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Middle Classes of the Graeco-Roman Cities

Middle Classes of the Graeco-Roman Cities

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Luke’s Gospel was written for the Hellenistic middle classes of Graeco-Roman cities.

If we could have visited the cities of the Graeco-Roman empire in the first century AD and looked at them with contemporary eyes, we would have been struck by the human skill and ingenuity that made city and metropolis possible. We would have admired the large public buildings, the three-story residential homes and the paved roads, but even more the organisation that enabled so many people in such a small area to be provided with food and water, clothes and other necessities of life.

A floor mosaic of Antioch in Syria, for instance, dating from about 400 AD, gives us precisely such a conducted tour of daily life through a series of little scenes that make up its border. Some of the scenes, no doubt, reflect life as it was at the beginning of the Christian era.

  • We see a glimpse of the main highway which, we know, was paved, colonnaded and even roofed over for a distance of two miles. Riding down it we see a man on a horse preceded by his servant on foot.
  • We see single and two-story buildings in the streets; a slave with a heavy roll that looks like a carpet on his back.
  • A little further on, we notice an elegant woman who walks holding the hand of her child and who looks back at someone waving from the balcony of a house: a friend she has been visiting, perhaps.
  • A man driving two donkeys laden with goods walks down a street. It was a city regulation that farmers bringing their produce to the city markets were required to take back refuse from the city to the country! This they did, using it as manure for their land.
  • Then we see a street-trader selling food from his table stall.
  • We see statues of famous people on top of pillars.
  • In another scene two men are playing a game at a table in front of a house. The scenes, so simply designed in the mosaic, vividly recall local life and customs.

Scenes from a mosaic in Antioch.

A slave (above, left) balances a load on his head and holds a basket in his hand.

A woman, perhaps a barmaid in front of a pub (notice the two-storeyed, colonnaded house) offers a customer a mug of wine. Another slave (on the right) carries a mattress.

A lot of work was done by slaves who stood at the bottom of the social ladder. They had been bought from various countries or captured during military campaigns. Slaves were used as cheap labour in the domestic and civic domains. They filled many niches: they worked as farm hands on plantations, as carriers in the docks and in transport; as clerks and accountants to service the international trading exchanges; as local administrative staff in public offices; as cooks, servants and maids in private homes; as assistant shopkeepers, street vendors and cleaners of the city's sewers and latrines.

However, the Graeco-Roman cities did not flourish because of the small wealthy elite on top or the huge unskilled labour force at the bottom. They flourished because of the hard working and enterprising skilled classes in the middle. Their ingenuity and energy were vital for the prosperity of all. And they were composed of many groups. The traditional craftsmen still held a key position: the potters, the leather workers, the smiths, the weavers, the glass blowers and the makers of scent. The building sector relied on masons who could work with stones, bricks or tiles; on carpenters and engineers who could construct pumps, treadmills, scaffolding and cranes; on architects who designed aqueducts, tunnels, bridges and vaulted domes; on artists who painted frescoes or laid mosaics. Then there was the service sector of teachers, physicians, lawyers, secretaries, watchmen and soldiers. Last not least, Antioch had a thriving business community: wholesale dealers who imported and exported large quantities of wheat, oil, wine, wool and other basic materials; the local shopkeepers who provided households with their daily supplies of necessities and luxury goods; and the publicans in taverns and inns.

Many of these professions were held by ordinary citizens or by slaves who had been specially trained. A middle group was formed by the freedmen: former slaves who had gained their freedom for services rendered.

Christians and the middle classes

The Early Christians were derived from all social classes. But a good many of them belonged to the upwardly mobile, enterprising and creative ‘middle’ sectors of society. ‘The typical Christian was a free artisan or small trader’ (W.Meeks). ‘Christians were recruited from the urban circles of prosperous craftsmen, traders and practitioners of free professions’ (H.Kreissig). They gave to their communities the enthusiasm and commitment of people who had learned to fend for themselves.

Let us look at some typical Christians. One of them was Erastos, the ‘city treasurer of Corinth’ (Romans 16,23). The title designates him as an important official charged with administering the funds and properties of the city. He could exercise this function as a free person or, as we know from contemporary records, as a public slave, a slave owned by the city. What counted was not his status, but his experience and skill. In this particular case we know Erastos was a free person. For on a dedication stone excavated at Corinth we read that a certain Erastos had been made an aedile, that is: one of the top four administrators of the city. It is likely that after his job as city treasurer, Erastos was promoted to be aedile. Historians surmise that Erastos was given these posts as a Corinthian freedman who had acquired considerable wealth in commercial activities.

Lydia is another good example (Acts 16,14-15). Although she lived in Philippi, a coastal town of Macedonia, her place of origin was Thyatira in Asia Minor and her profession was the sale of purple cloth, a luxury item known to have been manufactured there. She must have established herself in the Greek harbour town because of its promise of trade. She was also the head of her household, and her home was large enough to accommodate Paul and at least three companions for a considerable time.

Phoebe of Cenchreae, the harbour of Corinth, was deacon in her community and Paul calls her ‘a superior’ of many people and himself (Romans 16,1-2). The title ‘superior’ could be construed to mean ‘benefactress’ or ‘patroness’. Usually, however, it denoted the office of the president of a club or a guild; or, in the context of city administration, an official charged with such business as enrolling new citizens, receiving testimonies, and determining the budget for state sacrifices. Phoebe’s independent status is also shown by her ability to travel to Rome, presumably in connection with state business or private enterprise.

Of the eighty individuals belonging to Pauline communities whom we know by name, about thirty yield clues about their position in society. Most of them are representative of the creative, enterprising and responsible groups I have described above. Appreciating their level of involvement is crucial for assessing the New Testament writings, for most of them were addressed to this audience.

Read : E.A.JUDGE, The Social Pattern of Christian Groups in the First Century, London 1960, pp. 128-129; H.KREISSIG,‘Zur sozialen Zusammensetzung der frühchristlichen Gemeinden im ersten Jahrhundert’, Eirene 6 (1967) p. 99; W.MEEKS, ‘The social context of Pauline Theology’, Interpretation 36 (1982) pp. 267-270; W.MEEKS, The First Urban Christians, New Haven 1983, pp. 58-59; G.THEISSEN, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity, Edinburgh 1982, pp. 99-109.

John Wijngaards

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