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Where did Earliest Christians Meet?

November 20, 2013

For some time now, the general view has been that earliest Christians met (e.g., for group worship) in houses, at least mainly.  In a newly-published study, Dr. Edward Adams (Kings College London) queries this, contending that the evidence for this view isn’t as solid and consistent as commonly thought, and that the extant evidence suggests instead a variety of settings.  The book results from a research project that extended over a few years, and should be considered carefully by anyone seriously interested in the question:  The Earliest Christian Meeting Places:  Almost Exclusively Houses? (London:  T&T Clark/Bloomsbury, 2013).

Adams first (Part 1) reviews the evidence for use of houses as Christian meeting-places (NT texts, extra-canonical texts, archaeological evidence, and “comparative evidence,” i.e., places used by other religious groups of the Roman period).  Clearly, houses were, at least sometimes, the locale for early Christian gatherings.  But Adams argues that the evidence does not justify the view that “house churches” were the rule.

In Part 2, Adams reviews indications of the use of other types of spaces:  “retail, industrial & storage spaces,”  “commercial, hospitality and leisure spaces,” and “outdoor spaces and burial places.”

Adams also considers the place of communal meals in earliest Christian worship-gatherings, confirming that such meals “were central to the worship of the early Christians” (201).

Expressing a “basic agreement” with the three-stage schematization of ecclesiastical architecture (domestic homes, adapted homes, purpose-built church structures), Adams urges, however, “an expanded understanding of the first and second phases” to allow a greater variety of kinds of spaces used in the very earliest period.  (Cf. L. M. White, The Social Origins of Christian Architecture, Vol. 1:  Building God’s House in the Roman World, Trinity Press International, 1990.)

But Adams questions whether the term “house churches” should continue to be used at all for early Christian groups. The expression isn’t found in ancient texts, and he finds the it “deeply associated with the modern house church movement” so that “in applying it to early churches, it is difficult to avoid thereby implying that they are homologous with house churches of modern times.”  So, he urges, “the category ‘house church/churches’ should be dropped altogether from New Testament and Early Christian studies” (202).

Adams has engaged a long-standing view, and is likely to generate some animated discussion.  It will be interesting to see how this goes.  But the detail and depth of Adams’ own analysis call for a careful weighing of his case.

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  1. Wilson Oh permalink

    Does he say anything about gatherings in the “rural” and “urban” area? Does he follow jewish gathering pattern as a hermeneutical key to understand these early gatherings?

    • Adams discusses all the various locations of Christian gatherings in ancient sources.

  2. Assuming Jesus had followers while he was alive, where did they meet?

    • Steven, The Gospels narratives locate Jesus and followers in an itinerant ministry, in various locales, including homes, open areas, the Jerusalem temple, et al. But there’s no indication of the sort of regularized congregations that we see rather quickly in the “post-Easter” period.

  3. John Moles permalink

    Interesting post. I happened to hear Dr Adams’ views in a paper a couple of years ago at the Durham NT seminar (where there was a good discussion). The question, it seems to me, bears on two important larger issues: (1) the degree to which the first Christians were actively proselytising, sometimes in ‘public space’ (how representative is Paul in Acts 17, whether as a historical document concerning Paul or as a plausible general representation)?; and (2) – related – the degree to which they were being – or feared being – persecuted (so avoided ‘public space’). I seem to remember that in that paper Dr Adams was rather sympathetic to the view that the Corinthian Christians addressed by Paul were meeting in a room of the Temple of Dionysus in Corinth!

  4. Murray Baker permalink

    In my recent dissertation (Founding Pauline Small Groups – University of Toronto) I made the (obvious?) observation that the earliest meeting places of Pauline groups would be connected in some way with the social setting of Paul’s initial activity in a location (social setting: synagogue, household or workshop). The resulting place of meeting would have been in a house or apartment, a workshop, or a location such as the worshippers of Theos Hypsistos used (an open outdoor location) (I think the synagogue would not have worked out for meetings — as well one could also imagine the eventual rental or purchase/construction of some type of meeting place such as some other associations had). It is this last location (outdoors) I am interested in . . . You mention that Adams addresses “outdoor spaces and burial places”. Does he specifically touch on the meetings of followers of Theos Hypsistos or similar groups as analogues for early Christian (specifically here Pauline) meeting places? Once I can get my hands on the book I’ll sure check this out but I’d like to get an inkling now of what he looks at! Thanks.

    • Murray: I don’t see references in Adams’ book to Theos Hypsistos or other groups. He concentrates on evidence directly pertaining to early Christian activities.

  5. Ross Macdonald permalink

    Thanks for posting this; I was unaware of the title. I’m fond of Adams’ research, particularly his work on the church of Corinth. It seems to me that one of the more prominent historians in regard to house-churches is Robert Banks. I wonder if Adams’ interacts with him extensively, as he qualifies much of our early Christian understanding in terms of house-church social structure.

  6. Jean-Paul Michaud permalink

    Thank you for this information, but what is the title of this new study of Edward Adams ?

    Jean-Paul Michaud

    Le 2013-11-20 06:01, Larry Hurtado’s Blog a crit :

    > >

  7. Ryan K permalink


    Glad to see this work out there. I think it will complement Ramsay MacMullen’s “The Second Church” well, which focuses on a slightly later period and its transitions – have you seen/read it?

    • No. Didn’t know of the book.

      • Ryan K permalink

        You should take a look, although if you aren’t much interested in the period from 200-400 CE, it might not be all that helpful. Anyhow, he is quite thorough in his treatment of the topic. The reason I suggested that it might be a nice complement is due to MacMullen’s careful look at archeological remains in a number of locations around the Mediterraneanand manner in which one might reconstruct the transition from whatever spaces Adams might suggest here to the churches of later periods. I know White’s book is usually given as the standard here, but I think MacMullen, in that he is an historian does a slightly better job. Anyhow, the complete citation is Ramsay MacMullen, The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400, Society of Biblical Literature, 2009.

  8. Regarding Adams’ use of the term “house church”, isn’t this a problem with the term “church” at all, which for most automatically brings up images of contemporary churches (both in terms of architecture as well as social and organizational structure)? Perhaps we should opt for “gatherings” or some other term, if we wish to avoid such connections.

    I wish the price of this book didn’t place it outside the purchasing ability of individuals.

    • Jimmy: Well, “church” translates “ekklesia” (which could = “assembly”), which seems already in the NT to have begun to acquire a technical-term usage. It certainly seems to have had the sense of a “duly constituted” or “official” type connotation (e.g., the “ekklesia” of a city).
      And, yes, it is unfortunate that scholarly books can sometimes be so expensive. This one will likely go into paperback in a year or so, and that will be comparatively cheaper. The initial hardback edition of the typical European scholarly book is intended only for libraries. That’s why I tend to publish with publishers who are really keen on selling books!

  9. Caio Peres permalink

    I know that would be difficult to measure, but it would be good to know how common or often christians met in places other than homes, and if house meetings (his point on the use of house churches is definitely valid) were the most common, was it 90% of the times or 60%? It’s hard to believe that house meetings were not the standard case, but it’s also reasonable to believe that other places could be used in some small scale depending on the region and circumstances.

    • I don’t see that Adams quantifies things along the lines that you suggest, largely because we don’t have enough data to make any reliable statistics.

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