Orthodox Christians take for granted that the Church is headed regionally by bishops, locally by priests (usually one or two per parish), and assisted by deacons. Below them are all us laymen. This is an organization that is seemingly more than 1900 years old.
For example, Saint Ignatius writes to the Smyrnaeans:
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop (Chapter 8).
Perhaps the crucial difference between the Church of Ignatius’ day and ours today is that there used to be a lot more bishops. It seems that most local congregations had a bishop of their own presiding over the Eucharist, though not all (see p. 829). This appeared to persist several centuries, as North African councils into the 5th century had more Bishops in Tunisia than there are settlements in Tunisia even today (which means at the very least there was at least one Bishop per village).
In Apostolic times, this was perhaps even more pronounced. The small backwater of Philippi according to Phil 1:1, had several Bishops. Some Orthodox observers speculate that the modern Orthodox model, which we may glean from Ignatius, was not the original model of the Church. Rather, bishops and priests were synonymous and each parish had several. In a sense, this would be an Orthodox concession to Presbyterian ecclesiological claims. While such speculation may be a little too extreme and out of touch with tradition, it is something we should be aware of.
Some of the preceding may lead us to speculate that the traditional view of Orthodox Church government, that the Church always had a clearly delineated hierarchy of Bishops>Priests>Deacons, is questionable. Instead of definitively answering this question, we are going to take a look at Jewish religious hierarchy contemporaneous with the early Church, and see if this gives us any more insight into the question.
Jewish “Church Government” In the Scriptures. In the Scriptures, the religious hierarchy within Judaism was centered around temple worship in Jerusalem, with the highest position of high priest being hereditary as it came through a specific family line. Likewise, lesser priestly functions were also hereditary, the lowest class being simply a Levite who did not partake in sacrifices but assisted in other religious work. In effect, these Levites were arguably not even priests at all but acted like deacons in the Church today.
It is worth reiterating that there essentially was no explicit role for priests and Levites outside of Jerusalem, as there were no temple sacrifices there.
This system, with its hierarchy of High Priest>Priests>Levites is analagous to Bishops>Priests>Deacons model. Traditionally, there was also something since the time of Moses (i.e. Ex 24) called the Gerusia or “Great Synagogue,” which judged matters of secular and theocratic importance when circumstances required its assembly. These judges of the people otherwise did not have a relevant position within Jewish worship, as they were not necessarily Levites. In a sense, there was “a separation between Church and state.”
Orthodox Jewish “Church Government” Immediately Before Christianity. Before the time of Christ, religious sectarianism already began to change the preceding religious hierarchy. This was because the high priest, though still requiring some sort of hereditary claim, was now appointed by paying off a pagan emperor.
Eventually, a certain priestly family, the Maccabees, seized control of the high priesthood. However, the high priest literally operated as a king as well and began referring to himself as such. This led to increasing sectarianism and the creating of a permanent Sanhedrin, an entity that essentially was the “Great Synagogue” but it was a permanent institution. The main “political parties” of the day, the Pharisees and Sadducees, constituted this body and acted as advisers to the said king. This body also addressed religious matters and it had “semikhah,” or in common parlance, the power to ordain. The latter was clearly a development that made the institution explicitly theocratic.
Why did this occur? The evolution of Judaism from a Jerusalem-centered cult to a faith that transcended Temple worship necessitated an expanding ecclesiastical authority. At this time localities outside of Jerusalem were forming local synagogues. For example, in the third century BC, the first ever Jewish synagogue was formed in Alexandria. By the time of the Gospels, synagogues were commonplace both in Israel and in the diaspora. To govern these local synagogues throughout Israel and the diaspora, local or lesser Sanhedrins were formed to rule regionally.
These institutions appeared to have mimicked the structure of the Great Sanhedrin. These bodies of priests and laymen explicitly served both a secular and religious function (see 1 Macc 7:33 where they offer a sacrifice). They also had the power of semikhah (see “Doesn’t Every Rabbi Have Semicha?”). Even though I have not yet found a source to specifically comment on this, I speculate that regional Jewish bodies sourced their charism of semikhah and well as their religious legitimacy by their connection to Temple worship and the Great Sanhedrin specifically.
The growth of diaspora Judaism led to the growth of Phariseeism (or at least, followers of Pharasic ideas if we are to define Pharisees strictly as a Temple political party). Though the Pharisees had priestly adherents, lay sages/rabbis among their ranks often held religious authority by virtue of their teachings in local synagogues.
Without delving deeply into this, the allure of Phariseeism is that it allowed legitimate religious worship to exist outside of Jerusalem. This was important, as this allowed worship divorced from priestly intercession via sacrifice. Jews who were not of the tribe of Levi were able to be of considerable religious importance. For example, Hillel the Elder was a Benjaminite.
Essene Ecclesiology. The earliest such local religious community that was operating outside the bounds of Jerusalem that we have documents from is the Essenes. This group began operating contemporaneously with the Maccabeean revolt. In Book II, Chapter 8 of Josephus’ Wars of the Jews we do not get many details about their “ecclesiology” but we have some idea of how they operated. From his comments, “four classes” are identified. There were two orders of laymen (“juniors” and “seniors”), a priest that would preside over meals (meals themselves had a religious function), and a group of “elders” that decided all matters. The Qumran scrolls have subsequently taught us that a single “teacher of righteousness,” also known as a “Nesi ha-Edah,” presided over all of them. Another Qumran document called their singular leader a “mevaqqer,” which literally means “bishop” in Hebrew (see 22:19). It is worth noting that, “No other Jewish group of late antiquity had such an official supervising its activities” (Ibid., 22:56).
From the preceding, we may surmise that the Essenes were likely headed by a Patriarch>a group of Elders who were ruling Levitical priests>then lesser non-ruling Levitical priests>seniors>juniors. This is a different organization than what we see in the Old Testament mode, yet it is similar to the Christian one of Patriarch>Bishops>Priests>Deacons>Laymen. Due to a lack of evidence, it is not clear what the function of non-priestly Levites would have been. Would they have been set aside in any way from other Jewish tribes among the seniors and juniors? We do not know.
The Essenes appeared to have been much more centralized ecclesiastically than orthodox Judaism. This may be because the Essenes were geographically centered near Qumran and they more strictly followed the hierarchy seen in the Scriptures, not following the Pharisaical program of adding non-Levites into the mix.
“Ecclesiology” and the Sanhedrins. Just as the Great Sanhedrin was led by a High Priest, lesser Sanhedrins were led by a president called a “Nasi.” (See p. 90 of this source for more information and also the section on “the Diaspora.”) These local Sanhedrins had the authority to ordain rulers in local synagogues and, when attending worship, officiated as “elders.” Obviously, with laymen being Sanhedrin members this changed the dynamic of Jewish worship of being centered upon a hereditary priesthood. Further, it introduced to Judaism a highly stratified view of ecclesiology, with judicial recourse from lesser Sanhedrin to the Great Sanhedrin.
Did every synagogue constitute its own Sanhedrin? No. Here’s what we do know. In the third century, the Mishnah prescribed that Jewish communities of 120 or more Jews would have a Sanhedrin. This was probably just an ideal as the Mishna also identifies that as few as three men would address religious and legal matters in small Jewish communities (Introduction, Page XI). The Sanhedrin and local synagogue “rulers” were not synonymous, because there were more synagogues than Sanhedrin. We know that the Great Sanhedrin was made up of local “representatives” (see p. 72 of this source.) It is unclear whether these were simply important local synagogue rulers, Nasis from throughout Israel/the Diaspora, Jewish noblemen, or a combination of the preceding. Likely, local Sanhedrins were organized along similar lines and they would have been composed of local synagogue rulers who themselves were accountable to these bodies. Hence, not every synagogue ruler was a Sanhedrin member but there were some rulers who were.
The regional nature of the lesser Sanhedrins can be gleaned from Book 14 of Josephus’ Antiquities. It is stated that Hyrcanus (a second century BC king):
…had ordained five councils, he distributed the nation into the same number of parts. So these councils governed the people: the first was at Jerusalem; the second at Gadara; the third at Amathus; the fourth at Jericho; and the fifth at Sepphoris, in Galilee. So the Jews were now freed from monarchick authority; and were governed by an aristocracy (Chapter 5, Par. 4).
We also have ancient inscriptions corroborating this (see “The Diaspora.”)
So, while each city did not have a Sanhedrin, each city had a synagogue or or several synagogues (see Acts 9:2 and 13:5), with their own “ruler” (Acts 18:8) or “rulers” (Acts 13:15). It is possible that some synagogues had one “ruler” like Corinth, but the synagogue of Salamis had several rulers. The Theodotus Inscription implies that a synagogue had a singular ruler and Philo’s Hypothetica takes for granted that synagogues had several elders. The conclusion we can draw from the preceding is that each synagogue essentially was led by what Christians consider a “bishop” and the elders officiated in a matter similar to “priests” below a “bishop,” even if they were not Levites. However, it was not impossible for a synagogue (“parish”) to have several rulers (“bishops”) for whatever reason.
1 Maccabees sheds some light on the status of the Sanhedrin within this system of worship. The book speaks of a council led by “elders.” 1 Macc 12:6 has a letter from “Jonathan the high priest, the senate of the nation, the priests, and the rest of the Jewish people” to the Spartans and the reply from the Spartans (1 Macc 14:10) “send[s] greetings to Simon the high priest, the elders, the priests, and the rest of the Jewish people.” Hence, we can see the “senate of the nation” (i.e. the chief “council”/Sanhedrin) is full of “elders” who are mutually exclusive from priests.
The meetings of local Sanhedrin have been called synods by historians. These synods would have included rulers of the region’s synagogues that doubled as Sanhedrin members. They decided the region’s religious affairs and doctrinal controversies by majority vote. Essentially, they operated akin to a meeting of local bishops as we would see in Christianity.
Sanhedrin members had precedence when officiating in the local synagogues, those being of the Sanhedrin wielding both ecclesiastical power and precedence in synagogue worship. Those not of the rank of Sanhedrin, but of priest or elder status, had roles in leading worship but not ecclesiastical authority. As we can see in 1 Macc, “priests” are always named after the elders, denoting that they were of lesser importance. We also know that Great Sanhedrin members from Jerusalem were given precedence in foreign synagogues (see Acts 28:21.)
From the preceding, we clearly see a hierarchy of High Priest>Great Sanhedrin Members>Nasi>Lesser Sanhedrin Members>Synagogue Rulers>Priests>Laymen. In Christianity we have an order of Patriarch>Metropolitans>Archbishops>Bishops>Priests>Laymen.
The conclusion appears inescapable that the Sanhedrin system functioned similarly to a metropolita. There was a Nasi (metropolitan bishop) and those in the lesser Sanhedrin members who governed at the local level as synagogue rulers (bishops). Regional affairs were decided within the metropolitan area in synods by the majority vote of the lesser Sanhedrin. Local priests and elders would function as worship leaders and occupied the lower rung. Then, below them were laymen within the synagogues. The affairs of lesser Sanhedrin could then be appealed to the Great Sanhedrin.
The parallel is close to traditional Orthodoxy, though there are some crucial differences. In early Christianity, it is possible that before the Apostles left Jerusalem (see Acts 8:1) they in effect would have been a college of sorts akin to the Great Sanhedrin (presumably led by Peter). We see this same “college of apostles and elders” (Acts 15:6) act precisely as the Great Sanhedrin of the Christians when solving a dispute about circumcision. However, any sort of college of Bishops is unseen after Apostolic times until, arguably, the advent of ecumenical councils. Hence, Orthodox Christianity lacks a permanent body like the Sanhedrin, though it can come together intermittently to decide matters like “the Great Synagogue.” The coming together of Bishops is the modern Christian equivalent of Apostles and Gerusia/Sanhedrin elders, so it fulfills an identical function. We just lack a geographical focal point like Jerusalem.
There is also some breakdown when we hit the local synagogue level, as it is unclear whether Synagogue Rulers were always lesser Sanhedrin members (though they probably were), the role of priests vis a vis elders, and the number of people who ruled the local synagogue (as we have indications that some synagogues had a singular ruler and others had several). It appears that Christians did away with this messy dueling between local priests and lay elders over precedence in worship, and simply ordained priests to serve both functions due to Christians being a “nation of priests.” However, it appears Christians initially maintained a diversity in leadership. While Corinth initially maintained one bishop (1 Cor 1:1), Philippi had several (Phil 1:1), as well as the churches of Crete (Tit 1:5, 7). Ephesus was one of the biggest cities on earth at the time, so its several bishops (Acts 20:28) probably officiated in separate churches.
Evidence of the Superior Position of Great Sanhedrin Members. Aspects of the synagogue hierarchy that shed light on the preceding are implicit in some passages of the Scripture. It may be for this reason in Acts 13:15 it states, “And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them [Barnabas and Paul], saying, ‘Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on.'” It appears that Paul was identified as a member of the Great Sanhedrin, perhaps due to his matter of dress.
Biblically, we have reason to believe he was a Sanhedrin because he was a student of Gamaliel (who was in the Great Sanhedrin) and passages such as Acts 26:10-11 indicate Paul voted in judicial matters, presumably in Jerusalem. It was probably out of humility that Paul did not boast of this position, but rather addresses the issue obliquely (i.e.”I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation,” Gal 1:14).
This is why Paul had the ability to teach at length at the synagogue of every city. His position, as a Sanhedrin from Jerusalem, placed him above the synagogue rulers and lesser Sanhedrin members the moment he walked through the door. Speaking in modern Christian terms, Paul was in effect a member of the “college of cardinals” or a metropolitan, and local synagogue rulers were simple local “bishops.”
What gives this interpretation strength is that even in the synagogues of Rome we see Paul’s rank as being something particularly compelling in unlikely circumstances. The Roman Jews knew Paul was “was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans” (Act 28:17) by Jewish authorities (apparently only the Sadducee party, the Pharisees defended Paul in Acts 23:9.) Yet, knowing even this, the Jews of Rome still gathered to hear what Paul had to say, their reason being, “We neither received letters from Judea concerning you, nor have any of the brethren who came reported or spoken any evil of you” (Acts 28:21).
The letter is likely some sort of official arrest warrant from the Great Sanhedrin, such as the ones Saul had to persecute Christians. This for all intents and purposes meant Paul was not “defrocked” from the Sanhedrin as the Pharisee party did not vote against him, even after his arrest. Lending credibility to this was that the Jews of Rome were not ignorant of Paul and had heard from “brethren who came [and] reported” about him.
This shows that Sanhedrin members (even when arrested, in dispute with other Jews, and preaching a new Messiah) had precedence in local Jewish communities. Furthermore, members of the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, likely where Paul had his membership, would be above local Sanhedrin. Among local synagogues, who had Pharisaical membership as opposed to Sadduccee membership (as Sadduccees emphasized sacrificial worship in Jerusalem and not worship in local synagogues), the “Sanhedrin rank” of a Benjaminite like Paul would have been relevant due to Levites having a highly diminished role outside of Jerusalem.
The preceding has some Biblical evidence weighing against it. Paul was beaten with 39 striped “by the Jews” five times according to 2 Cor 11:24. This is a punishment that can only be meted by a Sanhedrin. Historians may see this as a contradiction between how Luke presented Paul and Paul presented himself. However, such a presentation would not contradict Orthodox tradition. Saint Photius taught that Nicodemus (another Sanhedrin member) “when the Jews learned that he had been baptised, he was beaten up, which he endured valiantly, but died soon after” (See 171). Hence, rogue Jews or “schismatic” lesser Sanhedrin could have even inflicted punishment on a Great Sanhedrin member.
Conclusion. In conclusion, it is apparent that Christianity derived their ecclesiastical hierarchy from Judaism (with especially strong parallels with the Essenes), but for crucial theological reasons pertaining to the priesthood of all believers they had a simpler local form of governance. Further, Christian Bishops operated via consensus as opposed to simple majority vote. Our next article will discuss why Christianity eventually did not have multiple bishops in any church and the Jewish origins of this state of affairs.