Those Encounters in the Senator's House

Author: Marta Sordi


Marta Sordi

Peter and the first Christians in the reign of the Emperor Claudius

With a laconic "then he left and went elsewhere", the <Acts of the Apostles> (12, 17) records Peter's departure from Jerusalem after the apostle's miraculous liberation from the prison of Herod Agrippa I. Agrippa I died in the year 44 and this is the <terminus ante quem> for Peter's departure from Palestine. According to Jerome's Latin translation of Eusebius' <Chronicon> (page 179, ed. Helm), Peter arrived in Rome in the year 42. But the most important testimonies, reported by Eusebius in his <Ecclesiastical History> are those of Papias of Jerapolis (who lived between the last quarter of the first century and the first half of the second), of Clement of Alexandria and of Irenaeus, these latter in the second half of the second century. All these testimonies affirm that Peter preached publicly in Rome at the beginning of Claudius' reign and that his listeners asked Mark to write down the teaching they heard.

Peter's Public Preaching

According to second century Christian sources, then, Mark decided to write his Gospel when Peter's Roman listeners in Claudius' time asked him to. Moreover, in a Latin fragment of the <Hypotyposis> (fr. 9, Staehlin), Clement of Alexandria explained that there were "Caesarians and equestrians among these listeners". So they were Romans of high rank and from court circles. One report of the relationships Peter forged in Rome with high-ranking Roman circles has come down to us in the <Apocryphal Acts of Peter>, which are dateable at the end of the second century and which, despite the evidently legendary details they contain, insist that Peter frequented the homes of senators (Marcellus, chapter VIII: Nicostratus, chapter XXVIII). Apart from the legends, it seems to me that confirmation of these relationships can be deduced from a chronicle of Tacitus (<Annales> XIII, 32) who links the changed life of Pomponia Graecina (charged in 57 with <superstitio externa>, or, in all probability, with adherence to Christianity) with events in 42-43. The official reason for the change was said to be her mourning for the killing of Tiberius' niece, Julia, the daughter of Drusus, <dolo Messalinae>. Married to Aulus Platius, one of Claudius' generals, Pomponia belonged to a family which had always had close connections with court from the time of Livia.

Peter and the Imperial Court

From the early times of the empire under Claudius, Christianity was widely embraced in Rome, not only by many of the city's Jews but also by certain families of the aristocracy. In effect, the community to which Paul would write in his <Letter to the Romans> some years later, was a composite one, made up certainly of converts from Judaism and former pagans.

Chapter 16 of the <Letter to the Romans> distinguishes in the greetings it sends at least five groups of Christians, those who probably met in the various "domestic churches". One of the most remarkable elements is the mention of the slaves and freedmen of Aristobulus, the son of Herod of Calcis who in 54 when Claudius died, was sent by Nero to govern the tiny province of Armenia (Flavius Joseph, <Bellum Iudaicum> 11, 13, 252). Then there is mention of "those who belong to the Lord in the household of Narcissus" (<Romans> 16, 11) - the slaves and freedmen of the celebrated Narcissus, freedman and aide of Claudius who died shortly after the emperor in 54. That there were Caesarians and members of court circles in the Christian community of Rome is also confirmed by the greetings Paul sends to the Christians "of Caesar's household", the Philippians to whom Paul wrote during his first period of imprisonment in Rome (<Philippians> 4, 22). So there can be no doubt that Peter's "public" preaching brought about conversions among the "official" circles, among the imperial slaves and freedmen (who in Claudius' time were often more influential than the senators), and among the families of the senatorial and equestrian aristocracy in whose <domus> the first community of the Church of Rome found hospitality. But Christianity's acceptance in Rome from its beginnings among the officialdom of imperial slaves and freedmen and among, as would seem to be the case of Pomponia Graecina members of the senatorial and equestrian aristocracy merits further study.

Christianity spreads among the upper classes According to a chronicle by Tertullian (<Apologeticum> V, 2), wrongly assumed to be an invention of Christian apologetics, the Emperor Tiberius proposed to the Senate in the year 35 that worship of Christ be recognized as legitimate. The Senate, however, rejected his proposal. But Tiberius did not stop at neutralizing with his own vote the eventual consequences of the Senate decision. As Flavius Joseph tells us in his chronicle (<Judaic Antiquity> XVIII, 95), the emperor ordered his legate in Syria, Vitellius, to depose Caiaphas, thus guaranteeing peace for the Christians in Judea, Galilee and Samaria (<Acts> 9, 31). In 43 Vitellius, who on Tiberius' behalf had had to address the Christian question, was ordinary consul to the Emperor Claudius. It happened that one of Peter's Roman hosts, according to the <Apocryphal Acts>, was Marcellus and Marcellus was the name of Vitellius' friend left behind in Jerusalem, according to Flavius Joseph (<Judaic Antiquity> XVIII, 89), to replace Pilate. The names might not just represent a coincidence. The role Vitellius and his friends played in regard to the Christians at the time of Tiberius could explain the interest in Peter's preaching on the part of the Roman ruling class in the years 42 and 43; so it is not surprising that it was from precisely these circles that the request came for the words they had heard to be written down. The effect of this greater knowledge was the attitude that provincial governors in Judea and throughout the diaspora, were told to adopt in regard to Christians. So in Corinth in the year 51 under Galliones the Pro-Consul, in Ephesus between 52 and 53 during the silversmiths' uprising and in Judea in 54 and again in 55 under the procurators Felix and Portius Festus the Romans appeared decided in avoiding anti-Christian persecution. This attitude was maintained until 62, the year of the decisive turning point in Nero's policy.

The Nature of the First Petrine Community

United for the celebration of the Eucharist in the homes that converted noblemen and imperial freedmen had made available, the Christians of Rome, whom Paul praised before his own arrival in the city in his <Letter to the Romans> for their faith "talked of all over the world" (1, 8) were highly reserved in their religious propagandizing. This would explain the declaration of Jewish notables in Rome at the time of their first meeting with Paul (<Acts> 28, 17) and their request for information on a "sect" which "everyone" knew had been the cause of contrasts within Judaism everywhere, though not in Rome. In my view, this would also explain the absence of consequences for Christians after the expulsion of Jews from Rome ordered by Claudius in 49 and it gives us a better grasp on something Paul said in his <Letter to the Philippians> (1, 12-14), that it was only with his arrival and his imprisonment that Christian preaching acquired fervor and impetus in Rome.

The Stamp of Peter's Experience

The community of Rome seems to correspond in nature to what we know of the Petrine character: Peter had been the first according to the <Acts of the Apostles> (10, 1), to baptise gentiles, as we are told in relation to the Centurion Cornelius (pre-42). And it would be Peter again, at the time of the so-called Council of Jerusalem at about 49, who would speak the first word preventing that gentiles who had converted to Christianity be ordered to undergo circumcision and other Jewish practices (<Acts> 15, 7). However, in the wake of decisions taken in Jerusalem, Peter travelled to Antioch (<Galatians> 2, 10) and he behaved in a way that Paul judged contradictory: while James' delegates were absent, Peter had freely eaten with gentiles and when the delegates arrived, he drew away in fear of these Christians who hailed from the circumcision practice. What Paul judged to be fear and human respect was probably a desire to avoid clashes: Peter's behavior proved that he was well aware that "God who can read everyone's heart, showed his approval of them by giving the Holy Spirit to them just as he had to us" (<Acts> 15, 8) and that he himself (Peter) had been chosen so that, through him, "the gentiles were to learn the good news from me and so become believers" (<Acts> 15,7). This is an obvious reference not only, perhaps, to the Cornelius episode but also in my view to his first preaching in Rome. A similar attitude to that adopted towards the Jews seems to have been sustained in the early Petrine community in Rome in regard to the pagans: this is the attitude of Pomponia Graecina, who so courageously challenged the wrath of Messalina inspiring admiration in Tacitus but who was so reserved in the profession of her faith that for 40 years she disguised her conversion to Christianity as, officially, her mourning for the death of a friend.

This article was taken from the No. 3, 1996 issue of "30Days". To subscribe contact "30Days" at: Subscriptions Office, 28 Trinity St., Newton, NJ 07860 or call 1-800-321-2255, Fax 201-579-5541. Subscription rate is $35.00 per year.