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Paul as a Persecutor of the Church

The questions of what early Christianity originally *was* and of how it got *started* are closely related to one another.   Both questions are also closely tied to the life, beliefs, and writings of Paul, for one very good reason: Paul is the first Christian author whose writings survive.   Any discussion of Christianity before his time needs to consider at some length what he has to say.  I should point out as well that a lot of modern people (including some scholars) claim that it was Paul himself who started Christianity.  I think that is going too far, in fact maybe way too far, for reasons that will become apparent in this post and the next. Occasionally Paul will give us some clues about pre-Pauline Christianity.   One of the most important passages is in Galatians 1, where he discusses his own “about face,” when he turned from being a persecutor of the faith to being its great apostle.  In Gal. 1:13 Paul reminds his readers that they know what he was like before he had come [...]

A Personal Note and a Bit of a Bummer

This post is on a personal note and will be a bit self-indulgent, so if you’re looking for some information about the history or literature of early Christianity, this won’t the right time or place. As many of you know from earlier blog posts, I was supposed to go off on a research trip to Greece (Athens), Egypt (Alexandria), and Italy (Rome), in connection with my work on my current project, The Triumph of Christianity (or whatever we call it) dealing with the Christianization of the Roman Empire.   My idea was to go to these places to see formerly “pagan” sites that were lost, changed, “converted” or destroyed by Christians in the fourth and later centuries (e.g., destroyed temples; shrines converted into churches; and so on).  I was supposed to go today.  But I have had to cancel the trip. Yesterday while starting to do some preliminary packing I bent over to pick up a bag of books, and my back went out.   Bad.   Not “Call-911-and-the-Morgue” bad, but bad enough.  I had done something similar [...]

Jesus’ Death; Good Scholars; and Writing the First Book: Readers’ Mailbag May 28, 2016

I have three rather wide ranging questions to deal with in this week’s Readers’ Mailbag: one on the understanding of Christ’s death as a sacrifice (or not); one on whom I like to read among NT scholars; and one on how to publish a scholarly book. This should be fun!  If you have a question you’d like me to address, simply ask it in any comment on any post (whether it’s relevant to the post or not).   QUESTION: Would you agree with the statement of scholars like Marcus Borg that Jesus died BECAUSE of the sins of the world and not FOR the sins of the world? Scholars like Borg are quite emphatic that the death of Jesus is not a sacrifice in the way that most (i.e. fundamentalist) Christians understand it: Jesus died for our sins and by believing in Jesus we gain eternal life. Rather, Jesus’ death is understood as a WAY to God: That by following the life of Jesus and offering up our suffering to God we walk in the [...]

The Resurrection and the Beginning of the Church

In my book on the Christianization of the Empire, I probably will not be talking about *how*, exactly, Christianity started.   That’s a very thorny issue and not directly germane to what I want to do in the book.   And I’ve talked about it a bit in a couple of my other books, especially How Jesus Became God and Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. In the former book my main interest was precisely what the title indicates.   There I argued that the key event that made the followers of Jesus come to think that he was a divine being was their experience of the resurrection.   Looked at from another angle, though, that moment can be considered the key not only to later Christian views of Jesus, but also to the question of when Christianity started as a distinct set of beliefs and practices.  Before the resurrection-belief, there was nothing about Jesus followers that would differentiate them in any truly significant way from other Jews.  After the belief there was. That may, of course, be granting too [...]

2020-04-03T03:37:18-04:00May 27th, 2016|Historical Jesus, Public Forum|

How Did Christianity Start?

I wish we knew how many people “started” Christianity. Before I reflect on this issue, let me say some things about definitions and terms, specifically the terms “Christianity” and “Christian.” A lot of scholars object to using the term “Christianity” for the first followers of Jesus who came to believe that he got raised from the dead. Once they believed this, these scholars say, these people didn’t actually become “Christian.” They were still fully Jews, Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah. “Christianity,” in this opinion, is a later development when these believers in Jesus developed their own religion that was distinct from Judaism. Christianity doesn’t exist, in this view, until you have some kind of set of distinctive Christian beliefs and practices (such as baptism, eucharist, weekly meetings, and so on). And so often scholars will talk about the “Jesus Movement” during the early years and decades after Jesus’ death. I see the force of this view, but I have to admit that for my part, I’ve never had qualms about calling the [...]

2024-03-06T21:07:45-05:00May 26th, 2016|Public Forum, Reflections and Ruminations|

How Many Christians Could Read?

How many Christians by near the end of the New Testament period – say, 100 CE – could read and write?   In his intriguing article “Christian Number and Its Implications,” Roman historian Keith Hopkins tries to come up with some ball park figures. As you may recall, he is assuming that there were Christian churches in about 100 communities in the world at the time (we have references to about 50 in our surviving texts, and he is supposing that maybe there were twice as many as we have any evidence for); and he agrees that if Christianity started out with about 1000 believers in the year 40 then with a growth rate of 3.4% per year, by the year 100 there would be just over 7000 Christians in the world. That would mean the 100 churches would have an average of 70 believers.  (Some of course would be larger – think, Rome – others would be much smaller; we’re talking averages here.  And if Rome did have, say 120 believers, they would be meeting [...]

2020-04-03T03:37:36-04:00May 24th, 2016|History of Christianity (100-300CE), Public Forum|

The Accuracy of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians

  I’m a couple of days behind on my Weekly Readers’ Mailbag.  I’ve been so caught up in talking about the conversion of the Roman empire to Christianity that I forgot all about it!  So here is last week’s a day late.  IN it I deal with one question which turns out to be three questions, all of them related to the the historical accuracy of Paul’s letter to the Galatians..   QUESTION:   Bart, quick question that’s bothering me. You often say that we can’t be sure of the gospels’ accuracy (due to intentional and unintentional changes over time and location). The idea is that we can’t know what the original really said (even if it names its author (e.g. 1 Tim, 2, Tim, etc.). You often say there are so many changes that we can’t really know what the original was. I always assume you mean in the small details and that you assume the main sense of the texts are fairly accurate to the original. Anyway, I’ve heard you say emphatically that [...]

How Many Churches? How Many Letters?

In his important and stimulating article, “Christian Number and Its Implications,” Roman historian Keith Hopkins next begins to think about the implications about the size of the Christian church at different periods.  One point to emphasize is that there was not simply one church.  There were lots of churches in lots of places, and it is a myth to think that they were all one big cohesive bunch.  On the contrary, they were often (as we see in our records) often at odds with each other. But even more than that, even within one city – if it was large enough (think Rome or Antioch for example) there would have been more than one church.  And why?  Because there would have been too many people to meet in one place. The first time we have any evidence of a church “building” – that is, what we today normally think of as a church (the Baptist church on the corner; the Methodist church up the street) – is not until the middle of the third Christian [...]

How Significant Was Early Christianity?

I return now to Roman historian Keith Hopkins’s fascinating and influential article “Christian Number and It’s Implications.”   As I pointed out, for the sake of his article, and after checking it out for plausibility, Hopkins accepts the calculations of Rodney Stark that if Christianity started with 1000 believers in the year 40 CE, and ended up being 10% of the empire (60 million believers) by the time of the Emperor Constantine, you would need a growth rate of about 40% per decade, or, as Hopkins prefers putting it 3.4%). Obviously, as I’ve stated, but need to stress again, we cannot be and are not really thinking that there was a steady rate of growth, that every year there was the same percentage of increase.   We’re talking big numbers over a long range of time, so the *average* rate of growth is just that, an average.  Some years there may have been a loss of numbers, other years a huge spike.  So take that as given.  But if we *were* talking about a steady rate, there [...]

Whom Do We Consider a Christian?

Who counts as a Christian?   When I was a hard-core evangelical at Moody Bible Institute, we had a pretty clear and straightforward answer:  if you have not been born again and accepted Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, you were not a Christian.  No matter what you believed or where you worshiped or how you lived. This meant, among other things, that most people who called themselves Christian were not really Christian.   Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians – most of them were not really Christians.  Roman Catholics were certainly not Christians.   Greek Orthodox?  Not even close.  Mormons?  You gotta be kidding. At the time I knew people who had an even more rigorous definition: if you did not know the exact day and hour in which you had accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior, then you hadn’t done so, and were not saved.   Some were even more strict: you not only had to have accepted Christ, you had to have been baptized by immersion – dunked in the water, as an adult.  Anyone who had not [...]

Playing with the Numbers (of Christians)

I have been musing on the rate of growth of the Christian church during the first three hundred years, and have pointed out some problems with Rodney Stark’s discussion.   I won’t go over all that again here.   I will say that his argument tends to be very convenient for his … argument.  What he points out is that a growth rate over time of about 40% grows the church from about 1000 Christians in the year 40 (that’s a number I find problematic) gets you to about 6 million Christians in the year 300, and that is almost exactly the rate of growth of the Mormon church since it was started in the 19th century.  Stark is an expert on the Mormon church, from a sociological perspective; and so it is not surprising that he is particularly drawn to this statistic. But if you crunch the numbers a bit more realistically, there still is sensible set of figures that emerge.  If, as the NT actually indicates, Christianity started out with about 20 of Jesus’ followers [...]

How Many Christians Were There?

There are a lot of things that I’m really very interested in that I’m not very good at.  As a kid I was passionate about baseball.  I was an All Star every year up to high school, but I really wasn’t all that great.  I was just better than most of the other kids, who *really* weren’t great.  It was a rather low bar.  Same with tennis.  Same with a lot of things – even into adulthood. As an adult I’ve long had an attraction to numbers, but I’m not very good at them.  I’m fascinated by them, but I can’t work out much of any kind of sophisticated mathematical formula to save my soul.  That’s why last week I asked for some help on the blog.  I needed someone to come up with a formula for me to crunch some numbers.   And several people obliged.  Many, many thanks to all who helped.  I’m very much in their debt.  It’s amazing to me the kinds of expertise that are out there.  Some of my respondents [...]

The Rate of Christian Growth

I have been discussing the fascinating article by Keith Hopkins, “Christian Number and Its Implications,” about how many people converted to Christianity at certain points of time (say, from ten years after Jesus’ death to the time the emperor Constantine converted in the year 312).  As we have seen so far, the first problem Hopkins deals with is how to count – that is, who counts as a Christian?  Hopkins takes the (in my opinion) justifiable and sensible view that if someone considered themselves to be a follower of Jesus (whether they were proto-orthodox, or Sethian, or Marcionite, or Ebionite, or anything else) they should be counted. The second problem, as we have also seen, is that our sources don’t give us any reliable statistics, or indeed statistics of any kind.  Instead, our sources (and, by the way, without sources we have no evidence, only guess work, even if it is educated guess work) are highly prone to exaggeration.  And so the book of Acts indicates that within a couple of months, some 8000 Jews [...]

Paul in a Nutshell and NT Views of Crucifixion: Readers Mailbag May 13, 2016

In this week’s Readers Mailbag I will deal with two rather massively significant questions, one on the life and message of Paul and the other on the different understandings of Jesus crucifixion in the New Testament. If you have any question(s) you would like me to address in the future, let me know! *******************************************************************   QUESTION: I am wondering what you would consider the most important things to know about the Apostle Paul.   Sometimes when I am forced to give a succinct answer to a question, it can have a lot of value.  So while I will be going into some depth in the Sunday School class, including referencing some of your work, I would love to hear your expertise on Paul distilled into a brief summary (if at all possible).   RESPONSE: Right!  Obviously some scholars have written very long books on Paul’s life, message, and mission.  So, let me give here the very basic essentials, as I see them, in bullet point form. Paul started life as a highly religious Jew, zealous to [...]

Christians and their Exaggerated Numbers

I have started discussing the fascinating article by Keith Hopkins, “Christian Number and Its Implications” (see my post of two days ago).   After discussing some of the problems with knowing how to “count” Christians (i.e., who counts as a Christian), he reflects for a bit on the problems presented to us by our sources of information.   The basic problem is that our sources don’t *give* us much information!   No one from the early Christian church was a statistician and no one kept records of how many people were being converted.   And the comments we find that are of any relevance turn out to be so broad, generalized, and suspicious as to be of no use to us at all. Sometimes, a source will give numbers, but they clearly cannot be trusted.   Take the book of Acts.   This is our first account of early Christianity, and, of course, became the “canonical” account.   According to Acts 2 (this and the following are examples that *I’m* giving; they are not found in Hopkins), just 50 days after Jesus’ [...]

Trolling Advice!

Dear Readers and Fans of the Blog: I have gotten a number of comments/complaints about trolling and thought I should just tell you my policy in case you think I should change it.   I have two competing principles that I try to keep in balance on the blog.  On one hand, I want readers to say what they really, genuinely think and to have a chance, then, to air their views.  On the other hand, I don’t want simply to post snide comments by people trolling.  And so the rather informal policy I’ve adopted is to post negative comments (so that I’m not censoring) two, three, or four times as they come to me; after I’ve had enough, I warn the person; after that I simply don’t post their comments. Does that sound reasonable?  Or do you think I should (a) simply not post negative comments; (b) post absolutely every negative comment I get; or (c) something else? The reason I’m concerned is that you, the readers, drive the blog, and are its raison d’être.   [...]

2016-05-11T08:34:25-04:00May 11th, 2016|Public Forum|


Is anyone on the blog a professional mathematician or statistician?  (I'm not looking for someone who's good with numbers but with someone who makes a living out of it.)  If so, and you'd be willing to help me out with a question that probably any sophomore in high school could handle, could you send me a private email at [email protected] ?

2016-05-10T13:11:05-04:00May 10th, 2016|Public Forum|

Who Counts as a Christian?

To start on my reflections on the rise and spread of Christianity, it might be useful to talk for a while about a particular article that has been highly influential both for my own thinking and more broadly in the contemporary discussion among scholars.   The article was written by a prominent and deservedly acclaimed British historian, Keith Hopkins, a long-time professor at Cambridge University.  It was called “Christian Number and Its Implication,” and it appeared in the Journal of Early Christian Studies in 1998. Hopkins begins his article by reflecting on the fact that it’s very difficult to know even what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the numerical growth of Christianity.   For one thing, what are we going to count as Christianity and whom are we going to count as Christians?  Do we count only those who hold to the views that later came to be the dominant understanding of Christianity, for example, that there is only one God, or that Christ was both human and divine at one and the same time, [...]

My Progress on the Book

I’m at one of my favorite points in the writing process for my next book.  Maybe it’s not right to say I’m at a point in the “writing,” since I haven’t written a word yet and won’t be writing a word for a while.   But writing is so much more than actually hammering out words on a keyboard.  The huge bulk of the work involves doing the research.   And I’m at one of my favorite points just now, the long transition period between one phase of reading and another, preparatory to the writing itself. I’ve described various aspects of my writing process before, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever explained how I sequence my reading for a new project.   For me, it’s a two-stage sequence.  I’ll explain it in reference to the current book on the Christianization of the Empire (I’ve been calling it the Triumph of Christianity, but I’m not sure I’m happy with the title any more.  Doesn’t matter.  A book’s title is like the interior trim on the house you’re building [...]

2020-04-09T13:22:03-04:00May 9th, 2016|Book Discussions, Public Forum|

My Trip to Athens

About fourteen years ago, my son Derek graduated from high school, and I told him that for his graduation present I would take him anywhere in the world for two weeks.  I gave his sister Kelly the same deal two years earlier and she chose Ireland.   Derek decided on Greece. At first I was impressed with the sophistication of his choice.  Later I realized that what he really wanted to do was to head to a Greek island and hang out on the nude beaches. So I struck a deal with him.  We’d spend a week on Mykonos.  But the first week we’d be on the mainland visiting archaeological sites.  He was keen to do that too, and so we did. I had been to Greece once before and had seen a lot of the main touristy sites.  But we went back to them, starting in Athens.   Athens is one of my favorite places in the world.  I love the food, the atmosphere, the people, and especially the archaeological ruins. Two of the most famous [...]

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