Officers in the Early Church

Excerpt from: Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World, rev. ed. Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017.

Presbyteroi (presbyters or elders) appear in a very early Christian context, in the New Testament, when Paul enlarges upon the mission of Titus in Crete, where Titus was left "to set in order the things that are wanting, and to ordain elders in every city" (RSV, Titus, 1:5, p. 1450). During this period, the term presbyter was apparently equivalent to episkopos or bishop (literally "overseer"); they were the officials responsible for individual communities (J. Danielou, The Theology of Early Christianity, trans. John Baker, Chicago, 1964, p. 347. The office of bishop may have evolved from the early presbyters: George Arthur Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 2, New York, 1962, pp. 73-74).

Shared by officials in both Jewish and Christian congregations (as well as by some other Greek-speaking civic and religious associations), the title "presbyter" can also appear in the plural, both in Christian epigraphic and literary sources, implying that presbyteroi perhaps acted together as a council. Epigraphy in the catacombs of Rome documents this functionary in the developing hierarchy of the Church of Rome as second in ranking only to the local bishop or pope, whom he advised in administering the church and assuming priestly functions (Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 2, p. 73). A particularly important distinction is the presbyter titularis, who administered his own titulus or "parish" while carrying on a lay profession at the same time: this is seen in the epitaph to a Dionysios, buried near the crypt of St. Cornelius in the Catacomb of Callisto, who was a presbyter who also practiced medicine (In this context, the Latin term "titulus" refers to Christian parishes which met in private houses in Rome (like certain ancient Jewish communities), bearing the name of community founders and/or property owners. Evidence for the existence of tituli in Rome is recorded on Christian inscriptions much as the names of synagogues are mentioned in Jewish epitaphs. For epigraphic evidence of the presbyter-office holders, see P. Testini, Catacombe cristiane, p. 208, and Archeologia cristiana, p. 387). Other specific mentions of presbyteroi titulari include Basil of the titulus of Sabina and Romanus of the titulus of Pudentiana (ICUR 20157). A Jewish presbyter might be referred to in a heavily mutilated epitaph from the Catacomb of Monteverde, a unique case for Rome, although there are numerous examples of "elder" being applied to Jews (perhaps not in a congregational sense) in other areas of Italy and the Mediterranean (JIWE 2.378 and Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, pp. 180-181 and 321, theorizing that perhaps presbyteroi sat on the council of elders). The lack of documentation of Jewish presbyteroi in Rome might point to a confusion or overlap among titles between various area congregations. How responsibility was shared for essential community functions - financial, administrative, judicial, instructional, and, of course, ritual - is not clear from the sole evidence remaining, that from epitaphs to individual Jews, or families of Jews. Nor are distinctions between civic and religious duties clear cut to identify the administrative hierarchy of the many synagogues of Rome.

In the example of a "Catholic" hierarchy in Rome, literary sources clear up some of the uncertainty regarding presbyterial roles and responsibilities. The first precisely dated reference to the office of bishop in the early Christian hierarchy of Rome, and thus the earliest mention of a church title, is inscribed on the epitaph of Anteros (236 C.E.), one of the early popes buried in the Crypt of the Popes in the catacomb of Callisto, who held the papacy for only two months before his death (The earliest mention of the title "pope", rather than episkopos, or bishop, is made on an epitaph in Latin of a deacon named Severus in the early fourth century, written on a transenna also in the Callisto cemetery). Of greater significance for the history of the early Christian church was a letter written by Pope Cornelius I (251-253) to Bishop Fabius of Antioch, in which Cornelius recorded the levels of the hierarchy in his community at that time, including forty-six priests, seven deacons, seven subdeacons, forty-two acolytes, fifty-two exorcists, readers, and porters, and more than fifteen hundred widows (who were also considered officers of Cornelius' church in Rome). On the basis of these figures, it has been estimated that membership of this church in mid-third century Rome may have reached fifty thousand members (Eusebius, History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, trans. G. A. Williamson,, 6:43.8; R. F. McBrien, Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from Peter to John Paul II (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), pp. 47-48).

The emphasis on episcopal authority is developed by many historic sees which claimed apostolic foundation. In Rome, especially, this distinction becomes critical in the largely successful local campaign for monoepiscopacy. Jesus's declaration that Peter was the rock on which the church was to be built bestowed on this disciple a special standing among the Apostles. After the death of Jesus, Peter's missionary work eventually brought him to Rome, and in the persecution of Christians in the year 64, after the great fire in Rome, Peter died as a martyr in Nero's circus and was buried nearby on the Vatican hill. His tomb identified below the high altar in St. Peter's basilica is, in the words of Margherita Guarducci, "... the most sacred place in Rome and the centre of the universal Church" (M. Guarducci, Peter: The Rock on Which the Church is Built, Rev. Fabbrica di S. Pietro in Vaticano, 1977, pp. 5-6, 24, pl. 18)

Roman Catholic tradition holds that from Peter's time, there has been an unbroken succession of Bishops of Rome, although some holders of the seat are known only by name. The primacy and prestige of the Bishop of Rome were confirmed when the other Christian communities accepted the right of St. Clement, the third in the line of pastoral leaders after Peter, to intervene in a controversy in Corinth (Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, trans. G. A. Williamson, 3). Later, under Victor I (189-199 C. E.), the power of the Rome was crystallized. Victor wrote in Latin, which would gradually supersede Greek as the official language of the Western Church, and the ecclesiastical organization developed, with Rome influencing and exercising initiative in the affairs of other communities. Under Victor I "the actions of the Bishop of Rome were the actions of a pope" (R. McBrien, Lives of the Popes, p. 48).

In the later organization of the early Church, the presbyter was second in the hierarchy only to a bishop or the Pope, who entrusted him with sensitive duties, such as assuming priestly functions and acting as an advisor in church administration. As "backbone of the clergy," presbyters were subdivided into different categories. The presbiter titularis administered his own titulus or parish but was permitted to carry on a lay profession at the same time (In this context, the Latin word "titulus" refers to private residences used for Christian worship (like some Diaspora synagogues, such as that at Dura Europos. The name of the titulus was likely the building owner who made it over to a Christian congregation or church). For example, according to an inscription, a certain Dionysios, buried near the crypt of St. Cornelius in the catacomb of S. Callisto, performed his functions as presbyter while also practicing medicine (P. Testini, Catacombe cristiane, p. 208 and idem, Archeologia cristiana, p. 387).

The bishops were also assisted by deacons in ritual and administrative affairs, and in later periods read the gospel, received offerings, and visited the ill, impoverished, and underprivileged. In sum, the deacon's role was that of an assistant whose mission was "to serve" (Interpreter's Dictionary, 1, pp. 785-786).

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