Evidence for a First Century “Tenement Church” -- By: John H. Niemelä

Journal: Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Volume: JOTGES 24:46 (Spring 2011)
Article: Evidence for a First Century “Tenement Church”
Author: John H. Niemelä


Evidence for a First Century “Tenement Church”

John H. Niemelä

Professor

Rocky Mountain Bible College & Seminary

Denver, CO

Estimating the Size of Paul’s Roman Audience

Scholars have sought to calculate the number of Christians in Rome when Paul wrote.1 The greetings section of Romans 16 is the basis for such estimates. Paul greets more people by name here than in any other epistle. However, the mention of twenty-six congregants does not immediately suggest a large Christian community. Thus, scholarly estimates of the original audience of the epistle tend to be low—probably too low.

In AD 64, Nero charged Christians with the burning of Rome. In the aftermath, Tacitus reports the condemnation of “a huge crowd” (multitudo ingens) of Christians.2 If he is right, the church at Rome was no small entity only seven years after Paul’s epistle. This leaves three options:

  1. Tacitus may have overstated the numbers.
  2. Christianity grew from a small sect in Rome to a large one in less than a decade.
  3. Christianity was already sizeable in the capital before Paul’s epistle.

Looking at this another way, the first question is: How large was the church in AD 64? The second is: How large was it in AD 57?

There is every reason to accept Tacitus’ report that the church community in Rome was large by AD 64. Politicians needing a scapegoat do not persecute friends or small, innocuous groups, but attack perceived enemies. Although believers were not revolutionaries (cf. Rom 13:1-7), something must account for Nero blaming them, not others. Two issues may have caught his eye:

  1. Christians showed strong convictions in clashes with religious Jews.
  2. Christianity was a large sect in Rome and it was also growing rapidly.

Description of the Roman Church When Paul Wrote

It would be tempting to estimate the size of the Christian community in Rome at the outset of this discussion. However, an accurate description of the Roman Church is requisite to estimating numbers. For example, if Rom 16:3-15 greets twenty-six rank-and-file members, the minimum number (assuming that those with no named spouse were married) could be as small as seventy-five adults.

Three factors could immediately expand this to a much larger communit...

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