Priesthood in the New Testament Era Church, 5.

After Jesus’ death, Christians followed the patterns of the synagogue and administered the Christian fellowship in each locality by a group of elders, or “presbyters.” Of course, there were the apostles and the great missionaries like Paul, and there were prophets. Prophets don’t seem to be located teachers, they travel, and they have liturgical authority, and they preach, but they don’t seem to be missionaries per se. [I’ll come back to prophets in the final post of the series.]

With the death of the apostles, and they don’t seem to get replaced,—it’s not completely clear why—partly it seems to be that they were seen—and may have seen themselves—as more eschatological officers. They certainly governed the early church, but it seems that they wanted less and less to do with practical governance issues, and you can see this in the controversies that developed over the temple and Jews and Gentile converts. Anyway, they sort of withdraw from local matters, they separate to preach, and they die. Some were killed like Peter and James (brother of John), others we don’t know about, but they die (I’ll leave John out of this—the Johannine literature is a complication on its own and something I don’t want to get into here).[1]

After the temple and the death of the greats, the church seemed to gravitate towards a set pattern of administration, it’s local though, except for the prophets, who continue to travel from place to place. You find the beginnings of this localized administration in the Pauline Pastorals (Timothy, Titus). The Pastorals may reference Paul, but they are probably written well after Paul’s death. Paul (or Pseudo-Paul, Deutero-Paul, if you like) has a main concern in the Pastorals, get elders (presbyters) and “deacons,” (servants) appointed in every town, get a structure to administer to the poor and in general, teach the message and preserve that message against divergent teaching, preserve the proper (Christian) interpretation of the Old Testament, and certainly the tradition about Jesus, whatever that may have been. The important thing is church structures are being formed. It’s a gradual process. Joseph Smith’s early revelations seem to play on this vision of local church structure, at least verbally. For example, the texts that call for blessing the sick (D&C 42:44), or blessing babies (D&C 20:70).

Church administration is not uniform in the New Testament. But it seems pretty common that a group of presbyters is chosen after the synagogue pattern, and each group of elders oversees their own community. And sometimes they are called by that name, Overseer, a literal translation of the Greek term, episkopos.[3] It’s a kind of hyphenated meaning. Epi (on, over, super) and skopos (look, watch). Someone(s) who supervised the community, its goods, its instruction, its care, its preservation, its moral life, and discipline. These people are chosen for stability. They aren’t selected for charisma or outstanding ability. The Pastorals instruct churches to seek for people who are balanced, prudent, married only one time (and this was firm apparently, widowers who remarried were barred from service). If they can’t control their own family, they can’t possibly administer the community. And their children have to be Christians.

That means some faithful persons, who converted later in life, and whose children weren’t Christian, were not to be episkopos, bishops,[2] overseers, presbyters. Why not? Because only Models can serve. Someone who sets the ideal of the Christian life. This kind of thing seems inevitable. Once you set up a firm structure, seemingly artificial demands appear that reflect the ideal somehow, useful or not. And you can see a bit of this in modern Mormonism, though much of it is more tradition than fixed rules (or sometimes the rules change). Latter-day Saints saw similar constraints in other Christians (training for the ministry for example) and poked some fun there. But it always exists in any organization. These leaders that the Pastorals discuss are not “missionaries” like Paul, say. It has to be someone, people, that the group can get along with, they’re personable types. No recent converts—you can’t be sure of them. Not contentious, not angry. If Paul had actually written these, he probably wouldn’t be eligible himself (and he wouldn’t have been happy in such a spot). Next time, more on church officials, Jewish heritage, and the Christian office of “priest.”


[1] I know we Latter-day Saints sometimes like to connect the passing of the apostles with the withdrawal of priesthood (as we term it), but I think the narrative is more subtle than that. The idea is strongly connected to the way in which the Utah church saw it’s legitimacy. One interesting divergence from this idea of apostolic apostasy was Joseph F. Smith’s early twentieth-century priesthood narrative. Smith proposed that even the least priesthood holder could reorganize the entire church without angelic intervention, should the need arise. Everything was present in each such person. This raises some fascinating complexity in dealing with priesthood in the early Christian post-apostolic era. Smith’s idea wasn’t terribly popular in general, though parts of it were influential down the line. If you look at part 7, you’ll see a link to my paper on early Mormon priesthood in the winter 2013 issue of Dialogue which has some information on Joseph F. Smith’s ideas.

[2] Bishop arises from Old English, biscop, derived from vulgar [common] Latin, biscopus, imported from Greek: episkopos.

6 Responses to Priesthood in the New Testament Era Church, 5.

  1. ricke says:

    Thanks for this. I’m going off memory as I write this, so please correct as necessary: It’s interesting that the early church replaced Judas to replenish the Twelve, but when James the brother of John was martyred fairly soon thereafter, there is no mention of a replacement. Of course, Paul and Barnabas were later called apostles, and they seem to have been set apart in Jerusalem or by someone from Jerusalem, but they do not seem to be members of the Twelve. It is also broadly accepted by NT scholars that a female leader, Junia, was referred to as an “apostle” by Paul, but the relevant verse is reportedly somewhat ambivalent in Greek. My point is that there were likely apostles (in the sense of one sent forth) and the Twelve Apostles in the early church. As an interesting parallel, the earliest certificates of authority issued by the Church in this day referred to the bearers as “apostles” too, even though some of them never became members of the Twelve when that quorum was organized. That was probably due to a conflation in the minds of Joseph and his early associates of the position of the “elders” in the Book of Mormon with the “Apostles” of the NT.

    • WVS says:

      Yes. On both counts I think. Apostle is a tricky word, laden with a lot of baggage. And thanks for mentioning Paul and Barnabas. We put a lot of weight on a continuing Twelve but it’s not at all clear what the early church was up to there.

      • Clark Goble says:

        It’s worth noting that we tend to view the apostles through more of a post-Brigham Young conception of the church when succession was largely set in stone. It’s interesting we don’t hear of a succession crisis in the NT, although some like Nibley argue the apostasy was early and largely consisted of not passing on that authority. As I recall he appeals to 1 Clement for that. Regardless if one buys Nibley certainly by the time of Clement’s writings he speaks as if the days of the apostles is over. Which is pretty interesting. (Particularly 1 Clement 44:2 where they have succession for the bishops and deacons for after they – the apostles – die)

        While it’s bringing in an arguably highly biased view, I sometimes wonder if the succession crisis and how the inner circle in Nauvoo perceived things ought inform how we look at the NT apostles.

  2. Clark Goble says:

    Part of my worry here is that we’re arguing from very little data. Admittedly we have some of the 2cd century fathers and (depending upon how you date it) the Didiche. But primarily we have the NT which gives us very little history at all. So when we say the apostles were eschatological officers I get a tad squeamish. I’m all with you on noting the differing traditions of the leadership in Jerusalem from the apostles. That might indicate they aren’t in leadership. But by and large I just don’t think we know much here.

    Not that I’m not enjoying this a lot. It’s just that I’m not convinced 2cd century writers tell us much about 1st century structure. (Kind of like reading conference talks from the 1970’s to get an idea of pre-Nauvoo church structure)

    Your point about models though I suspect is correct. This may also reflect the interesting mention that a Bishop has to have one wife. Is this to avoid still present, albeit uncommon, Jewish polygamy relative to Greek/Roman conceptions? I don’t know, but it’s definitely interesting. Yet, as we’ve found in our own tradition those can sometimes come to have their own life.

  3. WVS says:

    Clark, I think one of the confusing elements is the oral/aural nature of Christianity up until the end of the first century. Even the Gospels are comparatively late, not written by eyewitnesses. Literature from early 2nd century is about as good as it gets if you can find it. It’s unlikely that first century traditions were replaced wholesale. It is true that manuscript evidence balloons in that period, largely because copyists were far less careful than they became in the third century. You have to use what you have. Hard to base an argument on a speculative hole.

  4. Clark Goble says:

    The Didiche is 1st century though although it too describes a fragmentary authority. Also it’s not quite clear what to make of its “prophets.” Apostle likely is meant in a loose sense rather than the 12. There’s also that weird “don’t let them stay more than 2 days” bit. There’s also the question in the text of who appoints deacons and bishops. It can be read that the people do.

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