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.
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.
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).