Ralph Earle's discussion of the words EPISKOPOS and PRESBUTEROS is linked to the passage in 1 Timothy 3:1. The operative word there is EPISKOPHS, which is commonly translated "the office of a bishop" or overseer. In 1 Tim. 3:2, Paul employs TON EPISKOPON as he delineates the qualifications of "the overseer" who is appointed to humbly and lovingly shepherd God's congregation.
EPISKOPOS apparently occurs five times in the NT (1 Tim. 3:1, 2; Acts 20:28; Phil. 1:1; Tit. 1:7; 1 Pet. 2:25), and its "basic meaning" is "overseer." Earle states: "The ancient Greeks thought of their gods as EPISKOPOI. This usage is found in Homer's Iliad and many later writings."
BAGD also notes that EPISKOPOS in Pre-Christian usage denoted an overseer. The word is used of a transcendent being in Iliad 22:255; in Aeschylus, Sept. 272; Sophocles, Antigone 1148; Plato, Leg. 4, 717D. BAGD also cites 1 Pet. 2:25 and says the following: "guardian of the souls 1 Pt 2:25. The passages IMg [Ignatius to the Magnesians] 3:1 QEWi TWi PANTWN E.; Cf. 6:1 show the transition to the next mng" (299).
Concerning the word PRESBUTEROI, Earle uses Tit. 1:5-7 to show that an EPISKOPOS and a PRESBUTEROS are the same. True, PRESBUTEROS evidently has a Jewish background--although this point does not mean that the elder arrangement (the "presbytery") was confined to early Jewish congregations: "The name 'elders' emphasizes the fact that the leaders of the church were to be older men, as was the case with the elders of Israel" (Earle 412). It was "older men" whom Paul told Titus to appoint on the isle of Crete, so that they might correct the things that were defective (Tit. 1:5-7).
To prove that the "elders" and the overseers are identical, however, Earle cites Lightfoot--who gives six proofs showing us that PRESBUTEROI and EPISKOPOI are applied to the same referents in the NT. Not only Lightfoot, but Jerome and John Chrysostom can also be invoked to demonstrate the truthfulness of Lightfoot's claims. EPISKOPOS did not originally mean "bishop": it did not denote a hierachy, nor was there simply one ANHR in the early ecclesiae who served as a "bishop." All congregations evidently submitted to the "older men and apostles" in Jerusalem who faithfully communicated apostolic teaching to every congregation in the Mediterranean world (Acts 15:1, 2).