III. Brandon’s proposed narrative
In an attempt to provide a simplified narrative of the evidence, I will provide my take below. This is a summary of more technical arguments I make in the subsequent sections.
The New Testament uses the words “bishop” and “presbyter” interchangeably. The presbyters are said to provide oversight (episkopos) (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2; 1 Tim 1:5, 7). Even those passages where the singular episkopos is used, it is the expected grammatical form (Titus 1:7; 1 Tim 3:2) and is always accompanied by other mention of multiple presbyters (Titus 1:5; 1 Timothy 4:14-16, 5:17). Other passages, such as Hebrews 13:7 indicate that leadership in churches is overseen by multiple leaders and while Phil 1:1 is not discussed explicitly in this section, there we find Paul addressing bishops and deacons. On balance, this data indicates that the early church was led by presbyters overseeing (episkopos) the church together.
My conclusions from Clement of Rome reinforce this interpretation of the biblical material. First, the plural πρεσβυτεροι is used in multiple places in Clement (1:3; 3:3; 21:6; 44:5; 47:6; 54:2; and 57:1 ) in addition to leadership being described in the plural in Chapters 1, 14, & 21. The plural, επισκοποι is used in 1 Clement 42:4-5 and 44:1 and I argued 1 Clement 44:3-4 that Clement is using the two terms interchangeably, as they are used in the NT. This is contiguous with the conclusions from the canonical section.
Second, 1 Clement 44:2 “they[who?] appointed aforesaid persons and afterwards they [who?] provided a continuance,” is grammatically ambiguous as to the subject. Possible subjects are apostles, bishops appointed by apostolic prerogative, or bishops and deacons. Grammatically all three views are viable, so context must provide differentiation. Clement’s manner of argument makes the third view most probable. If the first or second options were in view, then Clement could have merely noted that the usurpers did not possess succession and were therefore not truly leaders. Instead, Clement argues that when men serve well in the episcopal office with good report, “these men [plural] we consider to be unjustly thrust out from their [implied episcopal] ministration.” Clement claims the illegitimacy of their ouster is related to their good service, not their apostolic succession, making the “presbyterian” interpretive option preferable.
Ignatius provides a potential defeater for my presbyterian argument because he is an early second century author and talks about the necessity of the threefold office, with the monarchical bishop exercising something similar to “supreme jurisdictional authority” (though he does not advocate Apostolic Succession). I noted, however, that not everyone shared Ignatius’s view of the episcopal office as evidenced in three places: Ignatius (Magnesians; Allen Brent’s imperial cult explanation), the Didache, and Polycarp (an entire section is devoted to him below). Other contextual pieces of data, such as the Jewish monarchical structure of Antiochene Judaism when contrasted with Roman Jewry’s fractionation, are used to explain why Ignatius may be a seminal figure in popularizing the monarchical episcopate. The different Jewish structures also inform one of the most important conclusions about the ecclesial structure in Rome: Ignatius does not mention the Roman bishop at all.
The question, remains, however, how did the monarchical episcopate come into existence in the city of Rome? The Shepherd of Hermas provides important corroborative information for the presbyterial thesis and a potential precursor to the monarchical episcopate. In Vision 2.8.3 Hermas instructs that his book is to be read to the city, “with the presbyters who are ruling (προϊταμένων) the church.” It is unclear if presbuteros and episkopos are equivalent in Hermas, but multiple terms are used to describe the leadership of the church, all of them in the plural. Hermas clearly teaches, however, that there are different functions among the presbyters. He mentions two in particular, one named Clement and one named Grapte. Clement is to send Hermas’s Visions to churches outside of Rome and Grapte was to disseminate the Visions in the city of Rome. The aforementioned Clement is likely the author of 1 Clement. Hermas provides no indication that Clement possess authority over other presbyters, yet he does communicate with other churches and is responsible for communication with them. As such, Clement would have become well-known to the international church since he was responsible for international ecclesial communication. That Hermas speaks of the rule of multiple presbyters with different functions is reinforced by 1 Timothy 5:17, where presbyters involved in teaching are worthy of double honor, but not a different office.
If my narrative is to be believed, however, how can the bishop lists be integrated into the narrative in a way that does not summarily dismiss Hegesippus and Irenaeus? I note that Hegesippus’s list is the first extant list and that there are a few contextual reasons why Hegesippus may be a transitional figure in arguments against Gnosticism. Hegesippus was reportedly a Jewish Christian apologist and this is important because succession lists in the passing on of doctrine were routinely used to argue for the superiority of Jewish religion to Greek philosophy. These lists were not specifically interested in a single monarchical leader passing his authority to his successor. Rather, these lists were an apologetic effort to demonstrate that the doctrine had been passed along in history from one “standard bearer” to another. If the presbyterial thesis is accurate, then there were multiple successions that could be drawn out (after all, as Irenaeus argues in Adv Her III.2.2, presbyters maintain Apostolic Succession), but Hegesippus, the foreign delegate, drew up for himself a succession of doctrine from the minister of external affairs, mentioned by Hermas. It’s not surprising that he uses the term “bishop” to describe the succession since the term possessed fluidity. It’s unclear if this is the first time such a list had been created, but the use of the middle/passive lends credence to the notion that Hegesippus did not have a pre-existing list to work from.
Irenaeus, on the other hand, almost certainly used a pre-existing list when describing the Roman episcopal succession. While one may think this provides credence to the idea that the list is ancient, its composition can de dated no earlier than the episcopate of Eleutherius (c. 180 AD). This dating is inferred from grammatical observations in the passage, notably that Irenaeus makes his comments in the imperfect while the list itself is composed in the present. The comment “as sixth, Sixtus was appointed,” means that the half-way point of the list is marked and therefore that the composition of Irenaeus’s list almost certainly comes after Eleutherius c. 180. Therefore, the first bishop list on record is composed c. 180.
Even if the bishop list is composed later, why does that mean it is not dependent on earlier witness about the Roman Church? My narrative proposes that the names in the list are not made up, and almost certainly refer to presbyter-bishops in Rome. Given the influence the minister of external affairs would naturally exert, I propose the minister of external affairs was the “president” of the presbytery and/or the minister of external affairs eventually assumed this responsibility. In some areas the president quickly assumed the role of “monarchical bishop,” but in other areas (Rome), this development took longer. It is apparent it is still developing in the time of Irenaeus when he refers to the apostolic succession of “bishops” and “presbyters” (Adv. Her. IV.26.2).
This is reinforced by the fractionation of Roman Christianity and Roman Jewry. We know that early Christians met in Roman synagogues until a dispute erupted that eventually sent Prisca and Aquilla to Corinth (Cassius Dio, Suetonius, Acts 18). These synagogues did not have centralized leadership, like other areas (Antioch), but each community worshipped in a house community in their region of the city. Early Christian ecclesial structure mirrored the native Jewish fractionation (Romans 16). Property restrictions did not allow for corporate property and therefore churches met in houses in the area of the city closest to them. A large percentage of the population would have been poor, which is why the concentration of early titular churches clusters around the poorest areas of Rome. This socio-economic reality precluded large meetings. As a result, these poorer Christians had smaller house-church communities which means a higher number of Christian groups existed in the city. Moreover, Rome possessed a high immigrant population because it was a center of trade and these communities were clustered together. This fractionation manifested in the theological diversity throughout Rome in Christianity as it did in Judaism.
The clearest example of this fractionation in Christianity was the Quartodeciman controversy. The various Roman house-church communities had varying practices and celebrations of Easter. Victor attempted to curtail this diversity by excommunicating the Roman communions that observed the Quartodeciman calendar, but Victor was eventually dissuaded from this attempt. Lampe believes that at this point Victor is largely viewed as the leader and monarchical bishop of Rome, but traces of development are discernible, even into the third century.
Later definitions of schism, such as those found in Eusebius, assume that anti-popes are those who do not retain the worship space (after a process of appeal in the universal church, if necessary) while the orthodox are those who continue to offer the Eucharist in the orthodox church building or location. This later definition of schism, however, is impossible in the early third century because communal property rights did not exist. This fact serves to refute Eusebius’s account of the Hippolytus/Callistus affair. Hippolytus did not oppose Callistus because he wanted to be the bishop overseeing the Roman church. Instead, Hippolytus opposed Callistus because Callistus claimed to absolve the sins of excommunicated members of other Roman communions. Callistus even compelled people to be re-baptized under his authority, something Hippolytus declares is unprecedented in the history of Roman Christianity. Hippolytus was not seeking to govern Callistus’s community, or even all of the Roman churches, he was opposed to Callistus attempting to govern the other Roman communions. Brent notes that this dispute is one of the last pieces in coalescing the monarchical episcopate as Hippolytus eventually extended fellowship and was received by Callistus, according to tradition.
The subsequent acceptance of the monarchical episcopate has continued to develop. Later in the mid-third century Stephen made the claim that he was the successor of Peter. The Petrine claim would be used to substantiate Roman primacy and eventually papal infallibility. It is not unsurprising in the presbyterial narrative, however, that fourth and fifth century sources took the episcopal position as an established fact. Yet, even fifth century sources (Jerome) acknowledge that early ecclesiology did not distinguish between presbyters and bishops. Thus, there is not a rejection of the Patristic writers, but a deeper understanding and appreciation for them. One does not need to reject Thomas because he mistakenly believed the Dionysius was written in the 1st century. Nor does one need to reject the Medival fathers because they universally believed in the forged Donation of Constantine or Isidorian decretals. Clement of Alexandria is not to be rejected because he argued from Apollonarian works. These errors are brought to the light so that future generations can benefit and not repeat the error of their Fathers. And in this case, the error is not necessarily something that changes any matter of doctrine—it merely informs the Church that the church in Rome, for example, was governed by presbyter-bishops and not a Petrine successor.