In public and in private : the role of the house church in early Christianity
In a brief article published in 1939, Floyd Filson suggested that our understanding of early Christianity would be enriched if we considered the physical conditions of the early church, i.e., the house churches. In many respects, this thesis is a response to Filson's summons. The recent interest in the 'social world of early Christianity' and the non-literary evidence unearthed in this century have made this study possible (Chapters 1 and 2). The evidence confirms that the building program endorsed by Constantine is a watershed in early Christian architecture. Until the founding of the Lateran basilica (c.314 AD) the Christians primarily met in houses (converted or otherwise). Prior to the Peace of the Church there were three major stages of development: 1. the 'house church' proper (c.50-150), i.e., a domestic residence which continued to function as such while it also served to accommodate a Christian gathering. 2. The domus ecclesiae (c.150-250), i.e., renovated residences. 3. The aula ecclesiae (c.250-313), i.e., large halls used by the community. The early period of the 'house church' has been the primary focus of our study; although we have provided evidence for all three stages (Chapter 2). The 'house' provided the early believers with a gathering place that was immediately available, distinct from other venues (e.g., the Temple and synagogue), and which had the necessary appurtenances. In particular, the Christians needed a venue which could accommodate a meal (including the Eucharist). In this respect, the 'house' was a natural choice (Chapter 3). The fact that the meal was an important feature in the house gatherings can be seen most acutely when the Jewish/Gentile milieu is considered. The Jewish regulations concerning commensality (Chapter 4) and the fact that synagogues included culinary appurtenances (Chapter 5) attest to the importance of proper food (and preparation) and acceptable table companions. The meals in the house church forced the early Christians (Jew and Gentile) to determine the relevance of the regulations and ritual laws of purity and, above all, to demonstrate the reconciliatory message of the Gospel - at the table. The house was also significant for the expansion of Christianity. According to Luke, the conversion of a house owner resulted in the physical establishment of the church in a given locale (Chapter 3).