Officers in the Early Church

In Numbers 11:16-17, Moses was commanded "to gather unto" the Lord "seventy men of the elders of Israel... the officers over" the people... who would "bear the burden" with Moses (Exodus 18-21-22). 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 (Jean 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)..

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 S. Callisto, who held the papacy for only two months before his death (The earliest mention of the title "pope", rather than episkopos, is made on an epitaph in Latin of a deacon named Severus in the early fourth century). Of greater significance for the history of the early Christian church was a letter, also of the third century, 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). On the basis of these figures, it has been estimated that membership of this church in the mid-third century 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. 4748).

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, History, 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" (McBrien, Popes, pp.  ).

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. The title, shared by Jewish and Christian congregations, often appears in the plural, implying that perhaps the presbyters acted together (In an official capacity, the title of "presbyter" was also used in certain Greek-speaking religious groups and by village magistrates in Egypt: Interpreter's Dictionary 2, p. 73).

The presbyters, the "backbone of the clergy," were subdivided into different categories. The presbiter titularis administered his own titulus or parish and 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 (Pasquale 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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