Jerome on the Origin of Bishops (Part 2)

“A Bishop and a Presbyter are the Same”

As noted in Part 1, Jerome claimed that presbyters and bishops were the same office, and that a time came when it was universally decreed in the church that one presbyter should preside over the others, in order to remove the seeds of schism.

Jerome (347-420)

A presbyter and a bishop are the same ; and before the urging of the devil gave rise to factionalism in religion . . . the churches were governed by a joint council of the presbyters. After . . . 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. 

Jerome, ad Tit. 1.5

It must be noted that there were two separate claims made by Jerome:

  • That presbyters and bishops are the same
  • That it was decreed that a bishop should be chosen from among the presbyters

Is this the Correct Reading of Jerome?

On account of the juxtaposition of these two claims, it may seem that he is asserting that a singular office was differentiated into two offices, on pragmatic grounds, by the church, after the time of the apostles. But Jerome does not specifically claim that the office was differentiated after the apostolic age, and it is unclear whether this is what he intended. Indeed, the division referred to in the passage he alludes to (1 Cor. 1:12) took place in the apostolic age.

It is possible instead that Jerome was only speaking of how a decision was made by the apostles to ordain the bishops from among the presbyters. Indeed, it was noted in Part 1 that Jerome believed that the apostles themselves appointed bishops.

Thus:

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

The Interchangeability of the Offices

However, this would still leave Jerome claiming that presbyters and bishops held the same office, and it may simply be that on this point Jerome was out of step with the opinion of others on this question, prompted perhaps by his dislike of the growing power of bishops (cf. Jerome, in Gal. 4.13).

Jerome based his argument upon the interchangeability of the words in the Greek New Testament:

The Apostle plainly shows that presbyters are the same as bishops… It is proved most clearly that bishops and presbyters are the same. 

Epistle 146, in Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, 96.

Tellingly, perhaps, he does indicate that he was not in agreement with his contemporaries on the question:

If any one thinks the opinion that the bishops and presbyters are the same, to be not the view of the Scriptures but my own, let him study the words of the Apostle to the Phillipians.

ad Tit. 1.5, in Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, 96-97.

It seems then that Jerome did view the bishop and presbyter as the same office, though he also seems to acknowledge that their subsequent differentiation went back to apostolic times.

Unanswered Questions

What then of this “decree” by the church to ordain a bishop from among the presbyters? When was this decree supposedly given, and is there any trace of it in history? I shall attempt to address these questions in Part 3.

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