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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 7. Priests of God’s Holy Temple: Eusebius of Caesarea


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Eusebius of Caesarea

In the last chapter, I explored the writings of Cyprian of Carthage for the continued development of priestly language being applied to Christian leadership. Within that context of the mid-third century, I demonstrated that for Cyprian (as for the other writers and texts examined so far) the designation of the bishop as “priest” stemmed from an appropriation of Israelite “priesthood” and often appeared within the context of an emerging consciousness of Christian sacred space and sacred objects.

All the texts I have considered so far have been pre-Constantinian. I would like now to offer a brief examination of one fourth-century, post-Constantinian thinker, Eusebius of Caesarea, to demonstrate the continued development and natural culmination of the notion that the Christian ministerial priesthood stands in connection with both a religio-political ecclesiology and the emergence of a Christian material culture. In doing so, I wish to demonstrate two things. First, like his predecessors, Eusebius bears witness to the nexus between an assumed continuity with Israel and the centrality of a Christian sacred material culture as the backdrop to his articulation of a Christian ministerial priesthood. Second, and related to the first, the articulation of a Christian ministerial priesthood during this early post-Constantinian period must be seen in continuity with the earlier expressions of the same by ← 177 | 178 → the writers of the third century (chapters 2–6). Thus, there is no radical break here in the Christian conception of the Israelite...

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