What were the early Christian communities like?

Dr Tim Murray offers this review article of Group Survival in the Ancient MediterraneanRethinking Material Conditions in the Landscape of Jews and Christians by Richard Last and Philip Harland:

Imagining the Early Church

Both academics and pastors are frequently required to reconstruct ‘what it was like’ in the early church to make sense of the New Testament (and other early Christian literature). Paying attention to the social and historical context of these writings is a standard part of our exegesis and makes for responsible interpretation. More than this though, it is often as we learn about the ancient world and its material culture that our imagination comes to life. The better we are able to picture what life was like in the ancient world the more vividly we wrestle with our texts, whether that be the disputes Paul addresses in his letters, the images contained within Jesus’ parables or the struggle over Christian identity evidenced in the Johannine epistles.

Reconstructions of the past always need to engage with literary evidence – that is, the letters, histories, books and other literary writings that are left to us by ancient authors, but we also need to pay attention to material culture, the inscriptions, carvings, buildings, coins, and other archaeological evidence of the ancient world.

Over the last twenty years or so there has been a movement in New Testament scholarship that has sought to shed light on how we reconstruct and imagine the first churches by comparing them with what we know about other contemporary groups – broadly called ‘Greco-Roman Associations’. In this article I am examining Group Survival in the Ancient Mediterranean by Richard Last and Philip Harland, one of the most recent books on the topic, but before doing so I’ll try to summarise what this group of scholars are saying and why it matters.

A range of scholars have written on this topic, but it’s fair to say that dominant among them are a group of Canadian scholars centred around John Kloppenborg, who teaches in Toronto. The gang includes Richard Ascough, Philip Harland and, more recently, Richard Last, who all had their doctoral theses supervised by Kloppenborg and have collaborated extensively working on this topic. They have not only each written monographs, but have published an exceptionally accessible sourcebook (Associations in the Greco-Roman World, 2012) and critical editions of much of the important evidence in a series of volumes published by De Gruyter (Greco-Roman Associations).

Two important starting points

If we want to understand what these scholars are saying there are two important starting points we need to get our heads around. The first is to recognise that churches were by no means the only ‘groups’ that met in the ancient world. On the contrary, inscriptions and papyri that have been preserved show that all kinds of groups existed: some seem centred on a common occupation, others identify themselves as devotees of one of the many Greco-Roman deities; some seem ‘neighbourhood’ based, others more kinship based. Most of these groups seemed to share meals, offer worship to a god and to nurture a sense of community. When put like this, the point is that the first churches would perhaps not have appeared so different to many other groups to your average Corinthian, Roman or Ephesian.

The second is to recognise the different kinds of evidence we have for these groups. For the first churches, we have no inscriptions, no papyri, no ‘mundane’ or administrative documents, although these surely existed (for example, financial records for Paul’s collection; the list of widows in 1 Timothy 5, etc). What we do have, though, is letters from important figures to the churches, and some texts that were preserved by them. With other associations the situation is reversed – we have very few relevant letters, but we do have what we lack for the church, at least, we have some inscriptions and papyri – clearly only a tiny fraction of what must have existed.

Asking different questions

Given these two points, we are invited to consider the benefits of comparison – of using the evidence we do have for other associations to ask questions about how we imagine the first churches. For example – how big was the church in Thessalonica? Or in Corinth? What do we imagine when we think of the gathered church in Rome? We can’t know, because that information isn’t in the New Testament and hasn’t survived anywhere else, so my guess would be that we most naturally imagine a church of a similar size to what we are used to in our own experience. It is possible though, to look at the size of other associations, for which we do have this evidence. When we do so, John Kloppenborg has shown (in his 2019 Christ’s Associations) that there are no associations devoted to a deity that we know about that have even 100 members and the mean is below 30. Now, of course, this doesn’t prove that the churches were of a similar size, but it forces us to ask the question – what is a reasonable size to imagine given what we know from the New Testament and given the evidence of other groups?

Other questions can be usefully asked by a similar method – where do we imagine churches meeting? How might they have organised their money? Were their leaders appointed permanently or on a rotating basis? Did they ever elect their leaders? What might their shared meals have looked like? With all such questions, the evidence from associations can’t give us definite answers to these questions, but it can suggest possibilities we may not be aware of or give us some boundaries for our imagination.

The latest book

To turn to the focus of this review – the latest offering is a co-authored volume by Richard Last and Philip Harland the pays particular attention to the practical realities of associations. After some preliminaries, they begin their main argument by pointing out that group survival was not guaranteed. Many associations would have collapsed, but we have a tendency not to notice this because it is the more ‘successful’ associations that leave inscriptions for us to dig up. Harland and Last use accounting records, membership lists and other epigraphic evidence to show that most associations had to be careful to balance income and expenditure if they wanted to maintain their activities. They then proceed through the rest of the book to detail the usual costs faced by associations and means of income, before turning their attention on two areas where comparison with the first churches is more evident – communal collections of money and mutual assistance. I’ll focus the rest of the review on these chapters.

With regards to communal collections, Harland and Last present and discuss examples of association collections for the purposes of renovating a sanctuary, buying a communal burying place, building a temple and erecting a fishery toll-office. They demonstrate that groups in the ancient world knew how to organise financial collections! There were often documented and rigorous processes for the pledging of donations, their collection, safeguarding and auditing; financial officers were named and appointed, records were kept and financial penalties were stipulated for those abusing funds or failing to carry out their duties properly. We also have some material evidence illustrating where money was kept. Other points are interesting: lists of donors were often inscribed on buildings or in dedicatory notices, together with the amounts donated. This point to some of the motivations for contributing to such projects – it could be to achieve honour amongst the community, or to be seen to be contributing to the wellbeing and solidarity of the group. In fact, the social appeal of being a major contributor was such that sometimes maximum amounts were stipulated for donations, to limit the amount someone may give.

All of this is fascinating when we try to make sense of Paul’s correspondence regarding his collection. For a start, we should not be surprised then how few instructions we find in his letters, for clearly organising collections was not a foreign concept to those in the early church! The reference in 2 Corinthians 8 about finishing what was started is well illustrated by the common practice we have evidence for of pledges, which were collected at a later date. So too the concern in the second half of the chapter that reliable men would be appointed to ensure the proper use of the funds collected. It is this kind of comparison that may be particularly helpful in reconstructing how a collection may really have happened, and therefore allowing us deeper insight into Paul’s concerns (and those of the churches’ who were involved). The comparison also allows for reflection on what is different. For most collections we have evidence for, the purpose was local and the contributors could expect local recognition for their gift. Clearly Paul’s collection is quite different – the beneficiaries were geographically distant and honorific inscriptions praising contributors were surely unlikely to have been constructed. Thus, we see Paul motivating his churches to join the collection in ways that contrast with the usual motivations employed by other associations. This then gives us insight into the ethical world of the first Christians and, perhaps, explains why Paul seemed to struggle to complete his collection with at least some of his churches.

Finally, Last and Harland discuss mutual aid in associations, where they detail the evidence we have from other associations before turning to Judean groups and the first churches. In essence, what they present boils down to this: there is evidence that other associations may cover the costs of members funerals (which was in exchange for monthly contributions to the association), offer ‘friendly’ loans (which may possibly be interest free, at times) and pledge to offer further loans to members who get into legal trouble. They then discuss the evidence for the early churches, but are somewhat pessimistic about what can be said because of the nature of the evidence. For Last and Harland, because most statements about mutual aid are either prescriptive or reactionary, they may not be reliable indicators of what was actually happening.

Questions of comparison

I have spent most of this article outlining the benefits of the work of these scholars, but here I may perhaps register my dissent. They are clearly concerned to try and avoid biased reconstructions of history that assume the church was different or unique, largely because they see this trend (unhelpfully) present in much previous scholarship; rather they are keen to articulate the areas where churches may be helpfully compared with other associations. Inevitably, though, this means that their work tends to emphasise the similarities and give the impression that there was little, if anything, that would make Christ groups different in the way they operated from other associations. The final chapter of their book, though, is a good example of where their good intentions become obstructive to good history, for there is a very good historical case to be made that the early churches were different in the way they handled money and in the mutual aid they offered one another. Not only do we have the literary evidence (which is stronger than Last and Harland admit), but there are two other points that must be taken into account:

First – ethics influence behaviour! I would suggest their can be a tendency in this kind of scholarship to consider the beliefs, values and ethics of groups as irrelevant to constructing the way they functioned, but this seems to me simply implausible. Of course, we cannot assume that groups always acted in line with their values – that rarely happens – but nor should we assume that the first churches which preserved the documents of the New Testament were unaffected by their teaching on money, possessions and the poor.

Second – the trajectory of the church. Given that we know that the church in later centuries was thoroughly engaged in poor-care, which seems in keeping with the ethics of their scriptures, we may rightly ask whether its plausible to imagine that as a continuation of a trajectory that was present form the start, rather than imagining Christ groups as showing almost no difference to other associations in the first century, before majoring on mutual aid in the late second/third centuries.

Of course, Last and Harland are not arguing that the churches couldn’t have been different in this regard, but the way they discuss these issues downplays (to my mind) the differences and overestimates the similarities, which is historically unhelpful.

That being said, these reservations are expressed in a constructive spirit, because it’s clear to me that this book and the movement it is a part of offer much of value. At the moment, most of the benefits are encased within scholarly literature, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they start making their way down into commentaries and more accessible work over the next twenty years.

Dr Tim Murray completed his PhD in New Testament at the University of Nottingham supervised by Professor Roland Deines. He is now a staff elder at Amblecote Christian Centre near Stourbridge in the West Midlands.

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14 thoughts on “What were the early Christian communities like?”

  1. With respect to the size of the churches at Thessalonica and Corinth, it is indeed impossible to say. But in Rome, a church Paul had not yet visited, he knew personally 28 individuals. I cannot think of one church anywhere where I know so many people having never been there. Romans 16 tells me (a) the early church was very mobile, (b) ministry was relational, not hierarchical, and (c) the community in Rome was probably quite sizeable as Paul also refers to ‘and the church that meets in their house’ or ‘those of the household of…’ etc at several points. Also, on day 1, the church is numbered at 3,000 in Acts 2, though this accounts for people visiting Jerusalem from all over the Greco-Roman world. Given the narrative of rapid growth in Acts it seems to me likely that Christian congregations around the Mediterranean basin would usually number appreciably more than 30 souls.

    • My initial thought on this is that Paul’s letter is to “all in Rome”, in contrast, say, to 1 Thessalonians “to the church/congregation of the Thessalonians.” Then in Romans 16:3-5 we have “greet Priscilla and Aquila…greet also the church/congregation which meets in their house.”

      Groups of Christians did not have dedicated buildings for their meetings until the 4th century (probably). So a ‘church’ gathered in someone’s house (as above). I have read that this probably means that a gathering was limited to perhaps 40, if the owner of the house was wealthy. This was in a commentary on 1 Corinthians – and the comment was that this puts the factionalism in that group into an interesting perspective!

      The small size of congregations does not conflict with the number of people who Paul knew in Rome if you make the simple assumption that this large city had more than one Christian gathering. (I suspect that there would have been more than one synagogue as well, for instance). However, given the letter addressed to ‘all’, maybe these different gatherings were not as separate as the other kinds of association, and they had good relations with each other.

      Jewish Christians might well have modelled their gatherings on the synagogue – for which I think at least 7 men were needed. Similarly, Gentile Christians might well have modelled their gatherings on what they knew in terms of these associations.

      It would be interesting to know what happened to the 3000 who believed on the day of Pentecost. However, Rodney Stark, in his “The Rise of Christianity”, acknowleges the growth of the Church, but has it with a small number at AD80 – less that 10,000. That would be 250 gatherings of 40 people. The growth of the Church seems to have been primarily urban, so a fair fraction of towns and cities would have had a congregation. Stark finds evidence that the Church grew at a steady rate of about 40% increase each decade. This is exponential growth which we all know about now. So, his claim is that by AD350 perhaps half of the empire was Christian.

      This growth meant that, when Christianity became legitimate, congregations needed dedicated buildings.

      • David, I read somewhere a comment that most of the 3000 who believed at Pentecost must have gone home after the festival, leaving a much smaller Jerusalem church. Acts 2 certainly describes listeners from all over the empire, so this makes a lot of sense? Jon

  2. Two points:

    1. Connolly: The church at Rome likely consisted of numerous house churches, each with less than 30 members.

    2. Ian: I heard Kloppenborg give a paper at SBL a number of years ago. He read the minutes of an association meeting, which contained the sentence, “The president who rules well is worthy of double honor” (my paraphrase). He went on to explain this involved giving extra food to the leader, possibly to take home for the family. Kloppenborg did not relate it to the biblical reference. But a light went on immediately in my head. It provided further evidence that the church functioned as a voluntary association.

    R. Alan Streett, PhD
    Senior Research Professor of Biblical Theology
    Criswell College
    Dallas, Texas

    • Thanks Alan. Yes, the Rome church must have comprised several, perhaps many, smaller scale house churches; they probably had no building big enough for a larger gathering, especially in a large city like Rome where space will have been limited and property prices high.

      But it seems also that they were highly interconnected, even interdependent. Paul wrote to ‘all in Rome’ so there must have been a mechanism for getting his letter read in the various house churches. The way chapter 16 reads, this looks more like a relational network than something structured and hierarchical like a diocese.

  3. In thinking about the size and composition of early church congregations, I find Peter Oakes’ book Reading Romans in Pompeii helpful. He analyses living/working spaces from Pompeii to reconstruct a plausible congregation, including size and status mix, and shows how Paul’s letter to the Roman churches might have been received.

    • Superb book. Also interesting is Eddie Adams’s ‘The Earliest Christian Meeting Places’, an argument against the house church norm.
      Very few houses – except those of the elite – could have accommodated 40 people.

    • Personally, I found the link between digging up old ruins and describing the issues facing a real church quite imaginative but rather too speculative to be fully convincing. To be fair, Oakes admits that his reconstruction is very approximate.

  4. Paul’s knowledge of so many at Rome which he had not visited speaks of the intensely social nature of the fullness of life which he had discovered and was living out.

    It also speaks of the metropolis nature of Rome to which all roads led. It was not that he had not ever met most of these 28 face to face, for in fact he had.

    And the expulsion of the Jews 7 years earlier would have meant Roman residents migrating.

    Rome is perhaps the most fascinating of the multidimensional jigsaws that can be assembled in the study of the first century church (though it has strong competition from Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi). Peter Lampe’s book is the kingpin for multidimensionality, and Oakes, Edmundson and Bernard Green etc all worthy of admiration.

    • ‘Paul’s knowledge of so many at Rome which he had not visited speaks of the intensely social nature of the fullness of life which he had discovered and was living out.’

      – would that not have been true of Jews, particularly in leadership roles, rather than simply because Paul had become a Christian?

  5. “Inevitably, though, this means that their work tends to emphasise the similarities and give the impression that there was little, if anything, that would make Christ groups different in the way they operated from other associations.”

    What struck me when I was looking at the Early Church (with tour. of Turkey and an archaeology tour of Syria) were the Trade groups with their membership and religious affiliations. That must have caused a tension, at least, for Christians. Indeed would they have left or merely kept their heads down? So the Christian Church (as a group) may have been in small clusters but probably not merging anonymously into the social fabric. Their (?) allegiance to Jesus, as the only God, was certainly not the “party line” of their times. Everything was “religious” with no neutral places.

    That interweaving of social, trade and religious life is also illustrated by the tickets/invites that were given to meals in temples. This was the case at Palmyra were large scale events might be ticketed. Would Christians turn them down? …. Cue St Paul…. I was fortunate to see the place before the dreadful war and the murders there.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful and generous review, Tim Murray. It’s so hard to assess what was different about the early Jesus-adherents because of how limited the evidence is, so your hesitations make sense too.



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