Deacons and Diakonia in Early Christianity

The First Two Centuries

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Bart J. Koet, Edwina Murphy, Esko Ryökäs
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck & Company
    , January
     327 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


From the 19th century on, originating in Germany and moving out from there, a hypothesis developed by which diakonia meant “humble service.” This led to a revival of diaconate in Lutheran churches as a form of social work, and has influenced other Christian denominations in Europe and beyond, including the Roman Catholic Church after Vatican 2, even as the Greek word became a standard term in English and German theological vocabulary.

This consensus was challenged significantly by John Collins in a work published in 1990, in which he argued that the primary signification of words with the diak- root is agency, rather than service. Although at first there was little reaction, the work gained attention in Europe in the early years of the 21st century, and led to a conference in Rome to explore the understanding of diakonia, with a particular intent to promulgate the new understanding. The proceedings of the Rome conference were published in 2010.

The volume reviewed here, Deacons and Diakonia in Early Christianity, derives from a further conference held in Finland, where there has been significant interest in diakonia and in Collins’ work on the topic, and contains the papers given there, supplemented by further invited essays and some previously published papers. The purpose of the essays is to explore the use of the term diakonos across the literature of the first two centuries of the common era. A context for the essays is provided in a helpful introductory chapter by the editors.

As is inevitable in a volume with such a genesis the essays are of uneven quality, and, as the editors candidly admit (13), there are also lacunae in the coverage; a treatment of the term in the work of Epictetus is a particularly unfortunate omission.

Some of the essays are groundbreaking (such as that of Serafim Seppälä on the Acts of Thomas), some add significantly to our existing knowledge and understanding of what might be considered familiar material (those of Bart Koet on Ignatius and Peter-Ben Smit on Matthew are cases in point) and some are valuable as examinations of corpora of evidence that would be impenetrable to a non-specialist (in particular those of Anssi Voitila on Philo and Josephus, and John Granger Cook on the ministrae interrogated by Pliny).

Others are less informative. Can we discuss Hermas, and reach largely negative conclusions, as Mark Grundeken does, without reference to Justin? Or discuss deacons in the works of Tertullian, as Anni Maria Laato does, similarly without much result, and not coordinate results with the material in the Passio Perpetuae? Scholarly caution is admirable, but a bigger picture is desirable. However, Justin’s evidence is discussed in another well-written and valuable essay by Paul Foster, as is that of Passio Perpetuae by Koet, but the reader is left to put the picture together; this is asking a lot of anyone who is not a specialist in the liturgy and church order of the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

Perhaps even more significantly, contributors to a greater or lesser extent buy into the new view of diakonia, and engage in various ways with the discussion started by Collins. A particular case in point is the tension between Koet’s essay on Acts 6 read alongside Luke 10, and that of Joke Brinkhof on Philip (who appears as one of the seven appointed to this diakonia in Acts 6).

This section of Acts is critical because it discusses diakonia of tables, thus being a locus classicus for the older understanding of diakonia as humble service. Koet’s essay is an admirable attempt to scrutinize Collins’ treatment of the passage, whereas Brinkhof barely seems to be aware of the nature of the issue. Even if we are unconvinced by Koet that the rabbinic material he cites, in which action is said to be matched by teaching, is an answer to the conundrum posed by Acts of how nothing further is said of the diakonia of tables once it is said that this is the purpose of the appointment of the seven, credit for asking the right questions is due to Koet.

Collins’ work was important and radical, but further scholarly investigation is needed if we are not to replace a consensus built on shaky foundations with one built on similarly uncertain ground. Moreover, the discussion is of importance beyond the academy, as it touches closely on the ministry and mission of many churches. These essays provide a start, by independently exploring the evidential ground. Even if some of these examinations are disappointing, others are outstanding; in all events we must be grateful to the editors for their efforts and hope for more from them.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alistair C. Stewart is Team Vicar in Upton-cum-Chalvey in the United Kingdom.

Date of Review: 
May 26, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bart J. Koet is Professor of New Testament Studies and Early Christian Literature, and Dean of Research at the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology.

Edwina Murphy is Lecturer in Church History at Morling College (Australian College of Theology and University of Divinity) in Sydney, Australia.

Esko Ryökäs is Adjunct Professor in Systematic Theology at University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu, and docent in Practical Theology at Åbo Akademi University.



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