Posted by: chuckbumgardner | November 24, 2007

Differences in Western and Ancient Roman Households

David L. Balch’s article, “Paul, Families, and Households,” (in Paul in the Greco-Roman World: A Handbook, ed. J. Paul Sampley [Trinity Press, 2003]), suggests some striking differences in the way the home functioned in Paul’s culture and the way it functions in ours.  I quote at length here because of the application made to 1 Cor 14:23, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?”

The social functions of these Greco-Roman houses were dramatically different from those of North America and Europe.  During the day the front doors of Roman houses were left open to invite visitors in! ‘Our homes are private spaces, in which we live for the most part in nuclear families, screened from the public gaze in every sense. . . . The Roman house, by contrast, was a center of social communication. . . . During the day, when the front door stood open, the lines of sight were purposely designed to allow glimpses deep into the interior of the house from the entrance.’ [quote from Paul Zanker, Pompeii: Public and Private Life, 10)

In the twenty-first century we typically separate our living from our working spaces, but the Romans did not.  Business was conducted at home, and the aesthetic beauty of the home attracted visitors into the business. ‘The area open to visitors in a Roman house offered no privacy, and there were clearly no separate rooms for the women and children of the household, for instance, or for guests. . . . [T]he intense social activity . . . cannot be adequately described with our terms ‘public’ and ‘private'” [Zanker, 12].  The more people who crowded into the house, the more influence the owner of the house had. ‘Influence spread from the residences of powerful families into the public sphere and not vice versa, as was the case in Greek cities’  [Zanker, 6].  These customs would dramatically affect a family or a worship service in such a house.  Paul asks what unbelievers would think when they entered the house/worship service (1 Cor 14:23), probably assuming that visitors would simply walk in the front door, whether specifically invited or not. (260)

Because Roman houses were social and political centers, clients and strangers were welcome to enter, often far into the house, even without a specific invitation. (265)



  1. Makes one wonder when we started being so private when the ancient world was far more open and transparent than we are today? I am reading a book that talks about some of the same things entitled, Serve The Community of the Church – Christians as Leader and Ministers by Andrew D. Clarke

  2. […] years back, I took some notes (here) from an essay by David Balch on Greco-Roman households and their relation to Pauline and Christian […]

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