What was it like to be a Christian in the earliest church in Rome? We have a marvellous picture of this earliest church, provided by the New Testament scholar Peter Lampe, author of the work "From Paul to Valentinus: Christians in Rome in the First Two Centuries."
The Catholic historian Eamon Duffy writes in his work, "Sinners and Saints": "All modern discussion of the issues must now start from [this] exhaustive and persuasive analysis by Peter Lampe.”
Lampe seemingly searched and analyzed every scrap of paper from that era, every tomb, every inscription, every archaeological find, every available public record, and he pieced together one of the most intricate reconstructions of the church in this place, in this era. Lampe brings to life this ancient city, in a way that modern readers I think will see and feel and understand what was going on in that earliest church period.
Here is most of the entire work on Google Books.
Before Christians were in Rome, there was a network of Jewish synagogues in the city.
Philo, writing in the first half of the first century ad, already knew of a number of established "proseucha," or Jewish synagogue buildings in Rome.
"The inscriptions verify a maximum of fourteen different congregations," Lampe says (p. 431-2). These are listed in Appendix 4 of his work.
These are individual communities, independently organized, each with its own place of assembly, its own council of elders, and its own community officials. These communities were only loosely associated with each other. Throughout the entire imperial period there is no evidence of a union of Roman Jewish communities under one single council of elders, a finding that is a contrast to Alexandria, where the diverse synagogues formed one big political corporation.... At least five of the communities listed above existed already in the first century c.e. The background of a fractionated Roman Jewry serves as a foil to the fractionation of Roman Christianity.This is important for understanding how early Roman Christianity developed, because, as Lampe says, "That new communities of worship were established in a city next to already existing communities was not unusual for Jewish circumstances. A group of ten men capable of worship were enough to form a new community (footnote 1, pg 431).
It's important to note that Roman visitors were present in Jerusalem at Acts 2: Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism).... Those who accepted [Peter's] message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
So it’s not certain, but a very clear picture emerges of how Christian churches first were formed in Rome. Returning from Rome after Pentecost, new Roman Christians (likely in the early 30’s ad) traveled back home, and began to worship in and around this network of synagogues.
Here's how Lampe assesses the growth of Christian communities along the Puteoli-Rome trade axis, following the routes of Christians in Rome as early as shortly after Pentecost.
The Christian presence in Puteoli and Rome correlates with a twofold background. (a) Jews had lived in Puteoli since Augustan times (sources), perhaps Aquileia in the north, and Puteoli accommodated the only pre-Christian Jewish settlements in Italy known to us. This is one more confirmation that earliest Christianity spread along the routes that Judaism had already followed: the synagogues were the setting for the first Christian mission. (b) The Jewish as well as the Christian "axis" Puteoli-Rome has a particular economic-historical background. The stretch Puteoli-Rome was the main trade route between the East and the city of Rome in the first half of the first century. The road of Judaism and Christianity from the east to Rome followed in the footsteps of trade. ... That Judaism and Christianity made their way to Rome through Puteoli ... was typical of the entrance of eastern religions into the world's capital city. (Lampe, pgs 7, 9-10)What kind of leadership did they have? What kind of worship? We don’t know, and can only speculate. However, we do have further evidence of the presence of Christians in Rome throughout the 30’s and 40’s. Consider Acts 18:
After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.The “Edict of Claudius” in 49 ad was reported in secular history by Suetonius, who said that Jews were expelled from Rome for creating disturbances “under the influence of Chrestus.” These must have been some severe and ongoing disturbances not only to have captured the eye of the Emperor, but to have prompted such a severe action.
Lampe continues, “Several observations suggest that Aquila and Pricilla had been expelled from Rome as Christians and had emigrated to Corinth.
In Corinth, Paul baptized only Gaius, Crispus, and the household of Stephanas (1 Cor 1:14-16) – not Aquila or Priscilla. The first person converted in Greece by Paul was Stephanas (1 Cor 16:15) – Not Aquila or Priscilla. That is startling, because, at the very beginning in Corinth, Paul stayed, lived, and worked not with Stephanas, but with Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:3). The logical conclusion is that the couple were already baptized when Paul appeared as the first Christian missionary in Corinth. (Lampe, 11-12)If this occurred in 49 ad, we know for certain that there were Christians again in Rome by 57 ad, when Paul wrote to the church there. Lampe associates the earliest churches (he even includes a map), with the "house churches" that Paul greeted in Romans 16, "ecclesiastical regions" along with population centers of the city (pg 477 in the book).
Later Roman records are very detailed, and Lampe later uses records of established churches (known from attendance records at councils) and actually traces the locations from Romans 16 into these “tituli” churches.
Lord willing, I'll give more details of these "house churches," and pictures of ordinary life for the first Christians at Rome, in future postings.