Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Word "Pope" in the Second Century

Not being one to shy away from controversy, I thought I'd bring up the letter from the Church in Gaul to Pope Eleutherius (or Eleutherus or Eleutheros) which even mentions the word itself. In my previous discussion, Finding the Papacy in the Early Centuries, we had a nearly heated discussion of the historicity of the papal roots in the early centuries. When I brought up the quote from Irenaeus showing that all Churches must agree with Rome because of her primacy, the counter argument was "yea but he doesn't mention any bishops so he's not thinking of the pope". So then (knowing it was futile) I provided the context for his quote - which any student of antiquity should know includes the oldest chronology of the popes we have (probably based on Hegesippus' lost work). So naturally the counter argument was "so what if he mentions bishops I didn't see him say pope". You can see how endless and pointless arguing with such stubborn logic can be. But if it's "pope" you want, it's "pope" you'll get; I bring up the following second century text:

We pray, father Eleutherus, that you may rejoice in God in all things and always. We have requested our brother and comrade Irenæus to carry this letter to you, and we ask you to hold him in esteem, as zealous for the covenant of Christ. For if we thought that office could confer righteousness upon any one, we should commend him among the first as a presbyter of the church, which is his position.
It hasn't the word "pope" of course - they weren't speaking English. Pope comes from the Latin "papa" and of course they weren't speaking Latin either. They were speaking Greek. They use the Greek word father (someone translate for me it's been a long time since I studied any Greek). At any rate, "papa" is the Latin word for father and they used the Greek word for the same (whatever it was) *STOP THE PRESS - I found the word. Check it out*.

In this letter we see the Roman pontiff's paternal role. We needn't get hung up on words though. They didn't go around referring to "the pope" as we would today (to try and steer of some silly arguments that are doubtlessly coming anyway). But they did address the Roman Pontiff as father (or "Pope"). In other words, if one Laodicean Christian had said (speaking in Greek) to another "hey I wonder what the father's next encyclical is going to be about" his comrade would have been clueless. But in the context of a semi-autonomous Catholic Church in Gaul writing an official letter to the Roman pontiff and calling him "father", everyone would have understood what that meant.

To steer off another argument: it would be a mistake to think of this point as if it were akin to the anachronistic reading of "dynamite" back into the Greek "dunamas" which I've heard preachers do more than just a few times. This isn't what's happening here (although some failed to understand that in the previous post on the subject I have no reason to suspect they won't fail again). So here's why that is a bad argument:

First, dynamite is an invented word, pope is not; its an evolved word. In a sense, it is the same word just in a different language and in a different time. Pope is not just a word which is based on the Latin, it is the English way to say the Latin word. This point is clearer if you listen to the Italians say 'vive il papa'. They're not being anachronistic when they do so.

Second, this etymology is actually functioning more like a proper word because, well it has become a proper title. It is more akin to reading "Jesus" back into "Yeshua" or however you'd say it in Aramaic than it is to reading "dynamite" back into "dunamas". Reading proper nouns back into their variations in linguistic history is not anachronistic.

Third, (this ties in with the second) the connotations we have with a word like "pope" do not argue that reading it into the second century would be anachronistic. Using the previous example, the word "Jesus" has far more connotations now than the word "Yeshua" would have had to a first century Jew and yet we wouldn't hesitate (and we don't) to read "Jesus" back into "Yeshua" or even the Greek "Iesus". Therefore when reading the early references to "father" we should, as students of history, drop the connotations they wouldn't have had but be careful to understand which connotations they would have had.

All of this requires serious study in patristics and not merely counting the references to the Roman Pontiff as those who are of the same mind tend to do with the Scriptures - counting the references to Mary as proof of her unimportance. To learn the connotations of even a single word (especially one as important as this one) we would need to reconstruct the world in which it was spoken/written.

In closing, let me make one remark about fluency (both linguistic and cultural). It takes both to fully comprehend any text. That is one of the reasons why the early fathers are so important in properly understanding the New Testament - they lived and breathed this stuff. Our best scholars pale in comparison to even the average early exegetes. There is no way to compensate for linguistic and cultural fluency. A fluent reader/listener can discern clear and intended meaning not only by which words were used but by which words might have otherwise been used in its place. Word choice is a strong tool in conveying a lot of information indirectly (yet no less clear) without being extremely wordy or insulting the reader by explaining information he would be expected to know.

So on those lines - first we note that the Church (notice this isn't a casual letter but a carefully crafted one delivered by Saint Irenaeus in person) referred to him as "father" when they could have just as easily said "brother" (and in the Protestant world, this would have made much more sense). Calling another bishop "brother" would certainly not amount to Gaul denying the 'honorary primacy' of Rome (if one were to argue such a point). If there were no thought of primacy or even only a little thought of it, "brother" would have been highly appropriate. If not brother, then "venerable" or "blessed" or "most holy" or a number of titles would have been both honorary and appropriate. We must not ignore the word choice here.

Secondly, we should note that in this case (especially) and in many other early cases, the apologetics we are sometimes looking for simply wouldn't make sense in the context of the letters. So someone might object "Yea so he mentions the word father but he doesn't explain that the Pope is the successor of Peter and has jurisdiction over other episcopates etc...etc..." But why on earth would we expect him to say such a thing? This is the point at which we cross over from serious historical study to wishful thinking and pointless sophistry. For the Church at Gaul to explain the papacy, its foundation, and its authority to the Roman pontiff would have been far beyond insulting.

We acknowledge that the reason for the lack of apologetics in Paul's writings, the lack of reference to Christ's miracles and the lack of specific rubrics was not because Paul was unaware of these things or that he didn't believe in them. Rather, he was writing for a different purpose and writing with certain assumptions in place. Among those were the fact that the Christian communities he wrote to would have been well aware of these things. Likewise, if anyone was aware of the tradition regarding the papacy, the Roman pontiff was. He would be the last target for an explanation or defense of the papacy. Now Irenaeus was writing his aforementioned work to someone else who we would expect to be far less educated on the subject. We shouldn't have been surprised then to see him go into more detail on exactly why the Roman Church (and consequently her pontiff) held such primacy.

Now, anyone who wants to respond - keep it charitable. No condescending remarks. Do not begin sentences with a sarcastic "Uh,". Do not make a bad argument and then ask me "Understand?" and in general let's stay away from sophistry. It gets old real quick. Don't nit pick on silly details - stick with the brunt of what I'm saying.


George Weis said...


are there any other fatherly references that you found?

Secondly, how do we not know that it was simply a way of saying the same thing as elder brother? I know that is a stretch on my part, but I am trying to grasp at the height of significance with the word father.
It could have just been a sign of respect. Respect to the level of primacy? I'm not sure. Tell me more Tim!


andrew said...

I have been reading this blog for a few months now, and, for what its worth, would like to say that this is the best, and for me the most helpful, entry. Articulated mosre or less what I have been trying to think for a while now, but just scattered thoughts, no expression. So thank you for this succinct and cognet expression of the right way to read the Fathers, and of why we need to read them.

And I wouldn't worry so much about the ways people respond (or might respond) to these posts. The fact that we are wrestling with them, each in his own way, is testament enough to the fact that you should keep 'em coming.

Tim A. Troutman said...

I don't know of any in the first two centuries. A quick search of the early Church father writings turned up nothing but references to God the Father or ancestors.

On the difference between father and brother, there is a significant difference between the two in our culture which disregards almost all hierarchy (especially family ones) let alone the ancient Roman and Greek cultures. As I said, it would have been quite easy to address him as brother or even elder brother. When you call someone father though, you're not just whistling Dixie. (Try calling someone "father" who isn't your biological one and you'll see what I mean - that's in OUR culture how much harder was it for them!)

Now even if the intended connotation was "elder brother" (even though none of the evidence would come close to suggesting such a thing) that still means very different things in different cultures.

In our culture, "elder brother" doesn't mean squat. It means you came out of the womb first, lucky you who cares? But in the OT, as you know, the first born held quite a significant importance over his siblings. Barring foul play, he received not only the inheritance but also the blessing of the father. I'm no expert on Greco-Roman culture so I couldn't dive too deeply into their nuances on this one but I will say this: even today in many Eastern cultures such as Japan and Philippines (presumably China but I dont know personally) the elder sibling has far more significance than it does in our culture. My wife is the eldest and she has virtually the same authority over her siblings as a mother would even as they've grown. This is a huge cultural difference even within our own time - we should be sensitive to those which were no doubt even greater. This is all to say that even if he called him "brother" we couldn't assume that he meant "equal".

But let's return to reality, he didn't call him "brother" he called him "father". I know you're playing devil's advocate to an extent, but I think you know there is significance in this letter.

We can't be 100% certain what those who commissioned the letter believed. If they said "father Eleutherius, you're the bishop of Rome and you have primacy over all other Churches, they must agree with you because of your eminence" it would still fall short of convincing many Protestants I know. In fact, Irenaeus (the one delivering this particular letter) said that very thing as I brought up in my last post but it didn't convince Grifman (even that Irenaeus had it in his mind).
This should remind us that we're not talking about whether the Pope is actually a valid office or not, whether its Scriptural, whether its true; we're just talking about whether the office, in some capacity however limited, extends back into the early centuries of the Church (I'm limiting myself presently to the first two it becomes a bit ridiculous after that).

The interesting thing is, why won't Protestants just shrug their shoulders and say ok so the early Church believed in the primacy of Rome who cares? If you ask a Muslim or a Mormon (who both believe in Jesus) they will both say "sure the early Church believed in the pope and transubstantiation and everything else". You'll find their history much more honest than Protestant ones. They say that the Church went astray within a generation of the apostles and hence the crazy ass writings that are entirely incompatible with their doctrines. I respect that (wrong as it may be for other reasons).

But what I have little to no respect for is the way Protestants approach early Church writings that blatantly contradict their doctrines - "he doesn't mean it like that" and sophistry like we witnessed between Grifman and I in the last discussion. There was nothing honest about that debate, we weren't looking at evidences and saying ok they said "A" fine they were wrong.

If you point out to a Catholic that Justin Martyr taught millenarianism , we don't defend one of our greatest heroes and say "no you're taking that out of context" we say "yea he did and he was wrong".

In all this though, I know you have been very level headed about the discussion and I dont suspect you of dishonesty for a second. (Maybe a little with yourself ;) ) You have to play devil's advocate for yourself I understand that and you have to argue things to see if they hold water. So don't think Im aiming any of this at you, I think your questions/comments are not only level headed but appropriate and helpful.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Andrew - thanks for the encouragement.

Tim A. Troutman said...

George - I take that back. Doh! I just re-read this letter a week ago (this is to Eleutherius' predecessor Soter from St. Dionysius, bishop of Corinth):

"From the beginning it has been your custom to do good to all the brethren in many ways, and to send alms to many churches in every city, refreshing the poverty of those who sent requests, or giving aid to the brethren in the mines, by the alms which you have had the habit of giving from old, Romans keeping up the traditional custom of the Romans; which your blessed Bishop Soter has not only preserved, but has even increased, by providing the abundance which he has sent to the saints, and by further consoling with blessed words with brethren who came to him, as a loving father his children."

George Weis said...

So that was in reference to that Bishop at Corinth?

How am I being dishonest with myself?

Talk to me some more :D


Tim A. Troutman said...

It was St. Dionysius (Bishop of Corinth) saying it of Pope Soter. Soter being the father, the Christians at Corinth being his children. Dionysius also mentions the letter written from the fourth pope, Clement, which is still being read in their liturgies.

Now check out what I found about the Greek word being used in both instances here.

George Weis said...

Ok, so 2 bishops had the title father attributed to them.

Ya know, in the sense that these men were figures of honor, and even perhaps Rome from an early time holding a level of elevated esteem, I have no problem with. As you have stated before, it was a development.
I think that is obvious. It isn't now what it once was.

I think that the extreme elevation happened as time progressed. Actually in totality all the Bishops grew in prestige or esteem. These guys were handling some tough issues, and they were acting as the reps for these churches. You can easily see how they little by little enjoyed a more elevated role.

ya dig?


George Weis said...

Tim, you do more blogging during work than when you are at home :D


Tim A. Troutman said...

Well I agree that if nothing else, the Church's understanding of the successor or Peter's role grew and the authority of the role itself has evolved over the centuries.

But its no different than the Church's understanding of the Trinity (most obvious example) or even its basic Christology. She got Christology down pretty quick but she got the Trinity right not long before she released authoritative statements on the bishop of Rome.

In fact, do you know what was also finalized at the same time of the Roman bishops' role? The canon of the New Testament!

Quoting Protestant Historian Bruce Shelley:

"At a synod in Rome the next year[382], the bishops from the West argued: 'The Holy Roman Church takes precedence over the other churches, not on the ground of any synodal decisions, but because it was given the primacy by the words of our Lord and Redeemer in the gospel, when He said: 'Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.''"

This was the same year which the council of Rome declared the books of the NT to be what we have today.

Phil Snider said...


Sorry, but you're stretching on here, largely because your analysis is too based in the English terms and a rather clever, if ultimately misguided, intuitive leap.

First, let's get the source right. This letter to Pope Eleutherus is a fragment from Hegesippus reported in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5,4,2 (for those not familiar with this citation method this means- book 5, chapter 4, sentence 2). I'm only mentioning this because I'm about to do some philology and I want to give anyone a chance to look at the original, if they so wish.

Now, one of the interesting things I found when I started to look this up is that the Latin term papa is, itself, a loan word from Greek- pappas. This word is used in Greek, originally, as a child's word for father which later was used to indicate a bishop, especially an important one like the 'papa' of Alexandria or the one in Rome. This suggests that the usage of the word is rather more broad that you are allowing for and need not assigned only to the bishop of Rome. It is, as I recall, attested for the Bishop of Alexandria.

Second, the exact wording for the key address, father Eleutherus, is (transliterated) pater Eleuthere. You will note that the word here is not pappas, but the rather more formal term pater. I'm sorry, Tim, your linguistic argument that this is an early use of the term Pope simply fails against this evidence. It simply is NOT the right word being used here.

Third, this doesn't mean that your entry is completely wrong. I think you are right to make a big deal about the fact that Eleutherus is called father, not brother. Clearly, there is a concession of respect given to Eleutherus (and to Dionysius in your other example) and I think the concession is largely because both are bishops of Rome. Certainly, the patristic evidence indicates that the bishop of Rome WAS held in considerable respect by the Western Church especially, but also the Eastern Church. The use of the term father here should be viewed in that context.

Yet, as with any reference to the Bishop of Rome, we have to ask what this respect meant at the time. Was this a concession of jurisdiction over the Gallic churches (here)? Was this suitable respect to a senior bishop in an important church? I suspect that it was more the second situation than the second, but you may well differ.

You can salvage most of this argument, Tim, but your linguistic arguement was sloppy and just doesn't work.


Rob said...

Renee said:

Tim and George if you get a chance could you both read this article for me and let me know if you agree with it.


Phil Snider said...

Ah, sorry, Tim, I didn't notice your followup entry. I still don't buy your linguistic argument, mind you, but I see you've addressed it.


Tim A. Troutman said...

Touche Phil touche!

I fully concede that my initial linguistics were sloppy. It's been over 10 years since I studied Greek and even then I never got past the beginner's stage (I can still read it though). I sure wish I had known that off hand when I first wrote the post - I could have looked a lot smarter!

Anyhow, isn't it interesting how in my follow up post I was more excited that it turned out to be "pater" instead of "papas" whereas I think you considered it evidence against my argument that the word was "pater" and not "papas". Our minds dance to different beats!

So to defend my arguments: first let me make it clear what I'm arguing and what I'm not (I think thats where the disagreement is anyhow). My argument is sort of a paradox: on one hand, I said:

"We needn't get hung up on words though. They didn't go around referring to "the pope" as we would today "

But on the other, I seem to be trying to link the word "pope" with Eleutherius' title "father" as used here. But I want to clarify this a bit. I'm not trying to prove a direct link as if the word "pater" evolved into pope nor that he is using it in exactly the same way.

It's the concept of the word, not the word itself that I'm interested in. I'm showing the paternal role of the bishop of Rome in the second century not showing that they labeled him "pope". Now, if they had used "papas" my argument wouldn't change any, (and I dont think you'd change your mind any.. that is, if anyone had referred to him as "papas" in the second century - you wouldn't concede that they were calling him "pope" as we would - right? So that's not what I'm arguing).

I could have left all of the linguistics out of this argument in fact if we were Italian because we'd be saying "papa" instead of "pope". In English, "pope" has absolutely no other meaning or connotation than "The office Pope Benedict currently holds". We don't, for a second, think "father". That is why I needed to demonstrate where the word "pope" comes from. It is from the fatherly role of the Roman bishop. It doesn't come directly from the word "Pater" as you have rightly noted, but the two concepts are the same. In fact, as you mentioned, Pater is more formal and would only make sense as the older more traditional way to refer to him.

This is probably something like Jesus calling God, "Abba" instead of whatever the more formal word was. The focus is the paternal role and not the phonetic incarnation of the word.

One more clarification: the title was never given to St. Dionysius, that was St. Dionysius' letter to Pope Soter that I quoted. The title "pater" was given to Soter and then to Eleutherius. I don't know of any other time it was used to address another bishop in the early centuries but I wouldn't be terribly surprised if it had. In fact, to this day we call not only bishops but priests "father". So the mere title itself doesn't prove one to be "the pope" of course.

You asked if this was Gaul conceding the Roman bishop's jurisdiction over their diocese. I don't think so. I think it's a given. We already know that Irenaeus not only considered the Roman bishop to have jurisdiction over Gaul but over all of Asia as well.

So if the one, carrying the letter who soon became bishop of Gaul believed it I would only assume the authors of the letter believed it too.

George Weis said...


Good clarification... although I already understood all of that :)

I see honesty in your approach. I also see a glint of desire to see evidence in the past for such an esteemed office. I'm still wondering what you meant by me having dishonesty with myself :)

Anyway, the point is made. They used an endearing and yet respectful word to say "father". No big uproar there. Again, I will say that early on there was some level of significance to the Roman Church... but that level grew through time, and took on much more than it originally did. If things looked that way today, I would have far less difficulty with the matter. Primacy in the level that it has had now for such a long time is worth questioning.

Much love to you brother!


Tim A. Troutman said...

George, the 'dishonesty' comment was tongue-in-cheek. I think you're a pretty honest and straight forward guy.

The only thing I meant by it at all was what we all do as humans - its just our nature: that is we have a particular world view. When we come across evidence, regardless of what it is, we first try to fit it into our world view.

Let's look at it from a mutual stand point - we're both theists & Christians at that. So no matter what we come across in life, our first inclination will be to fit that evidence into our theistic cosmos. Atheists do the same thing of course. So the question becomes who is rationalizing more to fit the evidence into their assumptions and how can we know it?

That's why we invented blogs. :)

BTW, did you read the link I sent Phil? It and its follow up post "The Power of the Early Popes" demonstrate that the Pope, even by the second century had much more than a mere "hats off to you" by the rest of the Church.

In fact, be as objective as possible and read the responses. Do you see how some are trying to force the evidence to fit their world view? As I mentioned before, a Muslim or a Mormon has no dog in this fight. They don't try to fit this evidence into their world view because they dont care about it. They think the Church went astray in the first century. So when they read this, they'd shrug and say so what? They were wrong about the pope in the second century who cares? Protestants do have a dog in the fight, they want to show that their version of Christianity has apostolic ties too. So instead of the obvious route "Ok so Irenaeus erred on this belief. He thought the pope had more power than he really did" they say "Irenaeus didnt believe that". I think if you look at it objectively, its not hard to see what I'm saying (I'm referring to the link above and the one in my reply to Phil not this current post).

Why can't Irenaeus simply be wrong on this subject? He's not the Scripture after all - he can err. But why go to such great lengths to avoid what he obviously believed?

Catholics of course, have a dog also and we tend to view it a certain way, but I don't think we're stretching it too much (thats why I'm Catholic!)