House Churches Smouse Churches…

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”!

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9 Responses to House Churches Smouse Churches…

  1. Mike says:

    Do you have any good links to pictures of this structure? (The general idea, not this new one necessarily). Where would the altar go?

  2. Peregrinus says:

    This is fascinating, and for reasons which go well beyond contemporary debates about the ordination of women.

    But one point leaps out at me:

    “He cited historical sources which suggest they both lived and practised religious rituals in the underground church . . .”

    So, yes, it was a house church, albeit of an unusual kind. The house was not a family house, but rather a community house. This, of cousre, is consistent with the picture Acts paints of Christians living in common.

    Who led worship rituals? Presumably, leaders of the community. Were they men or women? The NT evidence is that in the early church they were mostly men, but some were women. The women didn’t necessarily lead eucharistic rituals but, so far as the NT evidence goes, they didn’t necessarily not. Were there women leaders in this particular community? We don’t know. If there were, did they preside at eucharistic celebrations? We don’t know that either.

    The apse doesn’t tell us much. Nowadays only churches have apses, but they were common featuers in Roman buildings intended for gatherings or functions of any kind.

    With respect to the “stone seats which are believed to have been for the clergy”, two thoughts occur to me.

    First, do they date back to the original use of the structure? Presumably it was in use from some time before AD 70 until the replacement church was built in AD 230. The church certainly changed signricantly between AD 70 and AD 230, and presumably changes in the church would have been reflected in changes in the furnishing, modelling and even use of this structure. Unless we know that the benches were always there, we should be slow to treat them as evidence that the pre-AD 70 church had “clergy”.

    Secondly, I’d like to know what Prof. Husan means by “clergy”. He may simply mean the leaders of the community, and he uses the term “clergy” because it refers to the leaders of the contemporary Christian churches with which he is familiar. If he were a Presbyterian, he might have said that the benches were for the use of the elders. My guess is that he is inferring the use to which these benches were put from their location – possibly they are in the apse. But the fact that some members of the community acted as leaders as (presumably) eucharist celebrations does not mean that the community had “clergy”, with all the connotations that thate word has for us.

    Finally, one other point occurs to me; there were benches but no altar? If so, the absence of an altar would be far more telling than the presence of benches.

  3. Dan Woodring says:


    You may have caught this already (it was mentioned on the First Things blog), but there are some excellent audio files at discussing the Papacy in ecumenical dialogue with the east. I’ve only listened to Neuhaus and Ware, so far, but both were excellent.


  4. Rob says:

    Well, people shouldn’t go rushing off thinking that, whatever these people did, we are somehow lesser if we don’t do it. Just because they lived and breathed after the crucifixion doesn’t mean they were orthodox. Right from the start the Christian world abounded with heretics. This church is of archaeological interest only. There is no theology to be learned from these stones.

  5. Athanasius says:

    How confident we can be that this church is in its original condition? It might be a bit tricky to draw conclusions about 1st century worship from its current layout.

  6. Peregrinus says:

    Hi Athanasius

    Since posting above, I’ve come across a longer report with a picture from the Jordan Times. you can read it here:

    I have to say that it only increases my confusion.

    From the picture, the structure is a fairly crudely-finished cave. That suggests that it wasn’t remodelled along the way because, if it was, you’d expect the finish to have become less crude.

    As for dating the structure to before AD 70, there may be archaeological evidence for this. But it could simply the on the basis of the tradition (recorded in the mosaic in the 230 AD church) that the local church was founded by a community of disciples fleeing Jerusalem before AD 70.

    My concern about the altar, or absence of an altar, is answered. i\It’s clear that the benches are simply a shelf of rock not hacked out from the walls when the cave was adapted for use by the community. Any altar would have have stood in the middle of the space, not against the wall, and so is unlikely to have been created by lowering the entire floor of the cave, except for the bit intended to be the alter, by a metre or so. Much simpler just to bring in an alter and stand it on the existing floor. And, if it was brought in, it could be brought out again, so its absence now is not surprising.

    But now I’m bothered by the use of the term “apse”. It’s applied to a circular space, whereas what “apse” normally refers to is a semicircular alcove at one end of a larger space.

    Then we have this telling sentence:

    “A wall with an entrance is the only partition separating the altar from the living area.”

    “Altar” is obviously the wrong word here. Possibly he means what we would refer to as the sanctuary, and possibly this is also what he means when he talks about an apse. But the implication is that whatever he is speaking of is bounded by a wall, rather than opening into a larger space.

    Furthermore, we’re told that you go down steps to approach this apse, whereas you would more normally go up steps into an apse, or at least it would be on a level with the larger space off which it opens.

    If the apse/altar/sanctuary is (a) circular, and (b) separated from the living area by a wall and (c) approached by going down steps, what it begins to sound like is a chapel; a room or space set aside for worship, in a larger complex in which people live rather than a true apse or sanctuary, with the clerical/lay distinction that that would imply.

    This is all very tantalising. I’d love to know more.

  7. Anonymous says:

    When I studied for my Catechist diploma in the archdiocese of Melbourne the ‘house church led by women’ was very big as was the ‘in spite of Rome’ institution of private confession by the Irish Church and the revelation that St John the Baptist was Jesus’ mentor and, of course, the contradictions in scripture which disproved much of what was written.

    The 40 or so people also doing the course lapped up this and other information and , I presume, went out to teach their students the same things.

  8. Schütz says:

    Anon, that’s just the sort of thing I was talking about.

    Perry, thanks for all the great links and analysis, most of which I agree with. Especially your “chapel” idea and explanation for the removal of the altar (which would have been the first piece of furniture removed when the place ceased to be used for worship).

    Most significant is this: From the Jordan Times article: “The cave also embraces the living place of the first Christians. “A wall with an entrance is the only partition separating the altar from the living area,” Hussan said.”

    And that makes my point. I was trying to say that early Christians didn’t just use the dining room table for their worship. They did distinguish between the sacred and the secular. They did establish “shrines” especially dedicated to the new cult.

  9. Peregrinus says:

    My point about the altar was not that there was one, but that there could have been one, and we cannot infer anything from the absence of an altar now.

    My guess would be that the very earliest Eucharistic celebrations did not involve an altar; they were celebrated as meals, in imitation of the Last Supper and in compliance with Christ’s injunction to “do this”. There would have been neither an altar nor, in all probability, a table, the dining-table as we know it being, I understand, a later development.

    It is only with a developing Eucharistic theology that it would make sense to celebrate around an altar. If this “church” is as early as the archaeologists think, it may well predate the use of altars. But if it remained in use until 230 AD then I would be astonished if no altar were introduced.

    With respect to the issue of who presided at Eucharistic celebrations, two thoughts occur to me.

    First, if the tradition it to be accepted, this was a migrant community of Christians, very much larger than a single extended family, who lived and celebrated in common. in the manner ascribed in Acts to the Jerusalem church. Whoever presided, it was not the “head of the family”, or the “head of the house” in the sense that we understand the term today. But this would not tell us anything very much about who presided in other, non-Jerusalem Christian communities, where we have (so far as I know) no reason to think that they lived in common. We believe that they did meet in private houses for their Eucharistic celebrations; the “head of the house” could have had a role to play in a way that would simply not have arisen in this context. On the other hand, presumably the leaders of the community also had a role to play, and the leader of the community and the head of the house were not, except coincidentally, the same person.

    Which brings me to the second point; my guess would be that in the very early church the role of presiding over Eucharistic celebrations was exercised by the leader(s) of the local Christian community. But, I would think, at first it was because they were the community leaders that they presided over the Eucharist. It is only with the development of the Eucharistic theology with which we are familiar that presiding over the Eucharist would come to be seen as the central, defining, essential characteristic of leadership.

    Today we see the priest’s Eucharistic function as definitive; having this role is what makes him a priest and everything else, including his teaching, leadership and pastoral role, flows from this. If necessary, others can teach, or provide leadership, or exercise other pastoral roles, but pretty much the one thing that a priest does which cannot be done by a delegate or substitute is to preside at the Eucharist. But in the early church this insight may not have developed; it’s not impossible that Eucharistic presidence was exercised on occasion by people who were not themselves community leaders.

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