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 soon after his death coming to believe that he was raised from the dead, and if, as historians widely assume, something like 10% of the empire was Christian when the emperor Constantine converted – so, 6 million people in the year 312 – the growth rate over the period needs to be 56% per decade. But here’s the thing: even if you assume there were, say 40 people who suddenly came to believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection in the year 30, the growth rate doesn’t change *that* much, just from about 56% to just under 53%.
I should stress that we’re talking about ballpark figures here. Suppose in fact there weren’t 6 million Christians in 312 but only, say, 5 million? The percentage of growth would instead of being just under 52% would be just under 52% per decade, or 4.25% per year. That means that every year, your 100 Christians need to introduce just about four more people into their church. That doesn’t seem at all implausible to me, especially for a missionary religion.
There are lots and lot of other factors to consider, though, and some of the blog’s readers have raised a number of them. For starters…
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