In modern Mormonism, the office of Bishop straddles the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods. On the Aaronic side, the ward Bishop presides over the local Aaronic priesthood quorums (the Aaronic priests’ quorum in particular) and manages temporal affairs (ward budgets and the collection and distribution of welfare assistance). The Presiding Bishop of the church does these things on a global scale. On the Melchizedek side, the Bishop oversees much of the spiritual activities of the local congregations. The dual nature of the office makes it somewhat of a puzzle in studying its origins in Early Christianity. Hugh Nibley primarily situated the ancient office on the Aaronic side and saw attempts to elevate it to a Melchizedek status as pretentious. Later LDS writers have been more willing to grant the early Christian office more of a tie in with the mysterious Melchizedek priesthood, especially with a recent upswing in scholarly interest in it.
So where did the office of Bishop in early Christianity come from? Hugh Nibley found the office of bishop (as an overseer appointed by a higher authority) to be ubiquitous throughout the ancient world. In particular, Nibley accepted parallels between synagogue and church structure as evidence of borrowing. In common with Protestant scholars, Nibley saw the later dominance of a three-fold Catholic hierarchy (bishops, elders, and deacons)–inasmuch as it borrowed from secular or from non-optimal Jewish sources–as a decline from earlier Christianity.
However, Nibley argued that a well differentiated church hierarchy existed during the apostles’ lifetimes, taking aim at pervasive social theories that authority based on spiritual manifestations (revelation, prophecy, miracles, etc.) can’t coexist with authority based on office, routine or tradition. A Protestant view, sometimes described as “the consensus,” argues that at least some Christian communities were more originally egalitarian and charismatic. While Nibley agreed that there was a devaluing of spiritual gifts such as prophecy as time passed, for him, the early Church became less hierarchical and more chaotic with the passing of its top leaders, the apostles.
While there are many competing theories about how the office of Bishop took shape in early Christianity, I would like to pursue two strands that Nibley mentions just in passing:
- “In the Damascus Covenant there is in each camp an ‘inspector [mebaqqer]’ ‘He will love them as a father his children … as a shepherd his flock.’
- “The concept [of an overseer] is most at home among the Persians, whence the Jews seem to have derived it. […] There was no Persian institution better known to the West in ancient times than that of the ‘King’s Eyes’ and the ‘King’s Ears’-the royal spies who told the divine king all that was going on in the world.”
B. E. Thiering  has done an excellent job showing similarities between the Christian Bishop and the Essene Mebaqqer. Both communities exhibited an inner and outer hierarchy that can be described in geographical terms. The inner circle was represented by the ideal, temple-oriented, central governing location (Jerusalem and Qumran, respectively). The outer circle was populated by the scattered congregations which were depicted with more temporary terms (sojourner churches and camps, respectively.) Thiering argued that the Essenes had two grades of priests: “(1) sons of Aaron, the true priests, the superiors; (2) the sons of Levi, levitical priests, members of the second class in the community, thus inferior to Aaronite priests” and distinguished them from lay Levites and lay non-Levites.
The mebaqqer resided locally within the geographic confines of the camp of laity that he presided over. He was drawn from the ranks of the lesser priests, which freed the higher priests to dwell in the central, holy place to perform their ritual responsibilities. When a problem arose in a camp that exceeded the mebaqqer’s authority to resolve, an Aaronic priest had to sent for. Thiering drew parallels between the apostles and their companions that came from Jerusalem to supervise Bishops and lay members in scattered locales when needed. The mebaqqer was a shepherd over the local flock, he was the spokesman for the community to outsiders, he was in charge of initiating new members, in judging disputes, in collecting and distributing charitable contributions, and in presiding over community councils. The mebaqqer wielded an impressive amount of authority, and in being an intermediary between the people and the Aaronic priests, he basically straddled the higher and lesser priesthood.
There is a fair amount of skepticism to the idea that the mebbaqer was the prototype for the early Christian bishop. It can be difficult to explain why Christians would have borrowed from leadership patterns from a sect outside the mainstream of contemporary Judaism. The two groups pined for effective forms of leadership to be restored from Israel’s glorious past and shared a disdain for the mainstream Jewish leadership of their day. R. C. Steiner, cautiously connects the mebaqqer found in Qumran documents to a related word used in Ezra 7:14. Ezra was given a commission by Persian king Artaxerses to oversee the codification of Israel’s laws and to establish a judicial system there. The functions of the Persian overseer were adopted by the Greek episcopos about the same time (5th century B.C.). These observations, I think, tend to strengthen Nibley’s observation that the Christian bishops (“episcopos”) loosely have roots in Persia although a direct connection remains elusive.
 For example Barry R. Bickmore, Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity. Ben Lomond, Calif.: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999 writes “It is clear from the foregoing citations, however, that bishops and others were considered ‘priests’ after the order of Melchizedek, if not ‘high priests.’”
 B. E. Thiering, “Mebaqqer and Episkopos in the Light of the Temple Scroll,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Mar 1981, 100:1 pp. 59-74
 R. C. Steiner, “The MBQR at Qumran, the episkopos in the Athenian Empire, and the Meaning of LBQR in Ezra 7:14: On the Relation of Ezra’s Mission to the Persian Legal Project” Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2001, 120:4
This has been the latest installment of a series examining early Christian church leadership structure:
Deacons Then and Now (I introduce David Horrell’s theory why stationary bishops took over for traveling apostles).
Bowman on Ordination (Response to an evangelical critic, where I argue that ordination is necessary for apostleship. It is interesting that Sullivan and some other Catholic scholars have made concessions to EV scholars that all early bishops could not necessarily trace a chain of ordinations back to the apostles. Some of Father Sullivan’s positions have been criticized by Father Michael McGuckian.)
The Apostolic Foundation (I survey some scholars regarding the expections for apostles derived from the OT and Qumran texts. More importantly check out Baptist’s R. A. Campell’s arguments that apostles were meant to be continually replaced, well after Matthias and James.)
The Apostolic Decree and Missionary Work (An examination of how the council described in Acts 15 addressed differing visions of how to conduct missionary work in the early Church.)
A Missionary Guide to the Apostasy (A revision of a response I gave MTC missionaries wanting to understand the early Christian apostasy.)
Literature on Early Christian Literature (A survey of Mormon scholarship.)
Seixas, James, and the Rock (Some notes from articles on Matthew 16:17-19 and on James, the Lord’s brother)