How Did Christianity Come to Rome?

Paul addressed the book we call Romans to Christians living in Rome. At the time the letter was written, he had not yet visited the city as far as we know and he does not personally know Christians in Rome. Although he may have something about the church through Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:1-4), there is nothing to suggest he ministered there until he arrives about A.D. 60 (Acts 28:11-31). How did Christianity come to Rome?

The traditional view is the Roman church was founded by both Peter and Paul is rarely accept today. According to Eusebius, Peter followed the ach-heretic Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8) to Rome in the second year of Claudius (A.D. 42). According to Eusebius, the Gospel Peter preached at this time was so well received the Roman people demanded a written copy, which became the Gospel of Mark, a tradition also found in Irenaeus.

Eusebuis, Hist. eccl. 2.15.1 And so greatly did the splendor of piety illumine the minds of Peter’s hearers that they were not satisfied with hearing once only, and were not content with the unwritten teaching of the divine Gospel, but with all sorts of entreaties they besought Mark, a follower of Peter, and the one whose Gospel is extant, that he would leave them a written monument of the doctrine which had been orally communicated to them.

Irenaeus, Haer. 3.1 Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church.

Setting this tradition aside, the modern consensus view is that the church was founded by believers who returned to Rome after Pentecost. Jews had contact with Rome as early as 160 B.C. According to 1 Macc 8:17-22, the Judas Maccabees sent an embassy to Rome in order to secure “establish friendship and alliance.” Pompey brought Jews captured at Jerusalem to Rome in 63 B.C. (Anitq. 14.4.5) and by the time Romans was written the Jewish population in Rome may have been as high as 50,000 (Fitzmyer, Romans, 27).  Craig Keener says estimates vary “from perhaps a quarter of a million (extrapolated from water supplies) to over a million for its metropolitan area (extrapolated, in my opinion more reliably, from concrete census figures from ancient historians” (Keener, Romans, 9). Fitzmyer also argues for at least thirteen synagogues based on inscriptional evidence (Fitzmyer, Romans, 28). In addition to these inscriptions there are thousands of funerary inscriptions in the catacombs.

Image result for Roman Christians catacombsJewish Christianity would have come to Rome soon after Pentecost as Jews visiting Jerusalem in A. D. 30 or 33 returned home (depending on the date of the crucifixtion). Acts 2:10 lists Jews from the city of Rome as present in the crowd at Pentecost and Acts 6:9 mentions the Synagogue of the Freedmen. Although visitors to that synagogue could have come from anywhere, Fitzmyer suggests the members may have been descended from the Jews taken captive by Pompey (Fitzmyer, Romans, 29).

Raymond Brown points out that Christian missionaries coming from Jerusalem were more conservative with respect the Law and the connection of Christianity and Judaism in contrast to Christian missionaries from Antioch, such as Paul (Acts and Galatians support his point; see his Introduction, 562). He observes Paul is far more diplomatic with respect to the Law in Romans, as compared to Galatians. This may indicate the majority of his readers were Jews and more conservative with respect to the role of the Law for the Christian.

There is evidence of Christians in Rome as early as A.D. 49, when Claudius expelled Jews for rioting over “Chrestus,” likely a Latinized form of Christos, the Greek translation of Messiah. Luke refers to this decree in Acts 18:2-4. Soon after arriving in Corinth, Paul meets Aquila and Priscilla, Jewish tentmakers forced to leave Rome by Claudius. It is possible this expulsion of believers in A.D. 49 only effected the Jewish members of the congregation. If this is the case, then the congregation might have been founded by Jews, but is now primarily Gentile God-Fearers. If the church continued to grow, the percentage of Gentiles would have grown in this period.

After the death of Claudius the edit was canceled and Jewish believers could return to Rome, perhaps to discover the Christian congregations were far more Gentile than when they left. The Roman churches to which Paul wrote were therefore a mixture of Jewish and Gentile believers. The churches were not founded by Paul

Related imageThis consensus view has been challenged because parts of the book seem addressed only to Jews, other sections to Gentiles. There are details in the book that seem to be addressed to Jewish readers, especially in Romans 1-4. On the other hand, there are indications that Gentiles are being addressed in the church. In 11:13, Paul addresses “you Gentiles.”

It is best, therefore, to understand the church as both Jew and Gentile. Paul deals with the shift in God’s program from the Jew to all the world in Romans 9-11, and with some of the difficulties that Jewish-Christian congregations face in chapter 14. In fact, this may be the occasion for the letter.

7 thoughts on “How Did Christianity Come to Rome?

  1. We should recognize other visits from Roman Jews to Jerusalem during the period before the Temple’s destruction. Sure, the giving of the Spirit at The Shavuot Feast had huge impact, but The Mosaic Law required 3 visits for male Jews every year. Of course in that era with Jews dispersed far and wide, observance, no doubt was spotty. However, repentant individuals and those making special vows probably did want to visit as their means allowed.
    These subsequent visitors would have contact with the Christians and some would turn to the Lord and return to their homes meeting together with those like-minded.

  2. There was ample communication between Rome and Jerusalem, as with all parts of the empire. Some parts would be harder to communicate with than others, but “all roads led to Rome”. As for the timing, I would far rather argue for a 33 CE crucifixion than for a 30 CE one. 30 CE is far more likely the era for the death of John the Baptist.

    • This is true, I read someplace one could travel between any two points in the Roman empire in about a month if you really wanted to (no stopovers etc.). Would anyone who accepted the Apostoloic preaching at Pentecost immediately leave and return to Rome? Maybe not immediately, but eventually they did, my guess is within a year of Pentecost?

      I too favor 33 for a variety of reasons.

  3. So the church in Rome was established not by Paul or Peter but based on the influence of the Jewish Christians of the time? Who then would have established the church or is it just unknown the character of who did it? I understand that it came quickly after Pentecost which makes sense due to the returning believers from Jerusalem to Rome. It makes a lot of sense that the church would have been established around the same time as people returning to home and shortly after Jesus ascended. It is interesting how Christianity arrived in Rome and the impact that it had so much so that Claudius expelled Jews from Rome based on the fighting over “Christos” as spoken about in Acts. It is interesting to hear just the impact that Jesus had and the impact that it had on culture and things like that as well. It is incredibly intriguing that right away the church was established in Rome soon after Pentecost but my question then would become what exactly prompted Paul to go to Rome to check in with the churches there to begin with and to write the letter and is the letter for Christians and for Jews or just one or both?

    • I think we often under estimate the importance of Rome. I mean we think of it as a big city, as a place of politics, much like Washington DC. Sure it’s important, but it doesn’t really affect our lives day to day. That wasn’t the case in those times. Acts 2:10-11states that, “Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” We see Romans, both Jews by blood and converts, see the miracles performed at Pentecost and believe the message preached. It definitely makes sense that those converts would return home and begin meeting. And because of how important Rome is, especially for Paul’s end game of Spain, it makes sense he would want to reach out to this church.

      • True, we do reference Rome as if it was a large political city today. It is important to understand the culture of the Greco-Roman cities when we read scripture that calls to the people. In the Roman and Greek cultures were influential to the readers of Pauline literature because the readers lived in those cultures. In previous blog posts and lectures, we discussed the importance of understanding the Greco-Roman cultures because of how they influenced the believers. One example is how Greco-Roman “world was thoroughly patriarchal in its structures” (Longenecker, 167). However, there were situations in which women rose to civic prominence. Although “women were not allowed to hold public office or even vote, we sometimes find them at the heart of public benefaction, donating vast sums of wealth to enhance the civic environment and acting as financial patrons to Greco-Roman associations” (Longenecker, 167). This background information is important to know when Paul writes about Pheobe in Romans (16:2).

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