Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ask Tony: Where do you find "bishops" and "priests" in the New Testament?

I've been corresponding with a man who recently "came home", and who's now discussing the matter with his non-denominational wife. (By the way, I ask your prayers for Rob and his wife as they work through the changes; her church background is filled with some anti-papist communions, so it hasn't been easy for her to adjust to his conversion.)

Autumn recently completed a college survey course on the life of St. Paul, the text of which was Paul: His Life and Teachings, by Wheaton College fellow John McRay. In the course of the conversation, I brought up St. Ignatius of Antioch. Rob wrote back: "It is funny that you mentioned St. Ignatius, as McRay also has some words concerning Ignatius' pleas in the Letter to the Smyrnaeans for the faithful to obey their bishop: 'No evidence for such an office [of bishop] exists prior to his writings.  Ignatius is evidently trying to establish the position of a monarchial bishop rather than representing it as already in existence.' Hmm ...."

Now, it took me longer than intended to write my reply to this, due to highlighting, deleting and rewriting some pretty uncharitable thoughts concerning Mr. (Prof.? Dr.?) McRay (who's no longer listed as on the faculty at Wheaton). While I was writing it, I did realize that the New International Version talks of "overseers" in the New Testament. I wonder, how many Catholics have been confronted by righteous fundamentalists shaking their NIVs and saying, "Tell me where you find bishops in the Bible!"

Very simple: "Bishop" comes to us from the Vulgar Latin biscopus (episcopus), which in turn comes to us from the Greek ἐπισκοπος (episkopos) ... "overseer". Likewise, the word "priest" comes from late Latin presbyter (classical Latin sacerdos), which was taken from the Greek πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros) ... "elder".


There is some debate about the actual development of the Church leadership structure in the Apostolic Era (ca. 30-100 AD), much of which is fueled by Catholic/Protestant biases. Let me give the Catholic version, which I think to be most evident from the record.

From time immemorial, the laying on of hands imparted authority as well as blessing; consider Esau, who Isaac said would serve his brother because Jacob had stolen the elder son's blessing by guile (Gen 27:1-40). Saint Paul reminded St. Timothy of the blessing he'd received from the council of presbyters (1 Tim 4:14), which gave him authority to preach and teach (v. 13). But it's clear that he also has authority over presbyters (v. 5:17); the apostle also tells him the qualities necessary in an episkopos and a deacon (vv. 3:1-15), and warns him not to be too hasty in laying hands on anyone else. From this much, we can deduce that St. Timothy is acting as St. Paul's stand-in, or vicarius, giving him apostolic authority. We also have his instructions to St. Titus as a cross-reference, telling him what kind of man to appoint as a presbyter or an episkopos (Titus 1:5-9); from this we can infer that he too has been endowed with St. Paul's apostolic authority.

So far we've established that apostolic authority was transferable; yet we haven't settled the placement of the roles. At the beginning, we have the Eleven, who appoint deacons (diakonoi) as assistants and impose their hands on them (Ac 6:1-6). Their function at first is to distribute possessions in common (cf. Ac 4:34-35). We also see in Ac 14:33 that the apostles appointed the presbyteroi in each town. 

While we don't have a hierarchy explicitly stated, it's pointless to call any man an "overseer" unless he has primary care for the community; so the superiority in rank of the bishop to the priest is already implied. Still, we have some fluidness, for St. Paul occasionally refers to himself as a diakonos (cf. 2 Cor. 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph. 3:7), though probably not equating his role with the Table of Seven, and St. Peter refers to himself as a "fellow elder" (1 Pet 5:1), despite his apostolic authority. In fact, even today, a candidate for priesthood must be ordained as a transitional deacon for a year, and a bishop must be a priest.

By the time St. Ignatius begins his fateful voyage to his martyrdom (ca. 110), the hierarchy is pretty much solidified: The deacon is subject to both the bishop Damas and the presbyters Bassus and Apollonius (Letter to the Magnesians, 2), and the presbyters are in turn subject to the bishop (ibid., 3). We also find that the role of the deacons are "[ministers] of the mysteries of Jesus Christ" and "not ministers of meat and drink" (Letter to the Trallians, 2). From this we can infer their assistance at the Eucharist, over which the bishop is still presiding; however, St. Ignatius also notes that the bishop can entrust the Eucharist to someone else (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8).

So, eighty years after Pentecost, we have a clear division of duties and hierarchy (from hieros, "priest"); we have presbyteroipriests — presiding over the Eucharists as representatives (vicarii, from which we get "vicar", the technical term for the pastor of a parish church) of the episkopoibishops, while ordained deacons serve in an auxiliary role.

Okay, many Bibles translate episkopos as "bishop". So why do they translate presbyteros as "leader" or "elder"? Well, that's what it meant!

Chalk it up to one of those funny things about language change. A Levitical or pagan priest was a hieros; since the elder or leader didn't initially perform the sacerdotal function of the Eucharist (the bishop did as the apostolic vicar, and later as successor to the function), the term hieros didn't apply. Nor do I think the early Christians were eager to adopt terms from pagan or Jewish worship wholesale; over time, they essentially came up with a whole new vocabulary to express Christian concepts. 

Later, when technology finally enabled mass production of vernacular Bibles ... the Reformation split the Western Church. The Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible translates presbyteros as "priest" in the letters of the New Testament; however, the Protestant King James Bible translates it as "elder" throughout. Both versions came out within a few years of each other. Now, however, all versions use either "leader" or "elder", though as far as I know only the NIV translates episkopos as "overseer". I leave it to you to guess why.

Update
Originally, I didn't know Rob's wife's name. I just found out, so I've corrected it.