Bishops, Presbyters and Other Elusive Offices in the Early Church – By Dan Batovici

Dan Batovici on Alistair C. Stewart’s The Original Bishops

Alistair C. Stewart, The Original Bishops: Office and Order in the First Christian Communities, Baker Academic, 2014, NUMBERpp., $50
Alistair C. Stewart, The Original Bishops: Office and Order in the First Christian Communities, Baker Academic, 2014, 394pp., $50
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Our understanding of how the earliest Christian churches were organized is built on precious little evidence. Found mainly in writings later gathered in the New Testament and in some of the Apostolic Fathers, that evidence is at best unclear and on occasion historically questionable. Of course, the ambiguities associated with available data did not prevent early modern scholars from expressing rather confident views on the matter, views which have proven so persistent that they still constitute the majority view today: The titles for the earliest officers in church, presbyteros and episkopos, are considered synonymous. Since these titles usually occur in the plural, scholars conclude that a collective leadership structure must have preceded the emergence of the single bishop structure (monarchical episcopacy) and that this collegiate presbytery originated in and mirrored the structure of the synagogue. The list of names of adherents to this view is long and impressive, including Baur and Lightfoot among many others.

With a two-decade-long publishing record that deals with various facets of early church organization, Alistair Stewart is optimally equipped to readdress this topic. His alternative, holistic proposal challenges the majority view, aims to make better sense of the available data, and adds further evidence where possible. His proposal runs as follows: The earliest individual Christian communities had a single domestic leader, an episkopos (even if not named as such), who had economic duties that included overseeing eucharistic meals, where charity likely was exercised. This structure mirrored not the synagogue but the Roman-Hellenistic household. Individual congregations from the same area — even if quite different from one another, as is documented for second century Rome — then developed some degree of commonality by federating. The members of this federation, known (or functioning) as episkopoi in their individual churches, were designated and known as presbyteroi in their capacity as members of this gathering. It is only at this level that collegiality occurs, and it is only in this manner that a collegiate presbytery comes into existence. (A number of Asian communities seem to have had presbyteroi at the level of the individual congregation, but they were senior benefactors rather than office holders, with altogether different functions that were administrative rather than cultic in nature.) Stewart thus challenges absolute synonymy between episkopos and presbyteros but still allows that they are effectively synonymous in that they designate the same individual, albeit in different roles or relations. In its early stages, the purpose of the federation was not to exercise a common leadership over the individual churches but to maintain orthodoxy, to circulate Christian literature, and to correspond by letter with churches in other areas. Such collegiate presbyteries were the milieux in which, eventually, the position of monepiskopos would arise. In Stewart’s terminology, monepiskopos indicates a sole bishop overseeing more than one individual church, as opposed to a single bishop over an individual community, with subordinate ministers in each of them.

The Original Bishops is, then, an effort to retrace the dynamics that preceded and eventually led, around the turn of the third century, to the concentration of Christian leadership in the hands of individuals who oversaw more than one Christian congregation in a given area. Stewart does not relate a linear narrative. He must first break down several walls and build some bridges, some more important than others. The journey begins with an effort to deal with the generally accepted synonymy between episkopos and presbyteros as displayed at various points in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 20:17-18, 28 and Titus 1:5-8). This first move is pivotal because most views on collegiate leadership of the earliest churches rest one way or another on this synonymy, and on the fact that these terms tend to appear in the plural.

Stewart goes to great length to show — convincingly, I believe — that the basis for assuming synonymy is thinner than usually held, and to replace this consensus with a stronger argument: the members of the gathering are presbyteroi in this capacity (as members of the gathering), while they are nonetheless episkopoi for their own congregation. This hypothesis explains texts like Titus 1:5 that describe the appointment of presbyteroi (collectively), while the qualities of an episkopos (singular) are described only later on in 1:7-8. Historical support for the hypothesis is found in the traces of federation in early Christianity, starting with second century Rome where it seems likely that leaders of individual churches may have federated on the citywide level. Indeed, Hermas, Clement, Justin, and Marcion attest to rather different congregations, and at least the first two offer clues of gatherings of leaders from such congregations for the purpose of transmitting texts and for writing correspondence to churches in other cities.

By emphasizing the distinction between the church of Rome as a collective community and the individual congregations that formed this church, Stewart is able to propose that the collegial presbytery happens only at city level, and not in the individual churches, which had single leader. In a similar manner, he discusses possible instances of federation of individual Christian households at a citywide level in Ephesus, Corinth, and Philippi. Stewart is clear about just how speculative his proposal is: “synonymy is thus not proved; I may admit that the alternative proposed is likewise not proved, but as an alternative reading it is at least as possible.” The overall argument of the book is thus cumulative and stands (or falls) as a whole. Each chapter seeks to deepen and further ground this thesis.

Stewart first examines the duties and functions of episkopoi (and diakonoi as their helpers) in their communities, as a basis for arguing that the origin of the episcopate lays with the widespread use of the term episkopos for economic functionaries in the Roman world (via the financial officers of pagan associations or not), against the view that its sources are Jewish. He then proposes that, beyond the federated presbyters at the city level, at least some early Christian communities (usually of Asian cultural background) had congregational presbyters, and that they are distinct from, although they may elect, their episkopos. For the city-level presbyters he proposes as a source (against the Jewish provenance theory) the common use of presbyteroi to designate senior members of associations in Hellenistic context. As for the congregational presbyters — occurring in Asian communities, perhaps when they outgrow their initial household — they would be senior members who offer patronage, bearing administrative but not cultic duties.

Having outlined the main features of his proposal regarding early offices, Stewart proceeds to document it prior to the emergence of monepiscopacy, in the emerging Christian communities for which we have enough evidence to allow meaningful analysis: Alexandria (and beyond), Bithynia, Smyrna, Philippi, Jerusalem, Antioch, and the Asian communities addressed by Ignatius of Antioch. Stewart’s long and wide-ranging discussion demonstrates the existence of a city-level federation that led eventually to monepiscopacy, apart from Rome, in the first four communities in the list above, and possibly in others. Ignatius, interestingly, does not fit the bill, and after weighing several hypotheses, Stewart proposes that we view him as a domestic episkopos of a single Christian household.

Stewart brings the narrative to a close with an account of how monepiscopacy emerged out of federation. Several tasks of the federated presbyters required an agent (e.g., for writing of letters to other city communities, as mirrored in 1 Clement, or for transmitting literature, as in the Shepherd of Hermas), who eventually came to be their monepiskopos. Rather than a primus inter pares scenario, this centralization of authority was favored by the assumption of scholastic functions within the church — which had to do with the boundaries of orthodoxy (e.g., in response to Gnostic schools) and resulted in a shift in the nature of the episcopal office from economics to teaching — and, perhaps, by the impact of external threats of Roman persecution.

The amount of data analysed and the breadth of scholarship engaged is in all respects impressive, as Stewart covers the literature of the first several Christian centuries. The book is closely argued, with fully developed caveats, as it inevitably involves a high degree of speculation. As ever with such reconstructions, I expect other scholars will wish to challenge or poke holes in various points. But the proposal does make sense of the rather scarce and scattered evidence, and does offer a coherent alternative to what Stewart identifies as the ongoing consensus.

Whether this book’s proposal will set the basis of a new consensus remains of course to be seen. It is always useful to see the consensus vigorously challenged, lest we forget that it is not always as iron clad as its persistence might suggest. The volume will definitely have to be reckoned with on most issues it tackles, should one wish to reaffirm the majority view or go further into the topic. Either way, one will be very pleased with the wealth of data discussed. And so will any reader with an interest in early Christian office and ecclesiology, and generally in church history, with great benefit, even if this is in all regards a book written for the specialist. Stewart’s proposed narrative of early Christian office develops rather slowly, step by step, painstakingly from one chapter to another, with more than welcome numerous sign-posts pointing in both directions, summarising what has been done so far or presenting what is relevant from what follows, and why. Equally helpful are both his careful delineation of what is hypothetical and what can be established from the data at each major articulation of the argument, and also his general acute awareness of the limitations of the whole process, both with regard to his proposal and to the majority view. This in itself is a lesson for any reader on the paucity of sources for many key issues of early Christianity and on the difficulties in which the historical research into the origins of ecclesiology is wrought. The subject matter — the elusive shape of the church offices in the first few Christian centuries — is of perennial interest, from both historical and ecclesiastical perspective, and this book is an illustration of the type of careful threading needed in order to reach even the most cautious conclusion.