According to the usual interpretation, the term pontifex literally means "bridge-builder" (pons + facere); "maximus" literally means "greatest". This was perhaps originally meant in a literal sense: the position of bridge-builder was indeed an important one in Rome, where the major bridges were over the
Tiber, the sacred river (and a deity): only prestigious authorities with sacral functions could be allowed to "disturb" it with mechanical additions. However, it was always understood in its symbolic sense as well: the pontifices were the ones who smoothed the "bridge" between gods and men
The interpretation of the word pontifex as "bridge-builder" was that of
Dionysius of Halicarnassus and
Marcus Terentius Varro, while
Plutarch derived the word from Old Latin potis meaning a powerful or absolute master, while others took it to come from potis facere in the sense of "able to sacrifice".
 The last derivation is mentioned also by Varro, who rejected it,
 but it was the view of Pontifex Maximus Quintus Scaevola.
 Others have held that the word was originally pompifex (leader of public processions).
 The word pons originally meant "way" and pontifex would thus mean "maker of roads and bridges".
Another opinion is that the word is a corruption of a similar-sounding but etymologically unrelated
Etruscan word for priest. Yet another hypothesis
 considers the word as a loan from the
Sabine language, in which it would mean a member of a college of five, from
Osco-Umbrian ponte, five.
 This explanation takes into account the fact that the college was established by
Numa Pompilius and the institution is Italic: the expressions pontis and pomperias found in the
Iguvine Tablets may denote a group or division of five or by five. The pontifex would thence be a member of a sacrificial college known as pomperia (Latin quinio).
The Roman title "Pontifex Maximus" was rendered in Greek inscriptions and literature of the time as "ἀρχιερεύς" (literally, "high priest"|)
 or by a more literal translation and order of words as "ἀρχιερεὺς μέγιστος" (literally, "greatest high priest".
 The term "ἀρχιερεύς" is used in the
Septuagint text of the
Old Testament and in the
New Testament to refer to the Jewish high priest.