Chronologically, the book of Romans provides the earliest glimpse at the character of the churches in the city of Rome before Paul arrived. Christianity came to Rome through the synagogues. It seems likely that Jews who heard the gospel while in Jerusalem at Pentecost returned to Rome and continued to fellowship in synagogues until at least A.D. 49, when Claudius “expelled the Jews.” 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 implies 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 a proper name 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. Yet in a few years Christianity has grown to the point that Nero can use the “strange superstition” as a scapegoat for his fires. By the 90’s Christianity has spread to even the imperial family, forcing Domitian to persecute Christians in Rome.
Bibliography: Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).
7 thoughts on “Acts 28 – The Church in Rome”
There was defiantly no shortage of synagogues in Rome, that is for sure. Even though Jews, it seems to me that the expulsion did not stop them from gathering.
If the whole population of Rome was expelled, their whole city would have shut. Not only that, but I’m guessing that their economy would suffer as well. It would make sense that just Aquila and Priscilla were expelled, since they were the leaders. It sounds like this is main time frame where the church is starting to come together, since there may have been a desegregation of Jews and Gentiles.
We know that Christianity reached Rome before Paul arrived there and we know that Paul went to the synagogues. In this comment it says that Paul wrote Romans to the “existing congregations which have separated from the synagogues…” So Paul may have not preached in Rome but he still wrote to the congregations who were believers but were separated from the the church. Also that makes sense on why there might have been separation from Jews and Gentiles
I find the potential growth of Christianity from the 60’s, when Paul arrived, to the 90’s, when Nero uses them as a scapegoat as pretty amazing. It’s interesting to think of the Christian house churches that Paul was preaching to as a very small faction. To think of only ten or so people in a house church, and that being spread into a pretty small number of house is something new to me. I guess I’ve always read those letters as being written to many, many people. Obviously, after 2,000 years of Christianity it’s easy to see the church in that way, but it doesn’t seem plausible in this case. I’m just reminded of the importance of smallness within the Christian community an how drastically God can use small groups. It’s awesome to see that model, and brings a much “realer” understanding to scripture and the accounts in Acts as we read them.
It is amazing to think like David said in his post the idea of the smallness within the christian community. Paul not only reached large numbers of people in the synagogues, but in the house church as well. even though the house churches only had a handful of people in attendance his the preaching was still very effective. Paul’s model in this type of setting seems to be even more powerful in that the smaller group setting tends to bring out a more changing effect in the people that are in attendance.
I find it interesting how being a Christian was a small number of people. But then with that you unfortunately might have the subdivisions with that. Did that help growth, or did that turn people away from Christianity. We look at that and then we see how that can be a lot like today.
It is really neat though to realize how much the church grew, enough to the point that Nero was starting to take action against them.
Going along with what most everyone else is saying, it is pretty amazing how small Christianity was. And to think about how Paul was preaching in the synagogues and going to the house churches, and the advantage Paul had when going to the house churches. I mean think about when someone is preaching to a large group of people, there is no way they can make personal connection with everyone. However, with a small group, like what Paul was in, he had a much easier advantage because he could talk to them and make a personal relation to each person in the “congregations.”
The part that I find the most refreshing in this article is that while there may be eight different house churches it seems they still all put themselves under Paul. The reason I say this is because it does seem most likely that these are people who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost and heard the gospel then. They were not converted, at least not all of them, by Paul when he was in Rome. To me this indicates that Paul was well known within the Christian communities, even outside of his missionary journeys