Exploring The First Church Buildings

Because the church building was regarded as sacred, congregants had to undergo a purification ritual before entering. So in the fourth century, fountains were erected in the courtyard so the Christians could wash before they entered the building."

Constantine's church buildings were spacious and magnificent edifices that were said to be "worthy of an Emperor." They were so splendid that his pagan contemporaries observed that these "huge buildings imitated" the structure of pagan temples." Constantine even decorated the new church buildings with pagan art."

The church edifices built under Constantine were patterned exactly after the model of the basilica." These were the common government buildings," designed after Greek pagan temples."

Basilicas served the same function as high school auditoriums do today. They were wonderful for seating passive and docile crowds to watch a performance. This was one of the reasons why Constantine chose the basilica model."

He also favored it because of his fascination with sun worship. Basilicas were designed so that the sun fell upon the speaker as he faced the congregation." Like the temples of the Greeks and Romans, the Christian basilicas were built with a facade (front) facing east."

Turner, From Temple to Meeting House, 185.

This quote comes from the anti-Christian writer Porphyry (Davies, Secular Use of Church Buildings, 8). Porphyry said that the Christians were inconsistent because they criticized pagan worship yet erected buildings that imitated pagan temples! (White, Building God's House, 1291.

Gonzalez, Stony of Christianity, 122. According to Professor Harvey Yoder, Constantine built the original church of Hagia Sophia (the Church of Holy Wisdom) on the site of a pagan temple and imported 427 pagan statues from across the Empire to decorate it. "From House Churches to Holy Cathedrals" (lecture given in Harrisburg, VA, October 1993).

Grant, Founders of the Western World, 209. The first basilica was the Church of St. John Lateran built from an imperial palace donated in AD 314 (White, Building God's House, 181. "Constantine, when deciding what the pioneer church of St. John Lateran was to be like, chose the basilica as a model, thereby establishing it as standard for Rome's Christian places of worship." Lionel Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 133.

Hinson, "Worshiping Like Pagans?" 19; Norman, House of God, 24; Jungmann, Early Liturgy, 123. The word basilica comes from the Greek word basileus, which means "king." "The Christian architects adapted the pagan plan, installing an altar near the large, rounded recess, or apse, at one end of the edifice, where the king or judge sat; the bishop was now to take the place of the pagan dignitary." Collins and Price, Story of Christianity, 64.

White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 56. One Catholic scholar states, "Long before the Christian epoch, various pagan sects and associations had adapted the basilica type of building to worship" (Jungmann, Early Liturgy, 123); see also Turner. From Temple to Meeting House, 162-163. Furthermore, Constantine's churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, built between AD 320 and 330, were modeled on Syrian pagan sanctuaries. Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000), 26.

Michael Gough, The Early Christians (London: Thames and Hudson, 1961), 134. Ibid.

Jungmann, Early Liturgy, 137.

Let's explore the inside of the Christian basilica. It was an exact duplicate of the Roman basilica that was used for Roman magistrates and officers. Christian basilicas possessed an elevated platform where the clergy ministered. The platform was usually elevated by several steps. There was also a rail or screen that separated the clergy from the laity."

In the center of the building was the altar. It was either a table (the altar table) or a chest covered with a lid." The altar was considered the most holy place in the building for two reasons. First, it often contained the relics of the martyrs." (After the fifth century, the presence of a relic in the church altar was essential to make the church legitimate.)" Second, upon the altar sat the Eucharist (the bread and the cup).

The Eucharist, now viewed as a sacred sacrifice, was offered upon the altar. No one but the clergy, who were regarded as "holy men," were allowed to receive the Eucharist within the altar rails."

In front of the altar stood the bishop's chair, which was called the cathedra." The term ex cathedra is derived from this chair. Ex cathedra means "from the throne."" The bishop's chair, or "throne" as it was called, was the biggest and most elaborate seat in the building. It replaced the seat of the judge in the Roman basilica." And it was surrounded by two rows of chairs reserved for the elders."

The sermon was preached from the bishop's chair." The power and authority rested in the chair, which was covered with a white linen cloth. The elders and deacons sat on either side of it in a semicircle."

White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 57, 73-74. "The church building in this view was no longer the house of the people of God for their common worship, but the House of God which they were allowed to enter with due reverence. They must remain in the nave (where the congregants sit or stand) and retrain from entering the chancel (the clergy platform) which was for the choir or the sanctuary reserved for the priesthood." Turner, From Temple to Meeting House, 244; Hatch, Growth of Church Institutions, 219-220. Altars were first made of wood. Then, beginning in the sixth century, they were made of marble, stone, silver, or gold. Johnson, History of Christianity 3: 550.

Snyder, Ante Pacem, 93; White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 58; William D. Maxwell, An Outline of Christian Worship:

Its Developments and Forms (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936), 59.

Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1953), 204.

* Johnson, History of Christianity, 3: 549-550, 551. In the Protestant church building, the pulpit is in the foreground and the altar table is in the background.

Short, History of Religious Architecture, 64.

* Cross and Livingstone, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 302. White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 57.

Davies, Secular Use of Church Buildings, 11; Dix, Shape of the Liturgy, 28. White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, 59. Dix. Shape of the Liturgy, 28.

The hierarchical distinction embedded in the basilican architecture was unmistakable.

Interestingly, most present-day church buildings have special chairs for the pastor and his staff situated on the platform behind the pulpit. (Like the bishop's throne, the pastor's chair is usually the largest of them all.) All of this is a clear carryover from the pagan basilica.

In addition to all of this, Constantine did not destroy pagan temples on a large scale. Neither did he close them." In some places, existing pagan temples were emptied of their idols and converted into Christian edifices.'" The Christians used materials stripped from pagan temples and built new church buildings on pagan temple

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Responses

  • tullia greco
    Why did constantine chose a basilica as the model for the first church he built?
    7 years ago
  • tewolde
    Why did constantine chose to use the basilic?
    7 years ago

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