New College, University of Edinburgh
Technical terms in early Christian texts 1: episcopos

Technical terms in early Christian texts 1: episcopos

Helen’s comments on the reality behind the term ‘sanhedrin’ can be extended to a lot of early Christian terms as well. Early Christian historiography is dogged by the tendency of later historians, both ancient and modern, to read later well-established technical meanings of words into the use of those words in early Christian texts which were written long before the words acquired their later precision.

I want to write separately at some point on the terms ‘martus’ , ‘marturion’ and ‘marturia’ , and the process whereby they acquire their later technical meanings. But many organisational terms also come into this category. When does an ‘episcopos’ become something every city-based Christian community would expect to have, and have only one of? What exactly does the office encompass at different points? What, precisely, is an ecclesiastical kleros when it first emerges? And when does a ‘presbuteros’ change from a lay office into a clerical one?

These terms existed as both technical and general terms before Christianity, with often a range of meanings. ‘Episcopos’ in ordinary Greek means ‘overseer’ or ‘watcher’, but also ‘guardian’. It is used for various organisational offices, but also for the guardian gods of a city. Its ordinary range of meaning would cover security guards on a ship, the officers of fair trading at a market, or the older woman who acts as chaperone over a young couple. What is watched over can be property, people’s welfare, or their behaviour. Built into the term is the implication that the guarding from harm being provided might be welcome or unwelcome to those who receive it.

How do we tell which of these meanings sprang first to mind to the readers of Philippians 1.1, Acts 20.28, 1 Clement or the letters of Ignatius? Are we talking of a recognised quasi-legal office or a charismatic one? Is the episcopos the good steward who looks after his master’s goods and makes sure there is food on the table of his fellow-servants, in other words the purse-holder? Or the warden who looks after their morals? Is he their protector in the face of outside threats? Or the refuge of those in distress? How does he fit in with the other charismatic leaders and office-bearers (apostles, prophets, teachers, elders, deacons) referred to in the same or contemporary texts?

And could he ever have been a she?

  • CSCO Team,
  • 18th August 2010


  • Coleman A. Baker, 19th August 2010 at 12:51 pm | Reply

    Hi Sara, and thanks for a great post.

    I, too, am interested in this transition. I have written a paper that is now under review for publication that addresses the transition from a charismatic structure to a formal structure with bishops. Although my article focuses on Justin Martyr’s account of worship in 1 Apology (since he does not use the term episcopos), I address his language of “president” in terms of a transitional statement between what Weber characterized as charisma and bureaucracy.

    There is also a good article by Eric Jay in which he deals with episcokpos.

    Jay, E. 1981. “From Presbyter-Bishops to Bishops and Presbyters.” Second Century 1: 125-62.

  • laparvis, 23rd August 2010 at 10:37 am | Reply

    Thanks for this. One does have to consider with Justin whether he is deliberately avoiding the technical term for an outside audience. Also, I’m not convinced by the argument that presbuteros and episcopos were ever simply synonyms. But it’s a messy picture we get from the sources, and it may be that there were initially a number of different coexisting models depending on a community’s social make-up, which became harmonised later.

  • friendly, 24th October 2010 at 1:36 am | Reply

    The scriptures definitely tell us that Apostles are bishops (Acts). and that the presbuters of a congregation are all bishops (I Peter). Mature men and women are also known as presbuters elsewhere in scripture. At which point in time
    anyone presbuter was given the title of Bishop over every other presbuter I do not know. Any answers?

Add comment