Ramsay MacMullen's "The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400"

Ramsay MacMullen is a distinguished scholar who is now in his 80s. Age is significant for a scholar, as it should be in so many other walks of life and vocations, because if it does not necessarily bring with it wisdom, age brings a long view and the ability to look over a field of study and know what is real and solid and what is ephemeral and passing. In the case of MacMullen, though, I do believe it has brought wisdom, especially in his ability to sort out evidence from the early centuries of Christianity. MacMullen has written many interesting books over the years, but his book from 2009, The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), moves away from a discussion of strictly textual theological and historical evidence, and so by definition the evidence of elite Christians, to a discussion of the stones and locations of ancient churches, and so, he argues, the evidence of the other 95% of Christians who are not represented in the texts or by the texts all that often. It is an interesting and compelling argument.

In an extensive Appendix, running from pages 117-141, MacMullen supplies an annotated list of all the churches pre-400 A.D. in the Eastern Empire, including in present day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel, Greece, North Africa, Italy, and the Northwest Empire, which includes much of the rest of Europe. The book is basically a study of what these churches tell us about the actual practice of Christianity on the ground a century prior to the time of Constantine and a century after Constantine. There are a number of key findings: many churches began as memorials to martyrs outside city walls and, in fact, many of these churches were first cemeteries that later had a roof put upon them; the churches in the city could not have accommodated many worshippers on a weekly basis and probably such urban worship was reserved for elite Christians and the clergy; most other Christians worshipped with the martyrs, either designated as such by the Church, or through popular belief or by family members recalling their own deceased family members, at cemeteries where particular types of worship and celebration grew naturally. This is where the book gets very interesting.


MacMullen proposes that the archaeological evidence, including mensae (stone tables) and libation holes at martyrs’ graves, indicates that most Christians found their religious practice in meals with the martyrs or the deceased whom they loved. He writes, “the scale of martyr-cult is clear both in the ample remains of memorial churches and in their number” (106). Much of early Christianity, then, was a shared meal in the cemetery with the living and the dead. MacMullen sees the discrepancy between elite practice and that of popular Christianity as so great that he is willing to speak of “two churches (104),” the one with ecclesial power representing 5% of the Christian population and often frowning on or disdaining the practices of the ordinary Christian majority. According to MacMullen, the feasts at martyrs’ graves could become raucous, with much food eaten and much wine drunk. The clergy did not usually approve. “In the generations leading up to Paulinus, to Chrysostom and Theodosius, church leaders spoke out against what they saw as the excesses of such piety, meaning, piety unregulated by the clergy” (106).

MacMullen points to the genuine piety which was being expressed in the worship with the martyrs, but tells of the “tension” which begins to appear “between the established church” and the “Christianity of the many” (107). Bishops began to forbid the adoption of unapproved martyrs, of dancing, or of loudness or too much wine. In this, MacMullen sees in many cases not theological issues, but class issues, between the vast majority of poor Christians and an elite clergy, or between urban, sophisticated Christians and their rustic co-worshippers, who looked a little too much like pagans to the their city betters (107-111).  “Augustine and other bishops tried to persuade their congregations to turn rather to the Triune God. Their efforts were in vain. The saints, the focus always of pride and veneration, took over as the active agents of divinity on a level that could be approached by Everyman” (106).

This is an excellent book, and a challenging book, marred only by MacMullen’s sometimes difficult and unnecessarily complex sentence structure, but it is worth fighting through the surplus of colons, semi-colons and clause piled upon clause for the data, the evidence and the interpretation of this data. Only someone who has spent a lifetime of study and reflection with this data could draw out the implications of it for early Christianity.  Textual scholars such as myself have for too long privileged documents of the elite over the data on the ground, the archaeological evidence. It was not until I began to take students to Greece and Turkey that my understanding of early Christianity began to be formed in full. These early Christians were not ideal types, but flesh and blood human beings who lived amongst their pagan neighbors and tried to make sense of life amongst competing descriptions of reality, as we do today. And death haunted the cities and countryside in a way that we no longer understand, from disease, childbirth and poor hygiene to the constant realities of war. MacMullen does a great service by pointing out the “two churches” and by providing, pardon the pun, rock-solid evidence for these two churches and their practices. I am thankful to him for bringing to light the hidden 95%, if only hidden in clear view.

I would add only two cautions. I am not convinced that these early Christians found the saints easier to approach than a distant Triune God (see the citation above). I did not see evidence of that in this book, nor have I seen it in my own study of early Christianity. The experience of the earliest Christians, which included the experience of the resurrected Lord, incorporated the experience of God. The veneration of the saints does not seem to run counter to the worship and experience of God.  I will also need to consider more fully whether MacMullen’s evidence is convincing that these 95% of Christians did not attend on a regular basis the common worship in the churches, urban or rural. Some of this evidence is based upon the number and size of churches, which is convincing indeed, yet I wonder whether there were more people packed into churches than we could imagine today or whether they stood outside or whether there were more formal sorts of worship, including the Eucharist, which were performed more often in the cemeteries themselves. Nevertheless, I recommend this book for the bright light it shines on those we too often relegate to the darkness, namely, the vast majority of Christians who did not leave us literary documents by which to remember them. In many ways, MacMullen’s book is itself a kind of martyr’s shrine to their memory.

 John W. Martens 

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Marie Rehbein
8 years ago
Your are right, this is interesting.  I was wondering whether MacMullen offers any evidence against the possibility that the structures were the equivalent of the pavilions and parish halls where parishioners gather for fellowship pertaining to church and seasonal festivals in our time.
Marie Rehbein
8 years ago

Given that these places were not only gathering places for celebrations, but, as you point out, places for venerating the dead, do you think (or does MacMullen say) that this practice might have been the precursor to the veneration of the saints?


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