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“Elite” Early Christians?

February 29, 2016

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.


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  1. Joe Zias permalink

    You might take a look at what is happening in India today, whereby Hindus from the lower classes, inc. the so called ‘untouchables’ convert to Christianity so as to remove the stigma of being from a lower caste. This in turn, I would argue pose problems for those people who have been Christian for centuries. We see something similar here I’m told among the Messianic Jews who argue they are not Christians and are not all that eager to pray with the fundamentalists and sometimes visa verse.
    Case in point is the removal from the Protestant Christ Church at the Jaffa Gate the cross which was suddenly placed there in 1948 so as to say it may look like a synagogue but it ain’t. A few yrs ago the Jews for Jesus objected to its presence and it was removed.

    • But, Joe, I don’t see any similarity of situation. “Untouchables” converted to a religion associated with the colonizing power, which trumped socially the native traditions in their eyes, and so conferred significant improvement in social status. But in the earliest Christian centuries, becoming a Christian = joining an upstart movement with no social traction at all.

  2. Thanks Larry; this is a most helpful summary/review.

  3. Could you, at some time, comment on Gary Hoag’s “Wealth in Ancient Ephesus . . . ?”

  4. Kathryn permalink

    (Editorial note: Although the following comment is much larger than I normally permit, it is a valuable review of several recent publications relevant to my posting on “elite” Christians produced by one of our PhD students here in New College. LWH)

    Recent work by Steven Friesen (“Poverty in Pauline Studies: Beyond the So-Called New Consensus.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 26.3 (2004): 323-61) and Bruce Longenecker (Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) reinforce the conception of the composition early church as being primarily made up of the poor. The ‘real’ poor are divided into three categories—near subsistence, at subsistence, and below subsistence levels. Longenecker concludes that these three categories comprised 82% of the urban population of the Roman Empire. Longenecker produces an interesting speculative appraisal of the economic status of certain prominent people of higher standing mentioned in the NT, but none are placed in ES1-ES3.
    If the Erastus mentioned by Paul in Romans 16:23, ὁ οἰκονόμος τῆς πόλεως (an official of the city), was the same one who donated a pavement in Corinth in thanks for being made an aedile, as recorded on a first or second century CE inscription, then he might have been placed in ES3 or higher. However the inscription is damaged and it is not certain that the name was not another name such as Eperastus. Friesen’s chapter The Wrong Erastus in Corinth in Context will make it very difficult to claim any link between Paul’s Erastus and the Erastus of the Corinthian inscription. (Friesen, Steven J., Daniel N. Schowalter, and James C. Walters, Corinth in Context: Comparative Studies on Religion and Society. Supplements to Novum Testamentum, 134. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2010.)
    [Editor’s note: Weiss doesn’t rest his case about Erastus on the inscription, but produces a good deal of comparative data in support of his view that the Erastus of Rom. 16:23 was an “elite” of Corinth.)

    Peter Oakes surveyed the archaeological evidence of the buildings of Pompeii in order to acquire an insight into the possible living conditions of the members of the Roman church. (Oakes, Peter. Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level. Minneapolis; London: Fortress Press; SPCK, 2009.)
    Primarily he agrees with Steven Friesen that there was social diversity within the non-elite which indicated social stratification. Secondly, he conjectures the implications for New Testament texts, Romans in particular, in relation to such diversity. He examines a row of four houses and concludes that extending from the poorest case via the middle example to the more affluent instance there was an escalation of income. Oakes next produces a descriptive model of non-elite society and develops it for first century society in Pompeii and Rome. It is relevant to report that Oakes’ model broadly supports the figures for first century social structure suggested by Steven Friesen and similarly expresses the differences of status amongst the non-elite (p.70).
    The model is used to imagine the social composition of a craft-worker led house church. Oakes paints an imaginary picture of the lifestyles of four people: a slave bath-stoker, a poor stoneworker, a sexually exploited slave, and a prosperous craft-working house church host. He illustrates the breadth of situations that the term ‘craft-worker’ can cover.
    In the light of the imagined lives of the members of the non-elite members of the church in Pompeii, free born Sabina, and slaves Iris and Primus, Peter Oakes examines the content of letter of Paul to the Romans to find out what would attract such as them to Christianity. He claims that it was not the promise of forgiveness of individual sin but rather the assurance of justice that would appeal to them. Judgment would be meted out by God to those who had oppressed them. Their new status as children of God made slaves like Primus equal to their masters and free-born craft workers no better than slaves. On top of that all were promised an inheritance in Christ. For the abjectly poor such as Sabina both practical help and ability to endure was promised, together with the hope and expectation of an eternal life in glory. For prostitute Iris and sexually exploited children there is offered the anticipation of the redemption and renewal of their polluted bodies. (pp. 125-139)

  5. How does this analysis of social classes in the early church relate to literacy? Were the upper classes more literate than the lower social classes in the church and how does that relate to the extensive written material that was used and circulated among the Christians of those early centuries?

    • There is no automatic/tight correlation between class and literacy level, but in general we presume that there was a higher level of literacy among upper classes. As I’ve contended in a previous publication, the various “readers aids” often found in copies of Christian scriptures suggest that the manuscripts were prepared to provide assistance to sub-elite readers for reading out texts in church gatherings. See: Larry W. Hurtado, “What Do the Earliest Christian Manuscripts Tell Us About Their Readers?,” in The World of Jesus and the Early Church: Identity and Interpretation in Early Communities of Faith, ed. Craig A. Evans (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 179-92.

  6. As a contrast I was reading Scot McKnight’s 1st Peter commentary in which he makes the case for a plurality of the marginalized. I am not aware if that assessment is as it relates specifically to the locales in which 1st Peter was sent.

  7. John Switzer permalink


    I’m enjoying your posts. Many thanks! Is there a chance of getting a copy of your Pere Marquette lecture sometime soon, or learning of its publication? Are you ever in the Mobile area?

    Warmly, John

    • Marquette University Press will publish the 28K word essay from which my 10 April lecture will be distilled. They aim to have it out in time for the lecture as a small booklet.

  8. Granville Sydnor permalink

    Is it possible that this book maybe translated into English? My German is non-existent and my English very rusty.

    • Translation costs money. So, it tends to be done in cases where publishers expect a sufficient sales of the translation to pay for it, or where somebody underwrites the translation with a grant.

  9. I agree with your logic, Larry (as usual!). My sense is that gains in status by participating in a local church could well be motivating for many people in Christendom–that is, situations in which there is no social loss to joining the church but only possible social gain. Indeed, you and I have known people who have enjoyed far higher status in their church then they had in their work or private life, and it would be obtuse not to guess that this gain in status plays a role in their psyche.

    Thanks for bringing this essay to our attention, chum.

    • Patrick permalink

      I wonder if the passages in Corinthians where Paul has to tell some it is not acceptable to continue to attend pagan temples is addressed to business types who needed that social setup to continue to their business networking?

      Plus, it appears to me Paul has to address the elitists being hogs at their eucharists.

      I doubt regular economic status Christian Corinthians wanted to keep attending pagan rituals for religious logic.

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