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Social Description of Early Christians/Christianity

November 7, 2013

Just occasionally, there have been blog comments reflecting the old assumption that early Christianity was a movement made up simply of “illiterate proletariat”.  That was a view often touted (even among scholars) until several decades ago.  But, as the work of scholars seems to take a loooong time to filter out to “popular/general” circles, the sort of comments that I mention still arise.  (Indeed, a few times a particular person, who appears to be stupid as a fence-post, has referred to “ignorant goat-herders” as his/her sobriquet for early Christians.  I’ve never posted these latter comments.  I know of no goat-herder among early Christians!)

So, although this will hardly be news to anyone familiar with scholarly work of the last several decades, I thought it perhaps helpful to point to this work for others.  Essentially, a continuing line of studies has shown from various types of evidence that early Christian circles were comprised of people of a variety of social levels.  To be sure, we have indications that some were very poor and some were slaves.  So, the old stereotype was not totally wrong, just a stereotype, and so wrong.

Indeed, early Christian writings give us what may seem a surprising amount of “prosopographical” information about early believers (i.e., information about particular believers, as to ethnicity, gender, age, social status, wealth, etc.).  Commonly cited as the pioneering (and later influential) study is Edwin A. Judge’s little book, The Social Pattern of Christian Groups in the First Century (1960).  Also worth noting is his later article, “St. Paul and Classical Society,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 15 (1972): 19-36.  Judge showed both the macro-structures of Roman-era society (vertical lines of relationship of higher/wealthier people connected with various lower levels of people dependent on them for employment, etc.), and also then evidence that early Christian circles seem to have a similar shape.

So, we see references to individual with property, houses, and financial means, these folk acting as hosts for early circles of believers, who met in their homes.  It also seems that in at least some cases these higher-status/better-off individuals took on certain leadership roles (essentially, because their prior experience in directing households, business ventures, etc., gave them the aptitude for this).

The prominence of texts in early Christianity, from the letters of Paul onward (which comprise fairly substantial literary works in some cases) further shows that there were also people of some ability in composing them, and others capable of reading them (both for themselves and reading them out/aloud for other believers).

Just to confine ourselves to studies of first-century Christianity, subsequent works include these, which have obtained wide scholarly affirmation:  Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity (1982); A. J. Malherbe, Social Aspects of Early Christianity (2nd ed, 1983); Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians:  The Social World of the Apostle Paul (1983).  And, to take things on into the second and third centuries CE, e.g., D. J. Kyrtatis, The Social Structure of the Early Christian Communities (1987).

Here’s a sample from Meeks’s now-classic work, The First Urban Christians (pp. 72-73):  “the most active and prominent members of Paul’s circle are people of high status inconsistency  . . . They are upwardly mobile, their achieved status is higher than their attributed status.”  That is, e.g., people involved in trade, business, etc., whose energy and abilities enabled them to acquire a social status that they didn’t inherit or have by way of being born into a traditional elite class.

There’s much, much more to note.  But this will do, hopefully, to steer interested readers toward a more accurate, less simplistic, view of the social makeup of the earliest circles of Christian believers.

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  1. Caio Peres permalink

    I would say Longenecker goes the same line as you. For him, Paul’s communites were formed of one well-to-do family which had a property big enough to receive more or less 50 people (ES4 level, so not at all in the very high top of the pyramid – ES1-ES3). A big portion of people who were poor, but able to work (ES5-some ES6). And the other portion was made of people who were in abject or almost abject poverty (ES6-ES7).

  2. Larry, you didn’t mention the recent work of Meggitt, Longenecker and Friesen, who all argue for a near universal level of poverty in the world of the 1st century (there are a few percentage points of difference in terms of the elite, if memory serves me). When we look at current developing world situations, it is often the case that everyone in a village is living, relative to us, in poverty, but there can be differences and hierarchies which are important to everyone – perhaps this reflects better the situation in the 1st century than some sort of idea that there was a middle class similar to what we experience in well-off Western countries. Interested in your response. best regards.

    • I can’t enter the complicated questions involved in what you mention: E.g., “poverty” is always a relative term, and relative to western situations, yes, the great mass would be considered empoverished. And neither Judge nor the others I cited posited “a middle class” such as we know today. But the data of Paul’s letters suggests a socio-economic diversity of urbanized people, the leadership of churches apparently people somewhat above the subsistence level.

  3. But we should not forget Justin Meggitt’s book Paul, Poverty and Survival (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1998), which argued that Paul’s churches were composed largely of the urban poor. Also very important for the social composition of Paul’s churches (as well as other matters) is Bruce Longenecker’s Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World ( Eerdmans, 2010).

    • Yes, Richard, you and another commenter mentioned Meggitt, Bruce Longenecker and their emphases. We’re in danger, however, of mixing matters. The point established (rather persuasively I think) in the works that I posted about was that the Pauline churches seem to have been led and hosted by people with some modest property holdings, people with some experience in trade and travel, and who also would likely have had some servants, etc. That’s a different matter from who may have made up the bulk of the circles.
      So, there was likely a spread of socio-economic levels. This seems reflected, for example, in Paul’s directions about the “Lord’s Supper” in 1 Cor 11:17-34, where he refers to some who have plenty and others who have nothing, and urges those able to do so to “wait for one another”.

      • The better-off were using the “Lord’s Supper” to remind the rest of their higher social status? Somewhat contrary to the teaching of Jesus: Luke 14:7-11.


      • Yes, and that’s why Paul rebukes this and calls for a more genuine expression of fellowship at the meal.

  4. manunitedfaninmanchester permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    I found that post fascinating.

    I would love to know more about the likes of Junia, Phoebe and Lydia. Strange how when Christianity is excoriated by the ignorant as misogynistic and appealing to the uneducated that it seems to have held such appeal to succesful and independently-minded women in the early Church.
    Can’t help finding attractive the notion (espoused by Professor Bauckham among others) that Junia was the same Joanna, mentioned by Luke as the wife of Chuza.

    Paul himself sems to have had some success with his preaching amongst the uneducated (1 Corinthians 1: 26 “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth”.).

    But his message obviously appealed also to some wealthier and succesful individuals. After all, the succesful, who had risen from humble beginnings in societies which perhaps despised those of the “wrong” gender or social origins, would have had the time and inclination to look for something more fulfilling than the societies in which they found themselves, had to offer?

    M. Gould

    • A lot you raise in your comment, too much to engage here. I’ll simply agree that the past is typically more complex than the representations of it.

  5. Ιάκωβος Παλαιολόγος permalink

    Thank you for your comments. Dimitris J. Kyrtatas is the author’s name.

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