New Acquisitions: Class, Status and the Early Church

This short essay is responding to a (mis)characterization made – in passing, perhaps, but unchallenged – about the sort of people in the early Christian Church in the context of a high profile political discussion between two notable thinkers on the right, David French (writes for NRO) and Sohrab Ahmari (writes for Catholic Herald/NYPost) (moderated by Ross Douthat (writes for the NYTimes)). In particular, Sohrab Ahmari made the claim that, prior to the conversion of Constantine, Christianity was a religion of the “elite,” and that it was only after Constantine that the “average Roman cobbler” might have converted. This does not reflect what we know of the early Church.

I want to be clear at the outset: this is not a politics blog, and I will not blog directly about contemporary politics here. It is up to you, the reader, to take deeper historical understanding and apply it to your citizenship in whatever country you happen to reside. Moreover, I understand that some of my readers will find much of what is said in the French-Ahmari debate frustrating or outright offensive; others might wholeheartedly agree with what was said. We are not going to litigate the political issues here – yes, that includes in the comments, you have been warned. We are only interested in the historical questions: “what was the socio-economic makeup of the Church, prior to Constantine? And how did Constantine’s conversion impact that make-up?”

The entire talk is online here (and elsewhere), the key exchange happens at the timestamp 30:40. At that point, Sohrab Ahmari makes the following statement, which is what we’re going to assess:

“In the first century or so, after Christ, Christianity was primarily an elite phenomenon. And some rag-tag bands of people that puzzled the Romans. It was only after the Constantinian Conversion, right?…that…that the average Roman cobbler could think to themselves as becoming a Christian.” [emphasis mine]

If we may summarize the claims being made here:

  • Christians prior to the conversion of Constantine (I assume he means 312, but perhaps 337) were mostly elites.
  • After Constantine is when ‘average Romans’ – here equated inaccurately with urban artisans (cobblers); the average Roman was, of course, always a farmer – started converting to Christianity.
  • This happens after Constantine converts – seemingly right after.

Despite the fact that all three men on the stage self-identify as devout Christians, that statement about the nature of the early Church went unchallenged. But – as much as the sources permit us to know – it is not accurate. Each one of the above points is incorrect in some key way. Indeed, some of them are the very opposite of what we observe.

The Early Church (First through Third Centuries)

We should begin with the obvious: the evidence we have for the nature of the socio-economic organization of the very early Church is extremely limited. But the evidence we do have points to a Church that was predominantly urban, but mostly not elite.

A (very brief) word about what ‘elite’ means here. When we talk about elites in the Roman Empire, we can mean a few things. We can mean the imperial elite, the equestrian and senatorial orders in Rome, who controlled the mechanisms of empire and reaped the benefits; a super-elite, if you will. We can also mean local elites. Most government in the Roman world remained fundamentally local. We sometimes refer to these folks as the ‘curial’ class because they held positions as town councilors (curiales or decuriones). Those were almost always the richest and most powerful men in the community (and their families), at least until the fourth century when the burdens of holding such offices made it convenient for those who could to seek exemption. Great wealth in the Roman Empire, be it local or on an imperial scale, almost always meant large agricultural estates.

To put it quite bluntly: most early Christians were not these men.

Pliny describes the Christians he encounters (Plin. Epist. 10.96.9) as being “of every age, of every rank, of both sexes” and “not only in the towns, but also in the villages and farms.” While Pliny says “of every rank” we know of no members of the Senatorial order in his time (61-113 AD) who were Christian and Pliny’s own ignorance of the religion (and his attempts to stamp it out!) suggests there were no Christians in his social orbit. As we’ll see below, this rarified stratum housed few Christians even in the decades after Constantine’s conversion.

The early Church does seem to have been disproportionately female, although exactly how much so is hard to gauge (Hopkins (1998), 203-4, n. 40). It is important to remember that the social position of women in the Roman Empire remained sharply constrained. Early penetration into local civic elite households seem to have been primarily through women (e.g. Perpetua). Slaves also seem to have been a significant part of the early Church and in some cases even found themselves in leadership roles (Shaner (2018), but cf. Meeks (1983), 64). Early Christian communities were evidently accused of targeting the illiterate, enslaved, young, female and under-educated (Origen, Cels. 3.44, 55; Tert. Against Praxeas 3) – the early Christian apologists seek to defend the Church against this charge, but it does seem that there was some truth to the characterization, at least of the makeup of the Church if not its proselytizing. And – it is necessary to note – Christianity’s place as primarily located in the Greek East meant that almost all early Christians were necessarily on the business end of imperial power, rather than the beneficiaries of it.

All of which can hardly be surprising give the tone of Christian teaching! Consider “But woe to you who are rich” (Luke 6:24) or “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith….is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?” (James 2:5). Or “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The appeal to the marginalized is fairly obvious.

That is not to say there were no Christians we might term elite. Peter Brown compiles a list of several, although even he calls them “surprising Christians” given how a-typical they are of the period before Constantine (Brown (2003), 63-4). And we should also note that while urban slaves seem well represented in the early church, poor farmers – the next lowest rung on the socio-economic ladder in antiquity (and by far the largest) – were not. The early Christian Church seems to have been, for the most part, urban in focus. It was a cross-cut of the urban classes, not stretching into the elite or much down into the poor farmers, but containing a broad mix of urban well-to-do and poor, free and slave. Its leadership came from what we may imagine as the top of the urban middle class – although often from individuals who, by dint of being a woman, or a freedman, or a foreigner, or just not quite rich enough, found their way into the traditional elite barred (Meeks (1983); Bond (2016)).

The Church in the Moment of Constantine (Fourth Century)

The classic summary of the nature of the Church – essentially at the moment of Constantine’s conversion – is that of A.H.M. Jones who noted in a 1958 lecture that “the main strength of Christianity lay in the lower and middle classes of the towns, the manual workers and clerks, the shop keepers and merchants” (Jones (1963), 21). As Peter Brown notes in Through the Eye of a Needle, “all subsequent research (especially that conducted on the social origins of the clergy) has proved Jone’s insight to be substantially correct” (Brown (2014), 36, n. 20).

Christian catacomb tomb inscriptions in Rome show exactly the sort of ‘middle-class’ urban artisans we would expect – the sort of men and women who were not elites themselves, but made a living supplying the needs of the elites. These are, as Brown puts it, “women as weavers of silk…men as makers of mirrors…barbers with their instruments…grooms leading fine horses” (Brown (2014), 37). Dare we say it – cobblers making shoes?

These are plaques carved from cheaper tufa, not expensive marble sarcophagi. Although obviously any inscribed object marks these laborers out as successful in their trades, these people are not rich so much as ‘moderately well-to-do’ to borrow Brown’s phrase. Of course we also have to realize that these individuals make up the top of the Church’s socio-economic hierarchy, not the bottom. These are the individuals who generally made up the leadership of Christian communities, which were otherwise filled with folks less well off and prestigious than themselves who we struggle to see clearly because they do not generally leave records or write to us.

Indeed, while Ahmari implies a movement of Christian faith down the socio-economic ladder, exactly the opposite happens after Constantine: a movement up the urban socio-economic ladder. For example in 343, a council of bishops at Serdica ruled against rapid ordinations of bishops precisely on the grounds that newly converted rich men or government officials might usurp positions of importance held by men of more moderate means. This was to be the first of a general influx of the wealthy and powerful, although as Brown notes, it won’t be until the mid fourth century that such men begin to enter the church in real force (Brown (2014), 31-2, 36-9, 45). This movement, of course, we can readily track because these are precisely the kind of people in the Roman world who leave ample evidence of their existence.

But we also need to talk about the timing of the expansion of the Christian Church in the Roman Empire. Ahmari’s statement would lead one to expect a relatively small church experiencing little growth that blooms during and after the reign of Constantine – this is core to his argument about the nature of state power to effect cultural change. But that’s not what we see at all. Rather, the early Christian church had spent the third century – not the fourth – in a period of rapid growth. It was, in fact, precisely this growth which in turn brought the deliberate, empire-wide persecution (in contrast to previous, localized suppression) from Diocletian (Brown (2003), 62-3; Hopkins (1998), 197). What had been a highly localized religion in the first and second centuries was, by the dawn of the fourth, an empire-wide reality, although Christians were still a significant but fairly small minority (c. 5-10% is the typical estimate). As Keith Hopkins noted, “by the time the Roman government finally began to realize that Christianity posed a significant threat…Christianity was too embedded to be stamped out easily” (Hopkins (1998), 197).

This is not to say that Constantine’s move to toleration (in 313) and then official privilege had no effect. Constantine did not cause Christianity to branch out broadly both geographically and socially, but he and his successors did accelerate that process by promoting the growth of Christianity among the elite (Brown (2014), 35-6, 45-50). Official toleration combined with privilege and imperial patronage sealed Christian dominance in the cities – the tipping point probably comes in the middle of the fourth century. But the march through the rural countryside would take far longer.

Conclusions

The early Christian Church, prior to Constantine, was essentially a cross-cut of the urban classes. The most prominent members were well-to-do members of the urban ‘middle class,’ but the social hierarchy of the Church generally extended downward from them into the urban underclass, rather than upwards into the elite. Far from being a late arrival, our ‘average Roman cobbler’ was a prototypical early urban convert to Christianity. What the early Church lacked were the true elites as well as a strong presence in the rural countryside.

The conversion of Constantine did not bring the immediate spread of Christianity into the countryside – that would take longer. It is not an accident that the term for non-Christian – pagani – has a literal meaning of ‘villager’ or ‘rustic.’ Instead, Constantine’s conversion and the reigns of subsequent Christian emperors (briefly interrupted by Julian, r. 361-363) seems to have rapidly pushed Christianity up to the elite through preferences in official appointments and other perks (non-Christians would be legally debarred from holding office in 415, Cod. Theod. 16.10.21).

So, why do I care? Because when we discuss or debate politics and society, we often reason from historical parallels. And that’s good, but these parallels do nothing to aid our reasoning if they are not accurate! Especially in this case; Ahmari offers this flawed vision of the early Christian Church essentially as his theory of social change, which in turn is foundational to the broader argument he is making. But while there are plenty of examples of top-down social change being enforced by elites using state power, the early Christian church is at best an awkward example of this. Ahmari’s summary obscures more than it clarifies.

These sorts of debates matter – even outside of their own movements – and so the quality of the history and historical references that underline them matter. It is important to get it right and to hold these sorts of references to a high standard.

Bibliography

I don’t usually supply a bibliography, but I thought – given the possible contentiousness of the topic – it might be wise in this case. I want to stress that I have attempted to present above what is the communis opinio of the scholarship, not a fringe view.

Bond, S.E. Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016).

Brown, P. Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

Brown, P. The Rise of Western Christendom. 2nd. ed. (Malden: Blackwell, 2003).

Hopkins, K., “Christian Number and Its Implications” Early Christian Studies 6.2 (1998): 184-225.

Jones, A.H.M. “The Social Background of the Struggle between Paganism and Christianity” in The Conflict between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century, ed. A. Momigliano (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 17-37.

Meeks, W. A. The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

Shaner, K. Enslaved Leadership in Early Christianity. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

17 thoughts on “New Acquisitions: Class, Status and the Early Church

  1. Thanks for the bibliography. I am a devout Christian who has read extensively on the Early Church, but many of the books I’ve read are quite biased depending on denominational affiliation or a commitment to prove the current Church wrong. It will be good to read some solid history. All that said, your summary is very much in line with the trajectory of the spread of Christianity to the disenfranchised via the cities and towns of the Roman Empire. Paul’s letters, for instance, are to the churches in the main administrative cities of the Eastern part of the Empire and it is said that he also preached in Athens, Rome and Knossos.

    I don’t know where the mistaken impression is coming from and it must be relatively recent. Baroness Orczy and Lew Wallace, who wrote in the early 20th century, understood this urban lower-class foundation very well, even if some of the characters in their novels were individually members of the elite.

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  2. Constantine didn’t convert until on his deathbed. Constantine captured Christianity for Rome. The Imperial Church he oversaw in the first Nicene conference, poorly represented the Christian Bishops in the Mediterranean, European, and Asian Church. However he gave the Bishop of Rome true authority over a physical area, and over all Christians in doctrine, with the Roman sword backing him. One commentator said, Constantine saw him self as conquer, and the New Imperial Church as controlling the conquered pagans with conversion. A similarity processes continued until after WW2. IMHOP, Constantine destroyed authentic Christianity, and it remains in a stasis up to 2019. Some new church movements, and the house church movement may be the beginning of a revival of the people’s Church of Jesus Christ. Of course there must be many others. Jim Kirk-Wiggins Dystopianchurch.org

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    1. He was baptized on his deathbed. It was very common in that era to put off baptism for as long as possible, but that didn’t mean you weren’t converted earlier.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Yet another corruption thesis. Tell me, have you read writings of the post-Apostolic early Church? (1st to 3rd/4th centuries)?

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    3. This is a gross misunderstanding of the situation. Not going to get into all the weeds, since I’m not an expert, but there’s a letter from Constantine pre-Nicaea where he says, in effect, “this sounds like a really stupid thing to fight over, so could you folks just agree to a difference of opinion?” The answer, of course, was no, so he held a council and sat on the losers to resolve the issue. With at best modest success, since the Arians mostly just spread away from Imperial control. The next five ecumenical councils followed the same general pattern: heresy appears and spreads, gets too big to ignore, emperor calls council, council issues controversial decision, much of the Empire refuses to accept the decree and becomes effectively schismatic. The Monothelite controversy addressed by the Sixth Council was itself a desperate attempt, proposed by emperors and high officials, to compromise with the Monophysites who got sat on at (IIRC) the Fourth and Fifth. Everybody saw through it and it didn’t fly so they shot that down too.

      People back then took religion far more seriously than we do, it’s true–which is why attempts to impose top-down change did precious little. Religious heterodoxy was frequently a vehicle for cultural or political resentments which could not be neatly suppressed by fiat.

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    4. >> However he gave the Bishop of Rome true authority over a physical area, and over all Christians in doctrine, with the Roman sword backing him.

      Are you by any chance referring to the “Donation of Constantine”, in which he supposedly turned the Western empire over to the Pope’s dominion? ‘Cause… well, it’s well-known to be a forgery. Didn’t stop the early-medieval Church waving it around as if it were genuine, but it’s bogus.

      https://www.ancient.eu/Donation_of_Constantine/

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  3. Yes it was common to wait until death. Early on many people believed sinning after baptism was much worse than before. The last rites evolved from such bedside baptisms.

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    1. An obvious example of this understanding is St. Augustine’s comments in his Confessions (bk 1):

      “As a boy, then, I had already heard of an eternal life, promised
      us through the humility of the Lord our God stooping to our pride; and
      even from the womb of my mother, who greatly hoped in Thee, I was sealed
      with the mark of His cross and salted with His salt. Thou sawest, Lord,
      how while yet a boy, being seized on a time with sudden oppression of
      the stomach, and like near to death—Thou sawest, my God (for Thou wert
      my keeper), with what eagerness and what faith I sought, from the pious
      care of my mother and Thy Church, the mother of us all, the baptism of
      Thy Christ, my God and Lord. Whereupon the mother of my flesh, being
      much troubled (since, with a heart pure in Thy faith, she even more
      lovingly travailed in birth of my salvation), would in eager haste
      have provided for my consecration and cleansing by the health-giving
      sacraments, confessing Thee, Lord Jesus, for the remission of sins,
      unless I had suddenly recovered. And so, as if I must needs be
      again polluted should I live, my cleansing was deferred, because the
      defilements of sin would, after that washing, bring greater and more
      perilous guilt. I then already believed: and my mother, and the whole
      household, except my father: yet did not he prevail over the power of my
      mother’s piety in me, that as he did not yet believe, so neither
      should I. For it was her earnest care that Thou my God, rather than he,
      shouldest be my father; and in this Thou didst aid her to prevail over
      her husband, whom she, the better, obeyed, therein also obeying Thee,
      who hast so commanded.

      I beseech Thee, my God, I would fain know, if so Thou willest, for
      what purpose my baptism was then deferred? was it for my good that the
      rein was laid loose, as it were, upon me, for me to sin? or was it not
      laid loose? If not, why does it still echo in our ears on all sides,
      “Let him alone, let him do as he will, for he is not yet baptised?” but
      as to bodily health, no one says, “Let him be worse wounded, for he is
      not yet healed.” How much better then, had I been at once healed; and
      then, by my friends’ and my own, my soul’s recovered health had been
      kept safe in Thy keeping who gavest it. Better truly. But how many and
      great waves of temptation seemed to hang over me after my boyhood! These
      my mother foresaw; and preferred to expose to them the clay whence I
      might afterwards be moulded, than the very cast, when made.”

      c. 401 AD
      Trans. E. B. Pusey (Edward Bouverie) (Source: Gutenberg https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm)

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  4. I always wonder why people continued to claim that early Christians were mostly elites when Peter, Andrew, and John were fishermen, Paul was from a leatherworking family, Luke was probably a physician, and Matthew was a tax collector. Also, it was very unlikely that the early Church easily moved itself upward in the society when facing a series of persecutions.

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  5. This post is more than a year old (I found it through the post on military history), but I think there is a misunderstanding here. When Sohrab Ahmari is talking about Christianity as an elite phenomenon, he is not talking about the societal elite in the Roman Empire. In the video at 28:40 he says “Christianity cannot be just a religion for an elite elect”, so he is talking about a spiritual elite, a situation in which Christianity is the religion of a small minority.

    So “average Roman cobbler” (who only becomes a Christian after Constantine) is not used as an example to contrast with a Christian decurion or senator, it is used in contrast to the extraordinary Roman cobbler who converts to Christianity against social pressure. So to prove what he says wrong one would need to show that most average Romans in the Third Century did likely consider converting to Christianity over the course of their life, not just that Christianity was made up of average Romans.

    (This does make me wonder if the 5-10% estimate for the percentage of Christians in the population is about the entire population or the population within cities. Because if it is for the entirety of the population and Christianity was a mostly urban movement that would mean that the religion was massively popular in cities. But if Christianity was 5-10% of the urban population, then the term elite in the sense that Ahmari probably meant it seems at least somewhat appropriate, though 10% is on the high end of what I would consider elite.)

    The reason Ahmari’s statement about the early church went unchallanged even though there were three devout Christians on stage, is that they shared an understanding about what “elite elect” and “elite phenomenon” means that is different from how a historian uses the term “elite”.

    Still, I enjoyed reading about the demographics of early Christianity here and I might make use of the bibliography in the future.

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  6. Further circumstantial evidence can be found in the ghastly executions during Nero’s persecution of 64. All those Christians who were crucified (or worse) were, by definition, not Roman citizens, since at least under the Julio-Claudians* the law still held that citizens could only be executed by beheading.** Acts goes on at some length about Paul’s status as a citizen and he did wind up decapitated, not crucified. Ergo, the bulk of Nero’s victims must have been slaves, or noncitizen foreign residents (also people without social or political status).

    *Except perhaps under mad Caligula, depending how seriously one takes Suetonius
    ** Except for certain egregious cases of high treason, for which the punishment was being tossed off the Tarpeian Rock

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas show that that persecution was deliberately targeted at the lower-class. The arrest of Perpetua was quite an embarrassment to all the authorities.

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