16 November 2011

Confusion Over the Word "Priest"

There is a great deal of confusion among English speaking Christians (maybe in some other languages as well) between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of all Christians. Protestant Churches do not have a ministerial priesthood, and often suggest that Catholics invented their ministerial priesthood apart from Sacred Scripture. Most Catholics, when presented with such suggestions, either weaken in their faith in the Catholic Church, or ignore such suggestions and make no attempt understand why these suggestions are wrong. This confusion does not exist in Greek or in Latin, and so a little look at the Greek New Testament, the Latin Vulgate Bible and the English Douay-Rheims Bible clears up this matter very quickly.

The development of the English language and the translation of the Greek New Testament in to English is very complex. The English word priest existed before the Douay-Rheims Bible was created, and the Latin word from which the English word priest developed existed before the Latin Vulgate Bible was created. However, for simplicity sake, we will assume that the complex development of Latin and English is summed up in the creation of the Vulgate Bible and the Douay-Rheims Bible. The Vulgate was not the first Latin Bible, and the Douay-Rheims was not the first English Bible; however, the following presentation will appear as if they were, again, for simplicity sake.

I want to first look at four Greek words found in the New Testament:

  • διάκονος (diaconos): a servant.

  • πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros): an elder, older.

  • ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos): an overseer or supervisor.

  • ἱερεύς (hiereus): a religious authority that can perform certain rites, particularly sacrifice.


Less than three centuries after the New Testament was written, this is how these words were translated in the Latin Vulgate:

  • diaconos: an Latinization of the Greek word διάκονος (diaconos).

  • presbyter: an Latinization of the Greek word πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros).

  • episcopus: an Latinization of the Greek word ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos)

  • sacerdos: a religious authority that can perform certain rites, particularly sacrifice.


Notice how ἱερεύς (hiereus) was the only word that was  translated into an existing Latin word, sacerdos. The Greek words διάκονος (diaconos), πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) and ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) had taken on such a special meaning to Christians that they were not literally translated into Latin, but the Greek words were Latinized into new Latin words, diaconospresbyter and episcopus.

If διάκονος (diaconos) had been literally translated, the Latin words ministrator or minister would have been used, as in Luke 22:26 and Colossians 1:23.

Likewise, if πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) had been literally translated, the Latin word senior would have been used, as in 1 Peter 5:1. Or, if we compare the Vulgate with the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament used in Jesus' time), πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) could have been translated into Latin as senex or senuerat (both related to the word senior), vetulus, or longævo, all of which deal with being old or long-lived.

Again, if ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) had been literally translated, the Latin term super quos or super viros would have been used as it was in the Old Testament. (Note that it is from the Latin super viros that we get the English word supervisor.)

Twelve centuries after the Latin Vulgate was created, this is how these words were translated in the English Douay-Rheims Bible:

  • deacon: an Anglicization of the Latin word diaconos. Old English diacon.

  • priest: an Anglicization of the Latin word presbyter. Old English prēost. German prēster.

  • bishop: an Anglicization of the Latin word episcopus. Old English bisceop.

  • priest: an Anglicization of the Latin word presbyter. Old English prēost. German prēster.


Notice how the Greek ἱερεύς (hiereus) or the Latin sacerdos do not have an English equivalent. Instead they are translated with the Anglicization of the Greek πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) or Latin presbyter. This is somewhat unfortunate, as confusion arises. However, it does demonstrate the main function of the Christian office given the Greek title πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros): a religious authority that can perform certain rites, particularly sacrifice; in this case, the unbloody sacrifice of the Mass.

At this point, if what I have written is clear, you should begin to see that there are two separate uses of the English word priest. The first is for the ministerial office in the Christian Church forming with the offices of deacon and bishop the Catholic hierarchy. The second is for a similar office in the Jewish and pagan religions, which is also used to describe all Christians, the fulness of which is fulfilled in Christ.

It should be obvious, I hope, that the first use is more legitimate than the second. The English word priest, first and foremost, is the correct translation of the Latin word presbyter and the Greek word πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) when used in reference to the office in the Christian hierarchy. This is the most common use of this word within the Catholic Church. The second use of the English word priest is only legitimate as there is no better alternative in common use for the Latin word sacerdos and the Greek word ἱερεύς (hiereus).

Since the translation of the Douay-Rheims Bible in the 16th century, this is how these words have been translated by both Protestants and Catholics:

  • deacon

  • elder

  • overseer or bishop

  • priest


Taking into account the history described above of these words, it should be immediately clear that this modern translation is woefully lacking. The first word is common to all Christians. However, the convention that gave us this English word is abandoned with the second and sometimes the third. As well, the last word is correct only in so far as there is not a better alternative in common use and it is not confused with the ministerial priesthood in the Catholic hierarchy.

Aside from 1 Peter 5:1, translating πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) as elder is flat out wrong. One has to consider if the convention used between 14 and 19 centuries after the death of the last Apostle could possibly be more legitimate than the convention used within two centuries of the living memory of that Apostle, if not while that Apostle was alive. The convention of translating διάκονος (diaconos) as deacon and ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) as bishop should be observed with πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros). Obviously, when the Greek word πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) is used in reference to a minister of the Catholic Church, only the Latin word presbyter and the English word priest should be used.

The English word priest does present some confusion. I have attempted to dispel this confusion as best I can; however, there is a better way, although not that common: use the Latin or Anglicization of the Latin:

  • "Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain;" (1 Timothy 3:8)

  • "This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint priests in every town as I directed you," (Titus 1:5)

  • "The saying is sure: If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task. " (1 Timothy 3:1)

  • "In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a sacerdos named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth." (Luke 1:5)

  • "But you are a chosen race, a royal sacerdotium, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." (1 Peter 2:9)

  • "and assembling all the chief sacerdotum and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born." (Matthew 2:4)

  • "with Annas the high sacerdotum and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high sacerdotali family." (Acts 4:6)

  • "First they led him to Annas; for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was pontifex that year." (John 18:13)

  • "where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a pontifex for ever after the order of Melchizedek." (Hebrews 6:20)


The last three verses all use the Greek word ἀρχιερεύς (harchiereus); therefore, to avoid the complexity of using another Latin term, the term high sacerdotum can be used consistently for ἀρχιερεύς (harchiereus). The Latin Vulgate uses the word pontifex sometimes and princeps sacerdotum at others, but to keep things simple, we can use high sacerdotum consistently.

  • "First they led him to Annas; for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high sacerdotum that year." (John 18:13)

  • "where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high sacerdotum for ever after the order of Melchizedek." (Hebrews 6:20)


If we make the words more Anglicized, we could do this:

  • "Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain;" (1 Timothy 3:8)

  • "This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint priests in every town as I directed you," (Titus 1:5)

  • "The saying is sure: If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task. " (1 Timothy 3:1)

  • "In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a sacerdote named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth." (Luke 1:5)

  • "But you are a chosen race, a royal sacerdotium, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." (1 Peter 2:9)

  • "and assembling all the chief sacerdotes and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born." (Matthew 2:4)

  • "with Annas the high sacerdote and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high sacerdotal family." (Acts 4:6)

  • "First they led him to Annas; for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high sacerdote that year." (John 18:13)

  • "where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high sacerdote for ever after the order of Melchizedek." (Hebrews 6:20)


I admit, I am coining new words. However, the word sacerdotal can be found in most English dictionaries, so I'm not completely making up new words.

This can be confusing. You may have to read this a few times. Hopefully, though, I've cleared up some of the confusion.