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Jewett on Roman churches meeting in crowded tenement buildings (insula)

Jewett’s Romans commentary assumes that Christians met in these dilapidated apartment buildings (insula), largely based upon the names mentioned in ch. 16 of Romans. I have my reservations about this. For one thing, Jewett uses Willy Rordorf’s article “Was wissen wir über die christlichen Goettesdiensträme der vorkonstantinischen Zeit?” ZNW 55 (1964) 110-28, as supporting his argument.  Rordorf points first a private house in Dura-Europos that the early Christians converted into a church, as shown by the archelogical remnants of House church in Dura-Europos from the early 3rd century (see this link).  Then, he writes: 

In Rom bieten uns die erhaltenen Reste der im Liber Pontificalis bezeugten Titularkirchen (z.B. S. Clemente und Sta. Anastasia, der titulus Equiti und Bizntis) dasselbe Bild [as the house church in Dura-Europos] : es handelt sich einfach um Privathäuser, in denen sich die christliche Gemeinde zum Gottesdienst versammelte, ohne dass sich diese Häuser im geringsten von anderen römischen Privathäusern jener Zeit underscheiden würden. (Gewöhnlich sind es hier Häuser mit mehreren Stockwerken.)

In Rome, the extant remains of Titular Churches testified to in the Liber Pontificalis (for example St. Clement and St. Anastasia, of titulus Equiti and Bizntis) offer us the same picture:  it consists simply of Private Houses, in which the Christian community assembled for divine services, houses that would not differ in the slightest from other Roman private houses of that time (usually it was the case here of houses with several stories.) [trans. mine]

Yet Jewett wrote:

A number of earlier experts suggested the likelihood that even if Prisca and Aquila’s church met in their private apartment, it was probably in a tenement building. [supported by note 427] Willi [sic] Rordorf noted the evidence of ecclesiastical use of insula buildings on the basis of excavations of the later title churches in Rome …

He uses Rordorf to support his contention of crowded tenement churches (insula), and yet Rordorf assumes the same situation for the local house churches in Rome, private homes, as elsewhere in the Roman world.  Later, Rordorf suggests that these private homes had varied architectural structure–as churches met in private homes rather than in houses built for such use and that private homes used as churches were made up of all kinds of varieties.

Now Jewett goes on to cite a couple more scholars (Petersen, Krautheimer),  who apparently share a view similar to Jewett’s, that the Titular churches were originally crowded tenment houses. Now I wonder if this is the case.  How would scholars determine if a house with several stories and many rooms was  devote to one domus (a private dwelling) or if it was an insula, a crowded tenement building rented out to many people?  It seems unlikely on the face of it that an insula would be a suitable meeting place for a church, which would need to block off larger rooms for the purpose of meeting–and perhaps have dedicated rooms for the various functions of a church.

Jewett’s (et al.) assumption appears to be that the domus was something different in architectural style than an insula.  If the Titular churches resembled an insula in physical structure, that does not mean that a domus, particular of people in that huge category between super wealthy and poor, would not also have a similar structure, and would later–after centuries of rebuilding on the same site–be indestinguishable from crowded tenement buildings (insula) even though it functioned as a domus.  For that matter, what would stop a weatlhy merchant (e.g., an Aquila with his wife Priscilla) from renting or purchasing an entire crowded tenement building and converting it to a domus then into a church?

I suspect that the attempt by Poser here is to find a means of changing the demographic of the early church to something more suitable to his agenda, rather than just simply admit that the domus, i.e. the household of the relatively rich and powerful, played a powerful and significant role in the primitive church.

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