Jewish Leadership in the Early Church
Contrary to what some believe, the first fifteen bishops of the original Church at Jerusalem were Jewish.
In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius tells us that “the church at Jerusalem, at first formed of the circumcision, came later to be formed of Gentile Christians, and the whole church under them, consisted of faithful Hebrews who continued from the time of the apostles, until the siege of Jerusalem.”
In his second-century historical work, Hegesippus describes the rivalry between a man named Thebouthis and others, seeking the position of bishop after the death of James, who was said to be the first pastor at Jerusalem. According to Hegesippus, the Hebrew Christians finally chose Simeon, who was a cousin of the Lord, to succeed James. Epiphanius lists the remaining thirteen Jewish pastors of the Jerusalem Church as Justus, Zaccheus, Tobias, Benjamin, John, Mathias, Philip, Seneca, Justus, Levi, Ephrem, Joseph, and Jude, completing the historical record all the way up to the Bar Kochba Revolt (A.D. 132-135). These Jewish relatives of Jesus who led the early Church were called Desposynoi, meaning “heirs,” and were often persecuted because of their Davidic lineage and their relationship to the Messiah.
During the reign of Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), the Jewish nation was crushed in what came to be called the Second Jewish War. Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina by the Romans, and the Jewish people were forbidden to enter the city for one hundred years. As these dramatic events were unfolding, many of the Hebrew Christians fled to the mountains of Pella, located in present-day Jordan, in obedience to Christ’s instruction found in Matthew 24:16.
This left only Gentile believers in control of the Church for the first time, and they quickly appointed a man named Mark as Jerusalem’s first non-Jewish pastor.