The landmass of urban environments, where early Christianity took root, was relatively small compared to today’s megacities, while population density was rather high. This made for very crowded living conditions, and privacy would have been a rarity (W. A. Meeks, First Urban Christians 28-29, 75-76). R. Jewett maintains that city churches assembled in tenements, restricting the number of members who could meet together (“Tenement Churches and Communal Meals,” BibRes 38 : 23-43), and A. A. Bell, Jr. concludes that a small apartment “is likely to have been the sort of ‘house’ in which the earliest Christian groups gathered” (Exploring the New Testament World 207).1 However, this was probably not the case for every congregation.
A typical upper class Roman house was centered around a columned courtyard with an open room (atrium), in the center of which was a pool (impluvium). At the opposite end from the entrance was a raised area (tablinum) containing a table and used by the family as a reception area and for ceremonial functions. The congregation in Corinth probably gathered in the atrium of Gaius’ home, and could have used the impluvium as a baptistery and the tablinum for the Lord’s Supper. In the ruins of a Roman garrison city in Mesopotamia (Dura Europos), archeologists have discovered the remnants of the earliest known building to be used by Christians explicitly as a place of worship (ca. 230-240). “The building was a converted house, with a large meeting room and a second smaller room holding a baptistery” (D. Irvin and S. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement 54-55).
1 The term oîkos could apply to any dwelling place or home or household. See The Pentecost-Day Miracle.
2 Domestic slaves, as opposed to the more underprivileged peasants and rural slaves, were among the converts at Corinth (1 Cor. 7:21-23). There was disposable income available (1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 8–9). References to individual members (Acts 18:8; Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 1:14, 16; 16:15-18), including their occupations or positions, households, services rendered, and travels, indicate that a number of them enjoyed relatively high social status (G. Thiessen, Social Setting 73-96). This includes Erastus, who was potentially the same person who obtained the office of aedile, about whom there is an inscription in the pavement in Corinth (see B. Witherington III, Conflict and Community 32-35; also Paul Quest 92-94).
3 A. J. Malherbe, Social Aspects 76. Twelve are Latin names: Lucius, Tertius, Gaius, Erastus, Quartus (Rom. 16:21-23), Titius Justus, Crispus (Acts 18:7-8), Fortunatus and Achaicus (1 Cor. 16:17), Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:1-2). At least three of these were Jews (Aquila, Priscilla, Crispus), the others were probably Roman, and the rest of those mentioned had Greek names.
4 See G. D. Fee, First Corinthians 533-34; also Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “1 and 2 Corinthians,” in The Cambridge Companion to St Paul 74, and St. Paul’s Corinth 178-85, although Murphy-O’Connor’s estimates tend to be somewhat exaggerated. J. D. G. Dunn notes that even a large house would have been pressed to accommodate more than around 40 people (Theology of Paul 542).
5 Another challenge created by the church meeting in houses was the question of “role and status” and “the tension caused by public gatherings in private space” (J. D. G. Dunn, Theology of Paul 592, emp. in the text).6 Cf. Acts 11:26; 12:5, 12; 14:27; 15:30; 20:7-8; 1 Cor. 5:5; 11:17-20, 33-34; 14:3-5, 12-26; Jas. 2:2.
Related Posts: The church of the NT, Sociocultural Context Part 1: Introduction, Part 4: Individualism vs Collectivism, Part 5: Households & Slavery, Part 7: Hospitality, Part 8: Public Reading, Part 9: Kiss Greeting & Feet Washing