A Brief Post on The Origins of the Roman Church

It appears that the Roman Church was founded about a decade or so after Jesus’ crucifixion. The evidence comes from Roman history and Paul’s letter to the Romans.

The Roman Historian Suetonius wrote that Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews in 49 CE because of persistent rioting “at the instigation of Chrestus.” Suetonius, Life of Claudius 25. 4. This expulsion is also referenced by Luke in Acts 18:2. The ban was not lifted until 54 CE, when Claudius died. See Paul Barnett, Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity, page 330. Many scholars believe the reference to riots instigated by Chrestus to be a reference to disturbances between Jews and Christians over the nature of Jesus. “The form and words he uses points to a well-known bearer of the name, and the common confusion between Christus and Chrestus makes it easy to suppose that Christ is meant.” F.F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, page 381. “Scholars have debated the precise identity of this person, but there seems little doubt that the events Suetonius records were brought about by arguments over the teaching of those Jews who had become followers of Jesus the Messiah (Latin Christus).” Dr. John Drane, Introducing the New Testament, page 16. Additionally, Paul's letter to the Romans was written by 57 CE and noted that he had for “many years planned to come to you.” Romans 1:13; 15:23. Thus, Paul clearly knew about the Roman Church's existence "many years" prior to 57 CE. This matches well with the evidence of Suetonius and would support the idea that the Roman Church was founded by the mid-40s.

But who would have founded a Christian community (or communities) in Rome so early in Christian history? Peter and Paul must be ruled out. Paul made it clear that he had never visited the Roman Christians prior to writing them. As for Peter, when Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, no earlier than 49 or 50 CE, he indicated that Peter's activities were focused in Jerusalem. Paul does note that Peter had ventured out to Antioch, but nothing was said about Peter engaging in missionary activities beyond Palestine. Moreover, Peter's trip to Antioch was clearly not as a founder of the church, but as a representative of Jerusalem checking on an already established church. When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans he made no mention of Peter at all. Again, this was in the late 50s, and it would be somewhat unusual for Paul to neglect mentioning Peter if Peter was either there or a principle person in the founding of that Church. Further, the Acts of the Apostles, although recording that Peter did venture out of Jerusalem, gives no indication that Peter ever ventured as far as Rome. And it gives no indication that Peter played a role in founding the Roman Church. Finally, the letter of 1 Clement, written to the Corinthian Church by a leader of the Roman Church, speaks highly of Peter and Paul, but makes no mention of Peter having founded the Roman Church.

So, whatever the roles played by Peter and Paul in the later development of the Roman Church – and not slighting their importance to early Christianity at all --, they were not its founders. Having ruled out the two most famous suspects, historian J.C. Walters gives this explanation as to the founding of the Roman Church:

"It is most probable that Christianity made its way to Rome spontaneously as the personal baggage of Jews, proselytes, and sympathizers, who brought faith in Jesus as Messiah with them from the East. They came to Rome for commercial reasons, as immigrants, or against their will as slaves. It is not surprising therefore that early Christians were concentrated within the same regions as non-Christian Jews, both residing primarily in areas where foreign peoples were concentrated. Jews--and Gentile sympathizers and proselytes--who believes Jesus was Messiah not only shared a religious outlook with non-Christian Jews, but also a common socialization. They were part of the Jewish ethos and of the foreign population of ancient Rome They assembled in synagogues with other Jews and may not have gathered outside Jewish contexts in the earliest period. However, the dissonance created by the activities and/or words of Christians provoked tension, particularly over issues related to the observance of the law and the inclusion of Gentiles. Eventually these tensions escalated into disturbances which gained the attention of the Romans, resulting tin the Caludien [expulsion] edict of 49 C.E."

Romans, Jews, and Christians: The Impact of the Romans on Jewish/Christian Relations in the First-Century Rome," in Judaism and Christianity in the First Century, page 176-77.

Dr. Walters explanation fits the evidence well. It also has the added benefit of explaining why -- by the time that Paul wrote to the Romans in 57 CE -- the Church had become so disproportionately Gentile in character. The Jewish Christians would have been forced to leave under the expulsions edict while any Gentile converts to Christians could have stayed and risen in numbers and prominence in the Roman Church.


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