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The house groups of Rome

posted by xscot mcknight

NT Wright, who admits up front that we should exercise caution, suggests that the list of names in Romans 16:1-16 points to the social make-up and to the number of house groups in Rome. He sees five or six house groups: Phoebe, Prisca/Aquila, Aristobulus, Narcissus, Asyncritus… brothers with them, etc.
Wright suggests that each house group had between 6 and 20 — leading to between 30 and 120 in Rome.
If the Jewish names indicate Jewish-Christians, then we might have a “weak” and “strong” indicator.
There are “missionaries” among the Christians in Rome.
There are plenty of women mentioned, some clearly as leaders: Phoebe, Prisca, and Junias.
Denny Burk informs me that John Piper has a sermon about the greetings of Paul. Here’s Denny’s note to me:
What’s the point of a greeting? The greeting is just words. We know that is not the main thing being carried from Paul to these people. What is being carried is love. Four times he says it explicitly. Verse 5: “my beloved.” Verse 8: “my beloved.” Verse 9: “my beloved.” Verse 12: “the beloved.” Paul loves these people, and that is what this text expresses. The point of this text is: I love these people, and I want my love to be carried from my heart to their heart by you. So would you please take these words from me and make them the bottle from which you pour my love into their lives?
Whatever else we may learn or experience in reading these verses, let us not miss this most obvious and important experience: The preciousness of Christians in the hearts of Christians.
So let’s do three things with this truth that Christians are precious to Christians. First, let’s consider one expression of it in the holy kiss. Second, let’s remember the foundation of it in the death of Christ and our union with him. Third, let’s consider the intensification of it—the kind of things that more deeply endear one Christian to another.”



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Matthew

posted October 24, 2006 at 6:51 am


Is he likely to have agreement from other scholars on this or is it more of a mental experiment? His suggestion is certainly very intriguing. I wish I could take a time-machine trip to see it all first hand!



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Russ

posted October 24, 2006 at 3:12 pm


It strikes me that the greeting is exactly very important, and not to be contrasted with a comment about beloved. Paul is not greeting the people himself, he is asking others to greet them for him. He is letting the rest know just how precious these people are to him, and augmenting it by letting others do the greeting. I would not be suprised to find he intended the others to hold the people greeted with the same value as him. It’s like a reinforcement exercise. One which is of course ended with the an imperative to “greet one another”.
It also makes sense to me that if the letter was to be read in various house churches, that Paul would use the greeting to let them know that he understood their “system”, and that he wanted to foster good relationships between the various social/ethnic/economic groups. I’d love to read a good discourse analysis on this piece. Does anyone know of anything out there?
Alternatively, I once heard William Lane offer that the list of people themselves are Paul’s way of selling himself to the church: “look at all the people in your midst that I already know!” But Lane saw the book mainly as a sales pitch for his collection for Jerusalem.
Personally, I like Wright’s perspective on this. It’d be nice to match his analysis up against the social analyses of someone like Theissen.



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Doug Chaplin

posted October 24, 2006 at 4:15 pm


Scot,
I find this blog extremely helpful and stimulating, even if I hardly ever post a comment and mainly lurk.
On this point, however, can I offer two, if not disagreements, then at least modifications to your post?
1) While I am sure that Paul’s greetings are warmly and genuinely intended, I do also think he is effectuvely establishing his credentials with a community he has not founded, but in which he has many contacts. It illustrates just how mobile much early Christianity was, and suggests that (as Richard Bauckham and others have recently argued) it is a nonsense to assume that any particular gospel was written for only one community.
2) I rather disagree about a large number of house churches in Rome. Apart from that meeting at Prisca and Aquila’s house, no other is mentioned. A few days ago I blogged a suggestion that most Roman Christians did not (and could not afford to) meet in houses. I think that the socio-ecomomic argument is strong, and that there is nothing in Romans to overturn it. The view that every Christian community was based in house churches is a piece of modern dogma with very little firm evidence.



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Scot McKnight

posted October 24, 2006 at 4:39 pm


Doug,
I read through that post and I must say you’ve got a string of hypothesis upon hypothesis that, to me (as a non-specialist on Romans), seems less credible than that when Paul mentions “household” in Romans 16 he probably means just that: house churches. We surely don’t know for sure, but some guesswork is not unwarranted here.
On gospels being written for more than one community; he who guesses does just that: guesses. It is inherently more likely that a text was sent to a localized church/set of house churches in one area. But, that doesn’t mean it could not have then been sent on to others. Again, dogmatism is unwarranted. I find Bauckham’s followers to be as dogmatic as the redaction (and now narrative) critics on these matters.



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Anonymous

posted October 24, 2006 at 10:36 pm


Subversive Influence » Blog Archive » the sol café & other church “venues”

[...] Meanwhile, Nathan Colquhoun is not getting a building but I think he’s okay with it… at least for now. Maybe he read someplace that the church in Rome was just a bunch of home groups. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, by my recollection. [...]



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Bob Robinson

posted October 25, 2006 at 7:56 am


I wonder how we can better refute the statement of Doug when he says, “The view that every Christian community was based in house churches is a piece of modern dogma with very little firm evidence.”
On what do we base this on besides “NT Wright cautiously says so.”
The phrase, “kai ten oikov auton ekklessian” (16:5) seems rather vague. Are we looking for something here that isn’t here because we are looking for biblical warrant for house churches?
I, myself, am one to promote the house church concept, but if the text does not say it explicitly, I had better be careful.



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Scot McKnight

posted October 25, 2006 at 8:14 am


Bob,
These are some considerations:
1. They didn’t have “church buildings” yet.
2. They needed privacy for the Lord’s supper.
3. Oikos almost certainly means “house” in the sense of a place to meet/gather; at times the term could refer to the “household” (those who lived at that location). Mostly it refers to “house.”
4. There is explicit mentions of gathering together in homes.
1 Cor 16:19: The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscillad greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.
Acts 18:6-8: But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized.
1 Cor 1–3 suggests a party spirit expressed in house groups advocating different leaders.
Romans 16:23: Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy, sends you his greetings. (Most likely Gaius had a church that meant in his home or that found hospitality at his home.)
1 Cor 11: the problems connected with the Lord’s supper have been explored by G. Theissen and they imply meetings in homes, perhaps at a larger villa.
Romans 16’s list of various “houses” suggests the same.
I don’t know how Robt Banks can suggest Justin’s 1st Apology is anything but gathering at one place; he suggests otherwise. They all came together on Sunday; it was the “common assembly.” This implies gathering from various settings and locations; it might imply house-fellowships during the week.



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Bob Robinson

posted October 25, 2006 at 8:59 am


Scot,
Thanks, that helps a lot.



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Doug Chaplin

posted October 25, 2006 at 4:51 pm


Scot,
Sorry for the delay in commenting on your helpful comment. Yes, I’m aware I’m building one hypothesis on another, although I do believe they are plausible and coherent with the facts that are known about Roman housing, poverty and wealth.
I don’t dispute at least one house church meeting with Aquila and Priscilla, but I’m not sure what use of the word “household” you’re referring to. If it’s that of (some translations of) 16:10,11 I read the “those of Aristobulus / Narcissus” as meaning their slaves.
I’m not seeking to be a dogmatic follower of Bauckham either, merely poiting out that Romans 16, if accepted as part of the letter (as we both do), shows a universal rather than parochial church, and thus supports the “Gosples for all Christians” thesis.



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