“Elite” Early Christians?
In the course of my recent writing projects, I’ve come across a new book on the evidence of individuals from the “elite” levels of Roman-era society as early Christian converts: Alexander Weiß, Soziale Elite und Christentum: Studien zu ordo-Angehörigen unter den frühen Christen (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015) roughly = Social Elites and Christianity: Studies on Members from Elite classes among Early Christians. (The publisher’s online catalogue entry here.)
A century or so ago, it was a widespread view that early Christianity was essentially a religion of slaves and people of near-abject poverty. But, particularly commencing with the pioneering work of Edwin Judge published in 1960 (The Social Pattern of Christian Groups in the First Century) a “new consensus” has developed. In this view, early Christian churches were more socially mixed, and heavily comprised of people with some modest financial means, including some who had homes adequate to accommodate Christian gatherings.
As Weiß indicates (21), this “new consensus” involves two main claims: (1) There were no Christian converts from the “ordo-Angehörigen” (members of the elite levels of Roman society) in earliest Christianity; and (2) “Status-dissonance” or “status-inconsistency” was a major factor in drawing converts, as the Christian ekklesia allowed them to resolve this problem. (That is, people whose aspirations for upward social mobility were frustrated are thought to have been attracted to Christianity as they could acquire respect and status within Christian circles.) Weiß’s main aim, however, is to challenge these two notions. So, he focuses on evidence of early Christian adherents from the three “ordines” of Roman society: the ordo decurionum (typically leaders at civic levels), the ordo equester (Roman knights), and the ordo senatorius (Roman senatorial class).
As some of the evidence to be considered is from Acts of the Apostles, Weiß devotes an early and lengthy chapter to methodological issues about using Acts for historical purposes, laying out his case for a critically positive stance on the matter. In Acts, he points to references to Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:4-14), Dionysios the Areopagite (Acts 17:16034), the high-status women in Thessalonica (Acts 17:4), and the “most excellent Theophilus” to whom the author of Luke-Acts dedicated the work.
Then, Weiß deals with the Erastus “the city treasurer” mentioned in by Paul Romans 16:23, discussing also the inscription mentioning a figure by this name. Weiß contends that this figure really was a member of the local decurian class.
In the following chapter, Weiß considers several figures who have sometimes been posited as early Christians: Pomponia Graecina, Flavius Clemens, Flavia Domitilla, and Acilius Glabrio, dismissing each of them for want of good evidence.
Weiß then considers the specific hindrances and problems for members of the social elite in being Christians: particularly, their public responsibilities that involved taking part in cultic events dedicated to the traditional gods. Weiß argues that such individuals likely made various considered compromises, negotiating their existence in ways that Christians of lower orders didn’t have to face.
Ranging across the first three centuries, Weiß argues cogently that there are indications of Christians from the elite levels of Roman society, including literary and archaeological evidence. He grants that they were a small minority among Christians of this period, but insists that there were such adherents. And this leads him to challenge the “status inconsistency” view: Christians of high social status wouldn’t have experienced “status inconsistency,” and so that is not the factor that prompted them to become Christians.
He has a good point. Indeed, I wonder really how compelling the “status inconsistency” claim is for any early Christians. How would people anxious to improve their standing find it attractive to become an adherent of a religious group regarded with deep suspicion and hostility by many (most?) other people, particularly people of upper classes it seems (to judge from comments by Tacitus, Suetonius, Celsus, etc.)? Why would they have found it reasonable to become a Christian, given the considerable social consequences and costs involved in making such a move?
I think that Weiß’s book deserves notice by anyone interested in early Christianity, especially anyone engaging in social-description of the movement.
In my Pere Marquette Lecture (10 April 2016, Marquette University), I probe the question, “Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries.” The advance-notice flyer is here.