2007-10-05 / Faith

Daily life for early Christians

BY FATHER JOHN DORAN

The early Christian communities were largely made up of city dwellers in Rome, Corinth, Alexandria and other major cities. Antioch figures importantly in the Acts of the Apostles and many believe that the Gospel of Matthew was composed there.

What was life like in ancient Antioch and how did Christians fit in? Rodney Stark gives some interesting information in his book, "The Rise of Christianity."

Antioch (located in what is now southwest Turkey) was the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire. 150,000 people lived there in an area one mile long and two miles wide. Since public buildings took 40 percent of the space, population density in the remaining area was 195 per acre - about 10 times more than Chicago today. Even Manhattan, where buildings soar, has a density of 100, and Bombay, 183. Because Antioch was earthquakeprone, tenements probably reached no more than three stories.

Entire families lived in a single room with only charcoal or wood braziers for heat and cooking, no running water for bathing and cleaning and no sanitary facilities. Refuse was dumped out the window to the narrow streets below where open ditches served as sewers.

Plagued by disease, fire and earthquakes, Antioch's citizens had a life expectancy of 28 years. Antioch was also the site of one of the earliest Christian communities outside of Palestine. Stark believes that Christianity flourished because it followed Christ's teaching: "I was hungry, thirsty, naked and sick and you cared for me." (Mt. 25)

When disease hit ancient cities, its citizens thought flight the only prudent course. Sick people were abandoned. But the Christians stayed and took care of their own, and even outsiders. Thus, Christians survived in larger numbers than did their pagan neighbors. The pagans who survived often owed their lives to Christians.

In Stark's words: "To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity and hope. To cities filled with orphans and windows, Christianity offered a new sense of family. To cities torn with ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity."

Father John Doran is pastor of St. Leo's Catholic Church, located on Main Street. He is one of nine local worship leaders whose columns appear on a rotating basis in the "Shepherd's Corner" series.

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