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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 century.  Before then (and in many, many places, long after then), Christians simply met either in private homes or in outdoor settings, such as cemeteries (really!).

If there were, say 200 Christians in Rome in the year 120, they couldn’t meet in a single home.  It’s more likely that they would have something like four or five different homes to meet in.  And these would be scattered throughout the city.   How do we know how well these different groups of people —  all calling themselves Christian and considering their community to be a “church” — got along?  Did their leaders see eye to eye with one another?  Did they have different doctrinal views?  Different ways of practicing baptism and the eucharist and worship?  How would we know?  There’s no way to know.

But it’s also hard to know – impossible, really – whether each group…

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The Accuracy of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians
How Significant Was Early Christianity?



  1. Belasaurius
    Belasaurius  May 21, 2016

    Is it safe to assume that some of these hypothetical letters may have been judged as containing heresies and destroyed by the “orthodox” Christian empire? I always point out to my students that a great deal of history has been destroyed by people who thought they were doing God a favor.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2016

      It’s certainly possible. We just wish we had better evidence!

  2. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  May 21, 2016

    A lot of these letters would have been intentionally destroyed by the zealous orthodoxy police, no?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2016

      It’s certainly possible. We just wish we had better evidence!

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  May 21, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, of those towns with churches, how many of them had synagogues or sizable populations of Jews? How many of them were along major transportation routes — maritime or land? How relatively cosmopolitan vs provincial were they? How many had other well-known temples and cultic centers, such as Ephesus and Athens, or were the centers of mystery cults like Mithraism and the Eleusinian Mysteries?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2016

      I”m afraid I don’t know. I haven’t gone through Harnack’s lists and cross checked them with either our knowledge of synagogues or trade routes.

  4. Avatar
    flshrP  May 21, 2016

    Yes, these early Christians remain a mysterious lot in the absence of primary materials like letters of correspondence between these “house churches”. I imagine many scholars would trade a few chapters from the works of the heresy hunters in the third and fourth centuries for a handful of these early letters that “tell it like it is (or was)” in very earliest days of Christianity.

    These considerations puts the sheer improbability of discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls, Nag Hamadi, etc. into much better perspective. Too bad a Christian equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls hasn’t shown up (yet). Where to look? Where to look?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2016

      Nag Hammadi is usually seen as a Christian equivalent. And about the only place to look is Egypt!

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 21, 2016

    It’s really hard to know what happened 2,000 years ago. It makes me wonder about that widespread current goal of being as much as possible like the early “church.” How is that possible even if one wants to be that way? Which early church?

  6. Avatar
    Steefen  May 21, 2016

    Bart: there would have been too many people to meet in one place.
    Steefen: Not one Christian leader could fill an amphitheater? There were no rock star Christian leaders in a growing movement?

    We have Jesus with amphitheater and outside sized audiences. We have the Egyptian prophet (Works of Josephus) doing the same. Apolonius of Tyana probably had a large audience at times.

    After Jesus gave his sermons to his largest of audiences, those people probably would be fans not opposed to being “Twitter” followers (at least) of Jesus, adopters of what he said and what he had to say.

    • Avatar
      SebastianC  May 22, 2016

      What do you think Jesus’ largest audience was?
      What do you think Paul’s largest audience was?
      What do you think the largest audience for Christianity was in Antioch?

      ~ ~ ~

      Religious Movements have large audiences:
      Revival Preachers of the 18th and 19th centuries
      Billy Graham

      Do you think the gospels could have been launched without some publicity events? To publish the gospels Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts after the Jewish Revolt meant to get them out into the public. What were the platforms?

      • Bart
        Bart  May 24, 2016

        Jesus — no idea. 20? Paul — no idea. 20? Antioch — no idea. 40? Yes, modern preachers in Christian countries do have large audiences. ANd no, there were no publicity events in Christian antiquity.

        • Avatar
          Steefen  June 3, 2016

          Jesus’ largest audience was 12 disciples plus 8 strangers?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 4, 2016

            No, that’s how many people believed in him soon after his death.

        • Avatar
          Steefen  June 5, 2016

          Bart Ehrman: [12 disciples were] how many people believed in him soon after his death.

          Steefen: You call him an apocalyptic prophet, a prophet who did not pick up any disciples from John the Baptist, a prophet who did not have 12 disciples while he was living but after he died. Publish a book because your position needs some explaining to the Christian community. We do not see how you arrived at such a position.

          History tells another story. In my published book, The Greatest Bible Study in Historical Accuracy, we find a living Jesus with fishermen disciples who had 12 disciples and many more followers than 20, so many that they could form an army large enough to have a battle with the Romans in Galilee.

          We have another Jesus who fed 5,000 during a time of famine.

          The only Jesus who did not have a following but had a captive audience of more than 20 was the Woe-Saying Jesus. This man was a prophet/preacher without followers. Dr. Samuel Prescott warned people, “The British Are Coming!” (random google search result: http://planet.infowars.com/resistance/the-british-are-coming-it-wasnt-paul-revere) The Woe-Saying Jesus warned people of the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem during the First Jewish-Roman War.

          Did your book, Did Jesus Exist? really inform readers that Jesus had no former disciples of John the Baptist and that Jesus had no disciples until after he died?

  7. Avatar
    marcrm68  May 21, 2016

    Something had to happen…some sort of catalyst… With all the other religions floating around, how did Christianity survive?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2016

      Hence my book!

      • Avatar
        gabilaranjeira  May 23, 2016


        I understand the book is about the first 300 years or so of Christianity. However, may I ask a question that goes beyond this period? With the fall of the western Roman Empire and with it, the fall of pretty much everything that the Greco-Roman world stood for, wouldn’t Christianity have the perfect setting to survive? Or at least a very favorable environment?

        Thanks, as always!

        • Bart
          Bart  May 24, 2016

          Yes, if you mean that the “world” (in the Mediterranean and up into Europe) had then become “Christian.” Or do you mean something else?

          • Avatar
            gabilaranjeira  May 24, 2016

            Yes, the world meaning the Mediterranean and europe. :o)

          • Bart
            Bart  May 26, 2016


  8. Avatar
    llamensdor  May 21, 2016

    At times I’ve added a comment to an earlier blog posting of yours. Do you only respond to comments about your latest posting, or do you go back and check out comments added days after your original posting? Unless you have some program that informs you about “later” postings, I think you’d go mad reading and/or responding to comments made days–even weeks earlier. What is your practice in this regard?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2016

      I believe I’ve posted all comments. There was one that was a repeat of an earlier one, I thought, but otherwise, I get all comments, even if they are on older posts, and unless they are redundant or (more usually) offensive in some way, I go ahead and approve/post them.

  9. Avatar
    Monty  May 21, 2016

    My experience with congregations of a particular denomination, especially those who consider themselves “independent,” has been that they are not interested in what other churches believe, other than to criticize those beliefs. I have never witnessed two such churches writing each other letters to discuss their respective doctrines, but I have seen them criticize on the basis of hearsay and past association within those other churches. I see no reason to believe it would have been any different in the first three centuries of Christianity.

    I don’t know what the 50 communications you mentioned are, but the only extant communications of which I’m aware are between Paul and HIS churches, in which he discusses how HIS doctrine is being implemented in those churches. Paul had a personal interest in communication for specific reasons, and whenever he did mention a contrary doctrine, he condemned it. If the communications you are talking about are outside the New Testament, I would be extremely interested in seeing them.

    So, it doesn’t surprise me at all that there are so few records of communication between individual churches. I do wonder if the estimates of how many individual churches there were are too low, however, because it seems more likely to me that with the possible exceptions of churches Paul himself established in large cities, that most church meetings would be small, maybe 10 or 12 people on average meeting in a home. Admittedly, that’s just how I’ve always pictured these home-based churches to be.

  10. Avatar
    dragonfly  May 22, 2016

    So Harnack counted 50 references to places with churches in 100CE, and 100 in 180? My thoughts are the writings with references to churches that survived are the rare exception, so these numbers can only give us a bare minimum. My guess is there were a LOT more. I think people have been underestimating the numbers of Christians and churches, and overestimating their significance.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2016

      Yes, the question would be how *many* other churches, and how would we know?

  11. Avatar
    gchrist4  May 22, 2016

    You mentioned you’ve been to Mars Hill near the Acropolis in Athens in an earlier post. There’s a very old and very small church within 50 meters of the rock Paul is said to have preached from and the plaque on it says it’s an early 2nd century church. Do you not believe that to be an authentic date? I only ask because you mention above that we don’t have evidence of a church building until the middle of the 3rd century.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2016

      It’s certainly not 2nd c. But I’m going there next week and will look at it again.

  12. epicurus
    epicurus  May 22, 2016

    To submit a question to the mailbag, would I use the “contact Bart” link, or is there another link specifically for questions? I’ve a couple questions about Roman law.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2016

      You can simply post a question as a comment on any of my posts, even if it has no relation to the post itself.

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