Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Socioeconomic status in the early church

Tradition has it that early Christianity recruited most of its initial supporters from among the very poorest and most miserable groups in the ancient world. ...

All discussions of the social standing of the first Christians would seem to have been settled by Paul's "irrefutable" proof text, when he noted of his followers that "not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth." (1 Cor. 1:26)

It is amazing how many generations of sophisticated people failed to see a very obvious implication of this verse. Finally, in 1960, the Australian scholar E.A. Judge began an illustrious career by pointing out that Paul did not say "none of you were powerful, none of you were of noble birth" (Judge, 1960a, 1960b). Instead, Paul said "not many" were powerful or of noble birth, which means that some were! Given what a minuscule fraction of persons in the Roman Empire were of noble birth, it is quite remarkable that any of the tiny group of early Christians were of nobility. This raises the possibility that like the many other religious movements, Christianity also began as a movement of the privileged. ...

Consider the twelve apostles or disciples. It is widely assumed that they were all men of very humble origins and accomplishments. But is it true? ... When James and John abandoned their fishing boat to follow Jesus, "they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants" (Mk. 1:20). ... Since, according [to] Lk. 5:10, Peter (Simon) and Andrew were partners of James and John, it can be assumed they too were somewhat affluent. In fact, it is quite possible that Peter owned two houses, one in Bethsaida and another in Capernaum. Mark's mother owned a house in Jerusalem that was sufficiently large to serve as a house church (Acts 12:12). Moreover, Andrew had previously had the leisure to be a disciple of John the Baptist. And then there was Matthew (or Levi) the tax collector. Tax collectors were hated, but they were powerful and affluent. ...

Remarkable evidence of Paul's association with the privileged comes from Judge's calculation that, of ninety-one individuals named in the New Testament in connection with Paul, a third have names indicating Roman citizenship. Judge called this "a startlingly high proportion, ten times higher than in the case of a control group" based on epigraphic documents (Judge, 2008, pp. 142-143). If this were not enough, there is evidence in Paul's letters that there already were significant numbers of Christians serving in the imperial household. Paul concluded his letter to the Philippians: "All the saints greet you, especially those in Caesar's household." Paul sends greetings to "those who belong to the family of Aristobulus" and to "the family of Narcissus." Both Harnack and the equally authoritative J.B. Lightfoot (1828-1889) identified Narcissus as the private secretary of the Emperor Claudius and Aristobulus as an intimate of the emperor...

It is instructive that [1 Timothy] offered so much advice about what to preach to the rich members: "As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty" (1 Tim. 6:17-19). Timothy was not advised to tell his rich members to cease being wealthy, but "to do good, to be rich in good deeds." In addition, 1 Tim. 2:9 advises that "women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire." This advice is silly unless there were significant numbers of rich people in the congregation at Ephesus.

Did early Christianity also attract lower class converts? Of course. ... The point is that early Christianity substantially over-recruited the privileged. ...

In 112 CE, Pliny the Younger wrote to the Emperor Trajan for approval of his policies in persecuting Christians. He informed the emperor that the spread of "this wretched cult" involved "many individuals of every age and class."
--Rodney Stark, "Early Christianity: Opiate of the Privileged?," Faith and Economics, Fall 2009

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