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Priests of My People

Levitical Paradigms for Early Christian Ministers


Bryan A. Stewart

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.
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Chapter 2. Guardians of Sacred Space: Tertullian of Carthage


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Tertullian of Carthage

The first witness to a consistent application of the title sacerdos to Christian leadership comes from Tertullian of Carthage around AD 200. The occurrences are not frequent, and discerning Tertullian’s full understanding of a ministerial priesthood is difficult with such a dearth of references. Nevertheless, Tertullian’s appropriation of sacerdos as a title for the Christian bishop remains significant. He is the earliest Christian writer repeatedly to apply a priestly designation to Christian ministers and thus affords us the opportunity to test the prevailing consensus that Christian priesthood derived either from imitation of pagan priesthood or in conjunction with the minister’s role over the Eucharistic sacrifice. As we will see, a careful examination of Tertullian’s writings demonstrates that his articulation of the Christian leader as a sacerdos stems not from an imitation of pagan priesthood, nor solely from a connection with Eucharistic sacrifice. Rather, it is Tertullian’s religio-political ecclesiology—his understanding of the Christian assembly as a community in continuity with ancient Israel—combined with a newly emerging spatial awareness of Christian assembly rooms as “sacred space,” that creates an ideal context in which the Old Testament Israelite priesthood is appropriated as a figura for Christian leadership.

Tertullian’s designations of the Christian leader as a sacerdos are not overly abundant; yet, they are frequent enough to establish a consistent understanding on his part. The first comes in his work De Baptismo where Tertullian explains who can give and receive...

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