Our English word priest comes from the Latin word presbyter, which itself comes from the Greek word presbuteros. When this Greek word appears in the Bible, most English versions translate it not as “priest”, but as “elder”.
However, the word priest does still appear in English Bibles, but it is used to translate the Greek word hiereus or the Hebrew word kohen (compare the surname Cohen), with the Latin equivalent being sacerdos, from which we get the English word sacerdotal (“priestly”). This kind of priest is not an elder, but is someone who offers sacrifices in a temple.
How did we end up in this linguistic mess?
It’s fairly easy to see how “priest” would cease to be used as a translation of presbyter. By the time of the Reformation, a “priest” was seen as someone who had a special role in the mass, in which it was believed that the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross became a present reality as the bread and wine became the body and blood of Jesus. The Protestant Reformers were keen to distance themselves from this understanding of the Lord’s Supper, and in due course they came to prefer not to use the word priest to translate presbuteros. Thus, whereas The Wycliffe Bible (c.1395) speaks of Paul and Barnabas appointing “priests” (or “prestis”), from Tyndale’s translation (c.1525) onwards, Protestant translations almost always speak of them appointing “elders”. Perhaps as a consequence of the King James Version not using “priest” as a translation of presbuteros, you will never find a “priest” in a Protestant English-speaking church — with perhaps one very obvious exception! Instead, you will find elders, ministers, pastors, presbyters and the like.
But how did “priest” gain a sacerdotal meaning in the first place? It turns out this happened very early on. According to David Allan Hubbard,
The church’s priesthood in the NT is corporate: no individual minister or leader is called ‘priest’. The post-apostolic writings, however, move quickly in that direction: Clement (ad 95–96) describes Christian ministry in terms of high priest, priest and Levites (1 Clem. 40–44); the Didache (13:3) likens prophets to high priests. Tertullian (On Baptism 17) and Hippolytus (Refutation of All Heresies, preface) seemed to have pioneered the use of the titles ‘priest’ and ‘high priest’ for Christian ministers (c. ad 200) (Priests and Levites, in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edition, IVP).
I suppose this was all linked with the church’s developing ideas about the Lord’s Supper.
So what about the exception I mentioned above? Of course, this is the Church of England, in which the “normal” word for an elder is priest. It seems that Cranmer didn’t try to get rid of the word, given its inclusion even in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, and he clearly saw no problem in using the word priest while strongly denying the Roman Catholic understanding of the mass. Hence there is some justification in claiming that, in the Church of England, “priest” is just another word for “presbyter” or “elder”.
In fact, this seems to have become official with the Ordinal from the Alternative Service Book (1980), which speaks of “The Ordination of Priests (also called Presbyters)”, and even more official in 2005, with the removal of the parentheses in the Common Worship Ordinal, in which may be found “The Ordination of Priests, also called Presbyters”. In the text of this Ordinal, this “priests aren’t actually priests” motif is perhaps emphasised still further by the inclusion of phrases such as “a royal priesthood, a universal Church”, intended to emphasise the (sacerdotal) priesthood of the whole church, as opposed to the (presbyteral) priesthood of the newly-ordained “priests”. But it really gets confusing when these two are put in close conjunction:
And now we give you thanks
that you have called these your servants,
whom we ordain in your name,
to share as [presbyteral] priests in the ministry of the gospel of Christ,
the Apostle and High [sacerdotal] Priest of our faith,
and the Shepherd of our souls.
(These elements weren’t present in the 1662 Ordinal.)
One could be forgiven for finding this disparity between ecclesiastical vocabulary (presbuteros = “priest”) and biblical vocabulary (presbuteros = “elder”) to be less than helpful! So it’s no surprise that many in the Church of England (including most evangelicals) tend to avoid the p-word as much as possible.