Presbyters or elders are recorded in Jewish Christian documents and 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." During this period, the term presbyter was apparently equivalent to episkopos or bishop (literally "overseer"); they were the officials responsible for individual communities.
The first precisely dated reference to a church title in the early Christian hierarchy of Rome is to the office of bishop. It was 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. Also in the third century, Pope Cornelius recorded the levels of the hierarchy in a letter to Bishop Fabius of Antioch.
Jesus's declaration that Peter was the rock on which the church was to be built bestowed on Peter a special standing among the Apostles. When, after the death of Jesus, Peter's missionary work eventually brought him to Rome, his primacy invested the position of Bishop of Rome with authority widely recognized in the early western Christian church. 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 beneath 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."
The succession of Bishops of Rome has been recorded from the beginning, 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 after Peter, to intervene in a controversy in Corinth. Later, under Victor I (189-199 C. E.), the power of the Holy See was crystallized. Victor wrote in Latin, which then gradually superseded Greek as the official language of the Church, and the ecclesiatical organization developed, with Rome influencing and exercising initiative in the affairs of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."
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 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. 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.
The bishops were also assisted by deacons in ritual and administrative affairs. In later periods, the deacons read the gospel, received offerings, and visited the ill, impoverished, and underprivileged. The deacon's role was that of an assistant whose mission was "to serve."