02Feb Origins of the priesthood are murky, historically

a. Only around 200 AD do we have an ordination ritual (Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus customarily dated about 215) that can be verified. Installation from 90 to ca. 200 AD remains a matter of hypothesis, with no historical data for verification. The episkopos in this ritual is ordained for pastoral leadership and exemplarity of Christian life. Liturgical leadership — definitely mentioned — is not the primary focus of the ordination rite. In the ordination of presbyter, providing pastoral advice to the episkopos is the central focus. No mention is made of liturgical leadership.


b. From roughly 350 to 500 AD, the Latin term ‘sacerdos’ (i.e., ‘priest’ — one who mediates between God and man and offers sacrifice to God) normally refers to the episkopos. The diversification process in which the presbyter assumes some of the liturgical functions begins in earnest between 400 and 500 AD. In the Carolingian period (751 – 987), the term ‘sacerdos’ refers as much to priest as to bishop, but most often to priest. By the 11th century, the term refers normally to priest. The presbyter, i.e., the liturgical presider in the primitive church, has become the priest.


c. In his commentary on 1 Clement, theologian Louis Bouyer engages in the act of “foreshadowing” when he compares the Christian bishop with the Jewish high priest, the Christian laity with lower-ranking priests, and the Christian deacon with the Levites in the Old Testament. Even if one accepts this approach/interpretation, it ultimately proves nothing in terms of historical development of the Christian priesthood.


As both Robert Egan (“Why Not? Scripture, History & Women’s Ordination” at http://commonwealmagazine.org/… and Kenan Osborne have noted, Jesus and his disciples knew only the Jewish priesthood, which disappeared after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. Available evidence describes the Twelve as healers, preachers, teachers. Osborne states, “Every study of Church ministry must begin with a study of the ministry of Jesus himself; this is the source, the model and the dynamics of all Church ministry.” Various writers have said that the ministry of the Twelve was unique and, as such, could not have been passed down in its totality to other apostles and disciples. The passing of the Twelve marked the end of a unique Christian ministry.


According to Richard McBrien (LIVES OF THE POPES, 1997), Clement wrote his letter to the Corinthians ca. 96 AD. “In Clement’s view (one not grounded in the New Testament, however), the apostles themselves had established bishops (a term he uses interchangeably with presbyters) and deacons in all places…” According to Osborne, “The naming of Christian ministers at this time was still in flux. Clement emphasizes that the ministry is one of preaching [although] mention is indeed made of a liturgical ministry….It would, however, stretch the evidence to say apodictically that in Clement the episkopoi/presbyteroi are ‘sacerdotal’ figures….[S]ome comparison is made with…Old Testament priestly figures. It is also true that Clement uses the Greek term ‘hierus’ [priest] for the Christian minister. This seems to be the first extant occurrence of the usage.” Osborne quotes R.M. Grant: “[I]t seems hard to deny that for Clement the episcopate is analogous to the office of the high priest. But if this is so, we should expect to find presbyters the equivalent of priests, and deacons the equivalent of Levites.” Writes Osborne, “These analogies are not to be found. Moreover, presbyters and episkopoi, Grant notes, are interchangeable. The emphasis is not on the sacerdotality of the ministers, but on order.” Osborne concludes, “It is not a special ordination to ‘priesthood’ which is the root for presiding over the community; rather, it is the commission to preside over the community which allows for presiding over the eucharist.”


d. About ten years later, Ignatius of Antioch, en route to Rome to face martyrdom, sends letters to various Christian communities in western Asia Minor. He describes a clearly monarchical episcopacy under which are presbyters and deacons. According to Osborne, “Because [the episkopos] is the leader over the community, he is also the leader over the liturgical worship. In other words, his leadership is not attributed to an ‘ordination.’” Presbyters function in an advisory role to the bishop. In his THE CHURCH IN ANCIENT SOCIETY (2001), the late Henry Chadwick writes, “Ignatius uses sacrificial language for the eucharist but, for the minister, he never uses the term ‘hiereus,’ priest….The priesthood of the whole Church ‘as one person’ would be stressed by Justin in the ‘Dialogue with Trypho’ (116.3): they are the ‘high-priestly race’ offering pure sacrifices as prophesied by Malachi. ‘And God accepts sacrifices from no one other than his priests.’”


In contrast to the Ignatian letters, Osborne notes that the gospel of Matthew (ca. 95 AD), “seemingly of Antiochene origin, [has] no mention of a Church leader beyond the Twelve and the apostles.” Likewise, the seven churches mentioned in Revelation (ca. 95 AD?) do “not seem to [have] an established Church structure as we find in the Ignatian letters.” Yet these communities are, at most, perhaps 200 or so miles west of Antioch.


e. In Matthew 9:13 and again at 12:7, Jesus tells his followers, “I want mercy, not sacrifice.” Given their Jewish background that seems (to me) to have stressed ritual worship and other formalities, Jesus appears to be expressing a radical wish: Get down to basics, i.e., reach out in God’s name to others in need and give them the Good News.


f. Osborne suggests that when we discuss church ministry, it helps to be mindful of the timing of the church’s beginning, i.e., what he calls the “ecclesiological presupposition.” According to him, “A view of a Church, instituted by Jesus during his lifetime, with the eucharist in a central position of such a Church, cannot avoid making the eucharist central to an interpretation of ministry. A view of a Church, coming into being after the resurrection, with leadership, not eucharistic presidency, as the dominant ministerial activity, will shade the interpretation of ministry quite differently.”


In this regard, the words of Paul are apropos: “Now, since our message is that Christ has been raised from death, how can some of you say that the dead will not be raised to life? If that is true, it means that Christ was not raised, and if Christ has not been raised from death, then we have nothing to preach and you have nothing to believe…..[I]f Christ has not been raised, then your faith is a delusion and you are still lost in your sins. It would also mean that the believers in Christ who have died are lost. If our hope in Christ is good for this life only and no more, then we deserve more pity than anyone else in all the world” (1 Co 15:12-14, 17-19).


If Jesus had founded the church during his lifetime but had not been raised from the dead, his disciples’ faith would have been in vain. There would have been no reason for them not to disperse and resume their previous labors. Given the resurrection, however, and the consequent credibility of Jesus’ message, the disciples would need to exercise leadership to spread this news and get nascent Christian communities off and running. As Osborne has noted, liturgical leadership was predicated on this organizing and community leadership.


g. In his FROM APOSTLES TO BISHOPS: THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE EPISCOPACY IN THE EARLY CHURCH (2001), Francis Sullivan writes: “We must conclude that the New Testament provides no basis for the notion that before the apostles died, they ordained one man as bishop for each of the churches they had founded. The only person in the New Testament whose role resembles that of a bishop is James the ‘brother of the Lord,’ who was most likely designated for his position of leadership in the Jerusalem church by his relationship with Jesus and the special appearance with which he was favored by the risen Jesus. It seems extremely unlikely that he was ‘ordained’ as bishop of Jerusalem by St. Peter. Nor does the New Testament evidence support the idea that Peter, Paul or any other apostle became bishop of any one local church or ordained one man as bishop of any local church. One looks in vain to the New Testament for a basis for the idea of ‘an unbroken line of episcopal ordination from Christ through the apostles down through the centuries to the bishops of today.”


h. Some folks contend that while there is no Christian minister identified as a priest in the New Testament, there is still an ordination ritual as the Pastoral Epistles make clear (laying-on of hands).


Osborne devotes some attention to this issue. Inter alia, he offers the following for consideration:


+ “In all of the passages on New Testament ministries, we have no clear indication of any ordination rite. There are, of course, instances of a laying on of hands in the early Church, particularly in Acts and in 1 Tim 4, 14; 2 Tim 1, 6 (cf. also 2 Cor 8, 19 which speaks of an election). What this laying on of hands in each case of these New Testament passages might clearly indicate is arguable. Ordination, as we understand this term, does not seem to be the intent of these situations, and to read an ‘ordination’ ritual, such as one finds from the time of Hippolytus onward, would be clearly an ‘eisegesis.’”


+ “Very little Old Testament data for a laying on of hands as an installation ritual is available, and this dearth of evidence does not bolster the view that a true ‘ordination’ ritual can be found in the New Testament passages. When one realizes that between the few New Testament indications mentioned above and the ritual of Hippolytus at the beginning of the third century there is absolutely no documentary evidence for ordination, then the conjectural status of any statement on ordination prior to Hippolytus becomes even more apparent, cautioning us to avoid any apodictic approach.”


+ “In themselves, phrases which include the words ‘laying on of hands’ do not essentially include an appointment to office or ministry. A laying on of hands, in both Old and New Testaments, can be found for blessings, healings, receiving the Spirit, reconciling. In other words, ‘laying on of hands’ in itself is not a technical term for an ‘ordination.’”


i. In THE APOSTOLIC TRADITION: A COMMENTARY (2002), Paul Bradshaw, Maxwell Johnson, and Edward Phillips state, “The oldest explicit reference to presbyters sharing in the priesthood of the bishop occurs in Tertullian [ca. 155 – 225], who says that they belong to the ‘ordo sacerdotalis’ (De ex cast. 7). Cyprian [b. 200, bishop of Carthage 248 – 258 AD] similarly understood them to participate in the episcopal ‘sacerdotium’ (see, e.g., Ep. 1.1.1; 61.3.1).”


As mentioned earlier, the oldest known ordination ritual is “The Apostolic Tradition,” customarily dated ca. 215 AD. Only the ordination for episkopos includes priestly/sacerdotal language. (The ordination ritual for deacon includes some rather odd phraseology, to wit, “…because he is not ordained to the priesthood but to the service of the bishop…” Osborne surmises that this language was “placed in the text to preclude diaconal encroachment into presbyteral tasks, as also to clarify the distinctive rites.”) The ordination for presbyter, per Osborne, “has no mention of offering a sacrifice.”


In their commentary, Bradshaw et al write, “[Marcel] Metzger has argued that [The Apostolic Tradition’s] lack of unity or logical progression, its frequent incoherences, doublets, and contradictions, all point away from the existence of a single editorial hand. Instead, it has all the characteristics of a composite work, a collection of community rules from quite disparate traditions…” Bradshaw et al also suggest that the contents of the Apostolic Tradition date from perhaps as early as 150 to as late as 350 AD.


They continue, “We believe that Metzger’s general approach is correct, and would take it even further. Because of the features to which he has drawn attention and others that we have observed, we judge the work to be an aggregation of material from different sources, quite possibly arising from different geographical regions and probably from different historical periods, from perhaps as early as the mid-second century to as late as the mid-fourth, since none of the textual witnesses to it can be dated with any certainty before the last quarter of that century. We thus think it unlikely that it represents the practice of any single Christian community, and that it is best understood by attempting to discern the various individual elements and layers that constitute it.”


j. Several New Testament passages reveal the earliest understanding of Christian priesthood:


+ Ro 12:1

Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God dedicated to his service and pleasing to him.

This is the true worship that you should offer.


+ 1 Pt 2:9

But you are the chosen race, the King’s priests, the holy nation, God’s own people, chosen

to proclaim the wonderful acts of God.


+ 1 Pt 2:5

Come as living stones, and let yourselves be used in building the spiritual temple, where

you will serve as holy priests to offer spiritual and acceptable sacrifices to God through Jesus



+ He 13: 15-16

Let us, then, always offer praise to God as our sacrifice through Jesus, which is the offering

presented by lips that confess him as Lord. Do not forget to do good and to help one

another, because these are the sacrifices that please God.


+ Phil 2: 17-18

Perhaps my life’s blood is to be poured out like an offering on the sacrifice that your faith

offers to God; if that is so, I am glad and share my joy with you all. In the same way, you

too must be glad and share your joy with me.


+ Rev 1: 5-6

He loves us, and by his sacrificial death he has freed us from our sins and made us a

kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father.


+ He 7: 26-27

Jesus, then, is the High Priest that meets our needs….He is not like other high priests; he

does not need to offer sacrifices every day for his own sins first and then for the sins of the

people. He offered one sacrifice, once and for all, when he offered himself.”


k. In his FROM SYNAGOGUE TO CHURCH: PUBLIC SERVICES AND OFFICES IN THE EARLIEST CHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES (1992), James Burtchaell writes that “well before” the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, “[t]he local synagogues had already chosen to deny priests any special privileges or position….The priesthood had anciently been associated, not simply with sacrificial worship, but with the interpretation of the Torah and with judicial discipline….[I]n the villages and towns and cities, where priests in plenty dwelt and were available, a totally lay synagogue organization had long since decided it needed no legitimacy which the priests could give….[As a result], priests were not officiants at any synagogue activity. There were still some rituals explicitly assigned to them by the Law, and these they presumably retained: receiving the five-shekel redemption money for each first-born son, reciting certain blessings at worship services, receiving tithes on produce, and performing certain purification rituals. The ‘kohanim = hiereis’ = priests would form a cadre of identifiable members in any synagogue, to whom biblical imperatives reserved certain ritual actions, but to whom no further deference on the part of the community is in evidence. They had minor hereditary prerogatives but cannot be considered officers of the community. Jerusalem, as it turned out…, was not merely the only place where priests might preside at sacrifices; it was the only place where they presided at anything.”


Burtchaell adds that “[t]he New Testament analogizes many Jewish institutions which in their literal reality were being left behind: sacrifice, kingship, nationhood, race, temple. The title of ‘hiereus = levitical priest is not applied to officers of the church, but it is applied to Christ and to the church itself. It is the language of oblation which, when applied to the eucharist especially, will leave open the possibility of a later analogical understanding of ministry as a priestly role.


“The Christians are, as a whole, a priestly people. Their faith is a sacrifice; so is the self-discipline of their bodies, and so too are their financial contributions to the widows and orphans or to preachers of the gospel. Paul looks on his missionary work as an act of sacrifice. Ignatius understands his impending death as a desired sacrifice…


“Nowhere, however, despite the range of freedom early Christians felt to draw on the traditions of the temple, priesthood and sacrifice by way of illustration, precedent and analogy, is there a willingness to accord Jewish priests any community prerogative, or to suggest any real continuity with their present officers and rites. The word ‘hieron’ = temple never once appears, for instance, in this period after the New Testament. It is not that there are no longer any priests; there are no longer any who are not priests. Priesthood is no longer the identity of a clan or a tribe, but the name of an entire people” (Burtchaell, pp. 322-323).


l. In light of the close relationship between sacred orders and worship in the Catholic Church, it helps to acknowledge the fundamental changes in, and popular understanding of, the liturgy that occurred in the first millenium. Liturgical change would be accompanied by changes in popular understanding of the role and identity of presider/priest. Nathan Mitchell, in his CULT AND CONTROVERSY: THE WORSHIP OF THE EUCHARIST OUTSIDE MASS (1982, 1990), summarizes this development: “Worship changes because people do, [but] the fundamental shape of the eucharist has survived: we still take, bless, break, and give bread and cup.” Gradually, these “ritual verbs” would be “inserted into a new liturgical genre (drama instead of meal, allegory instead of symbol) [and] absorb different meanings and inspire different interpretations [that would] come into conflict with one another. This happened, surely, when the ancient symbols of dining together, obviously intended as invitations, to ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ at the eucharist, gave way to ‘ocular communion’ — the desire to ‘see’ the host. The bodily symbolism of ingestion and nourishment was all but overpowered by the visual symbolism of ‘gazing at the Beloved.’”


m. In his COMMONWEAL article, Robert Egan suggests that “[i]f evidence of ‘Jesus’ way of acting’ were to be consistently normative, it’s hard to see how we could justify having a priesthood at all.”


n. Osborne has a brief section in his book on “Leo XIII and the Question of Anglican Orders” (beginning at p. 294). One cannot do justice to his observations in this thread. Suffice it to say that perhaps the old expression “People in glass houses should not throw stones” might be appropriate in our considering the Catholic Church’s official condemnation of Anglican orders.


o. Felix Just, SJ, PhD provides a nice outline of ancient church ministry on his website. In particular, you may wish to visit the following:


+ “Ministry and Leadership in Early Christianity”



+ “Disciples and Apostles in the New Testament”