Metropolitan Milieu in Paul’s Day

The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, written by Wayne A. Meeks was every bit an eye-opener for me.

Honestly, I had no idea.

In his book, Meeks portrays the metropolitan environment of the Pauline churches:

  • the social strata represented in Pauline converts.
  • the model, symbols, ambience, and governance of the Pauline communities.
  • what rituals became a part of the community, particularly within their meetings.
  • what patterns of belief that were both formed and lived out.

Meeks draws from archaeological research, anthropology, sociology, ancient records, and Biblical textual evidence to cull reliable data that can accurately describe each of the above categories. Beginning with the urban environments Paul strategically targeted, Meeks draws the reader into the geography and culture of the ancient city and its importance and impact on the people of antiquity.

From there, Meeks reconstructs the social world with its economic and power tiers, and the creation of an entirely new realm, the invisible yet palpable kingdom of Christ, with its felt-yet-ambiguous borders, diverse-yet-largely-middle-tiers populace, its connectedness to all churches worldwide, and its peculiar subculture.

Meeks admits in his introduction extracting social history data from texts meant as revelation

“often denies the religious phenomena any distinctive character of their own by treating them as the effects of nonreligious causes.”

Meeks, The First Urban Christians, 3

However, it is evident throughout his book that Meeks was careful to avoid this pitfall by keeping as

“closely as possible to the observed facts.”

Meeks, The First Urban Christians, 3

Consequently, his work is palatable to both the nonreligious scientist and the religious student.

Clear Strengths in This Book

Solid Data

The author provides a methodical and thorough review of available data, the array of appropriated disciplines (textual, archaeological, anthropological, sociological, theological), and the arrangement of topics. Meeks begins with the concrete geography and topography of the cities Paul evangelized, along with the typical lifestyles of various people groups (slaves, women, Jews, gentiles), their connections, population, and perspectives. Of particular note was Paul’s interaction with Jews, and the Roman empire’s overlay on all cities. By carefully reconstructing the metropolitan context, Meeks prepares the reader for understanding some of his surprising findings, such as the “middle class” nature of most Pauline converts and their internal power and class struggles, reflecting

“a fair cross-section of urban society.”

Meeks, The First Urban Christians, 73

Layered Approach

Meeks uses a layered approach, introducing themes early, such as clubs and their popularity, patrons and their clients, and the constant competition for upward social mobility, as well as the use of New Testament sources and their reliability.

By laying thematic groundwork, Meeks builds from typical household arrangements, to clubs, schools of philosophy, and religious engagement, as models forming the early church. It becomes evident how Paul drew from all these to create a sense of

  • family (brothers and sisters in Christ),
  • united in purpose (as were funeral clubs),
  • equal members (as an ekklesia, and similar to the Epicureans),
  • spiritually transcended, therefore connected in a mysterious way worldwide,
  • yet also involved with earthly matters in their local groups (synagogues).

This last keys in on the theme of ethnicity and gender, which Meeks shows as particularly important in that day. Yet, by being reborn into a new “kind” of people, all economic, ethnic, gender, and influence strata are leveled. To that end, Paul used “the language of belonging” as a boundary for the church.[1]

Importance of New Social Structures

The author describes the importance and complexity of baptism, the unifying and bonding nature of the Eucharist and accompanying meal, the many hymns and slogans already being developed within the church, and the emphasis on egalitarian governance (a much-softened hierarchy which included women, relatively low-tier individuals, and gentiles as well as Jews).

Meeks portrays the competition for leadership within the churches, and the influence of social mores, through unequal treatment during community meals, the use of professional-level rhetoric, and the display of ecstatic spiritual gifts. Traditional and historical boundaries found in patriarchy, the Jewish/gentile divide, patron/client relationship, and class hierarchy also influenced, and sometimes disrupted relationships within the church.

Boundaries were ambiguous, and more difficult to navigate well, within and outside the Christian community, including sexual mores and habits, the eating of sacrificial meat, conduct during church meetings, and conduct in the daily matters of business, civic engagement, and households.

The Apostle Paul’s Innovations

Meeks catalogues Paul’s innovations: the high level of travel and written correspondence connecting each cell; the creation of a deeply bonded community which still freely interacted with the world around it (and therefore had ambiguous boundaries); the egalitarian nature of the community; a new ethnic identity created through rebirth and symbolized through baptism; baptism and the Eucharist; Christ fulfilling the Law, now leading by His Spirit active within the individuals and the corporate church, thus rendering the Law obsolete (so that members operate on life principles, truths, and the leading of the Spirit far more than rules).[2]

Some Deficits

Though an engaging author, Meeks writes at a level—with words such as “heuristic,” “philophronetic,” and “paraenesis” —that will discourage the average reader.

His method of layering, speaking only to the topic at hand, then more fully developing his thought in following chapters, leaves a growing pile of questions that slow the reader down, for the answers come only in dribs and drabs. For example, Meeks tantalizes the reader, on page 11, stating the cause of Paul’s break with Barnabas as actually found in Galatians 2:11-14 (and not in Acts 15:36-41). Meeks’ reason for this contention is not presented until page 161! He also could have shown a clearer connection between Paul’s use of the dialectic and apocalyptic with his innovations, earlier in the book.

But Still …

In conclusion, every Bible student needs to know the historical underpinnings of the words they are reading.

This material should be made more available to a wider audience. Without understanding the context of a passage in the Bible—context which is amply provided for in books such as this one—there is the danger of reading into the text what is not there, or misconstruing the text to say what it does not.

It is my hope Meeks’ book, and others like it, can be made more accessible (i.e. in language geared towards the nonscholar) to the average Bible reader.

[1] Meeks, The First Urban Christians, 85

[2] Meeks, The First Urban Christians, 138-139. This is still a disputed issue within Christendom

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