Who “attended” those earliest churches?

Who “attended” those earliest churches? November 4, 2013

On the basis of a new approach at looking how to discern the social makeup of the earliest Christian house churches, one based more on housing space occupied than on ideal social types, Peter Oakes has offered to us a new way of thinking more realistically and concretely about who was in the earliest house churches. His book is called Reading Romans in Pompeii.

First, the big picture. Oakes, a lecturer in New Testament at Manchester, has studied the evidence of Pompei, a place without any Christian presence so far as I know, to discern how housing and space worked. Then, with that clear evidence in hand, he compares Pompei to Rome to see the differences, and then on the basis of this careful study of who occupied what spaces and who was represented in typical locations in the Roman empire, Oakes makes the following proposal for a house church of 30 people in 1st Century Rome:

A craftworker who rents a fairly large workshop (c. 50 sq yards) with separate living space, his wife, children, a couple of male craftworking slaves, a female domestic slave, a dependent relative.
A few other householders, mostly male, who rent space less than our craftworker, some of their spouses, children, slaves, and other dependents.
A couple members of families whose householder is not part of the church.
A couple slaves whose owners are not part of the church.
A couple of free or freed dependents of people who are not part of the church.
A couple of homeless people.
A few people renting space in shared rooms (migrant workers and their families).

Now mix in the important element of the Pauline mission, namely evangelism of Jewish synagogues that leads to some converts, so we now have a mosh pit of Christians all in a house church.

The earliest churches, then, are not made up of pietists who wanted to study the Bible but ordinary Romans from all sorts of backgrounds, needs, yearnings, and connections — each bringing to the table different ears for the gospel.

Oakes then discusses Romans 12 and how such folks would hear what Paul is saying, and his discussion here is nothing if not very interesting and profitable. The he examines how his invented characters — Primus (bottom of the heap slave), Sabina (freed slave), and Iris (inn worker whose body was owned by a master who gave her to his patrons at times) — would hear Paul’s message of salvation, and he sees three processing ideas: justice, survival (eternal life matters!), and redemption of the body. Holconius, his major character who is a householder, is examined through the lens of social body, the church, and salvation as a holy people.

Undoubtedly, one the best books on Paul/Romans I’ve read in a long, long time. Oakes combines judicious historical sensitivities with solid exegetical insight, all wrapped into a proper caution that is not always observed among those who use social evidence.

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  • kierkegaard71

    I have memories in seminary of consulting Jerome Murphy O’Connor’s work on determining local church attributes in Corinth, with much attention paid to typical residential layouts ascertained from archaeology. Scott, has archaeology not been often used for determining church demographics? http://thecaravanchurch.wordpress.com

  • scotmcknight

    Not that I know of … or at least not the way Oakes does.

  • Okay… that’s just weird… Yesterday, in Sunday School that i was teaching, we were talking about unity in the church with regards to points of disagreement (riffing off of Bruxy Cavey’s Third Way church model)… and I suggested the possibility, when reading Romans 14, that the folks who gathered together to learn about The Way were not homogenous folks… nor were all necessarily “believers” in the way we think of them… but that they came in with a LOT of different backgrounds and perspectives…

    OK… this book is now in my To Read list as it seems I touched on something that seems to be credible, totally by serendipity… 353 books in the list and counting…

  • Nathan Kline

    I read this book a few years ago when it was assigned to me in an undergrad class on Romans. Many in the class found the book boring; I found the material invaluable. It gives important archeological and historical outlooks, while still dealing with the original hearers in a pastoral sense – especially when looking at Romans 12.

    I think more books like this on archeological digs and their meaning for the reading of scripture would be highly beneficial. Perhaps this will be a springboard for other works like this.

  • tedstur

    I really like this sort of analysis and will pick up the book.

    I look at our house church network and wonder what sort of things an archeologist could determine about the makeup of our groups. I have to admit… I don’t think they would have much to go on. That’s not to say I dismiss the methodology but I think some pretty extreme caution is in order.

    Is the author is trying to represent all of the strata of Roman society in the church? Maybe it was like that but I think Stark and Meeks sided with a slightly more “middle class” description (being careful not to read our version of middle class into the mix).

    In most churches I have observed around the world I find that diversity is the exception. People seem to do church with people with whom they can identify. So, I can’t help but project this onto this analysis and wonder about the social-economic diversity this list represents.

    I look forward to reading it.