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The Early Church

by Joy Schroeder

The book of Acts describes the church’s origins in Jerusalem. After his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Approximately 120 believers waited in the city for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:12–2:4). As the message of Jesus spread throughout the Roman Empire, many first-generation Christians in other cities maintained contact with the Jerusalem church through messengers, visits and even a substantial monetary collection organized by the apostle Paul. Early believers in those other communities reflected on their relationships with the Jerusalem believers and their responsibility to the “birthplace” of the church.

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Witnesses in Jerusalem

Christianity emerged as a sect within Judaism. The earliest followers observed Jewish dietary restrictions and rituals such as circumcision. These Jews considered their worship of Jesus to be in continuity with the faith their ancestors had practiced. Some were women and men who followed Jesus south from Galilee to Jerusalem (Mark 15:40–41). Others had already been residents of Jerusalem and its surroundings.

The words Christian and Christianity were not initially used to describe Jesus’ followers (Acts 11:26). We might best refer to them as “Christ-believers” and call the movement “emergent Christianity.” Some early Christ-believers referred to themselves as followers of “the Way” (Acts 9:2). Paul used the term saints to address his brothers and sisters in Christ (Romans 1:7).

The Jerusalem church included people of different social classes, cultures, and languages. While some wealthier believers owned homes and fields (Acts 4:34), most were far less affluent. Some scholars estimate that more than three-quarters of all residents of Jerusalem were living at or below subsistence level. These included day laborers, beggars and impoverished widows. Many church members of the earliest church probably came from this substantial segment of the population.

Early leaders of the Jerusalem church included John and Peter (also called “Cephas,” Aramaic for rock). Jesus’ brother James eventually emerged as an authoritative leader in Jerusalem (Acts 21:18). Paul said that James, Peter, and John were “acknowledged pillars” among the apostles (Galatians 2:9). The author of Acts suggests that the apostles and missionaries to other churches needed to “report back” to the Jerusalem leadership (Acts 11:1–18; 12:25; 15:1–35). Though Mary Magdalene, the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection, is not specifically mentioned in Acts, she presumably was among the women believers gathered in Jerusalem following Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:14). Several post-biblical documents suggest that early believers remembered her as an authoritative teacher and leader.

The Christ-believers experienced sporadic opposition from some Jewish leaders. Before his conversion, Paul had thrown men and women into prison and consented to the stoning of the deacon Stephen (Acts 8:1–3). Others, such as the Pharisee Gamaliel, advised that the Christ-believers be left alone (Acts 5:33–42). The first-century Jewish historian Josephus reports that when the high priest Ananus II arranged for Jesus’ brother James to be stoned to death in 62 A.D., Jews in the city protested his actions as illegal and Ananus was deposed.

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Breaking bread and praising God

The book of Acts describes two places for Christian gatherings in Jerusalem: the Temple and the believers’ homes. The Temple, the preeminent site for Jewish worship until its destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D., had a large covered porch called Solomon’s Portico where worshippers could be sheltered from sun and rain (Acts 3:11). Given the typical bustle and commotion at the Temple, church members gathering for prayer and teaching might not have seemed substantially different from other Jews worshipping there.

The Christ-believers in Jerusalem met regularly— perhaps daily—for meals in the homes of members: “They broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). Although eating together was a sign of the believers’ unity and care for one another, we do not know whether they understood these meals to be the Lord’s Supper. A typical meal in first-century Jerusalem included porridge made of boiled grains. Fish, yogurt, or cheese provided protein for the more fortunate. Other foods included olives, figs, fruits, and seasonal vegetables. Meat would have been served rarely—such as at religious festivals.

Although these communal meals probably were not elaborate banquets, they likely provided their poorest members with more food than they would have had otherwise. In Greek and Roman culture, a typical dinner party lasted at least three hours. An evening meal was followed by “libations”—a ritual in which the host poured out drinks in honor of a god. Important individuals might be remembered and honored. As people drank their wine (usually mixed with water) there was a “symposium,” an extended time for conversation, which sometimes also included music and other entertainment. It is possible that the believers’ gatherings adopted a similar pattern, which may have been familiar to Gentile believers and Greek-speaking Jews, but with the guests honoring Christ rather than pagan gods. The conversation time would have included discussions about Jesus. Those gathered probably sang hymns.

A letter from Paul suggests that the church at Corinth did not treat its poorest members with the same dignity as the wealthy in their meal gatherings (1 Corinthians 11:20–22). In contrast, the Jerusalem church is described in ideal terms, with most believers sharing generously with one another (Acts 2:44–47).

Many houses in Jerusalem were small, one-room buildings. Sometimes homeowners built additions or upper levels for storage, guest rooms, or extra living space. On summer nights, the roof was the most comfortable place to sleep. A typical family crowded into a single room. In favorable weather much of their activity, including work, cooking, and eating, would have been outdoors in a courtyard shared with others. Wealthy people built houses in a large U-shape, with all three sides opening out onto a central courtyard that was enclosed by a gate on the fourth side to offer protection at night. People could socialize in the courtyard or meet in one of the larger rooms.

Acts 1:13 says that the earliest believers gathered in an upper room, space that was either rented or provided free of charge by a supporter. As the movement grew the followers outgrew their meeting spaces. They probably divided into smaller groups, meeting in homes or courtyards. One such home belonged to Mary, mother of John Mark. Her home, which had an outer gate, provided space where “many had gathered and were praying” (Acts 12:12). Mary had a number of servants, a sign of her wealth and status.

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Hebrews and Hellenists

The Jerusalem church experienced cultural divisions early in its life. Acts 6:1 says a dispute arose between the “Hebrews” and the “Hellenists.” The Hebrews were Jews who spoke primarily Aramaic, an ancient language spoken in Palestine. As lifelong residents of Judea or Galilee, they might have known some Greek; but they did not necessarily speak it fluently. The Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews who had been raised in the Diaspora (“dispersion”), places beyond Palestine where Jews were scattered or dispersed.

Sometimes Diaspora Jews were less conservative in ritual practice than lifelong residents of Judea.
Raised in Tarsus in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), Paul would have been considered Hellenist. Many Hellenist Jews from the Diaspora moved to Jerusalem, but may not have needed to know much Aramaic. They could conduct their lives primarily in Greek. Some older individuals longed to die and be buried in the Holy City. This may account for the presence of Hellenist widows. According to Acts 6:1, the Hellenists complained that their widows had been overlooked “in the daily distribution.” In the past, biblical scholars assumed that impoverished Hellenist widows were not receiving charity from the community. More recently, scholars have suggested that the problem was that widows, particularly the wealthier women, competed for the honor of organizing or hosting the community meals. Preference may have been given to the Hebrews, the lifetime residents of Jerusalem. The Jerusalem church responded to this conflict by selecting Hellenist deacons to handle administrative details (Acts 6:3–6).

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Remembering the poor

The generosity of wealthier members was not enough to fully alleviate the need in the Jerusalem church. In the 40s A.D., Jerusalem experienced several food shortages. Churches in other cities responded with concern. At a time of widespread famine, believers in the Syrian city of Antioch collected resources to aid the church in Judea. Paul and Barnabas delivered this gift (Acts 11:27–30).

In the early 50s A.D., Paul reports that James, Peter, and John asked the Gentile churches to “remember the poor” in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:10). Paul spent at least five years organizing a substantial monetary collection. Two chapters of 2 Corinthians (chapters 8 and 9) are devoted to “the ministry to the saints” in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8:4; 9:1). Paul also mentions the collection in 1 Corinthians 16:1–4 and Romans 15:25–31. Congregations in Achaia (Greece) and Macedonia contributed.

In the ancient world, people understood their social interactions in terms of “honor and shame.” Elite men and women donated public buildings, sponsored gladiatorial spectacles and cultural performances, and provided distributions of food. They gained honor through extravagant displays of generosity, which led to public praise. The beneficiary often received not only financial help but also a social obligation—to praise the patron publicly or otherwise return the favor. Failure or inability to do this led to shame.

In his interactions with believers, Paul turned cultural expectations upside down. While organizing the collection to benefit individuals in profound financial need, Paul emphasized that it was not his intent for the church in Jerusalem to become “beholden” to the Gentile congregations providing this offering. Instead, he suggested that the Gentile believers were offering this ministry in thanksgiving for spiritual benefits they received from the Jerusalem church (Romans 15:26–27).

Even as he gathered the collection, Paul was also in conflict with the Jerusalem leaders. Paul felt that Peter had reneged on an earlier agreement that circumcision was not required for the unity of believers (Galatians 2:1–14). Given this, Paul may have considered himself honor-bound to deliver the collection as a sign that he and the Gentile churches were acting in good faith. Paul expressed anxiety about the collection, fearing the gift would not be substantial enough (2 Corinthians 9:3–5) or that, due to his conflict with them, the Jerusalem church might not receive it favorably (Romans 15:30–31).

The Bible does not tell us how the offering was received in Jerusalem, but Paul’s words remind Christians today about the spiritual blessings (Romans 15:27) we have received from Jesus’ earliest witnesses in Jerusalem, whose message has spread to the ends of the earth.

The Rev. Dr. Joy A. Schroeder, an ELCA pastor, teaches church history at Trinity Lutheran Seminary and Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. (back to top)


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