Priests of My People

Levitical Paradigms for Early Christian Ministers

by Bryan A. Stewart (Author)
©2015 Monographs XV, 250 Pages
Series: Patristic Studies, Volume 11


This book offers an innovative examination of the question: why did early Christians begin calling their ministerial leaders «priests» (using the terms hiereus/sacerdos)? Scholarly consensus has typically suggested that a Christian «priesthood» emerged either from an imitation of pagan priesthood or in connection with seeing the Eucharist as a sacrifice over which a «priest» must preside. This work challenges these claims by exploring texts of the third and fourth century where Christian bishops and ministers are first designated «priests»: Tertullian and Cyprian of Carthage, Origen of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, and the church orders Apostolic Tradition and Didascalia Apostolorum. Such an examination demonstrates that the rise of a Christian ministerial priesthood grew more broadly out of a developing «religio-political ecclesiology». As early Christians began to understand themselves culturally as a unique polis in their own right in the Greco-Roman world, they also saw themselves theologically and historically connected with ancient biblical Israel. This religio-political ecclesiology, sharpened by an emerging Christian material culture and a growing sense of Christian «sacred space», influenced the way Christians interpreted the Jewish Scriptures typologically. In seeing the nation of Israel as a divine nation corresponding to themselves, Christians began appropriating the Levitical priesthood as a figure or «type» of the Christian ministerial office. Such a study helpfully broadens our understanding of the emergence of a Christian priesthood beyond pagan imitation or narrow focus on the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, and instead offers a more comprehensive explanation in connection with early Christian ecclesiology.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Priests of My People
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • Reference and Critical Works
  • Early Church Orders
  • Works of Tertullian
  • Works of Origen of Alexandria
  • Works of Cyprian
  • Works of Eusebius of Caesaria
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • State of the Question
  • Christian Priesthood Emulates Pagan Priesthood
  • Christian Priesthood Represents Christ’s High Priesthood
  • Christian Priests as Presiders over the Eucharistic Sacrifice
  • Religio-Political Ecclesiology: A Way Forward
  • Church as a Culture or Polis
  • Religio-Political Continuity with Israel
  • A Christian Material Culture and Sacred Space
  • The Present Study
  • Chapter 2. Guardians of Sacred Space: Tertullian of Carthage
  • A Christian Ministerial Priesthood
  • Religio-Political Ecclesiology and a Typology of Levitical Priesthood
  • Emerging Christian Material Culture and Sacred Space
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 3. Attendants of the Lord: The Apostolic Tradition
  • A Ministerial Priesthood in the Ordination Prayers
  • Religio-Political Ecclesiology: Continuity with Israel
  • Christian Material Culture and Sacred Space
  • Literary Evidence
  • Textual Evidence Outside the AT
  • Archaeological Evidence
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 4. Stewards of God’s House: The Didascalia Apostolorum
  • Background to the Didascalia Apostolorum
  • Dating and Provenance
  • Textual Issues
  • Genre
  • Priestly Depictions of the Christian Bishop
  • Eucharistic Sacrifice?
  • Religio-Political Ecclesiology
  • Continuity with Israel
  • Jewish-Christian Relations: A Political Ecclesiology
  • A Christian Material Culture
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 5. Rulers of the Divine Nation: Origen of Alexandria
  • A Christian Priesthood
  • Functions of the Minister-Priest
  • Teaching
  • Sacrifice
  • The Word as a Sacrifice
  • Spiritual Leadership
  • Religio-Political Ecclesiology
  • Church as Polis
  • Old Testament as the Book of the Church
  • Continuity with Israel and Its History
  • A Typology of Priesthood
  • Christian Material Culture
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 6. Ministers of the Altar, Leaders of the Church: Cyprian of Carthage
  • A Christian Ministerial Priesthood
  • Christian Priests: Liturgical Leaders of the Church
  • Christian Priests: Administrative Rulers of the Church
  • Religio-Political Ecclesiology: Continuity with Israel
  • A Christian Material Culture and Sacred Space
  • Archaeological Evidence
  • Literary Evidence
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 7. Priests of God’s Holy Temple: Eusebius of Caesarea
  • Priesthood and History: Dedication of the Church at Tyre
  • An Ecclesiological Continuity with Israel
  • Christian Material Culture and Sacred Space
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 8. Bridging the Gap: Early Trajectories of Priestly Ideas
  • Priestly Ideas in the Early Church?
  • The Apostle Paul
  • Didache
  • 1 Clement
  • An Ecclesiology of Continuity with Israel
  • A Cultural or Political Ecclesiology
  • Religio-Political Ecclesiology and a Ministerial Priesthood
  • Summary of the Present Study
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Apostolic Tradition
  • Clement of Rome
  • Cyprian
  • Didache
  • Didascalia Apostolorum
  • Eusebius of Caesarea
  • Origen
  • Tertullian
  • Miscellaneous
  • Secondary Sources
  • Index
  • Index of Biblical Citations
  • Series index


No major undertaking is fulfilled without the help of others, and that is certainly the case here. There are many to whom I owe my deep gratitude for bringing this project to completion. For those whom I have failed to mention, I offer my sincere apologies and genuine thanks.

This book is based on my 2006 doctoral dissertation at the University of Virginia under the supervisory guidance of Robert L. Wilken. I could not have asked for a better doctoral advisor, and it was Robert who first taught me just how important biblical interpretation was to the development of doctrine in the early church. To him I owe an immeasurable debt of thanks, both for his careful, attentive, and encouraging hand during the process of writing the original dissertation, and also for his ongoing support of me as a scholar and teacher. On more than one occasion he has recommended my work to others, and it was his continued support of this project that has helped me move forward to revise the dissertation into an academic monograph. I am deeply grateful for his endorsement of the book.

Many thanks also to Harry Gamble and Judith Kovacs for sitting on the original dissertation committee and for offering their own suggestions and corrections to the argument I was making and the evidence I was using. It was Harry who first suggested in passing the possible significance of “sacred space” ← XI | XII → as an area of further exploration. Little did he or I realize how important that aspect would become in the current project. I must also acknowledge my former seminary professor, C. John “Jack” Collins, for his initial suggestions and encouragement toward thinking about the “priesthood” in early Christianity. Without his prodding, this project would have never begun.

Along the way I have received continued encouragement and support from many. I give my thanks them: Dale Boston for his generous gift of time in reading large portions of the manuscript and improving it in significant ways; David Moffitt, a long-time friend who has persistently encouraged me to get this work published; Matthew Levering for his enthusiasm about this project years ago and his generous endorsement of the book; Peter Leithart, for his endorsement and for the way his own work has contributed significantly to my thinking about the church; David Kneipp, for his help with particular Coptic texts; Keith Waddle and the McMurry University inter-library loan staff for their help in retrieving innumerable obscure texts; anonymous reviewers of portions of the book as well as those unnamed participants at regional and national conferences who heard chapters of this project and offered helpful feedback and suggestions; and the religion department at McMurry University for granting me the Ralph C. Turner Distinguished chair which afforded me with a reduced teaching load and research funds allowing me to bring this project to completion.

Finally, I offer my thanks to all those at Peter Lang who worked with me along the way: Heidi Burns, Michelle Salyga, and Jackie Pavlovic. I am also deeply grateful to Gerald Bray for his support of the project and including it in his patristic studies monograph series.


Abilene, TX

November 1, 2014

← XVI | 1 → ·1·


In discussing the rise of a Christian ministerial “priesthood” in the early church, it has often been noted, and assiduously repeated, that the New Testament never designates any Christian leader as a “priest” (hiereus).1 By the end of the third century, however, the terms hiereus (in the east) and sacerdos (in the west) are repeatedly used to designate the bishop and other Christian ministers in a universally accepted way. Yet, in observing the end ← 1 | 2 → of the third century as a terminus ad quem for this general ecclesiastical development, a number of questions remain. When did this designation first appear, and how well accepted was it at the outset? More fundamental, why did the term “priest” arise in the church to designate the Christian minister, especially when the New Testament era remains silent on that very count? Was the church creating something ex-nihilo to assert a new understanding of Christian leadership, or was it developing pre-existing understandings? From what model(s) did Christians derive both the designation (hiereus/sacerdos) and the understanding of roles and functions for the Christian leader?

State of the Question

Questions about the rise of a Christian ministerial priesthood receive no shortage of answers, and scholars for the last one hundred years have attempted to address the subject. Most scholars2 recognize that Tertullian (c. AD 200) is the first writer to explicitly name the bishop a priest (sacerdos). Less agreement is found, however, in the explanation for why that term began to be used for the Christian leader, and what character and function Christians intended to communicate about their leaders by this designation. In surveying the related literature, one is met with a morass of opinions, objections, assertions, and hypotheses; nevertheless, the scholarship typically falls within one of three main categories, each of which attempts to answer the question of why the term “priest” came to be applied to the Christian minister in the early church.

Christian Priesthood Emulates Pagan Priesthood

According to this perspective, Christians looked to the surrounding pagan culture for titles of leadership and authority, appropriating the terminology ← 2 | 3 → “priest” in order to invest their own ministers with a sense of respect and distinction in the eyes of their neighbors. For several scholars, this development took place over time, and represented a divergence from prior models of Christian leadership and authority. According to this line of argument, in their earliest years, Christians saw themselves as a community whose purpose (as a whole) was to approach God as a corporate priestly society; over time, that conception was replaced by a narrower notion that only one part of the community constituted the priesthood, namely, the bishop. As Thomas M. Lindsay explains, by the mid-third century, Christian leaders were attempting to bolster their own authority, while at the same time looking for ways to be treated with the toleration extended to other religions in the empire. Lindsay surveys the organization of the Roman priesthood and concludes: “the Christian churches did copy the great pagan hierarchy. They did so in the distinction introduced into the ranks of bishops by the institution of metropolitans, and grades of bishops, and … on the model of the organization of the state temple service.”3

In a similar way, James Mohler argues that the rise of “sacerdotalism” in the church occurred when “the old democracy of the synagogue, where the presbyters were generally chosen by the people, gives way to the hierarchical ministry built upon the Roman model…”4 Even after the decline of paganism in the Roman Empire, suggests Mohler, pagan converts to Christianity would have “felt the need of a cultic priesthood.”5 Thus one can trace the rise of a Christian priesthood directly to the Greco-Roman milieu and its priestly leadership models. The title hiereus and sacerdos carried important social distinction in the Roman world, and Christians intentionally applied these terms to their own leaders in order to gain prestige for themselves.6

Allen Brent is the most recent proponent of finding connections between Christian leadership and pagan, Roman models. In his work, The Imperial Cult and the Development of Church Order, Brent explains the development of the Imperial Cult under Augustus as an attempt to retain the pax deorum through a “reorganization” of the Republican cult. In turn, argues Brent, the Christian ← 3 | 4 → church, having been “deprived of status and significance by the wider culture, sets up its own contra-culture that mirrors and reverses the values of the former, granting the status and significance to its members that the former had denied them.”7 This thesis is carried forward in even more detail in his recent work, Cyprian and Roman Carthage. Although this work explores ecclesiastical authority in terms broader than mere “priesthood,” Brent’s argument about the third-century conception of Christian leadership in general applies to notions of the bishop as sacerdos as well. For Brent, “the rights and prerogatives of the bishop at the pinnacle of the ecclesiastical hierarchy were to be understood in terms of the categories of power and authority of the Roman political constitution and their sacralization.”8 Like Lindsay and Mohler before, Brent seeks for an understanding of early Christian conceptions of leadership by positing an appropriation of political and cultic Roman models of authority.

While at first glance this argument appears reasonable, a number of problems remain. For example, Brent’s work on the Imperial Cult, while provocative, draws primarily upon evidence taken from the New Testament and sub-apostolic documents, the very period in which most scholars find an absence of priestly designations being applied to Christian leaders. Thus, the evidence here suggests that if conceptions of church leadership were mirroring pagan models, priesthood was decidedly not one of the models in view.9

Moreover, the evidence we do have from early Christian writers suggests that they were, in fact, not intentionally drawing upon and imitating pagan, priestly models of leadership. Christians of the second and third centuries were attempting to move away from, not embrace, the surrounding pagan culture. Even Justin Martyr, who is at pains to show the reasonableness of Christianity to his pagan audience, never calls the president of worship a hiereus, even though he has an appropriate opportunity to do so in 1 Apology 65–67. Likewise, Tertullian shows great caution in never using the term pontifex to describe a Christian bishop (except in one case in which his tone is sarcastic). Only after Constantine, when paganism does begin to lose ground, do Christians of the fourth century begin to us terms like pontifex, koryphaios, ← 4 | 5 → and hierophant to describe their leaders.10 The lack of use of these later titles by third-century Christians suggests that they were not using pagan models (and perhaps intentionally avoiding them) to describe their leaders.

Furthermore, there are certain striking differences between pagan and Christian priesthoods. As Simon Price notes in Religions of the Ancient Greeks, women in antiquity were able to be priests;11 Christians, however, restricted their priesthood to men. Certain priesthoods in ancient times were restricted to particular family lineage;12 Christians decidedly excluded such qualifications for their priesthood. The duties of pagan priests were restricted by and large to offering sacrifice;13 Christian priests, however, performed a full array of tasks such as baptizing, teaching, administering penance, and so on. Price further notes that priests in antiquity were not interpreters of the law (that was left to the diviners and exegetai);14 Christian priests, on the other hand, were routinely responsible for regular instruction and teaching. In the end, these are noticeable and significant differences between pagan and Christian priesthoods, and the suggestion that early Christians developed their ministerial priesthood from Roman models remains unpersuasive. Other solutions must be sought.

Christian Priesthood Represents Christ’s High Priesthood

Whereas the previous argument attempts to place the historical development of a Christian priesthood within the historical milieu in which it arose, this second perspective tends toward more theological reasoning. John Zizioulas, Joseph Coppens, and Albert Vanhoye, each in their various ways, explore the theological rationale for the emergence of a Christian ministerial priesthood out of Christ’s own priesthood. Zizioulas, for example, while not specifically addressing the development of Christian priesthood, argues for the bishop as an alter Christus because “the ministries that exist are antitypes and mystical radiations of the very authority of Christ, the only minister par excellence.”15


XV, 250
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Ministerial Church History Priesthood religio-political Ecclesiology
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XV, 250 pp.

Biographical notes

Bryan A. Stewart (Author)

Bryan A. Steward received his BA in religion from Grove City College (Grove City, PA) and his MDiv from Covenant Theological Seminary (St. Louis, MO). He completed his PhD in patristics and early Christianity from the University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA). After completing his doctoral work, he was awarded a two-year Lilly post-doctoral teaching and research fellowship at Valparaiso University (Valparaiso, IN). Currently Stewart is Associate Professor of Religion at McMurry University (Abilene, TX), where he teaches the history of Christian thought.


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