The constant arrival of strangers by the thousands created an environment where few people knew each other. The newcomers were often uprooted from their families in other parts of the Mediterranean. As a result, many people had no support group, no extended family, and no one to care for them when they became sick. In addition, few outside the Jewish community felt the need to take care of others. As pagans, they had no understanding of “loving one’s neighbor.” To them, the gods needed to be appeased, not obeyed.
The Jews, on the other hand, maintained a close-knit community while living in close proximity to their pagan neighbors. These Gentiles saw the love and compassion displayed among them and were drawn to it. Therefore, we should not be surprised that Paul found many non-Jews gathering in the synagogues he visited. Thousands more were drawn to his message that the G-d of the Jews would accept them as Gentiles if they would abandon idolatry and place their trust in the atoning work of Messiah Yeshua.
Once the Gentiles began to embrace the Jewish Messiah and follow him, they became a part of the Jewish community, not as Jews but as Gentiles. In this new covenantal relationship, they would be expected to immediately abandon idolatry, sexual immorality, certain foods, and the eating of blood (Acts 15:28-29). In addition, the context of Acts 15:21 seems to indicate that the new converts to the faith would be expected to attend synagogue in order to learn the Torah of Moses. As strangers, most of whom were poor, they certainly would have lacked the infrastructure and resources to conduct their own separate meetings. Besides, they first needed to be taught in the ways of G-d.
My assumption is that most Christians have a very different understanding of how the first believers formed into communities. For years, I imagined Paul and other leaders having ready-made church buildings, large and spacious, in which they could gather together; or perhaps they met in someone’s large living room. The problem with this view is that church buildings did not exist in that day, and houses were typically not much larger than dorm rooms.
Besides these logistical issues, one major obstacle stood in their way. The Roman government prohibited all groups from gathering, except those officially recognized as collegia. A collegium was an officially recognized association of like-minded individuals from the same trade, social interest, or religion. Creating a new religious collegium for Christianity would have been next to impossible due to the fact that the population was expected to participate in the local cult worship, which included paying homage to the local deity and participating in the eating of meat sacrificed to it. Furthermore, taking off from work one day out of seven would have been another practice prohibited by the Roman government.
Jews, however, had an exemption from Rome in both these regards. They were not expected to participate in the idolatrous feasts of the city and were allowed to observe the Sabbath. In order to avoid prosecution from government officials, the newcomers had no choice but to join the Jewish community. However, joining them was not a matter of convenience. Doing so was simply understood and expected.
The conclusion I want to draw from this information is that the very first believers were closely tied to the Jewish community. They did not seek to form their own separate collegium. Such efforts did not occur until the beginning of the second century, right after the death of John, the last apostle. Perhaps I’ll discuss that topic at length in a later post.
Formation of Christianity in Antioch
Mystery of Romans
Letter Writer: Paul's Background and Torah Perspective
Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History