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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 5. Rulers of the Divine Nation: Origen of Alexandria


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Origen of Alexandria

The previous two chapters explored priestly designations for the Christian ministry in two separate church orders, one from the west (Apostolic Tradition) and one from the east (Didascalia Apostolorum); both came from the early third century. Moving forward, I will now examine two prominent thinkers of the mid-third century, looking for their understanding and portrayal of ministerial, priestly leadership via Levitical paradigms. As before, I will examine one representative from the east (Origen) and one from the west (Cyprian).

Origen of Alexandria has been declared “the most immense, the most prolific, and the most particular genius who has illuminated the church of the first centuries.”1 These century-old words of Ferdinand Prat, echoed later by Jean Daniélou, remain an accurate assessment of the importance of Origen in the history of Christianity. No other thinker of the first three centuries has produced such a depth of insight and such a vast command of his ← 111 | 112 → subject as Origen (c.AD 185-c.254). Many scholars have demonstrated Origen’s thoroughly “philosophical” world of thought and dependence upon Platonic ideas;2 yet the majority of Origen’s theological contribution comes in the unquestionably “biblical” expression of scriptural commentary and exposition. Prat again: “Subtle theologian, incomparable controversialist, patient critic and prolific orator, Origen is above all an exegete.”3 Origen knows his Bible, is shaped by it, and draws his theology from it. He is, in his own words, a “man of the church...

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