Sunday, February 27, 2011

Elders, Teachers, Chairs, and Thrones: “what they knew, and when they knew it” (Part 1)

George Santayana famously defined a fanatic as “someone who redoubles his zeal whenever he has lost sight of his goal.”

Bryan Cross has published a long article on “The Chair of St. Peter”. In the fashion of a Medieval florilegium [book of sentences], it is thick with early church references to “the Throne of Peter” and “the thrones of the apostles,” etc., as if somehow this amounts to scads and scads of evidence that the papacy is what it says it is. Bryan concludes his article this way:
The testimony of the tradition we find in the Fathers and other early writers indicates a deepening awareness of the significance and authority of St. Peter’s chair, especially in grounding and preserving the fidelity and unity of the Church. But some conception of the authority of this chair seems to have been present even from the second century. [JB note: but not in the New Testament, not among the Apostles, and no significant mentions of this concept are even evident, much less explicit, until the third century.] And the clearest and most developed conception of this authority seems to have been in the particular Church of Rome, and especially in her bishops. At the same time, there is no comparable set of patristic quotations in which it is claimed that the chair of St. Peter did not hold such authority.

So the inquirer is then faced with a dilemma that in a certain respect parallels that each of us faces regarding Christ’s own claims concerning Himself. Either the Church at Rome almost immediately fell into serious error regarding her own eccesial [sic] authority and role in relation to the universal Church, and though various bishops at times disagreed with her decisions (e.g. St. Cyprian), no one ‘corrected’ her claim concerning her own authority until the time of Photius in the ninth century, or during all those centuries (and to the present) she was truly what she always claimed to be. The former option leaves us with the paradox that the Apostolic seat widely believed to be the touchstone of orthodoxy in every respect for hundreds of years, was terribly wrong about its own identity, and therefore unsuited to be anyone’s touchstone of orthodoxy.
I’ve already written extensively to the effect that the Apostolic Fathers, those writers from, say, 100-150 AD, because of their reliance on “oral tradition,” did in fact begin to lose their understanding of the Gospel of Grace. For example, T. F. Torrance, “The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers” is a major exegetical study of these works, tracing, point-by-point, just how these writers differ from the gospel of Grace as preached by Jesus and Paul:
T.F. Torrance aims in this book to discover how and why there came about in the early history of the Christian Church the enormous difference that exists between the faith of the New Testament and that of the second and third centuries. He explores how the concept of grace is distinctively characteristic of every doctrine of the New Testament, and yet at the same time is the most sensitive to change.
I’d commend this work to you in every way. Keep in mind that this is a major doctrine. Oscar Cullmann describes precisely how this happened:
About the year 150 there is still an oral tradition. We know this from Papias, who wrote an exposition of the words of Jesus. He tells us himself that he used as a basis the viva vox and that he attached more importance to it than to the writings. But in him we have not only this declaration of principle; for he has left us some examples of the oral tradition as he found it, and these examples show us well that we ought to think of an oral tradition about the year 150! It is entirely legendary in character. This is clear from the story that Papias reports about Joseph Barsabbas, the unsuccessful candidate, according to Acts 1:23 f., for the post of twelfth disciple rendered vacant by Judas’s treason. Above all there is the obscene and completely legendary account [in Papias] of death of Judas Iscariot himself.

The period about 150 is, on the one hand, relatively near to the apostolic age, but on the other hand, it is already too far away for the living tradition still to offer in itself the least guarantee of authenticity. The oral traditions which Papias echoes arose in the Church and were transmitted by it. For outside the Church no one had any interest in describing in such crude colours the death of the traitor. Papias was therefore deluding himself when he considered viva vox as more valuable than the written books. The oral tradition had a normative value in the period of the apostles, who were eye-witnesses, but it had it no longer in 150 after passing mouth to mouth (Oscar Cullmann, “The Tradition,” in “The Early Church,” London: SCM Press, Ltd., ©1956, pgs. 88-89).
I’ve written extensively about this process. While the fixing of the canon of the New Testament enabled a writer like Irenaeus (c. 180 ad) to recapture and understand a concept of Grace that earlier writers had lost through a reliance on “oral tradition,” it is vitally important that we understand that some of this “entirely legendary” “oral tradition” did make its way into church organization and church teachings. This is not to say that the entire church became corrupted at that moment. Rather, this process was like yeast getting into the dough (Matt 16:11-12) – it doesn’t corrupt all at once, but the festering situation led to some of the fourth and fifth and sixth century abuses that I’ve written about. And it’s vitally important that Christians understand this progression, because the enemies of Christianity today (scroll down to the “Bart Ehrman” section of this blogpost) certainly have no respect for the truth of Christianity, much less the legends.

In the spirit of “chairs” and “teaching,” and to begin to discuss just how much the meaning of this idea evolved during the early centuries of church history, I’d like to step back for a minute, to the beginning of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee, to talk about where the notion of “teaching” and “chairs” actually came from:
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.

The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.
Understanding the Jewish synagogue system is important, not only for understanding Jesus and his ministry, but also for understanding where Christian worship came from, how it came about, and importantly, where I’d like to focus, on how the leadership structures of early Christianity developed.

People on both sides of the Roman Catholic/Protestant divide will often use the words episkopoi (“overseers”) and presbuteroi (“presbyters”) without understanding that these words had definite meanings when they are used in the New Testament. In fact, it’s remarkable how much Christianity owes, in form and function, to the Jewish synagogue.
Jesus is a pious Jew, who attends synagogue regularly. On this occasion, Jesus goes to the synagogue as was his habit on the Sabbath. This point is especially important, because Jesus’ controversy with the Jewish religious leadership may have left him with a reputation of being a religiously insensitive rebel. In fact, many of the six Sabbath passages in Luke end up in some controversy. Jesus may be pious, but the character of his piety is different from that of the Jewish leadership. On the Sabbath, Jesus will heal, meet people’s needs, and instruct them. The synagogue as a center of Jesus’ activity parallels the church’s activity around the synagogue or temple (Acts 3-4; 13). Christianity did not attempt immediately to isolate itself from Judaism. Rather, it saw itself as the natural fulfillment of Judaism’s hope. So a part of its mission was to call Jews to enter the time of fulfillment. (Darrell L. Bock, “Luke, 1:1-9:50”, “Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament”, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, © 1994, pgs. 402-403.)
I’m amazed at just how much time, in some of the newer histories of the New Testament, is spent on “the Jewish background.” F.F. Bruce’s “New Testament History (New York: Doubleday, © 1969) for example, devotes 150 pages of a 400 page book to such topics encompassing “Judeaea under Roman Governors”, “Philosophical Schools”, “Hasidism, Pharisees and Sadducees”, “Essenes”, “Zealots”, “The Qumran Community”, and “Judaism at the Beginning of the Christian Era,” before beginning with John the Baptist.
Bock Continues:
A synagogue service had various elements: recitation of the Shema (Deut 6:4-9), prayers, a reading from the Law, a reading from the Prophets, instruction on the passages, and a benediction.

The exact nature of the synagogue service—including how fixed it was in this period—has been the subject of discussion. Though some speak of a fixed cycle of readings every three years, such a schedule in this period seems unlikely. The Hebrew Scripture would be read in a standing position in one- to three-verse units. The text was translated into Aramaic, the local language, an oral procedure that often involved targumic renderings of the text (i.e., Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew OT), though the translator did not read from a text in the assembly. The Torah was always read, and often a reading from the Prophets followed. After the reading came an invitation for someone to instruct the audience. Based on texts already read or on new texts, this instruction could be done by any qualified male in the audience, provided ten males were present. Jesus stood up apparently to indicate that he could speak about a passage. Jesus gave such a lesson from the prophets, what was called the Haftarah (a reading from the Prophets).

Jesus takes the scroll and unrolls it to the place from which he will give instruction. It seems that Jesus chose the reading from the Prophets and “found” the place in Isaiah from which he wanted to teach. If the text was part of a fixed reading schedule, then the scroll would have been opened at the appropriate place. This detail suggests that a reading schedule was not used, but that Jesus chose his text (Bock, 403-404).

* * *

The drama intensifies now that the eschatological passage has been read, but its exposition remains. The scroll is rolled up and returned to the attendant, who is responsible for getting and returning the scroll to the ark where it is kept. In all probability he is the hazzan of the synagogue. Jesus then sits down to teach. Teaching in a sitting position was customary (Luke 5:3; Matt 5:1; 23:2; 26:55; Mark 4:1 …). As he prepared to speak, Jesus had the crowd’s attention. The common Lucan term (atenizontes) depicts intense, focused emotion by describing the crowd’s gaze of attention. (Bock, 411).
For more on the evolution of the early papacy and the introduction of forgery by popes to enhance their own stature, see my earlier series of posts on “The See of Peter”.

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