Recently I wrote two articles which carefully comb through history and reconstructed Jewish eccleisology. In short, my conclusion is that the monoepiscopacy was a consistent application of Jewish ecclesiastical norms in the first century. Those articles particularly went into detail about the Sanhedrin and instances of parishes with several bishops. (See “Early Jewish Religious Hierarchy and Early Church Government” and “Did Christian Ecclesiology Develop From Judaism?“) In this article, I offer speculations pertaining to issues related to the preceding.
Were Judaizers Sanhedrin Pharisaical members trying to subvert Christianity? In short, maybe. Here are our clues. We know that Jewish priests and Pharisees were being converted to Christianity (Acts 6:7). There contingent was notable enough that “some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses'” (Acts 15:5).
Luke calls the Pharisees literally, if we read the Greek, a Christian “heresy.” Heresies and sects were synonymous in first century Greek and it is for this reason that Paul denied being a member of a “sect” (Acts 24:5). So, Luke viewed the Pharisaical branch of Christianity schismatics. Yet, it is clear there was a time they were part of the body of the Church and they attended the council of Jerusalem.
We are aware of several notable Sanhedrin members who were Christians. Gamaliel I, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:43) were all Sanhedrin members. Our first article put forward evidence that Saint Paul himself was a Sanhedrin. Further, we also know of a disciple, though it is not clear who, who apparently was close to the High Priest (John 18:15-16).
The preceding is relevant, because in popular imagination Christianity began strictly as a Jewish movement on the socioeconomic fringes. However, this quite frankly contradicts the explicit teaching of the Scriptures. There were notable Jews in the highest positions of authority backing Christianity, which in hindsight might have been precisely why the High Priest went through the trouble to have Jesus Christ crucified. Christ was not just subversive to the “rabble,” but He could have overturned the Jewish aristocracy as well.
If we accept Hegessipus’s account, from the mid second century, as somewhat accurate we also have evidence that Saint James the Just was rubbing shoulders with the Sanhedrin. The account has been preserved in Book II Chapter 23 of Eusebius’ Church History. It describes that “he alone was permitted to enter into the holy place…and he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple.” Apparently “some” of the “rulers” supposedly “believed that Jesus is the Christ” but they “did not believe either in a resurrection or in one’s coming to give to every man according to his works.”
Hence, they accepted Jesus as a great prophet but not the whole package. Nevertheless, more and more were starting to accept the whole package “on account of James” and this caused “a commotion among the Jews and Scribes and Pharisees, who said that there was danger that the whole people would be looking for Jesus as the Christ.” They tried convincing James to “persuade the people not to entertain erroneous opinions concerning Jesus,” hoping he would clarify his position to make clear that Jesus was not really God. He did not and he was martyred. Apparently, this created such a stir among rank and file Jews according to an authentic passage in Josephus (Antiquities, Book 20 Chap 9), they successfully petitioned the Roman emperor to change the High Priest.
So, if we accept the preceding as probable, which historically it appears we must, we need to take it into account when evaluating the Judaizing sectarians within Christianity. Saint Paul wrote of the, “…many (who) desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ” (Gal 6:12).
This is a most interesting accusation against the Judaizers. Paul is imputing them with the motive of them having their doctrine because they are trying to avoid persecution. Paul also appears to allude to this in Phil 1:15-18.
Now, it is totally possible that the Judaizing “super Apostles” Paul criticizes were simply gutless and they compromised their doctrine to make good with the Romans and Jews. However, here is my pious speculation: these Judaizers thought that by making the Gentile converts into Jewish converts, they can curry favor with the Sanhedrin.
This was not impossible after all. The Sanhedrin had Christians among their membership. Hegessipus’ account preserves for us a literal episode where the Sanhedrin thought they can get James on their side. Just as Paul had a favorable response from the other Apostles when he agreed to get a financial collection from the Gentile converts for use in the Jerusalem church (Gal 2:10, Rom 15:31), surely mass conversion to Judaism would have ingratiated the Judaizers to the Sanhedrin.
While Paul was not excommunicated from Judaism, he had enough powerful enemies to get him imprisoned for years (he was later released, went to Spain, and then was executed in Rome). The Judaizers did not want powerful enemies. They wanted to carefully tow the line and present themselves, and Gentile converts, as good Jews–not Christians.
Hence, the majority of the epistles from Paul dwell on the topic of the Law and circumcision. Paul saw this as the chief doctrinal heresy of his time and a sell out of the Gospel. While the Judaizers might have had good intentions, ultimately masquerading circumcised Gentiles going to church as Jewish converts was ultimately not going to make friends with the Sanhedrin nor save the souls of new believers–who would have been understandably confused as to what was going on.
Put yourself in their shoes. You have Paul converting you and telling you you are saved through faith in Christ. He leaves you with bishops and priests, and your worship is similar to what you were used to at the old synagogue but now you’re a “full member.” You were baptized, commune, confess sins (which also has Jewish origins), etcetera. Now, imagine, more Jews come into town. They have letters from the Sanhedrin (2 Cor 3:1) and say they have James’ (the same one who was constantly at the temple) approval (this is a lie, see Acts 15:24 where this is explicitly denounced). They say, “Jesus is the Christ! But, you cannot really know God unless you are circumcised and follow the Law!” Bam, you’re back to being second class citizens. But, who’s right?
And so, now you have the context of the biggest dispute of the Apostolic era. The Judaizing question was settled and while today we are most interested in its soteriological aspects, Paul was probably most concerned with its Christological ones. Did Jesus fulfill the Law or didn’t He. Are we saved by the indwelling of Christ or are we not? Is Christ God or isn’t He? Ultimately, the chief problem with Judaizing wasn’t specifically works-based salvation (though that is a problem) but it knocked Christ down a peg. If all one needs to be saved is to become a Jew, as the Judaizers falsely taught the Gentiles, then why does one even need Christ? Why would it be important to acknowledge Him as God? What did He do on the cross then? This is why Paul writes emphatically, “If righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Gal 2:21).
I end my pious speculations on this topic here.
What’s the deal with Philippi? Philippi, a town with a small population incapable of even having enough people to have a true synagogue (Acts 16:13), had multiple Bishops (Phil 1:1)! Why? The following are possible explanations:
- All early churches were autonomous, elder-led congregations where the leaders are all equal. The problem with this explanation is that it contradicts what we know about Jewish ecclesiology and the church of Corinth, which appears to have Sosthenes as its sole leader.
- Philippi was the first city successfully evangelized by Paul in Europe (Acts 16:6-13) and so it was a seat of an Archbishopric for Macedonia. It might have not hurt that Phillipi had a special status where all of its inhabitants were Roman citizens, with the immunities that entails. Macedonian cities such as Philippi and Thessalonia, as well as nearby towns, had their own Bishops, but they could have all been sourced from Philippi itself or at least have been accountable to the Bishop of that city. Hence, a plurality of Bishops being addressed in a letter would be understandable. The problem with this explanation is that it presumes upon a metropolitan structure of ecclesiology.
- Philippi had several Bishops of equal status for differing reasons. Perhaps Bishops were going to be missionaries and start churches in other cities. They could have been mimicking a lesser-Sanhedrin structure, with a minimal of three members, to run the affairs of local Christians. Local persecutions may have forced Christians to require more local leadership so that neighborhood house churches could be run autonomously. It is not impossible that Philippi had a rare local ecclesiastical custom that formed and Paul simply permitted due to his premature departure (Acts 16:40). It is also possible that when Paul wrote to a single city, it presumed that it would be read at multiple parishes and each parish could have had its own Bishop. Surely Corinth and Achaia, as well as Ephesus, had more than one Bishop. This would mean a letter would be received by several Bishops. The problem with this explanation is that it presumes there would be no hierarchy, which is contradicted by the fact that surely Timothy would have been the preeminent Bishop in Ephesus when he received a letter from Paul and Titus would have been preeminent in Crete.
Due to this being a series of articles about Jewish ecclesiology, I favor the second explanation. It simply makes the most sense with internal evidence in the Bible (there was hierarchy and priority between Apostles as well as Bishops) as well as historical evidence (that Christianity developed from Judaism). Being that Judaism did not have a egalitarian ecclesiastical structure but rather a hierarchical one, it seems that the first and third presumptions would be unjustified. We just have to be careful not to presume that Christians (or contemporary Jews for that matter) would have actively viewed themselves as running along the lines of a metrpolita structure. They may have simply thought that they were dividing work according to ability, those with Paul’s permission taking on more responsibility humbly serving best they can.
Judaism had a hierarchy of rulers, but its liturgical celebrants other than the high priest did not have positions of authority by default. So, it would not be strange to have a lesser Sanhedrin running a region, but local elders and/or priests leading worship in local synagogues. Due to there being sacrifices only in Jerusalem, priests were not a necessary component in worship.
In Christianity, where the curtain in the temple is torn and Christians are a nation of priests, it is now possible that sacrifice (the mysterious re-presentation of Christ’s on Calvary) may occur everywhere. Hence, while the hierarchy Judaism remained in place in my view, the Bishop and Elders/Priests now had an additional function than what we see in the early synagogues. So, my best guess is that Philippi did have priests as well as at least one Bishop in the city itself, if not at least a couple in the city and a few in nearby towns and villages.
Even today, it is not rare for small Orthodox parishes to regularly have at least two priests serving on a regular basis. My own parish has two priests but no deacons! So, was it possible for Phillipi to have a Macedonian Archbishop and a local city Bishop serving in the same church on a regular basis? Sure. This makes Presbyterian interpretations of the verse unnecessary and allows a monoepsicopal interpretation.
Herein ends my pious speculations on this topic, at least for now!