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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

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The English word “bishop” is the normal translation of the Green noun episkopos , which occurs five times in the New Testament (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 2:25 ).

Prior to the advent of Christianity episkopos meant “inspector,” “watchman,” or “overseer.” It was used of the finance officers of Greek guilds and of the officers Athens sent to its subject-states. Finance officers administered revenues for Greek temples.

One of the five usages of episkopos in the New Testament was as a title applied to Jesus: “the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls” ( 1 Peter 2:25 ). The other four uniformly referred to one who had a role or office in an early Gentile Christian congregation. In addressing the elders of the church of Ephesus the Apostle Paul stated, “the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers (episcopous ), to feed the church of God” (Acts 20:28 ). In the salutation to his Epistle to the Philippians he greeted “the bishops and deacons” of the church at Philippi (Acts 1:1 ). In 1 Timothy 3:1-7 qualifications were given for a “bishop”: reputation, marital status, character traits, hospitality, teaching ability, non-drunkenness, attitude toward money, responsible parenthood, and length of time as a Christian. A similar list of qualifications for a “bishop” appears in Titus 1:6-9 .

The noun episkope , meaning “overseership,” “bishopric,” or “office,” appears in Acts 1:20 (a quotation from Psalm 109:8 ) and in 1 Timothy 3:1 . The verb episkopeo , meaning “to exercise oversight,” appears in some Greek New Testament manuscripts and hence some English translations (KJV, ASV) in 1 Peter 5:2 .

Paul, addressing the Ephesian “elders,” reminded them that the Holy Spirit made them “overseers” (episkopous ) “to feed (verb which is cognate to the noun “pastor”) the church of the Lord.” From this many conclude that in Paul's time “elder,” “bishop,” and “pastor” were terms used to describe three different functions of the same Christian leader, not three distinct ministerial offices. Moreover, according to Philippians 1:1 the church at Philippi had more than one bishop.

During the second century A.D. churches came to have a single bishop, and then that bishop came to exercise oversight over nearby rural churches as well as the city church so that his ecclesiastical territory became known as a “diocese” or “see” (“eparchy” in the East). Bishops of churches that had been founded by apostles were said to be in succession to the apostles, and hence their teaching was held to be authentic and their authority collegial. By 400 A.D. in the West, the bishop of Rome began to assume extraordinary authority above other bishops.

Today the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Old Catholic Church, the Anglican communion, and the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden teach the doctrine of apostolic (or episcopal) succession. Other Lutheran bodies, the United Methodist Church (USA), and the Moravian Church have bishops who serve as superintendents.

James Leo Garrett, Jr.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Bishop'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​b/bishop.html. 1991.
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