The Spaces and Practice of Early Christian Assembly

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The most public of religious gatherings in the Roman Empire were large celebrations and festivals held in the public temples.” Worshippers believed that proximity to the divine within a temple that is, the relative distance between oneself and the image or venerated artifact of the divine housed within the building imbued the individual with power” (Halgren, 1957), the closer one could approach the god, they believed, the stronger and more auspicious the connection., accessing space nearest the manifestation of the god was restricted to only a few individuals, priests who had been properly educated and initiated in the meanings and practices are allowed by tradition in such a holy place, Access to the temple was also decreed by tradition and closely regulated by law.

“The longitudinal axis of the Jewish temple, for instance, ran through a series of partitions and other demarcations that designated spaces reserved for specific groups—at the outer edge of the space, Gentiles were allowed; then, closer in, Jewish women and children; closer still, Jewish men;

and finally, the priests” (Richardson, 2002).

Religious practice at this period was not restricted to temples, however. Smaller meetings often took place in sanctuaries and chapels , as well as in rented rooms. For example, at the same time that the followers of Jesus began coming together, the worshippers of the god Mithras were also increasing in number and by the third century were meeting takes place in small sanctuaries called mithraeums, rooms designed to assume a cave or the underworld. In these irregular spaces, benches lined the two long walls and a small shrine or altar was arranged at the end of the room.

“The ceilings were usually vaulted and decorated with stars to represent the heavens, In this intimate setting, initiated worshippers enter the same space as the shrine and participated in communalWorship” (white, 1990). Similarly, by the second century, Jews had an arranged synagogues and prayer halls in formerly private houses converted for the purpose. One primitive example, at Delos, had been created through the destruction of a wall that exist two adjacent rooms, resulting in a single large room. Benches linedthe walls of this assembly room, and a carved marble chair occupying one

wall provided a focal point. “No Torah shrine was found in this room, although Torah niches have been found in other early synagogues, including that at Priene, where another house renovated sometime in the second century was found”(White,1990:49). Within these spaces, worship practices were diverse, consisting of a diversity of prayers and liturgies. As members of the Roman Empire began to follow the Jesus religious group, they adapted these familiar practices and spaces for their new purposes, infusing them with new meanings.

“The held meetings of the followers of Christ in the first few generations after his death were of three major types, all adaptations of the practices of other religious groups, particularly those of the Jews, for indeed the followers were Jewish, as well as other Roman and Greek religions. Most of these meetings

Involved a shared meal, actual or symbolic, for in the Greco-Roman world, extending hospitality by sharing a meal was a fundamental form of social interactThese communal meals brought Christians together to learn about their faith, to worship, and to share experiences, but they also functioned to create cohesion within the new community of Christians”. (Jeanne, 2008:16),

According to L. Michael White points out that, communal meals formed ‘‘the center of fellowship

(koinonia)’’ by indicating that a social relationship existed among those gathered and thus ‘‘served to define the worshipping community, the church (ekklesia) in household assembly.’’(White, 1990) . Among these meeting types, the agape meal, or love feast, was most important, and although it drew upon Greco-Roman practice in many ways, it subtitute the drinking and carousing that traditionally followed Roman feasts with teaching and worship. Those who gathered at a Christian meal would bring some food item with them as an offering for the meal usually bread, wine, or fish just as many people do today in what is commonly known as the potluck supper.

According to Osiek et el Balch, eating too quickly upon arrival, however,would result in insufficient food for those who arrived later, and thus Paul adviced the Corinthians that ‘‘when you come together to eat, wait for one another,’’ encouraging those who could not wait to eat to do so at home before they came (1 Cor. 11:33–34). Such advice, which counters common Roman practice, indicates that the emerging Christian practice was still relatively flexible and informal , with new etiquette or rules slowly being introduced into the meetings.“After the meal, those gathered would share a ceremonial breaking and eating of bread, followed by a blessing and sharing of a cup of wine, commemorating Jesus’ dictum for his remembrance at the Last Supper”. (Macy, 2005) After this, they would engage in a variety of learning and worship activities, which, according to historians Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch, included ‘‘singing, teaching, and prophesying”.

The third type of gathering was the Eucharistic meeting, wer they shared Meal, this was transformed into a symbolic ritual focused exclusively on bread and wine as tropes for the flesh and blood of Christ.

The development of the agape and funerary meals, thath did include a sharing of bread and wine in remembrance of Christ, most have preceded the emergence of Eucharistic practices, just when and how the purely Eucharistic gathering emerged is unclear. Like the agape meals, these Eucharist meals took place in private homes, but over the second and third centuries significant changes in services indicate they were becoming increasingly formalized both in leadership and in activities. “Justin, in the second century, refers to the person leading the service as the presider or the president, but by the third century, the organizational Structures of the Christian movement developed into an episcopos, a Greek term meaning ‘‘overseer’’ or, in modern parlance, a bishop; the term priest also became popular. The service itself was changing as well, described by Justin and his contemporary Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, as symbolic or representational, a celebration of Christ’s sacrifice of his own flesh and blood.”(Macy, 2005) By the third century, the growing popularity of these representational services would require a special space that would accommodate them, leading to the creation of formal assembly rooms.( Mercer, 1985)

“The fourth type of early Christian meeting took place out of doors, such as the meeting of the followers of Jesus on the Mount of Olives shortly after his death, a story related in The Letter of Peter to Philip, which was found among other Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt.” (Elaine Pagels, 1989) Little is known, however, about such outdoor meetings, in part because they seem to have been used mostly by Gnostic groups, whose beliefs and practices challenged those of the emerging orthodoxy and were consequently stricken from orthodox culture and documents. Outdoor worship thus became associated with heretical groups and fell out of favor.

What must be kept in mind, however, is that despite the differences among these early types of worship, early Christian worship spaces and practices were highly diverse. “No single, original, pure Christian practice ever existed.” (Bradshaw, 1992:30) From the earliest period, Christian groups expressed their ideas about Jesus and God in different ways, and those ideas, ranging from the eventual orthodoxy of the major episcopacies in Rome, Antioch, and Carthage to the Gnostic views of the Marcionites, Donatists, and Montanists, were highly diverse. Early Christians expressed their religious ideas through a variety of religious practices ways, just as contemporary Christians do.

2.1.2The spaces and Practice of Early Christian assembly

Most Biblical scholars, archaeologists and classicists, agree that the meeting of Christians, like those of other religious groups, generally occur place in the homes of patrons, that is, in Greco-Roman houses. The phrase ‘‘meeting from house to house,’’ found repeatedly in the Gospel texts, well characterized thepractice of early Christians. The physical realities of those spaces, and the homes in particular, along with the cultural customs of the period, strongly influenced emerging Christian practice. To understand how, it helps to have some knowledge of the physical characteristics of those homes

Architectural and textual evidence of Greco-Roman houses in the first and second centuries point out that several varieties existed. Given the long, hot summers of the Mediterranean region, the houses of the wealthiest home owners were used as worship spaces; opening into a series of rooms arranged around an oasis-like open space that brought air and light into the house. “Entry into the house was gained through a vestibule or hallway. Within a Greek house, this led to a room in which the household patron conducted business, and beyond this was the heart of the house: the courtyard, which was roofless but lined by columns that supported an overhead latticework that would be covered with vegetation to protect the occupants from the sun. In a Roman or Latin house, the vestibule off the street generally led right into an atrium, or open courtyard, which would be open to the sky and contain an impluvium; a shallow pool that gathered rainwater (fig. 2.1).” (Osiek et el Balch, 1997:6) the private spaces of the home surrounds the courtyard and several closed rooms reserved for the members of the household.

“The central portions of ancient houses—the vestibules, atria, were considered much more public in character. Such houses, particularly those in which the business of the wealthy was routinely carried out, welcomed the entry of people from the street.”( Halgren,1957:19).