The concepts of sacred time and sacred space, central to Old Testament worship, were carried over into Christian worship, yet with considerable development beyond what was practiced in the Second Temple Period. In the first place, as with Jewish worship, Christians worshipped weekly. While in the earliest period they also may have attended the synagogue on Saturday, rather quickly they developed worship times on Sunday, the day of Jesus’ resurrection (Ac. 20:7; 1 Co. 16:1-2; Rv. 1:10). Following the pattern of the synagogue, Christians developed worshipping communities throughout the world rather than depending upon a single site, such as, the Jerusalem temple.
It is often assumed that Christians abandoned the Sabbath almost immediately, but this is hardly the case. As we already have seen, participation in the synagogue continued until around the turn of the century. Still, Christians also worshipped on Sunday in a service that was uniquely their own. Several religious and social factors affected this “first day of the week”. In the first place, all four gospels agree that it was the day Jesus rose from the dead (Mt. 28:1; Mk. 16:2; Lk. 24:1; Jn. 20:1). Sunday also was the day the Spirit descended at Pentecost (Ac. 2:1). Only because Christians were perceived by the Romans to be a sect of Judaism did they have the liberty to meet as often as weekly. Pagan worship was largely the activity of individuals who did not worship together in a formal, community service, except on annual festivals in honor of a deified emperor. In any case, Rome did not permit regular meetings of voluntary associations more than once per month in the effort to control seditious groups. The Jews, because their religion was legally recognized by Rome, were granted an exception. Christians, so long as they were perceived as a sect of Judaism, benefited by this exception. Still, the fact that they met in private homes rather than in a temple with a statue might raise suspicions, and Paul warned the Corinthians about expected decorum during Christian worship in deference to the empire’s “messengers”, the scouts who sniffed out seditious meetings and reported on them to the authorities (1 Co. 11:10). Further, Sunday was not a day of rest in Rome, but a normal workday. Hence, unlike for the Sabbath, Christians could only meet at awkward hours, either very early or very late. At Troas, Paul attended a service of Christian worship that lasted virtually all night long (Ac. 20:7, 11). Early in the 2nd century (about AD 112), Pliny’s letter to Emperor Trajan says the Christian habit was to meet “on a certain fixed day before it was light”.
Other references from about the same period substantiate that Christian worship was regularly on Sunday. Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) writes, “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place…” An even earlier work, the Didache (ca. AD 100), says, “And on the Lord’s own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks…” Ignatius (died ca. AD 110), similarly, speaks of Christians as “no longer observing Sabbaths but fashioning their lives after the Lord’s day, on which our life also arose through Him…” Since the early 2nd century, almost all Christians have gathered for worship on Sunday.
As to places for worship, the early Christians made use of a variety of venues. Already we have seen that in Jerusalem they gathered in the temple precincts, while in various parts of the world they attended the synagogues. What became even more common was the use of homes. Christians accommodated the social structure of the Greco-Roman oikonomia (household community) to worship settings. Such communities were large, socially cohesive units comprised of a number of families, usually under the authority of the senior male of the principal family. Often, such communities shared in common employment, either agriculture or mercantile enterprises, and lived on the same estate. The household consisted of families, friends, clients, free persons and slaves. The conversion of entire households doubtless facilitated the use of such estates as venues for Christian worship (Ac. 10:1-48; 16:13-15, 31-34; 18:8; 1 Co. 1:16). By the time Paul was writing letters at the mid-1st century mark, already he could name several homes where Christians customarily gathered for worship (Ro. 16:4-5, 14, 15, 23; 1 Co. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2). Of course, Paul was creative enough to use other facilities if they were available. In Ephesus, he utilized a public lecture hall, for instance (Ac. 19:9), but this seems to have been more the exception than the rule.
Archaeologically, a most famous house church has surfaced in recent years, the fisherman’s home in Capernaum. Near the synagogue, archaeologists examined three superimposed structures, an octagonal-shaped building (5th century AD), under it yet an earlier structure (late 4th century AD, and beneath it a fisherman’s residence (1st century AD). Octagonal buildings in the Byzantine era were memorial churches, which is to say, churches built on sites to commemorate an ancient tradition. This one was constructed as concentric octagon (an octagon within an octagon). The inner octagon featured an apse oriented toward the east and a baptistry on the east side of the apse dating to about the middle of the 5th century. Beneath this church was yet another building dating to the late 4th century, this one also a church, judging from the graffiti (e.g., “Lord Jesus Christ help your servant…”, “Christ have mercy”, etched crosses on the walls, etc.). Some of the graffiti was in Greek, but one inscription was in Hebrew, possibly suggesting a Jewish-Christian community. This church had a central hall with an atrium and an arch over the center of the hall. In turn, it was constructed of yet an earlier existing house that dated to the Early Roman Period (ca. 63 BC and later). Sometime in the 1st century, the house was modified with plastered floors, ceiling and walls in a single room (very unusual for ancient Capernaum). At the time the room was plastered, the pottery changed from domestic (cooking pots, bowls, pitchers, etc.) to only storage jars and oil lamps. Obviously, people were no longer using this room for preparing and eating food. In the Early Roman Period, the only houses that were so plastered were buildings intended for public gatherings (plaster aids in reflecting light from oil lamps and provides better illumination). Once again, graffiti marks the room as one used by Christians (e.g., “Lord”, “Christ”, etc.). Altogether, the inscriptions consist of 111 in Greek, 9 in Aramaic, 6 or more in a Syriac alphabet, 2 in Latin and 1 in Hebrew. One particularly intriguing inscription may even contain the name of Peter, though this is not entirely clear. In the end, the name of Peter notwithstanding, the house in Capernaum may be one of the oldest house churches in existence, and while certainty cannot be obtained, circumstantial evidence suggests that it may have been the home of the big fisherman.
Buildings used for Christian worship continued to be built. According to Eusebius (ca. AD 260-340), a large Christian church existed in Jerusalem prior to the Second Jewish Revolt (AD 135). In putting down the revolt, the Romans destroyed all significant buildings and rebuilt the city, so no remains are expected to be found. Mostly at this early period, Christians in the Mediterranean met in the large courtyards typical of the Greco-Roman oikonomia (household). In Rome, Christians met in the catacombs, not only to celebrate memorial services for their dead, but to share in the Eucharist. One of the earliest Christian churches outside Palestine has been discovered in Dura-Europos on the Euphrates River (ca. AD 232-3). It was adapted from a home, and the walls were painted with scenes from the Old Testament and the Gospels. Another from about the same period is currently being excavated in Megiddo, Israel. As of this writing, not too much can be concluded about this site other than it dates to about the mid-3rd century. Because it is from a period when Christianity was outlawed, excavators are reluctant to use the word “church”, since Christians did not have public buildings as such at this time. However, mosaics of fish (an early Christian symbol) and an inscription that unambiguously refers to Jesus Christ as God places the building squarely within an early Christian context. By the 3rd century, a veritable building boom of Christian churches occurred in most major Palestinian cities, and under Constantine, in the 4th century, even more were constructed, including the famous Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. Typically, such churches were oriented toward the east and took the basic form of the Roman basilica, which was patterned after the Roman patrician home. The single religious symbol at this early period was the cross, and it began appearing in Christian worship settings before the end of the 1st century. In time, the addition of transepts made the basilica style into a cruciform shape, creating a distinctly Christian architecture. More than 130 of the churches in ancient Palestine were built with an apse for the communion altar. About a third of the excavated churches have a narthex, separating the interior holy space from the outside world. Hence, the first three centuries of Christianity saw Christian worship settings shift from caves, synagogues and private homes to structures built specifically for worship.