Dining Room Churches
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36. Dining Room Churches

Early Roman Households

Sicyonian Gate CorinthIn Jerusalem, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of ancient Roman domestic residences and dining room churches that allow us a glimpse of the conditions under which early Christians may have met. Excavations in one area on the Western Hill in the Upper City revealed a residential district that included some substantial houses. The individual dwelling units were extensive, with inner courtyards characteristic of luxurious villas built in the Hellenistic style, which was the layout of a Greek house of the Roman period. The noble families of Jerusalem probably lived in this area. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids in the "Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development" explained. 'Since house churches did not demand architectural alterations, their archaeological remains are undetectable unless subsequently incorporated into the later stages of house churches as a "Domus ecclesiae" that is "churches in private homes" or as an "aula ecclesiae" or a "hall of the church."'

Villa Irbana Rustica

Early Roman HouseholdIn the city-state of Corinth, the excavated remains of a Roman villa in the vicinity of the Sicyonian Gate, near Temple E, and the sumptuous "Anaploga Villa" are two examples of residences in which the early Christian community could have gathered. No doubt, early Christians preferred a good-sized home as the venue for a local church gathering, and the patronage system would have imposed on wealthy members the expectation that they should host this gathering. According to the Roman author Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), there were two kinds of villas. The "Villa Urbana," was a country seat close to Rome (or another city), and the "Villa Rustica," the farm-house estate permanently occupied by the servants." Pliny the Elder, by the way, coined the phrase "home is where the heart is" in the first century AD!

Makeshift Dining Couches

Domus Ecclesiae Wall MosaicA large worshipping group would possibly have spilled out from the dining room into the main room and courtyard. The dining room area, called a "triclinian," was typically designed to hold nine diners reclining on three couches arranged together on three sides of a square, with the open side toward the house's inner space. There was also some limited space in the dining room for others sitting on chairs alongside the couches. The inner courtyard or open space was the key to flexibility. There, people could be placed in any arrangement, depending on space available with makeshift dining couches, tables, or even seated on the ground.✞

Insula Houses

San Clemente RomeIf no community members possessed a large enough home, which was probably the case, the group would have to gather elsewhere, most likely in one or two rooms of Christian insula houses, perhaps in the large ground floor rooms. "In Roman architecture, an 'Insula' plural 'insulae,' which is Latin for 'island,' were apartment buildings 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' seemed to have been built over the remains of the original Christian insula houses."

42,000 Roman Insula!

Roman House InteriorThere were possibly between 15,000 and 20,000 insulae in Rome alone in the late 3rd century. Although there is little archaeological evidence for Christian insulae, one has to ask why Christian church sites appeared at these particular locations. These might have been examples of insula houses where the earliest Christian meetings took place in the original house's room or apartment. The house in 1 Corinthians 1.11 may have been an insula, and Paul's late-night discourse in the third story room at Troas in Acts 20.7-12 was probably another. "On the first day of the week, we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and kept talking until midnight because he intended to leave the next day. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man, and put his arms around him. 'Don't be alarmed. He's alive,' he said. Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted." All of this probably happened in a Roman insula house!

Christian Community Room

Upper Room JerusalemThe Christian community in the Upper Room in Jerusalem had a much larger following from the poor and widows than the rich. Within a decade, "a great multitude" of Christians in Rome suffering martyrdom under Nero's persecution (64-68 AD), but there is no suggestion in the sources that the victims represented all or even a majority of Christians there. In Palestine and beyond, the first generation Christian mission won a more significant following than is usually supposed, according to "Pauline Theology - Ministry and Society" by E. Earl Ellis (1926-2010). The Acts of the Apostles gives us a picture of early believers regularly gathering in Christian community rooms, dining room churches, and upper rooms. Two possibilities present themselves that the early Christians rented a partly a domestic residence or that a Christian benefactor and homeowner set aside a community room or an entire level of rooms for that purpose in his or her own house.

Much Greater Following

PhariseesSecond Temple Pharisees confirm that the "brotherhood." met for study and meetings in second-floor halls and dining rooms. The early Christians' problem of securing a sufficient number of houses for their assemblies may have found its solution in contemporary Judaism. Most synagogues in the day were rooms in houses. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids tell us that most early believers residing in Jerusalem are Jews, and their number includes individuals who have financial means. It is plausible that some of these Jewish Christians have formerly opened their houses or parts of them to the synagogue community. It was natural for these patrons, having become followers of Jesus, to use the same facilities as a Christian meeting room or dining room church in the community.

Roman Insula Houses

Insula House at OstiaIn the Early Church, Christian families used Roman insula houses as Households of Faith or as home church bases. How many people could have comfortably fitted into an insula house church gathering under normal circumstances is almost impossible to estimate. Ancient Rome is estimated to have had one million people living there in the third century AD, but the city itself was only eight square miles in area. Insulae housed most of these people. These were the inexpensive equivalent to our flats or apartments today. There may be six or seven apartments (called "cenacula") in each insula house. The number of people in each place depended entirely on the house's size and the amount of open space available on each floor, which varied immensely. 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 in separate rooms. All would have been able to hear the voice of the president or the preacher.

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. They would join the men for the teaching, or perhaps only when an guest visitor presided and spoke.

Christian Meeting Place

Christian Meeting PlacesDuring the second stage of household development, Households of Faith came together as Christian meeting places in private houses. Christians, between 150 and 250 AD, renovated private domestic residences for exclusive use as meeting places. In some instances, this kind of renovated home was used formerly as a meeting place for believers during the earlier period of Household of Faith development. Thus architectural alterations and change of function are the two characteristics of the so-called "domus ecclesiae," according to Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids. The modern equivalent to these is house churches or households of faith.✞

Christianized Decorations

Early ChristiansThe earliest Christian meetings took place in homes. Dr. Michael Green suggested in "Evangelism in the Early Church," "It is only to be expected, therefore that Christians should have borne witness to their faith through their decoration. The evidence suggests that they did so in a tentative and allusive way." "Their Christianized decorations would mean much to a fellow Christian, but would either seem unremarkable to the non-Christian or might bring about a mild comment, which in turn, could allow the Christian householder an opportunity to bear witness to his or her faith."

Remodeled Christian Home

Dura Europos Domus EcclesiaCarolyn Osiek and David L. Balch suggest that "the remodeled Christian home was replacing the private house. The domus ecclesiae," which, while resembling a residence on the outside, was no longer a center of private family life. It was not that house and family were devalued in the process, for they remained the location that first nurtured faith and where people lived out their Christian lives.

Places of Prayer

Domus MosaicsThe scattered evidence suggests that family households increasingly became private prayer places, reading from the scriptures and other religious books, and homes. The Christian faith found new and more overt means of expression.

"Dining Room Churches"
by Ron Meacock © 2021

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