Who Were the First Christians?

Dismantling the Urban Thesis

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Thomas A. Robinson
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


If you like math, you will love Thomas A. Robinson’s Who Were the First Christians? Dismantling the Urban Thesis. Well, that claim might be a bit overstated—but even so—a significant portion of this book is devoted to interrogating population estimates in the Roman Empire to undermine the argument that Christianity was largely an urban phenomenon. On the contrary, Robinson argues that scholars have consistently failed to recognize and appreciate the overwhelmingly rural character of early Christianity.

The claim that the first three centuries of Christianity were predominantly urban—the so-called “urban thesis”—is, Robinson argues, mathematically suspect. The most popular estimates for the number of Christians in this period are typically around six million. Even if only 20% of the population of the Roman Empire were urban—which is a generous estimate—and if Christians were primarily urban residents, then the estimate of six million total Christians would require that nearly half of all urban inhabitants be Christian. Since this is not only an absurd proposal, but also nowhere near attested in any ancient sources, Robinson concludes that the majority of the Christian population must be found elsewhere, that is, in the countryside. The numbers continue to deceive, however. Given that the majority of the people in the Empire lived in rural areas, even an equal number of Christians in cities and the countryside would still yield a rural scenario that appeared to be dominated by pagans: “The countryside … can look considerably more pagan than the city without requiring that the church, in terms of raw numbers, be largely urban” (180). This mathematical conundrum suggests we should resist the effort to count the number of Christians, in favor of thinking more broadly about the social landscape that Christians inhabited.

To identify these elusive Christians in the Empire, Robinson relies on an individual’s religious affiliation, which may frustrate some since “religion” is a notoriously tricky concept in antiquity—for example, Brent Nongbri’s study Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale University Press, 2013). Nevertheless, Robinson maintains, “Religion was not simply the primary marker of identity [for Christians]; it was their only marker. No common ancestry, no common geography, no common language, no common cultural features could be appealed to in order to distinguish the Christian from others in the empire” (7). We should note, though, that he is not counting people involved in the first-century Jesus movement, which was located predominantly among Galilean and Judean peasants in the countryside, according to many scholars such as John Dominic Crossan, Douglas Oakman, Richard Horsley, inter alia. Rather, this analysis focuses on non-Palestinian, rural settings in the second and early third centuries: “the neglected” countryside (23).

The insistence on locating Christians in cities, Robinson contends, is often premised on fundamental misunderstandings of the relationship between urban and rural spaces. Rather than seeing an antagonistic or parasitic relationship between a city and its surrounding countryside as many have argued, he argues that many people who participated in the agricultural production of the countryside—whether farmers who owned rural tracts of land or day laborers who were hired periodically to work on them—actually lived in more populous urban areas. Markets, whether regularly occurring or periodic, would have frequently brought urban and rural dwellers into contact. Numerous studies have also found that ancient cities could not count on internal population growth, and therefore, required dependable migration from elsewhere. Movement between urban and rural spheres was thus ordinary.

In some ways, the “urban thesis” owes its entrenchment to Paul the Apostle who, judging from his letters in the New Testament, seems to have focused almost exclusively on cities. This situation has invited scholars to propose an array of explanations for why Christianity did not catch on in rural areas. Above all, Robinson observes, there has been a curious tendency to claim that rural areas were more conservative than urban areas, and hence, more resistant to new cultural forms, such as those embraced by Christians. Yet the assertion of the “conservative countryside” is undermined by everything from zodiac mosaics in synagogues in Galilean villages to extensive Egyptian documentary papyri attesting to multilingualism. What all this amounts to is that the rigid divide between urban and rural space was far more socially, culturally, and economically permeable than once thought.

If we follow Robinson, and conclude that Christians should be found in the countryside, how do we catch sight of these rural Christians? The best source is literature, though urban intellectuals responsible for them tend to distort the data with their focus on urban activities and their overt prejudices against rural inhabitants. Even so, embedded in ancient writings, Robinson finds “numerous, natural references to Christians in the countryside” and evidence that “no one thought this was unusual or surprising” (146). From Pliny’s correspondence to Emperor Trajan, which presupposes a rather rustic contingent of Christians, to the Life of St. Anthony, which takes for granted that Anthony’s parents were Christians in the Egyptian countryside, Robinson stitches together oft-neglected literary evidence to show that Christianity seems to have had “natural links to the countryside from the beginning” (197).

The last bit of evidence that Robinson considers when hunting for rural Christianity is the curious case of the “country bishop”—chorepiscopos—an office that is strongly debated by scholars. The first mention of this office is attested rather late (314 CE), but this instance is found in a document from the Council of Ancyra, and indicates that the office under discussion must have been established earlier. And of course, the very presence of a bishop in the countryside necessitates a constituency, suggesting a reasonable contingent of Christians for the bishop to oversee.

This is a compelling study that reminds us of the significant shortcomings in our grand portraits of Christian origins. Unfortunately, the portrait will likely remain skewed, as the best current evidence that we have for the early centuries of Christianity—primarily documents written by educated intellectuals, epigraphy, and art—tend to be products of urban spaces. But with this book, Robinson nevertheless revives an important conversation about the sociological character of pre-Constantinian Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah E. Rollens is visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Rhodes College.

Date of Review: 
May 11, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas A. Robinson teaches courses in early Christianity, Greek language, and world religions at the University of Lethbridge. He received his PhD from McMaster University. His primary interests are the development of Christianity in the pre-Constantinian period and the interactions of the Christian movement with the Jewish and Greco-Roman options in the religious marketplace of the Roman Empire.



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