In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Churches in Ancient Christianity

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Sourcebooks
  • Introductory Works
  • Second-Century Churches
  • Church Architecture

Biblical Studies Churches in Ancient Christianity
Richard Last
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0074


The English term, “church,” derives from the Greek, kuriakon (κυριακόν) (“that which belongs to the lord”), and is the traditional English translation for a variety of Greek and Latin terms that were used to designate gatherings of Christ-believers in antiquity, including the eventually-dominant ekklēsia /ecclesia (1 Cor 1:2), as well as synōdos (NewDocs 6.26.19), thiasōtai (Eusebius, E.C. 1.3.12), synagōgē (Jas. 2.2), koinōnia (Origen, Cels. 1.1), hetaeria (Pliny, Ep. 10.96), and corpus (Tertullian, Apol. 39). The reality that these designations also denoted Greco-Roman associations (including Judean synagogues)––and that titles for church offices were already employed by private associations––prompted earlier research to explore terminological convergences between ancient churches and private associations, and to investigate the extent to which ancient churches were modeled after Greco-Roman associations (e.g., Hatch, The Organization of the Early Christian Churches) and synagogues (e.g., Burtchaell, From Synagogue to Church). Some recent scholarship on ancient churches has abandoned the quest to determine their identity (e.g., as associations, synagogues, philosophical schools), and now consults analogous data for the heuristic purpose of raising new questions about church structure and practices from ancient associations about whose practices we know much more (e.g., Kloppenborg, “Membership Practices in Pauline Christ Groups”). Other researchers continue to speak about the identity of churches as associations (e.g., Alikin, Earliest History of the Christian Gathering) or as unique from associations (e.g., Klauck, Hausgemeinde und Hauskirche im frühen Christentum). This bibliography covers ancient churches from the earliest period up to 313 CE––the so-called ante pacem era. In these centuries there was diversity from church to church but some commonalities existed at the foundation of diverse ancient church practices: the earliest churches were gatherings of Christ-believers (and invitees of various kinds) for liturgical activities such as prayer, reading, preaching, teaching, hymns (1 Cor 14:26; Didache 8–10; Justin, Apology 66–67) and social purposes such as eating, drinking, and vying for honor (1 Cor 11:17–34; 2 Peter 2:13; Ignatius, Smyrneans 8:2–4; Pliny, Epistles 10.97; Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 25; Tertullian, Apology 39). It has been suggested that liturgical practices were rather uniform in churches (Salzmann, Lehren und Ermahnen) but this theory has not persuaded most scholars (Rouwhorst, “The Roots of the Early Christian Eucharist”). Likewise, meal practices in early churches, while perhaps deriving from a common Greco-Roman banquet tradition, nonetheless might have been structured differently from church to church (McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists). In terms of architecture, it is traditionally thought that pre-313 CE churches met almost exclusively in un-renovated houses and, later, renovated houses (Filson, “The Significance of the Early House Churches”) but Adams, in his 2013 monograph, Earliest Christian Meeting Places, highlights the usage of rented space and other un-renovated meeting venues––and therefore identifies spatial diversity––in this period.

General Overviews

General overviews of ancient churches often narrow themselves to specific aspects of church life rather than providing comprehensive surveys of church practices and churches’ social situation based on archaeological, literary, and analogical data. For an overview of institutionalization, the position of Harnack 1910 provides basic tenets of the traditional perspective. Hatch 1881 offers an alternative to Harnack 1910 and, more recently, Eisen 2000 has demonstrated women often held leadership positions and offices throughout the early centuries into the medieval era. Dix 1945 offers the classical position on the origins of liturgical and meal practices in churches, while Alikin 2010 provides a recent challenge. The conclusions of White 1990–1997 have become normative in modern understandings of early church architecture but have now been challenged in Adams 2013.

  • Adams, Edward. Earliest Christian Meeting Places: Almost Exclusively Houses? London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013.

    NNNChurches assembled outside of domestic architecture more than has been realized. Provides evidence of Christ-believers assembling in rented and open space, as well as descriptions of the role of these spaces in everyday city and village life.

  • Alikin, Valeriy A. Earliest History of the Christian Gathering: Origin, Development and Content of the Christian Gathering in the First to Third Centuries. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004183094.i-342

    NNNOverviews liturgy and meal practices in church gatherings from the 50s to 258 CE with particular focus on situating church activities in the context of practices in ancient association meetings.

  • Dix, Gregory. The Shape of the Liturgy. Westminster, UK: Dacre, 1945.

    NNNThis is a key work in terms of history of scholarship but does not overview current majority perspectives. Situates early Christian liturgical practices in a nearly-exclusive Jewish context.

  • Eisen, Ute. Women Office Holders in Early Christianity. Epigraphical and Literary Studies. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000.

    NNNEnglish translation of the original German (Amtsträgerinnen im frühen Christentum, 1996). Shows that women achieved status positions outside of “deaconesses” and “widows.” Analyzes inscriptions that mention women and a variety of church office titles, including “bishop.” Offers an alternative to the formerly dominant position that women could not become officers and leaders in proto-Orthodox communities.

  • Harnack, Adolf. The Constitution & Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries. Translated by F. Pogson. Crown Theological Library 31. London: Williams & Norgate, 1910.

    NNNEnglish translation of Entstehung und Entwickelung der Kirchenverfassung und des Kirchenrechts in den zwei ersten Jahrhunderten (1910). Local churches gradually became structurally organized over time. Describes three organizational layers to the earliest Christ-groups, based on his reading of the Didache, including: itinerant spiritual leaders, elders in charge of education and order, and local administrative magistrates. This is a key work in terms of history of scholarship but does not overview current majority perspectives.

  • Hatch, Edwin. The Organization of the Early Christian Churches; Eight Lectures Delivered Before the University of Oxford, in the Year 1880. London: Rivingtons, 1881.

    NNNDiscussion of church structure to the 4th century. Analyzes similarities and differences between early church organization on the one hand, and the organization of cities, Greco-Roman associations, and Judean groups on the other hand. Some conclusions drawn from the association data cannot be maintained today but Hatch provides a groundwork for exploring the development of church organization from the earliest period into later centuries within the context of analogous cults. This is a key work in terms of history of scholarship.

  • White, L. Michael. The Social Origins of Christian Architecture. 2 vols. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity, 1990–1997.

    NNNVolume 1 posits four gradual stages of architectural development of the physical space of church meetings. Shows that Mithraic and Judean groups developed worship space according to similar patterns. Volume 2 provides a compilation of literary and material sources attesting to the meeting spaces of Christ-believers, Judeans, and members of Mithraic groups.

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