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How Christianity Grew and Grew

This will be the final post on the new boxes in my Introduction to the New Testament; both of these are on a related topic, tied to my book The Triumph of Christianity, so I will include them both there.  One has to do with how miracles allegedly led to conversions of pagans to the new faith; the other charts the rate of growth that it appears the Christian church experienced in the early years.



Another Glimpse Into the Past

Box 26.4  Legendary Confrontations with Pagans

As the Christian gospel spread throughout the Roman world, a number of legendary accounts appeared portraying the confrontations between Christian missionaries and their pagan opponents (see Box 9.6).  In these accounts, the Christians’ miracles trump the power of the pagan Gods.  One involves the apostle John in an apocryphal book called “The Acts of John.”

John arrives at the magnificent temple of the great goddess of the Ephesians, Artemis, and confronts a large crowd of pagans celebrating the goddess’s birthday, challenging them to a kind of spiritual duel: they should pray to their goddess to strike him dead.  If she proves unable to do so, he in turn will pray to his God to kill them.  Since everyone there knows that John is able to perform great miracles – he has already publicly raised the dead – they cry out for him not to do it.

John urges them to convert and prays that God will banish the pagan deity of the place.  Immediately the altar of Artemis …

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Deciding on Which Books Should Be in the New Testament
Miraculous Conversions in the Book of Acts



  1. Avatar
    blclaassen  November 5, 2018

    What always strikes me about this steady growth of religious converts in history is the willingness to believe stories, even fantastic ones. It seems to be part of the human condition though, judging from modern man’s credulity regarding “fake news” and the willingness to believe what one simply wants to if it furthers a personal agenda. The need to believe seems to be genetic. See “Religion Explained” by Pascal Boyer.

    • Avatar
      james.bakalar@verizon.net  December 31, 2018

      I’ve read Ehrman’s The Triumph of Christianity, in which he emphasizes that alleged miracles were the main cause of the growth of the religion. But this explanation seems to be radically incomplete. There must have been many people claiming to perform miracles in those days, in the name of various gods and cults. Why were the Christian miracles given more credit than others?

      • Bart
        Bart  January 1, 2019

        Yes indeed — one of my major points was precisely that everyone believed the gods were active in human lives. Christians were *agreeing* with that view, not coming up with a new one. But that’s only one part of the story, and without the *other* part, you’re right, it doesn’t make sense that Christians grew becaues of miracles. The other, absolutely crucial part, is that Christians were the *only* ones who were both conversionist and exclusivistic. Fundamentally important. But it was in the next chapter of the book!!

  2. Lev
    Lev  November 5, 2018

    May I ask an off-topic question?

    I’m thoroughly impressed with your work Orthodox Corruption of Scripture and find it both mind-blowing and fascinating. I do have an outstanding question over intent, however.

    Is it possible to detect any patterns in the corrupted manuscripts, that is where and when they were altered? Are the western texts less corrupt than the eastern, or vice-versa? Is there a correlation between certain Roman or Alexandrian Bishops and the controversies they faced, and a corresponding pattern of altered texts?

    The reasons I’m interested in finding a pattern is that you argue the scribes weren’t part of the “intelligensia of the faith” (p. 325), so it was remarkable that they were aware enough of the theological controversies in their day. However, if a pattern exists where we can locate the place, time and presiding Bishop’s motive, would it not be more likely that the scribes were *commissioned* to alter the text by the church authorities who were wrestling with their theological adversaries?

    In other words, is it possible to locate the intent to corrupt the manuscripts, not to the scribes themselves, but instead to their paymasters who commissioned the works?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2018

      I looked hard for patterns of every kinds, and for evidence there was a top-down authorization for changes. I couldn’t find any, but just the contrary. (Somewhat to my dissatisfaction! I would have loved to find some…)

      • Lev
        Lev  November 6, 2018

        Many thanks, Bart. I guess if the Church authorities had tempered with the texts it would not have been in their interest to leave any evidence. Perhaps this is an unfair question to ask a historian – but what’s your hunch? Do you think the church authorities had a hand in the changes?

      • Avatar
        Sinseitional  November 11, 2018

        “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”–Seneca, (Roman philosopher, mid-1st century AD)

        Hello, all. I’m new to this blog/forum. Unsure if my query fits elegantly into this thread–couldn’t figure out how to start a new thread–but…

        I’m curious about the “opponents” of Christianity in the early days of its beginning. What, other than “paganism”, was it up against? Specifically, how popular was Stoicism as a philosophy?

        The quote I began this post with is attributed to Lucius Annaeus Seneca, aka Seneca/Seneca the Younger, whose lifetime (4 BC~AD 65) coincided with Jesus’ and the earliest years of Christianity, within the same empire.

        Seneca penned some 124 Moral Epistles that we know about, which basically amount to Chicken Soup for the Stoic’s Soul. I’m asssuming that his writings and others like them were somewhat widespread and influential as he served as tutor/advisor to emperor Nero.

        Does anyone know where I can find scholarship on this topic? On the one hand I’m interested in a concise comparison in the doctrinal differences in Stoicism and Christianity, just to get a feel for one of the prevailing philosophies of the time prior to Christianity’s growth.

        Secondly, and with Seneca’s quote in mind, what did the rulers find to be more “useful” about Christianity over its competing doctrines in the region?

        Thanks, and this forum is a gold mine!

        • Bart
          Bart  November 12, 2018

          Stoicism was obviously a hugely important philosophical movement, and there is a lot of scholarship on the relationship of Stoicism and Christianity (if you want the hard-hitting stuff, see Troels Endberg-Peterson; more accessible, maybe start with, see Wayne Meeks on the Moral World of Early Christianity) . But the Stoics, of course, were coming out of the pagan world — they were not separate from it. Many Christians felt at home with some of the basic Stoic principles, even if they objected to their religious underpinnings.

          • Avatar
            Sinseitional  November 27, 2018

            Thank you, Dr. E!
            I will be looking into those sources as starting points.

  3. Avatar
    fishician  November 5, 2018

    1. Why do you think the growth rate plateaued? If the trend had continued the whole world would be Christian by now.
    2. Has anyone published a comparison of growth of the early Christians to other groups, like Islam, Mormons, JWs, etc?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2018

      1. I think it’s mainly because when masses converted, there were fewer people to convert, so the rates necessarily had to slow down significantly; 2. Yes the rate of growth is almost exactly what has happened with the Mormons since the founding of the church. Rodney Stark makes a big deal of this.

  4. Avatar
    Steefen  November 5, 2018

    Jesus wasn’t so connected to the persons of Isaiah and Zechariah after all.

    See Isaiah 42: 1.
    Apparently Isaiah was from the 8th Century BCE but chapters 40-55, a focus of Jesus’ attention was written anonymously after Isaiah died: it was written in the 6the Century BCE.

    Second, Jesus on a donkey seems not to refer back to Zechariah (Zech 9: 9) but to a disciple of Zechariah.

    Does recent scholarship change any of these assertions?

    = = =
    The Book of Isaiah (Hebrew: ספר ישעיהו‬, IPA: [sɛ.fɛr jə.ʃaʕ.ˈjɑː.hu]) is the first of the Latter Prophets in the Hebrew Bible and the first of the Major Prophets in the Christian Old Testament.[1] It is identified by a superscription as the words of the 8th-century BCE prophet Isaiah ben Amoz, but there is extensive evidence that much of it was composed during the Babylonian captivity and later.[2] Bernhard Duhm originated the view, held as a consensus through most of the 20th century, that the book comprises three separate collections of oracles:[3][4] Proto-Isaiah (chapters 1–39), containing the words of Isaiah; Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40–55), the work of an anonymous 6th-century BCE author writing during the Exile; and Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56–66), composed after the return from Exile.[5] While virtually no scholars today attribute the entire book, or even most of it, to one person,[3] the book’s essential unity has become a focus in more recent research. Isaiah 1–33 promises judgment and restoration for Judah, Jerusalem and the nations, and chapters 34–66 presume that judgment has been pronounced and restoration follows soon.[6] It can thus be read as an extended meditation on the destiny of Jerusalem into and after the Exile
    = = =
    Zechariah 1–8, sometimes referred to as First Zechariah, was written in the 6th century BC.[10] Zechariah 9–14, often called Second Zechariah, contains within the text no datable references to specific events or individuals but most scholars give the text a date in the fifth century BCE.[11] Second Zechariah, in the opinion of some scholars, appears to make use of the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, the Deuteronomistic History, and the themes from First Zechariah. This has led some to believe that the writer(s) or editor(s) of Second Zechariah may have been a disciple of the prophet Zechariah.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2018

      Yes, 2nd Isaiah and 2nd Zechariah were each written by persons other than the ones who wrote the earlier parts of the books.

  5. Avatar
    Matt2239  November 5, 2018

    Rendering unto Caesar, doing unto others, turning the other cheek, and going the extra mile seems to have fit well within the Roman Empire.

  6. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  November 5, 2018

    By the year 400CE, with that many Christians in the world, how unified or divided were they? Were they seen as a one Universal (Catholic) at this point or were there different sects of Christians?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2018

      Lots of divisions! But teh differences, over time, became more minor, from an outsider’s persepctive, nothing like the major divisions you see in teh second adn third centuries.

  7. Avatar
    brenmcg  November 5, 2018

    Do you think these legends about John indicate that he probably did go to preach in Ephesus at some point and probably did learn some Greek?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2018

      No, I think that tradition is rooted in these legends.

  8. Avatar
    brenmcg  November 5, 2018

    A growth rate of 3% per annum for 300 years is extremely impressive.

    Religions will grow until they reach equilibrium – where number of converts equals number of apostates in any given year.

    It means 20 Christians in 30 CE began a religion which wouldn’t reach equilibrium until it had taken over the Roman empire.

  9. Avatar
    godspell  November 5, 2018

    By ’20 Christians’, do you mean 20 people who believed Jesus had risen from the dead and therefore set about forming a new religion around his memory and teachings, something he had never attempted to do?

    Meaning that during Jesus’ life, there were zero Christians (himself included), because he was trying to reform Judaism in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom?

    But if by Christian we mean “Person who believes Jesus is the Christ”–ie, Messiah–and as you believe, Jesus thought he was the Messiah, and his followers believed him (if not entirely understanding what he meant by that), it strikes me that it would be hard to justify any specific number, since clearly he had an unspecified number of followers besides those mentioned in the gospels, and Jesus’ cult was evangelist in nature.

    Nitpicky, but it’s the lower numbers that are especially tricky. If we’re going to say only those who believed the same thing about Jesus qualify as Christians for the purpose of this retroactive census, aren’t we ignoring the fact that Christianity was riven with innumerable divisions of belief in its early centuries?

    How do we define Christian when Christians define themselves differently? There was eventually a unified authority structure (that many dissented from), but not for a long time after the crucifixion.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2018

      I mean twenty peopel who believed Jesus had been raised from the dead and that somehow that had something to do with salvation. They had no idea of starting a new religion.

      • Avatar
        godspell  November 6, 2018

        I shall rephrase–“20 people who believed Jesus had been resurrected, and decided they had to make others believe this, and use it as a way to persuade others to join them and follow Jesus’ teachings, in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom Jesus had promised.”

        But in that case, were they Christians in the later sense of the word?

        Weren’t they just Jewish apocalypticists, not all that different from the followers of John the Baptist, who went on believing he was Messiah after his decapitation? (Which was certainly not something predicted in the scriptures).

        Again. Nitpicky. It’s a chicken and egg thing.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 7, 2018

          Yes, it is much debated whether or not it is appropriate to call these people “Christian.” I have no problem with it myself, but in part because I don’t think there *was* as single “later sense” of the word — but rather lots of senses, depending on whom you ask. So too in the earliest period.

          • Avatar
            godspell  November 7, 2018

            All terms evolve in their meaning, so I suppose all that matters is that these people formed the nucleus of what later became Christianity, in all its seemingly numberless forms and expressions. Minority status combined with sporadic persecution–and the very teachings they adapted from Jesus–sufficed to make them see themselves as one widespread family, who would someday enter the Kingdom together. Later, it became institutional.

            I’ve read that the earliest use of the term is in Acts. It must have been well known before then. Do you have an opinion as to how soon these people began to refer to themselves that way? Is it possible it’s a term that outsiders called them, and they adopted it?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 9, 2018

            It depends on when you date Acts. The term occurs also in 1 Peter, and there it is a term that a Christian uses for other Christians (not an outsider term).

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 5, 2018

    These numbers are interesting, indeed, and I encourage all those interested in this growth to read Dr. Ehrman’s “The Triumph of Christianity.”

  11. Avatar
    caesar  November 5, 2018

    Are there significant differences of opinion on the growth of the church? Acts 2 said there were 3,000 people converted immediately. I imagine scholars who take that account seriously think there were a lot more than 10,000 Christians in the year 100.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2018

      yes, anyone who believes in the literal truth of the Bible will have a different opinion. The challenge for them is to explain how there could be so many Christians taking over Jerusalem adn then the Empire at this rate without anyone ever mentioning it….

  12. Avatar
    Bartleby  November 5, 2018

    To me, the critical part of the story is when John invites the pagans to a spiritual duel. There is a similar story (discarded) where Peter invites Apollo to a spiritual duel and Peter wins. The reason the invitation is critical to me, is because nobody does that unless they know they can win and they are a good b.s. sniffer.

    Today, skeptics are in much the same boat, inviting religious opponents to pray to God to do something and nothing happens.

    I also wonder why there are so many Johns in the NT stories. I just finished reading that John was a 5X more popular baby’s name from 1-4th centuries A.D., including Jesus’ name. That could be true of John was a better known person with miracle stories attached to his name.

    There was John, father of Simon Peter, John the Baptist, John the Apostle, John of the high priestly family, John Mark, Jonannine literature, John the Evangelist, John the Elder, John the revelator, John of Ephesus, John of Patmos.

    The story of John the Apostle praying to God (and what comes after), has to be one of those made up stories because a mature man who is a healer wouldn’t destroy a temple. It is such an ego display. Destruction is not in the loop. Anyway, it goes against the laws of nature. However, there has to be a reason why the name, John, is involved in so many stories.

    I wonder if the NT writers were covering up John’s miracles but forgot to choose other names in the stories because John was on their minds. It could be that John the Baptist was more striking than we’ve been told. John’s name (given to babies) shouldn’t have been more popular in the first four centuries A.D. than Jesus’. I can only think that John was doing various things that others thought were miraculous.

    The story of John being thrown into prison, then sending friends to find out if Jesus was “the one to come” (after him) is not only not believable, it’s milking it. Would John be allowed visitors and message carriers when his overseers were afraid he could strike an uprising? A badly though out story. This, after God already said that He was pleased in His only Begotten Son Jesus at the baptism.

    • Avatar
      Eric  November 8, 2018

      That is a curiosity about the [popularity of John over Jesus as a Christian given name throughout history (even accounting for the latter’s popularity n the Spanish speaking world).

  13. Avatar
    mannix  November 6, 2018

    In Box 26.4 you quote the “crowd” uttering two fairly long sentences…similar to a Chorus in a play, where several individuals sing or speak in unison. If you think about it, highly unlikely, and somewhat amusing. However, fictitious “crowd speak” can have serious consequences, as in Mt 27:25 when “the whole people said in reply ‘His blood be upon us and our children’ “. While all 4 Gospels have this “crowd” calling for crucifixion, Mt is the only one indicating future Jews accepting responsibility for it. As you have pointed out elsewhere, this contributed to subsequent anti-Semitism, still alive and kicking as recently seen in Pittsburgh.

  14. Avatar
    Steefen  November 7, 2018

    30 C.E. – 20 Christians
    20 minus 12 disciples = 8 people
    7 or so Hellenist leaders, one of whom is Stephen the martyr
    = = =
    12+7= 19 + Mary Magdalene = 20; Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Nicodemus = 22 + 1 who respected Jesus
    + the Samaritan woman at the well = 23

    Are you counting the Hellenists and the women at the tomb?
    Are you counting people in Syria where Jesus was popular?

    So you’re not counting the lives Jesus touched, either, like the father of the son who was possessed or the widows and elderly who appreciated his compassion?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 9, 2018

      I”m referring to *right after* the resurrection. 11 men disciples and a handful of women.

  15. Avatar
    jrhislb  November 12, 2018

    Are there any stories where the apostles engage in respectful ecumenical dialogue and emphasize what they have in common with people of other faiths?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 13, 2018

      Ha! No, not at all. These are not modern ecumenicists!

  16. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 23, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you think that Ignatius, in his 7 undisputed letters, still written in that key time frame you give of within 100 years of the cross, espouses well the theology of the Pauline tradition/the early apostles? For example, like the earliest Christians and Paul does he believe in a grave-vacating kind of resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 23, 2018

      He doesn’t say so. (Do you have a particular passage in mind?)

  17. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 23, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    When did the Gnostics begin to distort the original message of bodily/physical resurrection by saying Jesus was only raised “spiritually?”

    • Bart
      Bart  December 23, 2018

      Gnosticism appears to have become a bona fide movement in the early to mid second century.

  18. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 26, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman: do you agree?:

    On Galatians.: “ [Paul’s] twofold purpose is to document (1) how little contact he had had with the Jerusalem apostles (1:11-24) and (2) that his message is in harmony with theirs and recognized by them, and is not an alternative to the gospel as proclaimed by them (2:1-10).…the unity of the one church of God is crucial to [Paul]. There can be two parallel missions, but…there cannot be two churches, each with its own gospel…they [James, Peter, and John] made no additions to the Pauline gospel [which included Jesus’ resurrection]…[They did not mandate] the requirement of circumcision or adherence to the food laws, as the new Galatian teachers were attempting to do.”

    The People’s New Testament Commentary (2009) by M. Eugene Boring, Fred B. Craddock. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky

  19. Avatar
    Brand3000  December 27, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you agree?

    “For Paul and the early apostles, resurrection was not simply a spiritual affair. It involved the body too. The body will be somehow reconstituted and reunited with spirit and soul, and those who were once dead will walk in literal resurrection life.”

  20. Avatar
    Brand3000  February 26, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman:

    We can understand God as creator and so forth and Jesus as His Son by the resurrection sightings, but per the early Christians what/who was/is the Holy Spirit? Was there ever any evidence for it other than what seems to be a psychological state of mind that made them speak in tongues?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2019

      The Spirit of God is mentioned thorughout the Old Testament (starting with the opening verses of Genesis); the Spirit was understood to be a divine being, but not God himself. And Jesus indicated the Spirit was coming after he left (John 14, 16). Thus, for the book of Acts, the day of Penteecost. So Christians had lots of reasons for thinking that in addition to the Father and Son there was also a Spirit.

      • Avatar
        Brand3000  February 27, 2019

        That’s interesting, so there is some OT context, but why couldn’t God do these things himself, the Holy Spirit seems philosophically unneeded, or is there a concept I’m missing?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 1, 2019

          I”m afraid I can’t answer for what God can and cannot do.

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