Skip to main content

Module 1 Notes - Text: The First Urban Christians, by Wayne A. Meeks

As  I mentioned before, I'm starting a DMin program (next week!), and keeping notes on my blog of my reading. 

First up: The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, by Wayne A. Meeks (Second Edition). So far I've read the first chapter, "The Urban Environment of Pauline Christianity." I find the book pretty dry, frankly. It conveys a lot of facts, but doesn't necessarily have a particular argument - the aim is to describe the urban context of Paul's world, and the argument is mostly to note that Paul was an 'urban' Christian in 1st century terms, and that his environment shaped Christianity and how it unfolded, describing the context in which it unfolded. In particular, that the spread of Christianity was facilitated by urbanization in the Mediterranean. (25) But beyond that: just a very detailed description of how things were/probably were. Fascinating, in some respects, but in others, just dry. 


  • Paul was a city person. Paul was an "urban handworker", which was neither a country person nor a city aristocrat. (9) Paul planted small cells of Christianity in households "strategically located" in cities around the northeast of the Mediterranean. (9-10)
  • "Within a decade of the crucifixion of Jesus, the village culture of Palestine had been left behind, and the Greco-Roman city became the dominant environment of the Christian movement." (11) Significant shift, no? 
  • Meeks argues that city life created a stable and secure atmosphere for urban people - local government, law, consistency in application of law, roads built and maintained, stable taxes, education, etc. (12) Road maintenance and military presence also make travel much easier/safer, which plays into Paul's story. (17) Sea travel is also faster and cheaper than travel by land. (18)
  • Jews, as one group of "resident aliens," were a distinct community among Roman citizens/city citizens, had own laws and organizations, but also sometime had access to some rights or equal rights with citizens. 
  • City life allowed for more, if perhaps still limited, social mobility. Physical and social advantages weighed in favor of city living. Cities "were where power was." (14-15)
  • Irony: When Christianity finally permeated back into village cultures, where it had actually begun (Galilee), documents had to be translated back into Aramaic and other languages/dialects from Greek. (15)
  • Mediterranean cities had a common idea about layout and construction of good city. (15)
  • Paul's role as an artisan tent-maker made travel easier for him, natural relationships for him with artisans in places he visited. (17) Movement of artisans and tradespeople facilitates movement of religions/cults: Foreign settlers find neighbors, set up shrine to gods, increase in numbers, demand government recognition. (18) Cults spread not just through intentional 'evangelism', but through chatter and 'gossip.' (19) Families and households of individuals are important starting points for Paul, with connections of work and trade. (28)
  • Biggest social mobility question for lower class folks was from slavery to freedom or vise versa. (20) There was some social order in households, and the threshold between slave and free was one of most significant. (21) Additional in-between category: those of the household of Caesar. (21) Upward mobility of imperial slaves and other slaves to freedman was resented by those who considered themselves better. (22) Women were often freed at an earlier age from slaver for "the purposes of marriage" - 29% to their own patron - one of the most common ways for women to improve social status. (23) Was this against their will? Meeks doesn't say. In the context of slavery, what would that even mean? How are you supposed to 'choose' between continued slavery and marrying the one who enslaved you? 
  • Women: some argued for education for women, women could join clubs and organizations, but few were women-only groups. Women were present/active in religious matters. But as a small religious cult grew/gained status, "it would feel pressure to counter [attacks] by emphasizing its agreement with traditional values. Whatever 'women's movement' there may have been would be suppressed early." (23-25)
  • Cities were densely populated - equivalent only in modern Western cities in "industrial slums" - people were crowded at home, "made tolerable" by open, nice public spaces. (28-29) Privacy was rare, even for VIPs. (29)
  • Individual household is the "basic unit" both of Christianity and the city itself. But is much broader concept than our idea of a household. Would include everyone that the head of house was responsible for and expected obedience from: former slaves who were clients, laborers, associates, tenants, family, slaves, etc. (29-30). Did you ever watch Rome on HBO? This actually gives me a helpful picture of a 'household'! Slaves and freemen in a household felt relationships with one another more like kinship than friendship. (30) Also important: Voluntary associations. 12-few hundred members at most. (Same/similar word as synod, synagogue, for these associations.) (31) Clubs gave people a little bit of status in organization if they couldn't have it in government/society at large. 
  • There hasn't been an "adequate taxonomy of first-century Judaism." Paul crossed so-called categories, for example. Jewish apocalyptic. Writes in Greek. Hellenistic. His Bible is Septuagint. Is a mystic. Is a Pharisee. "Hellenistic" and "rabbinic" Judaism are vague and, in the latter, anachronistic terms. (33)
  • Question of the book: What, if any, were connections between Paul's Christian communities and varieties of Judaism existing at time? (34) 5-6 million Jews were living in Diaspora in 1st century. 10-15% of city population in Mediterranean border cities. (34) Had similar role as associations/club, but also exemptions, unique situations (like: was a birth right, and exclusive to Jews and proselytes. Not open membership.) (35) Not citizens, but shared some rights with citizens. (36) Jews wanted rights of citizens, but also wanted guarantees of not having to violate religious laws - tricky middle ground, not always a bad relationship with Rome and government. (38) Was "prudent" to adopt Paul's view: Romans 13:3-4. (39)
  • Ephesus as the center of Paul's and his circle's activity. (41) Takes root in 4 provinces in Empire: Galatia (although what region this is exactly can't be determined), Asia, Macedonia, and Achaia. (42) Trade centers. (44) Philippi (Asia) has a more Latin character than other of these because of "double colonization" and constant passage of military through area. (45) Also different because was primarily a center of agriculture, not commerce. (46) We know less about Thessalonica because of modern city built on top of remains without less disaster/destruction through history. Was a free city, with own coins, government, no Roman garrison, etc. (46-47) Achaia: Corinth. Italian. (47) Wealthy. Commerce. Entrepreneurs. Many freedman, who, in unique setting, could actually be local aristocracy. (48)
  • Paul's world, his target, is the Greek-speaking Jew of the Roman world. (50)


Popular posts from this blog

re-post: devotional life for progressive Christians

I posted this a while back before anyone was really reading this blog. Now that more people seem to be stopping by, I thought I'd put it out there again with some edits/additons since it's been on my mind again... Do you find it difficult to have any sort of devotional time? When I was growing up, I was almost compulsive about my personal Bible Study, devotion time, etc. Somewhere along the way, I got more and more sporadic. In part, I found myself frustrated with the devotional books that I considered theologically too conservative. I find it hard to bond with God when you're busy mentally disagreeing with the author of whatever resource you're reading. My habit was broken, and I've never gotten it back for more than a few weeks at a time. So, a disciplined devotional/prayer/bible-reading life - is it something I should be striving to get back, or something that is filled by other ways I am close to God? This is a debate I have with myself all the time. On the

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, "Hope: A Thrill of Hope," Mark 1:1-8

Sermon 11/26/17 Mark 1:1-8 Hope: A Thrill of Hope             Are you a pessimist or an optimist? Is the glass of life half empty, or half full? My mom and I have gone back and forth about this a bit over the years. She’s wildly optimistic about most things, and sometimes I would say her optimism, her hopefulness borders on the irrational. If the weather forecast says there’s a 70% chance of a snowstorm coming, my mom will focus very seriously on that 30% chance that it is going to be a nice day after all. I, meanwhile, will begin adjusting my travel plans and making a backup plan for the day. My mom says I’m a pessimist, but I would argue that I’m simply a realist , trying to prepare for the thing that is most likely to happen, whether I like that thing or not. My mom, however, says she doesn’t want to be disappointed twice, both by thinking something bad is going to happen, and then by having the bad thing actually happen. She’d rather be hopeful, and enjoy her state of

Sermon for Second Sunday in Advent, "Peace: All Is Calm, All Is Bright," Isaiah 11:1-10, Mark 13:24-37

Sermon 12/3/17 Mark 13:24-37, Isaiah 11:1-10 Peace: All Is Calm, All Is Bright             “Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright. Round yon’ virgin mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.”             This week, I read news stories about North Korea testing a missile that perhaps could reach across the whole of the United States.             This week, I spoke with a colleague in ministry who had, like all churches in our conference, received from our church insurance company information about how to respond in an active shooter situation. She was trying to figure out how to respond to anxious parishioners and yet not get caught up in spending all of their ministry time on creating safety plans.             This week, we’ve continued to hear stories from people who have experienced sexual assault and harassment, as the actions, sometimes over decades, of men in positions of power have been