Church at Rome

ROME, CHURCH AT (̔Ρὡμῃ). The church in the capital city of the Rom. empire located on the Tiber River fifteen m. from the W Mediterranean coast of the Italian peninsula.

Origin.

The exact origin of the church in Rome is unknown. When and by whom Christianity was first introduced at the imperial city is as P. Schaff states an “impenetrable mystery.”

A significant Christian community already existed in Rome for a considerable time before Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans (c. a.d. 58) as evidenced by 1:8-13; 16:19, although the Biblical account does not record any apostolic visits until c. a.d. 62 (Acts 28:15). At the time Paul wrote the epistle he had not been to Rome (cf. 1:13; 15:22). Therefore it is very improbable that Paul had any direct role in founding the church there.

Several sources have been suggested.

“Visitors from Rome”

present on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10) are thought to have been numbered among the 3,000 converted that day (Acts 2:41) and to have established the church in Rome when they returned home. Although this possibility cannot be eliminated it is considered improbable. If accepted, it would not provide an adequate explanation for the Gentile nature of the church nor for evident organization separate from the synagogue.

Peter.

The traditional Roman Catholic position is that the church was first founded by the Apostle Peter, its first bishop. Frequently based upon the tradition of an early visit (a.d. 42) and either twenty or twenty-five years continued ministry (“a long exploded fable,” Schaff Vol I, pp. 366, 367), or a return just prior to Paul’s first visit, appears to have little basis in fact. (See PETER, APOSTLE.) There is no scriptural evidence for direct Petrine origin.

It is well argued that Paul would not have interfered with a church begun by Peter because of his stated position of not actively ministering in another’s field of labor (Rom 15:20).

At the time of the Rom. epistle Paul declares his intention of ministering at Rome (1:10-13; 15:22ff.), a desire which evidently was well known (Acts 19:21). Furthermore, if there had been the slightest possibility of Peter’s being connected with the Rom. church Paul would have either greeted his fellow apostle by name or referred to his esteemed ministry, neither of which he does—a curious oversight in light of the fact that he makes a special point of mentioning Andronicus and Junias as being “men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me” (Rom 16:7). Certainly if the praiseworthy reputation of the Rom. Christians (1:8ff) was the result of Peter’s influence Paul could not possibly have been ignorant of the fact.

It ought to be noted that even the sources upon which the tradition is based make both Peter and Paul responsible for the establishment of the Rom. church. Irenaeus says, “That tradition derived from the Apostles of the very great, the very ancient and universally known church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul, as also (by pointing out) the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of successions of the bishops...committed into hands of Linus the office of the Episcopate” (Iren Adv. Haer. III. 3. 2, 3).

To deny Peter the role of founding the church in Rome does not deny his later visit and martyrdom at Rome. Peter prob. came to Rome late in Paul’s second imprisonment and was later martyred at “about the same time” as Paul according to Eusebius citing Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth’s address to the Romans: “Flourishing seed that had been planted by Peter and Paul at Rome and Corinth,...they suffered martyrdom about the same time” (Euseb. Hist. II:25). Eusebius also cites Tertullian, Gaius, Irenaeus, Origen and others attesting Peter’s martyrdom in Rome.

P. Schaff surmises that if Peter came to Rome c. a.d. 61 he and Paul would have ministered to different spheres after a.d. 63, Peter to the Jew and Paul to the Gentile, and would have mutually promoted harmony. It is in this sense they may have been joint founders. It is further surmised that their martyrdom would have drawn the two communities together. The final “cementing” of the Jewish and Gentile sections, Schaff suggests, was the work of Clement of Rome after the fall of Jerusalem (Vol. I, pp. 372, 373).

Pauline converts.

A more probable explanation of the origin of the church in Rome is to be found in the Christian converts who carried the Gospel to the capital of the empire.

The members of the Rom. congregation(s) are well known to the apostle. He makes specific reference to twenty-six individuals and no less than five groups by name (16:3-16). Not only does Paul know them by name but comments on their faith and activity for the Gospel. Apparently some were converted through his ministry (cf. Rom 16:5).

It is suggested that since the Gospel was carried as far as “Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch” during the persecution following Stephen’s death (Acts 11:19) it is probable that some would have logically found their way to Rome also. Although possible, no historical evidence exists to support this conclusion.

While not entirely free from problems, the more probable origin of the organized church in Rome was the converts and contacts Paul made with those who were exiled from Rome during the reign of Claudius, a.d. 49 (Acts 18:2, 3).

The pagan historian Suetonius reports, “since the Jews were continually making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he (Claudius) expelled them from Rome.” Writing seventy years after the event Suetonius used the variant spelling for Christus to describe a messianic controversy between Jewish and Christian leaders.

Christians would have been included in the edict as a “Jewish” sect and have thus been exiled, providing Paul’s first contact with Aquila. Luke’s identification of Aquila as a “Jew...a native of Pontus, lately come from Italy” (Acts 18:2, 3; cf. Acts 2:9) is no proof that he was not a Christian, but rather classifies him as one of “all Jews” who were expelled. The fact that Paul took up residence with him, with no indication that Aquila was converted at Corinth, suggests the strong probability that he was already a Christian from Rome.

That Aquila became a trusted co-laborer is evidenced by his accompanying Paul to Ephesus. He ministered to Apollos and was resident there when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians (Acts 18:18, 26; 1 Cor 16:19). At the time of the Rom. epistle the apostle’s “fellow workers” were at Rome in a prominent place (Rom 16:3).

It is likely that other of Paul’s converts migrated or returned to Rome and thus explain the origin of the organized church in the imperial city.

Composition.

The composition of the church at Rome has been the subject of much speculation and debate. It is unlikely that it was a totally Gentile church even though Paul addresses it as such (Rom 1:5, 6, 13 etc.). Apparently, however, the composition of the church which Paul addressed was predominantly Gentile. It is possible, as Schaff points out, that there were two groups, Jewish and Gentile, not joined together in the same community of believers.

It is estimated that the Jewish population at Rome during the apostolic period was between 20,000 to 30,000. They worshiped in seven well-established synagogues and owned three cemeteries. Most of these Rom. Jews were the descendants of slaves captured during the campaigns of Pompey, Cassius and Anthony. That many of these freedmen Jews were wealthy is evident from the large sums annually sent to Jerusalem.

The influence this community exerted upon Rom. population was significant for as Conybeare and Howson observe, “the very passages (and they are numerous) which express hatred of the Jews imply a sense of their influence” (p. 678n).

During the early years before they were distinguished from the Jews the Christians shared in the complete toleration which the Jews enjoyed in Rome. Just when Christianity became officially a religio illicita is treated below.

The mere presence of Jews in Rome does not argue for a Jewish church. When Paul ministered to the Jewish leaders (Acts 28:21, 22) they appear to be ignorant of any firsthand information about Christian beliefs. They may have been (1) merely cautious, (2) misleading Paul, or (3) truthfully stating their lack of information. A combination of 1 and 3 are preferred.

It would appear that the church Paul addressed was primarily though not entirely Gentile in composition since Paul refers to it as τὰ ἔΘνη (Rom 1:5, 6, 13; 11:13; 15:16). For Paul, the “apostle to the Gentiles” to have addressed any other than Gentiles as he does in the passages cited is not only unthinkable, but would have violated the apostolic division of labor (cf. Gal 2:7-10). In addition, history has not preserved any Pauline epistle to a non-Pauline church.

The numerous Gr. names Paul greets in ch. 16 is not as strong an argument for a Gentile church as first appears due to the fact that evidence indicates that Rom. Jews spoke Hel. Gr. and might therefore have carried Gr. names.

It is sometimes argued that Paul’s frequent appeal to the law (cf. Rom 7:1) is evidence for a significantly large group of Jewish believers in the church. To this, Meyers and others rightly respond that the OT was the channel through which the church understood Christian truth.

Reputation and growth.

Paul stated in his Rom. epistle that the Rom. church had established a reputation for: (1) faith, proclaimed widely (1:8); (2) individuals he knows personally whose reputation is more than locally established (16:3ff.); (3) obedience widely known (16:19); (4) of sufficient maturity to be the source of the apostle’s rejoicing (16:19). That there were some problems and dissensions is also evident (16:17). The Rom. believers’ loyalty and affection for the apostle is attested by their journeying some distance to meet him when they heard he was approaching the city (Acts 28:14-16).

Paul’s reference to Caesar’s household (Phil 4:22) during his Rom. imprisonment is often thought to include some of the names in Romans 16 and an indication that highranking individuals have become converts. Although possible, Lightfoot states that the term used comprised “all persons in the emperor’s service, whether slaves or freemen, in Italy and even in the provinces.” (Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, pp. 171ff.)

Just how many adherents the early Rom. church had is unknown and no statistical sources are available. Obviously the church is not a large one at the time of the Rom. epistle (c. a.d. 58) nor was Christianity well known a year later at Paul’s arrival in Rome (Acts 28:21ff.). However, by a.d. 64 during the persecution under Nero the Christians had grown sufficiently to be known, arrested and martyred in sufficient numbers (“vast multitudes,” Clement of Rome) to have occasioned public sympathy. (Clement of Rome, Epistle to Corinthian 6; cf. Tacitus, Annals XV. 44.)

Blaiklock surmises that on the average one-fifth of the Rom. population were Christians over the period of the ten generations the church was underground (from Nero to early 4th cent.). Numerically this would mean that each generation numbered between 175,000-400,000 believers buried in the catacombs. The great variation allows for the lowest to the highest estimates of burials in the more than 350 m. of catacombs beneath the city (Cities of the NT, p. 86). Once the church went underground, growth and size of the Rom. congregation are impossible to ascertain.

Persecutions.

Just when Christianity became a religio illicita is unknown. At the time Paul was acquitted by Nero it was no crime to be a Christian. Even during the first recorded state persecution Nero’s charge against the Christians was a plot to burn the city, not their faith (Tacitus, Ann. XV:44). By then Christians were a recognizable group. Tradition places the martyrdom of Peter and Paul at Rome under Nero in a.d. 67 (Euseb. Hist. II 26:6, 7).

The next persecution occurred during the reign of Domitian, c. a.d. 95, when the Christians received the same treatment as the Jews who refused to pay a tax levied for the temple dedicated to Jupiter. Tradition identifies this as the occasion for the Apostle John’s exile to the Isle of Patmos (Rev 1:9).

The first discernible policy of persecution took place in Bithynia under the governorship of Pliny the Younger, c. a.d. 112, during the reign of Trajan. Correspondence between Pliny and Trajan evidences a governmental policy which makes being a Christian a crime punishable by death except for recantation (Pliny, Epp. X:96, 97). Ignatius was martyred during this persecution. Although the official edict defining the state position is lost, it is evident that by the early 2nd cent. the Imperial policy makes being a Christian a crime.

The subject of persecution beyond the apostolic period is outside the scope of this article but it is necessary to point out that persecution to the time of Decius, c. a.d. 250, was generally local and sporadic. After that the Imperial policy sought to eliminate Christianity empire wide. The most intense period came under Emperor Diocletian in a.d. 303, 304 during which believers suffered extensively and so crowded the prisons that “there was no room left for those condemned for crime” (Euseb. Hist. VIII. 6, 9).

In a.d. 311 Emperor Galerius issued an Edict of Toleration from his deathbed which permitted Christians to exist providing they did not violate the peace of the empire. Persecution did not universally cease until Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in a.d. 313.

Place in history.

That the church at Rome should gain a prominence very early is to be expected since it was located in the Imperial city, the capital of the whole Mediterranean basin. That it should retain and increase in prestige and power after Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople (a.d. 30) is explained by: (1) a firmly established episcopacy in the Western church with its concern about apostolic succession; (2) longstanding tradition of privilege associated with the names of Peter and Paul; (3) relative freedom from doctrinal errors which generally plagued the Eastern church; (4) declaration of the doctrinal supremacy of the Bishop of Rome by the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople a.d. 381 and Emperor Valentinian III in a.d. 445; (5) ever growing acceptance of the Petrine Theory of Apostolic Succession; (6) an organizational structure led by capable men which expanded to assume increasing temporal leadership in a declining empire. It is thus that by the end of the 6th cent. the old Rom. church had become the Roman Catholic Church and the Bishop of Rome became the pope.

Bibliography

H. A. W. Meyer, The Epistle to the Romans (Am. Ed.) (1884); W. Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire Before a.d. 170 (1893); G. Edmundson, The Church in Rome in the First Century (1913); A. G. Mackinnon, The Rome of Saint Paul (1930); P. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 1 (1950); P. Carrington, The Early Church, Vol. 1, “The First Century” (1957); E. M. Blaiklock, Rome in the NT (1959); W. J. Conybeare and J. S. Howson, The Life and Epistles of St. Paul (new ed.) (1964); E. M. Blaiklock, Cities of the New Testament (1965).