Racial, ethnic, and social diversity in the early church

I cannot quite believe that I first wrote this three years ago; it seems like yesterday. As with the debates on sexuality, the debates on racial justice in the Church of England seem to be becoming intractable. The more we debate the question, the further we are from a common mind, and the more entrenched the views become. And, also as with sexuality, the Church appears to be failing to engage with the one vital resource that it has at its fingertips: scripture.

What we find in the New Testament is a deliberate description of the apparently effortless diversity of the community of those following Jesus. Yet it was not in fact ‘effortless’; the heated debate about gentile inclusion shows that, at one level at least, this diversity was hard-won. But the basis of it was the ultimate biblical vision found in the Jewish scriptures: that ‘all nations’ would be drawn to the God of Israel; salvation is ‘from the Jews’ (John 4.22) but it is for the whole world.

And this diversity was not a result of a commitment to diversity as the end goal, but (ironically) a natural by-product of ‘exclusivism’, the belief that ‘there is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved’ (Acts 4.12). If there is no other way to be saved, all must be included in the invitation to repentance and forgiveness (Luke 24.47).

So let’s explore what this diverse community looks like…

A good deal of contemporary debate about the nature of the church, and the challenges to reverse decline in church attendance in the West, focussed on sociological questions of reaching different groups, defined by culture, ethnicity and social status. So, for example, in contemporary discussion in the Church of England, we talk about outer estates, the support of lower income communities, the role of UKME/GMH people in leadership, the failure to engage with working class—and so on.

At one level, this is just a natural reflection of the way we view the world from an analytical point of view. But it is also a reflection of a long legacy of Western views of social elites (so that there is a deep-seated assumption about who is fit to govern us), and the recent rapid social changes arising from migration and globalisation that followed a long period of social stability.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if we had been given a description of the early Jesus communities, categorising under the headings that we now use, so that we could compare the social-economic profile of those communities and use them as a template to evaluate our own? There would be multiple problems in such an exercise, since the categories you use reflect your wider understanding of society, and of course the socio-economic profile of wider society in the ancient world is quite different from our post-industrial and non-agrarian context.

The New Testament doesn’t deal in these terms, but there are two windows we are given into these questions, in which we find lists of names that give clues to the composition of the Jesus communities through the lens of their leadership. The first, shorter, list comes in Acts 13, a text which was key for me in hearing God’s call into ordained ministry:

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul (Acts 13.1, TNIV).

It is interesting that Luke here brackets the list with Barnabas and Saul, who are the main focus of the narrative that follows, as the Spirit calls the church to set them aside for what becomes Paul’s so-called ‘first missionary journey’. Although both were Jews, they come from different groupings in Judaism. Barnabas is from a priestly family in the Diaspora (Acts 4.36) appears to be of some wealth since he is able to sell land he owns and contribute the proceeds to the apostles (Acts 4.37). By contrast Paul is a Pharisee, and had close associations with Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. As was not uncommon, he engaged in manual labour to maintain himself and would have been comparatively poor.

On the other names, Philip Long comments:

Simeon, called Niger. The word Niger is a Latinism which suggests that this Simeon was from Northern Africa, although the name could simply refer to a person with a dark complexion (BDAG, “Simeon the Dark,” Keener 2:1984). While it is possible, it is unlikely this is Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried the cross of Jesus (Luke 23:26).  The name is spelled slightly differently, and the syntax (“being called Niger) indicates that Luke is trying to distinguish him from other Simeons already mentioned in his work (Witherington, Acts, 392.).  The Greek word Νίγερ appears on a wood tablet referring to an army veteran called “Petronius Niger” (A.D. 94). Keener points out Niger was a common Roman birth name it does not designate ethnicity (2:1986).

It is perhaps anachronous to mention ‘ethnicity’ in this context, since we think of these terms in such different ways from the first century. But Witherington (Acts, 392) thinks Simeon being a black African fits with Luke’s interest in ethnography—the gospel reaching different people groups from different locations (as he sets out in the list of 17 Jewish groups in Acts 2.9–11).

Lucius of Cyrene. Cyrene was the capital of the Roman province of Cyrenaica in northern Africa (modern Libya). The city was prosperous and it is no surprise that merchants would turn up in Antioch.  Ward Gasque suggests that Acts 6:9 implies enough Jews from Cyrene came to Jerusalem that they had their own synagogue (“Cyrene,” ABD 1:1231). It seems reasonable to assume that this Lucius was among those scattered by the persecution against the Hellenist believers in Acts 6-7.

It is unlikely that this Lucius is the author of the book. The name Luke is spelled differently in Col 4:14 and there is no tradition that Luke was from North Africa. On the other  hand, F. F. Bishop argued that Lucius was from Cyprus, taking the Greek here to refer to Kyrenia, a town on the island of Cyprus (See “Simon and Lucius: Where Did They Come From? A Plea for Cyprus,” ExpTim 51 (1939-40): 148-53).

Manaen, a close associate of Herod Antipas. The word used to describe the relationship (σύντροφος) literally means that they shared the same wet-nurse, but it may mean they were foster-brothers.  Josephus, Antiq. 15.373-370 mentions a Manaen who was an Essene and friend of Herod the Great.  It is highly unlikely this is the same man, although it is possible this is the son of the man mentioned by Josephus. Usually it is suggested that Manaen was Luke’s source of information on Herod Antipas in Luke (for example, Polhill, Acts, 290).  Antipas ruled as Tetrarch 4 B.C. – A.D. 39, so at this point he has already been banished.  The name Manaen is a Greek form of Menachem, “Comforter” (Fitzmyer, Acts, 497, citing LXX 2 Kings 15:14).

(The last observation is fascinating, in that Menachem is a common contemporary Jewish name, but was important in rabbinical expectation, since it was believed by gematria that the Messiah would be bear this name, since its gematria value is the same as that of nezer, ‘branch’ (from Is 11.1). This gives a new angle on Jesus’ promised to send ‘another comforter’ in John 14.16.)

Dan Steel notes the significance of this diversity to its social context in Antioch:

Antioch was a massive city, with nearly half-a-million people and an eclectic mix of cultures and ethnicities. When first built, it was constructed as a divided city—with a literal wall to keep Syrians and Greeks apart. By the time Luke wrote, though, at least 18 different ethnic groups were living within the city’s boundaries. Yet division remained, and these groups largely kept to their own communities.

Here in Antioch the believers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26)—presumably, at least in part, because they were difficult to categorize. In a place where people kept to themselves, here was a group that didn’t.

And Mark Moore comments the practical impact on the practice of leadership:

This is an impressive list for at least two reasons. First, God had truly made “two peoples into one” (Eph 2:14). He united these people at several levels: (a) Those from different financial strata —assuming that Manaen, having been raised in Herod’s household, was a wealthy aristocrat. (b) Those from different religious backgrounds—Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews as well as Greeks (cf. 11:19–20). (c) Those from different nationalities—African, Syrian, Cyprus, Palestinian. And (d) those of differing skin color—assuming that Niger, meaning black, was a description of Simeon.

Second, this list is impressive because it indicates the mobility of this church. Because their leaders represented such a broad array of people, the church could move evangelistically into any sector of this pluralistic city with a coherent voice for Christ. Simeon could speak to the blacks; Saul could debate in the synagogues; Manaen could deal with the wealthy politicians; Lucius could minister to the immigrants. Furthermore, because of the diversity represented in the leadership, this church would be more likely to avert the kind of racial division that impacted the young church of Jerusalem (Acts 6:1).

In a time of rising racial tensions, the church today would be wise to raise up leaders from a variety of socio-economic strata to evangelize and represent the diversity of people we find in our cities. If we fail in this, we may consign the next generation of Christians to churches that are myopic and schismatic, albeit homogenous and complacent.

The second, much longer, list of names occurs in Romans 16, and has been much discussed. Most articles about this group observations in themes, but I think it is worth (despite the tedious work involved!) working through the list. I offer summary comments here, mostly based on Cranfield’s 1979 ICC commentary on Romans.

PhoebeFGentile freedwomanOffice holder in church at CenchreaeWealthy; a ‘leader’ of some sort. ‘Possessed of some social position, wealth and independence’
PriscaFJewish?Co-founder of the church in Ephesus (Acts 18)More often named first before her husband Aquila. ‘Fellow workers’ implies apostolic, church planting, or evangelistic work
AquilaMJewish from PontusCo-founder of the church in Ephesus (Acts 18)Co-host of church ‘that meets in their house’
EpaenetusMGreek GentileFirst convert in Asia (‘first fruits’)‘Beloved’ suggests a close friendship with Paul, though he is not mentioned elsewhere
MaryFJewish?‘worked hard’ implies gospel ministryEither Jewish name Miriam or Roman name Maria
Andronicus and JuniaM, FJewishMembers of the wider group known as apostlesSenior to Paul in the faith, and therefore early converts. Despite the history of translation, ‘Junia’ is a woman and has apostolic status
AmpliatusMLatin; Italian, slave‘my beloved in the Lord’A common slave name in Rome, including in the imperial household
UrbanusMLatin, Roman, slave‘fellow worker’Another common slave name in Rome, also found in the imperial household
StachysMGreek, slave‘beloved’A rare name; also found in the imperial household.
ApellesMGreek; Jewish? Slave?‘approved’Dokimos suggests that he has been through some challenging trial, hence TNIV ‘whose fidelity to Christ has stood the test’
Those of AristobulusJewishThe phrase means those in his householdGrandson of Herod the Great, brother of Agrippa I, who lived in Rome.
HerodionMJewish; slave or freedman?Connected with the Herod dynasty?
Those in the family of NarcissusM/FRoman; members of the family of a freedman?‘those who are in the Lord’If Narcissus is the famous freedman forced to commit suicide by Agrippina, then these are Christians members of the imperial household.
Tryphena and TryphosaFGreek or Latin, GentileSisters or twins? ‘work hard in the Lord’Names related to tryphe meaning ‘dainty or luxurious’
PersisFSlave or freedwoman‘beloved…worked very hard in the Lord’Persis means ‘Persian woman’ (modern day Iran)
RufusMLatin; Jewish?‘Red-head’. ‘Outstanding’ in the faith (eklektos)The son of Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15.21)?
Mother of RufusF‘a mother to me also’Wife of Simon of Cyrene?
Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, HermasMGreek; slaves or freedmenThe grouping with ‘other brothers and sisters’ suggests they were together in a ‘house church’All are common slave names, Hermes being especially popular.
Philologus and JuliaM, FGreek/Latin, slaves or freedPaired in the Greek (which is not clear in some ETs) so possibly a husband and wife. Both were common slave names
Nereus and his sisterM, FGreek, slave or freedmanPerhaps the children of the above? Found in the imperial household

Cranfield is careful to note that we cannot be certain of all the identifications; they primarily come from uses of the names in other contexts that we know from inscriptions and other epigraphic evidence. But, having worked through the list (I hope, dear reader, that you have taken the time to do so…) several things stand out.

First, though there are fewer women listed here than men, they seem to have the lion’s share of status and importance in the list, not least in the person of Phoebe who in all likelihood carried the letter from Paul to Rome. The language of ‘working hard in the Lord’ implies gospel, church planting and teaching ministries, and not (as some wag has commented) making tea and arranging the flowers. Thus Margaret Mowczko comments:

Of the twenty-nine people, ten are women. What is especially interesting, however, is that seven of the ten women are described in terms of their ministry (Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis). By comparison, only three men are described in terms of their ministry (Aquila, Andronicus, Urbanus), and two of these men are ministering alongside a female partner (Aquila with Prisca, Andronicus with Junia). These are numbers worth remembering.

It is apparent that women were active in significant ministries in the church at Rome. It is also apparent that Paul has no problem with these women. Rather, he affirms them and their ministries. Did Paul make a point of affirming these women in an effort to ease tensions caused by some Roman Christians who had a problem with ministering women?

Secondly, as with the short list in Acts 13, there is clear ethnographic diversity, with Greek, Latin and Jewish names, and people who have come from all sorts of places around and beyond the Empire—there is even a redhead! Along with this, there appears to be a significant diversity in terms of people’s socio-economic status; some appear to be wealthy and of standing; there are a good number of slaves, and some of these appear to be associated with powerful Roman and Jewish families, whilst others are just slaves of no particular note. The undifferentiated inclusion of so many with slave names, alongside the respectable and wealthy, is particularly striking, and reflects Paul’s exhortation in Col 4.1 to ‘treat slaves with equality’.

Thirdly, Paul appears to be in close relationship with many of them. He does not have any qualms in acknowledging the valuable ministry of others, and seems very relaxed about noting those from whom he has learned, who have helped him, and who (to all intents and purposes) are more ‘senior’ to him in the faith. (Temporal priority was more important in first century culture than it usually is to us.)

This diversity of relationships seems to be so important that Scot McKnight bases his whole short study of Romans Reading Romans Backwards on this reality, by starting reading the text from this chapter.

Diversity shaped every moment of the Roman house churches, but Paul sought for a unity in the diversity, a sibling relationships in Christ that both transcended and affirmed one’s ethnicity, gender, and status… Every person in each of the house churches in Rome had formed an identity apart from Christ and then in Christ, and the emphasis on ‘in Christ’ or ‘in the Lord’ in the names is as emphatic as it is often unobserved (pp 13–14).

On the question of the diversity in Romans 16, Craig Keener comments:

I first noticed wider implications of this picture when I became a white associate minister in an African-American church in the U.S. South about a quarter of a century ago. I already understood the importance of Jewish-Gentile issues in Romans; it was one key element that tied most of the letter together. Nevertheless, it was when I began grappling with where the Bible addressed ethnic reconciliation that I turned to Romans and other passages. I quickly realized that early Christians’ struggles to bring Jewish and Gentile (or Samaritan) believers together had tremendous implications for us today.

If God summons us to surmount a barrier that he himself had established in Scripture (the barrier separating Israel from Gentiles), how much more does he summon us to surmount every other barrier that has been established merely by human sinfulness? Racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, sexism and many other -isms are just human selfishness taken to a group level—preferring our group above others. Jesus is the answer for sin, and he wants to deliver us from both selfishness for ourselves and our groups.

Paul’s letter to the Romans summons Christians to ethnic, cultural, tribal reconciliation with one another by reminding us that all of us must come to God on the same terms, through Jesus Christ and what he has done for us.

Or, as Dan Steel puts it even more succinctly (in relation to Acts 13):

The early Christians defied cultural norms. They were a diverse group of people not conforming to the ways of the world. The church was being built, not on a social agenda, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Two final observations are worth making, one in relation to these lists, and the other in relation to ourselves.

First, the diversity in these two leasts appears, on the surface at least, to be effortless. It is true that Luke has a programmatic interest in ethnographic diversity, starting his account as he does with the list of Jews from all over the diaspora who witness the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost and hear Peter’s sermon. But in Acts 13, he lists the diversity of leaders in a quite factual way, and makes nothing much of it; there is no explanatory comment. This is just the way things were.

Similarly for Paul, there doesn’t appear to be a ‘diversity agenda’ at work in his list in Romans 16—even if ‘unity in diversity’ is a key issue for Paul as McKnight suggests. But the list hasn’t been engineered; there has been no attempt at positive discrimination for inclusion of different social or ethnic groups. This is just a list of those in Rome whom Paul knows and whose ministry he values. And it turns out to be very diverse. There are some hints at more monochromatic groups; I wonder whether the grouping of five slave names in verse 14 suggests a ‘slave’ house church. But for Paul, the unity of this diversity is without question.

Secondly, for us, our chief problem in the Western church is the possibility of choice. In the city I live in, there are numerous churches of different traditions, in different localities, and with different social and ethnic mixes. It is part of our life and culture that we think we ought to be able to choose what we do, where we go, where we live and therefore where we worship. And it is a natural human tendency to be drawn to groups of people who are ‘like us’, so our choices often reflect that. Christians in Paul’s time did not have the luxury of such choice, and the result was they had to engage in the diversity of those who were ‘in Christ’.

Perhaps if we exercised our choice less, and simply met together with followers of Jesus in our locality, we would have fewer problems with this question.

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16 thoughts on “Racial, ethnic, and social diversity in the early church”

  1. As an aside, but perhaps not completely irrelevant to the way those first Christians worked out their differences and tensions … you note how, in Acts 13, Lucius could have been driven from Jerusalem by the persecution connected with Stephen (Acts 8:1-3); some who came to Antioch and spread the gospel there were certainly among that group (Acts 11:19ff). That makes it all the more striking that (1) Barnabas took the risk of drawing Saul of Tarsus (a key activist in that persecution until his conversion) into the church in Antioch, so that (2) Saul became part of the same leadership team as Lucius, and (3) Saul was accepted as a leader by believers who had themselves been displaced by what he and his friends had done some years earlier. That surely added further challenges to church life in Antioch!

  2. Sadly the Church of England talk about ethnic diversity, to whit it has produced many reports, but as soon as a practical suggestion is made that involves human or financial resources suddenly the shutters are raised. There is a deeply rooted expectation of which many are unaware that ethnic minorities need to learn to behave like ‘us’ before they can be allowed to take part. What would a church look like that allowed people to keep and express their cultural heritage and theologies?

    • Clive – actually, the C. of E. could embrace cultural diversity and learn a thing or two from the church in Nigeria:


      Bishop David Odeyepo’s fortune is worth an estimated 150 million U.S. dollars – so the Nigerian model would solve the salary and pension problem that the C. of E. seems to have right now.

      Importantly – there is no cultural difference here; many Nigerians also find this ‘prosperity gospel’ utterly offensive – and this goes some way to explaining the deep animosity between the Muslim and ‘Christian’ communities there.

        • Anton – not really. The verses of the Quran may explain animosity between Muslims and Christians; they don’t explain animosity between Muslims and followers of this fake ‘Christianity’ which is, frankly, of the devil.

          • Then we’re agreeing. I’m adding a reason, not trying to deny the one you state.

            The situation is actually quite similar in Britain. Many British Muslims assume that, because there is an Established church, and because their own faith is political as well as religious, the English are largely Christian. (Census returns hypocritically affirm this view.) British Muslims therefore suppose that the social and moral degeneracy they see on our city streets on Friday and Saturday nights, and in the statistics for one-parent families and family breakdown, are representative of Christian behaviour. They are wrong, but it is easy to see why they believe as they do. If I had one brief message for British Muslims, it is that what they see is the result of a nation turning FROM Christianity rather than turning TO it.

          • Anton – yes – while I don’t really know very much at all about the Muslim religion, I agree with everything you say. A thought experiment – if somehow someone were to convince me that the ‘prosperity gospel’ which seems to be predominant in Nigeria, where pastors are able to build up personal fortunes of 150 million US dollars, and live in absolute luxury, really was genuine Christianity, I know that I would have rejected Christianity as something that was of the devil.

            Similarly, I don’t think you have to look at society in general in England – much of the moral degeneracy that you write about is actually endorsed as *church* activity (e.g. the ‘rave in the nave’ – sexual degeneracy is considered to be an absolutely spiffing expression of Spiritual love). So it isn’t at all surprising if Muslims, many of whom are looking for quiet conservative decency, draw very negative conclusions about Christianity. They see the fake Christianity promulgated by large portions of ‘the church’ and quite rightly decide that it is rubbish (but are wrong to think that this in some sense represents Christ).

            While we should accept with open arms all the diverse expressions of Christian faith coming from racial, ethnic and social diversity, it is extremely important to discern which expressions are actually expressions of *Christian* faith and not expression of some sinister, dangerous synthetic ‘Christianity’ that is of the devil.

            Right now, frankly – as you point out (or at least imply) – ‘the church’ doesn’t seem to be helping very much.

          • Yes, the church is following the world downhill when it should be leading it uphill. I first heard that phrase from David Pawson, although I’m not sure if it’s one of his originals. Also I suspect Christ views his church congregation by congregation rather than by denomination.

  3. Some small observations:

    Witherington argues that Lucius is not the author of Acts because his name is spelled differently in Phlm. However, all but one of the greeters in Phlm are given diminutive name forms. We should fully expect Luke to be named by his full praenomen, Lucius, elsewhere. Or, indeed, by his cognomen.

    Steel says that people kept to themselves in Antioch. However, Josephus comments that the Jews of Antioch “always drew to their religious ceremonies a great multitude of Greeks whom they made in some way a part of themselves”.

    Cranfield thinks he can identify Greeks in Rom 16. I don’t know how. Jews could use Greek theophoric names. Prisca and Mary were almost certainly Jews. A.E. Judge thought it more likely that Persis, Philologus, Nereus, Olympas were Roman citizens. NT scholars are notoriously bad at statistics, so I am generally cautious about claims that slaves and Roman citizens can be determined from single names (except when it is a praenomen). At least A.E. Judge gives some statistics.

    Mowczko is right. Also because name order was hugely important. Three of the first five named are women.

  4. And not forgetting the Ethiopian Eunuch in whom God took a special interest!
    Acts. 8:27
    Seeing his great joy, he would have been, no doubt, an excellent steward of the Mysteries of the Gospel, perhaps becoming a “leader” And being an avid reader of the Holy Scriptures both he and his countrymen would have flourished as the first black church.
    56:3 Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the LORD, speak, saying, The LORD hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree.
    56:4 For thus saith the LORD unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant;
    56:5 Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off. Shalom.

  5. In Christian experience there is a highly satisfying love content that distinguishes it from all other religions and elevates it to heights far beyond even the purest and noblest philosophy. This love content is more than a thing; it is God Himself in the midst of His Church singing over His people
    True Christian joy is the heart’s harmonious response to the Lord’s song of love.
    Thou hidden love of God, whose height, Whose depth unfathomed,
    No man knows, I see from far Thy beauteous light,
    Inly I sigh for Thy repose;
    My heart is pained, nor can it be At rest till it finds rest in Thee. Gerhard Tersteegen {Tozer – Knowledge of the Holy P72}

  6. In Christian experience there is a highly satisfying love content that distinguishes it from all other religions and elevates it to heights far beyond even the purest and noblest philosophy. This love content is more than a thing; it is God Himself in the midst of His Church singing over His people
    True Christian joy is the heart’s harmonious response to the Lord’s song of love.
    Thou hidden love of God, whose height, Whose depth unfathomed,
    No man knows, I see from far Thy beauteous light,
    Inly I sigh for Thy repose;
    My heart is pained, nor can it be At rest till it finds rest in Thee. Gerhard Tersteegen

    • “…. Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee… .”

      Augustine of Hippo got there first 😉 died 430AD


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