This is a report on a paper presented by Dr Edward Adams, Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies at King’s College London, at the New Testament Research Seminar, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, 5th of December 2011.
At the last session of the New Testament Research Seminar, Dr Edward Adams presented a very interesting and engaging paper on the identification of the early Christian meeting places. This presentation will be published as a contribution of a monograph on the same topic.
His analysis was focused on the undisputed Pauline epistles and the incidence and meaning of the phrase κατ᾽ οἶκον αὐτῶν ἐκκλησίᾳ (the church in their house). In this form the phrase occurs only four times, in 1Cor 16:19, Rom 16:5, Phm 1:2, and Col 4:15. Its rendering corresponds to the meaning of a church of the household. All interpreters translate οἶκον with house or dwelling place. However, Dr Adams showed that Philemon’s house, for instance, is not to be identified with his household, and that οἶκον can also refer to shops or workshops and not merely to houses. κατα (usually translated as in or at) was seen as referring to the members of the Church, so that a number of house churches would constitute a community. The apparent practice of meeting in houses (private homes), and that use of the household language (cf. 1Cor 16:15, Phi 4:22, 2Cor 5:1, Gal 6:10) will be noted. In Rom 16:16 and Gal 6:10 the idea of the members of the community as a household is hinted at. This language of the household is also found among the Greco-Roman associations (the leaders are named mothers and fathers, members are seen as children, sisters, brothers, etc.). They meet in houses or taverns and other meeting places. Therefore, the family language does not necessarily imply houses as meeting places.
Following this, Dr Adams proceeded with an examination of locational evidence. He presented the case for the two main locations: Corinth and Rome. In Corinth the assumption is that sub-group gatherings met in houses. It is worth noting that there is not enough evidence in order to attest that the Corinthians met in houses. Some argue that there were house churches supported by the wealthy that were able to accommodate a large gathering. In support of this idea we have the cases of Crispus (Acts 18:8; cf. also 1Cor 1:14) and Stephanas (1Cor 1:16; 16:15; cf. also 16:17). It has been argued that by the mention of a household, a house church would be implied; in which case Stephanas would be the best candidate to be the host of such a house church. However, we cannot assume that sub-gatherings in Corinth were, in fact, households. Also, the residents might have been attached to shops or workshops, and therefore met in work-space instead of homes-space areas. In conclusion, we do not know in what kind of places the Corinthian sub-groups met. Murphy O’Connor maintained that these meetings took place in a domestic setting, and mentioned the fact that Gaius of Rom 16:23 seems to have made available his house for the Christian gatherings. Opposing this, Dr Adams argued that Gaius was merely a travelling host, and that fits with Paul’s mention of him as his host in Rom 16:23. James Dunn, agreeing with O’Connor, states that Gaius was hosting a church in Corinth and gives four reasons for his claim. The author does not agree with Dunn’s arguments, indicating 1Cor 11:22 and 11:34, which testify against the house churches’ hypothesis. Thus, it appears that the spaces of the assembly were not the spaces of the households, and that none of the private houses were used for the communal meal.
So where did the communal meals happen? The idea of the Corinthians meeting in club houses is highly unlikely, as they were not wealthy enough. Also, a basilica is equally dismissible, being unlikely that they had the high status for owning their own place of worship. A plausible hypothesis is the use of a restaurant building in Corinth (such as the Roman Cellar building) as the place of the Christian gatherings. Outdoor space is also plausible.
In Rome, we see five different Christian groups, and that of Prisca (or Priscilla) and Aquilla (Rom 16:5) is mentioned as a church in a household. There are also Aristobulos (16:10), Narcissus (16:11) as slave groups which presumably met in a workshop or factory setting. Philologus and the others are related to guild links and not to household links, and therefore it is likely to have held their meetings in workshop and warehouse contexts.
In conclusion, Dr Adams indicated that the evidence for considering the Pauline churches as house churches is not as full as expected. He answers the main question of his paper by saying that there probably were house churches, but not exclusively.
(Dr Adams’ paper was followed by a very lively discussion. Questions were raised among others by, Prof Francis Watson, Prof John Barclay, Dr Jane Heath, Dr Lutz Doering, and Prof John Moles.)
Justin A. Mihoc,
Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University