Elders After the Apostles

The window of apostolic Christianity is roughly the 40 year period between the years 30 and 70.  Most, if not all, of the New Testament books were written between the death of Jesus in 30 and the end of the Jewish rebellion in 70.  The exception to dating all of the New Testament books before 70 would be the widely held view that the gospel of John, the letters of John (1, 2, and 3 John) and the book of Revelation are to be dated later in the first century.  Glenn Barker, in his introduction to the letters of John, argues that the gospel of John was written somewhere around 75‑80 and the letters of John around 85‑90.  Many commentators date the book of Revelation toward the end of the reign of Domitian (81‑96), which would have the book written sometime after 90.  The best presentation of the evidence for an early date of all the New Testament books is that of John A. T. Robinson in his book, Redating the New Testament.  In spite of the possibility that a portion of the New Testament may have been written after 70, the information relative to the leadership and organizational pattern of the early church was written during the first 40 years after the death of Christ.  This includes the period of the great missionary outreach recorded in Acts (30-62) and followed by the letters of Paul to Timothy and Titus (62-67).

The historical period after this time was very chaotic.  The persecution instigated by Nero, which probably began in the spring of 65, put the church on the defensive throughout the Roman Empire while the church in Rome suffered great hardship and death.  The church in Judea suffered disruption during the Jewish rebellion a few years later (66-70).  Jesus had predicted the terrible events associated with the Jewish rebellion in the great Olivet discourse in Matthew 24.  Jesus said, “For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (Matthew 24:21‑22).

It was during the persecutions and the chaos of the late 60’s that many from the original church leadership passed away.  Historical records indicate the leadership of the church had suffered great loss in the first 40 years of its existence.  For example, the apostle James (the son of Zebedee) was murdered by Herod Agrippa in 44 (Acts 12:1‑2); in Josephus, we learn that James, the brother of the Lord and a leader in the Jerusalem church, was murdered by the high priest Ananus in 62 (Antiquities 20.200); and Eusebius tells us that Paul and Peter were murdered by Nero in his persecution of Christians sometime after the burning of Rome in 64 (Ecclesiastical History 2.25.5‑6).  Toward the end of this period, the losses in leadership must have been great due to both persecution and old age.

Little historical information exists about the church during the next 40 year period from 70 to 110.  At the end of this period, however, one ancient source indicates a change was beginning to take place in the organization of the church in some places.  A development toward one authoritative leader in each local church or city called an overseer (or bishop) is sometimes called the monarchial bishop.  Writings dated earlier than 110, however, do not indicate a change in the biblical pattern.

J B Myers

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