Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Early Christian Meeting Places, Constantinian Basilicas and Anabaptist Restorationism

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Early Christian Meeting Places, Constantinian Basilicas and Anabaptist Restorationism

Article excerpt

Abstract: The origin of Christian architecture has been much debated by early church historians. Many suppose the early Christian basilica follows the pattern of the suburban villa, while others believe it follows the pattern of the judicial basilica. Both proposals lack evidence and run counter to the fact that early Christians met in urban houses. In terms of functional architecture, this practice of meeting in homes as family eventually expanded to include the extended family in meals with and for the dead. To accommodate this nearly-universal practice, the early Christians built covered cemeteries with a long nave for families to gather, and a circular front for the special dead (martyrs). Returning to the original family function, Anabaptists constructed square edifices with a bent-axis.


We could reasonably suppose that the first Christians developed meeting places comparable to those Jewish Christians would have known. One of the major surprises in early Christian archaeology, however, is the discovery that the architectural, artistic and epigraphic continuity between Judaism and Christianity is slight. For the most part, diaspora Jews did not adapt Roman symbols and epigraphy, while the early Christians altered symbols and epigraphy to fit their faith intent. Christian architecture did not depend on synagogue architecture, but there are some parallels in the way they adapted the houses in which they first met. To be sure, as in early Christianity, many of the extant diaspora synagogues are in fact rebuilt houses (Dura Europos [Fig. 1], Stobi, Priene and Delos), But other synagogues have hall-like qualities, or, as in Dura Europos, the house was restructured as a hall (Fig. 2). Some were even built into public buildings with already existing halls (Sardis). If columns are present in the hall, they normally occur close to the wall or otherwise do not actually follow the usual longitudinal pattern (as in Fig. 2). The Torah niche will be found in one of the walls (as in both Figs. 1 and 2). (1)

The earliest meeting places for Christians were homes. To be sure some halls are mentioned "in a place of leisure and learned discussion," Acts 19:9; "upper chamber," "second storey," or "women's chambers," Acts 20:8). It is also true that we have very little archaeological evidence for houses prior to 300. But what we do have indicates a nearly complete practice of meeting in homes or reconstructed houses. (2) Archaeologically we have a nearly complete house church from Dura-Europos (Fig. 3) and a less certain example in SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Rome. As with the diaspora synagogues there is no known example of a house being rearranged to create a longitudinal pattern. A very few examples of the aula ecclesia (church hall), which was normally longitudinal, did exist by the beginning of the fourth century (S. Crisogono, Fig. 4), but they should not be seen as an architectural step between house and basilica. (3)

The older consensus was that some house churches developed into fourth-century churches. (4) Indeed the tituli churches of Rome (churches sponsored by designated cardinals) often bear the name of the person--normally a wealthy first-century Christian--who supposedly lived in the house below the present edifice (e.g., S. Clemente). But careful archaeological work has shown that there is almost no church that was built over a house church (SS. Giovanni e Paolo and the double cathedral of Aquileia may be exceptions).

By the fourth century some churches were being built as churches. The earliest known "pure" churches were longitudinal with two rows of columns creating a clerestory. At the entrance were three doors--one for the nave and one each for the side aisles. At the front of the church was an apse in which the liturgical acts occurred. A suburban house consisted of an atrium at the entrance, a peristyle (an open courtyard) formed by columns in a longitudinal axis (with rooms on each side of the axis) and a triclinium (dining room) at the front (Fig. …

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