Cities up and down (or: Mark’s Heavenly Headache)

— Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli

Doing history means putting oneself in the shoes of women and men of the past without forgetting that we are women and men of the present and therefore exercising both imagination and criticism to bridge the gap. Doing history also implies telling stories and, when it comes to ancient history, using imagination for backing up our stories is practically a must, given the limited number of available sources. Narrating the debut of the millennia-old and globally successful story of the idea of “heavenly citizenship” as forged by the early Christ followers is no exception. So let’s imagine.

Let’s imagine a man in his twenties named Mark. Mark is a Greek-speaking shopkeeper born, raised, and dwelling in the Macedonian city of Philippi. A Roman agricultural colony lying on a major trade route (the via Egnatia), Philippi is a middle-sized centre among the many that make up the urban network of the Roman Empire.[1] We are somewhere between 55 and 60 A.D. and, for half a year now, Mark has joined a new thrēskeia or superstitio, as local rumourmongers call it,[2] a new “religion”, we would rather say today: the Christ religion. Christ is the insiders’ name for Jesus, a Palestinian itinerant preacher who was sentenced to death in Jerusalem by the Romans a couple of decades before. His emperor-styled figure of a Supreme Judge and Redeemer of Israel and all humankind is at the centre of the doctrine and practice of salvation that Paul, born Saul, a travelling Jew, introduced into Philippi a few years earlier during his brief stopover in the city. Mark never met Paul. However, the senior members of the Philippian group of Christ believers, who gather regularly in the house of a wealthy “sister”, used to speak of him with the kind of respect and deference typically paid to the founders.

Well, it turned out that Epaphroditus (Philippians 2.25), the man chosen as their go-between with Paul, returned to Philippi with a letter of Paul written from prison. The whole group of believers is excited and gathers to read it. Mark, who has a limited educational background, finds Paul’s philosophical jargon quite hard to grasp and some sentences even cryptic, like when the apostle rattles off figures and themes from the Jewish scriptures that he, a Gentile by birth, hardly understands – what on earth is the “tribe of Benjamin”? And who is a “Pharisee”, by the way (Philippians 3.5)? However, nothing strikes him more than the last clauses of the passage that an older and lettered “brother” is reading aloud just now. For those today who are familiar with the New Testament, Mark is listening the final verses of Chapter 3 of the Letter to the Philippians:

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly thing.

Philippians 3.17-19; transl. NRSV

The reader stops for a second to catch his breath. Up to this point, Mark seems to understand the gist of it: in order to attain salvation, besides believing in Christ, he must not give himself to gluttony and – implicitly at least – maybe also stay away from lust. A funny image, that of belly-worship, which causes him both satisfaction and relief since Mark knows he is neither a glutton nor a libertine. Yet what comes next wipes the smile off his face. The reader continues:

But our citizenship is in heaven [literally: heavens], and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Philippians 3.20-21

Mark switches off after the reference to the glorious body since he is now fully conversant with the concept of resurrection. Yet what does it mean that “their minds are set on earthly thing. But our citizenship is in heaven“? Let’s imagine Mark leaving the assembly for a moment and, while the reader keeps on reading (“Therefore, my brothers and sisters…”), looking out the door: what he sees are the narrow alleys and the low-rise houses of Philippi. Philippi is certainly the most critical spatial environment of his present life. With an income just above subsistence level,[3] the economic viability of his household depends on the everyday functioning of his city and the “disorderly” life that urbanism, past and present, continually breeds.[4] Moreover, Mark was born and has always lived in Philippi, the city named after a great Macedonian king which was the scene of an important battle just over a century before. Such urban pedigree may not be enough to make him stick out his chest with pride but still matters to him. At the same time, however, like most members of his Christ group, Mark is a Greek-speaking native inhabitant of a Roman colony dominated by a Roman elite and whose citizenship is supposed to be Roman, or nothing at all. Technically, he is no citizen (civis) but a stranger (peregrinus) in his own city.[5]

To chase away the bad thoughts, Mark now looks up over the roofs. He recollects that “the heavens” mentioned by Paul are the topological reference of his life-to-be, which is linked to the future enforcement of a divine plan. Paul himself gradually inflects his discourse to the future when he says that “it is from there – that is, from the heavens – that we are expecting Christ as our saviour and then he will transform the body etc.”. Granted, Mark argues, my city is such that it does not count me, a free-born native, among its citizens. But how can one be a citizen, here and now, of a reality which is not only distant but still to come?

We need to pause here for a moment because I don’t want to give the impression that our shopkeeper is too naive. Surely Mark is neither a follower of Seneca nor a reader of Philo of Alexandria – two authors who would probably help him out with deciphering Paul’s elusive imagery.[6] However, whatever their social class and cultural capital, any ancient Christ believer who subscribed to Paul’s view can be called a “transcendentalist”.[7] First, Mark believes that a breach opens up between the realm of mundane existence, which everybody perceives as normal and ordinary, and another dimension of reality, which only few, clued up people can recognize as superior because more true and more desirable but also, according to the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern version of transcendentalism, supernal. Second, Mark was taught that living according to this alternative reality, which lurks somewhere above the roofs of Philippi, can be at odds with the normal structures of life and that, in case of contrast, the former must be preferred over the latter.

So – our trascendentalist Philippian moves away from the door and rejoins the group, wondering – when Paul warns us against setting our mind on “earthly things”, does he actually include Philippi among them? And when he writes “But our citizenship…”, does he hint at Philippi as mundane low-lying counterpart? Does he eventually want me to somehow turn away and defect from my city, a city occupied by a colonist elite who owns almost all the land and does not recognize me as a citizen? And what about those few “brothers and sisters” who, unlike me, are Roman citizens? Does the citizenship, the homelands, the cities nest inside each other and hierarchically pile up? Or shall the Romans among us make a clear choice, and how?

To better understand Mark’s dilemma, it is worth mentioning that the spatial qualifier “above” in reference to a city is used by Paul himself in a letter delivered a few years earlier to another group of Christ believers – a text that, probably, Mark had neither read nor heard about. In chapter 4 of the Letter to the Galatians, Paul compares the “present Jerusalem”, that is, the holy city of the Jewish people whose religious aristocracy and leadership rejected Jesus’ messianic claims, to a slave, mother of a progeny of slaves, and contrasts it to the “Jerusalem above”, which is instead a free woman and a mother of free-born children, the Jesus followers (Galatians 4.25-26). Like any reader, past and present, our Philippian would be free to decide whether to picture this supernal figure as a real, sky-high city (as the seer of the Apocalypse does) or to use the urban form as a formidable tool for thought (which will be Augustine’s solution in the City of God). But in either case he would immediately understands what it means to call oneself a child of an entity – personal or not – that does not correspond to one’s biological mother. He himself, especially in moments of greatest attachment to his community, like during the city festivals, feels like a son of Philippi, without neglecting his filial duty and devotion to his mother. Yet what Paul is asking Mark goes way beyond a supplementary mother-son relationship that must define itself against a far-off Judean locale to which he has no ties and where he has never been. Evoking both Christ’s suffering and his own suffering as a prisoner for Christ (passim), Paul sets as a model and asks all the Philippian believers – Greeks and Romans, free and slaves, women and men – to be citizens in heaven, instead of here on earth, while knowing that here on earth, operating as a collective producer, provider, and consumer of earthly things like gluttony and other vices, there is also their common city, Philippi. What about her and each of them in relation to her? How much of their urbanity, as both a shared and class-specific way of life, do they have to give up in order to perform this detachment?

Mark, the Philippian shopkeeper, is puzzled. The rationale of his perplexity is something that most of us WEIRD people[8] can hardly imagine and sympathize with, for we receive the millennia-old Christian idea of heavenly citizenship as a culturally well-established and socio-politically sanitized trope. I would like to stress two sides of this perplexity as well as of our misrecognition of the concept.

First, its exoticism. Philippians 3.20 belongs to a body of the Pauline and pseudo-Pauline texts that refer to or imply celestial cities, citizenships, and forms of civic-and-urban belonging which dictate or suggest alienation from earthly cities, citizenships, and forms of civic-and-urban belonging (Galatians 4.21-26; Ephesians 2.11-20; Hebrews 11.13-16; 12.22-24). The messianically motivated chasm and tension between earthly extraneousness and heavenly citizenship, which all these texts expound, look at the same time exotic and familiar to us: changing one’s own life for the remaining time, by knowing that “time has grown short” (1 Corinthians 7.29-31) and one must “make the most of it” (Ephesians 5.16; Colossians 4.5), is the conceptual and experiential core of Christian eschatology that, once all prophecies failed, has relocated to other areas of thought, spheres of life, domains of fear and hope. I am not saying that, nowadays, they no longer give us food for thought but that thinking them in a productive way would probably take us far away from Mark’s worldview. Who still envisions the end of the world in terms of a cosmic destruction unleashed by a supernatural being, instead of as a nuclear extinction, a man-made capitalist exhaustion of the planet’s vital resources, or a pandemic and global health crisis?

Second, its scope. At least in the eyes of his emissaries, advocates, and local leaders, Christ religion, like all the ancient philosophical programmes,[9] was and was supposed to be first and foremost a form of life: not only a theoretical system and surely not a new literary genre for educated thrill-seekers. “Christianness” must be lived, instantiated, and, if necessary, performed and displayed by means of a restless “struggle for coherence” in the everyday lives of the believers.[10] A sound bottom-up approach to Philippians 3.20 is therefore to imagine people like Mark the Philippian and other early recipients and readers of Paul’s letters asking themselves three things: 1) what exactly does this guy want from me?; 2) what shall we do with our cities – notably with all the urban structures of economic production, social reproduction, ideological integration, and political organisation – if we are expected to rather enrol in the citizenship lists of a heavenly city? 3) am I willing to do it?

Just to be clear, Paul does not offer clear and concrete solutions to Mark’s doubts, not in his genuine letters or in the fakes that will soon start to circulate under his name. Obeying the public authorities and paying taxes are much too generic guidelines (Romans 13.1-7). On the other hand, Paul’s advice on eating idolatrous food – i.e., meat formerly sacrificed to the pagan gods – in temple dining rooms are byzantine (First Corinthians 8). Moreover, there are plenty of critical practical issues impinging on a city scale that, for different reasons, fly under the radar of Paul’s moral teaching. Paul, in short, fails to provide the first urban Christians with a substantial guide to urbanity.[11] In the following two centuries, Christian authors like Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian will take on and even manufacture these kinds of questions. Yet Mark cannot know it. He can only hope so and keeps on mulling over.

For example, what to do with the exercise of the citizenship rights? How to cope with the social privilege and economic capital that allow and even demand participation in the public-political life of one’s own city? As mentioned earlier, Mark the Philippian was a Greek merchant whose inadequate rank and insufficient resources cannot raise him among the local elite responsible for the administration of Philippi – a colony whose power was entirely in the hands of Romans and whose ruling class was therefore entirely Roman (at least juridically, if not ethnically). His fellow-Christians of Roman status are mostly small service-providers like him and commuting peasants. Yet Mark knows a big-shot, a former magistrate and high-level member of the city elite who, at the market, had told him he was interested in this new religio. For some weeks now he has also joined the group, together with his family. And indeed, in the following centuries, people whose birth and/or income are such as to give them access to political life will start to swell the urban ranks of the Jesus followers.[12] These people, like Mark, will read of Paul assigning them a heavenly citizenship instead of an earthly one, and – at least some of them – will wonder how to behave at the next assembly; what to decide on this or that issue; whether to compete for a prestigious post that, among other things, requires, to fund religious ceremonies in honour of the gods of the city and perhaps to organise theatrical and combat shows; whether to continue to hold offices, modify the career plans, or stop altogether. In short, how to manage, practically and day-to-day, the possible friction between Christian religious affiliation and heavenly citizenship, on the one hand, and public-political engagement and earthly citizenship, on the other.

Meanwhile, the meeting has come to an end and Mark leaves the assembly with these thoughts still swirling around his head – “but our citizenship is in heaven”. As said before, if he had lived a century and a half later, he might have had the chance to read a bit more on that; or, with less fortune, he would have come across another text that deals with the same issue and is called Epistle to Diognetus. The author and the provenance are unknown and the epistolary character is quite misleading: To Diognetus is actually a small treatise on the superiority of the Christian doctrine and way of life, designed for the educated sectors of the urban population of the Roman empire. Technically, then, a guide to urbanity. In chapter 5 Mark would have read what follows:

For Christians are no different from other people in terms of their country, language, or customs. Nowhere do they inhabit cities of their own, use a strange dialect, or live life out of the ordinary. […] They inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, according to the lot assigned to each. And they show forth the character of their own citizenship in a marvellous and admittedly paradoxical way by following local customs in what they wear and what they eat and in the rest of their lives. They live in their respective countries, but only as resident aliens; they participate in all things as citizens, and they endure all things as foreigners. Every foreign territory is a homeland for them, every homeland foreign territory.

To Diognetus 5.1-5; transl. Ehrman

This text would bewilder Mark even more –  a paradoxical way to be citizens? Seriously? The author, in fact, doubles the original paradox by upgrading the contradiction to the level of public engagement via a twofold call to involvement and disengagement. First step: Christians “live in their respective countries, but only as resident aliens”. Second step: “they participate in all things as citizens, and they endure all things as foreigners”. The element of active citizenship, which is exercised within the framework of the socio-political life of their city, is combined with the opposite principle of passive compliance with the existing state of affairs, which is the attitude typical of the foreigner who adapts to public irrelevance and exclusion.

Mark scratches his head. Perhaps, he might take comfort in knowing that, two thousand years later, specialists of early Christian literature still labour to decipher this enigma and come up with the most diverse solutions. Or maybe not, there is no way he could find relief in this distinguished company of equally perplexed people. In fact, Mark has just realized that, in two days, he has to meet and dine with his fellow traders, members of the same professional association to which he belongs. They will ask him to pay the annual contribution for the anniversary of the club and participate in the collection for the celebrations for the patron, a high magistrate of Philippi. Wine will flow and someone will certainly propose a toast to the tutelary god of the club. Mark the Philippian would not mind to cheer up and feast and has no problem with paying. Actually, he likes the atmosphere more than at the Christ club.[13] But now he wonders whether, as a heavenly citizen, he is allowed to go, how to behave once there, and, above all, what will be the costs and consequences, for him and his family, of a possible denial.[14]

Emiliano Rubens Urciuoli is a Junior Fellow and post-doctoral researcher in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity”. He is a specialist of early Christ religion and currently works on the concept of “citification”.


[1] Peter Oakes, Philippians: From People to Letter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[2] Carlin A. Barton and Daniel Boyarin, Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. Contrary to the authors, I stick with the use of the term “religion” as a re-descriptive category.

[3] Steven J. Friesen, “Poverty in Pauline Studies: Beyond the So-called New Consensus.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 26/3 (2004): 323-361.

[4] Pablo Sendra and Richard Sennett, Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City. London: Verso, 2020.

[5] Harry O Maier, New Testament Christianity in the Roman World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 102.

[6] Emiliano R. Urciuoli, Un’archeologia del “noi” cristiano. Le “comunità immaginate” dei seguaci di Gesù tra utopie e territorializzazioni (I-II e.v.). Milano: Ledizioni, 188-190.

[7] Alan Strathern, Unearthly Powers: Religious and Political Change in World History. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 47-81.

[8] Aka “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic”, like  – I guess – most of the readers of this post.

[9] Pierre Hadot, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie antique?. Paris: Gallimard, 1995.

[10] See Anna Strhan, Aliens and Strangers? The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

[11] See the topic of the forthcoming international workshop organized by our KFG on “Religious Guides to Urbanity” (Erfurt 20-22 January 2021).

[12] Emiliano R. Urciuoli, Servire due padroni. Una genealogia dell’uomo politico cristiano (50-313 e.v.). Brescia: Scholé, 2018.

[13]John S. Kloppenborg. Christ’s Associations: Connecting and Belonging in the Ancient City. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

[14] See Peter Oakes, Philippians, 89-91.


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