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Old 02-06-2001, 12:48 PM   #1
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Post The First Century Roman Church

The Church in Rome has become one of the most powerful in the world. But it did not start out that way. In fact, the first church in Rome had a rather humble beginning.

Who founded the Church in Rome?

Well, the short answer is Jewish Christians. Catholic tradition holds that the church was founded jointly by Paul and Peter. While I do not doubt that Paul and Peter eventually played important roles in the Roman church, I believe it is obvious that there existed a church or churches in Rome prior to their involvement.

Any discussion of the spread of Christianity to Rome must begin with the spread of Judaism to Rome. The origins of a Jewish community in Rome can probably be traced to the time period shortly following the establishment of diplomatic relations between Rome and the Hasmonean regime in Judea around the middle of the second century BCE. The Jewish community in Rome undoubtedly increased greatly after Judea was incorporated into the Roman Empire in 63 BCE. In 59 BCE, Cicero noted "how numerous they are and how clannish, and how they can make their influence felt." Cicero, Pro Glacco 66, at 296. It would seem from this remark that the Jewish community had reached the numbers and position to exert some influence on Roman authorities.

In 19 CE, a public scandal involving the Jewish community in Rome resulted in their expulsion by Emperor Tiberius. It seems that four Jews persuaded a Roman proselyte, Fulvia, to make a generous gift to the Jerusalem temple. Unfortunately, the four misappropriated the gift and the money did not reach the Temple fund. F.F. Bruce, Paul, the Apostle of the Heart Set Free, at 380.
It would seem, however, that after the expulsion the Jewish community returned to Rome, as their numbers had reached between 40,000-60,000 by the beginning of Christianity. H.J. Leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome, at 135.

Christianity arose in Rome before Paul's missionary activities. The Roman Historian Suetonius wrote that Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews in 49 CE because of persistent rioting "at the instigation of Chrestus." Suetonius, Life of Claudius 25. 4. This expulsion is also referenced by Luke in Acts 18:2. Many scholars believe the reference to riots instigated by Chrestus to be a reference to disturbances between Jews and Christians over the nature of Jesus. "The form and words he uses points to a well-known bearer of the name, and the common confusion between Christus and Chrestus makes it easy to suppose that Christ is meant." F.F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, at 381. "Scholars have debated the precise identity of this person, but there seems little doubt that the events Suetonius records were brought about by arguments over the teaching of those Jews who had become followers of Jesus the Messiah (Latin Christus)." Dr. John Drane, Introducing the New Testament, at 16.

Yet another indication of how early the church in Rome was established is Paul's Letter to the Romans. Paul was clear that he had not yet visited the Christians in Rome, but that it was his desire to visit them soon. Paul states that he has for "many years planned to come to you." Romans 1:13; 15:23. Because the Letter to the Romans was written in 57 CE, it is clear that the church in Rome had been established many years before then.

It appears, therefore, that Christianity arose in Rome well before any sort of organized missionary efforts from Paul, Peter, or the Jerusalem Church. It appears that we must date the emergence of Christianity in Rome no later than 49 CE and probably some time earlier than that.

So how did Christianity first come to Rome?

That is one of history's unsolved questions. We simply do not know the identity of the founders of Roman Christianity. They were, however, most likely Jewish Christians. "One thing seems clear from other evidence - that Roman Christianity was originally Jewish, and Jewish of a nonconformist stamp." F.F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, at 383. As late as 225 CE, Roman Christianity demonstrated indications of a Jewish nature, such as a purificatory bath similar to that of the Essenes. M. Black, the Scrolls and Christian Origins, at 91. Moreover, a commentator in the fourth century traditionally identified as Ambrosiaster stated, "The Romans had embraced the faith of Christ, albeit according to the Jewish right, although they saw no sign of mighty works nor any of the apostles." This seems to confirm that neither Paul nor Peter where the first to establish Christianity in Rome, but that the first Christians in Rome were Jewish.

One possibility is that Jewish and proselyte pilgrims who have traveled to Jerusalem carried the message of Christ to Rome. Acts 2:10-11 records that "visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes" heard Peter's preaching of the kerygma (or, early church message) in Jerusalem shortly after the resurrection of Jesus. Even if Peter's preaching on that occasion failed to result in the spread of Christianity to Rome, it demonstrates a possible way in which it happened. Jews and proselytes often undertook pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the Temple, and given the large Jewish population in Rome, it is likely they encountered Christianity in Jerusalem. It is also possible that Jewish Christians relocated to Rome for various reasons, including, possibly, the early persecution of the Church in Jerusalem.

Gentile Converts in the Roman Church

However Jewish Christians reached Rome, it is clear that even before Paul's visit or his Letter to the Romans that Gentiles had joined the Roman Church. "Paul makes it plain that Gentile as well as Jewish believers are included in "all God's beloved ones in Rome, saints by calling," to whom his letter is addressed." F.F. Bruce, PAHSF, at 383. Exactly when and how Gentiles joined the Roman Church is unknown.

One possible Gentile convert to Christianity in Rome was Pomponia Graecina. Pomponia was the wife of the Roman military leader who had lead a successful Roman campaign in Britain. In about 56 CE she was accused of adopting an "alien superstition" before a family court presided over by her husband. This charge had been applied to converts to Christianity in other cases. C. Tacitus, Annals, 13.32.

Admittedly, various other religions may have been referred to as an "alien superstition," but there is also evidence that several of Pomponia's descendants were Christians. The Cemetery of Callistus by the Apppian Way, one of the earliest Christian catacombs in Rome, contains inscriptions commemorating members of her family, including one who bore the name, "Pomponius Gracecinus."

So, it appears from what evidence is available to us that Christianity was spread to Rome very early by Jewish Christians. Eventually, by 56 CE at the latest, the Roman Church contained a large number of Gentile Christians as well. As to organization, "the Christians in Rome appear at this time to have met as groups in house-churches or other local meeting-places. Some of the Jewish Christians may still have counted themselves as adherents of one or another of the Jewish synagogues." F.F. Bruce, PAHSF, at 385.

Final Notes

Eventually Paul ended up in Rome under house arrest. He was allowed to receive visitors. It is probable that Paul's life ended there by the executioner's sword during the Neronian persecution. During this time "punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men addicted to a novel and mischievous superstition, Life of ." Suetonius Nero 16.2. There is also evidence that Peter had ministered in Rome and likewise met his death during the Neronian persecution.

An important contribution of the Church in Rome was the production of what is perhaps the earliest non-New Testament Christian writing. In 96 CE, Clement, a leader in the Roman church, wrote a letter to the Corinthian church. There had been sort of rebellion against the established leaders, and Clement wrote to encourage the church there to obey its church leaders.

As an example of perseverance, Clement discusses both Peter and Paul: "Peter, on account of unrighteous jealousy, underwent not one or two but many toils and, having thus borne witness, he made his way to his allotted place of glory. Paul, on account of jealousy and strife, showed the way to the price of endurance; seven times he wore fetters, he was exiled, he was stoned, he was a herald both in the east and in the west, he gained the noble renown of his faith, he taught righteousness throughout the whole world and, having reached the limit of the west, he bore testimony before the rulers, and so departed from the world and was taken up into the holy place." 1 Clement 5:1-7. Many scholars believe that his references to Peter and Paul recount their deaths during the Neronian persecution.

1 Clement is also important because it reveals the extent to which the Church in Rome utilized the Old Testament and New Testament documents. Clement quotes and utilizes the Old Testament as authoritative scripture throughout his letter. He also repeatedly cites or alludes to the Gospels, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Hebrews. Others believe he also alludes to 1 Peter and Titus. For example, 1 Clement states, "Most of all remembering the words of the Lord Jesus which He spake teaching forbearance and long suffering: for thus He spake, ‘Have mercy, that ye may receive mercy: forgive, that is may be forgiven you. As ye do, so shall it be done to you. As ye give, so shall it be given unto you. As ye judge, so shall ye be judged. As ye show kindness, so shall kindness be showed unto you. With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured withal to you.'"

And finally, 1 Clement demonstrates the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus to the faith of the Roman church. "Let us look steadfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world." And, " On account of the Love he bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls."
Old 02-06-2001, 04:31 PM   #2
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Umm. Could you please give some sort of information as to why you posted this?
Old 02-06-2001, 04:38 PM   #3
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Well. There are allegedly informed Christians and skeptics here who are interested in early Christianity, biblical criticism, and archeology. This post is relevant to all three isn't it? I thought that the history of the most powerful Christian church today, and one NOT founded by Paul (often accused to be the REAL founder of Christianity), MIGHT just be interesting to such people.

And as a bonus I was hoping some of those allegedly informed Christians or skeptics might have some useful feedback, criticisms, or comments.

Of course, maybe its just too different than the: "The Bible has contradictions," "NO IT DOESN'T" round of dicussions.
Old 02-06-2001, 04:51 PM   #4
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<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by Layman:

Of course, maybe its just too different than the: "The Bible has contradictions," "NO IT DOESN'T" round of dicussions.</font>
I know Layman, it can get discouraging a lot of the time.

Thank you for the post.

I am curious, Christianity effectively sprang up simultaneously in virtually every major city of the Eastern Empire, plus Rome itself. Granting that the Roman Church clearly predates the arrival of Peter or Paul, not to mention the after math of the disasterous (for Jews and Christians alike) Jewish War 66-70AD, how successful do you think the Church was in its first few decades of existence?

In other words, even before we had a single written Gospel encomassing the key points of Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection, how successful was the Church in spreading itself throughout the Roman world?


P.S. If I have forgotten to do this before, welcome to the SecWeb. I hope you'll come to like it in our little playground here (even if it does feel like you are finding yourself in the middle of recess most of the time).

[This message has been edited by Nomad (edited February 06, 2001).]
Old 02-06-2001, 05:14 PM   #5
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The spread of Christianity is an interesting topic that I have much to learn about. We are, of course, hampered by our lack of sources. At first blush, Acts and Paul's epistles may seem like a lot of information, and to an extent they are priceless. However, what soon becomes obvious is that Paul was only one evangelist, and Acts and his letters largely tell us his story.

That being said, I have some ideas.

First, the diasopora must have been central to Christianity's quick spread. As the Roman example I just discussed indicates, it is probably that many Jews had heard the Christian message, or perhaps the actual teachings of Jesus, when they were in Jerusalem on a pilgramage. Additionally, it is certianly possible that Jews who relocated from Jerusalem or Galilee to other parts of the empire would have had knowledge of Christianity.

The fact that Christianity was a strong force can be gleaned from Acts, Josephus, and Galations. During Second Temple Judaism, diaspora Jews would be heavily inclined to embark on pilgramages to Jerusalem.

Second, the "God-fearers." The Roman occupation of Palestine, and the contact of diaspora Jews with Gentiles, lead to a large group of gentiles who appreciated the Jewish religion and became worshippers of God, although foregoing many of the rituals that many Jews beleived actually defined Judaism. God-fearers would have been near any significant Jewish community in the Romane Empire (and there were many). Many such practitioners would have viewed Christianity, with its retention of the strong moral focus and clear monotheism of Judaism, as an attractive option that allowed for full inclusion into the believing community.

Third, evangelism. The first two points merely provide fertile ground for conversion. The fact remains that Christians, JEWISH Christians, actively evangalized the Gentiles to an extent never before seen. Much of this is due to Paul, but to focus solely on his efforts would ignore the evidence that gentile Christianity emerged in Antioch before Paul's conversion, as well as the other Jewish Christian evangelists that we here snippents about (Appollos and Barnabas). It also overlooks the Church in Rome, because by the time Paul wrote to it, it was largely gentile, despite the fact that Paul played no role in its foundation.

Excellent question, but I've not even scratched the surface.
Old 02-06-2001, 05:20 PM   #6
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I was just curious; it wasn't an attack. Usually if someone posts an article like this, it is particularly relevant to a discussion, or an attempt to start a discussion. As I could see neither of those indicated I was curious. In fact it sounds like a quote from a book, or perhaps an informational site; in the latter case a URL is more customary than posting the entire text.

Perhaps it is additionally interesting that it appears quite a few of those on the boards have indicated they grew up Roman Catholic, myself included.

And, Nomad, we are NOT childish. ARE NOT, ARE NOT, ARE NOT TIMES INFINITY!!!!

Old 02-06-2001, 05:23 PM   #7
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Thanks for clarifying. No offense taken.

And I wrote it all by my lonesome. With some help from F.F. Bruce, H.J. Leon, John Drane, M. Black, etc.
Old 02-06-2001, 09:38 PM   #8
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Thumbs up

Hi Layman

I think you have touched on a number of the reasons that Christianity spread so quickly, and I would have to agree that evangelical zeal had to be one of the most powerful motivations. Based on the frenzied activity of Paul alone, not to mention the wide travels of Peter and other apostles, there is no question that these men had an overwhelming desire to convert as many people as quickly as possible. Matthew 28:19 was their “prime directive” if you will.

I also believe that we cannot discount the very real likelihood that these men also did believe that the end was definitely at hand, and that Jesus could or would return at any time. This clearly added to their sense of urgency to spread the Gospel as quickly as possible.

Additionally, we cannot overlook the overall unity and structure of the Church itself. If the message had truly been factionalised in this early period, I think it is very probable that its effectiveness and appeal would have been diminished considerably. And as for organizational ability, what the apostles and early deacons and elders achieved was absolutely astonishing. To quote one historical source:

”The eventual emergence of Christianity as the predominant religion in the Roman Empire was due not least to a variety of advantages which it held over rival worships. The Christians gradually provided themselves with an organization surpassing that of all other private religions. This quickly became a necessity for the infant Church because, when the early Christian congregation broke away from the parent Jewish Church, it lost all the advantages of membership of a well-regulated society… (by the time of) Ignatius (c. A.D. 115)… in his own church at Antioch, as presumably in the other local churches of Asia Minor, there was a single bishop, a board of presbyters, and a group of deacons… By the time of M. Aurelius the clerical hierarchy was complete in all essentials, and c. 180 the pagan writer Celsus, a detached but hostile observer, found the principal source of Christian strength in their closely knit social structure. Equally as important was the creation of a unique system of intercommunication between the several Christian communities…”
A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine, M. Cary and H.H. Scullard, MacMillan Press, 1979, pg. 484).

In addition to their organizational power, the early church also carried another powerful tool. From the same source:

”The spread of Christianity was also assisted by a special literature, such as was produced by no other ancient Church except that of the Jews. The teaching of Jesus, which was first preserved by oral tradition (this long survived), was soon set down in written records (probably in Aramaic) as early as the middle of the first century, and was then expanded in Greek by the authors of the first three Gospels from their own knowledge and that of the disciples.”
(Ibid. pg. 485).

The third advantage was the existence of powerful apologetics, applied by some of the greatest minds in the Empire.

”Another branch of Christian literature was addressed to those outside the Church, in order to explain to them the Christian religion and to defend it against attacks from all quarter. The need for this apologetic literature was all the greater, as no other ancient religion had to encounter a more sustained opposition.”
(Ibid. pg. 485)

And this brings me to my next point. For Christianity to thrive and survive, it needed to appeal to people of power, and who were highly educated. From its beginnings in Jesus’ own teachings we see evidence of this. Jairus (Mark 5, Luke 8) was a ruler in a synagogue, Levi/Matthew (Matthew 9, Mark 2, Luke 5) was a wealthy tax collector, and possibly a rabbi himself, “his most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1) was a man with a title reflecting one of very high status (see the governors Felix and Festus addressed by the same title in Acts 24 and 26 respectively), the centurion in Matthew 8, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, the Ethiopian official in Acts 8, Cornelius (Acts 10), Philemon and many of the named individuals in Paul’s letters, as well as many other obviously wealthy patrons (like possibly your example of the general’s wife that lived in Caesar’s court). Even the soldier’s (centurion’s) confession at the cross, that Jesus was the “Son of God” (Matthew 27:54, Mark 15:39), even if a theological embellishment, clearly shows that Christianity was winning adherents among the military.

Finally, there was the message itself.

”By c. 130 the Four Gospels and thirteen Epistles by St Paul were generally accepted as a New Testament Canon, comparable with the books of the Old Testament which had formed the first scriptures of the earliest Christians…
…the Christian faith was more enduringly attractive than rival worships… There were , of course no churches, but meetings were held in private homes… Further, Christianity was no respecter of persons to a degree which greatly exceeded the wide embrace of Isis: it ignored the distinction between rich and poor, man and woman, bond and free… significant testimony in favour of the Christians was given by the pagan comment… (even) the emperor Julian (361-3), exhorted the pagans to imitate their practical helpfulness in such matters as tending the sick and relieving the poor. In fact, Christian charity was one of the strongest factors in promoting the success of their cause. True, a persecuted minority could take no spectacular action to change the social structure in regard to the status of women and slaves, but they did emphasize the moral responsibility of the individual to treat with respect all men and women, since they were created in God’s image and all were redeemed in Christ.”
(Ibid. pg. 485-6)

To quote from a neutral (at best) historian of the period:

"(the Bithynian Christians) gathered together on a fixed day before sunrise and sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves on oath not to commit any crime but to refrain from robbery, theft and adultery, and not to break their word... After this it was their custom to disperse and then re-assemble to partake of food in an ordinary and innocent kind."
(A.N. Sherwin-White, The Letters of Pliney: A Historical and Social Commentary, pg. 702).

Given these factors: the structure of the church; the rapid creation and acceptance of a fixed Canon and doctrines; religious zeal and evangelizing; unequalled skill and intellectual force amongst its early apologists; the conversion not only of the lower classes, but also the educated and with social status, wealth and power; and finally the appeal of the message itself, all served powerfully to help the new religion to spread across an empire with unprecedented speed, even in the face of persistent official resistance, and even periodic state sponsored persecutions and executions.

I agree that this is a fascinating topic Layman. Thank you again for your information, and for the opportunity to share what we have learned thus far.



[This message has been edited by Nomad (edited February 06, 2001).]
Old 02-07-2001, 06:15 PM   #9
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Without king Herod the Great we would probably
not have anything remotely close to Christianity
today. One thing that fundamental Christians do
not realize is that king Herod was a priest. He
did his massive building projects with funds
channeled back to Jerusalem by the Jews of the
diaspora. King Herod and Jacob (Heli) worked
together on the same scheme (scheme is not meant
to be derogatory). The Jews in Rome that later
became Christians were, in a sense, Herodian Jews.
When members of king Herod's family went to Rome
to live (Herod Agrippa's mother) the had estates
to live upon and they practised a Jewish religion
in Rome. In AD 6 the Herod's were stripped of
their kingship and this kingship was restored
sometime after the crucifixion, i.e., king
Herod Agrippa I. All the while there was a close
relationship between the Herod's and the Jews
that became Christians.

Old 02-07-2001, 08:44 PM   #10
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I think I would like to clear up some oversimplifications. Layman's accepts the expulsion of the Jews in Rome, but the expulsion of "the Jews" by Claudius is debated within classical and biblical circles. The main problem is that it is the largest expulsion of a group of people (about 60-100,000) in Roman history and it is only mentioned by Seutonius. When the Romans did not allow the Jews to resettle in Jerusalem after the Jewish revolt, that made "big news" so to speak--lots of people talked about that one. But this large expulsion was only mentioned by one source.

The problem of this huge expulsion resulting in just one record of the event has caused some classicists to propose that only the Jewish leaders (or some leaders of Jewish Christian communities) of the community were expelled from Rome (which the Romans did routinely).

Secondly, I think that Bruce's argument that it is clear that "Chrestus" is a reference to a dispute over Jesus is a bit of a stretch. It is not nearly as clear as he seems to suggest. It could indeed be that there was a Chrestus within the Jewish community, or even the Jewish Christian community that caused turmoil and there was no evidence presented that it should be considered a reference to a conflict over the nature of Christ.

Thirdly, I would suggest that Romans is addressed to Gentiles and not necessarily to "Jews and Gentiles" (Rom. 1:5,13; 11:13). Paul's primary focus was to be an apostle to the Gentiles, and although there were Jews working in his ministry, Paul's concern was with the salvation of the Gentile.

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