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).