Jerome on the Origin of Bishops (Part 1)

Did Jerome deny the apostolic origins of the monarchical episcopate?

Following up on my article discussing the origin of episcopacy in the early church, this series of posts will discuss the well-known quotation of Jerome which seems to suggest that bishops arose out of the presbytery, and were not a separate office in the line of succession to the apostles, as argued in the article.

Jerome (347-420)

Jerome’s words are as follows:

A presbyter and a bishop are the same ; and before the urging of the devil gave rise to factionalism in religion, so much so that it was being said among the people, ‘I am of Paul, I of Apollo, I of Cephas,’ the churches were governed by a joint council of the presbyters. After it was seen that each, when he was baptized, thought that he now belonged to the one baptizing and not to Christ, it was decreed throughout the world that one chosen from among the presbyters should be placed over the others, and the total care of the church should pertain to him. Thus were the seeds of schisms destroyed. If it be supposed that it is merely our opinion and without scriptural support that bishop and presbyter are one, the latter term speaking of age while the former is the name given to an office, examine again the words the Apostle addressed to the Philippians:  ‘Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi with the bishops and the deacons, grace to you, and peace,’ etc. Now Philippi is but one city in Macedonia, and certainly in one city there could not have been numerous bishops. It is simply that at that time the same persons were called either bishops or presbyters.

Jerome, Commentaries on the Epistle to Titus, 1.5, in William A. Jurgens, ed., The Faith of the Early Fathers, Volume 2, p. 194.

Did Jerome Contradict Himself?

In this passage, Jerome seems to be claiming that the office of bishop and presbyter are the same, and that the bishop is simply an exalted presbyter. Yet elsewhere, Jerome affirms the apostolic origin of the bishop’s office:

Ignatius, third bishop of the church of Antioch after Peter the apostle, condemned to the wild beasts during the persecution of Trajan, was sent bound to Rome

Vir. 16

In this work, he goes on to relate that “Polycarp, the disciple of the apostle John” was by John “ordained bishop of Smyrna” (Vir. 17).

Issues Raised

A comparison of these quotes raises a number of questions.

  • Did Jerome change his mind, or are the statements reconcilable in some way?
  • Why did Jerome speak of a universal decree to appoint a bishop from among the presbyters?
  • When and where did he think such a decree was issued, and why is there seemingly no trace of it in church history?

These questions will be examined in later posts.

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