Bishops of History Response, Catholicism, Fractionation

The Paradimatic Bishops of History-Fractionation & House Churches


C. Fractionation and House Churches

One of the things that I willingly concede is that fractionation does not necessarily preclude a monarchical bishop existing in some capacity. This is used against me in BOH,

Brandon thus grants that “the existence of house churches does not rule out the possibility of oversight of a bishop.” His argument, however, is that the data points to there being a plurality of leaders. Of course, Catholics too grant that there were a plurality of leaders. So again this is not evidence for the presbyterial thesis and against there being an episcopal polity in the Church at Rome.

BOH is equivocating on my use of the word “plurality of leadership,” to show that we would expect the same sort of thing according to the CtC argument. My argument has been there were multiple presbyter-bishops in Rome, each overseeing a house community.  These presbyter-bishops were in communion with one another and they may have even elected a president, but this individual does not appear to have “jurisdictional authority” let alone “supreme” jurisdictional authority. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe there is any reason to believe that the earliest Roman Christians would have known what such a term even meant.

BOH is arguing, however, that there was a bishop with supreme jurisdictional authority over everyone else in the city. The type of plurality I am advocating rejects that there was one of the many bishops retaining “supreme jurisdictional authority.”  BOH argues that its position could also account for plurality with either multiple presbyters & a bishop *or* multiple presbyter-bishops. An essential element of the argument, though, is that in this plurality there is one ruler with supreme jurisdictional authority. If no leader possessed supreme-jurisdictional authority, however, then there was a process of development where this authority was procured. It may have been with the consent of the church, but the plurality I am referring to is not consonant with the plurality BOH is proposing.

BOH then argues,

So if the presence of active house churches in Rome were actually evidence of there being no monarchical bishop in Rome, then the presence of house churches from AD 150 to 312 would be evidence that there was no monarchical bishop in Rome from AD 150 to 312. But we know (and Brandon agrees) that there was a monarchical bishop in Rome from AD 150 to 312. Therefore, the existence of house churches in Rome in the late first and early second centuries is not evidence that there was no monarchical bishop in Rome during that time.

Such a statement misappropriates my argument of the existence of house churches, and the rather important differences in church property from 150 to 312. Into the third century corporate property rights did not exist in Rome. Even if there were a monarchical bishop, he would not have had any control over the property because it belonged to the property owner. Lampe adduces multiple pieces of evidence to demonstrate this: the titular churches of Tigrida, Byzas, & Equitis were not Roman saints or martyrs (later their names were exchanged for the name of saints), at the 499 Roman synod Roman presbyters still signed their names with the “tituli of person X,” in the 4th and 5th centuries churches retained the tradition of naming title churches after founders (pg. 363). Interestingly, in the city of Rome, Jewish property and synagogue meetings fell under the same structure; private individuals provided the worshiping space (pg. 364).

In the third century, the church was able to hold corporate property and thus powerful bishops were able to exert considerable influence over the churches in the city. Concurrent social, political, and theological events made corporate property particularly advantageous for the flourishing of the monarchical episcopate. As the house-churches became property of the church, the bishop was able to exert control of those communities because he was the administrator of the property (According to Lampe this political reality was a function of the monarchical episcopate, and therefore the monarchical episcopate probably existed before this legal change).  Before the advent of corporate property, however, it was impossible for a monarchical bishop to control the worship space because he was not the property owner. This marks a significant difference in the two time periods.

BOH nontheless tries to draw a comparison between the two different time periods,

Moreover, in AD 336 there were at least twenty eight house churches under Pope St. Julius I, again confirming that the presence of house churches in a city is fully compatible with the existence of a jurisdictional monepiscopacy in that city, and that the existence of house churches in Rome in the late first and early second centuries is not evidence for the non-existence of a monarchical bishop during that time period.

There is no argument that I am aware of that states that because there were multiple worshiping assemblies, therefore there was no monarchical bishop. The argument is that the separate worshiping communities met in the private homes of patrons and that there was a “presider” (proestos) of the worship service that conducted worship services, as Justin Martyr reports. This is what Justin reports and comports with the fractionation of Roman Jewry and Romans 16. These separate communities seemed to operate with a sense of catholicity but also operated with significant autonomy—something that was reinforced by the social realities of first and second century Rome.

At this point, BOH turns its focus to its own positive reconstruction of the data of fractionation and argues that it is an example of diocesan parishes. To do so, BOH seeks to appeal to the legendary material (which Lampe calls weak when considered on its own) which refers to an episcopal chair (the Petrine nature of this chair is a later interpolation). BOH also references the division of the parishes in Rome detailed in the Liber Pontificalis in the fifth or sixth century. The fact that there are multiple parishes under a bishop in this later time shows that it is possible that plurality could exist with a monarchical bishop in the first and second century, according to BOH.

By way of response, I would simply encourage interested parties to consult Lampe’s utilization of this data. No one has argued that the existence of multiple locations of worship made it impossible for a monarchical bishop to be present. The lack of understanding from BOH is highlighted in their citation of St. Caius, bishop from 283-296. Caius “lived at least some of his pontificate in his own house.” After noting that there was no central cathedral for worship, BOH concludes,

For this reason, from AD 150 to the time of Constantine, a period of 161 years during which Brandon acknowledges there was a monepiscopacy in Rome, each bishop of Rome lived either in a house or a house-church that had been dedicated secretly by the Christians as a church, and carried out his episcopal function from that ‘fractionated’ condition.

No one ever disputed that bishops lived in houses or operated out of a house church. The point BOH misses is that property was granted to the bishop for his oversight, whereas before the third century in Rome, there would have been no way for a bishop to exercise any oversight of such land, because it would have been the private dwelling of an individual. BOH’s failure to distinguish the social realities renders the comparison moot.

BOH claims additional evidence can be found in the “Apostolic Tradition,” dating the document to 215 AD, but this is highly problematic. Regarding the dating of the document, Catholic scholar J.F. Baldovin explains,

When I was a student, the commonly accepted opinion on the Apostolic Tradition ran something like this: Here we have a church order that gives us data on important ecclesiastical practices from the early-third century. The writer was a presbyter/theologian, named Hippolytus, who opposed Bishop Callistus of Rome over the latter’s laxity in readmitting sinners to church fellowship. He thus became a schismatic anti-pope, but was reconciled before his death as a martyr. A conservative, he advocated ancient usages of the Church. A crusty old parish priest unwilling to abide by his bishop’s liturgical innovations, he set down in a single document these rather antiquarian rules for liturgy and church conduct.

Nothing about this synthesis is correct. The title of the document in question is not the Apostolic Tradition. It cannot be attributed to Hippolytus, an author whose corpus of biblical commentaries and anti-heretical treatises is somewhat well known. As a matter of fact it is even doubtful whether the corpus of that writer can actually be attributed to a single writer. Finally, the document does not give us certain information about the liturgical practice of the early-third-century Roman Church.[1]

Baldovin goes on to explain skepticism is attributable to the dating and reliability of the statute of “Hippolytus” and the internal evidence of multiple  redactors. Marcel Metzger, Allen Brent, Alistair Stewart-Sykes, Paul Bradshaw, Maxwell Johnson, and L. Edward Phillips (the latter three wrote the Hermenia commentary together) all provide the extensive detail of the dating in their writings and cite additional scholarship on dating issues. Conservative estimates, like Brent’s, postulate an early composition, potentially by Hippolytus, that has seen updating and redaction and located in Rome (this reading though is largely predicated on his thesis of fractionation and the development of the episcopate in the third century). Aside from the serious textual problems and clear redaction in the document, others, argue the Tradition is not uniquely Roman and a composition from several centuries.

Bradshaw et al. explain,

we judge the work to be an aggregation of material from different sources quite possibly arising from different geographical regions and probably from different historical periods, from perhaps as early as the mid-second century to as late as the mid-fourth since none of the textual witnesses to it can be dated with any certainty before the last quarter of that century[2]

The dating in this regard is important because BOH presupposes an earlier date for its argument. Even if we grant the early date, this still does not mean that third century fractionation is equivalent to first and second century fractionation.  The equivalence is merely asserted even though numerous developments (social, theological, & political) have occurred in the time frame which provide reason to avoid lumping them together.

BOH also appeals to the catacombs, but I don’t wish to rehash that section here. I covered it in my review of Lampe and Lampe’s 12th chapter provides sound historical judgments on the catacombs and what can be drawn from them. The fact is that we can know with certainty that the tombs at the Vatican were not used until the very end of the first century, and quite possibly the beginning of the second century. As a matter of fact, Lampe notes,

For Christians a grave was inviolable and worth of honor. But we only find real veneration for martyrs from the middle of the third century onwards (p. 115).

If this is the case, what about the Martyrdom of Ignatius, that is cited? We have numerous textual issues with this issue and even the Catholic Encyclopedia concludes,

It is generally admitted, even by those who regarded it as authentic, that this work has been greatly interpolated.

Paul Hartog skillfully argues that the Martyrdom may be dated in the later portion of the second century, but he admits two important things. First, the current text does have redaction and second, the purported remains of Peter only surface in the second century (p. 181).In other words, the veneration of the dead is *also* a development.

Such an observation is important to consider when BOH claims,

Another piece of evidence is found in relation to the tombs of the leaders of the Church at Rome. What we do not find in the tombs is evidence that at any time in the history of the Church at Rome, including prior to AD 150, there were at the same time multiple leaders of equal supreme authority and honor. There is no burial record of two or more presbyter-bishops that had served simultaneously with equal supreme authority, and whose tombs were subsequently honored and memorialized equally by the Church at Rome…The Liber Pontificalis records not only that St. Peter was buried in the Vatican necropolis, but also that eleven of the thirteen popes of the first two centuries were buried there as well:

BOH is correct to note there is no veneration of multiple-presbyter bishops in Rome. BOH is incorrect, however, that we know much of anything about the burial of first century “bishops.” To put it bluntly, archaeology has proven the Liber Pontificalis is wrong. We know for certain that Zephyrinus and Callistus were not buried by “Peter” at the Vatican site, as Lampe demonstrates. Furthermore, even if the Liber Pontificalis were not inaccurate, the existence of the graves near the alleged gravesite of Peter says nothing about these men, “carrying on the office of St. Peter.”

The truth of the matter is Christians in Rome accepted legends as history. There are perhaps kernels of truth in the narrative, but the site labelled as Peter’s gravesite is, with a high degree of certainty, not Peter’s.  Lampe provides a potential historical explanation for what happened based on the archaeology of the area which attempts to account for all the facts. In tying in the house churches with the burial grounds, BOH does not interact with Lampe’s detailed study showing that the Roman Christians maintained the graves of their own particular region of the city.

Finally, I’ve noted it in this section and elsewhere, but an additional methodological problem for BOH is that it is using dubious sources. In this section, much of the rebuttal is based upon testimony from Eusebius, The Apostolic Constitutions, and the Martyrdom of Polycarp. BOH would improve its argument with a critical assessment of sources. As it stands, however, BOH has not offered a strong argument because it has relied upon questionable sources and consequently has provided a questionable narrative.

[1] J.F. Baldovin. “Hippolytus and the Apostolic Tradition: Recent research and commentary” Theological Studies Vol 64:3 (2003): 520-521.

[2] Paul Bradshaw et al., “The Apostolic Tradition” Hermeneia (2002) pg. 14.


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