Previously, we have shown that the earliest form of ecclesiology in Christianity has its origins in ancient Jewish practice. Though Jews did not use the terminology of the monepiscopacy, other than the Essenes, their hierarchy was for all intents and purposes the same. There was a High Priest who ruled as a president of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin and was only able to operate with the majority consent of that body. Lesser Sanhedrins wielded similar ecclesiastical authority in their respective regions. These bodies were led by a Nasi and their “elders.” Local synagogues were led by “rulers” (who were sometimes referred to as “elders”), but also priests. It appears the priests did not have a ruling function, however, but strictly a religious one unless they were also a “ruler.”
The preceding organization appears very similar to a metropolita in function with two key differences. First, Judaism’s Great Sanhedrin was centered in Jerusalem, while the Church lacked such a center after the Apostles had left the city. Instead, the Apostles’ successors only functioned as a Great Sanhedrin when they came to a consensus (as opposed to a majority vote as the Sanhedrin operated), something that did not happen with everyone in the same room until the Council of Nicea I. Second, on the local level synagogues sometimes appeared to have as many as several rulers. Levitical priests and sometimes lay elders, who may have not been rulers in their own right, did not have ecclesiastical authority but they led worship. While we have indications that the early Church also functioned with several rulers in even a small parish in a fashion similar to a lesser Sanhedrin (see Phil 1:1 and page xi of this link), there is simply no analogue for the two-tiered leadership of the early synagogue.
In this article, we continue to look at the workings of early Jewish ecclesiastical authorities in order to determine how Christian ecclesiology developed from Judaism.
The Workings of Local Synagogues. We have very little written evidence about how a local synagogue works, but history has bequeathed us two relevant passages:
And then some priest who is present, or some one of the elders, reads the sacred laws to them, and interprets each of them separately till eventide; and then when separate they depart, having gained some skill in the sacred laws, and having made great advancers towards piety (Philo, Hypothetica, 7:13).
Theodotus, son of Vettanos, a priest and an archisynagogos (“ruler“),* son of an archisynagogos grandson of an archisynagogos, built the synagogue for the reading of Torah and for teaching the commandments; furthermore, the hostel, and the rooms, and the water installation for lodging needy strangers. Its foundation stone was laid by his ancestors, the elders, and Simonides (Theodotus Inscription).
Philo presents a synagogue hierarchy of “some priest,” who is not necessarily above or below elders [i.e. rulers of the synagogue], and finally “they” [i.e. laity].
The Theodotus Inscription has a hierarchy of ruler>elders>then presumably laity. We can also see that rulers can also be priests, just as in Christianity a bishop is also a priest.
From the preceding passages, we do not see any explicit role for the Sanhedrin. Rather, in a worship context the following was the hierarchy: priest with ruling capacity or ruler>elder>layman. Apparently, the attendance of a priest was either not common as “some priest” presided and not the same one, or there were many priests and they took turns in leading worship. In our previous article, we were able to infer from the Scriptures that Sanhedrin members were given precedence.
Jewish “Ecclesiology” After the Destruction of the Temple. With the destruction of the Temple, local synagogue hierarchy simplified and the once Great Sanhedrin became a committee of advisers.
Unilateral authority was held by the Nasi/Apostle and he was essentially the honorary President of the Sanhedrin. The Nasi’s role has president of the Sanhedrin appears to have been that of a figurehead, with no real interaction with the body (see The Zugot and The Great Bet Din). The Nasi was for all intents the “Patriarch” of Judaism and he was able to replace local rulers (archisynagogos) without any checks or balances.
The Sanhedrin was increased from 71 members to 72, and so this would have made it a body unable to break deadlocks. This was probably not important as the institution lost power to adjudicate more and more things. Further, there was no longer a High Priest, so the Sanhedrin really was no longer the same.
The first Nasi was a Pharisee, Gamaliel II. For the first time, the Jewish people were led religiously by a layman and this order of things would persist in Roman times. From this we may surmise a diminished role for Levites ecclesiastically, though they still had a function in local worship.
Because of the preceding, Jewish observers have concluded that for all intents and purposes the Sanhedrin system had ceased to exist:
When the Mishnah was compiled, towards the end of the second century CE., the Sanhedrin was already a thing of the more or less distant past. As an institution it does not seem to have survived the destruction of the Second Temple; it may even have been falling into decay for some time before that event (Introduction, Page XI).
We do not have a lot of written evidence pertaining to post-Temple ecclesiology. However, we have some idea of the Nasi’s function and how local Jewish worship evolved in the writings of Saint Epiphanius:
Since [Josephus the Patriarch was] very severe as an apostle [the Jewish name for the Patriarch, see Panarion 30:4,2] should be—as I said, this is their name for the rank—and indeed was a reformer, he was always intent on what would make for the establishment of good order and purged and demoted many of the appointed synagogue-heads, priests, elders and “azanites” (meaning their kind of deacons or assistants), many were angry with him (Panarion 30:11,4).
As we can see in the preceding, the Patriarch had the ability to demote synagogue rulers, priests from their roles as well as elders and deacons. There is no indication he relied upon any authority emanating from the Great Sanhedrin. By the time the preceding is written, the late fourth century, it is also possible that Judaism had more “offices.” For example, the role of “priests” and “azanites” is not clear but without literal sacrifices the Jewish liturgy probably became more theatric and required more participants.
The parallels with Christianity in the above passage are clear. One Jewish source recognizes this. It appears that the Nasi was the Patriarch and synagogue-rulers were akin to the local city/regional bishops. This state of affairs was probably already prevalent before the destruction of the Temple. This is corroborated by the New Testament Greek indicates that Crispus alone was the sole synagogue ruler in Corinth. It appears he changed his name to Sosthenes and the definite article precedes his title as the synagogue ruler. Corinth surely would have been the seat of Achaia where there must have been several synagogues. In the above passage priests were a hereditary office and they headed worship in some local synagogues, elders would head worship in synagogues which did not have priests (i.e. the “rulers” we see in the Scriptures), and “azanites” were Jewish deacons.
Hence, it appears without Temple worship, the aforementioned tension between elders and priests has dissipated as there no longer is a real role for priests in the Pharisaical, rabbinic mode of worship post-Temple. Priests were simply local synagogue worship leaders with Levitical blood and elders were the same but composed of men from other tribes. They both would be under the leadership of “synagogue-heads,” which essentially took the place of lesser Sanhedrin.
Sources are scanty so it cannot be known for certain how quickly Judaism evolved into what we see Saint Epiphanius writing of. However, the following is worthy of consideration. Without the Temple, any Levitical claims to leadership evaporated and so the Sadducee party completely disappeared. Even before the destruction of the Temple, diaspora-Judaism was already evolving into this direction. The final catalyst for this change in Judaism was more direct-Roman meddling.
We do not know if lesser Sanhedrins continued functioning without the Great Sanhedrin being an intact institution. Thanks to Epiphanius, we know that the Nasi would have appointed his own functionaries to serve at the local level and a multiplicity of de jure local leaders would have been superfluous in such a system. So, it appears that Judaism was able to adjust to not having a vibrant Sanhedrin system as it was probably already evolving into this direction anyway. All it required was a catalyst to crystallize these changes into a more streamlined, less Levitical system.
Possible Ramifications on Christianity. As we discussed before, Saint Ignatius was already positing a monarchic episcopacy by the early second century. In light of the preceding, this probably was not an invention of Saint Ignatius himself (a thesis which is strange being that he wrote to so many differing localities taking it for granted). Nor, was this something imposed by the Roman state as Christianity at this time was persecuted by the Romans. Rather, the most likely reason is that Christians were emulating what was happening within Judaism.
As we discussed in the previous article, diaspora Judaism was already evolving. It was a Jerusalem-focused religion revolving around a hereditary priesthood but it was becoming a religion where the faith of individual Jews, regardless of tribe, made worship divorced from the hereditary priesthood outside of Jerusalem possible. Local worship, which did not revolve around a sacrifice, was increasingly led by non-priests holding celebratory roles.
Christianity did not have a hereditary priesthood, so it inherited the Jewish ecclesiology without the dynamics of Levitical control at the macro or micro level.
The preceding explains why during Apostolic times both Judaism and Christianity had a hierarchy with functionaries that served identical purposes within the hierarchy:
1. Local synagogues/churches with as many as everal rulers (Acts 8:15 and Phil 1:1).
2. A Great Sanhedrin/college of Apostles.
3. Lesser Sanhedrin/local Archbishops with lesser rulers/bishops below them (Titus 1:5).
But, Christians unlike the Jews had:
1. Local congregations led directly by bishops and/or elders who exercised priestly functions without being hereditary priests. Jews were led simply by rulers whose priestly status was unimportant.
2. Employed deacons as worship helpers as well as organizers for the congregations’ needs, but while Judaism either used another elder for this function or did not develop the need for azynites liturgically until after the Temple.
3. The Christian equivalent to the Sanhedrin did not operate based upon majority vote nor were they given to exact numbers (i.e. 23, 70, etcetera) for their synods to correspond to the Sanhedrins of their times.
What may account for these differences? It is clear that the Christian system was:
1. More strictly Scriptural in that it maintains the superior position of priests within its hierarchy.
2. Consistent with the hierarchy of the Essenes (“Bishop”>Priests>Seniors>Juniors) who unlike mainstream Judaism maintained Levitical leadership and did not have the sort of theological inconsistencies that existed in diaspora-Judaism’s eccesiology.
3. Rejected the Oral Law, with its formulations that justified the necessity of odd numbered councils to avoid votes split down the middle, but rather followed the spirit of the written Law. A verse like Ex 23:2 (“you shall not follow a crowd to do evil”) may have been interpreted to mean that a simple tyranny of the majority was not sufficient for the nation of Christians. Rather, ecclesiastical decisions must please “the apostles and elders, with the whole church” (Acts 15:22).
Hence, after Apostolic times/the destruction of the Temple, Judaism appears to have returned to a hierarchy with less intersecting roles due to the priesthood not having a significant role anymore. This is the exact opposite of what was true in Biblical times, where the laity had no significant religious role.
Nevertheless, with the increasing role of the Nasi and the dissolution of a functioning Sanhedrin, Christianity (which intellectually was still a Jewish movement up until their expulsion from the synagogues around the time of the Temple’s destruction) probably followed suit.
The preceding is significant because if the lesser Sanhedrin were devolving into either mostly ceremonial or even non-existent bodies, churches may have not maintained their former proportions of local leaders. Why? Culturally, as Christianity was still very Jewish, it would have felt strange to not act like fellow Jews. Hence, the proportions of Bishops in Christian churches appears to have decreased to the point that Ignatius takes for granted that local churches have one Bishop. As we discussed before, this was probably a proportion that existed in some corners of Christendom already, such as Corinth (though Corinth and the entire isthmus of Achaia probably had one Archbishop like Sosthenes and several Bishops below him as indicated by 1 Clem 44).
Nevertheless, ever since the first century, we have seen an increase in the magnification of the monoepiscopacy to the point where the largest Orthodox country in the world has about half the Bishops that ancient Tunisia had in the 5th century. Furthermore, no singular parish has its own Bishop as it did in the past. My point in bringing this up is not to say this is bad or good, but to show that the monoepiscopacy is in fact consistent with Jewish ecclesiology, even if the proportions of Bishops per parish has continued to decrease consistent with the decrease of local rulers after the destruction of the Temple.
The hierarchy, and its rationale, remains the same. The bishop reflects Christ and his submission to a greater bishops reveals the same sacramental reality. Likewise, the priest submits to the bishop for the same reason, the deacon to the priest, and the laity to the deacon. What we have to realize is that the proportions can always swing back into the opposite direction to the point where singular parishes may have several bishops. This would, in fact, not contradict the hierarchy as Saint Ignatius presents it, especially because ancient parishes with multiple Bishops would have still been accountable to Apostles or Archbishops like Sosthenes, Timothy, or Titus.
Concluding thoughts. From the preceding, we can see that the strongest parallel between Judaism and Christianity is the hierarchy. Both sects did not seem to have completely autonomous local places of worship, but rather a hierarchical organization where local bodies of believers were accountable to regional and then a central authority.
Interestingly, a Papal Supremacist view, with the Bishop alone working at this role in a central location, does not suffice to replace the work of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Nasi/High Priest could not operate unilaterally as Pope Victor I did. After all, the High Priest and the Sadducee party had Paul arrested but not excommunicated as this required at minimal a majority vote. This is something that the Pharisee party did not consent to. Only the conciliar view of the Orthodox within the monoepiscopal system, in fact, preserves the hierarchy while at the same time preserving the system of consensus that governed Judaism.