I was delighted to come across, and have enjoyed reading Edward Adams’ The Earliest Christian Meeting Places (London: Bloomsbury 2013). Mind you, I came to it predisposed to like it. Back in the 90s, when I was labouring on my M.Phil I concluded a discussion of the list of names in Romans 16 saying:
The proportion of houses to apartments in Rome was lower than in the rest of the Mediterranean world, and villas tended to be the preserve of the very wealthy, or the aristocracy. It is unlikely that there were many domestic meeting places in Rome that could have accommodated a large gathering. We may need to consider the possibility that these groups met in some kind of public premises.
There was very little discussion in the literature on which I could call to support my argument. While I think I made a strong enough case to justify the presumption (treating Prisca and Aquila’s house as an exception) I would have liked a stronger external undergirding.
Adams’ book now provides exactly what I would have liked at the time. He offers a thorough argument in two parts to overthrow the consensus that the earliest Christians met almost exclusively in houses. (He refers to this for convenience as the AEH hypothesis, and so shall I.) It is important to note that this is not a refutation of the view that the earliest Christians did sometimes, perhaps often, meet in houses; it is an argument that they also met in a variety of other situations.
The first, and longer, part of the book offers a re-examination of the biblical and extra biblical evidence for the earliest Christian meetings. He looks at the letters (ch 1) and the gospels and Acts (ch 2) before exploring some of the key literature of the second and their centuries (chapter 3). He largely stays in the pre-Constantinian church, but also looks back from some of the later buildings to their possible pre-history when he moves into the archaeological evidence (ch 4). Finally in this section he explores some possible comparisons of meeting places for associations, schools and synagogues (ch 5). He has little difficulty in showing how often the house meeting is an assumption read into (especially) the evidence rather than a conclusion read out of it.
In the second part, he explores the varied possibilities of meeting places in the ancient world. He looks at retail and industrial spaces (ch 6), the space provided commercially for leisure and hospitality (ch 7), and finally outdoor space, including burial spaces and funerary picnics (ch 8). Here he shows that the varied spaces which were possible for and available to early Christian meetings were much wider than the home.
Establishing the possibility, of course, is not the same as establishing what was probable. My own understanding of the diverse economic and social life of the earliest churches comfortably accommodates a variety of meeting space from home to rented (indoor or outdoor) triclinium, and with room for other spaces in-between. I find Adams provides a very well-argued case for seeing that kind of variety in preference to a simple house church model as the most realistic scenario, and I thank him for it.