Saturday, June 18, 2011

Understanding the Early Development of the House Churches in Rome, Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

I want to take a look at one of the “travel” paragraphs in Acts:
After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in the island, a ship of Alexandria, with the twin gods [the Greek gods Castor and Pollux] as a figurehead. Putting in at Syracuse, we stayed there for three days. And from there we made a circuit and arrived at Rhegium. And after one day a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli. There we found brothers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage. And when we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier that guarded him (Acts 28:11-16).
Having owned a study Bible most of my adult life, I can testify that this is one of those passages that I read over quickly, maybe referencing a nearby map, and then skipping on to “meatier” topics.

But this is a first-person factual account upon which an historian, who naturally looks to such attested accounts, can hang his hat. By the time Paul first got to Rome, there were Christians there.

And this is where Peter Lampe (“From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries” Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press ©2003) begins his account:
The beginnings of Pre-Pauline Christianity in Rome are shrouded in haze. Pre-Pauline Christians are attested for Rome (Romans; Acts 28:15) and Puteoli (Acts 28:13f.). Concerning the rest of the Italian cities, silence dominates. Luke knows of no Christians for the remaining Italian localities which he names in Acts 28. (7)

The Christian presence in Puteoli and Rome correlates with a twofold background. (a) Jews had lived in Puteoli since Augustan times (Josephus, Bell. 2.104; Ant 17.328). Rome (e.g., Philo, Leg. Ad Gaium 155), perhaps Aquileia in the north (CIL 12:3422), and Puteoli accommodated the only pre-Christian Jewish settlements in Italy known to us. This is one more confirmation that the earliest Christianity spread along the routes that Judaism had already followed: the synagogues were the setting for the first Christian mission. (b) The Jewish as well as the Christian “axis” Puteoli-Rome has a particular economic-historical background. The stretch Puteoli-Rome was the main trade route between the East and the city of Rome in the first half of the first century. The road of Judaism and Christianity from the east to Rome followed in the footsteps of trade. Were there tradespersons and businesspersons among the first Christians in Italy? Was the tentmaker Aquila from Pontus representative of the first urban Roman Christians?

The Puteoli-Rome trade axis: Still in the time of Nero, the harbor of Puteoli, not that of Ostia, represented the main gageway of Rome to the Est. The Alexandrian grain fleet landed not in Ostia, but in Puteoli—still under Nero (Seneca, Ep. 77.1). Not until the Flavians did Ostia catch up in importance.

The reason for the pre-Flavian situation was that ships with import wares for Rome found it easier to get cargo for a return trip in Puteoli/Campania than in Rome, which was never an industrial center. From Campania through Puteoli in the first century, however, wine, oil, ceramics, Capuan metal vessels, and many other goods were shipped to the East. Only in the time of the Flavians did the demand for Campanian export goods soften on the world market; Ostia, expanded by Claudius (42-54 C.E.), then gained in importance.

That Judaism and Christianity made their way to Rome through Puteoli, through this urbs Graeca (Petron. 81) and Italy’s gateway to the orient, was typical of the entrance of eastern religions into the world’s capital city. There was, for instance, a temple to Serapis in Puteoli already by 105 B.C.E. (CIL 12:698), while in Rome itself, the cult is evidenced only from the middle of the first century B.C.E. on Mars field. An inscription from the year 79 C.E. informs us that once again a new god from the East had made its entrance into Puteoli, this time one from Phoenicia. The Nabatean divinity Dusares had also found its way there (9-10).
Here we have some seemingly off-the-cuff, first-hand observations from Luke in Acts 28, confirmed by nearly a dozen external sources.

Robert Jewett, in the Introduction to his Hermeneia “Romans” Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press ©2006), notes “the vast amount of information available about the city of Rome” (46). He provides an overview of the historical setting into which the early Christians in Rome settled:
The city of Rome within which the early congregations developed was decisively altered by Octavian’s triumph over Mark Antony in the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E., which left Octavian as the sole master of the empire. He ceremonially turnedpower over to the senate, receiving the title of “Augustus” in 27 for having restored the Republic, but in fact he ruled as the single head of state whose power derived from the oath of allegiance that the citizens of Rome and the governments of the provinces had granted him prior to the Battle of Actium. The populace thus became Octavian’s private clientele with him, the emperor, as the master patron. An effective propaganda campaign portrayed Augustus as the divinely appointed ruler who brought peace to a troubled world by restoring legitimate government based on the rule of law and the restoration of public virtue. The ludi saeculares games and festivities were first celebrated in 18 B.C.E. to thank the gods for the Augustan peace, to purify the free citizens, and to enjoy days of celebration provided by the state. An extensive building program paid by the emperor and his wealthy supporters transformed Rome into a gleaming city of marble that grew to house a million people. Under his loyal son-in-law Agrippa, a new aqueduct was built along with numerous public foundtains; temples were restored, public gardens, baths, and theaters were erected; and the city administration was reorganized with fire brigades and police protection; enhanced grain deliveries to Roman citizens were also provided. All of these improvements served to demonstrate that the golden age of peace and plenty had finally arrived. In place of the chaotic warren of streets and alleys that was difficult to administer, Augustus organized 265 neighborhoods with elected leaders and local shrines containing altars to the local Lares [“household deities”] and to the emperor’s genius, thus linking leading craftsmen into his system of honorable governance. The beneficiaries of this vast program of renewal were the citizens of Rome but not the slaves and immigrants who made up the bulk of the early Christian congregations (47-47).
Note the emphasis here: Augustus, pontifex maximus, and “household deities”.

Returning to William L. Lane’s account:
The primary social universe in which members of Greco-Roman society lived was the household. It provided the basic economic, political, and religious social unit of Greco-Roman civilization. In Rome the household community constituted the basic unit of society. The Roman familia, consisting of all the persons, free or slave, under the authority of the head of the household (paterfamilias), provided an emotionally and existentially satisfying social setting for its individual members. The early church in Rome could not exist in such a milieu without something of that environment leaving its mark upon it (208).
Recall that, in discussing the current “high-level” ecumenical discussions that are taking place, with the sanction of the official Roman Catholic Church (though they are not “official” discussions, only “theological” discussions), I quoted Herman Pottmeyer as saying “the historical facts are not disputed”. These are some of the historical facts that are not disputed. Just some of them.

More to follow, Lord willing.

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