Christian Insula Houses
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Roman Interior 158

House Church Bases

Insula House at OstiaHow many people could comfortably fit into a house church gathering under normal circumstances is almost impossible to estimate. It would depend entirely on the size of the house and the amount of open space available. To the extent that separate dining facilities for men and women remained the custom, this separation according to sex, and the smaller children with the women, may have continued in Christian assemblies. But all would presumably have been positioned in such a way as to be able at least to hear the voice of the president or the preacher.

A Woman Presbyter?

The Upper RoomAnother possible scenario, presented by Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch in "Families in the New Testament World - Households and House Churches" is that women were led by a woman presider in a separate section of the dining facilities during the meal, only joining the men for the teaching, or perhaps only then when an important visitor presided.✞

Insula Houses

San Clemente RomeIf no members of the community possessed a large home, which was probably often the case, the group would have to gather elsewhere, most likely in one or two rooms of Christian insula houses, perhaps in large ground floor rooms. "In Roman architecture, an 'Insula (building)' (Latin for 'island,' plural 'insulae') was a kind of apartment building that housed most of the urban population of ancient Rome, including ordinary people of lower or middle class status and all but the wealthiest from the upper-middle class. The first church buildings of 'San Giovanni e Paolo' in Venice and the 'Basilica of San Clemente in Rome' seems to have been built over original Christian Houses."

42,000 Roman Insula!

Roman House InteriorIt is estimated that there were between 42,000 to 46,000 insulae in Rome alone in the late 3rd century. Although there is no archaeological evidence for Christian insulae, one has to ask why these particular locations were later chosen as Christian church sites. It is quite possible that these are examples of insula houses where the earliest Christian meetings took place in a room or apartment of the original house. "Those with Chloe" in 1 Corinthians 1.11 may be an example, and Paul's late night discourse in the third storey room at Troas in Acts 20.7-12 is probably another.✞

"Christian Insula Houses"
by Ron Meacock © 2017

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