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The Paradigmatic Bishops of History-Brandon’s Narrative

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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.

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4 thoughts on “The Paradigmatic Bishops of History-Brandon’s Narrative

  1. “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.”

    Brandon, I think you have made some good points that the distinction between “presbyters” and “bishops” was not clear in the very early church, and it certainly seems possible (but not absolutely conclusive) that the Church at Rome was governed by a college of “presbyter-bishops”, and perhaps all in this college were given the authority to ordain successors. I would add to your arguments that this model of governance, where multiple people had the authority to ordain, would have been a very wise move in a time of persecution. If only one person had the authority to ordain, it would have been too easy for that person to suffer martyrdom and leave the Church without the ability to ordain a new head.

    That being said, I don’t see what in this narrative makes the two possibilities (college of presbyter-bishops and Petrine successor) exclusive of one another. Nothing in your narrative rules out the possibility that one bishop from a supposed college of presbyter-bishops had primacy of jurisdiction.

    Multiple factors point to the conclusion that any college of presbyter-bishops would have had one member serving as head. First of all, this was the common model of governance in Roman times. It was the model of governance in Jewish tradition, where one of the priests was always the “chief”. There is a matter of practicality even today that when making decisions, there needs to be a decider – someone to speak the decision. There’s the matter of unity which is possible only when all in an organization submit in humility to a head. And the practicing of there being a “head” matches the rule given by St. Paul for marriages. Finally, there is Irenaeus’s list of bishops, which seems to indicate a clear primacy, and a clearly identified head of the Roman Church as historical record.

    All these factors in view, it seems to me rather impossible to believe that the early church at Rome would have invented some model of governance, unknown to their time, where no one served as head for the purpose of deciding and speaking those decisions.

    And nothing in your narrative rules out this possibility. Even if there were such a college of “presbyter-bishops” governing the early Church of Rome, even if all in that college had the power to ordain, certainly one bishop served with primacy or presidency of that college, and that bishop would have functioned as the successor to Peter.

  2. Hi Jonathan!

    Thank you for commenting. You said,

    That being said, I don’t see what in this narrative makes the two possibilities (college of presbyter-bishops and Petrine successor) exclusive of one another. Nothing in your narrative rules out the possibility that one bishop from a supposed college of presbyter-bishops had primacy of jurisdiction.

    Yes, you’re correct, but more on this in a second.

    It was the model of governance in Jewish tradition, where one of the priests was always the “chief”

    This is incorrect. There will be a bit more information on this in forthcoming posts, but it is also included in my original review of Peter Lampe. Some cities had an “atnach” who led the synagogue in the city. Other Jewish areas, such as Rome, did not. The fractionation of Roman Jewry is a “foil” to the fractionation of Roman Christianity.

    There is a matter of practicality even today that when making decisions, there needs to be a decider – someone to speak the decision. There’s the matter of unity which is possible only when all in an organization submit in humility to a head. And the practicing of there being a “head” matches the rule given by St. Paul for marriages.

    Unless the decision is rendered by an assembly. You’re allowing assumptions about what leadership must mean rather than allowing the historical record to inform your definition of Christian leadership. Moreover, in appealing to Paul for a “head” of the church, he doesn’t point to a particular elder, Peter, James, or himself, he points to Jesus (Col 1:18).

    Finally, there is Irenaeus’s list of bishops, which seems to indicate a clear primacy, and a clearly identified head of the Roman Church as historical record.

    I’ll explain in more detail in subsequent posts, but Irenaeus’s list 1) Doesn’t specify the chain is distinctively Petrine. 2) Is composed no later than the episcopate of Eleutherius and whether this “chain” is exactly as Irenaeus envisioned it is debatable.

    All these factors in view, it seems to me rather impossible to believe that the early church at Rome would have invented some model of governance, unknown to their time, where no one served as head for the purpose of deciding and speaking those decisions.

    This is not an accurate appraisal of what I’ve argued. I’d recommend you re-read the narrative to see that I have *never* claimed Rome invented “some model of governance, unknown to their time.” That’s a straw-man, unfortunately perpetuated by BOH.

    Even if there were such a college of “presbyter-bishops” governing the early Church of Rome, even if all in that college had the power to ordain, certainly one bishop served with primacy or presidency of that college, and that bishop would have functioned as the successor to Peter.

    If you meant to say “that bishop *could* have functioned as the successor of Peter,” then that would be accurate. Stipulating that a “president” of the presbytery *would* have functioned as the successor of Peter makes monumental historical leaps.

    And this gets to the important methodological point I made at the outset. You, like BOH, are operating under the assumption that if something is possible that means that it is equally as likely as other possibilities. Such is a faulty assumption. You’d need to show why, given the evidence, it is more plausible to believe the minister of external affairs (or whomever you argue this person was) fulfilled a uniquely Petrine office than to believe he was a presbyter-bishop acting on behalf of the other presbyter-bishops in Rome. The evidence this office constituted supreme jurisdictional authority in Rome or over other bishops is problematic, I believe. To argue the office is Petrine is going to require a significant amount of historical leg work that reputable scholars like Larry Hurtado have determined are the fruit of theological imagination and not historical analysis. I’m willing to listen if you have something providing historical evidence that the earliest Christians in Rome believed a Petrine office existed. I just don’t see any evidence for that until significantly later in the development of Christian ecclesiology.

    1. Brandon,

      How, exactly, do you propose that a body of presbyter-bishops would rule Rome? What early version of parliamentary procedures, or Robert’s Rules of Order, would they have followed? (I don’t mean to be facetious.)

      Let’s say, for example, that you have 20 presbyter-bishops in Rome, and that none of them, not even Peter prior to his execution, is aware of holding some special role. And let’s say you have a church meeting in each of the 14 regiones of Ancient Rome, and each of them has one of the 20 presbyter-bishops as its pastor; and that the other 6 are involved in other ministries, like preaching or coordinating the deacons in their ministries to the poor and sick and widows.

      And, let us say that the normal kinds of disputes arise that normally arise in church life. Maybe Miss X from local congregation A wants to marry Master Y from local congregation B, but Miss X’s father, also a Christian, disapproves of the marriage because Master Y’s parents are pagans. And one presbyter-bishop thinks the marriage should go through, and another says Miss X should obey her father. Meanwhile another pair of presbyter-bishops are at odds about how to administer care for the poor fairly. And another pair of presbyter-bishops are at odds because one of them admitted a recent public adulterer back to the communion table after a perfunctory repentance, whereas the other presbyter-bishop insisted that an adulterer in his own church, whose is repentance is more visibly heartfelt, abstain from the table for a year as a penitential practice — and this person is aggrieved because of the double standard. And there are disputes about which songs to sing in the liturgy at local church Z, and complaints that the cantor isn’t sufficiently reverent in style and makes the Sanctus sound like cabaret music, and so on. All the usual sausage-making.

      Now, there are going to be disagreements. Will they meet in council? Will majority vote suffice to settle an issue? How will they settle amongst themselves that it’s proper to meet in council, and that majority vote is the correct way to settle the issue (as opposed to, say, requiring a 2/3rds vote)? How will they establish that the right people were present to vote, and that none were excluded for partisan reasons? How will they prevent the same topic being brought to a vote again and again in hopes of a different answer? Who writes the rules for writing the rules, and who makes the judgments that the rules were properly written in order to allow others to judge that the decisions were properly made?

      In some cases, decisions ought to be made at the congregation level; in other cases, the 20 will have to decide something that affects two congregations, or all of them. How will they distinguish which questions ought to be resolved locally by a congregation and the (single) presbyter-bishop who pastors them, from those which need to be appealed upward to the larger group?

      The BOH idea is that the method used 250 years later — that of one presbyter-bishop being picked out or specially selected to “preside,” i.e., to have tie-breaking, or veto, or override power — was not a novelty, but was merely the method that had always been in use in such assemblies from the start.

      This is a very straightforward mechanism for resolving such disputes, and has Old Testament antecedents (e.g. the Al Bayith of Isaiah 22, who could bind what other stewards loosed and loose what others bound, but the other stewards could not bind what he’d loosed, or loose what he’d bound) and 2nd Temple Judaism antecedents (the nasi in the Sanhedrin).

      Now, it seems to me you’re committed to saying that the Roman Christians between 50 and 250 AD did not use a method involving one of the presbyter-bishops “presiding.”

      What alternative do you think they used, then? Simple majority vote on all matters? Or perhaps they had the idea that one presbyter-bishop would preside at any given meeting, but that they would rotate who was presiding among all the presbyter-bishops, so that in the end, no single presbyter-bishop could be said to be the head of the group?

      They would have had to have something in place to formalize the every-one-of-us-is-an-equal principles of the group. Otherwise, if you have 20 guys at Rome and one of them is Peter, isn’t it pretty likely that the rest would defer to him, and make him a de facto head of the Christians in the city?

      (Even I, a modern American, find it natural to think that they would. How much more so, an ancient Roman, 100 years after Caesar crossed the Rubicon?)

      I realize, of course, that if they adopted a democratic system of governance, they didn’t leave behind a written constitution to describe its procedures to us.

      But it seems to me that if such a system had been in place, there would be evidence that it had existed.

      For example, during the period when monoepiscopates emerged, I would have expected some churches to say, “No, we like our old democratic way better: It’s more Christlike, with nobody presuming to hold a higher office than the others.” I would expect someone to take note when the last non-monoepiscopal church switched over.

      Is there any evidence of such an alternative system?

      1. Hi R.C!

        Thanks for commenting.

        You’re raising some very pertinent questions for which details are not readily available. I think anyone offering any strong opinions is probably going beyond what the evidence allows. Here is what I believe we do know:

        Presbyter-bishops were likely the “president” of their house church. Thus, they handled issues arising in their communities. We do seem to have indications that there were disputes among house churches in Rome, the Quartodeciman controversy the most famous among them. Some congregations were bigger and more influential than others in Rome and the decision of that communion began to shape the custom of the Roman church as the church grow and Roman law developed the notion of corporate property.

        The earliest evidence is not entirely clear about how the everyday interconnection of the churches worked. Did the presbyter-bishops meet monthly, quarterly, annually? The historical record is silent. As I point out in much more detail in my Allen Brent section, the clearest information we possess comes from Hippolytus, and the remnants of first & second century ecclesial organization are present. Hopefully I can hold your interest for a bit longer until that section is published. As you may expect, I believe Brent’s analysis is pretty powerful for my thesis and provides a narrative that makes since of the Hippolytus affair. BOH cannot do that with its narrative.

        This is a very straightforward mechanism for resolving such disputes, and has Old Testament antecedents (e.g. the Al Bayith of Isaiah 22, who could bind what other stewards loosed and loose what others bound, but the other stewards could not bind what he’d loosed, or loose what he’d bound) and 2nd Temple Judaism antecedents (the nasi in the Sanhedrin).

        Most of the assumptions here are contestable or factually incorrect. Organizationally, the fractionation of Roman Jewry is an absolute necessity to understand as a foil to the fractionation of Roman Christianity. I’ve emphasized this multiple times to the authors of BOH and they miss it entirely. If the fractionation of Roman Jewry doesn’t make sense, let me know and I will explain it in more detail, but until you understand that, you are missing a fundamental fact in analyzing Roman ecclesiology.

        For example, during the period when monoepiscopates emerged, I would have expected some churches to say, “No, we like our old democratic way better: It’s more Christlike, with nobody presuming to hold a higher office than the others.” I would expect someone to take note when the last non-monoepiscopal church switched over.

        I’m sure it’s not intentional, but you are not representing my view, but a caricature. The monepiscopate naturally developed from the presbyterial model. It could have developed from a “moderator” of the presbyter or it could have focused around the minister of external affairs (an office we know existed). The development was a natural development to meet the needs of the church in its historical and theological context. *And* the case of Hippolytus does in fact provide evidence of objection to one Roman presbyter-bishop exerting his authority over other united but separate ecclesial communions in Rome.

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