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Interview & Photo Essay: The Urban World and the First Christians

Photographs by David Gill

We are pleased to feature an exclusive interview with the co-editors of an exciting collection of essays on Christianity and the ancient city, The Urban World and the First Christians (UWFC).

This interview with Steve Walton, Paul Trebilco, and David Gill was a few years in the making, as I had initially discussed the idea with Steve Walton at the 2016 British New Testament Conference in Maynooth, Ireland. 

Things finally came together, and just happened to coincide with the pre-publication of this excellent book for the Logos Digital Library. Many thanks to David Gill for the beautiful photographs from his travels in Corinth, Philippi, and Rome that accompany this interview. 

TB: What led to the creation of this multi-author volume, and how did you assemble such a strong cohort of scholars?

SW: The book grew out of a conference held by the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible at St Mary’s University, Twickenham (London, UK). The conference came into being when I realised that there was no full recent treatment of the impact of the urban settings of much of earliest Christianity (a discussion which Wayne Meeks can fairly be said to have kick-started) or—a topic hardly considered at all—how the earliest believers thought and theologized about cities. Through the Centre’s sponsorship, we were able to bring together scholars from a number of places around the world with expertise on this topic, including from New Zealand, the UK, the USA, Germany, Norway, and Switzerland.

TB: Why is it important for scholars and students of the Bible to understand the “urban world” of Early Christianity? In other words, what significance did cities have for ancient people, their beliefs and behaviour?

DG: Cities are an integral part of the classical setting for the Mediterranean. The basis lies in the polities of Greek communities that began to emerge in the eighth century BC, and these models were dispersed as the individual cities established colonies around the shores of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Such colonies include Cyrene in North Africa, and Syracuse in south-east Sicily. Hellenic influence spread with the conquests of Alexander the Great in the late fourth century BC, that in turn led to the creation of a range of hellenistic kingdoms (the Ptolemies, Seleucids, Antiochids, Attalids). Some of the major cities of the eastern Mediterranean have their origins in this period, e.g. Syrian Antioch, Pisidian Antioch, Pergamon, Alexandria (in Egypt).

The city became the focus for the way that communities were governed. And within that urban setting lay their constitutional, legal, social, and religious institutions. A Corinthian would identify with the urban centre of Corinth, while defining him- or herself as ‘Greek’ in cultural terms; by the Roman period, these boundaries were closely defined by provinces. The main cult centres were normally established within the urban centre, although sometimes they could be placed within the wider territory; for example, the sanctuary of Apollo at Didyma was linked to the urban polity of Miletos by an extended processional route.

Intensive field-surveys conducted in Greece have suggested that from the fourth century BC and to the start of the second century AD, there was a noticeable decline in detectable rural structures, either in terms of “villages” or perhaps farmsteads. These changes in the hellenistic and Roman periods may reflect the importance of citizens who wished to live in the city where their civic and political identities were located.

Early Christianity is set in the New Testament documents against the urban background: from the hellenizing city of Jerusalem to the major urban conurbation of Rome itself. The Acts of the Apostles takes the reader from city to city, passing through Syrian Antioch, Pisidian Antioch, Troy, and Athens. Epistles are sent to Christian communities in cities, specifically Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and Thessalonike. These are the urban communities where the gospel was explained, debated, and believed.

TB: The team of scholars you gathered for this volume come from all different disciplines, not just biblical studies. What do you think was accomplished in UWFC by bringing together what are sometimes disparate disciplines?

SW: That’s right! We deliberately set out to include scholars from Classics and Ancient History, Human Geography, and New Testament Studies, with a view to seeing how these disciplines cross-fertilised when thinking about earliest Christianity in urban settings. This was very productive, and enabled (for example) the NT scholars to learn from the wider knowledge of the Classicists and Ancient Historians, as well as from the social-scientific perspectives of the Human Geographers.

The mutual influence can be seen in, for instance, in the chapters from David Gill (a Classicist), which locates early Christian communities in their urban colonial settings in the Eastern Roman Empire, from Joan Taylor (an scholar of early Christianity), who provides outstanding discussion of Caesarea Maritima in Paul’s day, from Paul Cloke (a Human Geographer), who offers a fascinating discussion of Colossians through the lens of “spiritual geographies,” and from Wei Hsien Wan (an NT scholar), who engages with 1 Peter using tools from social-scientific study of space and identity.

TB: How, exactly, was Christianity mainly an urban phenomenon, and furthermore, how might we accurately conceive of this today when cities are often times vastly larger and more technologically complex than in the ancient world?

PT: Although Christianity did develop in rural areas as well, it seems to have been a strategy of Paul and others to plant Christian communities in cities, which were centers of power and influence. Even though the ancient world was far less urbanised than our world, ancient cities were centres of travel for festivals and cultural life, economic hubs, and centres of political influence. Reaching the city meant you could also reach the rural surroundings.

One way for us to understand more of the ancient city is to go and visit some ancient sites! They often give a real sense of what life was like. In particular, the importance of religion is striking—there are so many temples, statues of gods, inscriptions about gods and so on. If we can’t visit, then there are many good books on ancient cities.

TB: The three of you introduce the study by stating “cities are more than ‘scenery’”. Can you unpack that a bit for us?

DG: The thought behind the phrase lies in an undergraduate course at Swansea University (in south Wales, UK) on the Roman Empire. Professor Stephen Mitchell and I had decided to use the Acts of the Apostles as a document to illustrate life in the eastern empire during the first century AD. Two of the urban settings that we chose were Athens and Ephesus. And we were forced to reflect on whether the narratives of Paul’s activities in the Agora (the political heart of Athens) and before the Areopagos at Athens were placed against a real landscape and therefore rooted in a specific location. Or were the mentions of buildings part of an imagined landscape that could have been placed anywhere in the eastern empire? In one sense I was trying to convey the way that (imaginary) ‘urban landscapes’ appear in the decoration of Roman wall-paintings found at Pompeii and Herculaneum, providing a backdrop (or scenery) to the activities within the house.

The Corinthian correspondence, for example, was not written as a theoretical text, but was addressed to Christian people, from poor to rich, living out their daily lives against the backdrop of a specific urban setting that had been founded as a colony by Julius Caesar in 44 BC. The urban life of Corinth, with its social expectations, its legal constraints, and its non-Christian framework, come through in the epistles. Essentially I was trying to remind us that these are real settings for real events, not imagined situations against theatrical scenery.

TB: Further to the last question, can you give us some idea of how an understanding of the urban world of Early Christianity will help inform the work of scholars? Pastors? Students?

PT: Two things come to mind. The urban world of the early Christians is so religious! People did not divide ordinary life from “religion,” but rather religion permeated all of life. This helps us to see how different their world was from the contemporary West.

But secondly, it was also a highly pluralist world, in which disciples of Christ were a small minority. They were marginalised, harassed, and sometimes openly persecuted. The social dynamics facing their small Christian communities in their urban world were in many ways strikingly similar to the situation many of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the majority world face today. Perhaps too, the church in the West is in many ways heading into a similar social situation. Understanding this urban world of Early Christianity is thus becoming more and more relevant to our world!

TB: David, in your essay, “Early Christianity in Its Colonial Contexts in the Provinces of the Eastern Empire”, you suggest that rural regions surrounding the major urban centres were impacted by Christian farmers living in those centers but “travelling to their land holdings” outside the cities. What might this tell us about the social and economic differences among members of the early, urban church compared to churches in more rural areas?

DG: We perhaps have the sense of individuals living in their farms within the territory of the city. But studies of first century AD rural landscapes in the Greek world, such as Boeotia, the Argolid, Messenia, suggest that some of the landscapes appear to have been thinly populated. I am not sure that this necessarily tells something about the social differences in the local church. At Corinth there is clear evidence for the social elites of different poleis across the province drifting towards the provincial city.

Landholders need not, of course, live on the land, or at least in a rural setting. The holdings of the Roman governor Sergius Paulus (the Roman governor of Cyprus) around the Roman colony of Pisidian Antioch reflect the way that elite groups had extensive lands as part of the property.

The phenomenon of the rural church is perhaps one that we see emerging in the third century AD, reflected in the perhaps fictional lives of the saints.

TB: One of the most significant points I found in your essay was that Christians did not have to be living in Rome to be influenced and affected by that city’s culture, religious festivals, and events calendar. How could we transpose that onto the experience of modern-day Christians living in the USA or UK, for example?

DG: This summer I was crossing the Pennines that form the backbone of northern England. The modern road follows the Roman route and passes the sites of a number of garrisons. At Brough (under Stainmore) you can see the earthworks of the Roman fort, with a later castle built into the northern part. One of the tombstones recovered from the site (and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge) is a Greek text recording the death of a Syrian. It is a reminder that the Roman Empire was a cosmopolitan place; as I write, new discoveries on the Antonine Wall that cuts across lowland Scotland show that this zone was garrisoned by troops from North Africa. While local cultures, and indeed religious cults, survived the incorporation of communities into the empire, there was clearly an aspiration on the part of the social elites to adopt Roman culture, language and values. This was especially true for Roman colonies that in effect replicated the city of Rome; in the east they included Corinth, Philippi, and Pisidian Antioch. This influenced the choice of subject for my own contribution.

We now live in a world when globalisation is a recognized phenomenon. I live close to one of the main container ports for the United Kingdom, and am reminded on a daily basis of world markets. And we see the phenomenon on our streets and in our homes: the cars we drive, the foods we eat, the smartphones in our hands. In the church, are we creating a blended, perhaps, globalised culture? Or do we allow the gospel of Jesus Christ speak to and into different cultures? My local parish church, where we worship, contains a Norman doorway that attests to Christian worship for nearly a thousand years. How can the gospel be relevant to this community, at this time, both now, and for future generations? Yet we are also part of a global church: sharing some of the hymns and worship songs, using prayers, such as the Lord’s prayer, that have a worldwide resonance.

To go back to the first century, I wonder if there would have been noticeable differences between the style of worship in, say, Ephesus (essentially a Greek city, but a key community in the province of Asia), and the Roman colony of Corinth in Achaia. Yet at the same time there were common values and expressions of belief. For me, this goes back to how the gospel can challenge our culture and cultures, and transform them into communities that reflect the kingdom of God.

TB: Paul, your essay on “Engaging–or Not Engaging–the City” entails a reading of 1 and 2 Timothy and the Johannine letters in the city of Ephesus. You suggest that there were “two main strands of Christian tradition in Ephesus”, one Pauline, the other Johannine. What is the significance of the Salutaris Inscription that was in Ephesus for understanding these two strands and how they might have interacted?

PT: The Salutaris inscription shows that a person named Salutaris established a procession of statues of the gods which would have happened every two weeks or so in Ephesus. It clearly displays some of the reality of life in Ephesus on the ground: the worship of Artemis and the emperor, alongside other deities, and the very public nature of ancient religion. If we think about reading 1 and 2 Timothy in this context, we see that these letters strongly maintain belief in the one God, but also use some of the language of the city, even language used in the Salutaris inscription, to express their faith. This is a form of contextualising the gospel in the city of Ephesus.

By contrast, the Johannine letters seem to be more insular and testify to a community that is concerned with the vitality of its own life, and not engaging to the same extent in the wider city. But probably the Pauline strand and the Johannine strand of Christian life in Ephesus would have recognised each other as somewhat different, but definitely part of the one early Christian movement.

TB: You also make the argument that the two Christian communities had different responses to the surrounding culture of Ephesus, differences that can be traced in the letters themselves. What significance might this have both for how we conceptualize the phenomenon of Early Christianity, and for how we read these letters today?

PT: This underlines some features of the diversity of early Christianity. They shared much in common (the centrality of Jesus Christ, the outpouring of the eschatological Spirit and much else) but also responded in some different ways to their wider culture, and expressed their faith in different language. The letters encourage us today to grapple with the issues of how we relate to our wider cultures, and how we express the gospel of Jesus Christ in our different context, using different language to express the one gospel.

TB: Steve, in your essay, “Heavenly Citizenship and Earthly Authorities”, you place Philippians 1:27 and 3:20 into “dialogue” with Acts 16:11–40. One of the key points to emerge from your study is the importance of “citizenship” language for Paul. What is the relationship, for Paul, between a tangible, earthly citizenship and a “citizenship in heaven”?

SW: Paul sees himself as a citizen of two realms, as you’ve noticed. His citizenship of heaven means that he belongs there, is secure there, and is answerable to the ruler of heaven for his conduct. This citizenship trumps (if I may use the term!) his earthly citizenship of Rome, but he nevertheless recognises the importance of his standing as a Roman citizen—that’s why he’s prepared in Acts 16 to invoke his Roman citizenship in order to give the new Christian community in Philippi the best chance of avoid harassment by the authorities, even though he himself knows he will have to leave town. He may or may not have known Jesus’s saying, ‘Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God’, but it expresses well the way he thought—it creates a proper valuing of human authorities (and you can see that, for instance, in Romans 12), as well as subordinating them ultimately to God’s authority seen in Jesus.

TB: What impact, then, does the intersection between earthly and heavenly citizenship have on Christians considering pressing current events, whether political, economic, or otherwise in the countries they call “home”?

SW: It means that Christians are true internationalists, regarding the whole world as God’s. This means that we value our sisters and brothers from other nations—not least, nations with whom our nation is in conflict—and love and support them in ways we can. It means, for those who have the privilege of living in a democracy, that we press our leaders to act justly and to value people of all nations, to alleviate and reduce poverty, and to keep doors open for the Christian gospel as much as is possible.

TB: Finally, have the three of you planned a follow up volume to this one? Are you each individually working on further research into the urban world and the early Christians?

SW: I am working on the Word Biblical Commentary on Acts, and so using insights from this work in my discussions of the various urban settings where churches were planted and grew in writing commentary on the relevant passages from Acts.

DG: I am continuing research on the classical world, although my most recent book, published in October 2018, is a biography of the archaeologist and museum curator, Winifred Lamb, my predecessor when he worked at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I am reminded that the classical world, that forms my mental landscape on a daily basis, is so remote, “a foreign land,” to many people in our contemporary society. As a licensed lay minister in the Church of England, it is a privilege to try and bring these biblical texts alive both through preaching and in smaller Bible study groups. I have a long-standing desire to publish a series of agonistic inscriptions from an extramural sanctuary at Pisidian Antioch, and to reflect on how local cults, disguised with a veneer of Roman-ness, may have influenced Paul’s thinking as he wrote to the early Christian communities in Galatia.

PT: I am researching early Christians in the city of Ephesus—from Jesus to the fifth century. This will look at the development of early Christian life in the context of the large city of Ephesus, the third or fourth largest city of the ancient world. It will include discussions of Christians negotiating their life within the challenges of the polytheistic Graeco-Roman city.

The Urban World and the First Christians is currently available for pre-order for the Logos Digital Library.

Get your copy now to access fuller, richer discussion from all three editors above, and more essays by other world-class biblical scholars, archaeologists, classicists and more.

Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is the Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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Written by Tavis Bohlinger