The social origins of the early Christians

From what social and economic strata did the Christians of the first two or three centuries come? The only safe answer is that we do not know. As we have said, Christianity was at first primarily urban, at the outset among the Jews and the Gentiles interested in Judaism, and then among the Greek-speaking, Hellenistic sections of the cities, but also soon among the Syriac-using peoples of Syria and the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. It is often said that Christians were drawn from the dregs of the urban proletariat — the dispossessed, the slaves, and the freedmen. Christianity has even been described as an incentive and channel for the upsurge of the underprivileged, a social movement. For this appealing thesis some evidence can be adduced. Paul rejoiced that "not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called," and in the third century Cel-sus, the author of a trenchant attack on Christianity, declared that the faith had its chief hold among the ignorant. Yet we know that even in the first century numbers of men and women of wealth, education, and social prominence became Christians, and that in the original Christian group in Jerusalem there were not only poor but also those who had the means to aid their less fortunate fellows. It is possible that members of some of the most prominent families in Rome were among the early converts, and that a near relative of the Emperor Domitian was a Christian and, but for his death by execution, might himself have become Emperor. It may well have been that the proportion of the educated, the socially prominent, and the poor in the Christian communities was about that in the Empire as a whole. This would entail a predominance of the uneducated, but it would not necessarily mean that Christianity was associated with a movement to win more privileges for the proletarian elements in the great cities.

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