The Original Bishops

Office and Order in the First Christian Communities

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A Jesus Creed 2015 Book of the Year

This work provides a new starting point for studying the origins of church offices. Alistair Stewart, a leading authority on early Christianity and a meticulous scholar, provides essential groundwork for historical and theological discussions. Stewart refutes a long-held consensus that church offices emerged from collective leadership at the end of the first century. He argues that governance by elders was unknown in the first centuries and that bishops emerged at the beginning of the church; however, they were nothing like bishops of a later period. The church offices as presently known emerged in the late second century. Stewart debunks widespread assumptions and misunderstandings, offers carefully nuanced readings of the ancient evidence, and fully interacts with pertinent secondary scholarship.

Introduction: Defining the Field of Inquiry and the Terminology Employed
1. On Episkopoi and Presbyteroi
The Alleged Synonymy of Episkopos and Presbyteros
The Evidence for Synonymy Explained in Terms of Federation
2. The Economic Functions of Episkopoi and Diakonoi
The Economic Functions of Episkopoi
Alternative Jewish Sources for the Office of Episkopos
The Economic Functions of Diakonoi
3. Presbyters in Early Christian Communities
The Hypothesis of the Jewish Origin of Presbyters
A Non-Jewish Origin for Christian Presbyters
An Interim Conclusion
Presbyters and Episkopoi in Early Christian Communities
Patronal Groups Not Designated as Presbyters
4. Presbyters and Episkopoi in Emerging Christian Communities
The Alexandrian Community
Christian Leadership in Egypt beyond Alexandria
Presbyteral Church Order in Jerusalem?
The Asian Communities Addressed by Ignatius
Some Fragmentary Evidence
5. The Causes of Monepiscopacy
Monepiscopacy as Centralization
Verschmelzung as an Explanation of Monepiscopacy
Institutionalization as an Explanation of Monepiscopacy
Scholasticization as an Explanation of Monepiscopacy
External Pressure as a Cause of Centralization
Some Loose Threads
Overall Conclusion
A Concluding Unscientific Postscript


"Brilliant and breathtaking! With a commanding and encyclopedic knowledge of all the primary sources--Christian, Jewish, and pagan alike--and centuries of scholarship at his fingertips, Alistair Stewart has turned the kaleidoscope of evidence in such a way that the pieces fall into a coherent, comprehensive, and compelling picture. Stewart, coalescing the best of contemporary scholarship into an epochal new consensus, shows how the role of the bishop (and presbyters and deacons) developed as Christian communities moved from the house church, through association, into federation with the appearance of the monepiskopos."

John Behr, University of Aberdeen

"Building on a number of new trends in scholarship and grounded in impressive mastery of the sources, this study drives a coach and horses through the long-standing consensus that presbyters and bishops were once the same and early church governance was collegial. Its challenge to anachronistic reading of the sources should finally undermine contemporary claims to historical precedent in debates about ministry, whether those claims be denominational, ecumenical, or feminist, highlighting as it does the 'otherness' of the socio-cultural order within which the emerging church developed an organization suited to its own needs yet indebted in terminology and practice to its historical context. The Original Bishops is a tour de force, creating a coherent yet complex narrative that, despite its frequent acknowledgment of ignorance given the scrappy nature of the evidence, is sure to be contested. Future discussion of the issues, however, will be unable to ignore this book."

Frances Young, emeritus professor, University of Birmingham

"Stewart shines fresh light on a pivotal theme in late Christian antiquity--the emergence of ecclesiastical offices under the rubrics of presbyter and bishop. He explains with vigor the rise of each category within the framework of individual churches throughout the Roman Empire, from the advent of the apostle Paul to the turn of the third century, challenging age-old views offered by Lightfoot and others of his generation. Stewart's understanding of the regional presbytery as a collective association of local bishops delivers novel insight into the divergent use of such terminology throughout apostolic and post-apostolic literature. This book is carefully written and demands vigilant reading. Its clear and resourceful analysis of the maze of data from ancient authors--ever a focus of intrigue among contemporary scholars--will engage readers at every level, from the introductory student to the polished specialist!"

Clayton N. Jefford, Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology

"Alistair Stewart applies his considerable distinction in the literature of early liturgy and church order to produce an outstanding, scholarly tour de force. Since the work of Ussher and subsequently Stillingfleet, the problem has persisted unresolved of why the two terms episkopos and presbyteros appear to be used of an identical ecclesiastical office. What form did an allegedly collective government of leaders take both in liturgy and in church organization? Stewart sifts judiciously and persuasively between the complexities of the five-hundred-year-old discussion and material that has more recently come to light. Building on recent studies of the church in urban communities as fractionalized into house-groups, he proposes that in individual house-groups the presiding minister was called episkopos, but when they gathered as what Clement of Rome called 'the whole church' in a common council over their city as a whole, they were called presbyters. Alistair Stewart has produced a major contribution to the study of church order in early Christianity that will form part of the foundation for future research."

Allen Brent, professor of early Christian history and iconography, King's College, London

"This book is a masterwork. With massive erudition, Alistair Stewart elaborates here a bracing hypothesis revising several standard views about the origin of bishops, presbyters, and deacons in the first Christian centuries. Future histories of early Christian ministry will have to take into account the impressively wide scope of Stewart's evidence as well as the arguments he builds on that evidence. The book is valuable for the vast amount of modern scholarship that it gathers on this question as well as for the fresh proposals it brings to the interpretation of numerous ancient Christian sources."

Joseph G. Mueller, SJ, associate professor and director of graduate studies, Marquette University

"The Original Bishops is a must-read for those interested in the debate over the church order of the early centuries. While there have been numerous studies on the topic in recent decades, Alistair Stewart challenges preconceived notions that view episkopoi and presbyteroi as synonymous terms as well as the idea that bishops arose out of the presbytery. While the challenge is not new, the meticulous reengagement with the historical facts sets the stage for a new approach to understanding the role of bishop in the early church as the primary office from the very beginning. Whether you agree or disagree, Stewart's thorough historical approach will enrich your understanding of the early church orders and inform the church's continuing discussions on ecumenism and ecclesiology."

Joel C. Elowsky, associate professor of theology, Concordia University Wisconsin

The Author

  1. Alistair C. Stewart

    Alistair C. Stewart

    Alistair C. Stewart (PhD, University of Birmingham) is team vicar of Upton-cum-Chalvey, Slough, England, and visiting scholar of Sarum College in Salisbury, England. Recognized as a leading expert on early Christian liturgy and polity, he is the author or...

    Continue reading about Alistair C. Stewart


A Jesus Creed 2015 Book of the Year

"One of the most erudite volumes I have read in recent memory."

Scot McKnight,

Jesus Creed blog (named it a Jesus Creed Book of the Year for 2015)

"[A] monumental and magisterial assessment of church order in the first Christian generations. . . . In what is really the first comprehensive re-examination of this material for over two hundred years, Stewart trashes both the myth of monepiscopacy (or bishops as we know them) and purely presbyterian church order. . . . Stewart uses all of his expertise as a recognized expert of New Testament and early church history, notably in regard to liturgical texts, with a detailed knowledge of the primary and secondary texts, to guide the reader though detailed technical discussions of passages which have never gelled. Scrupulously meticulous in his judgments, and always clearly stating the amount of proof he can bring to substantiate any claim, Stewart slowly and carefully draws out common patterns of development, always throwing his readers lifelines in concise concluding sections which make transparently clear the findings of his detailed research. He never asks the evidence to bear conclusions which it cannot hold, and, in so doing, provides a meticulous example of historical scholarship which never overreaches itself or claims a surety beyond its scope. This is not an easy book to read, but it is worthwhile, both for students of ecclesiology, and for those who wish to see a sustained example of the historical critical method. It marks a significant contribution to the study of church order in the early church. I would venture to suggest that it will become a mandatory text for courses and postgraduate research in this area. Any course of study which does not include engagement with Stewart's findings will be inadequate, or willfully ignoring a significant revision of early church history."

Fergus J. King,


"[An] important monograph. . . . [Stewart] questions the long-assumed narrative among church historians that bishops (episkopoi) and presbyters (presbuteroi) were synonymous terms in the early church identifying the same office and duties. . . . Stewart revisits this narrative with new evidence, careful exegesis, and a fresh perspective that dismantles the old assumptions and allows for other ways of understanding the historic relationship between bishops and presbyters. In reconstructing a sound, rational alternative in place of flawed conventions, Stewart's work is most welcome in a field often interested in deconstruction for its own sake. . . . Stewart's writing is clear and well organized in spite of technical jargon. . . . Throughout, Stewart demonstrates a remarkable command of the early Christian literature ranging from the New Testament to later patristic writers. His grasp of the secondary literature is nothing short of impressive. . . . Any future attempts to understand the organization and development of the early church must deal with his masterful achievement."

Jonathan Morgan,

Fides et Historia

"This book is an impressive piece of historical scholarship on the development of ecclesial offices in the earliest Christian communities. . . . Throughout this book, the author displays command of ancient sources as well as contemporary scholarship. He weighs each opinion against historical evidence and where the evidence is scant or altogether lacking, he tenders modest conclusions on the basis of other sources. Students of the social-historical context of the NT and of early Christianity will benefit from this book."

J. Columcille Dever,

Religious Studies Review

"This book is densely argued and the product of an enormous amount of erudition. . . . No serious student of the organization and ministry of early Christianity can afford to ignore this impressive piece of scholarship."

John F. Baldovin,

Church History

"The Original Bishops is especially helpful in offering a thorough analysis of the available primary sources and a historical account of the origins of monepiscopacy based on these sources. . . . A thorough and demanding study that will be of particular interest to scholars and students of early Christianity, but the clarity of argument may make it approachable for other interested readers. . . . Stewart's historical reconstruction of monepiscopacy deserves further consideration, the narrative is appropriately provisional in view of the limited evidence, and the bold interrogation of consensus positions provides a service to any future studies in this area."

Jonathan Lookadoo,

Anglican Theological Review

"Quite possibly for the first time in my academic experience, I have read a ground-breaking work of seismic or Copernican significance before a consensus about its paradigm-altering importance has emerged. It is exciting to be at the birth of what promises to be a revolution in the way with think about episkopos and presbyteros at the dawn of Christianity. This is not to say that Stewart's work is unheralded. Indeed, he is at pains to trace the prior scholarship, whether it is contrary to him or points in his direction, but he has taken it much farther than anyone previously and brought it together in an intellectual tour-de-force. The work is therefore incredibly dense with detail, and yet one of the most appealing features of the volume is the clarity of expression and the ways in which the reader is guided through the labyrinth of facts and arguments. I was constantly delighted at just how easy it was to follow the complexity of information laid out before me. . . . This is a masterpiece and must be taken into account in any future examination of how the loose association of followers of Jesus became within a matter of several generations a community with a rather sophisticated hierarchy of leaders. . . . The contribution of this volume will be to make all of us think again about what we believe we know of the origins of Christian office."

Geoffrey D. Dunn,

Journal of Early Christian Studies

"Stewart's core contribution is the recasting of presbyteroi and episkopoi not as synonyms, but as 'perionyms,' words not identical in meaning, but sharing semantic overlap. . . . Stewart's research and argumentation are extremely thorough, and offer a way forward in our understanding of this incomplete but crucial evidence."

David Neal Greenwood,

Anglican and Episcopal History

"This erudite study makes the case for the origin of the 'monepiscopy'--that is, the church order of one bishop over several churches in a city or region. . . . Stewart's study effectively pokes holes in a lot of common assumptions about the structural development of the early church."

Donald Senior, CP,

The Bible Today

"[Stewart] has delivered a deeply researched investigation of the roots of church polity. . . . His is an impressive argument set to overthrow the view that early Christian communities were governed by a plurality of leaders. . . . His careful research presents both sides of any question. . . . The important historical work in this book helps clarify the distinctions between the priesthood/episcopacy and the diaconate. The book is by a specialist for specialists and would be a welcome addition to an academic library."

Phyllis Zagano,


"[This book] provides essential groundwork to further the discussion, both historical and theological, on the understanding of the origins of Church offices. Utilizing extra-biblical documents and biblical texts, Stewart develops a very thorough scholarly evaluation of bishops, priests, and deacons in early Christian literature. . . . Stewart has successfully debunked the assumptions and misunderstandings that Church offices emerged from collective leadership at the end of the first century. . . . This book would be suitable for academic libraries with a strong theology program."

David A. Ranzan,

Catholic Library World

"A fascinating, thoroughly researched, and clearly written account of the development of church office in the first three centuries. . . . In developing his argument, Stewart offers a thorough and comprehensive investigation of early Christian literature, from the NT evidence up to fourth- and fifth-century texts which utilize sources illuminating conditions in the second and third centuries. Stewart also engages extensively with modern studies, providing readers with an up-to-date survey of historiography on the development of church office. . . . Scholars of early Christian history and graduate students will benefit most from this work, but the author's clear writing style makes this book accessible also to a nonspecialist audience, who will undoubtedly find many illuminating insights into the development of church office and organization in the early Christian centuries. . . . This work provides a persuasive account of a flexible and evolving ecclesiastical structure based on the office of episkopos, which was able to guide the church through its formative years and into its new, established status, beginning in the fourth century."

K. C. Richardson,

Stone-Campbell Journal