Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun πρεσβυς (presbus) means "first-comer" or "foregoer". It does not refer to some kid who's been elected "elder" by a band of nitwits. It also does not refer to someone who needs to wear some symbol or tag to be identified as one. Our word refers to someone of middle age, someone old enough to have adult children, who's been around the block and who has experienced and survived most common challenges life may throw at a person. Highly intelligent animals such as elephants naturally follow their most experienced matriarchs, and so-called orphan herds (groups that have lost their experienced elders) often succumb or else survive at the lowest rungs of the pecking order. Less intelligent animals put their most experienced elders in homes and follow leaders with the best TV commercials.
Our word πρεσβυς (presbus) stems from the familiar Proto-Indo-European root per-, meaning first, that also gave us pro-words such as "professor," pre-words like "premier," and words that have to do with leadership such as "priest" and primality such as "prime." Some scholars believe that our word has two parts and that the second part comes from the PIE root gwa-, meaning to go or come. This would make a presbus literally a man who's gone before or a man who came earlier.
In the classics our noun often emphasizes a literal great age but certainly implies wisdom, pre-eminence and leadership. In some societies (like Sparta) our word presbus or "First Comer" was used as a political title meaning president, or someone presiding (same word) over a ruling council. By the time the New Testament was written this once very common word appears to have gone out of use. In the New Testament only the following derivations occur:
- The verb πρεσβευω (presbeuo) meaning to be a foregoer. In the classics this verb may refer to age (to be the "first-comer/elder" of two brothers) but by the time of the New Testament this verb referred to the function and status of "one who goes before," which in turn either denoted a leader or an ambassador. Ambassadors were people who were sent by their lords into foreign territories, to establish a base there and to prepare a proper climate for their lord to be received in. Our verb is used in 2 Corinthians 5:20 and Ephesians 6:20 only, but obviously in the latter sense of being ambassadors, in the words of Isaiah, "clearing the way for the Lord in the wilderness, and making smooth in the desert a highway for our God" (Isaiah 40:3). From this verb in turn comes:
- The noun πρεσβεια (presbeia), a going before. This noun literally describes the act of the verb: the fact or length of the foregoing (that is: age or seniority). Drawn from the more modern use of New Testament times, this noun describes the nature, office and business of ambassadors: embassage or embassy (Luke 14:32 and 19:14 only). The latter Lucan story rather obviously hints at Herod's flight to Rome in 40 BC, where he was crowned King of the Jews and received funding to return and actually conquer Jerusalem. He did so and murdered everyone who got in his way, including the last of the Hasmoneans — who happened to also include his wife and sons; a brutality revisited in the story of the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16).
- The adjective πρεσβυτερος (presbuteros), which describes a pertaining to first-coming or foregoing, which in turn either means being old (being first-coming in time; Luke 15:25), being pre-pre-eminent (having rank or status in society) or else being an ambassador (preparing things for the arrival of the sending lord). The ancients appear to have viewed older people as ambassadors "sent back in time" by future generations, to prepare the world for the arrival of these future generations (Psalm 102:18).
The gospel of Jesus Christ has not a lick to do with some religion and everything with the Logos, or natural law upon which all things operate (Colossians 1:16-17, Romans 1:20). An intimate understanding of natural law leads to science and technology but also to social justice and responsibility and proper stewardship. Ultimately, when a conscious understanding of natural law governs humanity (Revelation 21:22-23), humanity will live in utter freedom in a perfect society (John 8:32).
Up until today the first line of ambassadors of Jesus the Logos consist of folks who urge others to respect the facts rather than suspicions, logic rather than fear, and diplomatic convention rather than domination and dominion. Ambassadors of Christ have always been rare (most people are by nature ambassadors of the other guy) but the last decade or so the numbers have rapidly increased. Our adjective is used 67 times, often substantially; see full concordance. From it in turn come:
- The noun πρεσβυτεριον (presbuterion), which describes the place, gathering or agency of presbuteroi, whether these presbuteroi are old guys, political leaders or ambassadors. In practice this word describes the office and acts of a council of leaders. It occurs in Luke 22:66, Acts 22:5 and 1 Timothy 4:14 only.
- The comparative noun πρεσβυτης (presebutes), literally meaning an "earlier-comer". It denotes a man who is older than someone who could be expected to lead a community on account of his great experience; a generation older than a πρεσβυς (presbus). Our word usually denotes a geriatric man (Luke 1:18, Titus 2:2) but in Philemon 1:9 it applies to Paul, who was a νεανιας (neanias), or "young man" at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58), at best thirty years earlier. This suggests that the author of Philemon may have regarded Paul as the earlier foregoer or trailblazing ambassador. Our word occurs only these three times.
- The noun πρεσβυτις (presbutis), which is not really a wholly separate word but rather the feminine version of the previous one. It denotes an elderly woman (Titus 2:3 only).
- Together with the preposition συν (sun), meaning together or with: the noun συμπρεσβυτερος (sumpresbuteros), meaning fellow foregoer (1 Peter 5:1 only). This word appears to reflect a relatively common term in the Greco-Roman world, namely that of fellow-ambassador or one's colleague at an embassy.