The Church in Rome Before Paul

The audio for this evening’s sermon is available here, as is a PDF handout.  Remember that you can leave comments and questions at the bottom of the page, or by clicking on the comments link just above this paragraph.

Chronologically, Romans provides the earliest glimpse at the character of the churches in the city of Rome.   Christianity came to Rome through these synagogues, likely from Jews who heard the gospel while in Jerusalem as early as Pentecost.  Paul wrote Romans in the second half of the 50’s to already existing congregations which have separated from the synagogues or were formed outside of the synagogues of Rome.

Evidence for the church developing out of the synagogue is found in Romans 16.  Aquila and Priscilla are Jewish, as well as Andronicus, Junian and Herodion who are identified as Jewish (7, 11), the names Mary and Aristobolus may also indicate a Jewish origin.  According to Acts 18:2 and Seutonius, Claudius 25.4, Jews were expelled from Rome in A.D. 49 (although Dio Cassius dates the edict of Claudius to A.D. 41, Acts and Seutonius both agree with the early date).  Just who was expelled is debated, it is hardly possible to have the whole population expelled given a Jewish population of 30,000 at the time.  It is possible just the ringleaders were expelled, people such as Aquila and Priscilla.  Perhaps only a single synagogue engaged in the rioting over Chrestus and was completely expelled.  The bottom line is that by 49 there were lively debates among Jews over who Jesus was and these debates were violent enough to attract the attention of the authorities.

Romans indicates that some Jews returned by the mid-50’s, specifically Aquila and Priscilla.  By the time Paul writes Romans, there are Jewish Christian congregations, perhaps mixed Jew and Gentile congregations, and maybe a purely Gentile Christian congregation.

How many congregations of Christians existed in the mid-50’s can be determined from Romans 16, Peter Lampe argues for at least five different Christian “islands,” but probably as many as eight, based on the following data:

  • The phrase “those with them” plus proper names is used five times in Romans 16 (5, 10, 11, 14, 15). This may indicate Paul knows of five separate house churches in Rome.
  • There are other Christian names listed who probably did not belong to the same congregation (or they would be listed with the others), so at least two more could be implied.
  • Paul lived in Rome in a rented house, likely constituting an eighth congregation.

There is no central meeting place for these congregations.  Paul hosts at least one in his house, perhaps others met with him at other times for instruction and debate.  It is not too much of a stretch to imagine Paul engaged in the sort of ministry he had in Ephesus, teaching and debating the scriptures in an informal “school” at times when people could visit – afternoons and evenings.  In addition, there is nothing which requires a “church” to meet only on Saturday or Sunday, in ten different locations at general the same time.  It is possible that ten congregations meet at various times and in various places during the week, and even some individuals attending multiple churches.

The congregation size of a house church would vary depending on the home in which the church met.  I would suggest that the churches initially met on the analogy of a Synagogue, where ten men coming together to study the scripture constituted a synagogue.  If this is the case, by the time Paul arrives in Rome in the early 60’s, there were no more than a few hundred Christian in a city of millions.

5 thoughts on “The Church in Rome Before Paul

  1. Fantastic post. Thanks for blogging.

    One question – where are you getting the figure of 30,000 Jews in Rome?

  2. Ben Witherington, in his Acts commmentary (795) estimates 40-50 thousand, citing Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 155-157. But Penna estiames only twenty thousand, in his article “Le Juifs à Rome au Temps de l-Apôtre Paul,” 328.

  3. Thanks for that. I don’t see a number in the Philo section, but Josephus tells us the Roman Jews could only muster 8,000 to petition Caesar against the Herodians in late 4 BC, and senior Jerusalem authorities were present at Rome personally asking for support. (Antiq.17.300)

    Obviously that’s 60 years difference, but we’ve also got two exiles (17 & 49 AD) to rebuild from, population wise. Maybe Philo’s language does not mean literally every soul in Trans-Tibere was a Jew? Just some thoughts.

    Thanks again.

  4. > the Roman Jews could only muster 8,000 to petition
    > Caesar against the Herodians in late 4 BC

    I wondered about that number too, although when I read it the first time I took it to mean that 8000 Jews who were willing to participate in the protest. Perhaps this would speak of a larger total population, since I assume few women (if any) and no children when be included in the embassy. The two deportations as well as freedom to trade in Rome would have supplemented the population greatly, you are correct.

    I think that you are right, Philo does make it sound as though the Jews populate the entire area, which is doubtful.

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