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Brian Cook wrote:

Hi, guys —

  • Can you tell me the first historic reference to either the Roman Catholic priesthood or to the actual clerical name "priest" either in the writings of the Church Fathers or anywhere else?

Thank you.


  { Can you tell me the first historic reference of the actual clerical name, "priest"? }

Eric replied:

Hi, Brian —

I don't know the answer to your question off the top of my head, and it would be difficult to research it, as it would require access to the Greek and Latin originals of the patristic texts, which I don't have. The term "presbyteroi" simply means ("elder", or old man), and has no sacrificial overtones. The word that does have sacrificial overtones in Greek is not used for Christian clerics in the New Testament. The two words used are:

  • episcopos (literally, "overseer") and
  • presbyteros ("elder" or "old man").

While the English word "priest" does come from presbyteros, presbyteros doesn't have the religious connotations that "priest" has.

If your question is:

  • When did the Christians confess having a sacrifice, i.e., the sacrificial character of the Eucharist?

I can say that there is a reference to Christian sacrifice in the book the Didache, which is a very early book, likely first century, as early as 50A.D., back when prophets still walked the earth:

"Assemble on the Lord's day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one. Anyone who has a difference with his fellow is not to take part with you until he has been reconciled, so as to avoid any profanation of your sacrifice [Matthew 5:23–24].

For this is the offering of which the Lord has said, ‘Everywhere and always bring me a sacrifice that is undefiled, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is the wonder of nations' [Malachi 1:11, 14]" (Didache 14 [A.D. 70]).

Note that he applies the prophecy of Malachi to the Eucharist.

St. Irenaeus in 180A.D., Against Heresies, 4, 17, 5 elaborates on this theme:

"Again, giving counsel to His disciples to offer to God the first-fruits from among His creatures, not as if He needed them, but so that they themselves might be neither unfruitful nor ungrateful, He took from among creation that which is bread, and gave thanks, saying, ``This is My Body.'' The cup likewise, which is from among the creation to which we belong, He confessed to be His Blood.

He taught the New Sacrifice of the New Covenant, of which Malachi, one of the twelve prophets, had signified beforehand:

"You do not do my will," says the Lord Almighty, "and I will not accept a sacrifice at your hands. For from the rising of the sun to its setting My name is glorified among the gentiles, and in every place incense is offer to My name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is My name among the gentiles,' says the Lord Almighty.''

(Malachi 1:11).

By these words He makes it plain that the former people will cease to make offerings to God;
but that in every place sacrifice will be offered to Him, and indeed, a pure one; for His name is glorified among the gentiles.''"

And again, St. Irenaeus in 180A.D., Against Heresies, 4, 18, 2:

"It is not oblations as such that have met with disapproval. There were oblations of old; there are oblations now. There were sacrifices among the people of Israel; there are sacrifices in the Church. Only the kind of oblation has been changed: now it is offered by freemen, not by slaves. There is one and the same Lord, but the character of an oblation made by slaves is distinctive, so too that of an oblation made by sons: their oblations bear the mark of freedom."

There is a somewhat enigmatic passage in the Epistle of Pope Clement to the Corinthians which
I think is around the mid-60's, Chapter 40 and following, where the New Testament ministers are discussed in terms of the Old Testament priesthood. Specifically, they are compared and the author makes arguments about the New Testament ministers by appealing to the Old Testament priesthood. He, too, refers to the offering of sacrifice (Chapter 44). Here he speaks of priests, Levites, sacrifices and the temple in the present tense, as if these pertained to Christians, although he is probably referring to the Jewish rites. Likely, this was written before the destruction of the temple, when there were many Jewish Christians, and Judaism and Christianity had not yet become distinct.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans in 110A.D., 8:1, , refers to the "offering"
of the Eucharist:

"Let that Eucharist be held valid which is offered by the bishop or by the one to whom the bishop has committed this charge. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."

Here may be your best bet — I am sorry I do not have a reference. St. Cyprian wrote to the Ephesians circa 258A.D.:

"The priest who imitates that which Christ did, truly takes the place of Christ, and offers there in the Church a true and perfect sacrifice to God the Father."

I do not have the Latin but I am assuming that "priest" here is "sacerdos".

Wikipedia seems to agree; it says:

"This analogous use of the word "priest" (The exact word for priest, sacerdos) for Christian ministers appears to have arisen only at the end of the second century, at first for bishops only; but by the time of Saint Cyprian, in the mid-third century, it was applied to presbyters also.[12]".

Here is an excellent and complete discussion of the priesthood from a patristic and historical standpoint, including the answer to your question:


John replied:

Hi, Brian —

I can't give you the exact quote, but Justin Martyr, who was a student of Polycarp, who was student of St. John, mentioned a presbyter praying over the bread and wine and that, offering the Sacrifice, it became the Body and Blood of Our Lord; that was circa 150A.D.

As I said, I don't have the exact words, but there is a implication that the elder or priest had an authority and ability that others in the community did not have. Also, Justin goes on to talk about the role of the Deacon in bringing the Eucharist to those who were unable to attend the Eucharistic Sacrifice because they were elderly or sick.


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