When it comes to the origins of the ecclesiastical offices, established scholarship has long held episkopos and presbyteros as synonymous terms describing the same office. F. C. Baur’s understanding was established as the classic position in 1835. This position has become the standard, articulated in specialist and non-specialist literature alike.
Revisionist work has challenged the consensus to a limited degree of success. However, such studies have either failed to provide convincing evidence for their case or lacked widespread reception. That is, until Stewart’s The Original Bishops.
Alistair C. Stewart’s The Original Bishops (Baker, 2014; source: publisher) continues this alternative telling and argues for the separation of episkopos and presbyteros. However, similarities between Stewart and past scholarship should not undermine the pivotal nature of The Original Bishops. Stewart benefits from past scholarship but at the same time he establishes an entirely richer and thorough study that exceeds others. The Original Bishops has become the starting point for this new telling of the formation of the ecclesiastical offices.
From Stewart’s central theme follows a reshaping of the ecclesiastical office. Speaking of the traditional understanding, Stewart states, “I refer here to the synonymy of episkopos and presbyteroi, the emergence of a monoepiskopos from a collective presbyterate, and the origin of presbyteroi in the synagogues” (6). Stewart builds his case on a wealth of biblical and extra-biblical research. With painstaking detail, Stewart navigates through issues such as defining the episkopos and presbyteros offices, understanding the episkopos and diakonos offices in there economical function, the non-Jewish origin of the presbyteroi, and the development of the monepiscopacy.
Stewart argues for an “overlap” of the offices with certain similarities, but also very significant differences. Against a collective leadership within a single congregation, Stewart advances that an individual episkopos led the congregation. Within a city there were often multiple episkopoi leading their own congregations. In this sense, one can say there are multiple leaders within a city but not within a congregation.
The two terms are not coterminous and merely derivative of Jewish and Hellenistic origins. The early Church model is not simply a continuation of the synagogue, but rather, follows civic practices within the Roman Empire. Financial responsibilities were shared by diakonoi and episkopoi alike. In fact, both were originally economic offices.
The ramifications of The Original Bishops are most influential in our understanding of the early Church and the present. What has been assumed as a continuation of New Testament practice has been argued to be reading into the sources rather than an accurate reading of the sources.
This takes us into the importance of this study for us today. First, Stewart highlights the necessity of staying close to the primary sources. One can easily find literature that equates elders and bishops as synonymous terms. However, how much of this literature is based on other secondary sources and how much is it based on primary sources?
Second, present ecclesiastical order is often defended with an argument centered on historical precedent. It is claimed that current practices reflect the practice of the early Church. If Stewart is correct, than this line of reasoning is broken. This is not to say that this invalidates present ecclesiastical structure, but rather that the argument from history fails.
The Original Bishops has shown that it would be irresponsible to take the traditional understanding that equates the offices of the elder and bishop as simply given. Convincing readers to forgo the standard position will require more than this review. Fortunately, there is no better place to start than Stewart’s The Original Bishops. One word in advance, The Original Bishops warrants a bit of concentration (perhaps a glossary or a diagram demonstrating the changes geographically and temporally would have helped). The outcome is worth the effort, regardless if one is convinced by Stewart or not (I cannot say I am completely convinced). At the very least, readers are exposed not only to the most important sources on the matter but also to a painstaking study by a master of these sources.