"Priests of my people": Levitical Paradigms for Christian Ministers in the Third and Fourth Century Church

Stewart, Bryan Alan, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

The question that motivates the present study is this: what theological and historical factors led the Christian Church of the third century to begin calling its leaders "priests"? The goal of this project is to present an explanation for the rise of a Christian priesthood by carefully exploring the Church's self-understanding in relation both to the broader Roman Empire and to ancient Israel. By examining texts from the first through the early fourth century, I conclude that it is precisely this Christian self-identity (what I term its politico-theological ecclesiology) that influenced the way the Church read Old Testament Levitical texts and appropriated that office as a "type" of Christian leadership. First, the Church understood itself as a distinct polis or 'culture' in its own right, an alternative public reality with communally shared stories, rites, customs, and leadership. The development in the church's understanding of its leadership, then, was part of its development in understanding itself as an alternate society in the Empire. This notion of the church as a 'culture' was further nuanced and developed by the rise of a distinctly Christian 'material culture' in the early third century, particularly Christian art and architecture. As a result, a new visible Christian 'sacred space' emerged, thereby facilitating a re-conceptualization of the bishop as a "priest" who presides over and protects this new 'sacred space'. Second, the Church understood itself in connection with Israel such that when they looked at the Old Testament narrative, they saw a divine nation corresponding to their own cultural reality in the world. When they looked to the old priesthood, they saw a figure and model for their own leadership. And when they considered their own ministerial leaders, they reflected on the Levitical priestly paradigm as a "type" of the Christian office. Thus, this new society of the Church was perceived as nothing less than the renewed nation of Israel. As an awareness of a newly emerging Christian material culture combined with this ecclesiological self-identity, it created the ideal context in which the Levitical priesthood was appropriated as a working typology for the Christian ministerial leadership. Dedication To my friend, companion, and loving wife, Jen, for her unwavering support, constant encouragement and genuine interest in my work. And to my children, Eowyn and Riley, for their unquestioning love and regular (though sometimes unrequested) visits to my officetangible reminders of what is most important.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Christian priesthood, Christian culture
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