Were the First Christians Rich or Poor?

An early church meeting must have been a wild scene. Almost all churches included masters and their own slaves, the rich and the destitute, tradespersons and menial laborers.
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In an earlier post I reflected on how the earliest groups of Christians built community and stayed in touch with one another despite the challenges of communication in the ancient world. In this post I will address the diversity we encounter in those earliest churches.

Obviously, the "first" Christians were the Jews who had known Jesus personally and those who joined the movement on the basis of their testimony. Unfortunately, we know precious little about those first Palestinian Christians. As a result, this post involves those earliest churches that formed in prominent cities around the eastern Mediterranean. These cities provided hubs for travel and new ideas. Many contained decent-sized Jewish communities. Those factors proved helpful to the Jesus movement's expansion.

Though bound by common languages and by Roman imperial commerce and culture, these cities varied in significant ways, as did the churches. We do not know how the great church in Rome began, but our best evidence suggests that the church started among Jews and eventually was dominated by Gentiles. Paul's letter to the Romans implies that several churches gathered in various homes throughout the city. On the other hand, Paul's first epistle to Thessalonica reflects an entirely Gentile congregation. Perhaps his letters to Corinth do as well. Relationships between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus pose a significant challenge in some of Paul's letters, but not in others.

People used to assume that Christianity flourished only among the poor. First Corinthians 1:26 -- "not many among you were wise according to the flesh, not many powerful, not many well-born" -- still influences how many imagine the first Christians. However, Paul's words actually describe the population in general, in which not many did enjoy education, wealth, power, or status. Economic historians still debate just how many people lived in poverty in the ancient world and what such poverty entailed. The ancient Mediterranean included very few people who were fabulously rich, others who depended upon those wealthy persons, some relatively prosperous merchants and tradespersons, and masses of people who lived just above or below subsistence level. Slaves also constituted a significant portion of the population, perhaps between one-third to one-half the population of some major cities.

Our primary sources suggest that the early churches included just that sort of mix. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11:17-22 Paul describes church gatherings in Corinth. Some eat and get drunk while others go away hungry. Paul's contempt burns against the prosperous members of the church: "Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing?" The epistle of James likewise addresses tensions between rich and poor Christians (2:1-9). Meanwhile, the book of Revelation describes the church in Smyrna as poor (2:9) but the church in Laodicea as rich (3:17-18). Indeed, later Christian apocalypses such as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Ascension of Isaiah complain against wealthy believers who do not care for the poor in their midst.

Paul's letters also address both slaves and slaveholders. His epistle to Philemon apparently encourages a slaveholder to accept his (runaway?) slave Onesimus with kindness. Interpreters continue to debate whether or not Paul is calling Philemon to grant Onesimus his freedom. (We do know that some later Christian communities did purchase the freedom of slaves.) And in 1 Corinthians 7:21-24 Paul advises slaves to grab their freedom if they can get it. (Pay attention to how various translations handle 1 Corinthians 7:21!)

The churches in Paul's circle of influence almost surely included some persons of means. For one thing, Paul depends upon "patrons" like Phoebe (Romans 16:1) and potential donors in Rome to send him along in his journeys. And what about Chloe, who had "people" who could communicate with Paul on her behalf (1 Corinthians 1:11), or Erastus, the city treasurer of Corinth (Romans 16:23)? We also find that some Christians resented not being invited to support Paul (see 1 Corinthians 9), suggesting that they could afford to make contributions. Paul's well-known attempts to raise funds for poor believers in Jerusalem also suggest disposable income among some Christian communities. Surely the churches included persons of varying means.

An early church meeting must have been a wild scene. Many churches included Jews and Gentiles who were figuring out how to build community together. Almost all churches included masters and their own slaves, the rich and the destitute, tradespersons and menial laborers. We ought not romanticize the movement, as if sunshine and lollipops attended their every gathering. Indeed, the signs of conflict leap off the pages of various ancient documents. Nevertheless, the movement appealed to and gathered an extraordinarily wide range of people.

In a third and final post I'll explore the contributions of women to the earliest churches.

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