In Israelite society, heads of families; collectively they form the leadership of the tribe (Josh. 9: 11), or, under the monarchy, of the ruling class (2 Sam. 3: 17). Eldership was never the title of an office to which an individual might be appointed or elected. A son might succeed his father as the elder of a clan. Elders were a body of senior persons with influence varying according to their personal qualities and the importance of the social group to which they belonged, and in succeeding centuries it continued to be the case that ‘the elders’ were not the holders of any office, though they were accorded respect, and it was from them that individual leaders emerged. Neither in the synagogues nor at Qumran were elders members of an order or office.
In the gospels elders (Greek, presbuteroi) are mentioned five times by Mark. They are associated with high priests and scribes (e.g. 8: 31), and give the impression of being a collective body exercising influence together. In the Acts elders are a constituent part of the Jerusalem authority, and again they appear only as a group, never as holders of an office of eldership or independently of the Jewish rulers and scribes (e.g. Acts 4: 5), and they were not necessarily ‘elderly’ in the sense of aged.
Surprisingly, perhaps, elders are never mentioned in the early letters of Paul, where the local leaders of Churches are addressed as ‘brothers’ (NRSV marg.) as distinct from Church members in general (Phil. 4: 21 f.). So also in Acts (15: 40 and 18: 27) it is ‘the brothers’, the local leaders who are not called ‘elders’, who commend members of the Church. The apostle himself and his fellow workers were all members of a team working together.
However, as the local Churches expanded, and the apostle moved far away, it became essential for someone in each house‐church to exercise leadership and to preside over the assemblies. He was possibly chosen because of ability in teaching. Household churches existed in Jerusalem itself (Acts 2: 46; 4: 31) and if they were looking for a title for their local leaders, they might have found it in the mebaqqer of Qumran, episkopos in Greek. When these persons met together for corporate consultation, this would be referred to as the elders, presbuteroi, of Jerusalem. The situation envisaged by the Pastoral Epistles is similar. Over each local house‐church, an overseer (episkopos) presided, and when they met as a group they were the elders (presbuteroi) of the city's Christians. The writer is urging his readers now to accept the fact that there must be one overseer for all the groups of the place, very much as James was in Jerusalem. The kind of episkopos commended would be Onesiphorus (2 Tim. 1: 16–18). Just as there was a local leader for the groups meeting in houses, so there now had to be a leader for the whole Church of the city corporately. Local people were encouraged to serve in this capacity (1 Tim. 3: 1), coming forward from among the presbuteroi. By the time of Ignatius (c.107 ce) the single episkopos (bishop) is established in Antioch as a safeguard for the unity of the Church. He presides at the Eucharist, together with elders, whose duties are not described, and deacons. Possibly these elders were the episkopoi of a number of neighbouring churches, with local prestige which Ignatius feels must now be surrendered in exchange for the ceremonial honour of sitting round the bishop of the city Church.