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Early Christ Groups

Mary and Martha-Qi

Early Christian literature give us very few basic facts about Christ groups—how large they were, where they met, their finances, or their leadership structure. The writers of the gospels and New Testament letters were interested mainly in relating stories and sayings of Jesus and addressing matters of theological concern within early Christ groups. Consequently, they refer to what I have called the basic facts of Christ groups only when they had reason to do so. In the absence of direct data, there is a temptation to project our own experiences of churches backwards onto the first century, imagining large well-organized congregations with purpose-built buildings and appointed leaders. But this leads to anachronism.

How do we form a historically reliable picture of early Christian gatherings when Paul and other early writers tell us little directly?

A sound approach is to use comparative data from the many other religious groups of Mediterranean antiquity, groups devoted to such deities as the Jewish god (that is, diaspora synagogues), Isis, Atargatis, and Mithras. These groups, fortunately, left data on group size, the places they met, and their internal organization. These data serve as a guide to help us arrive at realistic pictures of Christ groups.

What about size? We have more than one hundred membership lists from groups devoted to a variety of Greek, Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Roman deities. The mean (average) size of these groups is thirty persons, and more than 70 percent of these groups had memberships fewer than thirty-five. The most common group size was fifteen, which is the number of persons that could fit around a standard dining table. Unless Christ groups were completely atypical, we should suppose that they too were likely small—say, fifteen–thirty-five members.

Where did they meet? Undoubtedly, private houses were venues. The assembly (ekklesia) that Paul names in Phlm 1:2 met in Philemon’s house. The assembly hosted by Prisca and Aquila in their “oikos” that Paul mentions in Rom 16:5 and 1Cor 16:19, however, was probably their workshop. Prisca and Aquila, like Paul, who were artisans, and artisans typically slept in their workshops. In the next century Celsus reports that Christians met in the workshops of leather-cutters and in fulleries (Against Celsus 3.55). Another meeting venue was the cemetery. Tertullian in the late second century reports that Christians met in cemeteries outside the city walls (Tertullian, Scapula 3) and in the fourth century Augustine (Letter 22) indicates the same. This is not as strange at is might first seem. Cemeteries were often outfitted with dining benches in front of the tombs, and some even had ovens for the preparation of food. Christians undoubtedly met in a variety of venues, not only private houses, but workshops, cemeteries, rented space, perhaps inns, and in open space.

How were Christ groups organized, and how did they finance themselves?

In order to survive, groups need some form of organization and income to pay for activities. Associations that engaged in animal sacrifice needed sacrificial officials, venues for sacrifice (a temple or an altar), and the income to purchase animals suitable to sacrifice. Christ groups, since they did not engage in sacrifice, did not require all of this. But they needed dining space (such as the venues listed above), and they needed income. Only in the third century CE were some Christians in a financial position to convert buildings to cultic use.

Early Christian evidence is not very helpful on these issues, but the organization of other religious groups provides good analogies. Almost all associations had officials who presided over meetings, variously called “supervisors” (episkopoi), “presiders” (prostateis), or “convenors” (synagogoi). These officials were usually not permanent but were elected yearly (some for three–five year terms). The Didache advises that “supervisors” be elected, and the same might have been true of the officials mentioned in Phil 1:1. Elected leadership was, however, potentially in some tension with the authority of patrons, who also exerted influence over their client-associations more permanently. In later centuries governance of Christ groups shifted to a system of permanently appointed leadership.

Cultic associations typically collected dues, sometimes also receiving small contributions from wealthy patrons. Group officials were rarely if ever paid a salary; on the contrary, they were often expected to contribute more than ordinary members. The honor of leadership brought with it financial obligation.

Early Christian documents tell us little directly about finances, but it is likely that they used a combination of member dues, the contributions of leaders, and the occasional gifts of patrons. But if other religious associations are a guide, patrons rarely provided much, certainly not enough to fund more than one of the group’s meals. If Christ groups met monthly or even weekly, they needed other sources of income.

  • Kloppenborg-John

    John S. Kloppenborg holds the rank of University Professor at the University of Toronto and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is author of several books and many articles, most recently Christ’s Associations: Connecting and Belonging in the Ancient City (Yale University Press, 2019); Greco-Roman Associations: Texts, Translations, and Commentary , vol. 3 of Ptolemaic and Early Roman Egypt (de Gruyter, 2020) and Synoptic Problems: Collected Essays (Mohr Siebeck, 2014).