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?