Setting things straight


Shame on you, Gary Wills, religious historian, you know otherwise. 

Your recent piece in the Boston Globe has some egregious historical errors. Without entering into a sad discussion of the criminal abuse of children and the world of human trafficking, let me concentrate on one sentence especially of that Globe article.

“…. the only New Testament titles for service to the community are episcopos (overseer), presbyter (elder), apostolos (emissary), and diakonos (servant), never priest (hiereus).” To continue your pattern, you should have used the Greek word presbyteros in transliteration than the English word presbyter. That comment may seem pedantic, but it comes to the heart of your error about the word “priest” in the New Testament.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the men who led religious gatherings and offered gifts to God (sacrifice) were called Kohen. This name has not survived into modern English. In the Greek Scriptures, such a person is called hiereus. This name has not survived into modern English, except in the word hierarchy and cognates.

In the New Testament times, the followers of Jesus did not meet in a special temple or shrine to worship, but in the homes of fellow Christians. The leader was often the father in the host family, the paterfamilias (the eldest mail of the household) or of some other family who, as an elder in the faith, had been appointed to the position.

This domestic assembly (oikos ekklesia in Greek, or domus ecclesia in Latin) continued in the Roman Empire until special buildings were erected in the time of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. It was also in the fourth century that Latin replaced Greek in the Christian religion in Europe. Then the Latin term sacerdos was used for the leaders of the Christian assemblies.

The Latin term was present in the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English word sacerd, but only survives in modern English in the adjective sacerdotal. The modern languages closest to Latin have sacerdot (Romanian) and sacerdote (Portuguese, Spanish, Italian).

The Greek term for the assembly survives in French (eglise), Italian (chiese), Portuguese (egreja), etc.

The building which the Christians dedicated to worship were described as kyriakon (pertaining to the Lord). This word is found in Anglo-Saxon as circe, in Middle English as chirche, and in Modern English as church. In Teutonic languages, the ‘k’ was kept, as in the German Kirche.

The designated leader of the assembly, the elder (presbyteros), or the head of the household (pater, paterfamilias) is also found in modern languages: Romanian (preot, popa), French (pretre, pere), English (priest, father). 

When we put it all together, basic Christian terms we use in Modern English do not translate words found, or not found in the New Testament or other first/second century Christian writings, but these terms are the identical terms those early Christians used, though the spelling and pronunciation have evolved over the past 2,000 years.

Father Buote is a retired priest of the Fall River Diocese and a frequent contributor to The Anchor.

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