Monday, August 13, 2012

No clear leadership in the first and early second century church at Rome

Andrew Preslar, regarding the Peter in Rome document, it is fascinating to see Sobrino citing Raymond Brown with such approval. I hope you did not show that article to Sean Patrick.

Nevertheless, the author takes disjointed snippets from what Brown says about the use of the words episcope and episkopos, and comes to conclusions that are very much at odds with the things that Brown actually said. And Sullivan actually cites Brown’s conclusions approvingly and pretty much verbatim, precisely to the effect that [as “most Catholic scholars agree”] that “the episcopate is the fruit of a post-New Testament development” (230).

Along the way, he makes an effort to look at “all five occurrences of episkopos, whether singular or plural, to derive a first century definition of bishop”. He says “The challenge is to compose a first century definition of a bishop, his office, and his function by considering all of these occurrences. This approach is quite different from the hyperanalytical method of much scholarly discussion. In other words, we are trying to construct a definition, not deconstruct the text into unrelated pieces.”

The problem is, there is no singular “definition” of “a bishop, his office, and his function”, neither in the New Testament, nor within the “tradition” which you cite. There are three things to consider when coming up with anything approaching a “definition of a bishop, his office, and his function”.

The first is to study the historical backgrounds of the terms. How they were used culturally. To do that, I’ve relied heavily on F.F. Bruce (“New Testament History”) and Roger Beckwith (“Elders in Every City”) to trace the backgrounds and development of “elders” (“presbyters”) and “overseers” (“bishops”) in first century Palestine, both in Jewish usage and in Christian usage. This is given here:

Elders Chairs Prologue Florilegia

Elders Teachers Chairs 1

Elders Teachers Chairs 2

Elders Teachers Chairs 3

Elders Teachers Chairs 4

New Testament Data
The New Testament data on the meaning of the word “bishop” is much broader than simply how that particular word is used. You must also take into account contexts, functions of the individuals who hold those “offices”, etc. Thus the meanings and functions of “overseers” and “elders” is interchangeable in New Testament usage, and “leadership” and “oversight” and “shepherding” are used in different ways.

Second Century Writers
This lack of a precise definition, especially in second century Rome, is clearly seen in two of the extant documents we have from that city, from that time period.

First Clement presupposes presbyterial governance:

1:3 – “submitting yourselves to your leaders (“πρεσβυτέροις”) and giving to the older men among you the honor due them…”

21:6 – “Let us respect our leaders (“πρεσβυτέρους”); let us honor the older men…”

44:5 –“Blessed are those presbyters (“πρεσβυτέροι”) who have gone on ahead …”

47:6 – “It is disgraceful … that it should be reported that the well-established and ancient church of the Corinthians … is rebelling against its presbyters (“πρεσβυτέρους”).”

54:2 – “Let the flock of Christ be at peace with its duly appointed presbyters (“πρεσβυτέρων”).”

57:1 – “You, therefore, who laid the foundation of the revolt must submit to the presbyters (“πρεσβυτέροις”).”

There is no “bishop” in the church of Corinth. It is the “presbyters” who exercise “oversight”:

42:4 “They appointed their first fruits … to be bishops (“ἐπισκοπους”) and deacons…”

44:1: “Our apostles likewise knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife over the bishop’s (“ἐπισκοπῆς”) office …”

44:4-5: “For it will be no small sin for us if we depose from the bishop’s (“ἐπισκοπῆς”) office those who have offered the gifts blamelessly and in holiness. Blessed are those presbyters (“πρεσβυτέροι”) who have gone on ahead…”

The words ἐπισκοπῆς and πρεσβυτέροι are used here interchangeably, and the presbyters (“πρεσβυτέροι”) exercise oversight (“ἐπισκοπῆ”)

Some time during the first half of the second century as well, maybe as many as 50 years later, in the “Shepherd of Hermas”, it is still presybters (“πρεσβυτέροις”) who preside (“προισταμένων”) – plural leadership) over the church (Vis 2.4)

There are more citations that I could provide, along these same lines, but these should be enough to show you the confusion, in Rome, among the concepts of “overseers”, “elders”, and “leadership”. To say that there was one “bishop” over all of this is to introduce a concept that is foreign to all these texts.

Finally, confirming this, are the two letters, spread some 50 years apart (Paul’s letter to the Romans and Ignatius’s letter to the Romans), neither of which can identify an individual who is leading the church at Rome. This is despite the fact that Paul names 23 separate people, with the intention of providing formal greetings to them, and Ignatius both identifies the concept of “bishop” and also names a number of other “bishops” in other cities.

All of these factors considered together should provide a picture of the leadership structure of the church at Rome that is totally at odds with the picture that your author (Sobrino) provides (“there could still have been the role of head bishop”).

Many years after the apostles appeared in Rome, there was confusion as to the leadership there.


  1. Hi John,

    Thanks for all this.

    Fr. John Meier, in a work I've cited to you previously, makes the important if not obvious comment that the church in Antioch was led by "prophets and teachers" (Acts 13:1), not bishops. And insofar as the Antiochene church predates that of Rome one might conclude this to be the more "apostolic" structure.


    1. Thanks Constantine :-)

      I love the Brown/Meier work and consult it frequently. In fact, I just had it out this morning.