Urban Christianity in Rome

Christianity came to Rome through the Synagogue, likely from Jews who heard the gospel while in Jerusalem as early as Pentecost. Paul wrote Romans in the second half of the 50s to already existing congregations which have separated from the synagogues or were formed outside of the synagogues of Rome.

Jewish population Rome began as early as the Hasmonean delegation to Rome in 161 B.C.E, but grew rapidly after 63 B.C.E., many Jews prospered and gained freedom and citizenship. They were located in the Transtiberinum, Campus Martius, the Suburba, and Ostia (Rome’s port-city) by the first century.

Thirteen synagogues (five for certain, eight debated based on inscriptions) have been identified from the second and third centuries B.C.E., named for the most part after persons or the location, such as Augustus or Agrippa, possibly the Herodians.  Synagogues were small ethnic enclaves and collegia organizations. 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.


Christ from catacombs of Commodilla

According to Acts 18:2 and Suetonius (Claudius 25.4) Jews were expelled from Rome in A.D. 49 (although Dio Cassius dates the edict of Claudius to A.D. 41).  Just who was expelled is debated. It is hardly all Jews were expelled given the population of Jews in Rome It seems likely those thought to be the ringleaders causing the riots were expelled, which would be the Jewish Christian evangelists. It is certain that by A.D. 49 there were potentially violent debates among Jews over who Jesus was. These disturbances were bad enough to attract the attention of the authorities, similar to Paul in Philippi and Thessalonica.

How many congregations of Christians existed in the mid-50s can be determined from the names in Romans 16. Peter Lampe argues for at least five different Christian “islands,” possibly as many as many as eight. For example, in Rom 16:3-5 Pricilla and Aquila are greeted along with those in the church which meets in their house (τὴν κατʼ οἶκον αὐτῶν ἐκκλησίαν). 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 churches could be implied.

What does this mean for reading Romans? The Christians in Rome have been preaching Jesus as Messiah for many years before Paul wrote to them and they have suffered for the message of a crucified Messiah. Even if there are ten congregations in Rome, and even if there are 50 members of those ten congregations, there are only 500 believers in the largest city in the Empire. Christians are meeting in small locations (homes, workshops, etc.) and are a tiny minority in the city.

Paul is therefore writing this presentation of the Gospel to congregations who need to be reassured the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of potential isolation and persecution. Romans presents Paul’s Gospel of the grace of God in a clear way in order to encourage these congregations. What specifically in Romans might speak to the situation of these tiny islands of Christianity?


Bibliography: Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinius.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.


7 thoughts on “Urban Christianity in Rome

  1. In Romans 10: 12-15 Paul calls those in Rome to be the ones sharing the Gospel, because if the don’t, who will? As stated above, Rome is the largest city in the Empire, and with so many people out there to reach, if the few Christians are too afraid to share the Gospel they have heard, then no one else is going to do their job for them. The church in Rome had to be secretive because the believers were thrown out of the city. They meet in houses and workshops. According to Longenecker in TTP Paul is calling his members to, “be encouraged to play whatever role they have been called to play, with each being appreciated as integral to the whole and contributing to its well-being” (TTP, 189). I feel that Paul is just telling them to live out their lives as Jesus did, each doing what he/she is called to do and use it altogether as the body of Christ, and they will make a bigger impact on their very worldly minded community.

  2. A couple thoughts about Acts, Paul, and Peter. Do you know just how credible is the tradition about Peter’s time in Rome? Acts says nothing about it. Your info above clearly shows that he was there only well after Christian faith was rooted, if at all.

    This is a step further, but related: Peter quietly recedes in Acts, with virtually no explanation, while James clearly becomes the key leader. Peter apparently operated out of Antioch quite a while but we have no NT textual evidence (correct me if I’m forgetting something) that he went elsewhere, do we? Doesn’t that make the RC (or others’) claims re. Peter as key early leader (virtually first “pope”) pretty flimsy, especially in relation to Rome?
    (BTW, the Petrine-epistles-inferred “evidence” re. Peter I don’t think should weigh in much, given the very questionable authorship of them — almost certainly NOT Peter for 2 Peter at least… and I see little reason 1 Pet. should be considered by him.)

  3. If Paul was writing to Christians who are sparsely separated throughout Rome, he might have felt the need to encourage them that no matter how bad or how much persecution came at them, that God is the one who is all-powerful and will deliver the Christians from evil. “If God is for us, then who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Later he asks, “Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword…” separate us from the love of Christ? (v. 35). He answers his own question by saying that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (v. 37). And that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God that was shown through Jesus. How encouraging would that be to a church that would later be persecuted and blamed for the fire of Rome (TTP 172-173)? These people are a severe minority and nothing but hardship awaits them. Paul writes so much in Romans that seems to encourage small people to hold fast to the Gospel because in the end, it will be worth it.

  4. Were Christians stirring up civil unrest against the government of Rome? Were they involved in acts of charity towards non Christians? Is Josephus the best work to learn of the times in which he lived. Thank you.

    • The unrest was not *against* the government of Rome, it was an internal argument over who Jesus was, was he the Messiah/Christ or not? If you read Acts 13-20, most of the time Paul argues Jesus is the Messiah, some believed but there was usually some kind of violent response. Based on Romans 13, Paul told the Roman Christians to obey the government.

      We know acts of charity in the first few generations of the church, but that is not something Luke tells us about in Acts.

      Josephus is the main resource outside of the Bible for information about Judea in the first century, but not much on Asia Minor (Ephesus, etc.) or Rome. Bruce Longenecker has a really good book on using the archaeology of Pompey as background to the New Testament. It is not Rome, but close enough (and very well preserved). Here is a link to my review of the book.


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