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Priests of My People

Levitical Paradigms for Early Christian Ministers

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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 3. Attendants of the Lord: The Apostolic Tradition

Extract

← 44 | 45 → ·3·

The Apostolic Tradition

One of the earliest textual witnesses to a regular and repeated reference to the Christian bishop as a priest,1 particularly in the liturgical rites for the ordination of a bishop, is the so-called Apostolic Tradition of third-century ← 45 | 46 → Rome.2 For this reason alone, the Apostolic Tradition (hereafter AT) is an invaluable and illuminating source for understanding the development of priestly nomenclature for Christian ministers in the early church. Yet, there are also broader reasons for turning to a text like the AT. Although the usefulness of a genre of “church order” has been increasingly called into question,3 the AT ← 46 | 47 → and the ordination rites contained within it offer an explicit portrait of early Christian liturgical and communal life. They speak explicitly to the issue of Christian order and structure, describing the very fabric of Christian thought and practice for that and later communities. In this capacity, the AT stands as the (sometimes invisible) backdrop to later developing thought on Christian identity and organization. When examining later expressions of theological development, one must be conscious not only of those explicit theological articulations, but also of the underlying life of the worshipping Christian communities. Just as the actual practice of baptism in the life of the church has shaped the Christian understanding of baptism, and the regular participation in the Eucharist has shaped Christian perspective on the rite itself, so also when early Christians reflected on the understanding...

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