The History of the Office of Elder (2): During and After the Babylonian Captivity

Previous article in this series: March 15, 2012, p. 279.

In our last article we began treating the history of the office of elder by examining its presence in the nation of Israel. Particularly we noted what the Old Testament teaches regarding the authority, quali­fications, and work of elders.

In this article we treat the period from Israel’s captiv­ity through Jesus’ day, intending to treat the developments in the office after the time of Pentecost in our next article.

The Office Continues

Two historical events that occasioned development in the office of elder were the Babylonian captivity and the return from captivity.

From the time that Israel was organized at Sinai until Nebuchadnezzar took Judah captive, Israel/Judah was both an earthly kingdom and God’s church. Accord­ingly, her elders functioned as both civil leaders and spiritual guides and watchmen.

With the Babylonian captivity, Judah (the true Israel) ceased being a nation in its own right. Even later, when the Jews returned from captivity, they were not self-governing but were under the control of the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Romans. Without question, this had an effect on the office of elder. Jer­emiah lamented it: “The elders have ceased from the gate” (Lam. 5:14). This does not mean that the office of elder ceased; rather, the elders could no longer fully carry out the civil aspect of their office, and were limited in their ability to enforce God’s law.

Yet the office continued.

The Bible indicates that the Jews, while in captivity, still had their elders. Jeremiah wrote a letter, “sent from Jerusalem unto the residue of the elders which were car­ried away captives. . .” (Jer. 29:1). And Ezekiel, prophet in captivity, found himself seated among the elders of Judah (Ezek. 8:1; Ezek. 14:1), who came to him to inquire of Jehovah (Ezek. 20:1, 3).

The Bible also indicates that the Jews, when re­turned from captivity, still had their elders. These supervised the construction of the temple at Jerusa­lem (Ezra 5:5; Ezra 6:8; Ezra 6:14) and encouraged the people to continue building when the work was opposed (Ezra 5:5). To the elders of the Jews the enemies came, trying to stop the work (Ezra 5:9). These el­ders, with the princes, required all the Jews to gather to Jerusalem within three days, or face penalties (Ezra 10:8); and these elders were appointed to judge (Ezra 10:14).

Scripture further indicates that the Jews of Jesus’ day had elders. Numerous times in the gospel accounts the “elders” are mentioned in the same breath as the “chief priests” and the “scribes.” The elders had their traditions regarding washing (Matt. 15:2); the elders, with the chief priests and scribes, led the way in opposing Jesus (Matt. 21:23) and putting Him to death (Matt. 16:21; Matt. 26-27).

Just as the office of elder predated Israel’s organiza­tion as a nation (Israel had elders already in Egypt, be­fore Moses’ time), so the office of elder outlasted Israel’s and Judah’s existence as a nation.

Why did the office of elder continue?

If Israel was nothing more than an ethnic group, the continuance of this office would enable her to maintain her ethnic identity. Indeed, this is part of it—God in His providence and grace was preserving the Jews as a people.

But the fundamental answer why the office of elder continued, even though Israel was no longer a nation, is that Israel still was—in her elect core, the godly remnant—God’s church and covenant people. Through them He would bring forth the Christ. The office of elder continued, so that the people would have a picture of Christ, their true elder.

The Elders’ Oversight of Worship and Spiritual Life: The Synagogue

When Israel was no longer a nation in her own right, the office of elder came to the fore in the synagogues.

The synagogues were places in which the Jews gath­ered for worship, included in which was the reading and exposition of the Old Testament Scriptures.1

Scholars debate the question of exactly when these synagogues arose. The Jews considered Moses to have instituted them,2 but this cannot be the case. Some suggest they arose early during the Babylonian captiv­ity, and that the encounters of Ezekiel with the elders of the Jews happened at synagogues. Others place the development of the synagogue later during the captivity, or even after the return from captivity.

For now we simply assert that the synagogues arose at some point during or after the Babylonian captivity. We do not read of them explicitly in the Old Testament. Yet, by Jesus’ day, they were well-established institutions. In fact, “At the time of Christ and the apostles there was at least one synagogue in each city of any size in Palestine.”3 And: “Not a town, nor a village, if it num­bered only ten men . . . but had one or more synagogues.”4 And, by the time Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70, according to the rabbis, it had “not fewer than 480, or at least 460, synagogues.”5

The officers of the synagogue included the rabbis, scribes, and teachers—all of whom taught; a deacon who had charge of the scrolls (Luke 4:20); and the body of elders, included in which was the ruler of the synagogue.

Samuel Miller, writing in 1831, states that the trusted scholars of Jewish antiquity, differing in some respects on their view of the elders in the synagogues, spoke with virtual unanimity on this point:

. . . that in every Synagogue there was a bench of Elders, consisting of at least three persons, who were charged with the whole inspection, government, and discipline of the Synagogue; who, as a court or bench of rulers, received, judged, censured, excluded, and, in a word, performed every judicial act, necessary to the regularity and welfare of the congregation.6

In support of what Miller says about the elders’ work, we read that it was the ruler of the synagogue who rebuked Jesus for healing on the Sabbath (Luke 13:14), and that the rulers (we read the “Jews,” but this must be understood of those who governed) had decreed that one who confessed Jesus as the Christ would be excommunicated from the synagogue (John 9:22, John 12:42, John 16:2).

One can’t help but note the similarities between the synagogues then, and the church today. In both, the faithful assemble(d) for worship. Second, both had/have basically three kinds of officers—the synagogues had teachers, elders, and ministers, and the church has pastors, elders, and deacons. Particularly, in both synagogue and church one finds an office of rule. Third, the number of elders in the synagogues was never less than three. The Church Order that the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619) adopted requires at least two elders in every congregation, and requires that, if a congregation has only two elders, the deacons be part of the consis­tory. In effect, then, no Reformed church will have less than three officebearers who join in the rule of the church.

To summarize this section: when Israel was no longer a nation, and when the elders could carry out no civil function, the office of elder came to the fore in the synagogues. As rulers of the synagogues, the elders then, like elders in the church today, oversaw the wor­ship and spiritual lives of the people.

The Elders’ Influence on Earthly Life: The Sanhedrin

One more way in which the elders of the Jews manifested their presence during the intertestamentary period, and through the time of Jesus, was in the “San­hedrin.”

The institution of the Sanhedrin can be traced to the time that the Greeks ruled the Jews (331-198 B.C.). During the period of Roman rule it became even stron­ger, so that the Sanhedrin’s influence during the time of Jesus’ earthly life was great—although Herod Antipas (the tetrarch of Galilee during the time of Jesus) did everything in his power to curtail the Sanhedrin’s influ­ence. The Sanhedin was abolished when Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70.

We should not suppose that there was only one Sanhedrin in Judaism. In Jerusalem, the high priest presided over the Great Sanhedrin, which was made up of 71 men—past high priests, elders, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees.7 In addition, the smaller localities also had their Sanhedrim (sanhedrin is singular, sanhedrim is plural). Edersheim writes: “Then every town had its Sanhedrim, consisting of twenty-three members if the place numbered at least one hundred and twenty men, or of three members if the population were smaller. These Sanhedrists were appointed directly by the su­preme authority, or Great Sanhedrin, ‘the council,’ at Jerusalem. . . .”8

The Sanhedrin was a ruling body.

As a ruling body, the Sanhedrin made every effort to influence the people. One way it did this was by making laws. But it could not make laws that interfered with the rule of the Greek and Roman Empires. So the Sanhedrin did its best to make laws that governed the religious life of the Jews as the people and kingdom of God. The attempts of the Pharisees to do this led, as we know, to the whole system of works-righteousness that Jesus and the apostles condemned.

Especially, as a ruling body, the Sanhedrin passed judgment among the Jews in matters both civil and reli­gious, in light of the Old Testament Mosaic law. When a matter pertained exclusively to the Mosaic law, the Greeks or Romans let the Jews do as they pleased. So Pilate, knowing that Jesus committed no crime against the Roman Empire, told the Jews, “Take ye him, and judge him according to your law” (John 18:31). When a matter pertained both to the Mosaic law and the law of the empire, the Greek or Roman judges had to be in­volved. When Rome ruled, it permitted the Sanhedrin to conclude that a man should die, but did not allow the Sanhedrin to put one to death. This, of course, is why the Jews tried to convince Pilate that the issues regarding Jesus did not pertain merely to Jewish law—that Jesus was in fact a threat to Caesar. And when a matter pertaining to the Mosaic law threatened the peace of the province, Rome readily took matters in her own hands—as happened when Paul was arrested in Jerusa­lem at the end of his third missionary journey (Acts 21 and following).

Conclusion

I agree with Samuel Miller’s contention that the of­fice of elder in the New Testament church is primarily a continuation of the bench of elders in the synagogues.9 The elders who made up the Sanhedrin were, for all their attempt at religious influence, primarily civil leaders. And, as we mentioned, with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the Sanhedrin was abolished. Nevertheless, the religious influence of the Sanhedrin and its elders cannot be overlooked.

By connecting the office of elder in the Old Testa­ment to that in the New Testament church through the elders of the synagogues, we are not saying that the men who held that office always honored the office. Just as was true of Israel’s elders in her early days, and of elders in Christian churches today (considering Christianity most broadly), so also in these times there were some godly elders (Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea), but many who sought power for themselves.

In fact, a pattern emerges, which pattern fits the his­tory of God’s people throughout the ages. When God chastened, humbled, and reformed His church, the elders whom He appointed over His reformed church were godly men, who sought His glory. This was gener­ally true of the elders in Moses’ time, in David’s time, and after the return from captivity. But as time went on, wickedness developed in the church—tolerated by, and often promoted by, elders who were more con­cerned to retain their power and influence over people than to enforce God’s law and seek Him. The corrupt Sanhedrin and rulers of synagogues who cast Christ out are instances of this.

From this, elders in Christ’s church today must take warning. The elders of Jesus’ day rejected the very Christ. Personally, they saw no need for Him—they were righteous; and in their work, while appearing or pretending to adhere to the promises of a coming Christ, they led the people to reject the true Christ. May God give our elders grace to bow before this same Christ—to acknowledge Him as the church’s corner­stone and find in Him their own salvation, rather than refuse Him and stumble over Him to their destruc­tion.

The church of Jesus’ day, also in her spiritual lead­ership, stood in need of reform. By His death at the hands of wicked elders, His resurrection, His ascension to God’s right hand, and His pouring out of the Spirit, Christ Himself provided for this reformation of the church, and of the office of elder.


1 A good popular treatment of the subject of the synagogues, if the reader is interested, can be found in chapters 16-18 of Alfred Edersheim’s book Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1988, reprint).

2 “Synagogue,” The International Standard Bible Encyclo­pedia, ed. James Orr (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1956), vol. 4, 2878.

3 G. Dalman, “Synagogue,” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclo­pedia of Religious Knowledge, ed. Samuel M. Jackson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977 reprint), vol. XI, 213.

4 Edersheim, Sketches, 253.

5 Edersheim, Sketches, 254.

6 Samuel Miller, An Essay on the Warrant, Nature, and Du­ties of the Office of the Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (General Books [www.General-Books.net], 2009), 15.

7 Victor H. Matthews, Manners and Customs in the Bible: An Illustrated Guide to Daily Life in Bible Times (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), 258.

8 Edersheim, Sketches, 91.

9 Miller, Essay, 23ff.