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What Can We Know about Early Christ Groups?

John Kloppenborg

A common misconception about early Christ groups is that we know quite a lot about them—their approximate size (50–100), their meeting places (private houses), and the ways they functioned financially. (I use “Christ groups” rather than “Christian groups” for a simple reason: The use of “Christian” of persons in the first century misleadingly implies that there was a distinct “religion” called Christianity, distinct from Judaism or any other ancient “religion.”) In fact, there is remarkably little direct data on any of these topics from the documents in the New Testament, Apostolic Fathers, and other literature prior to the fourth century CE. 

The authors of New Testament books were not especially interested in conveying such information, or when they touched on it, they used such vague expressions as he kat’ oikon NN ekklesia (“the ekklesia that is in the oikos of NN”). Such expressions are unclear in two respects: to what does oikos refer—a villa, domestic space, workshop, or some other space? Oikos is simply insufficiently precise to allow us to imagine with any security how large these oikoi were and therefore how many persons these spaces could accommodate. 

The second problem is that the phrase he kat’ oikon NN ekklesia occurs only at Rom 16:5, 1 Cor 16:19, Col 4:15, and Phlm 1:2. As Peter Oakes has rightly argued, it seems illegitimate to infer from four occurrences of the phrase that the standard venue of the meetings of Christ groups was domestic space. There are other phrases such as hoi ek ton NN (those who belong to NN, Rom 16:10–11), which unfortunately tell us even less about the location of these Christ followers. 

We are even less well informed about financial practices since, again, our sources say almost nothing about how Christ groups were financed. Guesses range from thinking that groups had supposedly wealthy patrons such as Gaius of Corinth or perhaps Phoebe of Cenchreae, who funded the entire group, to conjectures that groups were funded by voluntary contributions of those who had resources. But Gaius is never called an euergetes or prostates by Paul, but a xenos (which means guest, not host), and Phoebe, who is called a prostatis, is said to be the patron of the ekklesia at Cenchreae and of Paul personally, not the ekklesia at Corinth.

How can we move forward on these and other questions? Until we discover other Christian sources, we will not have any direct data. For issues of size and venues of meetings, financial practices, burial practices, group demography, and other matters, however, we are not without resources, since we have indirect data through comparison with similar groups. 

Comparison of Christ groups with other small groups or associations in Mediterranean antiquity may help to set some parameters to our imagination. By “association” I mean a small face-to-face group of persons united by a common occupation, or devotion to a deity, or a diasporic identity. Thousands of such associations are attested in the Mediterranean world, known by a large variety of names—thiasos, synodos, koinon, plēthos, synagōgē, collegium, coetus, corpus, to name only some of the most common. We do not need to suppose that Christ groups considered themselves to be associations like these in order for comparison to be useful. All we need to suppose is that they were alike in some respect, because we have membership data, financial data, and information about funerary practices, meal practices, and interactions with the city and with provincial administrations for these associations. 

Comparison of the better known (associations) with the lesser known (Christ group) helps to “discipline” our imaginations as to a range of possibilities (and by implication, what was unlikely). For example, if, as is the case, the mean size of cultic associations was only about thirty persons, how much larger could we realistically suppose that Christ groups were in Corinth, Thessaloniki, Philippi, or Rome? As Edward Adams has shown from literary, papyrological, and archaeological sources, cultic groups met in a variety of venues, including domestic space, warehouses, cemeteries, workshops (tabernae), restaurants (deipneteria), purpose-built clubhouses, and the open air. If that is the case, why do scholars often insist that Christ followers met only in houses? One of the interesting findings of the study of pagan associations is that while many of them attracted patrons who supplied funds, patrons weren’t especially generous. It is extremely rare to find a group whose patron was prepared to fund more than one communal meal yearly, and often they didn’t fund the banquet itself, but only supplied money to be distributed in small amounts of 1–2 denarii (called sportulae) to association members at one of their banquets. Hence, unless Christ groups were successful in attracting patrons who were much more generous than the norm, it would be impossible to imagine that the monthly or weekly meals of Christ followers could have been supported solely through patronage. Other sources of income would have been essential. In many respects—meal practices, governance, funerals, demography—Christ groups can be located easily within a spectrum of associative practices. 

One of the benefits of close comparison is that it also helps to identify the really different or unusual aspects of Christ groups. Both Greek cities and small private associations collected funds in support of projects from time to time. These are called epidoseis (sing. epidosis). Invariably, the money raised through public subscription (everyone contributing small amounts) was used for local purposes—rebuilding a temple or synagogue, buying land for a cemetery, repairing the walls of a city, buying land for a meeting place. Paul also engaged in an epidosis (which NT scholars call “the collection”), but it was a collection not for the Macedonian or Corinthian Christ followers, but for the Christ group in Jerusalem. This is unusual, more so because it was a matter of Greeks collecting money to support Judaeans. Given the xenophobia of the ancient world, and especially in the wake of the Jew-Gentile conflicts in Antioch, Caesarea, and Alexandria a decade earlier, a collection by Greeks for Jews is really striking.

A second feature seems to have distinguished Christ groups from other associations. They formed their sociality around scriptural practices—reading texts (first from the Hebrew Bible, later from their own writings), discussing those texts, and eventually producing their own. They became “textual communities”—a term coined by mediaeval historian Brian Stock. This distinguished Christ groups from other associations in the ancient world, for whom the performance of various rituals and communal eating were central, but not participation in “bookish” practices. Isis devotees and Mithraists formed their sociality around the performance of various rituals, processions, and mysteries, not about the reading of books. But for Christ followers, reading practices became essential to their sociality, and in rather short order Christians became not only readers of books, but producers of books—Larry Hurtado has observed that before Constantine, Christians penned more than 200 books. 

The study of Christ groups in the context of other associations helps to display both the commonalities and the very interesting differences. It “normalizes” our imagination of early Christ groups. They weren’t completely different and incomparable. In most respects they looked like other small private associations. But certain features made them significantly different.

John S. Kloppenborg is university professor and chair of the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. A specialist in Christian origins, he has written extensively on the Synoptic Sayings Gospel (Q) and the parables of Jesus.

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