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Christian Bishops, Hierarchies and Orthodoxy

Christians had been organizing themselves in the manner of synagogues: a leader presiding over a group of elders. They called their local leaders bishops, a Greek word meaning overseer. They called their elders presbyters, and assistants to their bishops they called deacons. Bishops of different Christian congregations tried to keep in contact with each other, and they tried to coordinate their beliefs. With this contact, bishops from the greater cities – like Antioch, Alexandria and Rome – had greater prestige than did those from lesser cities.

The bishop of Rome benefited from the prestige of heading the Christian community in the empire's capital. The Christian community in Rome attracted Christians from around the empire. Having more wealth than other congregations in the west, it was able to give assistance to other congregations in that part of the empire. The first Bishop of Rome, Clement, who lived to around the year 97, supported his authority by linking God with Rome. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Clement described a hierarchy of authority that began with God, then Jesus, the apostles, and finally to bishops such as he, and he added that God had granted Rome "the authority of empire," glory, and honor.

The authority of the bishops was challenged by various Christians, adding to the diversity among the Christians. Among those who struggled with this diversity was the bishop of Antioch's congregation of Christians, Ignatius, who wrote letters championing the belief in the virgin birth of Jesus and the Trinity: God as the father, God as Jesus, and God as the spirit of all things. Ignatius is the first Christian known to have referred to Christian congregations as catholic, a Greek word meaning universal. In a letter to the Christians of Smyrna he supported the authority of the bishops, declaring that baptisms were not permitted without the bishop and that "he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop is serving the devil."

Bishops chose to assert their authority over what Christians should believe and not believe, and there were the Gnostic Christians who would persist in their conflict with that authority. Gnostic Christians believed that God distributed revelations without considering rank among the Christians and that bishops might be among those who had been denied revelation. Gnostics believed that matter (the opposite of spirit) was evil. Therefore, as they saw it, Jesus had not been a physical being. The Gnostics saw light as good and darkness as evil, not realizing that light was part of the world of matter and darkness merely its absence.

The fight against Gnosticism was led by Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (today Lyon, France). He argued that God had created everything, including soul and the material body and that soul and body could not be separated into good and evil. He argued for belief that conformed to the teachings of the Apostles and denounced Gnosticism as having come from "evil self-will," "vainglory" and "blindness."

Irenaeus had an impact on what would be appropriate reading for Christians. Writings were copied by hand, imperfectly. No two ancient manuscripts have been found to be exactly the same. (Exact similarity came with versions created by the printing press.) There were a variety of writings, with various anecdotes and sayings and various descriptions of the life of Jesus and his teachings. Among these writings were those of Mary Magdalene. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene describes her as one of Jesus' most beloved disciples. And it describes her defending herself against the doubts of Peter, with Mary asking Peter if he really thought that she would be "lying about the Lord."

Among the gospels was also that of Thomas, who described Jesus as advocating finding the Kingdom of God within oneself. And there was the Gospel of Philip with the same message. Here were calls to self-discovery and to becoming an authority unto oneself, which was in conflict with the notion of salvation from external sources: baptism and the Lord's forgiveness. Irenaeus was certain about which gospels were authentic. He described the other gospels as blasphemous and madness and proclaimed that there were only four gospels just as there were only four winds, four corners of the universe and four pillars holding up the sky. It was during the last twenty or so years of Irenaeus's life – around the years 180 to 200 – that the collection of books called the New Testament was formed. Other gospels were destroyed. Some were buried, to be discovered in the 20th century on papyrus fragments preserved by the dry climate in southern Egypt.

In attempting to define Christianity, Bishop Irenaeus found heresy in the beliefs of a Christian named Montanus, who encouraged celibacy and a literal interpretation of scripture. The Montanists believed, as had Paul, that procreation was unnecessary because the Second Coming of Jesus and the New Jerusalem were near. The Montanists found no support in the New Testament scripture for a systematic order and hierarchy in the worship of Jesus Christ, and they saw the rise of authority and hierarchy within the Church as a drift into worldliness. Not believing in authority within the Church, they believed that any one of them could acquire a special knowledge or inspiration from God.

The bishops chose to keep the Montanists within the Church, but they countered Montanist arguments, claiming that revealed truth no longer came to Christians who did not hold positions of authority within the Church. And the bishops announced that the age of the prophets had ended.


Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, by Stephen Benko, 1984

Religions of the Ancient Near East by Helmer Ringgren, 1973

From Jesus to Christ, PBS, online, three episodes, 2009

Additional Reading

The Historical Jesus, by John Dominic Crossan,1993

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.