Ecclesiastical Vocabulary among the First Christian Communities: Episkopoi, Presbuteroi, and Diakonoi

Ecclesiastical Vocabulary in the First Christian Communities: Episkopoi, Presbuteroi, and Diakonoi

At the end of a long semantic history, the words diakonos (lit. “server”), presbuteros (lit. “elder”), and episkopos (lit. “supervisor”) came to denote a new reality within Christianity, namely, ecclesiastical ministers. Beginning with the first Christian texts, the noun diakonos has denoted those ministers ordained to serve both other ministers and the church at-large. Clear definition of the other two terms, however, took much longer: they would not reach their final stage of development until after the passing of the last Apostles.

Diakonos: a Definition Quickly Found

In quotidian Greek, diakonos denotes a domestic servant, often specially trained to serve at banquets. This primary meaning is well attested in the Bible (Mt 22:13; Jn 2:5). More generally, it can denote any helper or assistant. In the NT, the abstract term diakonia broadly denotes deeds of charity or service rendered to one’s neighbor (Acts 11:29; 12:25). In turn, this word would quickly be applied to ecclesial ministry as a whole. Paul concludes his list of charges for Timothy by exhorting him to carry out his diakonia in full (2Tm 4:5). The source of all ministry, Christ, the archipoimên or “chief shepherd” (1Pt 5:4), presents himself as the servant of all—and he gives this example to be emulated by his disciples (Mk 9:35; 10:45; Lk 22:26–27).

For diakonos, a more precise meaning is outlined in the NT. The term is applied to subaltern ecclesiastical ministers, listed after the presbuteroi/espiskopoi (Phil 1:1; 1Tm 3:8–13), who are named to serve under the authority of the Apostles (cf. Acts 6:1–6; 8:5–25). Some other expressions coincide with the term diakonos: “the Seven” (Acts 21:8)—which the Fathers, following Irenaeus, identify as deacons—and undoubtedly the neôteroi, which 1Pt 5:5 places beneath the presbuteroi.   

In the NT, these ministers assist the widows (Acts 6:1–6), preach the Gospel (Acts 6:8–7; 8:5–13; 1Tm 3:9), and administer baptism (Acts 8:12–13,26–40). Soon after, extra-biblical texts testify to their liturgical functions at the service of presbuteroi/episkopi (Did. 15:1; cf. Justin  1 Apol. 1.65.5; 1.67.5, for the distribution of communion). 

In sum, the word diakonos received clear definition rather quickly.

Presbuteros and Episkopos: Longtime Synonyms

In turn, the terminology relating to those ministers placed at the head of the Christian communities remained indefinite for a long time: (pro)hêgoumenoi (Heb 13:7 ; Clement of Rome 1 Clem. 21 ; Herm. Vis. 2.2.6, 3.9.7), proistamenoi (Rom 12:8; 1Thes 5:12 ), poimenes (Eph 4:11) and others. Among these different terms, the texts would eventually have a marked preference for two in particular: presbuteros and episkopos


As opposed to neôteros (“younger”), presbuteros (“elder”) denotes first of all the difference of age and, by consequence, the difference of honor due to each (Lk 15:25; Jn 8:9 ; 1Tm 5:1). Beginning from this primary sense, the term became more specific, especially in the plural, designating a council of “elders” charged with the management of a city. Translating the term zᵉqēnîm, presbuteroi in G refers to the patresfamilias called to direct the people of God (Nm 11:16–17) who comprise a sort of municipal council in each city (Dt 19:12; 21:3–8,19; cf. Lk 7:4–5) and are sometimes associated with the judges (Dt 29:9; Jo 23:2). At Jerusalem, the council consisted of the elders (presbuteroi), the chief-priests (archiereis), and the scribes (grammateis; Mt 27:41 ; Mk 8:31; 11:27; 14:43,53; 15:1 ; Lk 9:22; 20:1; 22:66).

In the early Church, the term presbuteros designates resident-ministers, set up either by an Apostle or one of their direct disciples (e.g., Timothy, Titus), who direct the Christian community in each city. In order to distinguish this newer use from the older sense, the Lucan corpus makes recourse to the expression “presbuteroi of the Church” (Acts 20:17; cf. Jas 5:14), as opposed to the presbuteroi tôn Ioudaiôn (Lk 7:3 ; Acts 25:15). The frequency of the syntagm hoi presbuteroi (the plural preceded by the definite article) evokes the collegial character of this council (cf. the collective presbuterion in 1Tm 4:14). 

At Jerusalem, the presbuteroi were under the authority of the Apostles (cf. Acts 15:2,4,6,22–23; 16:4). In other cities, the NT places these presbuteroi under the responsibility of Paul (at Ephesus [Acts 20:17]; in Pisidia or Lycaonia [Acts 14:23]), Timothy (at Ephesus [1Tm 5:17–22]), or Titus (in Crete [Tt 1:5]). Likewise, the hêgoumenoi of the epistle to the Hebrews receive their authority from Timothy and the author of the letter (Heb 13:7,17,24).

In the NT, the presbuteroi are called to take care of the faithful (cf. Acts 20:28 ; 1Pt 5:2) through preaching (1Tm 5:17 ; Tt 1:9). They are likewise responsible for anointing the sick (Jas 5,14–15). According to the pastoral epistles—and following a practice attested in the early Church (Trad. Ap. 7)—the apostle Paul imposed hands on Timothy amidst a gathering of the assembly of presbuteroi (1Tm 4:14 ; 2Tm 1:6).


In everyday classical Greek episkopos denotes an official “inspector,” “overseer,” “supervisor,” or “guardian.” It is derived from the root skep- which furnishes a collection of terms denoting attentive and vigilant oversight (episkeptomai, “consider, visit”; episkopeô “inspect, watch”).

In turn, while used much more rarely in the NT (5 attestations) compared to diakonos (29 attestations) or presbuteros (66), episkopos displays a particular set of meanings in the NT, evoking the vigilance that each pastor should adopt. Moreover, by describing an “observer” or “protector,” the form episkopos reflects a divine quality in certain passages of the Bible (Ws 1:6: God “witness and episkopos of the heart”; 1Pt 2:25: Christ, “pastor and episkopos” of his disciples). 

In Hebrew, the word pāqîd, “one charged with works, oversight, or management,” appears to be the nearest equivalent to episkopos. In turn, pāqîd is derived from the verb pāqad which, like episkopeô can mean both “to visit” and “to review.” Likewise the hip‘il form hipqîd means to “set one over something” or “to commit something to the care of someone.” At Qumran ( [4QBerd] 1:4), pāqîd is applied to the “priest in charge of the community’s council.” Each time that it translates a term from the root p-q-d in G (pāqîd : Jgs 9:28 ; Neh 11:9,14,22 ; pāqûd : Nm 31:14 ; 2Kgs 11:15,12:12 ; peqūdâ: Nm 4:16 ; 2Kgs 11:18; mūpqād : 2Chr 34:12,17), episkopos conserved the classical sense of “appointed to tasks of oversight.” 

In turn, the abstract term episkopê is attested for the first time in G. It is enriched by the nuances of the root p-q-d, especially in reference to God’s actions (where it has the sense of the “inspection” or “visitation” [of Yhwh]), implying either the blessing of the just or the chastisement of the impious (cf. Lk 19:44). Applied to human beings, episkopê designates a sacred charge or function, maintaining its connection with the classical sense of episkopos (cf. 2Kgs 12:12 the care of the house of Yhwh). In Acts 1:20 (citing Ps 109:8 “let another take his episkopên”), this term has a more specific meaning: Luke applies it to Matthias’s ministry within the college of the twelve. The Pauline corpus (1Tm 3:1) retains the term episkopê to denote the ecclesial ministry of the episkopos

Interchangeable Terms?

In sum, episkopos and presbuteros are distinguished by their particular connotations in the earliest Christian literature:

  • the former suggests responsibility for a particular office,

  • while the latter evokes the dignity of the ministry.

The testimony of the Fathers (John Chrysostom Hom. Phil. ad Phil 1:1 ; Jerome Comm. Tit. ad Tt 1:7)  and of the ancient translations (S : qšyšwt’ for episkopê in 1Tm 3:1) shows, however, that for a long time, the two terms were interchangeable: either one could designate the members of a city’s presbyterium

Philological analysis, taking all the corpuses together, confirms this traditional judgment. The two terms would alternate to describe the same persons (Acts 20:17,28 ; Tt 1:5,7); the role of the presbuteros opens up the way to the action of episkopein (1Pt 5:1–2); the conditions for episkopê (Tt 1:5–9) are equivalent to that of presbyteria (1Tm 3:2–7) ; a group of resident episkopoi appear under to be under Paul’s authority at Ephesus (Acts 20:28), as at Philippi (Phil 1:1); the mention of episkopoi (associated with diakonoi: Phil 1:1; 1Tm 3:1–13) is accompanied by the absence of presbuteroi and vice-versa (1Tm 5:17): all confirm the identity of the designated ministry. In the wake of the NT, numerous texts preserve traces of this original synonymy (Did. 15.1 ; Clement of Rome 1 Clem. 42 ; Herm. Sim. 9.26–27 and Herm. Vis. 3.5.1).

Because of this semantic equivalence, the first generations of Christians could describe certain apostles (or their successors) presbuteros (cf. 2Jn 1 and 3Jn 1). Irenaeus reserves the title apostolikos presbuteros for Polycarp (Letter to Florinus in Eusebius of Cesarea Hist. eccl. 5.20.6–7) and gives the title of presbuteros to the predecessors of Victor in the see of Rome (Letter to Pope Victor in Eusebius of Cesarea Hist. eccl. 5.24.16–17).

In the end, within the NT and the first generations of Christianity, the word presbuteros had a broader sense than episkopos. This latter term, in turn, only ever designated the intermediate degree between the diakonos and the apostle or his successor. Writing in the late 1st century or early 2nd century, Ignatius of Antioch is the first Christian writer who clearly employs episkopos and presbuteros in a manner similar to the current distinction between the “bishop” and “priests” of a diocese (cf. →Ign.Phld. 4 “there one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup unto union in His blood; there is one altar, as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow-servants”).

Monarchic Episcopacy

Although no precise term is reserved for it in the NT, monarchic episcopacy (most often itinerant) appears in outline in the duties of the Twelve, certain other apostles (like Paul), or their adjutants (e.g., Timothy, Titus): Paul addresses himself to the presbuteroi/episkopoi of Philippi and Ephesus; Timothy and Titus are likewise disposed to their respective colleges of presbuteroi; “Peter the apostle” (1Pt 1:1) encourages the pastoral work of his presbuteroi in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithyinia (1Pt 5:1); finally, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews salutes the hêgoumenoi of the community at the end of his letter. We see that these leaders of the Church apply themselves to teaching (1Tm 4:13,16), proclaiming the word, governing the communities (2Tm 4:2), celebrating the Eucharist (Acts 20:7–11), the laying-on of hands for the reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17; 19:6), curing the sick (Acts 28:8), and ordaining presbuteroi (1Tm 5:22; Tt 1:5) or their own successors (2Tm 1:6). 

Beyond the original terminological imprecision, an attentive examination of the texts of the NT finally reveals—in light of the semantic evolution of the terms episkopos, prebuteros, and diakonos over the course of the first two centuries of our era—an organization of ecclesiastical ministers which anticipates the church order that would prevail in the Church up to the Reformation.

At the end of a long semantic history, the words diakonos (lit. "server"), presbuteros (lit. "elder"), and episkopos (lit. "supervisor") came to denote a new reality within Christianity, namely, ecclesiastical ministers. Beginning with the first Christian texts, the noun diakonos has referred to the body of ministers established to serve both other ministers and the church at-large. Clear definition of the other two terms, however, took much longer: they would not reach their final stage of development until after the passing of the last Apostles.