral letters, are not ordained clergy, is itself provisional in its authoritativeness, and needs to be critically re-examined.
The debate revolves substantively around the matter as to whether references to the “presbuteroi” and “episkopoi” mentioned in Acts and the Pastoral letters are references to elected elders and overseers, whose leadership is provisional and not linked to a priestly line, or whether they are ordained priests and bishops. For the past two millenia, the Catholic and Orthodox churches have regularly asserted that these two terms (presbuteroi and episkopoi) often refer to ordained priests and bishops, particularly when Acts and the letters discuss local or regional church leadership.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, this premise was challenged, and it was asserted by some that these two Greek terms simply referred to provisionally or locally nominated or elected church leaders – leaders who did not belong to any priestly line. This line of reasoning centers on two arguments. First, the assertion in Hebrews that Jesus Christ is, colloquially speaking, the “one high priest.” Second, the assertion that “priests” and “bishops” are later developments that have nothing to do with the presbyteroi and episkopoi of the New Testament.
A Change in the Nature of Priesthood
Perhaps we should clarify in advance that nowhere in the Letter to the Hebrews is there any reference to “one high priest.” Rather, Jesus Christ is referred to as the high priest. And he is, indeed, the high priest par excellence because the offering that Christ makes is not an offering of grain or livestock, but of his own life (Hebrews 9:14). A central theme of the Letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus alters the nature of Levitic priesthood permanently with the oblation of his own life. The Letter even refers to a new and better covenant – a covenant sealed through the blood of Christ.
If we understand clearly what the Letter to the Hebrews is trying to say – that the Levitic line of priests is not a characteristic of the Christian faith, then we can better understand what the Letter to the Hebrews is not trying to say – that neither presbuteroi or episkopoi offered domenical memorial services – Eucharists – that were established by Christ himself.
Sometimes students of sacramental theology make the unintentional or innocent mistake of equating the presbuteros (the elder, or priest of the Christian faith) of the New Testament with the hieros, or priest of the Temple in Jerusalem. Not by deliberate intent, but because in English, we refer to both the New Testament functionary and the Old Testament functionary as “priests.” This is extremely confusing, since the presbuteros (priest or elder) of the New Testament has a different mission than the hieros (priest who makes sacrificial offerings) of the Old Testament.
Making the Distinction Clear
The hieros of Hebrew Scripture – the priest drawn from the tribe of Levi – had a relatively narrow mandate. These priests were known during the time of Jesus as Sadduccees, meaning priests of the line of Zadok – a Temple priest loyal to King David. The temple priest offered sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. And the typical priest did not do this year round. Priests rotated their duties, serving only a four- week tour (more or less) at the Temple and then returning to their year-round job elsewhere. Pope Benedict proposes that John the Evangelist’s father was a priest of the Temple, explaining why John could walk into the Temple precinct and watch the interrogation of Jesus without being accosted. Christians do not necessarily model the idea of the presbuteros – the church elder, priest or leader – along the lines of the Jewish temple priest (hieros), since his duties were highly formal and limited in scope.
The Elders (Priests)
The presbuteros of the New Testament is, according to Acts and Paul’s letters, a leader of the local church. These local church leaders were chosen and given authority by the Apostles, by Paul, or by Paul’s senior assistants. The term presbuteros is hardly unknown in the New Testament, being mentioned some sixty-six times. Perhaps most interesting is that Matthew, Mark and Luke also refer to functionaries of the Temple in Jerusalem, some twenty-four times, as elders (presbuteroi) as well. In other words, presbuteros is an ecclesial term with a history of being used (by Jews who spoke Greek) to refer to men who held an ecclesial function. Even more interesting, the author of the Fourth Gospel abandons the convention of interchangeably using presbuteros to refer both to Christian and Temple functionaries, because by the late first-century presbuteros is used predominantly to describe the leader of a local Christian church.
Thus, the Book of Acts (principally), and the pastoral letters and Revelation (secondarily) refer to elders (presbuteroi) of the local Christian churches thirty to forty times. The Book of Acts refers to the apostles and the elders three times, as if there existed a rudimentary ecclesial hierarchy. In Acts, presbuteroi sometimes refers to the elders of the Temple, in the first half of the book where there is interaction between the disciples of Jesus and the Temple leadership, and it refers to leaders of local Christian churches in the second half of Acts, where the activity takes place beyond Jerusalem.
Saint Paul Posits an Ordination of Priests
Perhaps the most fascinating clue to existence of presbyteral holy orders comes from the Book of Acts. Luke the Sacred Author tells us,
Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
The phrase appointed elders raises some questions as to what was intended, so I checked the biblical Greek. The phrase in Greek is, χειροτονήσαντες δὲ αὐτοῖς κατ’ ἐκκλησίαν πρεσβυτέρους. As interesting is the fact that these elders were appointed to churches – ekklesia. Thus Acts tells us that Paul, along with Barnabas, had the authority to appoint church leaders, and we are told this takes place in Lystra, Antioch and Iconium. We should also keep in mind that Barnabas is himself appointed by the Apostles to lead the second largest church community after Jerusalem (Antioch). Though Paul and Barnabas appoint church leaders, they also have unambiguous credentials as being associated with the original Apostles.
A Show of Hands, or A Laying on of Hands
However, the far more interesting term is the Greek were used for “appointed.” The root verb is cheirotoneo. The term means to appoint, to elect, or to ordain via “a show of hands” or “an extension of hands.” Parenthetically, “cheiro” means “hand” in Greek. The actual intent of this verb has been hotly debated by biblical scholars. Strong’s Concordance defines the verb as “to elect by show of hands, to choose, to appoint.” The definitions encountered in most concordances in English are generally in agreement: the verb means “to appoint” or “to choose” by show of hands. The concordances will even argue that, in secular usage, cheirotoneo was used as a term to describe the popular election of leaders.
Lex Orandi Lex Credendi
I found this research into the term cheirotoneo rather frustrating, as neither the Catholic nor the Orthodox churches choose “presbyters” by a show of hands. In addition, the long tradition of the Apostolic Churches is to “ordain” via a “laying on of hands,” an ancient tradition which even has precedent in Hebrew Scripture. In my frustration, I sought alternate ways of researching the term cheirotoneo. I discovered that the modern spelling, in Greek, is slightly different. In contemporary Greek, the term is spelled “xeirotonia.”
In researching this term, we find that the Greek Orthodox currently refer to the ordination of priests as χειροτονια πρεσβυτερου. In other words, the Greek Orthodox understand the term “xeirotonia” to refer to a presbyteral ordination. The parallel is significant, since they are not merely borrowing the language of the Book of Acts, but they are using it in praxis. In fact, the praxis and language are perfectly synchronous, as it is the same language and praxis used in Acts. The witness of the Greek Orthodox is adequate evidence to argue in favor the existence of presbyteral orders in Acts. The references in Acts 14 to the selection of presbyters is not an ‘election by show of hands.’ It is, rather, an exercise of apostolic power, an example of the mystery of holy orders, and – most importantly – a priestly ordination.