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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 [...]

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 [...]

Playing with the Numbers (of Christians)

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 [...]

How Many Christians Were There?

There are a lot of things that I’m really very interested in that I’m not very good at.  As a kid I was passionate about baseball.  I was an All Star every year up to high school, but I really wasn’t all that great.  I was just better than most of the other kids, who *really* weren’t great.  It was a rather low bar.  Same with tennis.  Same with a lot of things – even into adulthood. As an adult I’ve long had an attraction to numbers, but I’m not very good at them.  I’m fascinated by them, but I can’t work out much of any kind of sophisticated mathematical formula to save my soul.  That’s why last week I asked for some help on the blog.  I needed someone to come up with a formula for me to crunch some numbers.   And several people obliged.  Many, many thanks to all who helped.  I’m very much in their debt.  It’s amazing to me the kinds of expertise that are out there.  Some of my respondents [...]

The Rate of Christian Growth

I have been discussing the fascinating article by Keith Hopkins, “Christian Number and Its Implications,” about how many people converted to Christianity at certain points of time (say, from ten years after Jesus’ death to the time the emperor Constantine converted in the year 312).  As we have seen so far, the first problem Hopkins deals with is how to count – that is, who counts as a Christian?  Hopkins takes the (in my opinion) justifiable and sensible view that if someone considered themselves to be a follower of Jesus (whether they were proto-orthodox, or Sethian, or Marcionite, or Ebionite, or anything else) they should be counted. The second problem, as we have also seen, is that our sources don’t give us any reliable statistics, or indeed statistics of any kind.  Instead, our sources (and, by the way, without sources we have no evidence, only guess work, even if it is educated guess work) are highly prone to exaggeration.  And so the book of Acts indicates that within a couple of months, some 8000 Jews [...]

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’ [...]

Who Counts as a Christian?

To start on my reflections on the rise and spread of Christianity, it might be useful to talk for a while about a particular article that has been highly influential both for my own thinking and more broadly in the contemporary discussion among scholars.   The article was written by a prominent and deservedly acclaimed British historian, Keith Hopkins, a long-time professor at Cambridge University.  It was called “Christian Number and Its Implication,” and it appeared in the Journal of Early Christian Studies in 1998. Hopkins begins his article by reflecting on the fact that it’s very difficult to know even what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the numerical growth of Christianity.   For one thing, what are we going to count as Christianity and whom are we going to count as Christians?  Do we count only those who hold to the views that later came to be the dominant understanding of Christianity, for example, that there is only one God, or that Christ was both human and divine at one and the same time, [...]

The Conversion of Constantine and Beyond

I am now nearly finished discussing the Prospectus that I floated before several publishers this past summer for my new book The Triumph of Christianity.   My original idea, as you will see below, was to start with the earliest disciples of Jesus, right after his death, who came to think he had been raised from the dead – I’m happy to call them the “first Christians,” even though a lot of scholars object to calling anyone “Christian” until much later; I just don’t have those qualms – and to discuss the spread of Christianity up to the key moment in history, the conversion of the emperor Constantine nearly three hundred years later in the year 312 CE.  Constantine’s conversion, in this way of looking at things, was the turning point.  After that, the Empire was on the path to becoming Christian. I have since changed my mind and decided to go past Constantine up to the end of the fourth century.  But before explaining that, here is how I end my original Prospectus. ***************************************************************** The [...]

The Early Growth of Christianity

I continue here the brief overview of the book that I’m now working on, The Triumph of Christianity.  To this point I have identified the problem that the book is trying to resolve (how Christianity grew from a small group of illiterate Jewish peasants from Galilee to becoming something like 10% of the entire Roman Empire within 300 years), some of the earlier attempts to solve the problem, and one of the fundamental issues involved, the movement from being a Jewish sect to being a gentile religion. Now I get more to the heart of the matter.  The first section below talks about how quickly the religion would have had to grow to become such a large religion by the early fourth century; the next section begins to deal with the issue of how it all happened. Again, this is all lifted directly from my original Prospectus.  Whether the book will end up being structured like this is, well, anyone’s guess…. ********************************************************************* The Rate of Growth of the Christian church:  From Jesus to Constantine and [...]

From Jewish Sect to Gentile Church

I have been discussing and excerpting the Prospectus I wrote this last summer on my book that I have tentatively titled, The Triumph of Christianity.  Here I discuss the beginning of the Christian mission, and how “Christianity” went from being a small Jewish sect to being a large number of gentile communities (with special emphasis on the work of Paul). ************************************************************************* From Jew to Gentile: The Rise of Christianity (two chapters) This section will discuss the very early years of the Christian movement as it shifted from being a sect within Judaism to being a largely gentile religion, all within the space of about 50 years. By everyone’s reckoning, Christianity began among a group of Jesus’ Jewish followers who believed that he was the messiah of God.   In this section I will need to provide background to what the term “messiah” meant to ancient Jews.  I will not give an extensive account of Jesus’ life and teachings, only enough to show what his overarching message was and how he acquired adherents to that message during [...]

Roman Religion as the Context for Christianity

I have started to indicate how I laid out my prospectus for my next book The Triumph of Christianity, as I developed the idea this past summer.  Remember: the prospectus was designed to get a publisher (or hopefully more than one) interested in publishing the book, and was based on, and presupposed, already a good bit of research.   The prospectus was to show what the book was to be about, why it is both interesting and important, and how it would be, tentatively, be laid out. The qualifier, “tentatively,” is very important.  The book has to cohere from the outset.  But the reality is that as an author does more and more and more research, certain areas of interest emerge more clearly, and the final framing of the book is often quite different from the tentative sketch of the prospectus.  Still, it is important to give a publisher a good sense of what the book will look like – what it will argue and how it will argue it. In my previous posts I have [...]

Older Explanations for Why Christianity Succeeded

In yesterday’s post I indicated some of the major issues involved with the question of how Christianity managed to take over the Roman Empire, as spelled out in the Prospectus that I wrote in hopes of finding a publisher interested in signing up my book   In this post I’ll give another excerpt from the Prospectus, in which I discuss some of the common answers one can find in books and articles about the matter.   How have scholars in the modern world explained the amazing success of the Christian mission? ************************************************************* In modern times one common answer is that Christianity came along at just the right time, when the “pagan” (i.e., polytheistic) religions of the Roman world were on the wane, when people had become sophisticated enough to realize that the ancient Greek and Roman mythologies were simply unbelievable, when people were looking for something more religiously vibrant and sensible.   Christianity filled the void, in this view, left by the demise of the Greek and Roman pagan religions. The problems with this answer have been widely [...]

The Triumph of Christianity: The Ultimate Question

I have begun now a new thread, which I anticipate will be a rather long one, on the book I am currently working on, which I have tentatively titled (recognizing that my tentative titles rarely actually become the title!) The Triumph of Christianity.   I indicated in my previous post that I wrote up a prospectus to give to publishers in order to see if they were interested in offering a contract for the book.  The prospectus ended up being about 17 pages long (double-spaced).  As I mentioned already, the point of the prospectus is to show a potential publisher what the book is about, how it matters, and why it would be really interesting for regular ole readers (as opposed to irregular ole scholars). The following was the very beginning of my Prospectus, the opening salvo. ****************************************************************************************** In my public talks over the past ten years I have been asked one question about my research more than any other, a question that seems to arise out of any topic I address, whether it is the [...]

The New Book: The Triumph of Christianity

When my agent Roger and I decided that we might want to explore the possibility of going with a different publisher, the first step was to come up with a book proposal to shop around.   For ten years or so I had been wanting to write a particular book, but had always put it off because it had seemed like such a MAJOR undertaking.   I came to think that this was the perfect time to pursue it, to propose doing a new book on a completely new topic with a new publisher as a new beginning. The book was/is to be about how Christianity spread throughout the Roman world, until, less than 400 years after it started, it had taken over and the Roman Empire had officially become Christian.  In my mind I was thinking about a title like “The Triumph of Christianity: How Faith in Jesus Destroyed the Religions of Rome.”  It would be unlike anything I had ever done. The strategy was for me to write a 15-20 page prospectus in which I [...]

Growth Rate of Early Christianity

Time to answer a readers' question, as a change of pace, unrelated to anything else I've been posting on: QUESTION: The question on my mind is almost certainly NOT knowable, but I will ask it anyway. 1 – can anyone estimate how many Christians (all variations included) were abroad on Planet Earth at any given time in the 100s or 200s? 2 – when Constantine chose to back Christianity and make it the “official” religion — in the early piece of the 300s — how many actual Christians were there? Or, to make it easier: Taking the whole “Roman” empire as 100%, what pct of the peeps were Christians? 3 – A few generations later (380?) — Theodosius I said that the Roman Empire officially believed what the Bishop of Rome believed. How many (or what percentage of the people) were Christians in 379? I don’t expect precise answers. Any pointers you could provide to where answers might be found (or guesstimates, even) by researchers/experts/theologians/atheists or even hockey players would be appreciated. RESPONSE: This is [...]

Why Did Christianity Succeed?

QUESTION: What I have been wondering lately is "why" did Christianity win out. There seemed to be much competition in the ancient world between the pagan polytheisms and monotheistic religions. Competition not only between the Jewish religion and Christian religion but within Christianity. I would be interested in why you think the current version of Christianity won out. Was it purely a matter of cultural evolution and this form of Christianity seemed to benefit people the most, easiest to adhere to, most flexible. RESPONSE: There are actually two questions here, both of them really interesting and really important!  One is: why / how did the “orthodox” form of Christianity manage to become dominant within the religion.  I will take a stab at answering that question in a couple of days, but be forewarned: it’s not easy, especially in a 1000-word post on a blog! The other question is at least as interesting and even harder to answer: how / why did Christianity manage to become the dominant religion of the entire Roman Empire, so that [...]

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