The designation and role of the elder (Hebr. zāqēn; Grk. presbyteros) dates to premonarchic times in Israel. In the legislation concerning the Passover in Exodus 12.21 Moses addresses “all the elders of Israel.” Similarly, in Numbers 11.16 Moses is commanded to gather together “seventy of the elders of Israel whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them” and bring them to the tent of meeting. As this passage and others suggest, the elder, as head of the extended family, had authority over it and also represented it in larger assemblies. These elders functioned primarily on the local level as judges, leaders in battle, and intermediaries between the people and their leaders or God. These functions continued during the monarchy, as the story of Naboth's vineyard (1 Kings 21.8–14) and other passages (e.g., Jer. 26.17; Prov. 31.23) make clear, and in the Second Temple period as well (see Ezra 6.7–8; 10.14), both in Judea (1 Macc. 12.35) and in the Diaspora (Sus. 5).

In the New Testament, the “elders of the people” figure throughout the Gospels (e.g., Mark 15.1 par.) and Acts (5.21; 22.5) as leaders of the Judean community who frequently counsel with other leadership groups and have some role in judging capital crimes. Perhaps related to such a group is the phrase “the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7.3, 5 par.) against which Jesus argues and which is associated with the Pharisees in both the Gospels and Josephus.

When Christianity began to institutionalize in a formal sense, it understandably drew on Jewish tradition to accomplish this task; thus the title and office of elder make their way into New Testament history and texts. Though not found in the authentic Pauline letters, there are elders mentioned in Acts in the churches at Antioch (14.21), Jerusalem (15.6; 21.18), and Ephesus (20.17). The author of 2 and 3 John identifies himself as a presbyteros, as does the writer of 1 Peter (5.1). The office of elder occurs frequently in the Pastoral letters. 1 Timothy 5.1 uses the term in the context of one who is deserving of respect, but not necessarily as a technical term; in 5.17, however, an office is clearly meant, and an elder is defined as one who both teaches and preaches. Functions such as laying on of hands (1 Tim 4.14), anointing the sick (James 5.14), and general governance (Tit. 1.5; 1 Pet. 5.2–3) are also mentioned. There are also repeated references to the office of elder in the apostolic fathers, but as time went on hierarchical episcopacy became the normative form of church administration (see Bishop); the English word “priest,” however, is ultimately derived from the Greek word presbyteros.

The title, and to some extent the functions, of elder were revived by the sixteenth‐century reformer John Calvin, and the Greek word was adopted for the name of the Presbyterian church.

J. Andrew Overman