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Volume 7, Issue 4: The Puritan Eye

Presbyterian Jews

Samuel Miller

It is impossible fully to understand either the spirit, the facts, or the nomenclature of the New Testament, without going back to the Old. The Christian religion is founded upon that of the Jews; or rather, it is the completion of it. The latter was the infancy and adolescence of that body of which the former is the manhood. As a very large part of the titles and functions of ecclesiastical officers were, evidently, transmitted from the ceremonial to the spiritual economy, it is indispensably necessary, in order fully to understand their character, to go back to their source.

The term elder literally signifies an aged person. Among the Jews, persons advanced in life were commonly selected to fill stations of dignity and authority, because they were supposed to possess most wisdom, gravity, prudence, and experience. From this circumstance, the term elder, became, in process of time, and by a natural association of ideas, an established title of office. Accordingly, the Jews gave this title to most of their officers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, long before synagogues were established. From the time of Moses, they had elders over the nation, as well as over every city, and smaller communities.
The discussion of when the synagogue service was instituted will not be attempted in this place, especially as it is a question of no real importance in the inquiry now before us. All that is necessary for us to assume is that it existed at the time of our Lord's advent, and for a considerable time before.
It is not forgotten that a few eminent writers, following that celebrated German errorist, Erastus, have contended that there was no ecclesiastical government among the Jews distinct from the civil; and that, of course, there were no rulers of the synagogue separate from the civil judges. Those who wish to see this error satisfactorily refuted, and the existence of a distinct ecclesiastical government among that people clearly established, may consult what has been written on the subject by the learned Gillespie, by professor Rutherford, by Bishop Stillingfleet, and others; from whose writings they will be convinced, beyond all reasonable doubt, that the civil and ecclesiastical judicatories were really distinct.
But while eminent writers on Jewish antiquities have differed, and continue to differ, in relation to the points of rank among elders, existence of a separate teaching office, they are all perfectly agreed in one point, namely, that in every synagogue there was a bench of elders, consisting of at least three persons, who were charged with the whole inspection, government, and discipline of the synagogue; who, as a court or bench of rulers, received, judged, censured, excluded, and, in a word, performed every judicial act, necessary to the regularity and welfare of the congregation.
Accordingly, we find various passages in the New Testament history, which refer to these ruling elders, belonging to the old economy which was then drawing to a close, and which admit, it would appear, of no other interpretation than that which supposes their existence. The following specimen will suffice--Mark 5:22. "And, behold, there cometh one of the rulers of the Synagogue, Jairus by name; and when he saw him he fell at his feet."
The learned Vitringa is of the opinion that "a majority of the elders of the synagogue were not, in fact, ordinarily employed in teaching or preaching; that this part of the public service was principally under the direction of the chief ruler, or head of each synagogue, who attended to it himself, or called on one of the other elders, or even any other learned doctor who might be present, and who was deemed capable of addressing the people in an instructive and acceptable manner: and that the chief business of the mass of the elders was to rule."
The number of the elders in each Synagogue was not governed by any absolute rule. In large cities the number was frequently very large. But even in the smallest synagogues, we are assured that there were never less than three, so that the judicatory might never be equally divided. Such were the arrangements for maintaining purity and order in the synagogues, or parish churches of the old economy, anterior to the advent of the Messiah. It would seem to be impossible for any one to contemplate this statement, so amply supported by all sound authority, without recognizing a striking likeness to the arrangements afterwards adopted in the New Testament Church.
The first quotation shall be taken from Bishop Burnet. "Among the Jews," says he, " he who was the chief of the Synagogue was called chazzan hakeneseth, that is, the bishop of the congregation, and sheliach tsibbor, the angel of the church. And the Christian Church being modeled as near the form of the synagogue as could be, just as they retained many of the rites, so the form of government was continued, and the names remained the same." And again; "In the synagogues there was, first, one that was called the bishop of the congregation. Next the three orderers, and judges of every thing about the synagogue, who were called tsekenim, and by the Greeks, presbyteroi or gerontes. These ordered and determined every thing that concerned the synagogue, or the persons in it. Next to them, were the three parnassin, or deacons, whose charge was to gather the collections of the rich, and to distribute them to the poor. The term elder, was generally given to all their judges: but chiefly to those of the great Sanhedrin."
Any that will impartially read the New Testament will find that when the forms of government or worship are addressed, it is not done with such architectonal exactness, as would be necessary, if a new thing were being instituted. But the apostles rather speak as those who give rules for the ordering and directing of what was already in being. From all which it seems well grounded and rational to assume that the first constitution of the Christian Churches was taken from the model of the synagogue.

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