Catholic Christianity in the period leading to Chalcedon seems at once to neutralize the opposing views propounded by those in communion with the modern Vatican and ye 500-year-olde Protestant idea of what the structure of the Church looked like way back when.
In the Catholic view, St. Peter was anointed leader of the apostles, then, before his upside-down crucifixion in Rome (at his request so as not to receive the honor of Christ), laid hands on Linus, who was the second pope, after whom followed 263 other men in unbroken succession until Francis. In the most pious and conservative hands, the story has the entire current structure—including the title pope—emerging out of the gospel like a rabbit out of a hat.
In the Protestant view, papal primacy never existed in early Christianity and was a travesty invented by some old and very corrupt medieval men in Rome next to whom today’s pedophile priests are just petty criminals.
The historical evidence pulls to somewhere in the middle.
In Jesus’ time, what we would have called “the Church,” in reality an informal Jewish religious movement or sect, initially consisted of his 12 closest followers, named in the gospels. They may or may not have been 12. Biblical numbers are highly symbolic and should generally not be taken at face value; the biblical 12 denotes perfect rule or governance; it is also the number of the tribes of Israel.
Significantly for our purposes, “the Twelve” were regarded as the top leaders of the Christian movement after Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the point that one of their first acts of church governance was to elect someone to fill the place of Judas. Acts 1:15-26 narrates the election of Matthias.
These twelve were apostles, from the Greek apostolos meaning “envoy or delegate.” Some argue that its Christian use translated a Jewish position known in Hebrew as the sheliach, a title still used in the Hasidic movement for someone charged with disseminating the ideas of Judaism and Hasidism.
The term was translated into Latin as missio, from which we get “missionary,” which is the role they played. Peter and Paul went west to Rome and sent some of their assistants as far as France and Spain. Thomas went as far east as India, where a community in the state of Kerala traces itself back to the arrival of the apostle in the port city of Muziris (modern-day Pattanam) in the year 52.
Somewhat below the apostles were the “disciples.” In Luke 10:1, Jesus sends out 70 such followers to preach his gospel; here again is a tricky biblical number, seven being the perfect number and anything multiplied by 10 meaning a very large quantity—“a good many” might be the more precise way to put it.
By the time Paul is writing about church order in the 60s (in I and II Timothy and in Titus), he speaks of bishops (successors of the apostles), elders or priests (local stand-ins for the bishops as the church grew) and deacons (designated to service to the community, in particular caring for widows and orphans). There were also teachers and people who spoke in tongues and offered prophesies, although none of these appear to have been formal offices.
Fast-forward to the public, legal and official Christianity of the 4th century and we have a worldwide, loose federation of communities that was in constant communication thanks to Roman roads and navigation.
The established church adopted the organizational map of the Roman Empire, dividing up its territory into provinces and dioceses. In charge of dioceses were bishops, who were usually in major cities known as their “seat,” or “see.” (In later usage, groups of dioceses within a province were nominally headed by an archbishop or a primate.)
Among the sees, five came to hold a special place of privilege—Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria—their respective prestige having to do with their apostolic founders, notable successors and proximity to political power. A fair question may be raised: with all these important bishops around, who was what in the Mafia is known as capo di tutti capi, or boss of all bosses? The answer is unclear.
Since at least the time of Clement of Rome, the bishop of the imperial capital was in many respects preeminent. Clement was the fourth pope, in office from 88 to 99, although some believed he was ordained by Peter along with predecessors Linus and Cletus.
However, depending on the source, when Constantinople was founded to establish a new imperial capital, its bishop was regarded as either second or coequal.
To complicate matters, two of the most prominent sees—Rome and Alexandria—had bishops known also as “pope” (papa, meaning “father”). In contrast, Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem were headed by bishops also called “patriarchs.”
Thus, the evolution to one Roman pope as head of all can best be understood as the result of a historical game of musical chairs that went more or less as follows.
Originally, Jerusalem was the Mother Church, headed by St. James, meaning the apostle James the Just, son of Alphaeus, also known as “the brother of the Lord,” denoting some kinship to Jesus (probably cousin). The Roman siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 70, and later persecutions related to several other uprisings in the 1st and 2nd centuries, led to Jerusalem’s decline until Chalcedon.
The church at Antioch was founded by Peter before he went to Rome; his successor, Ignatius of Antioch, coined the term “Catholic Church.” The Antiochene church remained fiercely independent and may have been where the gospel of Matthew was edited into final form. Antioch remained the only major see that continued to have a close relationship with the rabbinical Jewish community. Indeed, its standing declined after the councils of Nicea and Constantinople because of leaders’ efforts to accommodate rabbinical criticism of the divinity of Christ.
Alexandria, home of the other pope, was overrun by two heresies, Arianism and Nestorianism, and ultimately by Islam. Today’s Alexandrian Christians are the Copts, headed by Pope Theodore II.
Constantinople weakened with the Byzantine Empire, which ended in 1453 and was subject to Islamic rule until the 20th century. Also, the patriarch severed ties with Rome in 1054 to head a smaller body of culturally segregated communities in communion with one another, as we shall see.
In the end, Rome was the only one left standing.
A few last points fill in the picture. Until becoming imperial employees in 380, the clergy we are speaking of consisted of unpaid volunteers. There is some evidence that in a number of instances bishops, priests and deacons were not merely appointed from above but noisily elected by community voice vote in which the laity participated. The record strongly suggests that all—except for deacons—were male, and most were married.
Roman primacy notwithstanding, the Church of what we’re beginning to understand as Chalcedonian Christianity was not a monolith in ritual practice, customs or usages, the topic we will turn to next.