Priesthood in the Era of the New Testament, 6.

By the early 2nd century, at least in some churches, and you can see this in Ignatius(35?-107?) of Antioch’s letters, there is a new practice of having one of the presbyters be a kind of head of the other elders, and Ignatius encourages this, it’s a feature that gives advantage in his eyes. The pattern is evolving to one bishop (overseer), a group of presbyters, and a group of deacons. I think it’s important to understand that there isn’t any notion of Melchizedek or Aaronic orders. It’s much like early Mormonism. There are simply offices, and they develop a pecking order, like that of the early Mormon Articles and Covenants. See my paper on early Mormon priesthood teachings in Dialogue

Ignatius the Martyr. (Image: Wikipedia)

Ignatius the Martyr. Legend is that he was John’s (brother of martyred James) pal. (Image: Wikipedia)

Ignatius wrote letters to the church in Rome, but that fellowship didn’t seem to have this pattern in play. It took another half century before this pattern showed up in Rome and this was probably because the church in Rome was still heavily Jewish, and governed out of the synagogue pattern, lots of elders, a council.

It really took about a hundred years after Ignatius before his ideal became (largely) the universal pattern among Christian congregations. These congregations or churches kept in touch, at least a lot of them did, trying to avoid breaking the community. Natural communication problems and a lack of central mediation didn’t help much, and the Johannine corpus (1, 2, 3 John and Gospel of John) shows how the effort for unity wasn’t always successful. In Rome, about the time of Ignatius, there was an important elder, Clement. He was probably the clerk or secretary among the elders in Rome, because he wrote letters to other churches on their behalf. This was probably typical, because whenever you have a group of co-leaders, inevitably someone tends to emerge as more active, influential, etc. Catholic tradition names him a bishop in Rome, but that office didn’t exist there, yet. That didn’t happen until around 150 CE or so.

An important consequence of the destruction of the temple and the eventual separation of Jews and Christians as religions was the potent wish among Christians to have a more direct connection with the Old Testament (and the early preaching heritage is right there with them as evidenced in the Synoptic Gospels). An apparent result of this combination of events is a change in title, or an addition to the title of bishop (“presiding” elder at this point), the literature adds the title, “priest.” Notice that Paul (or Deutero-Paul) never uses this word in his lists of church officialdom. It was a Jewish office, one that was inherited. But by the end of the 2nd century (ca. 200 CE) you see overseers (bishops) being called priests and there was a very important liturgical aspect to this. By the end of the third century, the whole Jewish pattern is overlaid on the Christian ministry, the presbyters are priests, the bishop became the equivalent of the high priest. This reinterpreted the early Christian vision, at least part of it (and it is terribly Mormon, by the way). Israel was restored in a spiritualized way. And it’s not too long before you begin to see terrible speech about Jews among Christian writers. They were never God’s people, really, and so on.

This whole incorporation of the Jewish priesthood was not accidental, or at least not just in name only. It was well considered. The original governance by the council of elders was partly a grassroots thing, probably done rather autonomously (you see Paul setting this up, but after that it was at least partly self-sustaining) in many cases, again much like early Mormon congregations, who appointed some deacon, or teacher, or priest, or elder, a person who was one of them, a trustworthy, a reliable soul, from among the people. Someone they could agree on (sometimes they split up into two groups because they couldn’t agree–often the controversies were familial).

With Ignatius, there is a liturgical aspect to bishops. The only ones who can baptize, administer the Lord’s Supper, (Eucharist). This is some innovation. In the Pastorals, there’s no mention of liturgy. The elders or deacons don’t get associated with liturgical practice like the Lord’s Supper. That change only seems to come gradually. In James, the elders, presbyters, are seen as healers, and this records some change perhaps in the charismatic gifts that centered in believers generally. And there is another Mormon parallel here. The 1920s saw a drift from charismatic healing/blessing among the gifted faithful to a restriction of those acts to the elders.[1] Next time, the fate of the prophets and priesthood as it worked through the Reformation— and a female priesthood?

[1] Ignatius’s letters are somewhat controversial. They partake of John’s Gospel in some ways, like the Prologue (Word made flesh), but they run against the Gospel’s anti-hierarchy position. It seems likely that they are redacted in some ways. Many of Ignatius’s letters are clearly not authored by him, but others probably are, at least they were early on.


7 Responses to Priesthood in the Era of the New Testament, 6.

  1. ricke says:

    Thanks again.

  2. Wally says:

    Thanks again, WVS, for more interesting background. So, how did a math professor ever get involved in this kind of research?

  3. Ryan Mullen says:

    loving this series so far. In Parts 2&3 you seem to start from the view that the apostles were in charge, rather than James and the Jerusalem elders. Is this your default view for discussing early Christianity in a Mormon context, or a did you consider the possibility that James was the more influential leader until the Roman destruction of Jerusalem?

    • WVS says:

      Ryan, I think it works out to some kind of compromise. The Jerusalem church was very important. But there were traditions about apostolic influence. Galatians for instance.

  4. Ryan Mullen says:

    Or rather, until James’ death (~62 IIRC)?

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