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Born Again

The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul

by Wayne A. Meeks
Yale University Press, 299 pp., $19.95

What was it like to become and be an ordinary Christian in the first century?” The question that opens Professor Wayne Meeks’s impressive new book seems an obvious starting point for understanding the early Christian movement. How did this foreign cult, which Roman leaders prosecuted as an “atheistic” and illegal society, suspected of criminal activities, and regarded as antithetical to the values of Roman civilization, succeed in becoming, to the astonishment of both its enemies and its enthusiasts, the official religion of the Roman empire?

Like many of his contemporaries, Tacitus detested the “pernicious superstition” that claimed as its founder an executed criminal. He regarded its popularity as evidence of the deplorable state of vulgar taste—proof that in Rome, as he says, “everything horrible and shameful in the world gathers and becomes fashionable.” Christian historians, on the contrary, from the time of their earliest exemplar, Eusebius of Caesarea, have tended to attribute its success to the miraculous intervention of divine power.

Wayne Meeks, professor of religious studies at Yale University, has taken a different approach. In The First Urban Christians he intends to show how specific social aspects of the Christian movement especially attracted “people who had experienced the hopes and fears of occupying an ambiguous position in society.” The convert to Christianity, he says, entered “into an association that represented itself as a new family, replacing other relationships and sources of identity.”

Meeks draws, for his purpose, upon much of the best in traditional and contemporary historical research. Gibbon showed that “when Constantine embraced the faith of the Christians, he seemed to contract a perpetual alliance with a distinct and independent society.” Contemporary historians such as Peter Brown, Gerd Theissen, and John Gager are engaged in illuminating specific aspects of that emerging society. Wayne Meeks, who shares their perspective, has concentrated on the earliest sources documenting the emergence of Christian groups—the letters of Paul.

Yet the question of the experience of the “ordinary Christian,” deceptively simple as it sounds, turns out to be extremely difficult to answer. Since such Christians, as Meeks notes, “did not write our texts and rarely appear in them explicitly,” most historians have tended to read letters written by Paul—himself extraordinary in every way—as if they reflected the experiences and convictions of his masses of converts and followers. “The task of a social historian of early Christianity,” Meeks explains, “is to describe the life of the ordinary Christian” within his or her actual environment, “not just the ideas or the self-understanding of the leaders and writers.” Traditional historians usually have asked questions far easier to answer, such as what Christians believed. Meeks and his colleagues are investigating the early Christian movement to see how it worked.

Meeks repudiates the reductionist tendency of Marxist historians who deny “religious phenomena any distinctive character of their own by treating them as the effects of nonreligious causes.” Marxists, for example, claim that religious beliefs are “really” only projections of group consciousness or individual fantasies, or that faith in an allpowerful God is nothing more than compensation for a group’s perceived deprivation of power. In all such explanations, Meeks observes, “the sociological interpreter imposes his own belief system on his evidence, implicitly or explicitly claiming to know more about the meaning of religious behavior than did the participants.” But he distinguishes himself as well from theological interpreters: “To assert that only theological interpretation of the canonical texts is legitimate is surely only another kind of reductionism.” His own approach is eclectic:

I take my theory piecemeal, as needed, where it fits. This pragmatic approach will be distasteful to the purist; its effect will be many rough edges and some inconsistencies. Nevertheless, given the present state of social theory and the primitive state of its use by students of early Christianity, eclecticism seems the only honest and cautious way to proceed.

As a practitioner of such history, I applaud Meeks’s restraint, and his candor.

Whereas Jesus lived and worked in the rural villages of Palestine, within ten years after his death the movement that claimed him as founder flourished in the cities. Paul himself, an artisan, a “city person,” in Meeks’s words, traveled continually within the complex environment of the Greco-Roman cities. If conservatism—political, social, cultural—characterized the villages, the cities then, as now, offered possibilities for change. Those who migrated to the cities often sought and found there new opportunities for personal mobility. Prisca and Aquila, for example, the husband and wife who Paul says “risked their necks” for him, were eastern provincial Jews assimilated to Greco-Roman culture. Driven from Rome by the emperor Claudius’s order expelling Jews, they moved to Corinth, where they became patrons of Paul and of his congregations. Independent artisans—tent makers, like Paul—they accumulated considerable wealth. The fact that Prisca often is named before Aquila suggests, too, that she held higher status than her husband. But, as Meeks warns, “perceptions and attitudes about change which we take for granted in modern industrial societies are in almost every case inappropriate to the understanding of Greco-Roman society.” Members of society had to find their places within a closely structured hierarchy of rank, places that depended on language and birthplace, social status, personal liberty or slavery, age, occupation, and sex. The tensions this situation engendered, Meeks suggests, led ambitious and upwardly mobile people to construct new forms of voluntary association—including the groups that formed the Christian churches.

What, then, characterized the social status of Pauline Christians? Celsus, an educated pagan critic of the Christian movement during the late second century, charged that Christians deliberately excluded educated people, because their religion attracted only “the foolish, dishonorable and stupid, and only slaves, women, and little children.” The Christian teachers, he said, were “wool-workers, cobblers, laundry-workers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels” who enticed “children…and stupid women” to come “to the wooldresser’s shop, or to the cobbler’s or the washerwoman’s shop, that they may learn perfection.” Meeks comments that

Celsus lived in the second century, but he was sure that Christianity had always been a movement of the lowest classes, for Jesus himself had only been able to win disciples among “tax-collectors and sailors,” people “who had not even a primary education.” This was the sort of jeer to which the second-century apologists for Christianity had frequently to respond, and modern authors have more often than not assumed that the early critics were right…. The notion of early Christianity as a proletarian movement was equally congenial, though for quite different reasons, to Marxist historians and to these bourgeois writers who tended to romanticize poverty.

From reviewing the scholarly research and carefully sifting the evidence, Meeks reaches a different conclusion: “The most active and prominent members of Paul’s circle (including Paul himself) are people of high status inconsistency…. They are upwardly mobile.” The status they achieved was higher than the one that had been attributed to them. Entering a Christian group involved, for Paul’s converts, “an extraordinarily thoroughgoing resocialization.” The initiate, “reborn” through baptism as “God’s child,” received a new family and a new identity. “The natural kinship structure into which the person has been born and which previously defined his place and connections with the society are here supplanted by a new set of relationships” which claim priority above all others.

The most obvious differences of social status and identity—ethnic distinctions between Jews, Greeks, Roman citizens, and noncitizens, sexual distinctions between men and women, and, most critical of all in ancient society, the social and legal distinctions between slaves and freepersons—no longer applied, the Christians declared, inside their new “household of God.” Members were taught to conceive of only two classes of humanity: their “brothers and sisters” within the sect, and outsiders. Initiates learned to see the outside world as under the control of demonic powers, ruled by Satan, sin, and death.

Such hostility toward “the world” was matched by the hostility of outsiders toward those who joined Christian groups. Tertullian, writing in the second century, describes how “most people knock their heads blindly against the hatred of the Christian name”: “‘Gaius Seius is a good man,’ one says, ‘except that he is a Christian.’ Or another says, ‘I am astonished that such a wise man like Lucius should suddenly have become a Christian.”’ Tertullian sees, too, how irrational hatred of the sect can disrupt social relationships. The husband drives his Christian wife out of the house; the father, “who used to be so understanding,” disinherits his converted son; the master orders the Christian slave out of his presence. Meeks observes, “If a sect expects the larger society to be hostile toward it, and if society obliges by attacking the sect, the experience is a very strong reinforcement of the group’s boundaries.”

Identifying themselves as the “holy ones,” Christians demanded of themselves stricter standards of behavior than those taken for granted in outside society. Pagan observers expressed astonishment at (and sometimes admiration of) their active concern for the destitute and their strict control of sexual activity. Paul not only denounced promiscuity and involvement with prostitutes but also encouraged his converts to practice celibacy—or, for those too “weak” to maintain it, monogamous marriage within the Christian group. He quoted, too, Jesus’ injunction against divorce, adding his own advice that Christians may accept, but not initiate, marital separation from “outsiders.” Meeks interprets these practices here as part of the Christians’ attempt to draw effective boundaries around their own groups, marking their distinction from “those outside.”

He goes on to show that while the Pauline groups functioned as local associations, their members identified themselves simultaneously with a worldwide movement. Like members of Jewish congregations who identified themselves as well with “Israel,” Pauline Christians combined effective local organization with a more universal sense of their community. Paul insisted, for example, that local groups of Christians in Greece and Asia Minor contribute money to help destitute members of the “mother church” in Jerusalem. “In time,” Meeks says, “they would invent a unique network of institutions to embody and protect this connection, and the resultant combination of intimate, disciplined local communities with a supralocal organization was a major factor in the social and political success of Christianity in the age of Constantine.”

Meeks’s book is readable and extremely informative. Those not familiar with recent scholarship in the field may find themselves puzzled by seeming digressions, since Meeks often pauses, before taking up a new subject, to challenge the methods and presuppositions of previous scholars. But I especially like the way he evokes, from sources that often look obscure to contemporary readers, vivid accounts of early Christian social and religious practice. Drawing primarily on the letters of Paul, he reconstructs, for example, a dramatic picture of baptismal ritual: the convert, stripped of all clothes, descends naked into a river, and emerges, gets dressed, and shouts the Aramaic word Abba (Father). This initiation dramatizes the transition from the “dirty” world into the “clean” group, as well as the passage through death (symbolized by nakedness and the descent into water) into new life, as the initiate is “reborn” as “God’s child” into a new family that transforms his or her religious and social identity. In another passage, Meeks draws upon Gerd Thiessen’s analysis of first- and second-century sources to show how the social snobberies that often characterized Roman dinner parties created conflicts that Paul deplored within the heterogeneous Christian group he founded at Corinth.

Meeks’s decision to limit himself to first-century sources—understandable enough, given the scope of his analysis—nevertheless hinders him from accomplishing his stated purpose (“to describe the life of the ordinary Christian”) as fully as he is capable of doing. Had he drawn more upon post-Pauline sources (and such analyses as those of David Balch) rather than mentioning these only in passing or in footnotes, he might have shown, for example, how a slave’s conversion to Christianity threatened to disrupt the structure of a pagan household. Had he chosen to include more of his own previous research* he might have also described particular social conflicts that women converts to Christianity often encountered from pagan husbands.

Tertullian, writing in the second century, gives a vivid account of such conflict: the Christian wife finds herself unable to please the Lord “according to the requirements of [Christian] discipline, having at her side a servant of the devil.” As Tertullian sees it, her husband acts as Satan’s agent to “hinder the obligations and activities of believers” in the most intimate details of everyday life. If she intends to participate in morning worship, her husband “makes an appointment with his wife to meet him at the baths at dawn; if there are fasts to be observed, her husband on the same day holds a dinner party.” Her Christian “family” requires her to care for its members; her pagan husband insists she attend immediately to family business,

for who would allow his wife, for the sake of visiting the brethren, to go around from one street to another to other men’s houses, and, indeed, to all the poorer ones? Who will willingly allow her to be taken from his side for evening meetings? Who will, without anxiety, endure her absence all night long at Easter rituals? Who will, without some suspicions of his own, dismiss her to attend the eucharistic feast they slander…or, indeed, to meet any one of the brothers to exchange the kiss?

But to wish that Meeks had written more is to acknowledge that his book is fascinating. It also demonstrates how the perspectives of social history, used by a careful and reflective scholar, can illuminate what seem familiar sources. Those who are not scholars will find, in this lucid and balanced study, a new understanding of the social dynamics of the early Christian movement.

  1. *

    The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity,” in History of Religions, no. 13, pp. 165-208.

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