I am astonished how prevalent the myth is that the early Church did not have dedicated buildings for worship but that the Church worshipped “in private houses” until the time of Constantine made it possible to build “official” buildings. The myth is popular because of the mileage that one can get out of it. Most recently I found the “house church” myth put forward as fact in the History Channel DVD’s of the History of Christianity. In that case, they were using it as an argument for the ordination of women in the early Church. The arguement was that, because worship was held in private homes, the leaders of the congregations naturally included the woman of the house.
Well, in any case, the “house church” myth is easily disproved by archeology. Yes, of course, early Christians met in private homes for worship–just as the Jewish diaspora did. But whenever it was possible they sought out a common space which could be specifically dedicated to the sacred purpose of celebrating the liturgy (again, just as the Jews built synagogues when they were able to).
However, even I am astounded by the claim in the news today that archeologists have found the remains of a church in Jordan dating back to pre-AD70!
“We have uncovered what we believe to be the first church in the world, dating from 33 AD to 70 AD,” the head of Jordan’s Rihab Centre for Archaeological Studies, Abdul Qader al-Husan, told reporters according to The Age. He said it was uncovered under Saint Georgeous Church, which itself dates back to 230 AD, in Rihab in northern Jordan near the Syrian border.
“We have evidence to believe this church sheltered the early Christians, the 70 disciples of Jesus Christ,” Husan said. These Christians, who are described in a mosaic as “the 70 beloved by God and Divine,” are said to have fled persecution in Jerusalem and founded churches in northern Jordan, Husan added. He cited historical sources which suggest they both lived and practised religious rituals in the underground church and only left it after Christianity was embraced by Roman rulers.
Now it is hard to know how much is supposition in this case, but the main thing is
a) it is not a private dwelling (even though, being underground, it can hardly be described as a public edifice either)
b) it was dedicated to the single purpose of Christian ritual
c) it is very, very early, predating the Church built above it–which itself “dates back to 230AD”–a full eighty years prior to Constantine.
Add to that this interesting snippet:
Inside the cave there are several stone seats which are believed to have been for the clergy and a circular shaped area, thought to be the apse.
I was struck, when I visited the ruins of the 6th Century church of St John the Divine near Ephesus, at precisely this feature. I saw it again at the Hagia Sophia Church in Nicaea, dating back only to the 9th Century. But that this feature should be in a Churh from the 1st Century itself says something about the structure of Church leadership at the time.
What exactly? Well, that’s for the archeologists and historians to argue out. But it sure as hell doesn’t support the thesis of “the leadership by the woman of the house”!