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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 are very interesting implications.   If in the year 40 there were 1000 Christians, in the year 50 there would be 1400; in the year 100 there would be 7400; in the year 150, 40,000; in the year 200, 210,000; in the year 250, 1,100,000; and then in the year 300, 6,000,000.

So even though we aren’t imagining these are actual numbers but just rough projections, they are nonetheless intriguing and probably significant.  If they are anywhere *near* being right —— and I think (as does Hopkins) that they must be near — then Hopkins thinks we should consider the implications.   If the empire comprised 6 million inhabitants, then by the year 100 CE Christians made up barely 0.01% of the empire.   That’s one-one hundredth of one percent.   Even more striking, by the year 200 CE Christians were only  0.35% — that is, just a bit more than 1/3 of 1%.

Hopkins concludes that ….

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How Many Churches? How Many Letters?
Whom Do We Consider a Christian?



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 19, 2016

    So, not only were Christians few in number for two centuries, but there was no widespread Roman persecution of them because their numbers were too few for the Romans to worry about. So, another widespread myth gets reexamined. Interesting as always. Keep plugging away. Here comes the third century and bigger numbers by gradual, steady growth.

  2. Avatar
    Todd  May 19, 2016

    I found it interesting that much of the growth of Christianity at that time (and even now) was the result of whole families converting, probably “converted” by the head of the household), including slaves and others who weren’t even a significant part of the family. I wonder how many even knew the bare basics of what Christianity was all about. I wonder how many even know much of any thing about Jesus.

    The Didiche has been of interest to me in that it is said to be an early handbook for new converts.

    This is all very interesting to me. Thank you for sharing your resesrch.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  May 19, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, from what you’re telling us, it appears the standard binary categories of Christian vs. non-christian doesn’t provide nearly enough information. It seems that it would be necessary to create four categories that lie along a continuum: 1. those who know about Christianity and self-identify as Christian; 2. those who know about Christianity but do not identify as Christian (subcategories: hostile and amenable to Christianity); 3. those who know that Christians exist but know nothing about them (subcategories: those who would like to know more and those who couldn’t care less about Christians); and 4. those who don’t even know Christians exist.

    Now, of course, we’ll never know the population breakdowns for these categories, but it might be possible to estimate them. Moreover, it would make sense that the more people fall into the second category the more likely we are to see future growth in the first category. Conversely, the more people fall into the fourth category the much less likely we are to see future growth in the first and second category.

    Which brings me back to one of my previous comments. There are really two variables at work here: how fast did information about Christianity spread (memetic replication) and how receptive were those who heard about Christianity (memetic selection). Indeed, this does seem like something a memeticist would tackle. Maybe you should talk to a memeticist! Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of self-respecting scholars who call what they do Memetics (because of the academic stigma attached to it), but if you look at such fields as communications, cultural anthropology, cybernetics, etc. what they’re doing is a form of Memetics.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 19, 2016

    “about 40% per decade, or, as Hopkins prefers putting it 3.4%” Huh? I think you must have left something out. Was it 3.4% per a unit of time other than a decade?

    I confess the number-crunching is over my head. What I do find understandable is that persecutions’ beginning in the third century indicates that that’s when there were enough Christians to pose a threat.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2016

      Yup, should be 3.4% per year.

      • Avatar
        Hormiga  May 21, 2016

        I was going to recommend that clarification, but Wilusa got there first.

        (40% per decade is the same as 3.4% per year: 1.034^10 = 1.397 .)

  5. Avatar
    falter  May 19, 2016

    Hello Bart:

    An interesting article that supports your position was written by David C Sim: How many Jews became Christians in the first century? The failure of the Christian mission to the Jews [HTS 61(1&2) 2005] His abstract reads:

    This study examines the early Christian mission(s) to the Jews, and attempts to determine, albeit speculatively, the number of Jews in the Christian movement in the first century. It is argued that the combined Christian mission was marked by a distinct lack of success. Neither the Law-observant gospel of the Jerusalem church nor the Law-free gospel of the Hellenists and Paul made much impression upon the people of Israel. Throughout the first century the total number of Jews in the Christian movement probably never exceeded 1 000 and by the end of the century the Christian church was largely Gentile.

    Readers are encourage to examine the entire article.

    Once again, thank you!

  6. Avatar
    rivercrowman  May 19, 2016

    The entire world’s population was only 200 million in 200 B.C. and 400 million in 1200 A.D., so a rather stagnant 150-300 million might be about right over the period for 40 to 400 A.D. (United Nations Population Division). … The agricultural revolution (better technology, yields, land quality) — causing exponential population increases — wouldn’t commence until about 1800 in the Western world.

  7. Avatar
    Rich Griese  May 19, 2016

    While I read reading this I was thinking that you might compared the early years of Christian growth to the early years of iPhone growth. That might help “speak” to young readers, and get them interested in the subject.

    Enjoy Life!

  8. Avatar
    flshrP  May 19, 2016

    I think you need to lay out the estimated total population of the Roman Empire in the time period under consideration here so your percentages can be checked. Unless you are assuming that the total population was 60 million from the 1st to the early 4th century.

    Re: persecution of Christians see Candida Moss “The Myth of Persecution”. She’s a Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame. I imagine her book caused a lot of dinner table discussion among the clergy at ND.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2016

      Yes, it is normally assumed that the population was fairly consistent over the period.

  9. Avatar
    spiker  May 19, 2016

    How much of a role, do you think antisemitism played in conversion? And will you examine that in your book?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2016

      I’m not sure it played much of a role. Do you have an idea about it?

  10. Avatar
    Scott  May 19, 2016

    While Christians obviously felt every persecution intensely, I have to wonder if other groups -slaves, barbarians, Jewish rebels, etc – were diverting the attention of Roman elites at the same time the Christian movement was still gathering steam. After all, running an empire is a big job and A LOT can and does go wrong.

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 21, 2016

      The uprising in Palestine was probably a serious problem for Christians as well, even though they didn’t participate in it. At that point in time, the Roman authorities had a pretty hazy understanding of the differences between Jews and Christians, and you’re talking about a military culture that practiced decimation–guilt by association was a perfection acceptable response to them. They didn’t worry much about killing the innocent along with the guilty when it came to holding the Empire together. Many historians say that Christian separation from and antipathy towards Jews increased as a result–Christians not wanting to be associated with the truly severe consequences of that revolt.

  11. Avatar
    JonathanMcAlroy  May 19, 2016

    FYI – The BBC has a series by Professor Mary Beard of Newham, Cambridge on The Roman Empire. Episode 4 is on the emergence of Christianity. Currently available here but you might want to ask the in-laws to tape it! 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2016

      Yes, it looks great, but unfortunately we can’t get it streamed here in the States. I’ll watch it when I come over later in the summer.

  12. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  May 19, 2016

    So, overall, what you’re saying is that Christianity’s beginnings was more of a confabulation; it was spread in a very naturalistic, predictable way. It wasn’t a phenomenon or particularly special.

    Even though that may be the truth, it’s a bit of a letdown and doesn’t seem very triumphant. :-/

    • Avatar
      FocusMyView  May 23, 2016

      That Christianity did spread and eventually became the choice of heads of state is quite inspiring. There must have been something to it for it to continue spreading despite persecution. I get that there was not widespread persecution and the persecution was not about the belief system itself, but there still were persecutions.
      In other words, there was not a state sponsorship of the religion, and the state’s idea of how society should work ran contrary to Christianity. Yet it still spread fairly continuously. It had staying power and attracted new converts.
      So there must be something in Christianity that appeals to mankind. Or at least appealed to mankind in Roman times.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  May 24, 2016

        Well, yeah, but does that say something positive about human nature or perhaps something sad?

  13. Avatar
    chrispope  May 20, 2016

    I’ve just watched an excellent BBC UK TV documentary presented by historian Mary Beard on the decline of the Roman Empire.
    She put forward a point that while Rome was tolerant of other religions, it viewed the maintenance of its relationship with its many gods (by temple-building and esp. by sacrifice) as essential to the continuation of order and the success of the empire. She presented some papyrii which were individual documents signed by an official certifying that a named person had performed the requisite sacrifices. It was suggested that those refusing to sacrifice were endangering the empire and thus guilty of treachery.
    It was perhaps this factual breach of duty that led to such persecution as there was (although I don’t suppose that strongly expressed apocalyptic views went down too well either). As the number of Christians was expanding, Rome was losing its some of its ‘hands-on’ central authority because of the decentralisation of power in the extended empire. One can imagine concern increasing among the ‘old guard’ back in Rome over what was happening to ‘their’ traditional empire.

    (Para. 1: should ’60 million’ read ‘6 million’ believers?)

  14. Avatar
    dragonfly  May 20, 2016

    This is very helpful. It puts things in perspective.

  15. Avatar
    FocusMyView  May 23, 2016

    Excuse me, Herodius, do you have a minute to talk about Jesus?
    If only the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses had been around back then…

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