Domus ecclesia is a term that has been applied to the earliest Christian places of worship, churches that existed in private homes. Archaeological research in the twentieth century has added much information about these early pre-Constantine Christian churches.
The first mention of a house church is St. Paul the Apostle’s greeting in Romans 16:3-5 to Prisca and Aquila, in which he also “greet[s] the church that is in their house” (KJV). The Gospel of Mark tells of visits to the home of Ss. Peter and Andrew, where Christ taught the apostles privately. In the fourth century, the pilgrim Egeria described her visit to Peter’s house, noting that the house of the “prince of the apostles” has been turned into a church. Archaeological explorations during the past hundred years have provided proof of the accuracy of her observations, revealing the progression of changes to Peter’s home, from a house then to a house church, until a basilica was built over the home in the fifth century.
As the use of Peter’s house expanded from a meeting room to a more formal house church, archaeological exploration has revealed many examples of the progression of simple “churches” to dedicated house churches during the second and third centuries. Evidence of these house churches have been found throughout the Mediterranean area: in Greece and Rome, on the island of Delos, and in Dion in southern Macedonia, for example.
The discovery in 1920 of the ruins of the Roman frontier garrison town of Dura-Europos brought to light a Christian house church of the early third century within the town. A date cut into the plaster in the room shows a date which is the equivalent of the year 231. Of note from this discovery is evidence of Roman toleration of the presence of a Christian community within a Roman community during the times noted for Roman intolerance and persecution.
In the past ten years, a domus ecclesia from the mid-third century has been unearthed near the base of Tel Megiddo in northern Israel. What is most striking about the discovery is that a church room has been identified as part of the remains of the headquarters base for Roman legions. The decorations of the room mark it as for Christian use. The mosaic-paneled floor of the room shows two fish, the sign that Christians of that day used, and dedicatory inscriptions noting the names, including a centurion, of those who paid for the work. The inscriptions within the room includes the earliest reference to “God Jesus Christ” thus far found. The building containing the house church appeared to have been abandoned, perhaps when the legion headquarters was moved away. Since the mosaic floor appears to have been carefully protected with an overlay of plaster and no evidence has been found of destructive debris, it appears that the abandonment was peaceful. As in the Dura-Europos house church, the walls of the Meggido church are covered with Christian symbology: fish, scenes from the Bible, and an offertory inscription of offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial.
- Vassilios Tzaferis, Inscribed To God Jesus Christ, Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2007, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp38-49