The Real Origins of Church Offices: Jewish and Greco-Roman Context for the Pastoral Epistles

This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Pastoral Epistles and Early Church Polity”, running in the Summer Term 2022 (July to August), and convened by Rev. Dr. Matthew Colvin.

If you wish to register for the module you can do so here.

In 1946, Austin Farrer wondered about the state of scholarship on the highly contested origins of church office:

“Are we to give another and subtler twist to the complicated material of indecisive controversy; and if we do, how long will it be before another hand goes one better and puts an opposite complexion on it? Is it not plain that every controversialist has found what he set out to find, and with a self-deceived profanity manipulated the oracles of God?”[1]

Christian churches of all sorts have always desired to claim that their polity — the offices they use, the means by which their officeholders are appointed, the functions they perform, and the authority which they exercise — was instituted by Jesus, or at least by the apostles. Perhaps only the question of sacraments has been comparably contentious (and indeed, the two questions are intertwined, since some hold that validly ordained ministers are a sine qua non for the validity of the sacraments). The result has been a long record of distortion born of ecclesiastical parti pris. Since Martin Bucer’s De Regno Christi in 1551, there has been a tradition of Presbyterian and Reformed scholars claiming warrant for plural eldership from the New Testament. At the same time, advocates of episcopacy have claimed to find their polity established jure divino in the pages of the NT. Despite excesses and misinterpretations on both sides, historical truths have emerged from the agonistic process of debate between advocates of different forms of polity, just as in a court of law the opposed interests of two adversarial parties ensure that each is motivated to expose the errors of the other.

To move past this kind of squabbling, we must seek an understanding of the officers or ministers of the New Testament church against their background in Second Temple Judaism, taking into consideration later Rabbinic and patristic evidence up to about 500 AD. This can provide a picture of church polity in the apostolic age that can both account for the texts of the New Testament by resolving their apparent antinomies, and can also provide a plausible path by which the monepiscopal polity of the post-apostolic church developed. This is not an attempt to justify any modern polity over against others. Rather, it is an attempt to provide a historical account that takes in all the Scriptural data and does not conflict with the evidence concerning the transition from the NT age to the later, post-apostolic, city-wide monepiscopacy, i.e. the rule of single bishops over all the churches in a given city or diocese. This transition is a datum for which any explanation of NT church polity must account.

The Pastoral Epistles are the main evidence in this quest. In them, Paul gives instructions to his assistants, Timothy and Titus, and instructs them concerning the appointment of bishops and deacons for the churches in Ephesus and Crete. The interpretation of these epistles is largely a matter of mirror-reading: we must situate them in a plausible situational context and see what exegetical fruit results. We must detect terms of art and legal principles at work. For this sort of reading, historians of law such as David Daube and J. Duncan M. Derrett have paved the way. There is a peculiar elegance to their arguments, similar to teleological arguments and arguments from design: where a legal concept is at work, many puzzling aspects of a NT text snap into focus and make sense. The result is a “ring of truth” and an exegetical “payoff” as the concepts at work in one passage bear unexpected fruit for the interpretation of other passages.

An important shift in scholarship on ecclesiastical polity occurred in the last 40 years with the rise of scholarship on the Greco-Roman social context of the NT. Starting in the 1980s, scholars of social history have given us a pattern for approaching the NT from relatively secure evidence about Greco-Roman society. No longer can we approach the pastoral epistles with the naive assumption that their terms (“bishop,” “deacon,” “elder,” etc) can be understood univocally with the same terms in later Christian literature (e.g. the decrees of 4th century councils or the works of Jerome and Augustine). The proper approach is not to seek our own preferred polity in the NT itself, but to understand the pastoral epistles in their own context in such a way that later developments make sense.

This aim is made more difficult by the fact that the regnant scholarly orthodoxy of the last 200 years considers the pastoral epistles to be deutero-Pauline and late. This conclusion would dislocate the epistles to a period after the developed monepiscopacy of the second century, removing them from the Judeo-Christianity of the first. In my view, this judgment is founded almost entirely on stylistic considerations that would not move the needle for any other ancient text.[2] These letters give evidence of arrangements of authority and mission that have their roots in Judaism, and which did not continue in the later, largely Gentile church of the third to fifth centuries—especially the Jewish institution of shlichut, whereby one could appoint a personal representative (shaliach) to act on one’s behalf. This custom was neither used nor understood by the later church, but was perfectly familiar to Jewish Christians of the first century, so that it passes without explanation in Acts and the pastoral epistles. This is in itself a strong confirmation of the letters’ authenticity.

When we recognize the authenticity of the pastoral epistles and observe that they are operating with a distinctively Jewish institution of representation akin to our “power of attorney,” some surprising results follow: Timothy and Titus assume greater stature as the plenipotentiary representatives of the apostle of Jesus Christ, not officers of a church. Rather than being bishops of Ephesus or Crete, they stand with Jesus and Paul over against the church and wield power to reshape and order it such as no ordinary church officers have had.

These insights and more like them will be explored in my upcoming Summer Term 2022 Davenant Hall course, Pastoral Epistles and Early Church Polity.

This “Bible” course will be taught by Rev. Dr. Matthew Colvin. This course will run from July 4th through August 26th. The syllabus is available here. Register here.

Dr. Matthew Colvin is a presbyter in the Reformed Episcopal Church. From 2012-2017, he served as a missionary teaching ministerial students in the Philippines and Indonesia. He holds a PhD in ancient Greek literature from Cornell University (2004). His published works include articles on Heraclitus (Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 2005 and The Classical Quarterly 2006), a translation from Latin of the 1550 Magdeburg Confession (2011), and The Lost Supper, a study of the Passover and Eucharistic origins (Fortress Academic, 2019). He is currently working on a book on women’s ordination and the origins of ordained office in the early church. He lives on Vancouver Island.

  1. Farrer, A.M. “The Ministry in the New Testament” in The Apostolic Ministry, ed. K. Kirk (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1946), 115.
  2. Bart Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors are Not Who We Think They Are (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), 110-119. As for the external evidence, Theodor Zahn’s judgment from 1900 still stands: “The confident denial of the genuineness of these letters—which has been made now for several generations more positively than in the case of any other Pauline Epistles—has no support from tradition.” Zahn, Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917), vol. ii, 85. The archegos of the rejection of the pastoral epistles is Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose name now does more to damn that view than to confirm it. Friedrich Schleiermacher, “Uber den sogenannten ersten Brief des Paulos an den Timotheos: Eine kritische Sendscreibung an J. C. Gass” (“Concerning the So-called First Letter of Paul to Timothy: A Critical Open Letter to J. C. Gass”), reprinted in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s sammtliche Werke, 30 vols., 1835-64 (Berlin: G. Reimer) 1:221-320.


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