This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology. You can visit my web pages here, but note that they are not kept up-to-date.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Edward Adams' "The Earliest Christian Meeting Places"

In this recent monograph in the LNTS series, Edward Adams suggests that the early Christians may have met in such places as shops, workshops, barns, warehouses, hotels, inns, bathhouses, rented dining rooms, gardens, watersides, open urban spaces, and burial sites. He explores literary evidence, archaeological evidence, and comparative evidence (meaning data on the meeting places of Jews, associations, and philosophical schools).

Some of the book is available online here.
Hurtado has summarized the book here.

Adams helpfully gathers together a lot of relevant data from a wide variety of sources, so the book is a valuable resource. However, I have some criticisms.

1. Adams claims that there is a consensus that the early Christians met almost exclusively in private houses (homes). His thesis is that this consensus is mistaken. The problem that I have with this is that it is much too vague to be useful. What exactly does Adams mean by "almost exclusively"? 99% of the time? 90%? 70%? He does not say. It is therefore not clear to me whether Adams actually disagrees with his opponents. Perhaps he and they merely have different understandings of what constitutes "almost exclusively". This is one of many cases were New Testament Studies suffers from lack of numeracy. Nowhere does Adams deny that the Christians met in private houses most of the time.

2. He does not make a clear distinction between meetings designed to spread the word to non-believers and meetings of established churches. Evangelistic proclamations will naturally occur in public spaces (e.g. the agora and Areopagus of Athens, Acts 17:17-19). Established churches, however, are more likely to meet in private houses for greater to avoid provoking hostility from the non-Christian population.

3. On page 13 he writes "During spells of persecution or intense harassment, to be sure, inns, restaurants, bathhouses, etc., are not really plausible as meeting places, but in such periods, even meeting in houses would have been difficult." and "the persecution of Christians was sporadic and local and not constant and empire-wide." Thus, Adams considers times when persecution was so intense that it was not safe for believers to meet at all, and times when persecution did not threaten at all, but he overlooks the much more common intermediate scenario. It is clear from the New Testament that there was an ever-present risk of persecution, but that the persecution was not so intense as to make it impossible for Christians to meet at all. Paul suffered frequent persecution (Rom 15:31; 16:4; 7; 1 Cor 4:12; 2 Cor 1:8-11; 4:8-10; 6:4-9; 11:23-26, 32-33; Gal 5:11; 6:17; Phil 1:7; 1 Thess 1:6; 2:2, 15; 3:4, 7; Phlmn 9, 13; Acts 9:6, 23-25, 29;13:50; 14:5, 19; 16:19-24; 17:5, 10, 13-14; 18:12; 19:26; 20:3, 23; 21:27-28:31) precisely because he proclaimed his message publicly in synagogues and public spaces. His converts suffered much less persecution (Phil 1:28-30; 1 Thess 1:6; 2:14; 3:3; Acts 14:22; 17:6; 18:17), presumably because they took the precaution of not doing what Paul did. They met in private houses, and thus minimized the risk of provoking opposition. The relative lack of persecution of Paul's converts does not show that they had no need to restrict their meetings in private houses. Rather, it shows that they minimized their exposure to persecution by taking sensible precautions, such as meeting in private houses. Adams' logic seems flawed.

4. On page 29 Adams writes:
In 1 Cor. 11.22, Paul asks rhetorically, 'Do you not have homes (οἰκίας) to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God...?' In 11.34, he issues the instruction: 'If you are hungry, eat at home (ἐν οἴκῳ), so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation'. The rhetorical questions of 11.22 and the injunction of 11.34 would have less persuasive value if some th the congragants (the host and his family) were eating in their own house.
Adams makes a very important point there, and I am grateful to him for it. He is right to infer that 1 Corinthians was not addressed to a group that included a host and his household. However his is wrong to conclude that the church of Corinth had not host. Another option, which I have argued before on other grounds, is that the host and his household were Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, who were with Paul at the time of writing and were therefore not part of the audience. So, while Adams makes much of this text, I am not convinced that he draws the right conclusion.

5. On page 72 he quotes the Martyrdom of Justin:
Rusticus the prefect said, 'Where do you (Christians) assemble?'
   'Wherever is chosen and it is possible for each one', said Justin, 'for do you think it is possible for all of us to gather in the same place (of assembly)?'
   Rusticus the prefect said, 'Tell me, where do you assemble, that is, in what place?'
   Justin said, 'I have been staying above the baths of Myrtinus for the entire period I have resided in Rome for this the second time. And I know no other meeting place except the one there. If anyone wishes to come to me there, I am accustomed to share with him the words of truth.'
Adams (p74) writes:
An intriguing feature of this passage, and one that is constantly overlooked, is Justin's claim, in response to Rusticus's questioning, that the Christians gather, 'wherever is chosen and it is possible for one'. The answer implies that Roman Christians at the time utilized whatever space (not just domestic space) they could for meeting purposes.
But it is important not to overlook the fact that Justin is choosing his words carefully to avoid betraying other Christians. If Justin had replied, "we meet in the house of Claudia and the house of Vibius", Rusticus might have raided those houses and arrested the owners and the congregants. Rusticus was not asking about meeting places out of idle curiousity. He was considering arresting other Christians. Justin answers the question as vaguely as possible. His statement "I know of no other meeting place except the one there [above the baths]" is surely not true, but we can assume that Justin expected Rusticus to find it plausible. This, and the fact that Rusticus needs to ask where the Christians meet, suggests that there was no well-known public meeting place of the Christians in Rome. They met in private houses, it seems. The evasion, incidentally, continues in the next passage, where Rusticus asks Justin's co-accused who had taught them the faith. When they say "our parents" he asks them "where are your parents". They disclose no sensitive information: Euelpistus says that his parents are in Cappadocia (which is convenient) and Hierax says that his parents are dead (which is even more convenient).

6. Adams (p74) makes much of the words of Celsus. Celsus discusses Christian "wool-workers, cobblers, laundry makers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels", who encourage children to go to "the wooldresser's shop, or to the cobbler's or the washerwoman's shop" to receive Christian instruction. Adams (p138) concludes "Celsus identifies the wooldresser's shop, the cobbler's workshop and the fuller's workshop as settings in which Christian instruction typically takes place." However, it is not clear to me how he differentiates the workshops from the adjoining living spaces. If the washerwoman wanted the children to come to her house she would surely still direct them to "the washerwoman's shop", for that is the landmark that they would know. In any case, Celsus is not referring here to the main church meetings. These probably took place in large private houses, but Celsus does not mention them because he is trying to emphasize that the Christians were of low social status.

7. Adams tries to show that the word οἶκος (house) is not often used in the New Testament to refer to an assembly of Christians, and he includes the compound οἰκονόμος in his analysis. He writes:
The term οἰκονόμος refers in the first place to a household manager or estate manager, but it could also be used for the holder of a civic office, as in Rom. 16.23, with regard to Erastus, who is designated,   οἰκονόμος τῆς πόλεως, or more generally for someone entrusted with management.
But Adams assumes his own conclusion that οἰκονόμος in Rom 16:23 refers to a civic office. If οἶκος = church, then οἰκονόμος τῆς πόλεως can mean "manager of the church of the city". That is to say, Paul could be describing Erastus as the treasurer of the believers of Corinth, as Justin Meggitt has proposed. Paul nowhere refers to the secular role of any fellow-believer, so it is unlikely that he does so here.

8. On pages 25, 26, 31, 39, 65, 95, 111, 118, and 131 he uses arguments from  silence that seem week to me.

9. Adams does a fine job of assembling a lot of evidence that church meeting places were generally in houses. I therefore find it surprising that he comes down against the consensus view. From the evidence  that he cites, I would have expected a conclusion like "churches met in houses at least 70%-95% of the time".

My assessment, then, is that this book is a valuable resource, but its conclusion is misleading. Leave comments below if you disagree.