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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’ death, on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit came upon the disciples and they preached in foreign tongues in some kind of open-air setting, and Jews from around the world heard them and came to believe.  How many Jews?  3000 became Christians that day.

A few days afterward, Peter and John are involved with a great miracle and Peter uses the opportunity to preach to the crowd, and he is remarkably successful.  5000 more Jews convert that day (Acts 4:4)

So here we are less than two months after Jesus’ death, and 8000 non-Christian Jews have converted to believe in Jesus, in Jerusalem.  Really?  Can that be right?

For starters: what was the population of Jerusalem at the time?   Some scholars …

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The Rate of Christian Growth
Who Counts as a Christian?

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Comments

  1. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  May 12, 2016

    I thought there were literate, socially elite men who were Christians at the time. Why wouldn’t pagans mention them?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2016

      To what time are you referring? You don’t really start getting elites converting (exceptions here and there) until about the end of the second century.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  May 15, 2016

        I am trying to get a clear picture of who is doing what, when, and how many–
        You wrote–“Hopkins points to other exaggerations in other accounts. For example, Paul, in his letter to the Romans (earlier than Acts), says that the gospel has been preached “to all the world” (1:18).”
        Romans 1:8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. NRSV. Or the NIV 8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. (The post says Rom. 1:18, but I think you mean 1:8?). Does that really mean that the gospel was preached all over the world or that people are just talking about it? As in gossip–Have you heard about these people called Christians?
        Unless Paul exaggerated in his other letters, I don’t see a reason to doubt him here.

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  May 15, 2016

          When I read Acts, Romans, Tertullian, etc., what I see is that Christianity is a movement that is spreading rapidly. Pliny the Younger noted that it was in the cities and had spread to farms and villages. He wrote that it seemed possible to keep it in check, but he comes across as though he’s not entirely confident. If Christians weren’t gaining in numbers, then why would Pliny need to write a letter about how to handle them?
          I suppose pagans would believe Christians were secretive. What choice did they have since they were being brought to trial and threatened with execution? Pliny admitted to torturing two women deaconesses.

          In Tertullian’s Apology, who was he writing to–Christians or pagans? He had to know that he’s exaggerating and that it was possible (maybe even likely?) that pagans would read what he wrote. Wouldn’t they have called him out on a lie? Are there any refutations to his writings by pagan sources?

          Maybe the numbers were exaggerated, but I’m not persuaded, yet, that Christians were in such a minority. It looks to be the exact opposite.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 16, 2016

            Hopkins deals with the quotation from Pliny and shows why it has to be an exaggeration also. Te.rtullian was writing for Christians to give them ammunition against pagans. In his day there really is no question that Christians were in the vast minority — that’s not one of the disputed points among scholars of the empire.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 16, 2016

          Paul would have no way of knowing if every town and city had been evangelized — but of course it hadn’t been. Couldn’t have been. Not remotely possible.

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  2. Avatar
    Michael Fischer  May 12, 2016

    I was just reading through Numbers following Genesis – Leviticus, and knowing how the Jews had grown to over half a million in 400 years it seems odd to postulate only 20,000 after another 1200-1500 years. What evidence do you use to inform your number of 20,000?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2016

      This is the minimalist view sketched in the article that I cited. But I don’t think the numbers found in the OT can be accurate at all. Acorrding to the book of Exodus over 600,000 adult men escaped from Egypt at the Exodus. Count the women and children, and you’re dealing with two million people! No way that can be right!!

  3. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  May 12, 2016

    Regarding Romans 1:8 I thought “the world” [kosmos, — the “ordered” world] referred to the known Roman world since that which was unknown could not logically be known. I may be recalling this from some Christian apologist source though.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2016

      Yes, the “world” would be the world as that person knew it. But most people in the Roman empire didn’t really have much of a sense of what the Roman empire was!

      • Greg Matthews
        Greg Matthews  May 13, 2016

        Right, my point though was that “the world” didn’t include North and South America or Antarctica and it’s arguable whether it included anything east of India although I’ve read that a Roman legion supposedly made it to China (or maybe Mongolia) per an archaeological dig.

  4. Avatar
    Todd  May 12, 2016

    I would like to know what form of Christianity they were converting to. Even at that early time there were many forms as there are today. The reports you site seem to indicate an instantaneous conversion. I just wonder what it was that produced these conversions…a preached message (what message? Paul’s gosple?), or wonder working acts of magic (miracles), or was there a more gradual conversion involving reasoned dialog and and rational thinking? Any thoughts on what might have been the reasons these vast numbers converted?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2016

      Yup, these are all among the important questions that we have to ask and answer!

  5. Avatar
    nacord  May 12, 2016

    I’ve noticed that new testament authors sometimes use the word oikoumene instead of kosmos to refer to the world (i.e. Matt 24:14; Acts 11:28). When Christian writers use this word, are they referring to the entire earth, just the Roman Empire, just the land of Israel, or is it simply synonymous with kosmos?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2016

      It’s usually thought that kosmos refers to something like what we would call the universe and oikoumene to the inhabited world we live in.

  6. Avatar
    mrbrain  May 12, 2016

    Speaking of exaggeration, it amazes me the amount of powers attributed to God, his presence into every breath and hair on our heads. “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs on your head are all numbered…”

    When Christians pray, there is no limit to the amount of caring He has, the reach, the breadth and depth of Him, according to the prayers. Dare I say there is also a bit of exaggeration and story telling going on there as well? Could we not back up and pose the question “Is there a God?” and then cautiously branch out from there? No. Why instead must we take the path of exaggeration? Does it prove the strength of our faith?

    One has to wonder what really went on with Noah’s Ark. To say God knows the number of hairs on my head, and controls the entire universe in similar fashion seems a stretch. Have y’all seen the size of the universe? That’s a lot of detailed knowledge and control to have over something that vast. We aren’t even close to knowing how vast it really is yet.

  7. Avatar
    godspell  May 12, 2016

    I think you have to get to modern times to have anything like reliable numbers for crowds, and even today there’s an awful lot of guessing and flat-out exaggeration going on with regards to political events.

    My question would be whether these large numbers simply mean “More people than we could easily count” or “Not that many at all, so let’s just pick a big impressive-sounding number out of a hat–we’re saving souls, God will forgive us.”

  8. Avatar
    Jim  May 12, 2016

    Re the length of Jesus ministry, do you go with Mark’s roughly one year of ministry or John’s three year term?

    I ask this in relation to estimating starting numbers for the movement, since with three years of itinerant speaking, presumably Jesus would have preached to more people than in just one year of ministry. Once rumors that Jesus had been resurrected had reached these people who had heard him live, the starting numbers would be somewhat different for 1 year vs 3 years ministry (I’m guessing a reasonable number of lower class Jews living outside of Judea didn’t pilgrimage Jerusalem every year for the Passover, or if they did, they might not have been inclined to remain in Jerusalem until Pentecost(?) – especially since the first/spring crop harvests were likely due around that time).

    I’m wondering if the initial “Jesus follower” base for the spread of oral traditions (and also diverse opinions) would have been significantly smaller from one year itinerant ministry than a three year. Even that totally reliable book of Acts starts out with only 120 hard core fans in Jerusalem just after Passover (Acts 1:15).

  9. Avatar
    barrios160679  May 12, 2016

    ///And that there is no reference to this massive and cataclysmic change of religious commitments in any other source?///
    Could it be because there was no real conversion as we would see it today? They were Jews and became Judeo-Christians (well, even the word “christian” was not used at that point!). They did not stop temple sacrifices, did not cease observing Sabbath etc., they just believed in Jesus’ Resurrection.

    ///In 21:20, Paul is told by the Christian leaders in Jerusalem that there are “many tens of thousands”///
    Cannot “myriades” mean just the “multitudes”?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2016

      Myriad is usually taken to refer to “10,000” I think.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  May 21, 2016

      Believing merely that Jesus had been resurrected does not make one a Christian if you don’t believe his sacrifice had salvific power.

  10. Rick
    Rick  May 12, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, a probably silly thought but, would looking into the growth of Christianity in Ireland be of any value perhaps as an isolated or controlled “experiment”. It was an island, with an existing pagan religion with perhaps a known number of missionaries (Palladius and Patrick?). supposedly the Irish clergy was obsessive about recording things?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2016

      Interesting idea. Again, though, I don’t think we have much data….

  11. Avatar
    dragonfly  May 13, 2016

    I look forward to finding out how we can get a sense of how many people were converting. Sounds like it is beyond our available evidence.

  12. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  May 13, 2016

    Dr Ehrman

    1 Jesus went out from there and come into His hometown; and His disciples follow Him. 2 When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue; and the many listeners were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to Him, and such miracles as these performed by His hands? 3 Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?”

    And they took offense at Him. 4 Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household.” 5 And He could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6a And He wondered at their unbelief.

    when mark has them say, “what is this wisdom given to him…” are they portrayed as asking in a mocking way? doesn’t seem so because it says “…and such miracles as these…”

    so if they have no unbelief in wisdom and miracles, then why did it effect jesus’ ability to perform miracles?
    why did it cause inability when crowds acknowledged wisdom and ability to perform miracles?
    why is he wondering at their unbelief? is not giving honour to a prophet creates inability in a prophet to perform miracles?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 13, 2016

      My sense is that they can’t figure out how he could do all this stuff. And it does seem that without faith, the miracles won’t happen.

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 13, 2016

    8,000 quick converts! How interesting! Especially considering that the conversion was to an unanticipated, suffering Messiah. Once again, you raise issues that I have never even considered. For me, that is one of the main values of this website. Thanks

  14. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 13, 2016

    Readers of this website might be interested in googllng “Christian Number and Its Implications – Research Gate” to read an abstract of the Hopkins paper. After reading the abstract,, one can also access the whole paper..

  15. Avatar
    J.J.  May 13, 2016

    Interesting subject for sure. Numbers are always a matter of debate in historical sources… Roman sources, Jewish ones… I mean, Josephus says 1.1 million Jews died in the siege, and 97K were deported as slaves. That sounds quite high. Literacy rates involve numbers. Catherine Hezser argues that literacy rates in Roman Palestine were only 3%… but how do you define literacy (or what level or what language) and whom are you counting. Gender ratios involve numbers and the inclusion (or non-inclusion) of women in those counts is much debated. Rodney Starks thinks the female-male ratio in the early church may have been 2:1 (i.e., more women)… while the ratio in the general population of Rome was more the opposite, like 3:2 (i.e., more men). All of this affects the perception of Christianity as large or small in Roman society.

    My question (sorry for the long intro) has to do with what these small numbers mean regarding the diversity of early Christianity. I mean, if there were so many different groups (later deemed heretics), how many actually were there and how large or small or persistent or ephemeral or non-existent were some of these groups? Does this mean the total number of “all Christians” should be considered larger to account for so many different strands… or were the number, spread, and influence of these actual different groups much smaller? Thoughts?

    And of course, these numbers also affect what we should (somewhat) expect of the # of NT mss. It’s not just that Christian books were burned under Diocletian (which would have destroyed early mss), but how numerous (and literate) were I and II cent Christians to have produced large caches of mss. Helps us understand the ratio of #s we find of Christian papyri for the diff early centuries.

    (Sorry again for such a long comment/question. Too many thoughts.)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2016

      What we would give for serious data to allow us to answer these questions! But I’ll be saying some things about Christian numbers in today’s post and probably the next couple.

      • Avatar
        J.J.  May 15, 2016

        I’m mostly curious about what the small numbers might indicate about the diversity of early Christianity. Rodney Stark thinks the low numbers of Christians indicates there was more common ground and less diversity among early Christians than some are willing to concede. Stark responded to Hopkins’ article in the same edition of the journal by stating: “Obviously there was a lot of variation in the Christianity taught and practiced from place to place in early days (or later for that matter). Indeed, even I am aware that in about the year 180 (when Hopkins persuasively estimates the number of sophisticated and literate adult male Christians to have been about 600), Irenaeus produced his famous five-volume attack on heresy wherein he lists nearly two dozen groups of Christians who had gone astray. A few years later Hippolytus issued an expanded catalogue listing nearly 50 heretical groups. Given the limited communications of that time as well as a canon still in flux and a shortage of written scriptures, it isn’t too surprising that in a substantial number of places the tiny local Christian groups drifted into doctrinal differences, as, indeed, Paul’s letters document. The question is, was this truly a Tower of Babel, or were the vast majority of congregations able to remain within mutually tolerable limits and thus sustain common cause and identity? Or was there no unity until one was imposed after-the-fact by the winning faction? It strikes me that when Ignatius took his long walk to Rome the many little Christian cells he encountered along the way had a common conception of their faith. Moreover, I cannot see Constantine being impressed by the value of a gaggle of goofy, unorganized, disputatious cults as valuable allies in his struggle for power.”

        • Bart
          Bart  May 16, 2016

          I”m not sure I “get” it. Of course there was wide diversity — otherwise writers like Irenaeus and Hippolytus would not have been so bothered by it!

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    plparker  May 13, 2016

    Was there something unique in the Christian diet that might allow you indirectly to measure the growth of Christianity by measuring trade in those grains, or fish, or whatever was distinctly Christian?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2016

      Apart from the fact that gentiles did not usually keep kosher, I’m afraid we don’t know much!

  17. Avatar
    moose  May 14, 2016

    Mr. Ehrman
    Concerning Tertullian. I just read the final section of Tertullians ‘An Answer to the Jews’, and I can’t refrain from wonder over his comparison between Christ and Solomon. -“Nor will you be able to vindicate, as the subject of that prediction, rather the son of David, Solomon, than Christ, God’s Son!”
    Do you agree that this could be interpreted as a comparison between Solomon and Adonijah in response to Nathan’s prophecy? And in this way an identification of who the true human Christ was?

    The final section of Tertullians ‘An Answer to the Jews’:
    “Therefore, if you see universal nations thenceforth emerging from the profundity of human error to God the Creator and His Christ (which you dare not assert to have not been prophesied, because, albeit you were so to assert, there would forthwith–as we have already premised–occur to you the promise of the Father saying, “My Son art Thou; I this day have begotten Thee; ask of Me, and I will give Thee Gentiles as Thine heritage, and as Thy possession the boundaries of the earth.”
    Nor will you be able to vindicate, as the subject of that prediction, rather the son of David, Solomon, than Christ, God’s Son; nor “the boundaries of the earth,” as promised rather to David’s son, who reigned within the single land of Judea, than to Christ the Son of God, who has already illumined the whole world with the rays of His gospel. In short, again, a throne “unto the age” is more suitable to Christ, God’s Son, than to Solomon,–a temporal king, to wit, who reigned over Israel alone. For at the present day nations are invoking Christ which used not to know Him; and peoples at the present day are fleeing in a body to the Christ of whom in days bygone they were ignorant), you cannot contend that is future which you see taking place. Either deny that these events were prophesied, while they are seen before your eyes; or else have been fulfilled, while you hear them read: or, on the other hand, if you fail to deny each position, they will have their fulfilment in Him with respect to whom they were prophesied.”

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2016

      Tertullian is simply saying that the prophecy was not (just) about Solomon but was principally about Jesus.

      • Avatar
        moose  May 15, 2016

        First of all, let me thank you for allowing us posting arguments on your blog which may appear to discredit your position. I am very thankful for that.
        This is how I read this last part of Tertullian’s ‘An Answer to the Jews’: Tertullian is telling the Jews that Solomon was not Christ ( the Messiah), which the jews pretended to believe. But that Christ was Christ (he does not mention the word Jesus). Tertullian:”In short, again, a throne “unto the age” is more suitable to Christ, God’s Son, than to Solomon,–a temporal king”.
        This is a very strange way to say it, because what he actually says is that “the anointed” is a better name for “the anointed” than to Solomon, who was also anointed.

  18. Avatar
    Michael Fischer  May 14, 2016

    What about Josephus who wrote that during the Roman Jewish war 100,000 Jews were sold as slaves? One could say that is an exaggeration, but let’s be real, there is a sizeable difference between 1000 and 100,000. Exaggerations like that are meaningless and Josephus was a writer with a purpose was he not?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2016

      It could be an exaggeration without it being off by 99,000! Josephus certainly had a purpose; all writers do. That in itself would not establish his reliability when it comes to numbers. It is often pointed out (I don’t have the bibliography here on the top of my head) that the numbers Josephus gives often differ radically when he reports the same events in his Jewish Wars and in the Antiquities.

  19. Avatar
    Sharif  May 17, 2016

    The quote from Tertullian is very interesting. It boggles my mind. How could he have claimed that vast majority of the inhabitants of the cities of the Roman Empire were Christian in his time if this would have been so patently false and immediately discredited by his audience (and himself for that matter)? It would be sort of like a Mormon preacher addressing a Mormon audience in the U.S. (let’s say outside of Utah) and saying, “Look at how the vast majority of your countrymen are Latter-Day saints!” Who would take that seriously?

  20. Avatar
    JSTMaria  May 17, 2016

    What about Acts 1:15? In some Bibles it reads like there were only 120 total disciples before the event at Pentecost. Is that what this passage is saying, or is it saying that on that particular day there were simply only 120 guys there listening to Peter. ??

    • Bart
      Bart  May 18, 2016

      My sense is that it is trying to say that there were a total of 120 believers already, just 50 days after Jesus’ death.

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