Sunday, April 07, 2013

Candida Moss on Bishops and the Bishop of Rome in the Early Church

In The Myth of Persecution, Dr. Candida Moss (professor of New Testament at Notre Dame) makes two interesting comments regarding the early church and the papacy. First, at page 227, she states:
According to the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, bishops can trace their line in an unending succession all the way back to the earliest days of the Jesus movement. The most famous example of this is the pope in Roman Catholicism, who is believed to be a direct spiritual descendant of the apostle Peter. Yet recent archaeological and historical studies of the church before the conversion of Constantine have shown that bishops were not very powerful and that the church was thoroughly disorganized.
I assume she means "unbroken" rather than "unending" (but compare my previous comments).  Moreover, she's right about the lack of power of the bishops and the lack of organization.  Part of that, though, is the environment of persecution and hostility that Dr. Moss is reluctant to acknowledge existed.

Second, at pages 230-31, she states:
The picture we get from Eusebius is that Irenaeus, the keen fighter of heretics and chronographer of episcopal traditions, was a friend of the martyrs and was recommended for the rank of bishop by the martyrs themselves. By the time this letter reached Rome, its authors would have been dead already and moved from the category of confessors to that of martyrs. It is interesting that these Christians were writing to the Bishop of Rome, because this assumes that the Bishop of Rome had influence and perhaps even authority over ancient France in a manner similar to the pope's influence and authority over the church today. This is a charming picture of order and harmony in which martyrs defer to and support the bishops. Eusebius is able to establish, quite concretely, the lineage of episcopacy in Gaul and to justify its origins.
This romantic picture of harmony and hierarchy is anachronistic. In the late second century the bishop of Rome had nothing like the power that the pope has today. The famous passage from Matthew in which Jesus promises Peter, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (16:18), which is today used to legitimize the papacy, was never quoted in full in any Christian literature until the third-century writer Tertullian. Even then Tertullian does not cite the passage in order to demonstrate the authority of the Bishop of Rome over the entire church. If the imprisoned confessors in Gaul wrote to the bishop of Rome, it was because they had strong ties to Rome, Rome was a center of finance and commerce, and the bishop of Rome was an important figure there. It was not because they were asking the head of the church for guidance. For many centuries bishops struggled to find their footing as authority figures in the church. They found themselves at odds with confessors, monks, and those who controlled the shines of saints in their regions. The picture that Eusebius gives us is incorrect, but it does valuable work in supporting church hierarchy and unity.
These are pretty much the same things we've been saying to Roman Catholics, but it as at least nice to see them being said by a professor at a major Roman Catholic university.  Dr. Moss mentions going to mass in her book, but I cannot recall her ever specifying whether she is Roman Catholic.

- TurretinFan

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